Modern readers of the Scriptures try many different ways to engage the text and faithfully live according to the revelation of God therein. Some read the Scriptures through the lens of text criticism, some through historical context, and some through the lens of their denomination’s theology. Most would claim that God is the author behind the text, and thereby the Scriptures become profitable for teaching and reproof. But what if we were reading it wrong? What if our post-Enlightenment eyes were searching the Scriptures in the wrong places?
In 2015, I discovered the work of James Jordan, Peter Leithart, and Mike Bull. They are but a few of the men who work under the same methodology: one of symbolism, typology, and chiams. Whether you know it as “Through New Eyes”, “Symbolic Language”, or the “Bible Matrix”, there is a growing movement in Protestantism to read the Scriptures with their inherent symbolism in mind. Since the Enlightenment, reading the Scriptures typologically has gone out of vogue. This movement aims to teach Christians how to read the Bible symbolically as the early Church did and see the world through the same eyes as ancient Christians did. This post will detail their methodology and discuss some of the benefits and dangers of reading the Scriptures in the same way.
Here are a few benefits I see toward reading the Bible typologically:
The whole Bible, generally, is symbolic already. As James Jordan says: “We do not need some specific New Testament verse to ‘prove’ that a given Old Testament story has symbolic dimensions. Rather, such symbolic dimensions are presupposed in the very fact that man is the image of God. Thus, we ought not be afraid to hazard a guess at the wider prophetic meanings of Scripture narratives, as we consider how they image the ways of God.” Typology is different from popular understandings of allegory in that typology cannot ignore the “plain reading” of the text. Typology relies on the historical event to define the symbol. If David was not the conqueror of Jerusalem in history, then the type he sets for Jesus as the new conqueror of Jerusalem makes no sense and is a moot point. If the High Priest did not historically ascend once for himself and once for his people, he would not be an accurate type of Israel. If God did not create by his word, then the type he set for his prophets would be useless.
Reading typologically teaches us a different way to learn about God. Man is an image of God. We were created in the image of the Godman, the one “slain before the foundation of the earth”. James Jordan says: “Along these lines, we must confess with Genesis 1:26 that man, both individually and corporately, (at various levels), is the very image of God. This means that human life inevitably and incessantly images the life of God, either properly (righteously) or improperly (unrighteously). What this fact means is that there is a profound symbolic dimension to everything in the human life. For instance, the interaction of people with one another shows the interaction among the Three Persons of God, either rightly or wrongly. Now, this is more particularly true of the stories recounted in the Bible, since they are designed as prophecy. In more pointed ways they show us how to image God, or how not to.” (James Jordan, Judges: God’s War Against Humanism”) With this view in mind, we read the Scriptures symbolically because people were created symbolically. Every interaction we read about in Scripture is another way to teach us about God.
More than that, it teaches how to read each other. I think when we acknowledge that each human interaction teaches us something about the way that the Trinity interacts, we become wise judges in the ways that people respond to each other. When a biblical character responds to another in a way that acts contrary to the way we know God to act, we judge that as a bad image of God whether or not the text passes judgment. This helps clear up some passages and helps us to read passages differently.
For example, a lot of commentators believe that Rebecca was in the wrong for helping Jacob deceive Isaac into blessing Jacob. This is not the case: Rebecca, knowing the way that God acts in history, knows that God blesses the younger brother. The younger brother’s blessing is not at the expense of the older: the older is blessed in the younger. Rebecca, by remaining faithful to the covenant, properly images God. Isaac improperly images God in trying to bless his favorite, Esau. Isaac should have known that God selects the younger, otherwise Isaac wouldn’t have been blessed himself!
God created the world as a prophetic witness about him. The Psalmist says this in Psalm 19: the heavens declare the glory of God. Paul picks this up in Romans by saying that God has made himself known, somehow, to some extent, in nature. Nature is a symbol for a greater reality. All of the ways that nature symbols God are not clear to us, but the Bible does make some apparent. The sun, moon, and stars were created as a sign, signifying rulers and powers, marking the seasons (this comes from Genesis 1!) Looking at the sun reminds of us rulers and tells us the time. This is why Jesus says in the Olivet Discourse that leaders will fall and uses stars falling to symbolize this: the Bible has already told us that stars signify leaders, so Jesus can use the line and expect us to follow along.
