I was thinking recently of a lively adult Bible class I taught a few years ago. We used what is called in scholarly terms the “historical-metaphorical approach” to reading the text. In other words, we tried to determine what, if any, were the historical events that certain passages were alluding to AND what did the stories mean as human interest stories, independent of historical actuality. It was through this method that many students, who decades earlier had dismissed “believing” in the Bible, were excited and curious to learn more about a book that in many ways has helped to shape Western civilization as we know it.
Yes, we wanted to be critical thinkers and discern fact from fiction, but we also wanted to see if the stories still resonate with us today. Can we listen, as Marcus Borg asks, “seeking to hear what the text is saying to us and not simply absorbing the text into what we already think?” Most of us had, to some degree or another, grown to disregard much of what we read or heard in the Bible, and so it was challenging to look with fresh eyes, to what it might be pointing to for us and our relationship with ourselves, others, and God .
When we turned to the idea of metaphorically interpreting some of the passages, things new and different emerged for each of us. Much of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are ripe with metaphor. “Metaphor” means “to carry with” and it implies a gentle moving toward understanding. Metaphor emphasizes seeing, not believing.
Even if the whale didn’t swallow Jonah and spit him out several days later, even if that’s not factually true; it is profoundly true. The story of Jonah is the human story of one who doggedly resists God’s urgings, who blatantly refuses to do God’s will, and the ensuing disastrous results from that self-centered approach. It is a tale of transformation, forgiveness, and working in harmony with the universe instead of against it.
In Matthew 7, the Parable of the Speck and the Log, Jesus says, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye? How can you say, “Let me take the speck out of your eye when all the time there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck in your brother’s eye.” He is pointing out how we make judgments and criticize other’s for their faults while ignoring and not dealing with those in our own. The sawdust and the log are not actual physical obstructions in our vision, but our spiritual vision.
Buddhists employ the metaphor of the finger pointing at the moon to describe the difference. To guard against the mistake of thinking that being a Buddhist means believing literally in the Buddhist teachings, they say do not believe in the finger, but rather to what the finger is pointing.
The same can be said for the Bible. It provides hundreds of different lenses with which to see…