Ideas: Part 4: Historicity vs. Metaphor

Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.”—Mark Twain

When I was six I was gifted a pop-up picture book depicting a series of biblical stories. I recall thumbing through its pages reading about Noah’s Flood where humankind was destroyed by God in a deluge lasting 40 days. I read about the Israelites wandering the desert for 40 years following their release from bondage in Egypt. I bible_popupwas a kid. I wasn’t formally educated; and I certainly wasn’t acquainted with either the Hebrew language or its associated idiom. So when I read this children’s book, and later the Bible itself in my early teens, I understood and interpreted numbers I encountered like 40 to mean a literal quantity, e.g. forty days or years. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the Israelites frequently used numbers figuratively. Contemporary English speakers do this when they hear and use 13 (which, for whatever reason, they associate with bad luck).

While reading either Exodus or Genesis I assumed I was reading literal history, i.e. when an author said X happened I believed X happened just as described. In reality, since I didn’t grasp the full extent of my ignorance of Hebrew idiom, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. In my late teens and early 20s, I concluded it was unwise interpreting scripture in so straight-forward a manner. So, I reasoned, if I genuinely wanted to understand what I was reading, I needed to learn more about the role figurative language played in the meaning and composition of scripture, e.g. why did biblical writers make such frequent use of numbers like 3, 6, 7, 12 and 40?

Contemporary readers attempting to understand ancient texts like the Torah or New Testament re confronted with a series of challenges: firstly, there are always issues when it comes to translating a book from one language into another. There’s no such thing as a perfect translation as even subtle differences in a translator’s usage of a single word can have significant implications for meaning.

In 1994 I took a university course on the thought of St. Paul while completing a minor in religious studies. Professor Donaldson, an expert on the thought of Paul, brought the following issue to the class’ attention: in Romans 3:24-25 the Apostle Paul writes that we are “justified by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set forth to be a propitiation…” Some translations of this text use the word expiation in place of propitiation. The implication of using one word over the other is not insignificant: although both words share essentially the same root (the Greek word hilasterion meaning “mercy-seat”) there are essential differences, i.e. if Paul meant propitiate then Jesus appeased God by dying on the cross in our place thereby satisfying His anger and justice at us individually; however, if Paul meant to say Jesus was more of an expiation then Christ sacrificed himself as a sort of burnt offering (atoning for the wrong-dong of the nation as a whole). Making a long story short, one word (propitiation) suggests more or less Christ achieved salvation of the individual while the other word (expiation) suggests more of a collective or national salvation. Arguably, either word is usable; however, expiation is the better choice if we want our meaning to reflect Jewish thinking as it existed in the 1st century.

Secondly, as modern readers we tend not to precisely interpret texts in ways the original authors intend. Words aren’t static things; they evolve meaning one thing at one time and something else entirely at another. In the 15th century, the English word “nice” was used to mean “silly, foolish, and simple”. Today the term is used as a sort of compliment. (Interestingly, hints of nice’s original usage remain with us, if only subtly, e.g. when a person makes an especially foolish mistake sometimes a bystander will respond by uttering a facetious “nice” while shaking their head in disapproval.) Greek Christians in the 1st century used the word “awesome” to mean “inspiring reverential wonder or fear of God”. There really was no better way to communicate the smallness of humanity before the Almighty. Today we use this word to denote something either bad or unpleasant. We even use awesome as an adjective or descriptor indicating something is especially tasty or high quality. Comedian Eddie Izzard explains the absurdity of the word’s current usage in the following way:

The universe is awesome—using the original version, the meaning of the word ‘awesome’. Not the new one… I saw an advert for ‘awesome hot dogs’ only $2.99. If they were awesome you would be going, I cannot breathe, *gasp* for the way the sausage is held by the bun, *gasp* and it’s speaking to me…we are lips and thighs of a donkey, *breathless* but do not think of us as lips and thighs—or you’ll throw up. America needs the old version of ‘awesome,’ because you’re the only ones going into space; and you need ‘awesome’ because you’re going to be going to the next sun to us and your president is going to be ‘Can you tell me, astronaut, can you tell me what it’s like?’ ‘It’s awesome, sir.’ ‘What, like a hot dog?’ ‘Like a hundred billion hot dogs, sir.’[1]