If the whole Bible was written symbolically, I think that the Scriptures were meant to be read as a single book, inspired by a single author, made into a coherent whole because it was written in a single “language”. Many men, across a great swath of time, wrote the Scriptures under the inspiration of the Spirit. I don’t think that there is one “right” way to define inspiration: some were verbally inspired (like Leviticus), some poetry was inspired by meditations on Torah (Song of Solomon), some were inspired conversations (Job), and some were inspired meditations on the whole of the covenant with Israel (Romans).
The authors all speak one “language”. The language of the Scriptures is a liturgical language based on the Torah. Everything that the Bible says is contained, in some form, in Torah. Paul says nothing in I Corinthians that does not have its base in Torah. John’s Apocalypse is structurally based on the seven feasts of Leviticus. The Chronicler evaluates all of history until the return under Cyrus in light of Leviticus. Solomon’s Proverbs are a sustained commentary on Deuteronomy. Mark’s presentation of Jesus in the wilderness is based on Genesis. The Torah sets forth a trajectory, and speaking of that trajectory means speaking the language of Torah. For example, James offers his wisdom and asks, “Who among you is wise?” He is not speaking from a vacuum: he is citing Hosea 14:10 LXX, saying that those who are wise know that the way of the Lord persists but the unrighteous will be judged. Hosea was a prophet, so he critiqued Israel from Torah: Deuteronomy 4 has the same phrase, saying that if Israel was wise and understood, she would follow God’s law.
Because the language of symbolism in the Scripture all comes from the same sources, when we see a symbol in one place, that symbol remains consistent throughout the rest of Scripture. Dragons consistently image chaos and destruction. Serpents consistently echo unfaithfulness and lying. Locusts always symbol armies and hosts. Robes symbolize the “covering” from sin. Fire and water symbolize purification from the Spirit.
Knowing this helps us elucidate some passages that may not make sense on their head. The story Elijah and the she-bears makes more sense when you read about the symbolism inherent in bears and baldness and young men and water. More than that, I think it helps elucidate simply baffling passages. Mike Bull explains a different passage through the lens of his Bible Matrix: I Kings 13. He says that I Kings 13 says “so much more because of what it does not explicitly say”. The story includes strange details like donkeys, lions, torn bodies, altars, etc. Reading typologically, he shows that the story is actually modelled on the architecture of the Tabernacle, showing how the torn body, lion, and donkey all symbolize different pieces of furniture in the Tabernacle.
Discovering a symbol somewhere elucidates its use elsewhere because it is used in the same way. For example, the serpent in the Garden was a fiery figure who tempted Adam and Eve. Dan is a serpentine tribe (Gen 49), which would either be a blessing or a curse depending on how they responded. The serpent was the wisest and craftiest animal in the Garden. Dan was designed to be just as wise and crafty, which would have been the proper way to be a serpentine tribe. But they failed in their response: they are the tribe who failed to drive out the Rephaim giants. The giants are intimately connected with the Serpent. Because they don’t kick out the enemy, but instead connect with them, they construct idols at Bashan (meaning Serpent) and are excluded from the lists of the tribes of God in Revelation. They build shrines for Baal in Serpent, surrounded by the Serpentine giants, and become the ultimate serpent themselves. At first, they could have been a holy serpentine creature, one who trods on the heads of serpents, but instead they lived up to their namesake and became a serpent. Samson the Danite was the prototypical Danite: he was crafty, wise, and strong. His strength and wisdom both come from God, but in the end, rather than leading Israel away, his powers are used for good
As James Jordan says: “Such a ‘maximalist’ approach puts us more in line with the kind of interpretation used by the Church Fathers.” Not only that, but we are more in line with the way that the apostles read the Scriptures. When the apostles read a passage differently than we might imagine is proper, it’s not because they wildly decided to take a passage out of context. Rather, they are following the typological trajectory of the Bible. When Peter uses Psalm 16:10, he sees that the Holy One symbolizes Christ rather than David. When Matthew uses Hosea 11:1 to symbolize Christ coming out of Israel, it’s because he sees that Israel has become a spiritual Egypt. Following the typological strand of Scripture helps bring the apostle’s use of Scripture into clearer focus. I have found that very few OT quotations in the New Testament puzzle me anymore once I started to see the ways that the Bible uses symbolism.
