We are about to embark on a journey through the story the Bible. It would be an interesting exercise to ask what this motley crew would say that story is. But start there. What do you think the story of the Bible is? Many of your answers will be valid, but only insofar as your answers are merely an aspect of the story (sin, image, forgiveness, love, mercy, grace, sacrifice, death, life, resurrection, exile, restoration, etc) and not the story itself. No, I’m asking of you something more profound. What is the story itself? Here is how I would summarise the story: The story of the Bible is God’s plan to bring mankind into fellowship with him through his Incarnation which produces man’s exaltation and glorious Ascension; the Old Testament tells how God is going to do it and the New Testament demonstrates how God did it.
The record of this plan is found in the scriptures of the old and new testaments and those two records are concerned with God’s beginning and concluding that history through a particular nation, the nation of Israel. What God does in, with, through, and in spite of these people is a depiction of how God accomplishes his plan despite the weakness of humanity in their moral failures. God does this by becoming personally involved in the process when himself [sic] steps into that story by taking on human weakness in what the Bible calls sinful flesh. Incarnate as a man, God overcomes humanity’s weakness and provides the remedy to the malady. The malady is humanity’s mortality and the remedy is superseding that fate through providing immortality for humanity through the Word of God becoming man, accomplishing for man what he could never due to his inherent weakness of his humanity. This remedy is humanity’s glorification, exaltation, and union with the triune God.
There are quite a few tidbits of information you need to know before you venture into the field of studying the Bible. First, you need to know that the story you are about to read in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is uniform. It is one, single, united story which begins and ends. The second thing of which you need to be aware is that in order to understand the uniformity of the story, you need to understand its language. The story you are about to read speaks and when it speaks it often re-presents, symbolises, anticipates, or repeats. The best example of this is to think of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The opening progression, duh-duh-duh-duh, sets the stage for the rest of the work. Very oftener [sic] what is read at a later point sheds light on an earlyer [sic] passage while that earlyer passage was simply lying dormant until the subsequent passage is read. Too, earlyer passages set the stage for understanding later ones and the trick is learning early on that, as a reader, one must have this prescience if one is going to be a successful reader.
If you spend any time at all reading the Bible you come to realise there is a language being spoken which demonstrates that the Bible is an intricate work of disclosure. Reading the Bible is a holistic endeavor as each and every book depends upon and is the basis for each and every other book. This pattern means that each book depicts the broader story and uses similar language so that the reader is able to understand God’s way of telling his story. That story which discloses the plan of God in the history of humanity is symbolised in Israel. This nation functions as a humanity in minutiae, or microcosm. In other words, what is true about Israel in particular reflects what is true about humanity in general; that is, Israel typifies humanity. This also means that the glory, exaltation, and union with God promised to Israel belongs to all of humanity in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Typology (or intertextual analogy, Adam as Israel, Seth Postell) is the queen of biblical theology because typology is the language of uniformity. Typology is symbolic language but not symbolic in a fashion which is esoteric–only for those who select few. Many people discount typology because they get the sense that speaking this way about the Bible’s story makes it a text which is not accessible to all who read it. The conflict can be discerned in this way. Two readers are discussing their understanding of a passage of scripture. One believes the text says X, and the other thinks Y. The reader who thinks X does so because that’s what the Bible says. Reader #2 thinks the Bible says Y because he is aware that the Bible uses metaphor to say what it means. Therefore, Reader #1 discounts Reader #2 because R1 is not privy to the insight of R2 and this insight doesn’t fit into his schema of communication.
Some who read the Bible believe it should be read as if its message for the modern reader is precisely the same as that of the original culture and time wherein it was written . That is, a person reading the Bible in 2017 thinks the way he understands the words of the story is the exact same way the original audience understood them. The reader’s opinion of the Bible is that if it says “X,” and he understands “X” to mean “Y,” then that is also what the author of the text meant. This understanding is proven difficult to maintain because each and every other culture than the original culture wherein the Bible was written is not uniform. No culture anywhere in any time or place is exactly the same as those around it in time or space.
What this creates is an issue of authority. Does a modern culture’s mores and idiosyncrasies dictate what the meaning of the biblical text means? That would mean that every single culture throughout history determines the meaning of the text for that culture in that time and place. This is untenable; it cannot be maintained. If this were the case, then the paradigm would be broken down even further to include each and every individual because each and every individual reading the text would impose his worldview onto the interpretation of the story which would change with each person’s reading. No, the Bible is the sole authority over every other culture in time and space and it is the Bible alone which dictates its meaning to each and every culture who reads its story. That is, the meaning of a text holds the same meaning when originally written as it does when it is read however many years later.
Think of it this way. Suppose you came across a map of your state. Within that map are colors and codes which demarcate counties, cities, and rivers and mountains. There are dotted lines and dashes and each color represents something about the topography. Unless you have the legend to that map, those designations are going to be lost to you. To be sure, you will be able to grasp some of the information but much of it will be foreign. For instance, you might not know how interstates are different than rural roads; you might not know why one county is orange and another green. Nor would you actually think that each county is that color were you to visit it. But all of this assumes that you understand the nature of re-presentation. This is the same with the biblical text. If you do not know how to read its symbols, you will inevitably misread it.
Typological symbolism is a language and as a language it speaks and as it speaks it presents and re-presents its story in a framework of colourful depiction. One might wonder why not simply speak in a str8FWD manner? Why not just say what you mean so there’s no confusion. A glib answer might be, What fun is that? I mean, which is more romantic: I really like you, or My love is like a red, red rose?
