Volume Three: Living Symbols
It’s just “stuff”—the ordinary things that populate and permeate our daily lives. As counterintuitive as it may seem, Yahweh has chosen to communicate with mankind by investing with spiritual significance the most mundane bits and pieces of our days. He speaks to us not through His own glory, as we might expect, but through the matrix of our mortal existence, the components of our collective human consciousness. Anyone can understand His message, for it’s communicated through the simplest things imaginable—it’s so simple, in fact, that most of us miss it altogether out of sheer over-familiarity.
People usually notice what seems out of place, not those things they expect to see every day of their lives. Contrast—as we saw in the previous volume—is a natural teaching tool because it’s easier to spot differences than stand-alone concepts. But God wants His truth to be common and ordinary, as ubiquitous as the air we breathe or the ground beneath our feet—not “special,” something reserved for extraordinary occasions or relegated to times of great joy or deep sorrow. In Yahweh’s economy, breakfast is a perfectly good reason to give thanks for His greatness. Tuesday is cause enough for rejoicing. The gravity that prevents us from floating off into space is but one of a million ordinary things that ought to remind us of God’s constant provision.
That’s why Moses said, “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one. You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) Yahweh wanted His presence to be perceived and acknowledged by everybody, everywhere, all the time. So it should come as no surprise that the symbols through which He chose to reveal Himself would be ubiquitous in the corporate experience of man. These metaphors pop up everywhere. They are calculated to remind us that Yahweh, the one true God, is Love personified. It is therefore only natural that we should love Him in return with a whole heart and revere Him without reservation.
The wisdom of this method of communication can be lost on us, of course, if we fail to perceive our proper place in God’s plan. Why are we even here? Consider the alternative “explanations” held dear by so many of our fellow humans. Some, for instance, would say that there is no God, that He doesn’t exist—that we and our world are all just the product of an endless string of fortuitous cosmic events, one happy accident after another in an implausible unbroken chain stretching back to the dawn of time. (The fact that there was a dawn of time some 13.7 billion years ago argues forcefully against this scenario: it makes the math impossible.) Such people would opine that conscience and faith are actually just devices society has invented to prevent itself from self-destructing—or worse, the result of random genetic mutations in our common DNA. Taken to its logical end, this view demands that anything that doesn’t promote the survival or short-term gratification of the strongest individual members of society is antithetical to the overall goal of advancing the species. The fittest must survive, while mercy or altruism shown to those less fit only weakens the gene pool. (The “fit,” of course, are defined as “anyone who agrees with them.”) We should note, however, that the very God whose existence these people deny calls them “fools.” Considering the evidence, I’m willing to take His word for it.
Others would reason that although a Creator-God may exist, He surely must be so far above puny humanity that we can be only barely aware of each others’ existence. We must therefore work very hard to impress Him, to appease Him, to bow in obsequious obeisance before Him. In what has to be the most illogical course of action ever pursued by man, these people ignore what this God actually said about Himself, and instead redefine or reinvent Him in an image more in line with their own preconceived expectations. One example among many: some conclude that His name (if He has one) must be “ineffable,” making it blasphemy to even utter it. So forget the fact that this name (Yahweh) is written some seven thousand times in His own scriptures: these “deep thinkers” revere it into oblivion by refusing to use it, going so far as translating it out of existence (in English, anyway) in the very document that purports to reveal Him. This whole insane process is known as “religion.”
The danger with religion (as a concept) is that it all too often masquerades as—and competes with—the very spiritual entity it purports to represent. I’m not condemning any particular religion here with an eye toward supporting its rival, you understand. I’m tarring everybody with the same brush. Religion, in the end, is the method humanity has invented in order to reach out to God. Most people would ask, “What’s wrong with that?” It’s simply this: religion’s starting point is man: it’s what we believe, based on what we have determined to be true about God, affecting our behavior and defining our rituals. But that’s completely backward: in reality, it is God who reaches out to us, making all these subsequent things His prerogative, not ours.
Think of our world as a laboratory: the microorganisms being studied (us) can’t really comprehend the scientist (God), the microscope, or even the petri dish—it’s up to the scientist to approach them. It doesn’t matter what the microbe “thinks.” It just isn’t equipped to contemplate the big picture. Yet one dictionary defines religion as “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs; a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.” The germs, in other words, have laid claim to the lab.
You may protest, however, that parts of the Bible certainly make it look as if “religion” is God’s modus operandi. The Book of Leviticus, in particular, is replete with rituals, rules, prohibitions, moral guidelines, and instructions concerning classes of people (priests and Levites) who were set apart from everybody else in order to perform complicated religious-style rites. The Book of Exodus goes into great detail describing an elaborate tent the Israelites were to use when worshiping their God—a structure that would, with its furnishings and appurtenances, provide the template for a future “permanent” temple. Naturally, most of us look at all this and wonder: what’s the difference? The Jews have their rules, traditions, and places of worship, and the Christians have theirs, as do the Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Animists, etc.—even atheist secular humanists. Man, it would seem, is a very religious creature, even when he’s not.
Let’s take the issue of worship venues as an example. Is there really any fundamental difference between a Muslim mosque with its qiblah facing Mecca, a traditional cruciform Christian church with its nave, narthex, baptistery, and altar, a Hindu temple with a beehive-shaped sikhara, or a Jewish synagogue with its ark containing the Torah scrolls? No, not really, because they share one thing in common: they are all the inventions of the people who worship there. Their architectural features and modes of worship all stem from what man thinks would be an appropriate setting in which to approach his God.
