When I read this recently, the first image that sprung to my mind was the scene from the movie “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”. In the movie, and in Tolkein’s book, the good guys have just defended the fortress of Helm’s Deep, the cavalry has literally charged over the hill, and the enemy army is sent fleeing into the forest where the trees take their revenge by devouring the survivors.
The Biblical account, which is, of course, 2,500 to 3,000 years older, follows a similar story line. King David has ascended the throne in Jerusalem, but is faced with a rebellion by his own son, Absalom. Through a sustained campaign of subversion, Absalom manages to mobilize a sizeable army of Israelites and David musters his forces to meet it. Here’s an excerpt from the Biblical narrative (2 Samuel 18:6-8, NIV):
David’s army marched out of the city to fight Israel, and the battle took place in the forest of Ephraim. There Israel’s troops were routed by David’s men, and the casualties that day were great—twenty thousand men. The battle spread out over the whole countryside, and the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword.
So, does the Bible teach that trees eat people?
I don’t think so.
This, I believe, is a figure of speech. A quick survey of the surrounding text demonstrates that it is a detailed chronicle of this particular episode in David’s career. It is “naturalistic” in the sense that it does not overtly concern itself with the miraculous, or even the divine (in the text from 2 Samuel 17:24 to 18:18 God only gets a mention in the salutations of David's messengers).
The story is concerned with the relationship between David and Absalom, and projects a warning against disunity within the People of God. So, it would seem out of place to interpret the phrase literally, and a figure of speech appears to be a safe conclusion. Perhaps Absalom’s men took to the forest and simply deserted, or they got lost in the confusion, or they took to fighting among themselves, or they fell at the hands of bands loyal to David or even third party brigands or spies. Any, or all, of these possibilities can be adequately communicated with the convenient phrase “the forest swallowed up…men”.
So, if the Biblical texts use figures of speech, is all of it figurative?
But, how do we know when we’re reading a figure of speech and when we’re not?
There are many instances in the Bible where the conclusions appear clear-cut. Just as I consider the trees-eating-people thing to be a figure of speech, I also think that nobody who seriously engages the Biblical text would argue that it treats Jesus, John or Paul as figurative people. That’s not to say that it might not describe them in figurative terms, and this is where Christian theologians and apologists begin to argue.
One such hot topic (please forgive the pun) this week is Hell. Conservative Evangelicals have reacted strongly against suggestions by Rob Bell that the traditional understanding of Hell (eternal, conscious torment for non-Believers after death) is not satisfactorily supported by the Biblical texts.
I first read about it in a Christianity Today article, and then on a FaceBook link. I’m not going to rehash what has been written already, but suffice to say here, that Bell might understand references to “everlasting fire” (Luke 16:19-31, Revelation 20:10 etc) to be figurative, which the Calvinists don’t like. In my brief reading of the blogs and opinions, what I see here is not a dispute about the reality of Hell, but rather its shape, and how we might understand what the Biblical texts say about it. It’s not even a dispute about the authority of the Bible. At is heart is a dispute about how figurative the texts are.
Firstly, in deciding what is figurative and what is not, we tend to follow our own preconceptions. Personally, I find the idea of trees eating people to be absurd, which is why I readily categorize it under “figurative”. And I have good reason to do so, or so I believe. But, I also believe in a “real”, not “figurative” resurrection of Christ, which might sound absurd to others. OK, so the latter case gets much more exegesis in the New Testament than the former, but what if the forest actually did eat Absalom’s army? I guess we’ll never know for sure, but I think it’s worth reminding myself that I don’t domineer my preconceptions as much as I’d like to think.
Secondly, the evidence is not conclusive. If it were, the match between Bell and the Calvinists would be called off. That’s not to say that one side’s case is not weaker or stronger than the other, or that neither side can be right or wrong. Absalom started with a truth (2 Samuel 15:3). He used it to foment a full-scale rebellion against his own father, but it was a truth nonetheless.
Finally, there is the issue of what we do with the evidence. It demands a verdict, but what do we do when it’s not enough to bring us to the verdict? It occurs to me that we defer to the evidence, when God has mandated that we judge it.
Another FaceBook link (thank’s Aaron) introduced me to net.bible.org, which is a comprehensive on-line commentary and translation resource. Launching from Genesis 1:2, and surfing the articles on the Holy Spirit, I came across this wonderful quote from Daniel B Wallace about his personal struggles in life and how they interacted with his profession as a (conservative, reformed) theologian:
Evidence alone cannot bridge the gap between us and God. As much as I wanted the evidence to go all the way, I couldn’t make it do so. At one point there was real despair in my heart. I had gotten so sucked in to the cult of objectivism that I forgot who it was who brought me to faith in the first place. Only when I grudgingly accepted the fact that some faith had to be involved—and that through the Spirit’s agency—could I get past my despair. The non-verifiable elements of the faith had become an embarrassment to me, rather than an anchor.