Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Bible as Allegory

The first step to the knowledge of the wonder and mystery of life is the recognition of the monstrous nature of the earthly human realm as well as its glory, the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed. Those who think they know how the universe could have been had they created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, without death, are unfit for illumination.” –Joseph Campbell
The Bible has been misused and misinterpreted over and again so many times and present errors are added upon previous error to the point that the problem is compounded layer upon layer. The problem with the Bible or the misuse of the Bible is that it is a cultural and ethno-centric document written for a particular people and a particular time. A document of this nature reflects the distinct hopes, passions, myths, legends and distinctive traits and characteristics that collectively make-up the particular culture which wrote the document. Too many in our modern era attempt to recreate the Bible in their own cultural context ignoring the basis upon which the Bible was produced.
There is little that can be done to counter these well-intended but erroneous approaches to the Biblical narrative. The worse culprits in the bastardization of Biblical exegesis are the literalists who declare the Bible to be an infallible historical document concerning human history. The ludicrous literalist perspective asserts all types of bizarre assertions of Biblical buffoonery. These comprise the phony fundamentalists of all religious paths in the so-called Abrahamic faiths.
The Bible is not a narrative of talking animals, unicorns, naked demi-gods in mythical gardens and angels battling it out in a cosmic drama of good versus evil. These are legends of Near Eastern society that were shared by most Mesopotamian culture and were crafted by ancestors that far pre-dated the writing of the Biblical texts. These ancestors were not ignorant brutes but were akin to our own modern-day mythmakers. The careful crafting of myth and legend is largely misunderstood and not appreciated by the modern-day unsophisticated. Today we live in a world of distraction. A world defined by a lack of culture rather than a world steeped in it. The generic modern amusements of sitcom television, video game and media mesmerism, fast-food consuming, industrialized society has completely separated the human from its natural elements, from its peers and from its own self. This is an age of apathy which disregards the necessity of the admirable arts of humanities and stands ensconced at the noble traits of human decency. A recent article run by the New York Times reported the frightening statistic that only 33% of high school graduates will ever read another book for the rest of their lives. In an era that is heralded for technological achievements we are sinking into the depths of anti-intellectualism. The old adage which states that the failure to learn from history results in the inevitable doom of repeating it is an evident truth in current times. The lack of learning, critical thinking and ambivalence in our society is causing us to repeat events from our past.
The Bible was crafted by the ancestors who lived in a time that was engaged in differing conflict but fraught with the same natural human tendencies. The psychology of the homo-sapiens has not changed since its first appearance on this planet. If you were to take a child from ten thousand years ago and raise it in the present environment then there would be nothing notable to distinguish it from anyone else simple because there is no distinction. The advantage of ancient man was his holistic connection to the environment and his connection to the fundamental nature of reality- his own self. The ancients lacked the technological savvy to craft a document via a word processor but today we lack the ability to craft a meaningful life. However, we are beneficiaries of our ancestors who have shown us the way by mapping out the anatomy of the soul on parchment via the timeless art of word-smithing. They wrote down their knowledge in the guise of myths, parables, legends and allegories. This unique vocabulary is the one and only consistent way in which to pass on specialized knowledge without the message losing its essential meaning. This is exactly how and why the Bible has come to us. The Bible presents the anatomy of the soul and by rightly discerning its contents one can truly live. Joseph Campbell spoke of this in his work, The Power of Myth:
Sit in a room and read--and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time.”
The Biblical myth is called in Hebrew mashalim (allegories) and it is written in the context of a subjective physical world and an objective spiritual world. The spiritual world is more real while the physical world is likewise real but more illusory. Everything in the physical world alludes to the spiritual world thus the perception of physicality is an allegory. This concept is universal in that all cultures have a mythos depicting the connection between a lower and higher world. The Bible explicitly refers to this in the case of the building of the Tabernacle:
"And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the furniture thereof, even so shall you make it" (Ex. 25:8).
From the physical world we can see a mashal for the spiritual world. The spiritual world projects into the physical world like the projection of a film on a screen. What is portrayed on the screen is not real, it is just a mashal, but, it is good enough. If we study the mashal we can begin to understand the real, the spiritual world. We will have the greatest clarity by examining the human body because it is created in the image of the Creator and is a very “high” structure to begin with. Ultimately, we should be able to examine a tree and discern its spiritual root. That is to say, we should be able to look carefully at every physical object and discern its spiritual root. When we can do this, then we will have mastered the world of illusion; we will have mastered the mashal. Once we have accomplished this, we will be able to see and live in the next world while we are yet in this world.
The human body itself is a mashal about the Creator. This mashal is based on our observation of the world. Our observation is that this world is composed of differentiated parts. We observe this same differentiation when we observe other human beings. They seem to be composed of parts: Head, hands, legs, etc. This is analogous to this world which seems to be composed of parts. Yet, we know that ALL is ONE. That is our declaration in the Shema. To understand this paradox, the Bible gives us a mashalim (allegories) that will help us understand this paradox.
When others observe us, they see parts. When we observe ourselves externally we see parts. However, when we grasp ourselves internally we see only the totality. We do not grasp ourselves, internally, as a collection of parts. We see only… ourselves! When we use our intellect, or our creativity, we do not have the sensation of moving to another part. We have only the sensation of ourselves as a unity.
