In Tents #39 Literal and Figurative Interpretation, or The Place is Called Gilgal Unto This Day

Here’s a paradox. I read scripture literally, and yet as I read letter by letter laterally through the word I keep seeing invitations to see the stories pointing toward something else. The writer of Exodus sees Moses as a new Noah being saved by a water-borne ark, while Peter sees the ark as a figure for the saving ordinance of baptism. Indeed, he even uses the word figure:

19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
21 The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ
I Peter 3:19-21

The Book of Mormon uses a good deal of Exodus imagery in I Nephi—with Nephi as Moses, and I sometimes wonder if Laman and Lemuel didn’t taunt Nephi by saying, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you intend to slay us like you slew Laban?” (See Exodus 3:14)

Joseph Smith defends his vision by invoking Paul’s defense of his vision before Agrippa, and the Book of Mormon repeatedly asks questions like, “is there not a type in this thing?” (Alma 37:45)

I read the scriptures figuratively, trying to understand the deeper meanings in parables and scriptural events. “So, do we know anyone else besides Joseph Smith who was thrown into a pit? Yes, Jeremiah, and Joseph, and Daniel. Jonah, yes, and John the Baptist and the Savior. Pay attention in your reading to recurring patterns and experiences. Notice how often prophets share the same experiences.”

And if I start paying attention to recurring motifs and phrases, I notice how the figures moving across the page insist on the historic nature of events, naming places

Wherefore the name of the place is called Gilgal unto this day.
(Joshua 5:10)

and geographic features where events happened, and insisting that something like the great heap of stones raised over the stoned body of Achan is there “unto this day.” (Joshua 7:26)

In his defense of the Resurrection to the Corinthians Paul invokes the witnesses to the Risen Lord in set of parallel images that move from a single witness to 12, to many in the first passage, and from a single to 12 to himself in the second:

5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:
6 After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.
7 After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.
8 And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.
(I Corinthians 15:5-8)

And if I look carefully at parables I’m struck by the concrete details. The parables are tied to the earth and the sky and the birds and trees and mustard weeds, and some of the details are there just for the joy of being there. The parables that are supposed to teach us of the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of the skies as Willis Barnstone renders the phrase in The New Covenant, are tied intimately to the earth.

Again, the paradox: No matter which way I start reading scripture, it leads to the opposite. Literal reading leads to figurative and figurative leads to literal.

And there’s that passage in D&C 101 where the Lord puts forth a figurative reading of the Parable of the Unjust Judge by asking the church to take it literally:

81 Now, unto what shall I liken the children of Zion? I will liken them unto the parable of the woman and the unjust judge, for men ought always to pray and not to faint, which saith—
82 There was in a city a judge which feared not God, neither regarded man.
83 And there was a widow in that city, and she came unto him, saying: Avenge me of mine adversary.
84 And he would not for a while, but afterward he said within himself: Though I fear not God, nor regard man, yet because this widow troubleth me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.
85 Thus will I liken the children of Zion.
86 Let them importune at the feet of the judge;
87 And if he heed them not, let them importune at the feet of the governor;
88 And if the governor heed them not, let them importune at the feet of the president;
89 And if the president heed them not, then will the Lord arise and come forth out of his hiding place, and in his fury vex the nation.
(D&C 101:81-89)

So why do so many people treat literal and figurative as mutually exclusive approaches? It’s not a rhetorical question for me. I studied literature, theory, and criticism with people who encouraged me to recognize “the shapes a bright container can contain,” as Theodore Roethke said in “The Shape of the Fire.”

Bela Petsco heard a story from Richard Ellsworth, apparently about a stake patriarch who wouldn’t do his father’s temple work, recognized some similarity to the story of Jonah, and wrote “The Sealing,” about patriarch Jonas who can’t bring himself to be sealed to the father who beat his brother to death, and lives out in the desert under a tree, trying to purify himself in the desert sun.

Always try to work another story into your story, he told us. It will add texture to your work.

