the deft deployment of metaphor and allegory
September 26, 2010 Leave a comment
Here is a passage from Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God discussing scriptural interpretation:
Ambiguity, selective retention, and misleading paraphrasal combine to give believers great influence on the meaning of their religion. But, for raw semantic power, none of these tools rivals the deft deployment of metaphor and allegory. In a single stroke, this can obliterate a text’s literal meaning and replace it with something radically different.
Thus, some twentieth-century Hindus, led by Gandhi, removed the barbaric air from the opening scene of the Bhagavad Gita, which shows the god Krishna encouraging believers to remorse-lessly slaughter an enemy even if it includes their kin. Actually, said Gandhi, this whole war scene was a metaphor for an internal war — the war against our darker side, the war to do our duty and live righteously. Similarly, some Muslims say the “struggle” signified by the word jihad should be thought of as an internal struggle, not a military struggle against infidels.
As for Philo: Remember that gruesome biblical scene in which a seemingly vengeful Yahweh drowns the Egyptian army in the Red Sea? Philo softens that episode by reading it as, fundamentally, a metaphysical allegory: bondage in Egypt represented a person’s enslavement to the impulses of the physical body, and escape from Egypt represented liberation, passage into the realm of spiritual guidance. In this light, Egyptians gasping for their final breaths become a metaphor for the end of the soul’s entrapment. According to Philo, when Exodus exults, “horse and rider he has thrown into the sea… the Lord is a warrior,” it is praising God for vanquishing the base appetites of the body. Philo isn’t saying that the story didn’t happen, but he seems to be suggesting that the main takeaway lesson is about inner transformation, not outward slaughter; about escaping animal impulses, not displaying them.