Our awareness of ourselves is always in totality. We grasp ourselves as a unity, not a collection of parts.
This is the underlying meaning to the statement from God to Moses in the metaphor of the burning bush: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I Am That, I Am. In other words, I Am is both Transcendent and Immanent and nothing is truly separate and all is an illusion albeit a persistent one.
From this mashal we learn how to view Creator and creation as one. Since the whole world is nothing more than a manifestation of God, we learn that despite the appearance of parts, this world is one as the Creator is one. Thus we can begin to understand a bit about the unity of the Creator by observing how we are unified to ourselves.
This type of Biblical hermeneutics is foreign to many religious adherents today. The modern methodology of Scriptural study is based on a plain and basic reading of a text which doesn't even perceive of a metaphorical context. Yet this is exactly how many of the great Jewish Sages and Rabbis have taught concerning the Scriptures. The Rambam (Moses Maimonides) wrote in the Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim):
"Know that also in Natural Science there are topics which are not to be fully explained. Our Sages laid down the rule," The Ma'aseb Bereshith must not be expounded in the presence of two." If an author were to explain these principles in writing, it would be equal to expounding them unto thousands of men. For this reason the prophets treat these subjects in figures, and our Sages, imitating the method of Scripture, speak of them in metaphors and allegories; because there is a close affinity between these subjects and metaphysics, and indeed they form part of its mysteries."
In ancient Judea a great controversy swept through the Jewish world. In the days of the Tana'im it was taught by the Tana'im and the Amarim that the Torah should not be taken literally. The Tzaddikim were another faction which usurped the Priesthood and they asserted that the Torah should be taken literally. There is a thorough documentation of the complete debates that occurred in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's book: Living Torah.
In order to understand the nature of the allegorical Bible let's consider some frequently asked questions concerning this topic:
·         What is an allegory (mashal)?
There are many academic discussion that relate to the nature of allegory and its role in myth, legends, folklore, etc. To be precise and concise it is sufficient to know that allegory is non-literal interpretation that is a method of interpreting symbolism. When studying the Bible every person and object (noun) in the narrative has a meaning in the Hebrew which designates its intended allegorical meaning. The way these nouns are connected in the Bible (verbs), for example: person A acquired object B by going on a journey, hiding, climbing, etc. relates the two nouns together in a manner that reveals the nature and message off the story.
·         Does this deny any literal interpretation of the Bible?
No. There are proscribed commandments in the Bible which serve to reinforce the story itself (i.e. wearing tzitzit, reciting shema, eating kosher, etc.). The Bible is fundamentally allegorical in that it crafts its message via allegories in the context of historical times and popular figures from that culture.
·         How does this affect one's view of Biblical inspiration?
Biblical inspiration requires that the authors were inspired to write a message which in turn would inspire its readers. The literalist view of Scripture makes a mockery of the Biblical narrative and its authors by asserting the literal reality of obvious fictitious characters and events. This is the equivalent of saying that the gods of Greece on Mt. Olympus and the stories relating to Greek mythology are factual and historical. This is laughable but equally so the application of the Biblical narrative to a wooden-literal context is equally absurd. This is why in some instances the Sages specifically declare portions of Scripture to be purely allegorical. The Talmud states that the Genesis narrative and the Book of Job are entirely allegorical. Rambam asserts that nothing in the Torah (5 Books of Moses) can be taken literally until the stories about Abraham occur and thereafter one may derive some literal context. In other words, the Sages saw no inconsistency between reading the Bible allegorically and the belief of Biblical inspiration. The inspiration of a deeply allegorical text which reveals the nature of humanity and indeed the whole of existence point to a more sophisticated Divine Mind as opposed to a primitive brute of epic vengeful qualities.
·         Don't allegorical interpretations impose a subjective context upon the Scriptures? Couldn't anyone read anything they wanted into the text?
Not at all. The context of the text dictates the allegorical meaning of a particular narrative. Knowing that Moses name literally means to draw forth and his ascent upon a mountain which represents a higher state of consciousness makes the narrative very apparent. There is room for reading between the lines but this is completely acceptable in the historical process of Scriptural interpretation. A prudent person will recognize the contextual boundaries of the narrative but will also extract every bit of reasoning and insight to draw out the varietal shades of meaning.
·         What are the basic premises of the interpretive method being presented here:
I will provide a simple answer that was written by John Uebersax on this very topic:
There are two general guiding rules:
1. Each major person and situation in the Bible corresponds to and symbolizes an inner disposition, state, process or archetypal principle of your mind or soul.
2. No words in the Bible are accidental or superfluous. An unusual word or turn of phrase, or the express mention of a seemingly unimportant detail, suggests presence of an allegorical meaning.
For a more complete explanation of Jewish hermeneutics one must read the 32 Rules of Ben Galil.

There is a lot to be said in regards to this subject and this article barely scratches the surface but I am confident that it will provide enough of an explanation to motivate certain readers to begin thinking and researching along these lines. In this light the Scriptures are infinitely deep and rich with meaning. There is no end to learning.