On The Misuses Of Duality And Allegory In Biblical Interpretation

One of the people I follow on Academia.org regularly writes and self-publishes papers that seek to argue that X personage in the Bible really referred to some other person Y who shared some sort of qualities with him.  And so he sends out to a candid world speculations that the biblical writings about Nebuchadnezzar really referred to his father or to some illustrious Assyrian ruler who also conquered widely, and so on and so forth.  I suppose one cannot attempt to gain clout as a bible scholar by saying that the people whom the Bible refers to are in fact the same people who appear by those names and relative chronologies within the outside world.  Where would be the fun in admitting that the Bible speaks authoritatively and accurately on the history it deals with if one seeks to gain a reputation as a critical scholar?  Yet this sort of approach demonstrates the sort of problems that result from the misuse of duality in the Bible where resemblances between two different people in two different times is used to “prove” that the Bible is talking about one anachronistically or far later than what the Bible claims to be speaking of.  It would be as if someone used information about the Swedish invasion of Russia during Alexander Nevsky’s time as speaking instead about Napoleon’s invasion or Hitler’s invasion because all involved were failed invasions that were defeated in part thanks to the proverbial Russian winter.

The same sort of problem results when allegorical approaches are misused in scripture.  For example, the ancient Epistle of Barnabas, which was popular to early Hellenistic Christians but more obscure today, takes an allegorical approach to the Hebrew laws that is odd and occasionally disturbing.  The author of this epistle simply cannot seem to believe that the biblical commands about eating unclean meats, for example, mean precisely that, and he is intent on finding some sort of allegorical uncleanness that they could be prohibiting instead of the straightforward one.  This is not an uncommon approach, as simply dealing straightforwardly with biblical commands appears to be far more difficult than attempting to twist them in some way.  This twisting is perhaps most evident in commandments relating to the Sabbath, for example, when people draw the mistaken allegorical principle that one day of rest in seven is required when the Bible repeatedly specifies the seventh day as the Sabbath, or when people call the first day of the week the Lord’s day when the Bible again specifically calls Jesus Christ the Lord of the Sabbath.  Examples like this could be multiplied.

Nevertheless, rather than talk about particulars, let us instead look at how these particulars form consistent patterns in approaching the scriptures that are problematic and ultimately unproductive.  For one, we may note that misuses in the allegorical or dual application of scriptures tend to share a problem in that they willfully ignore what the Bible actually says.  Now, there are cases (see, for example, Acts 10) where the allegorical meaning is in fact the real one, but even in cases like this the allegorical meaning plays off of a literal sort of reality, as when Peter wonders whether God really wants him to eat unclean meats, which he has never done, before realizing that God (and Christ) do not want him to consider any person to be common or unclean or to be looked at with abhorrence and complete rejection.  This is, by the way, something that remains relevant for us today.  Where the Bible uses dual layers of meaning as well as allegory and symbol, it does so in a way that provides insight on all levels and layers of understanding, making our understanding of the Bible nuanced and rich and complex.  When human beings misuse allegorical and dual layers of meaning, the intent is usually to pit some favored but secondary meaning of the text against its more literal or more commonly understood layers, as a way of showing that only the esoteric meaning is valid rather than all meanings being simultaneously valid, as the Bible does.

We may fairly ask ourselves why this is the case.  What is it that makes it so difficult to appreciate what the Bible is saying and why are we so quick to seek allegorical meanings that would make it unnecessary to address the literal level of a given Bible story or law.  For example, what is it about the Bible’s sex-positive (between a husband and a wife) approach of the Song of Solomon, for example, that makes people so uncomfortable that they would prefer to immediately seek allegorical interpretations about Israel or the Church that apply in addition to its biblical meaning?  Why is that we are made so uncomfortable by the suggestion that laws involving tassels, for example, could be valid today even though they clearly have meanings involving the keeping of God’s laws in memory?  Indeed, the discomfort that we feel when we are faced with something that the Bible commands or discusses is generally a sign that we need to investigate deeper into our own cultural or personal hangups, and if we are too quick to use symbolism or allegory to intellectualize this problem, we are doing ourselves a great disservice by not seeking to wrestle with what part of the Bible bothers us and troubles us when taken at face value.  That is not to say that the answers are easy when we find there to be a distinction between what the Bible says and what we would rather it say, between our own practices and that which the Bible commands or endorses, but the wrestling is itself important.  The Bible should not be a safe book we use to comfort ourselves that we are good people after all, but rather a book that should trouble us by bringing to mind areas where we do not fulfill the noble and challenging standard that the Bible lays before us.  All too often our use of symbolism and duality is a way of distancing what the Bible is saying from our attention and in so doing it is a way of staving off the need to repent and change.  And that is a great shame.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On The Misuses Of Duality And Allegory In Biblical Interpretation

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    The Bible is the Handbook of our lives. It hits us where we live. Any duality is inlaid with layers that have deeper and deeper meaning for us personally; things that we only become aware of when we are able to handle them. If we are truly being called and chosen by God, He will rip our habit of intellectualizing the Bible from us in order to get us to see ourselves squarely in His mirror. And He will keep warning us to look straight ahead at it because, when all is said and done, there will be no opportunity for excuses.

    • Yes, that’s right. If God is calling us He will confront us with the truths that apply to us that we can handle at a given time. And all will be without excuse when they stand before Him in judgment.

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