Friday, November 6, 2009

Confusing Conversations 7: Symbolism

This week I'm back in the pulpit, returning to the series on Genesis 1-3
One of the things that I've noticed as I've preached through the series is the rich depth of symbolism throughout the chapters.
I've noted in a previous post the symbolic imagery of the temple, certainly in Genesis 2-3, and possibly in Genesis 1. God is building for himself a tabernacle: this tabernacle is to be the source of all life within the cosmos, and as such functions as a miniature cosmos.
But the symbolism doesn't stop there.
This week, I'm preaching on Genesis 3:8-13. There are some points that are so deeply inlaid with symbolism, that I feel we end up missing something if we move from the rich language of the narrative and try to reduce it to an historical account: 'what it would have looked like if we had been there.'
Even translation of some of the phrases in 3:8-13 leaves you having to make hard choices that limit the symbolic richness of the passage.

e.g. 3:8. Here are some decisions that must be made in translation "And they heard the voice/sound of the Lord God['s] walking in the garden in the spirit/wind/cool/evening/early morning of the/that day. And the man and his wife hid themselves amoungst/between the tree(s) (singular but is plural signified, or just one tree? If just one, which tree was it? Was it the one they ate from or the one that would have given them life, or just one of the other trees that they were free to eat from?)of the garden."

If one says that this must be a straight historical narrative, the best way to understand the "voice" is that it is the sound of the Lord's walking: as it were, his footsteps among the fallen leaves. Hamilton translates it "rustling sound". But if one allows this to be a symbolically-laden retelling of a real event: one where the symbolism is so rich that one is not supposed to reconstruct the actual historical line of the event, where we are not supposed so much to picture it in every detail, but explore the theological significance of it all (rather like, as we said in a previous post a Judges 5 rather than Judges 4 type account) then we have no problem in understanding this as the very voice (word?) of God walking in the garden.

Another factor that has led me more towards such a reading are the many parallels between the opening chapters of Genesis and the book of Revelation. Revelation is without doubt the book of the New Testament with the richest and most frequent use of the Old Testament. (See Greg Beale's excellent introduction in the Revelation entry in the "Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament"). Much of the significance of the theology of Revelation is that the visions that I believe John truly saw, are written in language that picks up huge amounts of symbolism from the Old Testament. The symbolism then becomes the point. We are not somehow supposed to try to reconstruct the actual details of the visions, as if we need to know the exact visual experience of John. The symbolic narration of the visions is God's intention for us in the visions. But I'm seeing more and more similarities between the realities portrayed in Revelation and realities portrayed in the early chapters of Genesis.

There seem to be two approaches to the symbolism of Genesis 1-3.

First approach says, that unless the account is also historically accurate in every detail, the symbolism loses its significance. Historical truth is the truth that is being portrayed. If we cannot 'trust' the account in its historical details, how can we 'trust' the symbolism.

The second approach says, that for the purpose of symbolism that gives a trustworthy theological account of the real historical events, a trustworthy author might employ language to describe an event that is not strictly historically accurate. But that the way in which the symbolism is so clearly being employed means there is no deception; we are to trust the author because the symbolism takes us deeper into the theological realities of the situation than a straight historical account would be able to do. Judges 5 is in many ways theologically richer than Judges 4, yet necessarily less "realistic".

So, whatever your take on the literalism of Genesis 1-3, I urge you not to miss its symbolism, where much of the richness of the theology of the text will be found.

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