I was taught to glory in multiple meanings. Just as words don’t have just one meaning, neither do stories or poems. Neither does scripture. Glory in that. Turn the bright container, see the shapes, the shift and change, kaleidoscopic collision of colors. That heightened my deeply held love of words at play, and I am puzzled at how little sense of play I see in much scriptural scholarship. I think about how often I’ve heard statements to the effect that if there are archetypal elements in a story the story must have been shaped to the archetype, rather than reporting an incident that has an archetypal shape.

As a young teen my father’s older brother had a habit of sneaking a smoke out behind the barn. His grandfather warned him repeatedly, and finally broke him of the habit by keeping him up all night reading him Deuteronomy, then Isaiah, then Revelation–in their entirety, and not letting him doze off–then sending him off to his morning chores.

My father worked this into a story called “Grandfather Clocks.” (For years I thought the incident happened to him, since the stories in Morgan Triumphs are stories he used to tell us about his boyhood and adolescence.) “I like the way you’ve worked the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel into that story,” I said. “What?” he said. Apparently, it hadn’t ever occurred to him that his grandfather was enacting a common figure of speech. He just saw a good story and wanted to tell it. Maybe it didn’t occur to Grandpa either that the incident had an archetypal or figurative shape. But it does—or at least it’s there to see if you happen to notice it.

A lot of scripture is like that, with images and incidents in one story or life recurring in someone else’s, with Ammon repeating Moses’s defense of those at the watering hole, Moses repeating the experiences of Jacob and Isaac’s servant at the well, and Jesus having his own meeting with a woman at a well.

To argue that because these stories involve repetition of earlier stories they don’t represent actual events is to assume that real life doesn’t repeat itself, or that only the fictional imagination has the wit to recognize patterns and types.

I hope to say more about this next month. I just spent a couple of weeks listening to Reza Aslan read his Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and it’s a good foil for a discussion of narrative methods and aims. It is an enlightening book, especially about the politics in the early church, the struggle between Paul and the church leaders, particularly James. (I kept thinking, “Aaah, That’s what Bela was thinking about when he  said he had written a paper for one of his religion classes about Paul’s disdain for the Twelve.)

Zealot is also a very irritating book. Aslan says the only story we can examine historically is the story of Jesus dying on the cross, a punishment reserved by the Romans for insurrectionists. Everything else in the Gospels is overlay from the early Christians. He’s every bit as dogmatic as the most tradition-bound literal-minded Christians, be they Evangelical, Mormon or some other group.

In an odd way Aslan embodies both sides of the paradox I started with. He reads the historical details he can deduce from contemporary documents quite literally, and all the claims about Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God and Savior of the world as purely figurative, but for him the readings don’t connect. He doesn’t see a place for the literal to call out the figurative and the figurative to call forth the literal.

I see dangers in stopping the dance of figurative and literal, of keeping them wholly separate. A completely literal interpretation can lead to the idea that there is no need for further revelation, since everything we need is in the letter of the scripture. Scripture can become the sole authority, perhaps even supplanting the Holy Spirit.

A completely figurative interpretation of the encounters with God and angels in scriptures could see divine beings as external projections of our spiritual longings—which sounds a lot like idolatry, creating gods from our own longings and desires.

Your turn.

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5 Responses to In Tents #39 Literal and Figurative Interpretation, or The Place is Called Gilgal Unto This Day

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    I can’t help but speculate that part of our tendency to insist that a scripture must have one specific meaning, that a story must be allegorical OR historical but not both, has something to do with the fact that many of the most influential Mormon interpreters of scripture over the last half-century or longer have been lawyers by training. I have not studied legal interpretation of texts, but speculate (again) that training as a lawyer might foster a tendency to try to establish the single “correct” meaning of a text. I also speculate that Joseph Fielding Smith’s experience as Church historian might have had a similar effect, particularly considering that he was not trained as a professional historian but would have been responsible for defending the literal truth of Mormonism’s historical claims. But it’s all speculation.