There is but one exception to this rule: the wilderness tabernacle (and the temple later based upon it) stands alone in this regard, for its design, service, construction, and even dimensions were specified by Yahweh Himself. The Israelite ex-slaves didn’t get together and say, “This God who brought us out of bondage in Egypt is obviously very powerful, so let’s design ourselves a portable worship center, appoint a bunch of priests, and invent some rituals so He’ll know whose side we’re on.” Quite the contrary. They had no idea what to do. All they knew for sure during those first few months of freedom (when they were receiving the instructions) was “follow the pillar of cloud and you’ll be okay.”
Not even Moses could be credited with designing the tabernacle. He was told what to do by Yahweh Himself, who summoned him to the top of Mount Horeb under conditions so terrifying, the Israelites were perfectly happy to let Moses intercede for them: “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of Him may be before you, that you may not sin.’ The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:18-21) And there, amid all the lightning and smoke, Yahweh Himself showed Moses precisely what He wanted the Israelites to do.
After specifying what building materials would be required for the tabernacle, and then giving the people an opportunity to voluntarily respond to the need, God told Moses, “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.” (Exodus 25:8-9) This instruction is absolutely unique in the annals of “religious architecture.” Nowhere else is God purported to have said, “Build My house exactly like this.” From the Tower of Babel to the Crystal Cathedral, our religious edifices are invariably as magnificent and impressive as we can afford to make them. When the resources are available, the architectural expression of our religious thought tends to end up looking like the Acropolis, the Vatican, or maybe the Ka’aba: huge spaces and magnificent buildings, impressive on the outside and opulent on the inside. But what did Yahweh’s tabernacle look like? From the outside, it looked like a smallish gray rectangular box, about fifteen feet wide, fifteen feet tall, and forty-five feet long. It looked more like a single-wide mobile home, or maybe a shipping container, than something you’d envision for the earthly abode of Almighty God. It was dazzling on the inside to be sure, but only a handful of anointed priests were ever allowed to go in there. Even the courtyard surrounding it was unassuming—a space about the size of a modest suburban lot, 150 feet long by 75 wide, enclosed by a flimsy seven-foot-tall linen curtain. Saint Peter’s square it was not.
In a future chapter, we’ll discuss in detail what the tabernacle, its layout, and furnishings meant. It obviously wasn’t designed to impress anyone. (If we wanted to be impressed by God’s glory, we could simply look up at the Milky Way galaxy streaking across the night sky. Nothing we could build would ever compete with that.) Rather, the tabernacle was constructed to teach us: every specification, dimension, material, position, and function was calculated to inform us about some facet of Yahweh’s plan for mankind’s redemption and restoration—in terms that anyone, from any era or culture, could comprehend.
And what of the temple that replaced the old tabernacle? I found it fascinating that Yahweh never commanded that a temple be built at all. He merely allowed it because it was David’s heartfelt wish, the outcome of his unflagging devotion and lifelong desire to honor Yahweh. Israel under King David had been blessed materially—far in excess of what the tribes of the exodus had to offer—so the scale and opulence of the new temple would reflect these blessings. Put in terms we can comprehend today, David provided his son Solomon with an enormous treasury of raw materials: 9.6 million ounces of gold and 20.4 million ounces of silver (and that’s using the conservative conversion equivalent of 75 pounds of metal per talent; it could have been as high as 90), in addition to all the bronze, iron, and other materials that were donated. But the plan—what the building’s architecture meant—had been established by Yahweh Himself. Upon explaining the details of the plan to his son Solomon, David cautioned him, saying, “All this He made clear to me in writing from the hand of Yahweh, all the work to be done according to the plan.” (I Chronicles 28:19) We aren’t told whether this was a fresh written revelation from the hand of God or “merely” a reference to the Torah’s instructions concerning the tabernacle, but from what we know of Solomon’s temple, its design was basically a scaled-up version of the original sanctuary. The story it tells remains the same: a story of atonement, cleansing, illumination, provision, communication, and intimate fellowship with our God.
Whatever “religion” we perceive in the Torah, then, is an illusion. Its rites, rules, and appurtenances were specified by Yahweh, not invented by His followers. They are intended not to impress us, force our submission, or intimidate us into compliance, but to teach us about Him and His plan for our restoration. They are an invitation, not an ultimatum; a path, not a destination.
These precepts are, in a way, like a language or code through which Yahweh communicates to us. If we understand what the “words” mean, we will be in a position to hear and heed what God is telling us, no matter what human dialect we speak or what age or culture we inhabit. We’ve already seen how God presents His own character in terms that are (or at least can be) universally understood by mortal man: light, air, food, and water. We’ve learned that He appeals to us through such uniquely “human” concepts as communication, family relationships, refuge, and strength. We’ve explored the sweeping panorama of God’s plan—His inexorable will moving us from nothing to something, from lost to found, from limited to infinite, from temporary to permanent.
Now, as we begin to home in on the specifics of God’s “lexicon,” we’ll see the trend continued. This “vocabulary” Yahweh has opted to employ is about as far removed from religion as it’s possible to be. Religion endeavors to present God as special, distant, awesome, mysterious, and unapproachable—because He is, from our perspective. So it may come as something of an epiphany to discover that God doesn’t portray Himself that way at all. The symbols and metaphors through which Yahweh has chosen to reveal Himself and His plan to us are the most common and mundane of things—things we encounter on a daily basis.
