Blogger: ‘There is no difference between the OT and the NT. There is nothing in the NT which is not in the OT.’
Me: ‘What about Jesus?’
Blogger: ‘He is all over the Old Testament. You just have to look.’
Me: ‘Really? Where for example?’
He then offered me the following allegorical reading of the Joshua 2 based on the fact that Joshua in Hebrew is the same name as Jesus in Greek (the Hebrew meaning of course ‘God saves’, Matt 1.21):
The conquest of the land is not a prediction of Jesus. It is a prediction of reclaiming Adam’s or man’s rightful place in the Garden of Eden. As you know, the Bible starts with Adam or man losing his place in the garden. The Bible then ends with man reclaiming his rightful and original place in the new earth in the book of Revelation.
Joshua is a type of Christ in the OT. He leads the Israelites to the promised land just as Jesus leads us to salvation. Joshua destroys the city of Jericho not by force, but with the representation of the Word of God based on the Law of God through the blowing of the trumpets while walking in front of the Ark. The family of Rahab is saved by two Israelites who represent the two witnesses or the two books of the Bible. Rahab makes a covenant with them just as Jesus makes a covenant with us through His Word. Ultimately, Rahab is saved by a scarlet cord that is draped out of her window. Obviously the scarlet represents the blood of Christ.
When I responded that I was not persuaded that this was in fact the ‘meaning’ of the text, I was offered further ‘insight’:
The whole story of the gospel is in the story of Joshua and Rahab. In addition to the tidbits I gave you before, I will give you some more spiritual insight on this story. You will notice that throughout the Bible, the church is represented by a woman. I submit to you that Rahab represents the church in this story. Just like God’s true church on earth, Rahab is the only one in the city of Jericho to make a covenant with the two Israelites. In fact, she is told to bring all her family into her household if they want to be saved. Is this not the gospel? Are we as the church, not suppose to bring in every lost soul to be saved? Are we not supposed to spread the gospel? Notice in the story that only those that were with Rahab in her household was saved by hanging the scarlet thread. Now Ian, you should at least agree that the color scarlet is no coincidence here when it represents salvation. It is very obvious that it represents the blood of Christ.
I had not come across this reading before (do I need to get out more?) but I have to say I found it fascinating, and can readily see its appeal. In some ways it appears to come close to Paul’s own reading of the OT (‘the rock was Christ’ 1 Cor 10.4, ‘Hagar stands for Mt Sinai’ Gal 4.25) and in fact Paul uses the word allegoreo in introducing this idea. Perhaps the best known allegorical reading is of the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. Origen read it allegorically thus:
The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord’s body, the [inn], which accepts all who wish to enter, is the Church. … The manager of the [inn] is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior’s second coming. (Homily 34.3)
This reading was virtually universal throughout early Christianity, being advocated by Irenaeus, Clement as well as Origen, and in the fourth and fifth centuries by Chrysostom in Constantinople, Ambrose in Milan, and Augustine—whose version is perhaps best known:
A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho; Adam himself is meant; Jerusalem is the heavenly city of peace, from whose blessedness Adam fell; Jericho means the moon, and signifies our mortality, because it is born, waxes, wanes, an dies. Thieves are the devil and his angels. Who stripped him, namely; of his immortality; and beat him, by persuading him to sin; and left him half-dead, because in so far as man can understand and know God, he lives, but in so far as he is wasted and oppressed by sin, he is dead; he is therefore called half-dead. The priest and the Levite who saw him and passed by, signify the priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament which could profit nothing for salvation. Samaritan means Guardian, and therefore the Lord Himself is signified by this name. The binding of the wounds is the restraint of sin. Oil is the comfort of good hope; wine the exhortation to work with fervent spirit. The beast is the flesh in which He deigned to come to us. The being set upon the beast is belief in the incarnation of Christ. The inn is the Church, where travelers returning to their heavenly country are refreshed after pilgrimage. The morrow is after the resurrection of the Lord. The two pence are either the two precepts of love, or the promise of this life and of that which is to come.