    • Harlow says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. Your speculation reminds me of something Jim Faulconer told us when we were studying Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method. Gadamer came to speak at BYU once, and over lunch he told the Philosophy department that his daughter had gone into law instead of philosophy because she felt that all the interpretation has to lead somewhere–there has to be some definitive end. (Of course there is that lovely story in Yitzhak Asimov’s Treasury of Humor about the lawyer talking to God at the last judgment. “Do you have any practical skills?” “No.” “I there anything you can do?” “I’ll tell you what I can do. Expound a point of law and I’ll show you how to refute it.”)

      There’s something besides legal training involved, though. A few years after I graduated my father sent me a paper Jim Faulconer had presented at the AML meeting about Derrida and Jewish vs. Protestant styles of interpretation. Jewish interpretation is considerably more open and flexible than Protestant. Reza Aslan comes from an Evangelical background, which I suspect accounts for some of his dogmatism. I’m not sure what the connection is between Protestant interpretive style and legal argumentation.

      I’ll be talking about Aslan at length in my next post, or next several, and Jim’s paper. As I recall, a rabbi told him once that most Mormons interpret scripture like a bunch of Protestants. I think that’s in Dennis Packard’s BYU Today article about Jim, which I finally got a copy of. For a column that’s supposed to be about interpreting scripture, this one’s taking a roundabout way to get about its business.

  2. Th. says:


    I think it’s risky to exclude either the literal or the figurative—though especially the figurative as it is larger.

    • Harlow says:

      Thanks, Th. I left out my favorite example of a story that is highly archetypal and and very literal, Spencer W. Kimball’s hike up the mountain–including almost stepping on a rattlesnake–after his cousin, J. Reuben Clark, Jr. called from Salt Lake to tell him he had been called as the next apostle. It was a shocking, traumatic announcement and he had to get up the mountain to pray.

      Well stated that it’s risky to exclude either the literal or figuarative. It’s pretty easy to find examples of the risks of avoiding the figurative, but not so easy to find examples of what we miss if we insist on the figurative. I’ve been trying to think of how to illustrate the risks of abstracting stories–seeing them as purely figurative, and I just remembered that the most enlightening commentaries I’ve seen on the Greek myths are from people who take them as historical accounts. Rene Girard’s “The Bible is Not a Myth” looks at the Oedipus story as an allegorized account created to justify violence by the city of Thebes against a cripple who was a convenient, easy person to blame for some catastrophe that befell the city.

      Robert Graves similarly looks at the details of the myths in The Greek Myths. He sees them as editorial or political cartoons, and once you know what to look for, like the place names and the manner of death, you can see what political and social factions a myth applies to, what event the myth records. Graves doesn’t go as far as Girard and suggest that allegorizing the story allows the tellers to treat the people in the story as less than human, but I notice when I watch shows like Law and Order, NCIS, and Criminal Minds (and lots of others) how often the villain is an archetype of evil, someone so relentless and implacable he (usually, she occasionally) can only be stopped by being killed.

  3. “So why do so many people treat literal and figurative as mutually exclusive approaches?”

    The debate over literalism seems to be about whether x or y event did happen, but I think it’s really about whether it could have happened.

    Many of the people who have rejected literal readings of the Bible did so not because they found a really cool figurative meaning to pursue, but because their rules of evidence ruled out literal readings of passages depicting the miraculous and abnormal.

    Others saw that approach as irreconcilable with a book in which the existence of the miraculous is a central message. They refused to accept a rationalist rule of evidence and soon found themselves defending every improbable event as essential.

    I try to look for a midpoint where I allow for meanings beyond my literal understanding by exploring both figurative possibilities and miraculous literal readings.

    Did Adam live to be extremely old? I don’t know. I’m OK with a figurative reading that says the story of the first parents should be given the same weight as if they had lived a thousand years.

    Did Sarah bear Isaac when she was extremely old? I don’t know. But it seems important to the point of the story to believe she was well past menopause, and at that point I don’t see what I’d gain by saying she must have been sixty rather than ninety.

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