So yes, He’s “special,” but at the same time, He wants to be the central essence or our existence, the very matrix in which our lives are lived out, not something added onto the periphery. (Look at it this way: if Yahweh were a cupcake, He’d be the flour and sugar, not the sprinkles on top.) Yes, He’s “distant,” for He cannot be contained within the universe in which we live, and yet He desires intimate association with us, dwelling within our very souls, becoming our quickening force, our raison d’être. Yes, He’s “awesome,” a Supreme Being rightly to be feared, respected, and taken more seriously than anything else we can imagine, but at the same time, He craves a sweet familial relationship with us, as a father and mother do with their infant child. Yes, He’s “mysterious,” yet He has gone far out of His way to teach us who He is, what He’s like, and how much He loves us. And yes, He’s “unapproachable,” but only because He is holy, while we are fallen, imperfect creatures. But He has proposed a plan whereby we can approach Him, a plan in which we can assume His holiness, be clothed in His righteousness, and attain His perfection. Though it is impossible for us (as strangers) to acquire these things, Yahweh has made it possible for us (as His children) to receive them: they are a gift, not a goal—an inheritance, not income earned for a job well done. Consider this: the president of the United States may be the “most powerful man on earth,” but somebody calls him “daddy.” With him, as with God, intimate accessibility is a question of relationship, not relative merit.
God’s vocabulary, these “words” through which He communicates His essence and intent to us, are not abstract psychological constructs accessible only to religious cognoscenti. They are, rather, the very warp and woof of the fabric of everybody’s daily lives. Yahweh’s symbols are the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the places we live, and the creatures with whom we share the world—all of which He invests with symbolic significance in order to teach us indelible lessons about His own character. He speaks to us through the relationships we share, the institutions in which we participate, and the forces of nature that He Himself put into place—the raw materials of our mortal experience. Even when He employs ritual observances to teach us, they’re invariably meant for “dramatic effect,” like a game of charades in which we are asked to act out in pantomime the things God wants us to know about His plan.
If this all seems reasonable and intuitive (which it is), then ask yourself why the religions of man invariably resort to obtuse theological mumbo-jumbo instead. They routinely ask us to embrace concepts that make no real sense in any language. I’ll mention a few examples to make my point, but bear in mind that the insanity of man’s religious invention goes far deeper than this cursory list:
Let’s start close to home with the religion of Christianity (not to be confused with the simple relationship with Yahweh, through Yahshua, that goes by the same name). We’re first asked to believe that God is a trinity—three divine persons with one essence. Never mind the fact that Yahweh (invariably misidentified as “the Lord”) never described Himself this way; “three persons with one essence” doesn’t mean anything. It’s theological gibberish. (See Volume I, Chapter 2, for what He did say: Yahweh is One, and He manifests Himself to men using six distinct forms or manifestations, depending on what He’s trying to achieve in our lives.)
Or consider this: the largest branch of the religion of Christianity (Roman Catholicism) teaches that during the simple, symbolic memorial meal commonly known as “communion” or the “Eucharist,” something called “transubstantiation” takes place, in which the bread and wine are said to literally become the body and blood of Christ, even though all that’s accessible to the senses (or scientific enquiry) remains as it was. I’ve got no problem with miracles, you understand (like the virgin birth or the resurrection of Christ), but I’ve got a big problem with nonsense. Miracles not only have to have an objective reality; in God’s world, they invariably have a point, one consistent with God’s character and revealed word. Logically, they can’t just be “declared to be true” despite all empirical evidence to the contrary. The idea of transubstantiation, of course, is a transparent attempt to make human works—administered by a manmade religious institution—the basis for salvation: if “the Church” is in charge of who may (or more to the point, may not) “eat the body and drink the blood” of Christ (see John 6:54), then they—not God—hold the keys to eternal life and everlasting damnation. This is but one of many “Christian myths” that exist only in the minds of inventive theologians (or covetous clerics) with no earthly idea of how God communicates, what He said, or why He said it. Our systematic study of Yahweh’s symbols will hopefully sort out many of these misconceptions.
Our brothers the religious Jews speak their own dialect of gibberish. While both Christianity and Judaism profess to count the Tanach, or Old Testament, among their scriptures, they are in radical disagreement as to what it—and especially the Torah—says and means. Christians who study the Torah (alas, a tiny minority) see a reflection of Yahshua the Messiah in every precept. But the Jews (who since the days of Rabbi Akiba have been defined, as much as anything else, by their rejection of Yahshua) search in vain for alternate explanations. It’s like trying to define “up” if you don’t believe in gravity.