What is wrong with these readings? After all (as another blogger comments) does this not ‘cohere with and flow from the Church’s proclamation of the Cross and Resurrection’? The Reformers had no time for such readings, and Calvin gives this short shrift:
The allegory which is here contrived by the advocates of free will is too absurd to deserve refutation… I acknowledge that I have no liking for any of these interpretations; but we ought to have a deeper reverence for Scripture than to reckon ourselves at liberty to disguise its natural meaning. And, indeed, any one may see that the curiosity of certain men has led them to contrive these speculations, contrary to the intention of Christ. (Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke volume 3)
Of course, the great paradox here is that I suspect the person who offered me the allegory of Joshua comes from a Reformed church that esteems Calvin.
So what is wrong with this kind of reading?
Firstly it functions by pulling the text into the world of the reader, instead of taking the reader into the world of the text. In doing this, as Calvin states, it ‘disguises its natural meaning’, or as I would express it, this approach actually silences the text. We are left not with the text but with the allegory. The main point of Jesus’ parable is a call to ethical action: ‘Go thou and do likewise.’ The main point about the Joshua narrative is that God’s mercy extends to unexpected people (I would argue). Both of these are lost in the allegory.
Secondly and perhaps more surprising, the allegory actually silences itself. It offers such a systematised way of reading that it precludes any interaction or reflection. Moving over the small point that in one part of the allegory Joshua is Jesus but in another part the scarlet cord is, I wonder what the implications might be of seeing the people of God not just as a woman, but as a racially outcast prostitute? Or that Jesus’ death was like a cord that had been skilfully woven by the hands of such a woman? I think you could defend this notion by looking at the central role of (marginalised) women in the gospels, bearers (literally) of God’s good news at the start of Jesus’ life, the only ones who remained by his cross in his death, and the first witnesses of his resurrection. But I really doubt that this was in the mind of my discussion partner!
Thirdly it eliminates problems and challenges in the text. The Book of Joshua is a prime example of the difficulty of reading about divinely sanctioned violence and even genocide. I consider this problem in another post—but of course the moment you read allegorically, the problem disappears. It is worth noting that the NT never reads Joshua allegorically.
Fourthly this approach ignores a basic feature of the text—its genre. It presents itself as nothing other than a (theologically shaped) historical account of things that happened. If we can read this allegorically or figuratively, then why not do the same to the stories about Jesus? The resurrection was not something that happened, but a way of describing the apostles’ feeling that somehow Jesus had a new significance beyond death.
Fifthly it turns the commentator into a priest—someone who stands between me and the text and mediates the meaning to me. I had not worked out that the thread was the blood of Jesus—how could I? When I was slow to go with the allegory of Joshua, I was enjoined:
The OT is full of stories like this where the gospel and the salvation of Jesus is represented. You just have to open your heart and look through your “spiritual glasses”! Praise God for the wonderful true stories!! I beg of you to pray and ask God to open your heart and mind. The OT is not just a historical record. Every story has deep inspirational and spiritual meaning for us.
Of course, what he really meant was not that the OT is more than a historical record—it is hardly historical at all. And it is not that I have to look through my ‘spiritual glasses’ but that I had to look through his glasses!
In the end, the allegorical approach de-historicizes the text and undermines the idea that texts are bearers of meaning. Instead, they become a sort of code that needs unlocking with a secret key which only belongs to the initiated—which is gnostic rather than rational. Note that this is a very different exercise from reading a text metaphorically, or finding application by seeing parallels in the text with later texts or our own situation.
So generally speaking if you are finding a biblical passage strange, baffling and difficult to understand, this is a good thing. On the other hand, if you read and think it all makes sense, fits perfectly with your theology and there is no challenge here—that’s the time to start worrying!
(First posted in September 2013. Worth another outing.)
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