Thirdly, readers are confronted by problems associated with understanding culturally specific idioms. Idioms are symbols and sayings obvious only to native speakers of a particular language. A few years ago while having a conversation with a grade 11 Chinese speaking student, he asked me a question about the significance of a particular battle during World War II. I answered eventually making use of the following phrase, e.g. “And Germany killed two birds with one stone”. He stood there puzzled wondering why I was talking about birds. Yet, if I spoke that same phrase to a native English speaker, they’d understand my meaning immediately, i.e. that the Germans accomplished two things through one action. Knowledge and awareness of idiom is crucial to making sense of the writing and thinking produced by disparate cultures from time periods other than our own.

gateFor example, in Mark 5:10 Jesus observes “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” A North-American residing in the 21st century would believe themselves justified interpreting Jesus as saying it is impossible for rich people to go to heaven because they cannot physically pass through that tiny little hole (called the eye) used to thread a needle. First off no camels are small enough to pass through the eye of a needle. Does this mean Jesus was saying nobody goes to heaven? To a Jewish person living at the time of Christ, they would recognize Jesus was making an allusion to a small gate in Jerusalem literally called the Eye of the Needle. If we want to understand what Jesus was actually saying, we need to be acquainted with Jewish history and think in terms figurative, not literal.

Lastly, all cultures interpret numbers figuratively.[2] This fact was pressed home for me many years ago while listening to an episode of CBC’s Ideas.[3] The show’s host was interviewing several philologists to discuss the historicity of the Book of Exodus. As luck would have it, they discussed the usage and meaning of the number 40. As I hinted at earlier in the introduction, I’d always suspected 40 connoted something other than chronological days or years. The philologists confirmed my thinking by asserting “40” was not intended to be interpreted literally as a quantity. Rather, Exodus’ authors used 40 figuratively signifying at one time a “time of trial,” at another “a time of rebirth,” yet another “a time of transition,” or a “really long time”.

Israel, as is the case with all ancient civilizations, was an oral culture that transmitted knowledge through, and was in turn shaped by, metaphor.[4] They resisted writing down their stories fearing doing so would direct the Jewish people towards legalism and narrow interpretations of otherwise dynamic teachings, i.e. while the written word preserves the letter of law it does so often at the expense of the spirit of what is intended. For example, the Sixth Commandment is Thou Shalt Not Kill. Interpreting this literally, or according to the letter of the law, one assumes that if they don’t kill someone then they are keeping the commandment; however, interpreting this according to the spirit of the law and the commandment becomes demonstrably harder to keep, e.g. killing by definition is harm; therefore, if I harm or hurt others in any way—gossiping about or conspiring against others for instance—I’m actually breaking the spirit (or intent) behind the commandment.[5]

This second interpretation of the commandment discussed above reflects a process in Judaism called MidrashMidrash was developed by religious scholars to preserve the flexibility of the oral tradition while working within a written or literal framework. Rabbis working within this framework were aware of the associated risks associated with literalism-legalism. So, when an individual comes to a teacher for assistance or to work out some sort of personal problem, rabbis were (and are) careful to explore both the literal and figurative truths communicated through scripture. The dynamic nature of this interpretive process suggests there’s no single correct way of reading the Torah.[6] The conclusions reached through Midrash are not prescriptive. Therefore, the interpretive act, and the knowledge acquired, is shaped by the peculiar factors uniquely affecting the individual in the present moment. Thus, to rabbis the use of Midrash implies scripture is alive—it can mean one thing at one time and something quite different at another. In other words, the Jews valued both free-thinking and flexibility as it related to religious observance and living an ethical life.

We don’t have to go far to find difficulties with biblical literalism or legalism. Many religious people believe Genesis must be accepted at face value, word for word, as a piece of history. If we do not do this, so the reasoning goes, then we are somehow lacking faith. I do understand why people feel this way, i.e. all reasonable people want their thinking and beliefs to line up with reality. If you read Genesis literally today, you’d be justified believing the earth is quite young (in the same sense someone reading the Gospel of Mark today would erroneously conclude Jesus was talking about needles/thread instead of gates). The problem with interpreting Genesis literally is we actually know how old the earth and universe are through science.