So they appeal to both a written Law (one they don’t keep because it can’t be kept) and a parallel “oral Law.” This oral Torah, which is supposed to explain the written Law, was supposedly delivered to the elders of Israel at the time of Moses. It is said to have been transmitted entirely by word of mouth for over fifteen hundred years before it was finally committed to parchment (as the Mishnah—all 63 tractates, 525 chapters of it) a component of the even more ponderous Talmud (a “document” that consumes twenty-two fat volumes in English). Never mind the fact that the oral Law is far more lengthy and complicated that the written Law we find in our Bibles, making it (admit it, guys) impossible to transmit from memory; it often flatly contradicts both itself and the Torah it purports to explain. Rabbinical Judaism might have been able to make a plausible pretense of holding this house of cards together as long as they had the Sanhedrin to help them “teach as doctrine the commandments of men,” and “make void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down,” as Yahshua angrily put it. But the Sanhedrin was toothless after the 70 AD sack of Jerusalem, was reduced to the status of a rabbinical rubber stamp by 200, and made its final “binding” pronouncement in 358, making even the written version of the oral law something of a bad joke today—a sad and irrelevant anachronism. Meanwhile, the written Torah lives and breathes, as fresh and timely today as the day it was delivered to Moses amid fire and smoke atop Mount Horeb—if you understand its role in revealing Yahweh’s coming Messiah.
What about less familiar religions, those with no Judeo-Christian bloodline? Hinduism employs an inventive and complex system that can apparently be made to mean virtually anything you want it to mean—meaning that in the end, it means nothing at all. They have a “Supreme Being,” called the Brahman (to whom nobody seems to pay much attention) surrounded by three hundred thirty-three million “gods”—take your pick. I don’t think Yahweh is listed among them, nor would He want to be, I’m guessing. The Hindu religion is peppered with positively ingenious gobbledygook that sounds profound and pious rolling off the tongue. But it can’t be tested, can’t be falsified, and can’t be of assistance to anyone seeking real answers in the real world: it’s human wisdom at its most eloquent—and least practical.
Open the literature anywhere and you can find absolute nonsense, esoteric and incomprehensible ramblings passing for “deep thought.” For example, Vivekananda states that “Reality or Brahman is a unity, oneness or absolute, changeless, eternal, and such that no predicates can apply to it: in the Absolute there is neither time, space nor causation. The idea of time cannot be there, seeing that there is no mind, no thought. The idea of space cannot be there, seeing that there is no eternal change. What you call motion and causation cannot exist where there is only one.” It’s almost as if they’re trying to equate the Brahman with Yahweh, in that nothing and no one would exist without His direct volition. But if that is the case, why in the world would you not worship this Supreme Being exclusively? At its core then, Hinduism is a purposeful, systematic violation of Yahweh’s first and second Commandments: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you…out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God.” (Exodus 20:2-5)
Buddhism is a spin-off of Hinduism, sort of like the religion of Christianity is a spin-off of Judaism. At the risk of sounding unkind, it seems to me that they like the idea of incomprehensible Hindu philosophical gibberish, but all that devotion to the gods, not so much. Collinson writes: “Buddhist philosophy appears to recognize the impermanence of the Self (contrary to Hindu thought). In Hinduism the bliss of nirvana is broadly conceived of as a state of total union with Brahman, the ultimate and absolute Reality of the universe, in which individuality is completely abolished. Buddhist doctrine differs from this in some important respects. For one thing, it does not assert the existence of Brahman as the unifying and ultimate power of the universe. It also rejects the concept of the individual immortal soul. It maintains that the empirical personality consists of five kinds of entity, or skandha—body, feelings, desires, mental conceptions, and pure consciousness—but that none of these is permanent and so cannot constitute anything that could be understood as soul. Accordingly, Buddhism concludes there is an empirical personality that has a psychic or mental aspect, but it finds no reason to affirm the existence of an enduring soul capable of finding eternal salvation through absorption into the Brahmanic absolute.”
Well, I’m certainly glad we got that cleared up. In case you’ve lost your bearings in this sea of silliness, we’re talking about the difference between the way Yahweh communicates—through symbols and metaphors drawn from the most common experiences of man, invested with significant truth, and used as parables or teaching aids for our ultimate good—and the way man expresses religious thought—through esoteric, incomprehensible claptrap with little or no practical value.
I’ll hit (and I do mean hit) one more of these manmade religious constructs before moving on. But be aware that every religion on earth—every scheme invented by man in order to attain God (or so they’d have us believe)—eventually devolves into this sort of ridiculously impenetrable balderdash. In the end, it’s all style and no substance—as they’d say in Texas, all hat and no cattle.
Islam is perhaps the dumbest religion of them all, though it’s one of the most successful political doctrines of all time, due to its proven ability to enslave people through religious intimidation. (As Muhammad once said, “He who fears will mind.”) It claims to be monotheistic, but it is a direct descendant of sixth-century Arabian pagan culture: each of the gods (yes, that’s plural) it has embraced at one time or another was once a constituent of a pagan pantheon. It claims the Qur’an to be the very word of their god, Allah, but the book is a literary disaster, a disorganized and contradictory rant that was supposedly “transmitted” to Muhammad via the “ringing of a bell” in his mind, which he interpreted into “scripture,” though he was illiterate.
Islamic religious rules and requirements (their “pillars”) are derived not from the Qur’an, but solely from the teachings of Muhammad (recorded in the Hadith, or “Sayings of the Prophet,” recorded by al-Bukhari and others), and his biographies (the Sunnah, or “example,” of the Prophet), compiled centuries after his death by Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Hisham, and al-Tabari. The Hadith and Sunnah, though they often present Allah’s Messenger in an extraordinarily unbecoming light (by Judeo-Christian standards, anyway), are essential to Islam because the Qur’an is incomprehensible without the background, commentary, and timeline they provide. In fact, Islamic Sharia law (with the notable exception of Jihad—“holy war”) has no basis at all in the Qur’an without the support it derives from Muhammad’s recorded words and deeds. But those very records unapologetically portray Islam’s prophet as a money-grubbing pirate, a brutal and insecure womanizer, a serial kidnapper and rapist, and—according to his own assessment—a demon possessed pedophile.
