Symbol in History

The rabbis of the Talmud, and even before in Christ’s day, mentioned four methods of interpreting scripture: pshat, drash, sod, and remez. Pshat is the literal grammatical meaning. According to pshat, the story of David and Goliath means that David killed Goliath. Drash is the thematic meaning derived by comparing a passage with other texts in scripture utilizing Rabbinic methods of analyzing the texts. According to drash, the David and Goliath story has a number of meanings, but I’ll offer here that it is a story about a meager man of faith overcoming great odds against the apparently indomitable power of the forces arrayed against God and the people of faith. Now I can’t really apply the sod understanding to the David and Goliath story, as it involves very esoteric mystical understandings that one must study directly from the traditions written by Jewish mystics. It is the remez method that I would like to open this essay with, however. The remez method is the meaning that is hinted at from the peculiarities of the details of a given text. The remez method is also generally considered esoteric, as one of the more famous forms of it is gematria, which involves the structure of the Hebrew text of the bible, particularly using the numeric value of Hebrew letters, to find correspondences between various parts of scripture and correspondences within scriptures. I can present a very simple example of gematria with this picture:

However, remez also includes most expressions of allegorical interpretation. In this sense, remez exists in Christianity as well as Judaism. In fact, differing understandings of the allegorical meanings of Old Testament scriptures is a primary reason for the split between Christianity and Judaism. Christians see hundreds of prophecies being fulfilled in Christ, where Jews don’t. The words used in the New Testament and the ancient fathers to describe this type of interpretation are ἀλληγορέω (allegory) and τύπος (type). They can be seen in the following verses in scripture, which themselves show Paul (a trained pharisaic rabbi of the school of Gamaliel) using remez style of interpretation:

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically [ἀλληγορέω]: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.

Galatians 4:22-25

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples [τύπος] for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.

1 Corinthians 10:1-6

Now over the course of centuries, man has analyzed the symbolic meaning of works understood to be fictional. Modern theologians who advocate a remez interpretation tend to dislike the term allegory in scripture because of its current status as a method of analyzing fiction. Even among the old church fathers we already see sentiments that ‘you can’t take Genesis literally because it is allegorical.’ The rabbis, however, understood human history to be a story written by God, and therefore actual historical events could have symbolic value. Modern Christian theologians tend to use the term “types” and “typology” to describe the symbolic value of scripture. Now currently seminaries, even evangelical, conservative ones, tend to teach students to avoid typological analysis, favoring the method of original authorial intent. The reason for this is because typology has been used by many a nut job to derive all sorts of crazy meanings from scripture. However, we do have to accept that typology was actually the primary method for finding Christ in scripture used by the apostles. So, while I should maintain humility and understand that whatever gifts I think I may have received, there is no verse in scripture labelling me as a prophet that everyone should listen to. However, in terms of personal thinking, local preaching, and daily teaching, giving consideration of typological meanings adds much richness to understanding scripture.

To give one a sense of familiarity, let’s return to the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Notice that Saul offers David his armor of bronze, and Goliath has fearsome weapons and armor of bronze. Now bronze was the metal from which weapons and armor were made in the ancient world, and symbolically represent righteous deeds and good works. David tells Saul that the armor is too heavy for him, that he cannot bear the weight of it. Basically, he cannot do enough good deeds to get the job done. Instead, David picks five smooth stones to fight his enemy. Now when little details like this crop up, it leads me to look for some sort of deeper meaning. The author is writing a famous epic story to be passed down for generations. Why does he take the time to mention five smooth stones? Why not just say he used a sling? Well, five is the number of man. We have five limbs including our head. We have five digits on each limb. We have five senses. We have five openings on our heads. The five-pointed star (pentagram) is associated with the divinity of man (stars have their own symbolic meaning), and the inverted pentagram means to theosophists the descent of man from the divine, which interestingly has been picked up by Satanists as their symbol. Keeping this in mind, we look to the stones. Christ is the stepping stone, the rock of offense, the cornerstone, the stumbling stone. Moses split the rock, and water came out. Now how do stones become smooth? Water smooths them. Water represents baptism. We need water to survive and be clean, but it also isolates us and drowns us. Israel made it through the waters of the Red Sea (a type of baptism), where Pharaoh and his army drowned. Baptism is our experience in this life, the descent into the abyss that we endure for life and purification. So, with the baptized Christ in all his members, senses, digits, David defeats Goliath, who was relying on weapons and armor of bronze (personal righteousness, good deeds). So, the story can be seen as an allegorical or typological story about how faith trumps works.