If the scientific consensus is to be trusted, and upon a thoughtful weighing of the available evidence I am confident this is case, the big-bangCosmos is approximately 13.82 billion years old while the earth itself (and the life on it) evolved over a period of approximately 4.5 billion years. Genesis presents an entirely different view, i.e. God created everything as it currently exists in exactly 6 days.[7] For the Israelites the number 6 connoted perfection; thus, it stands to reason someone living in either 1000 BCE or the present day who hears “God made everything in 6 days” (given our current scientific understanding) would be more justified thinking creation was perfect as opposed to created “as is” in six chronological days. If we continue favoring literalism over figurative interpretation, and if we want our thinking to line up with what we want to be true (as opposed to what actually is true), the literalist must deny science or resort to special pleading. There is no other way around the inevitable contradiction of believing the world so young given our understanding of the Big Bang, the physics of light, existence of the dinosaurs, and biology.

The literalist is confronted with a dilemma: either reject Genesis or reject science. This is a false dichotomy because there are other options available to us preserving our intellectual integrity and belief in God. We just need to acknowledge three fundamental things: firstly, if a literal interpretation of Genesis leads us to make mistakes this speaks volumes about our limitations, our ignorance, and our assumptions about what is possible or what is not; it says absolutely nothing about God. Secondly, if we want our thinking to line up with reality we must accept the scientific consensus (and there’s nothing about that consensus that says God does not exist). If we do not accept or at least acknowledge the honest challenge posed to literalism posed by science, we’re forced to continually make use of special pleading, e.g. God put dinosaur fossils in the ground to test our faith; and with this kind of faulty reasoning in mind, it seems at least to me hard to accept that the same God responsible for endowing us with sense, reason and intellect would require us to forgo their use in order to have faith in Him;[8] and thirdly, by making greater use of the flexibility afforded to us through Midrash and metaphor, etc. we can see faith doesn’t contradict reality (it complements it). If we do these three things, we can avoid painting ourselves into intellectual corners of our own making.

The virtue of flexibility of interpretation is lost upon most modern readers: living in the West in the 21st century, we are conditioned not to think metaphorically so much as scientifically. Therefore, when we read something, unless we’re aware of the need or are told to do otherwise, we more often than not accept things at face value assuming writers aren’t embellishing or being figurative; we believe they’re saying exactly what they mean. The fact is the ancients—Egyptian, Persian, Jew, Greek, and Roman alike—were poetic-figurative societies[9] unconcerned with historicity or accuracy like we are in our own time; on the contrary, they tended to be more concerned with making meaningful connections between the distant past and an unfolding present. They possessed priorities and values vastly different from our own.[10]

The ancient Israelites possessed different priorities than the Greeks—the Greeks were rationalists while the Jews were ostensibly religionists. Nonetheless, both peoples possessed figurative language, exercised reason, utilized logic, and were spiritual; however, the manner in which these two great cultures employed these things took them in different directions. For this reason it seems likely we moderns too possess different priorities than the ancients, e.g. we tend to look at the world rationally as opposed to poetically; and although we’re certainly capable of understanding metaphors today, we don’t necessarily recognize them when we see them in the writings of the Greeks or the Israelites. With this in mind, let’s take one last look at the Jewish understanding of 40; in so doing, it’s my hope readers will gain a greater appreciation for the role figurative language plays in the justification, and maintenance, of faith in the present day.

Forty was used as a symbolic reference meaning essentially “transition” or “rebirth”; and in that context the symbol was also thought to be an allusion to the 40 weeks it takes—from conception to birth—for a human baby to be born. The best evidence supporting a figurative understanding of 40 is the sheer frequency of its usage (see the list below). In all of these examples, Jews and Christians[11] as well, had a figurative understanding of 40 in mind.