A murderous gangster like this is hardly the sort of fellow you might expect to be the founder of a great religion, you say. Well, it depends on how you define “religion.” Some snippets on the subject from the Qur’an: “Lo! Religion with Allah is surrender.” (Qur’an 3:19) “Say: ‘What! Will you instruct Allah about your religion?’ They impress you (Muhammad) that they have surrendered. Say, ‘Count not your surrender as a favor to me: Nay, Allah lays you under an obligation.’” (Qur’an 49:16) “And fight with them until there is no more persecution, and religion should be only for Allah; but if they desist, then surely Allah sees what they do.” (Qur’an 8:39) I must admit: Islam may be evil, but at least it’s “up front” with us. This religion states blatantly that its sole purpose is to subjugate you, enslave you, force you to surrender, make you submit and pay taxes to Allah and his messenger. The very word “Islam” means submission. Allah demands that everyone bow to him in obsequious obeisance five times a day. (Actually, the Hadith of al-Bukhari reports that Allah originally demanded fifty prostrations a day, but Muhammad, peace be upon him, negotiated it down to five. Well, what’s a prophet for, anyway?)
All anybody in the west seems to “know” about Islam is that it’s a “religion of peace,” and the only sure way to reach paradise is to get yourself martyred killing infidels. The only way to reconcile these two blatantly contradictory things, of course, is to redefine “peace” as the state that will only exist when everybody has either been killed or has been forced to submit and pay taxes to Islam. It’s the polar opposite of what a Jew would call shalom.
And what is paradise? In Judaism, it’s being comforted after death in a place called “Abraham’s bosom.” Hindus picture it as nirvana—a state of oneness with the universe, a.k.a., nothingness—escape from the endless cycle of reincarnation. Christians see it as spending blissful eternity in the presence of their God and Savior (though religious Christians tend to stop somewhat short of that, fixating on “mansions in glory” and “streets of gold”). But for Muslims, it’s an endless orgy with seventy-two doe-eyed sex-starved virgins, rivers of wine, and low hanging fruit. Sorry, ladies: nothing for you. Allah is nowhere to be found: he’s in hell, gleefully turning the spit upon which the infidels (whom he personally predestined to go there) are being roasted alive forever. Nice.
The seventy-two virgins thing isn’t really a well established doctrine in Islamic scripture, by the way. It’s an extrapolation, a deduction. It has to be pried out with a crowbar, lubricant, and lots of wishful thinking (sort of like purgatory is for Catholics). But the mullahs and imams find it oh-so-helpful in whipping frustrated young Muslim males into a state of suicidal religious fervor. The Hadith does state, however, that the maximum capacity of paradise is 70,000 souls. This probably sounded like a lot to Muhammad, but considering how many Muslims have walked the earth since the seventh century, it means that your chances of getting in are less than 1 in 40,000—and that’s if you’re a Muslim!
My point is not that Islam is a positively goofy religion (which it is). My point is that Islam, like all religions, is doomed to failure because it begins with a faulty premise—that man can reach God, whether through devotion, sacrifice, obedience, submission, ritual, or intellect; in short, that man can unilaterally define who God is and determine what He wants. Even the religion of atheism—secular humanism—falls into the same trap, teaching as established doctrine that man can rid himself of God by simply denying His existence (or even more foolishly, declaring himself to be the supreme entity in the universe). But man cannot appeal to God under his own power or intellect any more than a paramecium under a microscope can reach out to the scientist observing it.
No, if God and man are going to communicate, it will have to be on God’s terms, at His instigation, and in His language. We humans—driven by our universal inner craving for the divine presence—are usually so busy talking about God we forget to listen to Him. We’re so intent on looking for God (in all the wrong places), we fail to perceive Him—right where He said He’d be. We say we want to feel God’s presence, but then we insulate ourselves from Him with layer upon layer of worldly “padding”—distractions, amusements, mind-dulling noise, and non-essential “essentials.” Yahweh, meanwhile, keeps telling us (in so many words), You won’t find me in philosophical rhetoric, theological obfuscation, or religious oppression. Look around you: I have revealed Myself in and through My creation—life and death, light and darkness, food and drink, clothing and shelter, relationships and institutions. I speak in terms even a small child can understand, using examples, metaphors, parables, and proverbs.
The Psalmist Asaph reports, “Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of Yahweh, and His might, and the wonders that He has done.” (Psalm 78:1-4) There are several things worth noting here: (1) God’s message is not mysterious, hidden, or reserved for the elite; it is something He teaches to everyone willing to learn, asking us simply to hear and heed His word. (2) His truth is delivered in the form of parables or “dark sayings,” not decrees and ultimatums—even when He is instructing us. The point is free will: we are expected to use our senses—to follow the obvious clues He has left us—and make informed choices based on what we have learned. (3) These truths have been proclaimed and recognized from the beginning—our fathers knew them and taught them to us, as we are supposed to pass them on to our children in turn. And (4) Yahweh asks us to take nothing on faith (in the sense of blind, unreasonable belief), but rather to base our convictions on the record of His previous deeds, His proven character. He has demonstrated His power and love in the past; He can be expected to keep His promises in the future.