Take, for example, Ps 23. The Psalmist sings, Yahweh is my shepherd… He very well could have merely quipped, Yahweh watches over me or Yahweh leads me or whatever else. Or consider this. In Ezekiel 28 we read, No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbors who are painful briers and sharp thorns. Why say briers and thorns when “hurtful and mean people” might just as well do? Or why not, “who are liars and murderers?” Why choose the abstract over the concrete? This might appear trite at first, but the point I’m making is this. Many are comfortable with Ps 23 being “abstract” because it is “poetry.” But what does this mean when you run into poetry within a narrative of prose? Metaphor is poetry and language utilizes metaphor and, so, language is poetry.
The point being made above will be clearer when we consider further what we read in Genesis 3. In Genesis 3 we read of the account of God’s word to 3 characters following a scene of deception, concession, and retribution. In God’s address to Man, he says, Regarding you, the ground is cursed and will yield to you thorns and thistles. In Ezekiel 28 thorns and briers are people who cause pain and inflict harm. In Genesis 3, as a result of Man’s transgression, thorns and thistles, harm and pain from neighbors results. The two passages are closely related and ought to inform our reading of the whole of scripture.
What follows below is a brief demonstration of the uniformity of language in the Bible. We are not attempting to interpret the meaning of these passages, but simply note that they utililse language which ought to give us pause and note that connection. Let us also consider then subsequent texts which employ this arboreal imagery for dramatic effect. First, let us consider Psalm 1:
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
3 He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
4 The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
6 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.
Notice the language of symbol and type. The righteous are healthy, vibrant, and fruitful trees while the wicked are dead, insubstantial, and barren chaff.
Or this passage from Judges 9:
Now when they told Jotham, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim, and lifted his voice and called out. Thus he said to them, “Listen to me, O men of Shechem, that God may listen to you. 8 Once the trees went forth to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us!’ 9 But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my fatness with which God and men are honored, and go to wave over the trees?’ 10 Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come, reign over us!’ 11 But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to wave over the trees?’ 12 Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come, reign over us!’ 13 But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my new wine, which cheers God and men, and go to wave over the trees?’ 14 Finally all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come, reign over us!’ 15 The bramble said to the trees, ‘If in [i]truth you are anointing me as king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, may fire come out from the bramble and consume the cedars of Lebanon.’
Note in this passage the arboreal imagery. The people are fruit trees and the king-to-be is a bramble.
And this obscure passage from Mark 8:
And they came to Bethsaida. And they brought a blind man to Jesus and implored Him to touch him. 23 Taking the blind man by the hand, He brought him out of the village; and after spitting on his eyes and laying His hands on him, He asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see men, like trees, walking around.” 25 Then again He laid His hands on his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and to see everything clearly. 26 And He sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”
Now, I say this is an obscure text because unless one reads with >.<, the reference to men as trees is strange. Why would anyone choose to describe men as walking trees unless one is familiar with that imagery and one is trying to make a point of remaining uniform with the story as a whole? While we might not be able to give a full answer or explanation for the meaning of this reference above in Mark, at least we are able to acknowledge its relationship to the whole. We might have to squint and squint and squint some more until the picture becomes clear but that is quite alright and more than acceptable.
Or from Daniel
a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it.
Again, let us ask the question to be answered, Why are these images of trees utilised? What is it within the culture of Israel that made these images typical and familiar?
Or from Ezekiel 31
In the eleventh year, in the third month, on the first of the month, the word of the Lord came to me saying, 2 “Son of man, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his hordes,
‘Whom are you like in your greatness?
3 ‘Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon
With beautiful branches and forest shade,
And very high,
And its top was among the clouds.
4 ‘The waters made it grow, the deep made it high.
With its rivers it continually extended all around its planting place,
And sent out its channels to all the trees of the field.
5 ‘Therefore its height was loftier than all the trees of the field
And its boughs became many and its branches long
Because of many waters as it spread them out.
6 ‘All the birds of the heavens nested in its boughs,
And under its branches all the beasts of the field gave birth,
And all great nations lived under its shade.
7 ‘So it was beautiful in its greatness, in the length of its branches;
For its roots extended to many waters.
8 ‘The cedars in God’s garden could not match it;
The cypresses could not compare with its boughs,
And the plane trees could not match its branches.
No tree in God’s garden could compare with it in its beauty.
9 ‘I made it beautiful with the multitude of its branches,
And all the trees of Eden, which were in the garden of God, were jealous of it.
10 ‘Therefore thus says the Lord God, “Because it is high in stature and has set its top among the clouds, and its heart is haughty in its loftiness, 11 therefore I will give it into the hand of a despot of the nations; he will thoroughly deal with it. According to its wickedness I have driven it away. 12 Alien tyrants of the nations have cut it down and left it; on the mountains and in all the valleys its branches have fallen and its boughs have been broken in all the ravines of the land. And all the peoples of the earth have gone down from its shade and left it. 13 On its ruin all the birds of the heavens will dwell, and all the beasts of the field will be on its fallen branches 14 so that all the trees by the waters may not be exalted in their stature, nor set their top among the clouds, nor their well-watered mighty ones stand erect in their height. For they have all been given over to death, to the land beneath, among the sons of men, with those who go down to the pit.”
Now, in this passage especially, we are given pause to consider. Let me ask you to consider these questions:
1. To what is Assyria compared?
2. If Assyria is compared thus, what might the “trees of the field” be?
3. If Assyria is compared thus, what might “the birds of heaven…and beasts of the field” be?
4. If Assyria is likened to a tree and the “garden of God” is referred to with cedars and cypresses and are say’d to be jealous, what might these trees be?
5. What if you knew that in Deuteronomy 32 in the prophecy of God’s ways with his people Israel, he warned Israel that he would bless the Gentiles in order to drive them to jealousy, that they might return to their God?
6. Does this imagery have anything to do with understanding Genesis 2? How so? If not, why not?