[Exodus 24:18] 40 days Moses was on the Mountain to receive the Law of the Sinai Covenant [Transition]

[Jonah 3:4] 40 days Jonah in the Assyrian city of Nineveh [Transition]

[Ezekiel 29:11] 40 days Ezekiel lay on his side to symbolize the 40 years of Judah’s transgression [Rebirth]

[Matthew 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2] 40 days Jesus fasted in the wilderness before his trial of temptation by Satan [Trial]

[Acts 1:3] 40 days Jesus taught His disciples after the Resurrection. On the fortieth day He ascended to the Father [Transition]

[Genesis 25:20] 40 years The age of Isaac when he married Rebekah [Rebirth]

[Joshua 5:6] 40 years The first Pentecost at Sinai to the taking of the Promised land [Transition]

40 years From Christ’s resurrection to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD [Rebirth]

40 years Moses in Egypt [Trial]

40 years Moses in Midian before his return to Egypt [Transition]

[Exodus 16:35; Deuteronomy 29:5] 40 years Israel ate manna [Long Time]

This list is by no means exhaustive.

Most people trust their teachers. I certainly trusted my grade two teacher teaching the class we were all made in the image of God. I was seven at the time and I took her literally, e.g. God had arms, legs, eyes, and basically looked like me. I’m not sure if my teacher meant to imply God was anatomically human or humans were anatomically godlike. Figuratively speaking, if we are indeed made in God’s image, I should think it more likely we resemble God more in our capacity to reason as opposed to sharing skeletal structures in common. Perhaps I’m not giving my well-meaning elementary school teacher enough credit. Nevertheless, if my subsequent years of teaching have taught me anything it is this: the majority of educators tend to content themselves transmitting the parent culture’s assumptions to young people; teachers just don’t know any better; and despite assertions to the contrary, most teachers (not all, but most) tend not to be in the professed business of teaching critical thinking. If anything they are in the practice of creating conformists, not thinkers.

When readers lack context, when they don’t know they should think more deeply about what they think about, they invariably resort to projecting their personal assumptions on to scripture: twenty years ago, I met a Christian fundamentalist named Bob. We met while both studying to be teachers at university. During one spirited conversation, Bob explained to me humans and dinosaurs lived at the exact same time and he could prove it. He directed my attention to the Leviathan mentioned in the Book of Job.[12] He implied this biblical-based creature was an example of a dinosaur (presumably a plesiosaur) and the people who saw it naturally wrote down a description. I was not convinced.[13] I find it remarkable that no parallel accounts of dinosaurs—from the Greeks, Phoenicians or Romans—exist.[14] If dinosaurs and human beings did co-exist, their interactions would have been global in scale; we should find expect to find evidence of these massive creatures in every culture; yet, there’s a paucity or lack of supporting literary or archaeological evidence.[15] This is because the co-existence never took place.

I took a class on Judaism in the 1990s while completing a minor in religious studies. I asked the professor (Rabbi Pavey) whether Leviathan was a reference to dinosaurs. He looked at me and then looked away furling his brow somewhat. He looked at me again shaking his head in the negative. He understood Leviathan to be a figurative reference (a symbol) to the “objective power of evil and sin over Israel”. If you have the benefit of Hebrew idioms in mind while reading scripture, biblical stories read quite differently. Metaphors are culturally specific. If you don’t belong to the culture producing the book you are reading, you won’t “get” or understand the meaning of specific symbols. You won’t. Bob thinking Leviathan a dinosaur is proof of this. Modern readers, by and large, simply aren’t equipped to understand scripture—without significant guidance—in the same manner as the Israelites.


[2] The most sacred number to the ancient Greeks was 10 (ten symbolizing the completion of a cycle). In different parts of Asia the number 3 is considered sacred: in Japan the Toshogu Shrine presents the Three Wise Monkeys, e.g. Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil. In Islam the number 5 is regarded as fundamental to Muslim life, e.g. the Five Pillars of Islam.


[4] Metaphors are powerful teaching and learning tools possessing an innate capacity to mean many things without necessarily signifying anything specific.

