As Kugel states it: "Interpreters also assumed that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day. It may seem to talk about the past, but it is not fundamentally history. It is instruction, telling us what to do: be obedient to God just as Abraham was and you will be rewarded, just as he was."
The Iliad and the Odyssey, along with Hesiod's Theogony, were sacred texts to the ancient Greeks. They, like the myths and legends of many other peoples, are no longer considered sacred. Much of the reason for this is that we no longer make this particular assumption about them; we no longer take the Iliad to contain instruction relevant to us in our day. Therefore, we don't read it for instruction, which means that we can only read it for entertainment. Remove the assumption that a book provides instruction, and it becomes a mere tale of adventure. Take away the assumption that the Norse myths contain valuable instruction, and Thor becomes a comic-book character.
When the interpreters assume that the Bible is a book of instructions for living, this is not merely to say that they accept Biblical law as enunciated in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy as applicable in their own time. Taking the injunction not to murder as applicable for all time is easy. More interesting is the manner in which later interpreters accept various prophecies and stories as applying to their own time. Matthew, for example, is at great pains to relate the story of Jesus' birth to earlier prophecies. He ties the story of Herod's slaughter of the innocents to a verse in Jeremiah written six hundred years earlier.
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious,
and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were
two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the
Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:A voice is heard in Ramah,weeping and great mourning,Rachel weeping for her childrenand refusing to be comforted,because they are no more.
The text from Jeremiah 31 is part of a long passage predicting that the exile in Babylon will eventually end, and that the people will one day be restored to the land of Israel and Judah. There is no indication in the text that this prophecy extends beyond the immediate future, or relates to anything other than the Babylonian exile. Yet Matthew readily assumed that Jeremiah's words were applicable to the events of his own time.
In the passage I quoted earlier, Kugel stated that the Bible "is not fundamentally history." This is an interesting point, and one of the key points of dispute between traditional interpretations of the Bible, and the newer critical approaches - literary criticism, or "higher" criticism - based on German scholarship. One of the few rules I remember from my only formal religion class (a college class on the Synoptic Gospels), is this: When there is a reason for saying something, other than its truth, one must question its truth. In other words, a statement made merely because the speaker witnessed an interesting event, or is reporting what happened in his time, gives us no immediate reason to doubt its veracity. But a statement which proves a point, which supports an argument, or which has any other motivation other than mere truth, gives rise to questions.
One of my favorite examples of the manner in which Biblical stories which appear, from the text, to carry one meaning, have been interpreted in order to give instruction to us in our days, is the story of Onan. See Genesis 38:6-10.
Thus, the assumption that the Bible is a book of instruction also leads us to the realization that the interpreters, the editors, the collators of the Bible, from whoever compiled the Torah, or Books of Moses, to the Christian councils that promulgated an authoritative Biblical Canon, read the Bible selectively. They selected the stories that fitted into an instructional scheme, and they interpreted stories in accordance with their didactic purposes. That is, if a story conflicted with the message that an editor wanted publicized, perhaps that story didn't make the final cut, or was modified in some way in order to suit the purpose.