Reading the Old Testament leads us to confusing and troubling stories of cosmological creation, global genocide, strange marriage practices, lies, incest, and countless tribal wars all sanctioned by God. To a modern reader almost none of this makes sense, let alone is inspiring. For these reasons, I had never personally been enamored by the Old Testament (OT) before, as well as for the experience my wife had while she was called to be a seminary teacher and was lucky enough to teach the OT. Her faith was challenged (rather than strengthened) by the bad behavior of the ancient prophets whom we are taught to revere and look to as examples of righteous living. As I see it the problem is twofold: (1) the worldview, culture, and customs of the ancient Near East are foreign to modern societies and (2) we assume that the ancients writing the Hebrew Bible were scrupulous dispassionate journalists dedicated to the centuries long discipline of recording the factual history of all the important and inspired events that have ever occurred in the world. Rather, it seems that imposing a modern worldview on an Iron Age society does both parties a disservice as the writers of the Bible most clearly were working with very old oral traditions (not known for historical accuracy) with social and theological points intended for their people regarding the immediate surrounding region. When we make one or both of these two assumptions we must invoke mind-bending and science-defying apologetic justifications of both the actions of God as well as his favored servants. I find this begins to be an exercise in futility as the only people we tend to convince of our “logic” with regard to the OT is ourselves and those who have already successfully scored high marks in the same mental gymnastics competition. There has to be a better way.
Late in 2013 Dan Wotherspoon, David Bokovoy and friends over at Mormon Matters took a swan dive into Genesis through a continuing series of podcast episodes. I was initially averse to the length of this series but eventually came around to listening and found that the text of the Bible itself, coupled with solid Hebrew Bible scholarship (David Bokovoy), brought the book to life and gave it a more rich, broad meaning. Further investment in studying the Bible came by purchasing and reading an alternate bible translation (NRSV) accompanied with a thorough background to the writing and compilation of the Bible as we know it (the LDS-KJV Bible is severely lacking in rigorous background material with regard to the OT) and placing the ancient stories in the proper social and cultural framing via the “Discovering the Old Testament,” podcast produced by our friend Sheldon Greaves. The fresh material made many passages more clear and understandable. Face value Biblical literalism left my study of the scriptures deflated and dead, Biblical and ancient Near East scholarship brought study back to life. Granting myself the freedom to not justify every action and word in the Bible was a liberation of the soul. Please let Christine Hayes, professor of Religious Studies at Yale, clarify a bit about the unnecessary weight that biblical historicity burdens us with and value of the Bible as a work of literature.
“Still, many people have clung to the idea of the Bible as a historically accurate document, many times out of ideological necessity. Many fear that if the historical information in the Bible isn’t true, then the Bible is unreliable as a source of religious instruction or inspiration. And that’s something they don’t want to give up. This is all really a very unfortunate and heavy burden to place on this fascinating little library of writings from late antiquity. People who equate truth with historical fact will certainly end up viewing the Bible dismissively, as a naïve and unsophisticated web of lies, since it is replete with elements that cannot be literally true. But to view it this way is to make a genre mistake. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, while set in Denmark, an actual place, is not historical fact. But that doesn’t make it a naïve and unsophisticated web of lies, because we accept when we read or watch Hamlet that it is not a work of historiography, a work of writing about history. It is a work of literature. And in deference to that genre and its conventions, we know and accept that the truths it conveys are not those of historical fact, but are social, political, ethical, existential truths. And the Bible deserves at least the same courteous attention to its genre.”
“But ultimately, it is a mistake, I think, to read the Bible as a historical record. The Bible is literature. Its composition is influenced and determined by literary conventions and goals. Now, of course we all know that there is no such thing as purely objective history anyway. We have no direct access to past events. We only ever have mediated access in material: archaeological remains that yield information to us only after a process of interpretation, or in texts that are themselves already an interpretation of events and must still be interpreted by us. The biblical narrative is an interpretation of events that were held by centuries’ long tradition to be meaningful in the life of the people. And to the biblical narrators, these events known perhaps from ancient oral traditions pointed to a divine purpose. The narrative is told to illustrate that basic proposition. The biblical narrators are not trying to write history as a modern historian might try to write history. They’re concerned to show us what they believed to be the finger of God in the events and experiences of the Israelite people.”
In studying the bible in this new way, as literature that may or may not be rooted in factual concrete history, the question I was often left pondering was something like this “If Adam was not specific individual, if the flood was more of a folktale rather than an actual event, and if the Bible is not a pure historical document; than what is it? What are all these stories” I have come to a conclusion that characterizes the Bible as a compilation of metaphors, stories that make up a powerful life-altering narrative, and a teaching device that has potential to transcend millennia and connect the human experience of those who have been separated by time.
