From Stan Tenen:
The problem with talking only about the "literal meaning" of the bible is that there is no plain literal meaning to a work that has four levels (PRDS). It's misleading. What we understand as the pshat, which we call the "literal" meaning, is not the literal meaning without the commentaries that tell us what it is. And the pendulum has swung too far. We wholeheartedly cling to the literal meaning, even while we remember a footnote that tells us that there are other levels, but we only give lip service to the deeper levels. And this leads simple people to exaggerate the literal, at the expense of the more complete. Pretty soon, we have translations like the scholars and the religious fundamentalists make, that have no reference to Oral Torah, and while they're literal, they're not the "literal" that we mean.
We should stop telling ourselves that the Bible stories are Torah per se. We should make it clear that the Bible stories are the garments of Torah, and that they're necessary and a reasonably good history. But without the other levels, they're misleading.
Here's a prime example.
It's generally taken that the literal meaning of "an eye for an eye" implies a nasty vengeful God, who suggests we should have our eye plucked out if we've injured another's eye. This is the literal meaning. But it's completely wrong, and it has done enormous damage to Judaism and Torah, because it has enabled non-Jews to call Hashem cruel. The word being translated eye - Ayin - does not mean an "eye" as a thing. An eye has a function, and it's this function that is being referred to. The function of an eye -- its deeper meaning -- is to take in a field of view and a spectrum. So "an eye for an eye" actually means, "a spectrum of causes leads
(inevitably) to a spectrum of consequences." This is the golden rule -- "what goes around comes around." This is "Torah on one foot" and it has nothing to do with the slander that labels Hashem as cruel compared to the concept of God held by other faiths. Personally, I think a picture is worth 1000 words (as long as it's not a picture of an idol)