Jordan continues: “It seems dangerous, because it is not readily evident what kinds of checks and balances are to be employed in such an approach. Do the five loaves and two fishes represent the five books of Moses and the Old and New Testaments? Almost certainly not. What, however, is our check on such an interpretation? We have to say that the check and balance on interpretation is the whole rest of Scripture and of theology.” This presents one of the dangers of reading typologically: the checks and balances system is rather shaky at best, and can seem very subjective most of the time. This issue becomes less of an issue the longer that you study Scripture and the more faithfully you live to God and his commands, but it is always in danger of being led by your imagination rather than the Spirit.
Rather than leave this open, I will provide some lessons learned from reading typologically. I will first illustrate how it opens up a single passage and then how it opens up an entire storyline:
Judges 1: In Genesis 10, we learn that humanity was divided into 70 nations. These 70 nations were appointed to 70 leaders on the heavenly council (Deut 32:8-9), but Yahweh saved Israel for himself. Israel made sacrifices for all 70 nations in the Feast of Booths, also known as the Feast of Ingathering. In this feast, Israel sacrificed for the 70 nations to sanctify them and draw them to the living God of the covenant. When Israel enters the land, they kill Adoni-Bezek of Canaan. His name means Lord of Bezek, and he conquered 70 kings and forced them to eat scraps from underneath his table. By killing him, Israel freed 70 nations from his domain. Christ, in his resurrection, defeated Satan by taking his power over death from him. In this, Christ bound the Strong Man to loose the nations that they may come seeking Israel.
I Samuel 17: In the sequence of the battle itself, David is the representative of Israel who fights against the priestly representative of Philistia. David, a shepherd, is a priestly figure, who comes across Goliath, who wears armor similar to that of the priests of Israel. David slings a stone at Goliath’s forehead, marking Goliath’s head as “Yahweh’s” by inscribing a stone in the same place that the priest had a plate saying “holy to the Lord”. Samuel, using Genesis, uses great pains to connect Goliath’s line to that of the Nephilim. We’ll come back to this.
In the context of the book, Saul’s monarchy was fraught with problems. Samuel had objected to his installation as it started, and God had only accepted him by admitting that Israel was betraying him in doing so. James Jordan points out that Saul is a very Philistine king: he is the only “good” king in the books who use the same weapons as the Philistines. With that in mind, representative David crushes Saul, the Philistine-like king of Israel. It is striking that right after the battle, Saul recognizes David’s potential and pulls him into the royal house.
Moving back, the books of Samuel rely heavily on Genesis. Goliath is connected to the Nephilim, and they were connected by Genesis to the line of the Serpent. This pulls us all the way back to the proto-evangelium, wherein God promises that the Seed of the Woman and the Seed of the Serpent shall run into constant enmity. In this case, David is the covenant head of the Seed of the Woman facing the Philistine Seed of the Serpent. Goliath crushes the heel of Israel, but David strikes back by literally cutting off his head by his own sword. (The fact that he used Goliath’s sword is important because it’s the same lex talionis principle Abram used to defeat the Serpent).
All of these connections, then, draw us into biblical theology. The representative Head of Israel, the Seed of the Woman, takes on the warrior-priestly-Nazirite Serpentine representative of Philistia, Goliath. The story is not a new innovation, that suddenly God’s little man can beat life’s biggest problems. It is the story familiar to any reader of Scripture wherein the Woman’s Seed will inevitably crush the Serpent’s Seed.
This did not end the trouble with Philistia, so a more permanent solution was needed. In due time, the true Covenant Head of Israel would come face to face with the covenant head of the Serpents and crush the serpent’s head after getting his own heel hurt.
Reading this way blocks inappropriate levels of allegorical exegesis by restraining it within familiar biblical theology. Doing biblical theology correctly, which includes typology, is the only safeguard against improper allegory.