Sometimes a story is structured to where it has no pshat value, but only remez value. Let’s look at the story about Jacob’s birthright (Genesis 25:21-34; 27:1-38). In that story, Esau is hungry and flippantly gives away his birthright because he is hungry, and then years later, Rebecca and Jacob steal Esau’s birthright away from him. Many times in life have I laughed at pastors’ attempts to make this a clear moral tail, with Jacob and Rebecca as the heroes of upstanding character and Esau the morally deficient villain. However, according to the clear moral value of the story, Isaac is a blind and senile idiot, Rebecca is a schemer, Jacob is a witless momma’s boy, and Esau, the dutiful son and mighty hunter, is really the only noble character in the story. According to the story, Rebecca covers Jacob with skins, they prepare the meat stew, and trick Isaac into blessing the wrong son while Esau is busy getting the ingredients for the stew. But let’s take a look at the types involved. Adam and Eve made vegetable coverings (fig leaves) for themselves, while God made coverings from the death of an innocent living being (an animal killed to make skins). We know from the sacrificial system and the crucifixion that the innocent, living being that covers us with his suffering is God. Further, there is a pattern throughout scripture of women acting as mediators. Esther saved the Jews by interceding on their behalf to the Persian king. Abigail interceded for her worthless husband to the approaching king David. So, what we have with the story of Jacob’s birthright is a contrast between one person trying to please God via acts of obedience (Esau) and another pleasing God through the intercession of a mediator (Jacob). Isaac is a type for God, Rebecca is a type for Christ, Jacob is a type for the faithful who relies on Christ’s intercession. This is an example of a story that really is best explained in typological terms rather than superficial moral terms.

Typological understandings can also be used to resolve scriptural stories that appear contradictory. For instance, several times in scripture the Israelites are commanded to kill every last man, woman, and child of an enemy group. In the case of Saul, his failure to do so was actually the straw that broke the camel’s back concerning his status as God’s anointed. Are we to use the superficial moral value of these stories to determine how we should wage war? Do these stories even indicate that there is such thing as a just war today? Yet at other times, I can think of at least one, Israelites are told to kill all the men, but keep the children and the virgin girls for themselves. Again, is this a proper example of how we should wage war today? However, if we look at these stories typologically, we see two important principles in our daily lives that have nothing to do with how armies should wage war, but speak much about how we should wage war in our lives. The first stories (total annihilation) speak about how we should wage war against evil and sin in a general sense. Israel represents good, the enemy people represent evil. So, if you are trying to quit smoking, you don’t get rid of all your cigarettes except one lucky pack for emergencies. You get rid of every last trace of them, including all coupons, cigarette advertisements, etc. If you are fighting against pornography, you don’t delete your movie collection but keep one magazine under your bed for those times when you’re really horny. You get rid of everything, get a program to block websites, get an accountability partner, all that. Total unconditional war. Total annihilation of sin. However, the second type of story speaks more specifically about fighting against the world. It is not so much good against evil but the godly against the worldly. When separating oneself from this Godless world, one must often discriminate. Take for example music. In Islam and certain strains of Christianity, music is entirely forbidden or limited to an acapella, or hymns, or simple drum beats, etc. Often this type of limitation is entirely too restrictive. More prudent would be to get rid of the death metal and godless pop, but there are many forms of music, even secular songs, that are at least harmless. I will always the remember the day that I received the Holy Spirit in a nearly miraculous event that occurred while Seal’s “Don’t Cry Tonight” came on the radio. When we live in the world, we are to get rid of the harmful, but that which is pure and unsullied, the virgin girls, we keep and incorporate into our lives.

So, the above paragraphs talk about the role of symbolism in the interpretation of biblical passages, but I would like to expand the role of symbolism, typology, and allegory even beyond the bible. For if the things in the bible actually happened, and they have symbolic value, then the actual history of the world as recorded in the bible have symbolic value. It might be that even history that is not recorded in the bible has symbolic value. I am reminded of when Paul writes,

And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

2 Corinthians 3:3

He seems to be saying that in teaching the Corinthians godly faith and behavior, he has written a letter about God to those who would ‘read’ the letter by witnessing their faith and behavior. Further, Paul references natural phenomena as having spiritual meaning that are not prominently elucidated in the bible.

I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready,

1 Corinthians 3:2

Here Paul references milk, food for a baby suckling from its mother. Now the reference is really quite rich, because in order for a baby to process adult food, it must teethe, and teething involves fever and suffering. As we go through life, we start out not understanding the more profound meanings in life, that is, until we suffer, although our suffering provides us with the teeth we need to really process the meaning in life. So, Paul uses a normal everyday occurrence that people experience as a symbol for a spiritual truth. These sorts of things can be observed in life. For instance, don’t we all know about an event in our lives where little toddler Johnny has smeared poop all over the walls, and dad comes home from work and promptly marches to little Johnny’s room in order to kill him, only to be prevented by Johnny’s dear mother, who stays daddy’s wrath? If that has happened to anyone, or anyone has observed such a thing, they have read a living letter about Christ’s intercession. Again, the woman is the mediator, and in this case, dad is the righteous Father, and little Johnny is the helpless sinner. One can even look to our solar system for symbolism. The sun is at the center, providing light, warmth, gravity, and life, indeed being the source of life. The earth orbits the sun, although on an axis that is tilted, facing half toward the sun’s light, and half into outer darkness. Further, the moon orbits around the earth in outer darkness, producing no light of its own, but reflecting distortions of the sun’s light at night. On rare occasions, and only for a moment, the moon actually eclipses the light of the sun. Likewise, God is the source of all life and all light (truth – that by which reality is known). Mankind depends on God for everything, though his orientation is off-kilter, sometimes seeing more of and sometimes seeing less of God’s truth, waxing hot at times, waning cold at times, sometimes facing God’s truth, sometimes staring into outer darkness. Out in the darkness the devil is to be found, powerless to do anything on his own and being forced to trick man in order to accomplish his ends. He is actually dependent on man for everything. He distorts God’s truth and sends it to man in a different form, guiding man when he is not oriented toward God. On rare occasions, but only for a moment, he is capable of blotting out God’s message altogether.