Another Psalm reveals a bit more about how Yahweh communicates: “Hear this, all peoples! Give ear, all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together! My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding. I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the lyre.” (Psalm 49:1-4) First, note that everyone, not just Israel, or the priestly class, or the privileged, but everybody is the intended audience of Yahweh’s voice. Second, he who speaks with wisdom and understanding (as we learn elsewhere) is, by definition, the one who reveres Yahweh. It has nothing to do with being intelligent, clever, or educated. A high IQ is merely a gift from Yahweh (and one the lucky recipient would be well advised to use in the service of the Kingdom of God). Wisdom, on the other hand, is what flows naturally from a mind in sync with Yahweh’s. And it is this wisdom, this understanding, that allows the child of God to comprehend His proverbs and riddles, these parables with which Yahweh communicates, while the merely “smart” person is often left dumbfounded.
An example of this principle is found in Ezekiel 17, where Yahweh instructs His prophet to pose a riddle to the people of Israel. “The word of Yahweh came to me: Son of man, propound a riddle, and speak a parable to the house of Israel.” Solving a riddle requires insight into what its symbols mean. A parable draws a comparison between what is already known and the intended lesson. “Say, thus says the Lord Yahweh: A great eagle with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colors, came to Lebanon…” (Ezekiel 17:1-3) What follows is a complicated and colorful story ostensibly about what the eagle did and what happened as a result. But everybody knew it wasn’t really about a literal eagle. It was a parable: they were supposed to figure out from the symbols what the prophet was predicting.
In this case, Yahweh Himself provided the solution to the riddle, the interpretation to the parable, right there and then: “Then the word of Yahweh came to me: Say now to the rebellious house, Do you not know what these things mean? Tell them, behold, the king of Babylon came to Jerusalem, and took her king and her princes and brought them to him to Babylon….” (Ezekiel 17:11-12) The “eagle” turned out to be Nebuchadnezzar. It’s not my purpose to dissect the entire parable here; I merely want to point out that every feature of the riddle had a counterpart in the life of Israel. What the eagle did in the riddle had prophetic ramifications for Ezekiel’s immediate audience, though they were in a state of denial and didn’t want to hear it. But beyond the mere correlation of story components, there was a moral or spiritual lesson attached to each one of them. Notice that the eagle went to “Lebanon,” but Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem. The point is that Lebanon (with its snow-capped mountains and tall, stately cedars) is Yahweh’s “code word” or symbol for pride—something for which the inhabitants of Jerusalem were being judged—through Yahweh’s unwitting emissary, Nebuchadnezzar.
If we don’t take time to examine and contemplate these “code words,” we will risk missing the real point of what Yahweh is trying to tell us. But if that’s the case (you ask), why doesn’t Yahweh simply tell us what He’s thinking, straight out? Don’t be arrogant, people! Actually, He does that too. But there’s something about figuring it our yourself—about seeing the “light bulb” turn on—that makes a deeper impression and brings a degree of clarity to the situation that we wouldn’t otherwise have. One example: David may have felt a few “guilt pangs” over the Bathsheba affair, but he didn’t really come to grips with the heinous nature of his crime until he was told a parable by the prophet Nathan (II Samuel 12). When his own sin was described in indirect third-party terms, David became understandably enraged at the guilty party, but the “light bulb” didn’t really go on until Nathan told him, “You are the man.”
There are often times in scripture where the meaning of the parable was left a mystery, to some of its hearers, anyway. Yahshua told quite a few parables that He didn’t explain to the multitudes, but only to His disciples: “When He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parables. And He said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that “They may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven....”’” He was quoting Yahweh’s instructions to the prophet Isaiah here (Isaiah 6:9-10), the point being that in order for the truth to set you free, you have to be willing to listen to it, to heed it, to take it to heart. Neither Isaiah’s audience nor Yahshua’s (for the most part) were willing to do this. They just wanted their religion, their illusion. They hadn’t been receptive to the symbols of the Torah—all of which pointed toward Him—so they would be presented with questions, not answers: “With many such parables He spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to His own disciples He explained everything.” (Mark 4:10-12, 33-34)
Yahshua once compared “getting it”—coming to understand the symbols and metaphors of Yahweh—to the ordeal of childbirth. (Note how He resorted to parables even when He was explaining how parables work.) The mom-to-be endures pain and sorrow, but only temporarily: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you….” He’s referring, of course, to His impending crucifixion—the atoning sacrifice that would finally explain every blood sacrifice in the Torah, showing them for what they were all along: parables meant to teach us of the unfathomable love of God, a love so great that He would lay down His own perfect and innocent life that we, the guilty, might live. The disciples’ emotional agony during Christ’s sojourn in the tomb is likened to the woman’s labor, which is promptly forgotten amid the joy of holding her newborn. It’s a picture of our response to the resurrection.
“In that day you will ask nothing of Me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” The point (I think) is that Yahshua’s impending resurrection would demonstrate—to an extent not yet realized by the disciples—that Yahshua actually was God in the flesh. He wasn’t merely a prophet, an anointed rabbi, or the founder of a new sect. A devout Jew wouldn’t dream of praying to Yahweh in the name of Isaiah or Moses—mere men. And up until now, the disciples had a rather fuzzy conception of Yahshua’s actual identity. He is intimating something quite profound here: I am about to demonstrate, by rising from the dead under my own power, that My whole human persona has been a parable, a device designed to teach you what Yahweh your God is really like. But you will soon witness the plain truth of the matter: I Am Yahweh in flesh—you may pray to Me as you do to Him, for I and the Father are One. “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father. In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father….” Having been instructed to pray, “Our Father…may Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we couldn’t really pray in Yahshua’s name unless we understood—viscerally and experientially—that Yahshua and the Father were actually one entity, that they bore the same identity, that they were the same person—Almighty God.
