12:4:1 – The Nature of Allegory

brazen_seaReading through 2 Chronicles 4, one of the many details of the Temple’s construction stood out to me: the “sea”. It’s an odd sort of furnishing in the first place – tables, lampstands, those seem natural, but this huge chunk of bronze seems a little bit unusual. Then the numbers struck me. 12 bulls. Often 12 has something to do with the 12 tribes in the OT, so this made me pay attention. Then that they faced the four cardinal directions, something about the animals and the directions made me think of the book of revelation, angels holding back the four winds, oxen-faced cherubim, seas of glass around the throne – things like that. “One sea” (v.15) – it’s interesting to me that it’s numbered, not just “the sea” or “a sea”.

Long story short, I made an allegorical connection. The association occurred to me that the sea represents our “one baptism”. The oxen represent the twelve disciples/apostles of Christ, facing the four directions of the earth to bring it to all nations, from Jerusalem, as the Lord commanded.

I think I can defend this particular bit of allegory with Scripture, since we know from the NT that the elements of the house of God represent spiritual realities (Hebrews 9 comes immediately to mind). So it’s not a stretch to think that it means something more than a bunch of bronze cows (because ancient near-eastern people liked to decorate things with cows?) holding up a big bath for priests because, as we all know, cleanliness is next to godliness.

Even the “lily” shape of the rim lends itself to the allegory, since the Hebrew for lily (shushan) means “whiteness”, and the waters of baptism are to wash us white in the blood of the lamb. The sea was for the cleansing of the priests, and we are to be a kingdom of priests to our God. I found lots of little things that commended themselves to me as coherent symbols.

But then, that’s the problem with allegory; how do you prove beyond a doubt that your picture is right?  Some symbolic connections in the OT that wouldn’t jump out at most of us are revealed as allegory by the inspired writers – the story of Hagar/Ishmael Sarah/Isaac being the most obvious  (Gal 4:24).  Yet for the great mass of OT symbolism there’s no explicit NT exposition.  I’ve heard it suggested that we shouldn’t even try to find allegories beyond those the NT writers reveal.  I don’t buy that, since the section of Hebrews I appeal to above indicates that there is lots of untapped symbolism there, and the Scriptures were given us for edification and study.  But the question remains, how do you know you’re not just finding similarities that are incidental but unintended? And what about details that remain puzzling, like the cast mass of gourds around the sea? I have a hard time thinking of a spiritual significance for gourds. I mean, a valid one; it’s easy enough to conjure up connections off the cuff: “gourds are used to hold water, thence they are symbolic for the baptized bringing the water of life to the nations” there, I just made that up. But it’s not very satisfying. I don’t know how much if at all gourds were used to carry water in the ANE (ancient Near East), and the cast gourds aren’t spoken of as being meant to carry water. There’s more to a valid allegory than finding connections.

So, I acknowledge there are reasons to doubt any given allegorical interpretation. Even one of the historical figures criticized for his allegorical bent, Augustine, acknowledges this. In his “City of God” (book 15, chapter 26) he details his Christological allegory of the ark, but then acknowledges it may not satisfy all and opens up the field for others to make one better.  He gives some alternate explanations he’s heard from others, and staunchly maintains that all those details weren’t put in there for nothing. This is the word of God meant for us. Sure it’s history, but it must mean something beyond just being a big boat to rescue folks from the flood. Something for us. Something about Christ. So figure out some allegory, and as long as it’s not ridiculous and fits with the central truths of the Christian faith, then more power to you. It may not even be correct, it may give way to a better one, but at least it’ll be edifying.

Not to say that all interpretations are equally valid, not at all. Just as in science, there can be multiple hypotheses that account for the data, and they must be judged by how well they account for it. Yet the impulse to discover spiritual meanings to OT details is not, I think, a bad impulse. If there is an intended symbolism in the detailed descriptions of the Scriptures (and it seems very plain that there is) we shouldn’t shy from attempting to make something of it. Not all symbols are equally difficult, some seem to me to be nigh undeniable (the “scapegoat” for instance). Some we’ll have to work harder for.  And when we find one that strikes us as valid, we may have to hold to it with an open hand as Augustine advised. But we shouldn’t abandon the quest just because it involves uncertainty.

In a practical age, it will probably be asked “what good are allegories?”  To which I respond by asking you to meditate on a line from the hymn “This is my Father’s World”:
“This is my father’s world, He shines in all that’s fair, in the rustling grass I can hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere”
If God can speak to us and reveal his beauty and presence in wind blowing through the grass, in the details of creation, how is it so remarkable that he would do the same in the pages of the writings handed down to us from the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles as the word of God?

So there you have it. Four directions, one baptism, 12 bulls to bear the message of cleansing and rebirth. “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The global purposes of God and the mission of his servants.  If nothing else, I hope that next time you read through Chronicles, those realities come to mind.

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