It is hard for us preachers to let pits be pits, walls be walls and stones be stones.
Equivocating and Allegorizing
When Joseph is thrown into a pit we ask our hearers to think about where the “pits” are in their lives. When Joshua marches and the Jericho walls crumble we ask our congregations, “What are the walls in your lives?” When David picks up five smooth stones we ask our listeners to imagine what each stone surely stands for–faith or hope, perseverance or humility or love. “What are the stones we need to slay our Goliaths?” we ask.
Inevitably, when we ask these questions we cause our hearers to assume that the pits, walls and stones in the Bible each symbolize things like relational stress, financial worry or pornography. Just as God delivered Joseph from the pit He will deliver us from our relational stress. Just as God delivered Joshua from the walls God will relieve our financial worries. Just as God knocked the Giant down God will slay your pornography addiction with the stones of accountability, self-control and love. While it is true that in Jesus God will deliver us from such things as our varied stresses, worries and addictions, may I suggest that sometimes a pit stands for nothing more than what it is–dirt made good by God but misused by human beings to harm their neighbors. The walls did not act as a sign to Joshua that his sexual temptations could be kept at bay. The walls were part of an actual fortress with soldiers, blood and death set loose. The rocks David slung in his sling did not represent anything other than what they were.
Why does it matter that we let a pit be a pit?
1. When the biblical text doesn’t provide a symbolism for us this means that we are providing it from our own imaginations. God will still bless our sermons to the degree that we preach what is true; the text can still provide illustrative imagery for us and poets still have metaphor and simile with which to play for our reflection. But we run the twin risks of not dealing with what is actually there and creating something that isn’t there.
2. When we do not announce what we are doing as an exception to the norm or as a poetic descriptor, then we unwittingly apprentice our hearers to assume that allegory or equivocation is the normative way we are meant to read the Bible. Again, while the Lord has graciously blessed His people in history at times and seasons even though they used this method of reading, we also have to admit that teachings found to contradict the Scriptures have flourished when we dictate what is in the text by our own moods or illustrative assumptions rather than from the resources provided by the texts themselves.
3. Our other than Christian hearers in the West who are genuinely inquiring after God will increasingly attribute a disingenuine and/or naive posture to us regarding what is there in the biblical text. It will seem as if we are avoiding things in the Bible we’d rather not deal with (unjust slavery and the use of pits or war in God’s name) rather than helpfully explaining what is there.
4. Both Christians and other than Christians will experience us as promoting the application of the Bible that becomes dualistic–so focused on soul issues that we ignore the physical realities revealed by the Bible for our trust in God.
Why are we prone to equivocate or allegorize in these ways?
Maybe we’ve never studied or thought about this kind of discussion. Or, let’s face it, the pastoral week can require so much of us that the idea of trying to apply what it means that Joseph was in a pit to our lives today seems much harder on Friday afternoon than simply turning to stress, worry, addiction and soul-idols. At least we know that those “will preach” and we are certain to have something to say that will impact our hearers. Others of us assume that we cannot apply something from the text if our hearers have no experience with it. We fear being irrelevant. But I suggest that limiting what we say to only those things which our listeners have presently experienced will leave them woefully unprepared to handle all that goes on under the sun and all that we need the grace and wisdom of God for in Jesus. It will also make us terribly naive about the plight of other neighbors whose experiences in the world do not match our own.
What then do we do?
Pick a different passage! Or go forward thankful that God blesses our speaking true things even when done with wrong texts. Or, we can learn from Him in the context of our community to apply the pit, the wall and the sling shot rocks (along with other things like Arks, lion’s dens, hair colors and rivers) We certainly must resist going on a rampage criticizing every fellow preacher who uses such allegories or illustrations. Remember, God still blesses the truth we preach and our fellow preachers look to Him as we ourselves do. So, we needn’t concern ourselves with policing others. We start first with His grace and our own preaching.
To let the pit be a pit, then, we wrestle with what it means that human beings can use good created things like the ground we walk on to harm their neighbors. What did it mean for Joseph to experience God’s presence and love when dirt formed his four walls and no one held accountable those who did this to him?
To let the wall be a wall we have to address war done in the name of God where men, women and children die and the fortresses of some nations crumble while others rise.
To let the stones be rocks we have to address the physicality of justice and the death of our enemies in battle.
In our current generation, what could be more relevant? God has provided all that we need to address the questions of our times if we can learn to let it say what it says without symbolizing it away. We need each others help in Jesus to wrestle with such texts for a Christ-centered and grace empowered wisdom for our times.