“His disciples said, ‘Ah, now You are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech! Now we know that You know all things and do not need anyone to question You; this is why we believe that You came from God….’” Really? Though they were now starting to see the first glimmers of light, the disciples still had a steep learning curve to negotiate. So, “Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave Me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with Me. I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.’” (John 16:20-33) Follow the train of thought here: the resurrection would prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Yahshua was actually God in the flesh. Like His habitual teaching method, Christ’s very body was a parable, a story told to reveal a timeless truth. But this was a parable that only people with God-given wisdom (that is, people who revered Yahweh) could comprehend: Yahweh had become Love Personified, walking among us as a man, laying down His guiltless life in order to render us innocent, with our sins covered and our uncleanness washed away. The “labor pains” of the crucifixion would soon be replaced with the joy of the accomplishment of God’s plan. And the peace that followed would be the natural, inevitable result of knowing precisely where we stood with the Almighty—redeemed, restored, and sealed for all eternity.
It’s a great story. And every word is true.
We are about to embark on a journey of exploration, searching for the meaning and significance of scores of “bread crumbs” God has laid down as a trail of truth throughout the scriptures—clues that often look so common, so ordinary, we might miss them altogether if we didn’t remain vigilant. But why? You well may observe, We have the written word, translated into our own language. Shouldn’t that be sufficient to tell us what Yahweh wished to communicate? Why do we need to explore all of these symbols, metaphors, and parables too? These are valid questions, the answers to which will help to explain why I felt this study was necessary.
Although human language is the primary vehicle through which God has chosen to speak to us, very few people are fluent in the original languages (primarily Hebrew and Koine Greek). And besides, the original autographs have long since been lost. (This is probably a good thing, of course, since we in our ignorance or enthusiasm might have made them objects of worship if we still had them.) So we are at the mercy of textual tradition, scholarly opinion, and archaeological serendipity (like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls). All we have are copies, and worse: translations of copies. Although the Bible is by a very wide margin the best textually-supported ancient document we have, the fact remains that there are thousands of minor textual discrepancies among the extant early manuscripts. While we most certainly have the solid gist of what God meant to communicate, we don’t have His actual words. And the controversies still surrounding His scriptures demonstrate convincingly that we don’t fully understand His mindset. The words are apparently not enough.
Consider the “interpretation” factor. In both Hebrew or Greek, the syntax, word order, tense, mood, voice, and case all conspire to make effective translation an extremely “iffy” proposition. There is a constant tug-of-war between word-for-word translations (which when taken to extremes are incomprehensible in the target language) and thought-for-thought renditions (which assume that the translator is perfectly attuned to the heart and mind of the Almighty—something that should not be assumed, ever.) As an example of how hard it can be, I offer the familiar John 3:16—in English words but in the original Greek order and sentence structure: “Thus for loves the God the cosmos as besides the Son the only-generated He gives the every the one-believing into Him no should be being destroyed but may be having life forever.” Gives you a whole new appreciation for the translators’ job, doesn’t it? It’s not as easy as it looks.
Another factor: I’ve stumbled onto dozens of Hebrew words that carry dual meanings, both of which are (or can be) valid. A classic example is the verb anah, the central requirement of the Day of Atonement. In that context, our English translations invariably take it to mean “to afflict” (as in, to afflict one’s soul, to seriously reflect and repent). But it also means “to answer” or “to respond,” which in the context of this particular holy convocation makes at least as much sense. I have concluded that both translations are not only valid, they are both implied in the Hebrew text—something that makes a simple word-swap translation impossible.
Another problem is that language is a moving target. Words change meaning and character over time, place, and culture. Ironically, the venerable Authorized “King James” version of the Bible (with an assist from William Shakespeare) has done more to stabilize the English language than perhaps any other factor. But even then, if a twenty-first century American gets hold of the actual non-updated 1611 text, he’ll find it virtually unintelligible. The familiar “Jesus,” for example, wasn’t introduced until 1629; until then, His name was rendered Iesus, the Latin form of the Greek Iesous, Iesou, or Iesoun (depending on the case), a transliteration in turn of the Hebrew Yahshua or Yahushua (the vowels wouldn’t have appeared in the first century Hebrew or Aramaic form)—a common name meaning “Yahweh is salvation.”
And finally, I must sadly note that people don’t (or perhaps can’t) read anymore. (If you’ve gotten this far, I’d have to assume you’re one of the blessed few who still do.) Compared to the eloquent, thoughtful writings of, for instance, America’s founding fathers, we are now a nation of functional illiterates. We communicate in hasty, ill-conceived, and poorly worded sound bites, Facebook entries, and 140-character “tweets.” Unwilling to discuss our differences with reason and civility like intelligent human beings, we now express ourselves with bumper stickers, placards, and riot-chants, doing our best to drown out any and all rational thought. Our words are no longer meant to be kept and treasured, like bundles of letters lovingly and thoughtfully composed, written in longhand on personal stationery, and delivered by hand by uniformed couriers. Now our thoughts are utterly disposable. Like our lives, I fear. Sigh.
