The Bible frequently writes about events from long ago. In writing about these events the authors use language the same way that we do. Symbolism is sometimes obvious (Judah is a lion) and other times it may be more veiled (the number 7 or 12 or 40 or 1000). When reading a symbol literally one reads symbolically. It is the symbolic aspect of Scripture which allows us to engage the text as meaningful in our own time.
Application of a Biblical text always entails some degree of symbolism. How Jesus deals with a leper is not significant in Memphis Tn. We do not have lepers and we do not have the rules governing lepers. However, when 'lepers are unclean' is interpreted symbolically the healing texts are suddenly quite contemporary. When we say, "Who is a leper today?" any number of responses are offered. People with AIDS or cancer, streeet people, racial minorities, or the nerds in school can all be seen as lepers. In some settings a conservative Christian might feel like a leper while a Liberal would have the same experience in another setting. It is the ability to read symbolically and re-apply a text which makes it fresh and alive today. Asking questions and letting the text interrogate us, we find ways to hear God's voice at a deeper level in the text. This approach to the Bible is the oldest and most popular approach. As the cycles of history continue, in each age people are able to read the ancient word and make connections with their own time and place. Paul did it. The Gospels do it. We can do it as well.