Biblical Metaphor or Fairy Story?

I’ve been reading this week about the way people like me (atheists) are wrong for disputing the historical facts in the bible. I concentrate on the bible here because it contains the stories most of the people reading this will be familiar with, slightly different versions of these stories are available to the other 2 monotheistic religions but they are clearly the same stories, I don’t mention the other major religions of south, south-east and east Asia because they don’t rely on historical miracles for their faith and they don’t have highly vocal sections denouncing the rational scientific basis from which mine and other secular conclusions have been drawn.

What we’re doing wrong, apparently, is reading some parts of the bible, especially the early parts (early as in start of the book rather than necessarily earliest written) as literal historical accounts rather than metaphorical. We shouldn’t be trying to prove that we are not descended from Adam & Eve, that there was no devastating flood survived by Noah & his Ark, that Moses didn’t lead a tribe of desert nomads in circles around the Sinai peninsular for 40 years and that Joshua didn’t bring down the walls of Jericho with trumpets. These stories are meant to be read metaphorically, not literally, we are told. Ok, let’s go with that, but first, nobody tells you in school that these stories are metaphors. In fact, the age at wich I was starting my biblical education was one at which I had no idea what a metaphor was. As I grew up I don’t remember anyone telling me that these stories weren’t true but others were, are we all supposed to inherently ‘know’ which parts are literally true and which are metaphor? is it all metaphor? More on that later.

It is possible to find evidence that some of the stories I mentioned above could have happened if you loosen your factual criteria. All men on earth have a Y(male) chromosome from a single source thousands of years ago. This does not however mean that there was only one man on earth at that time, only that all the other lines in that time have been interrupted by at least one daughter/mother. At the end of the last ice age, the increasing sea levels resulted in a flood turning a vast plain into what we now know as the Black Sea. Despite these both happening thousands of years before God created the world in the bible, is this what is meant by ‘metaphorically true’?

If it is, whats the point? Besides the fact that sea levels rose when the ice melted (something we have known for a while and are beginning to see the effects of again now), what does this story tell us? There was no mass extinction at that time, no noticeable change in population of the area and it took a lot longer that 40 days. So God made a terrible flood that didn’t really kill anyone, just pissed off some early farmers who’d never heard of him because he hadn’t been invented. Sorry, but am I missing something here? If this metaphor is supposed to tell us something, I must be missing it.

Surely for a metaphor to have some truth about it, it should have a message behind it not just being a verbally recited story of archaic tribespeople trying desperately to explain changes in the world around their ancestors. I’m sure stories like Red Riding Hood or Beauty & the Beast had messages to pass on to young girls about sexual predators or arranged marriages. Even the metaphor of Jesus’ resurrection tells the message of his teaching and ideas being with the disciples even after his death. Or the story of the walk to Emmaus, which teaches of the spirit of Jesus being in every man, even if you do not at first recognise it. These stories seem to have a point, unlike most in the old testament which don’t seem to have any kind of valid message behind them.

However, any christians reading this will probably now be screaming that the stories of Jesus are not metaphorical, that they are the ones meant to be taken as literal truth. Could I have a list please? A list of biblical stories that are meant to be taken as metaphor and another of those that are literally true? The problem with this kind of differentiation is that is eternally shifting as new scientific, palaeontological and archaeological evidence becomes available. 200 years ago most people in Europe and North America believed the world to be less than 10,000 years old, making the creation story easy to believe. It was only advances in geology and the discovery of the immense timescales available which made Darwin credible, without hundreds or even thousands of millions of years, evolution simply could not be possible, now it is almost universally believed among all credible scientists. Oh and for anyone now saying ‘it’s only a theory’ have a look at the dictionary definition and the difference between theory & theorem. The earth being round is also ‘only a theory’.

Getting back to the main point, saying ‘its only a metaphor’ doesn’t excuse you from preaching bullshit. If there’s no message behind it you may as well teach children the truth, i.e. the big bang, atoms etc. If you actually believe in the historical accuracy of any document that old and not written until many years after the events are supposed to have happened, have a think about what would happen if you and your school friends each had to write their own account of events during your final year, would they all match? Or would you expect to see some discrepancies as we see in the Gospels (Visitors from the east in Mathew, shepherds in Luke, no story of the birth in the other two. Or is that another metaphor?). Either its accurate or it’s not. If it’s not, you can’t choose which bits to believe true, you can only be told that by a priest.