Is it any wonder, then, that Yahweh didn’t put all of His “eggs” in the proverbial “basket” of human language? He—from the very beginning—supplemented His verbal communication with an underlying system of symbols and metaphors. These operate sort of like a “check-sum” number in a laser-scanned bar code: if we’re reading His words correctly, they should be supported by—and compatible with—the parallel non-verbal symbol. Everything should “add up” if we rightly understand our Father’s words. And conversely, if God’s symbols and statements seem out of sync with each other, it should be taken as a sign that we don’t really understand one or the other of them. In other words, we need to adjust our opinions to conform with Yahweh’s. God’s symbols help us evaluate whether our understanding of His words is accurate or a bit skewed.
These symbols, however, were never intended to replace God’s words, nor are they meant to stand on their own, teaching independent truths. The lessons, properly understood, will be parallel and mutually supportive. They’ll tend to shed light on each other, making the sum of their disparate parts greater than the whole. I mention this because there are schools of thought—like Kabala—that attempt to ferret out hidden meanings in the sacred texts. They might use number-letter codes (gematria), equidistant letter sequences (ELS), or other quasi-mystical methods. I’m not saying that God couldn’t have built things into the scriptures that aren’t apparent by simply reading the text; I’m merely pointing out that information gained from such disciplines should never be used to establish doctrine, but only to verify truths that are apparent through more conventional means. God may be glorified through esoteric, hidden codes; He is not revealed through them. Hidden codes of this type are by their very nature highly speculative: if you work at it, you can “prove” pretty much whatever you please.
But (you may protest) are not the symbols, metaphors, and parables of scripture—the topic of this book—vulnerable to the same sort of subjective analysis? I’m about to assert (for example) that sacrificial lambs indicate “innocence.” But how do I know this? Since lambs are fuzzy, and since they’re not exactly known for their sly cunning, couldn’t we just as easily conclude that they symbolize “gullibility” or “stupidity?” How are we to know when we’re on solid ground, and when we’re barking up the wrong tree? Are you supposed to just “trust me?” No. We must subject our theories to a battery of litmus tests if we want to be confident about our conclusions.
First, we must learn to use our God-given powers of observation: look for the obvious, something so fundamental, even a child can understand it. The natural attributes of the symbol will more often than not suggest a hypothesis—which can then be tested and verified. Thus (for instance) the function of leaven or yeast in the making of bread paints a picture for us: leaven is a fermenting substance that changes bread from within, making it a apt metaphor for the pervasive corruption of sin.
Second, we should search the scriptures for specific definitions and pointed clues. Although not universal, they are present often enough to make the exercise worthwhile. As an example, goats are specifically said to symbolize sin in the instructions for the Day of Atonement. And we know that leaven is to be viewed in a negative light (as corruption, not merely change) not only because the Torah instructs Israel to symbolically remove it from the recipe on certain occasions, but also because of statements like Yahshua’s: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” We don’t have to be particularly wary of change per se, but we are always to guard ourselves against corruption.
Third, each of God’s symbols has clear significance within the culture of the people who received the scriptures—invariably something that will transfer easily to other cultures. A lamb is a lamb, no matter when or where you’re living. The symbols are invariably part of God’s creation, instructions, or institutions. They’re never manmade things (pyramids or weapons, for example), which can become anachronisms in short order. It should be pointed out, however, that literary metaphors (such as “the sword” symbolizing any implement of war, for example) are not the same thing as spiritual symbols.
Fourth, note that God is very specific in His symbolic designations. Lambs mean one thing; but sheep (grown-up lambs) indicate something else entirely, and rams (mature male sheep with horns) speak of yet another spiritual reality. The very same animal, in fact, could embody all three of these symbolic entities at different stages of its life, as its circumstances change. But it doesn’t matter: a lamb indicates a different spiritual truth than a ram does. In a similar way, there is a symbolic distinction between bulls and oxen, beyond what we might deduce from their genetic differences.
Finally, we are to employ what might be called proper “scientific method” to test our hypotheses. That is, if we wish to assign a symbolic meaning to a recurring element in scripture, it must not only be logical and consistent, it must also be falsifiable. Returning to our “lamb” example, if we were trying to establish that lambs indicate stupidity, then instances where the illustration yields total nonsense would demonstrate our idea to be wrong. So when John the Baptist sees Yahshua, and announces, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that stupidity can do nothing to remove sin. Our theory has therefore been proven false: we need to look elsewhere. Our hypotheses must exist in flawless symbiosis with the words of scripture—both its broad outlines and its details.
Feel free to question my conclusions if you perceive better ones. I get the feeling that Yahweh’s prolific use of symbols is intended to encourage us all to think, to ponder His word, to meditate on His thoughts—and I certainly don’t have a monopoly on truth or wisdom. We are to shama—hear and heed His voice, listen and obey with attention and interest. We are to ra’ah—to see, look at, regard, consider, and perceive what our God has placed before our eyes. If we “study to show ourselves approved” in this matter, it is my prayer that we will be able to stand with the Israelites of old and declare, “Behold, Yahweh our God has shown us His glory and greatness, and we have heard His voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still lives.” (Deuteronomy 5:24)
(First published 2014)