Jesus himself shows us that we should not interpret the Bible literally, but must always apply context ie. account for factors like genre, historical situation, cultural background, audience and author's intent.
He cures a sick woman rather than upholding an uncompromising law:
...whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. (Exodus 31:15)
His priestly opponents challenge him and he responds:
a man was there with a withered hand, and [the Pharisees] asked him, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ (Matthew 12:10-12)
It is hard to imagine how bewildering and shocking it must have been for those present to witness this reinventing of the rules, let alone the subsequent miraculous healing.
It might at first glance appear logical to use the literal approach for some passages but not others. Since it is not clear how to do this, we risk making arbitrary decisions, jeopardising our objectivity. One seemingly obvious route would be to treat the two Testamants differently, but the following pronouncement from Christ shows that this is erroneous:
"‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:17-19)
In other words, if we want to take the New Testament literally, we must do the same with the Old.
Another unusual but important clue that the Bible gives us is its inconsistencies. If we are supposed to interpret it literally, then we should be able to pull out any two verses without them giving different accounts or contradicting each other. However, there are counterexamples such as:
These are the names of the warriors whom David had: Josheb-basshebeth a Tahchemonite; he was chief of the Three;[a] he wielded his spear[b] against eight hundred whom he killed at one time. (2 Samuel 23:8)
This is an account of David’s mighty warriors: Jashobeam, son of Hachmoni,[a] was chief of the Three;[b] he wielded his spear against three hundred whom he killed at one time. (1 Chronicles 11:11)
Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)
Even for theological doctrine, there are discrepancies unless we apply context eg.
Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death. (Deuteronomy 24:16)
Prepare slaughter for his sons because of the guilt of their father. (Isaiah 14:21)
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. (Romans 4:2)
Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? (James 2:21)
The Father and I are one. (John 10:30)
If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. (John 14:28)
If Scripture could be fully appreciated literally, then it would be so obvious as to leave no room for uncertainty or doubt. It would have the same implications as God appearing in all his majesty: faith would be rendered obsolete and free will would cease.
The danger of not applying context for every verse is that the Bible becomes a static text that becomes outdated and irrelevant over time.