(Editor's Note: Special thanks to Morrison Lee for permission to repost his article here. We offer this material as a brief excercise in hermeneutic education which will greatly aid in the proper interpretation of Scripture. Enjoy!)
 
Prophet Land: Literalism vs. Semantics
by Morrison Lee
 

When I use a word,” said Humpty-Dumpty in a rather scornful tone, “It means just what I want it to mean – neither more nor less.” In this brief article I’d like to suggest another idea to those who say “the bible must be taken literally and only literally.” I’d like to begin with a parallel with Alice in Wonderland. It began when a seven year old girl peered at the mirror.

At and Into

When Alice peered at her looking glass she only saw herself, however when Alice stepped into the looking glass, she entered another world that ran completely counter to her natural understanding, a world of which she had no experience. It was a world of: bodiless cats, where hookah-smoking blue caterpillars gave advice and feisty eggs sat on walls, where rabbits checked watches, crazy hatters drank tea, people shrank and grew at will and playing cards played croquet - a magical world of logical and semantic nonsense, all of it conjured by a sublime Oxford mathematician.

The rules of the Game

The philosophers of language tell us that each language has its own rules, and that you cannot play another person’s language-game by imposing the rules from your own language – like you can’t play cricket according to the laws of baseball, nor chess by the laws of tennis. Making everything in the bible literal-to-yourself is like looking at yourself instead of stepping into the biblical looking glass. The problem of biblical literalism is that it outfits the prophets in the reader’s modern tasseled-loafers, instead of walking in their ancient, stringy, camel-hide sandals.

Counter Intuitive

The world of the biblical prophets is non-literal and counter-intuitive, because it does not conform to our modern literal intuitions of how things should operate. In our ordinary world our intuition informs us of what is ‘normal’ for words and ideas: we grow up with the rule for understanding patterns of meanings. Sure we can read much of the bible history and make sense of it, but then there are those crazy poetic and prophetic books that just don’t seem to fit – they seem to run counter to the way we perceive things to be. Prophet Land is very much like the wonderland of Alice, and understanding them begins by stepping into the looking glass. Here is the literalists’ worst nightmare. It is a nightmare because the literalist measures ancient, eastern, Hebrew experience by their own modern, western experience, and deny anything beyond their imagination as fiction. Are biblical meanings only literal-to-us? Let’s take a quick tour of Prophet Land.

Meanings Not Literal

In Prophet Land male ideas rule. Here men can be worms, creatures are not animals, and winds aren’t just air, but it is obvious for a priest to be a wall. It is a land with only six kinds of wheels, where above the clouds there is a garden, and clouds are dust, but chariots are also clouds. It is an ancient world which foretells of a super-highway from Egypt to Iran, but strangely no cars travel thereon. The prophets speak of kings as arms, kings as dust, foxes and craniums. Here the dead speak, an army of skeletons arise, and an entire nation is born in a single day. The prophetic world is a world without night, where men have no bodies and suckling babies teach wisdom before they learn language, while people are born in middleage, and ears are circumcised. In Prophet Land a sea can be; a city of many languages, life, evil, a judgment, the enemy, death, trials, wicked men, or a river, but it is impossible for the sea to be an ocean, while it is possible for men to be islands.

Laws of physics not followed

Here the literal laws of physics do not apply, and wheels within each other move in four directions without turning as they move, and in a time before airplanes, people crossed seas without a boat and without getting their feet wet, where unschooled whales act as delivery ferries for personnel, prophets walk over water like stone, and meat exists that is not from an animal, where water flows but not from springs, and cedar trees grow in desert places, and constellations are bound together with chains and cords.

Nature breaks patterns

In the Hebrew prophets the literal rules of instinct are suspended, and instead of babies women give birth to dust, while prey sleep blissfully with their natural predator the lion, and animals break the laws of speech and speak Hebrew freely, and instead of one head and two horns, beasts may have seven heads and ten horns.

Men as Vegetation

In Prophet Land men are spoken of as vegetation: men as branches, men as trees, men as fields of wheat, men as grass, men as seeds, and it is acceptable for men to become bread, but they should never become leaven.

Men as birds and Insects

In the prophets men are spoken of as birds both flying and nonflying: men as doves and men as ostriches without understanding, men as owls, and men as pelicans as well as carrion-feeding eagles and vultures. In this world ants don the instructional robes of teachers, and men multiply and devour like locusts and grasshoppers.

Terrestrial: Animate & inanimate

As animals - men as dogs, men as foxes, men as goats, men as lambs, men as lions, men as brute beasts, men as cattle and as vipers. In this wonderland of the imagination men are spoken of as terrestrial. Here men are high mountains, men as hills, men as valleys, men as stones, men as dust of the earth, and men as pits. Here men are spoken of as walls, men as doors, towers, men and nations as ships, but countries are women and there are no sons.

Aquatic

Here angry men are as violent as wild waves of the sea driven by the wind, and others as cunning and destructive as hidden reefs. Unfortunate are those fish caught in an evil net, and a poor spirit indeed is the spring without water.

Celestial

Men are spoken of as beings above the earth: good men as predictable and reliable, stable as fixed stars in the firmament, (we still use in the term ‘movie stars’ as high status) wicked men are as falling stars because they have lost their status, and humbled men are in the dust of the earth. Here unstable men wander as planets detached from the ordained paths of moral cause and effect, and empty men disappoint as clouds without rain.

Conclusion

Literalism - The doubting Thomas of literalism says biblical terms cannot be figurative, and yet the literature of Futurism cannot supply us with a uniformly-literal semantic base for biblical terms. For two thousand years a must-be-literal and-yet-future perspective of eschatology has cast a kind of mass hypnosis over humanity blinding us to the semantic relations that lie there. Literalism denies Prophet Land exists. The problem with literalism limits biblical meanings to its own small literal store. This prevents further investigation into an ancient, Eastern civilization that is as far removed from us as carts are from rockets. To use another metaphor, hobbles the investigator prior to investigation by demanding conformity without any authority. Where is the authority for 100% literalism? It is a philosophy of men. Futurism does not just impede semantic research into the bible, it outlaws semantic alternatives by dogma - O ye of little faith.

Rational Preterism - Conversely Rational Preterism uses an inductive methodology that looks to biblical use to determine biblical meaning: it measures the logical relations between the literal claims of Futurism against the logical relations that exist in the prophets. The above is a small sample is what happens when you step into the looking glass of the ancient Eastern prophets – when you take off your tasseled loafers and walk in their stringy, camel-hide sandals. Each of the above terms has a book-chapter-verse correspondence to scripture. (It is fun to see how many you recognize). Prophet Land is either a semanticist’s playground or a dogmatists’ worst nightmare, but all this imaginative diversity is meshed together as one single, giant, integrated and unified production of logical intelligence.

 

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"The Sea" by Morrison Lee

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