Of course there is one more option, it’s all a metaphor, or it’s all bullshit whichever way you want to look at it, even if there are messages behind it, if it’s not literally true, it’s just a long Fairy Story.

Thanks for reading


I’ll happily accept any comments and will try to answer as many as possible.


7 Responses to Biblical Metaphor or Fairy Story?

  1. cantaloupe says:

    It’s all a metaphor. And they do all have points. Noah’s ark can be said to be about consequences and redemption through God’s grace. Adam and Eve is about not being as presumptuous as to disobey God and presume you’re capable of holding all the intelligence of the world… a metaphor we could all stand to hear about again, perhaps.

    I’m going to guess you stopped your religious education ASAP. I only started my formal education in college, with Jesuits, but they pretty clearly allowed that it was all more or less a metaphor to guide us. I took a class with a priest where all we did was discuss why the four Gospels varied in their stories. Perhaps you should look into some proper religious study courses to answer some of these questions you have.

    • At 15 I was confirmed into the Anglican church and attended chapel at school twice weekly. I finished my formal religious education at 16 but continued to read all parts of the bible and much of the Apocrypha until my late teens.

      The story of the knowledge gained by eating the fruit of the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden has always made much more sense to me as a way of explaining our transformation from hunter-gatherers into farmers, passed down verbally over thousands of years. If we go on your meaning, we may as well stop scientific research now before its too late.

      Only Noah & his family were saved, there was no redemtion, no forgiveness, just a god who decided to kill everyone and all the birds & animals because they were ‘evil’. Without a presupposed belief in god, the old testament metaphors mean nothing, unlike most of the new testament metaphors which are often teachings in themsleves. However, as I said in the peice above, if they are just metaphorical ‘lessons’ in how you should live, they are no different from many fairy stories & nursery rhymes we are all taught to forget as we grow up.

  2. jasondegray says:

    Even though I’m a believer, I agree with a lot of what you say. I ran into a fundamental Christian woman who told me that everything in the bible is literal. I said, “That’s great! I can’t wait for the seven headed dragon in Revelations to swoop down from the sky and punish the wicked.” Some bible scholars believe that the entire story of Jonah was fabricated because of some internal struggle in the Hebrew religion. The last few verses of Job (where he gets back everything he lost 7 fold) were added in after the fact because the ending didn’t set well. Plainly there are many examples of misinterpreted bible passages. However, if not for the bible, several ancient sites (like Ur) wouldn’t have been discovered and still thought as “legend”. The real point of the bible is a spiritual guidebook. It is meant to help further your search for God and Truth. Reading it like a novel gives one that impression. But reading it with a meditative heart and mind will open up whole new worlds for a person.

    • Thanks, glad we agree on how it should be read. It does give reasons why certain things should be considered taboo or illegal, the problems arise when those laws cannot be overturned by new medical or scientific evidence that prove them no longer necessary or when people assume that the outlook of the authors of the bible books are always relevant ttoday. The point of the piece wasn’t that we should dismiss the stories but that they are no less important than some of the stories told by other ancient religions and the messages they too convey.

  3. Nate says:

    Good points. As you allude to in your piece, it seems to me that the stories only become “metaphors” once history and science shows they can’t possibly be true. That being said, I agree that the Bible still has merit. There are many clues to ancient history (and culture) that we can glean from it, and there are some valuable life lessons in it as well.

    • Thanks, I’ve never said that the thoughts behind the parables have no moral significance but I do think its important for people to realise the cultural & historical background in which they were written and to realise that they may not be applicable in this modern world. As for history, I don’t think anything written that long ago can be taken as anything other than propaganda, which is not to be dismissed but needs to be read in context (preferably with other sources)

    • Nate says:

      Oh, I agree. The bits of historical data we can get from it are scattered, and they’re surrounded by a thick layer of exaggeration and mysticism. I also agree that the moral guidance in the Bible is antiquated (and harmful, in places).

      Great post — I really enjoyed it.

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