So, the above examples are just some personal observations that I have made that indicate a possibility that all of history and all of life is symbolic, which would be consistent with the biblical presentation that actual historical events that happened have symbolic and moral value. The implications of this are actually fairly intense. If this universe is a story written by God, well, no other being would be capable of writing such a story. So, if the universe is a story, it will amount to an unassailable proof concerning the existence of and nature of God when that story is finally finished. This leads us to another interesting statement from Paul:

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 3:8-10

He talks about God’s plan hidden for all ages, and he states that the angels are actually watching us to learn this plan, this truth (manifold wisdom) from God. So, in essence, by living we inform each other, and even angels, concerning divine mysteries. It stands to reason that we likely have no idea of the significance of many of our actions, but that others may see significance of it, even if in some cases these others are angels who are thousands of years old and know what to look for. We might even be programming each other subliminally with our behaviors. It is of note that the godly manner of living is under assault from the devil. He would not need to assault everything unless there is a value to distorting our lives that God wants us to live. Certainly, there is value to him in convincing us that God is evil or that God hates us because we are evil. Studies do show that people don’t do as well if they come from broken homes and godless environments. In fact, it would seem that the devil is more interested in distorting the family than just about anything else. Paul again makes a statement that I think is relevant here.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:22-33)

This scripture compares Christ to the church throughout, using the picture of a husband and wife or a bride and bridegroom (very common in scripture) as representative of the relationship between Christ and the church or between God and man. He even ends by saying as much in verse 33. What is interesting here, though, is that he is not explaining this in an academic setting. He is telling his readers to behave toward each other in a certain way, and that this reveals the relationship between Christ and the church, which is consistent with his statements about the churches that he planted, the Christians he taught, being living letters read by all. Returning to symbolic examples in science and society like the one about the solar system above, let’s take a look at the sex act itself. The man goes into the woman and a new life is created after she undergoes a miserable agony and blood-filled day of giving birth. Also, God’s spirit goes into a person and they are reborn as a new life following an agonizing life of suffering, particularly suffering by our messiah, the mediator (woman) between God and man. Interesting that in this symbolism, the person who is reborn is the mother and child and the mother is also Christ, identifying Christ with man, which reminds me again of scripture:

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers,

Hebrews 2:10-11

So, we see through Paul’s statement in Ephesians about man and woman as well as from my analysis of the sex act, that relationships between man and woman are symbolic of the relationship between God and man. So, it may just be that when men marry other men and women marry other women that they send out distorted messages about this relationship. Men marrying other men might just be sending out a subliminal message about God concerned with himself, and not devoting himself to mankind. When women marry other women, they send out messages about humanity doing just fine without God.

So, while there has been much speculation and example not definitively explained by scripture in the thoughts above, hopefully I have accomplished a couple of things. First, concerning biblical interpretation, I hope that nobody goes so crazy about symbolic interpretation that they find in the bible hidden messages that we should all commit suicide so we can hitch a ride to God on a comet. But I also hope that people do consider this ancient method of interpretation to enrich biblical study. There is much to find in those Old Testament stories that appear at first glance to be worthless or even grotesque. There are many messages not only in Jesus’ words, but in his acts as well. Beyond biblical interpretation, though, I hope to engender a respect for living the kind of life that the apostles told us to. In this rationalist and post-modern world, people define propriety by looking at something and not finding anything wrong with it. “I don’t see any problem with two men getting married, so it must be okay.” I’d like to present the notion that reality is a story written by God. It contains more messages and motifs than any one of us could ever hope to recognize. We are affected by reality in more ways than we could ever guess. It might just be worth noting that when the apostles tell us to do something or not to do something, we should do it or not do it, even if the reason to us is not readily apparent.

In closing, since the issue of the relationship between man and woman has been huge in society for the last few generations, and recently the issue of man and woman has separated churches, and since I have referred to it significantly in the essay above, I will close with some words about it. Those who advocate redefining marriage and sexual issues tend to approach the biblical statements on the matter as matters of tradition. Those who advocate retaining the traditional Christian understanding in the face of changing secular culture are not merely advocating the retention of a tradition. To them (including me), the relationship between man and woman is a divinely advocated and prescribed natural order as indicated from this verse (again from Paul):

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.

1 Corinthians 11:3

When Paul talks in this chapter about the custom of the Corinthians, I believe he is referring to the custom of praying with the head covered or uncovered. The verse above, though, is Paul introducing the topic by relating a natural order instituted by God. It’s not something that should be changed, regardless of economics or technology, because if it is changed, distortion will result, and the symbols sent out into reality to be read by all will be distorted, and society will suffer as a result.

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