Allegorically Speaking

If you go back a couple of centuries in time, before we began to believe that Fact and Truth are the same thing (which they are not) the Church used to approach scripture in various ways. One of these ways was as allegory, another as metaphor. These ways of approaching scripture did not begin with Christians. They are to be found in the Jewish tradition as well, which is, of course, far older. For example, if the Psalmist says that God is a Rock or a Shield, he does not mean that God is literally these things, but metaphorically. The psalmist experiences God as a strong basis for his life and feels protected by him. When Jesus speaks in parables, he is being allegorical. The Sower who goes out to sow does in reality sprinkle his seed all over the place – that is literally true, but the seed, the birds who eat it, the weeds that choke it and the hard ground that prevents the seeds from taking root stand for something else, human reception of God’s word. What is important is to realise that in allegory you have two meanings: the literary meaning and the hidden meaning. They exist side by side and neither undermines the other. On the contrary, the different ways of reading and meditating on the word enrich each other.

Hidden meaning sometimes comes as a personal message. One of the things I am constantly impressed by is how I can know a bible story very well, and then one day, out of the blue, I see something entirely new in it. Usually this happens when I am simply sitting quietly, waiting on God. I had this experience this last week when, to be honest, I was emotionally quite distracted. Suddenly one of my favourite passages in the Old Testament came to me: the story of Elijah after the battle with the prophets of Baal, fleeing to the desert because he knows Queen Jezebel is seeking his life. He is exhausted and demoralised and just wants to lie down and die. Eventually, after some sustaining food and rest he goes to Mount Horeb where he finds God does not speak through fire, wind or earthquake but in a still small voice that comes out of sheer silence (I Kings 19: 12, 13). The NRSV says,

When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

The first thing that struck me was that earlier in the story Elijah is raging, full of resentment, bitterness and despair. These moods are internal mirrors of the external storm on Horeb illustrated in the fire, wind and earthquake. Elijah cannot hear God whilst he is so caught up in the voices of dismay inside him. Elijah is in a cave. Literally he might be there for protection from the storm. Allegorically, the cave may be the shut in place of Elijah’s darkness and bitterness. The mysterious “sheer” silence of God’s response brings Elijah out of himself, and then, as Matthew Henry’s commentary says,

The wind, and earthquake, and fire, did not make him cover his face, but the still voice did. Gracious souls are more affected by the tender mercies of the Lord, than by his terrors.

The Elijah story can be read simply as history. But on this occasion, as I thought about it, I saw my own disturbed emotions reflected in those of Elijah; the loud voices that got in the way of God’s still small voice as being the clamour of my own disquiet; the cave as my being turned in on myself and the silence out of which came God’s voice, as the quiet I eventually heard. The passage spoke to me. The passage turned me around – and I remembered and realised afresh something very important. God speaks in a quiet voice or as the New International Version of the Bible has it, a whisper. We have to be quiet to hear him.