As Mormons we are pretty good at simple metaphors. Any missionary develops the talent to “liken the scriptures” at any moment in time permitting the most mundane and even disturbing facts of life to reaffirm ideas taught to us in our youth. Is this what gospel is supposed to be like? Are we simply to tell ourselves the correlated principles of the gospel we learned when we were in primary over, and over, and over, and over, and over until the end? This idea of shoring up our belief system repeatedly does not sound transformative to me. It does not sound like progress or growth (but it does feel a lot like endurance). The type of metaphor I am beginning to find are those that are expansive and challenging. I see the creation story in Genesis 1-3 as an effort to show that humans are loved by God, that God made a special place for us to live and learn and to make tough decisions rather than an ultra-simplified cosmological history. The idea that we are in God’s favor and that we are trusted to move forward even in the face of what is at times a perplexing world is comforting and fills me with hope and a desire to do something good. The alternate reading, which imposes an unrealistic historicity on the creation story, includes a condensed creation of the universe (six days!?!) occurring only a few thousand years ago, and the fashioning of the first man from clay and woman from his spare rib. This surface reading leaves me scratching my head and utterly unsatisfied.
Transformational Metaphor is not the same as fun object lessons used to teach a particular principle in a more entertaining way. Metaphor begins to transform us when it gives us a hint at something so great and elusive as the nature of God, or the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. I think this is the way that teachings become timeless. Similes of farming, mechanical watches, and even pickles may persuade us in the here and now because our experience allows us to readily comprehend the idea being transferred from these familiar objects while referring to our own actions or beliefs. In order to become an enduring teaching a more basic human experience must be invoked. Life, death, love, contention, loss, and reconciliation are a few examples of themes that every person experiences and therefore, can identify with. In an interview with Krista Tippett, an American Old Testament scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann, offered a moving understanding on the spiritual utility of metaphor with regard to the multiple and contrasting images of God expressed by in the text of Isaiah.
Images of God via Isaiah
1) A demolition squad
2) A safe place for poor people who have no other safe place
3) The giver of the biggest dinner party you have ever heard of
4) A powerful sea monster, he swallows up death forever
5) A gentle nursemaid who will wipe away every tear from all faces.
Krista Tippett: People who are not Biblical scholars, how are they to make sense of a text like that? How do they make sense of the various images of God?
Walter Brueggemann: They will make sense of it if they have good preachers and teachers who will help them pause long enough to take in the imagery. What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice formulation, and then it’s deathly. So we have to communicate with people if you want a god that is healthier than that. You are going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame otherwise you are just going to be left with these dead formulations. Which is why the poetry is so important because the poetry keeps opening and opening and opening whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is to close and close and close until you are left with nothing that has any transformative power. More metaphors give more access to god and one can work one metaphor a while but you can’t treat that as though that is the last word you have to move to another then another.
Transformative Metaphors are not undemanding reaffirmations of preconceived notions nor trite recitations of childhood values. Metaphors are inspirational looks into the divine which challenge us to better serve and love all our brothers and sisters living here with us. Of course the idea of the Bible being strictly a historical record has been ingrained in our minds by well-meaning leaders who likely had not thought or tried to approach the book in any other way. They may assume that if we ever come to the conclusion that the facts differed from the text we would abandon our spiritual quest altogether. I believe that the opposite can be true, loosening our ties to literalism a bit may actually elevate us. If we embrace the spirit of the book by understanding the Israelite and surrounding cultures, the purpose of their seemingly strange ritual practices, and we work to glimpse into the original language of the Bible we may just take even greater steps up the mountain and grow even more in the depth of our souls than had we restricted ourselves to a perplexing and tiresome literal belief in the Bible. We may just find the transformative metaphor we having been looking for. We may just find God speaking to us and directing us in our own way.
1. Hiatt, D. (2000) Follow The Prophet LDS Childrens Songbook. Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
2. Wotherspoon, D. Mormon Matters (episodes 194-197, 202-203, 210, and 211)
3. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. Ed. Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print, NRSV.
4. Greaves, S. Discovering the Old Testament
Greaves, S. Discovering the Old Testament: Why it Matters for Mormons
5. Hayes, C., Lecture 6 – Biblical Narrative: The Stories of the Patriarchs (Genesis 12-36)
6. Sandberg-Armstrong, L. Make Your Own Metaphors!
7. Tippett, K., and Brueggemann, W. The Prophetic Imagination