[5] Jesus added the following nuance to the keeping of such laws: Jesus observed married people who lusted after others were just as guilty of committing adultery as someone who actually acted upon the impulse. There was no difference. Thus, people are guilty of committing sin at the level of intention. This is drawn from Matthew 5:27-28.

[6] The idea of a messiah has been interpreted differently throughout the history of Judaism. How this messianic figure is understood depends entirely upon the contemporary historical circumstances of the people doing the interpreting. The messiah is first mentioned in the Book of Isaiah (a book written over a span of two-hundred plus years around the 8th and 7th centuries BCE). While Isaiah was being written Jews lived in exile in Babylonia as an underclass of laborers. At the time, the messiah was understood as something akin to a spiritual figure (one well-versed in Jewish law and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11:2-5)). The understanding that this messiah was a spiritual leader represented the desire of Jews to return to their ancestral homeland. After several centuries of exile the Jews returned home. According to Jewish (not Christian) tradition anyone was potentially a candidate to be a messiah or masiach, i.e. It has been said that in every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the mashiach. The mashiach was, in a word, a teacher or a guide. However, by the time the Book of Daniel (2nd Century BCE) was written the fortunes of the Jews had changed once again. The Macedonians (and later the Romans) took over Israel. The Jews lost control of their homeland; and in this context the Book of Daniel was written (2nd Century BCE)—and the messiah transformed from a spiritual teacher into a warrior prince who would destroy Israel’s enemies and free them. So in the first instance (Book of Isaiah) the messiah was someone who would help the Jews return and in the second instance (Book of Daniel) the messiah would free Israel. John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious, p. 172-174.

[7] According to Genesis God created light (on the first day) and then the stars (and presumably our sun) on the fourth. Shouldn’t the stars be created before light? For whatever reason, many of us simply ignore the contradictions we find in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

[8] This is an allusion to Galileo Galilei’s letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615): “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by other means give us knowledge which we can attain by them

[9] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, p.201-203; 305-310.

[10] The Greek writer Herodotus (484-425 BCE) was the first writer who actually tried to compose an accurate historical narrative. Writers before, and well after Herodotus, didn’t worry about composing historical narratives as you and I know them today. Instead, the role of the Western “historian” was that of a storyteller (not scientist), i.e. virtually all histories related to important kings and events produced during the medieval period, and well after, began with what a modern reader would consider an inexplicable reference to Adam and Eve. These writers made a point of connecting historical figures and events to God’s overall plan for humanity. For this reason the mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650 AD) distrusted the history of his time because these narratives had more in common with Aesop than with Copernicus. Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, Herodotus: The Father of History, “Myth, Legend, and Oral Tradition” (The Great Courses).

[11] The first Christians were Jews. They borrowed from Judaism and explained the significance of Jesus within a fundamentally Jewish framework (idiom and all).

[12] The word Leviathan literally means “whale” in Modern Hebrew.

[13] The idea of Leviathan is not exclusive to Israel. The Canaanites referred to the Leviathan using the name Lotan. According to the Canaanite cosmology, Lotan was a servant of the sea god Yammu. Israel assimilated the story through cultural exchanges with the Canaanites. The Canaanites and Israelites intermarried and lived with one another. This is a well-established fact (both scripturally and archaeologically); moreover, the overall evidence for cultural flow between Middle Eastern cultures is considerable given the fact virtually every culture possessed flood narratives, virgin birth narratives, and savior narratives. Robert Wright, The Evolution of God, p.99-102.

[14] Some people point to the many and varied references to dragons as evidence of parallel accounts. There are two fundamental problems (at least) with this assertion: firstly, it’s an obvious example of special pleading; and secondly, the ancients did not write history in the same fashion as we do in the 21st century, i.e. in a desire to communicate events objectively. Instead, the ancients—including the Jews—embellished accounts, used figurative language, etc. in order to convey the great meaning and importance of noteworthy personalities and events.

[15] Every major city of the ancient world should have been surrounded by walls and fortifications designed to keep the more ravenous dinosaurs out. Yet, logically speaking, no human civilization of any significance could have developed while these massive reptiles wandered the planet. Mammals, humans in particular, needed the extinction of the dinosaurs in order to become an ascendant species.