History and Metaphor
1. The Historical-Metaphorical Approach
approach,” I mean all the methods that are relevant to discerning the
ancient historical meanings of biblical texts. The chief concern of the
historical approach is the past‑tense question, “What did this text
mean in the ancient historical setting in which it was written?” By
“metaphorical approach,” I mean most broadly a nonliteral way of reading
biblical texts. A metaphorical reading does not confine itself to the
literal, factual, and historical meanings of a text. It moves beyond to the
question, “What does this story mean as a story, independent of its
historical factuality?” p. 37f.
How do we
distinguish between fiction and non-fiction?
May truth be presented in fiction?
May falsehood be presented in non-fiction?
How can metaphor move beyond factuality?
How is Truth recognized as metaphor?
The focus of a
historical approach is twofold: the historical meaning of a text in
its historical context. The context in which words are spoken or
written, or deeds are done, pervasively shapes their meaning. p. 38
context provides one anchor in what Peter Gomes describes as the
A second anchor is the pen of the scribe or evangelist.
What would the third anchor be in this triangle?
What is the creative tension of interpretation?
Metaphorical language is intrinsically nonliteral. It simultaneously
affirms and negates: x is y, and x is not y.
This realization leads to a second characteristic of metaphorical
language: it has more than one nuance or resonance of meaning. In terms of
its Greek roots, "metaphor" means "to carry with," and what metaphor carries
or bears is resonances or associations of meaning. … In short, metaphorical
language is intrinsically multivalent, with a plurality of associations.
“Metaphor” also means “to see as”: to see something as something
else. Metaphor is linguistic art or verbal art. … [T]o use a biblical
example, we can see the story of the exodus as a metaphorical
narrative of the divine‑human relationship, depicting both the human
predicament and the means of deliverance.
A metaphorical approach to the Bible thus emphasizes … seeing,
not believing. The point is not to believe in a metaphor, but to see
in light of it.
Finally, metaphors can be profoundly true, even though they are not
literally true. Metaphor is poetry plus, not factuality minus. That is,
metaphor is not less than fact, but more. p. 41
illustrate these five points with scriptural examples?
How does the use of metaphor advance or hinder the example cited?
2. The Bible History and Metaphor
That Metaphorize History
The way the
author of Mark’s gospel tells the stories of two blind men to whom Jesus
gave sight provides an illuminating example. The two stories frame the great
central section of that gospel‑a section that describes Jesus’ final journey
to Jerusalem, contains three solemn sayings about his impending death and
resurrection, and speaks of discipleship as following Jesus on this journey.
beginning of this section, Mark places the story of the blind man of
Bethsaida. Jesus restores his sight in two stages. After the first, the
blind man sees people, but not clearly: “They look like trees, walking.”
After Jesus lays his hands on him a second time, the blind man sees
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged
him to touch him.
He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when
he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can
you see anything?”
And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees,
Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his
sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the
At the end of
the section is the story of a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. He cries out to
Jesus, “Have compassion on me!” Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for
you?” In superbly evocative language, Bartimaeus expresses his deepest
desire: “Let me see again.” Then, we are told, “Bartimaeus regained his
sight and followed Jesus on the way.”
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving
Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the
When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say,
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48
Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly,
“Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49
Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man,
saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50
So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51
Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man
said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”
Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he
regained his sight and followed him on the way.
these stories where he does, the author of Mark gives them a metaphorical
meaning, even as one or both of them may reflect history remembered. Namely,
gaining one’s sight - seeing again ‑ is seeing the way of Jesus. That way,
that path, involves journeying with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the place
of death and resurrection, of endings and beginnings. To see that is to have
one’s eyes opened. p. 45f.
The stories of
healing are interesting in themselves. How do they touch us when they
become more than simply sight restored?
“What do you want me to do for you?” asked Jesus of Bartimaeus.
Gilbert K. Chesterton cautions with a metaphor: “Do not free a camel of the
burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel.”
Why do you think Jesus pressed the question?
“The limits of
I am even
willing to consider that spectacular phenomena such as levitation perhaps
happen. But do virgin births, multiplying loaves and fish, and changing
water into wine ever happen anywhere? If I became persuaded that they do,
then I would entertain the possibility that the stories about Jesus
reporting such events also contain history remembered. But what I cannot do
as a historian is to say that Jesus could do such things even though nobody
else has ever been able to. Thus I regard these as purely metaphorical
that the Bible contains both history and metaphor has an immediate
implication: the ancient communities that produced the Bible often
metaphorized their history. Indeed, this is the way they invested their
stories with meaning. But we, especially in the modern period, have often
historicized their metaphors. To make the same point only slightly
differently: they often mythologized their history (again, for the sake of
expressing meaning), while we have tended to literalize their mythology. And
when one literalizes metaphor or myth, the result is nonsense. p. 47
“[T]hey often mythologized their
history (again, for the sake of expressing meaning), while we have tended to
literalize their mythology. And when one literalizes metaphor or myth, the
result is nonsense.” Reflect and discuss, giving examples.
The Bible as Stories about the Divine‑Human Relationship
In the liturgy
accompanying the Passover meal, the following words (slightly paraphrased)
It was not just
our fathers and our mothers who were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but we, all
of us gathered here tonight, were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And it was not
just our fathers and mothers who were led out of Egypt by the great and
mighty hand of God, but we, all of us gathered here tonight, were led out of
Egypt by the great and mighty hand of God.
What does it
mean to say that “we” (and not just our ancient ancestors) were slaves in
Egypt and that “we” were led out of the land of slavery by God? It does not
mean that we were there in the loins of our ancestors, as if our genes or
DNA were present. Rather, the exodus story is understood to be true in
every generation. It portrays bondage as a perennial human problem and
proclaims God’s will that we be liberated from bondage. The story of
Israel's bondage in Egypt and her liberation by God is thus a perennially
true story about the divine‑human relationship. It is about us and God. p.
How is our
remembering limited if we do not recognize the role of the metaphor in
the telling of the story?
With the story of the Passover? In recalling the Eucharist?
4. Reading the Bible in a State of Postcritical Naivete
Western culture, as mentioned in chapter 1, critical thinking is very much
concerned with factuality and is thus deeply corrosive of religion in
general and Christianity and the Bible in particular. As critical thinkers
in that culture, most of us no longer hear the biblical stories as true
stories ‑ or at the least their truth has become suspect. Now it takes faith
to believe them, and faith becomes believing things that one would normally
the ability to
hear the biblical stories once again as true stories, even as one knows that
they may not be factually true and that their truth does not depend upon
This way of
hearing sacred stories is widespread in premodern cultures. In Arabia,
traditional storytellers begin their stories with “This was, and this was
not.” In Georgia (the country, not the state), similar words are spoken to
introduce a traditional story: “There was, there was, and yet there was
not.” A favorite of mine is the way a Native American storyteller begins
telling his tribe’s story of creation: “Now I don’t know if it happened this
way or not, but I know this story is true.” If you can get your mind around
that statement, then you know what postcritical naivete is. p. 50
naivete is not a call to cynicism.
Native American storytellers use the phrase, “Now I don’t know if it
happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.”
What do you understand is meant by this phrase?
How does it help us in presenting Truth as we tell the story?
PDF file of this material
Reading the Creation Stories