A long time ago, when I was still a very young man, I came to the conclusion (like most of my peers) that the Bible was to be taken with a grain of salt. I had heard it said, and completely agreed, that if a human father were to treat his children the way the God of the Hebrew Bible treated His children, we would demand that he be arrested and locked up. This hardly seemed like the sort of fellow whose opinions on morality and appropriate social behavior needed to be taken seriously. The ethics of the New Testament were admittedly less horrific, but they appeared rather trite and unrealistic. Anyway, the more I learned about science and history, the more irrelevant the whole thing became. Later on, when the conditions and influences of my life aroused a latent interest in spiritual matters, this interest took the form of meditation, yoga, vegetarianism, and a general focus on eastern religions – for these, it seemed to me, were still in touch with ‘real’ spirituality. So as literature the Bible was mildly interesting, but it was not very consequential to my life.
A few years ago this all changed. I had begun working on a book in which I was exploring historical ideas, and at a certain point it seemed appropriate to include a chapter on the ancient Israelites and to say something about their influence on the history of philosophy. So I took out a copy of the Bible and began reading a bit of Genesis, with the intention of writing a short chapter – perhaps a dozen pages or so – and then moving on to more important matters.
Several years and hundreds of pages later, I finally stopped writing about all the wonders I was finding in the western Scriptures. What happened was that I discovered a whole new way in which the stories spoke to me. It wasn’t the history that interested me, or the teachings about morality and social justice. It certainly wasn’t the fantastic claims that defied all scientific logic. What interested me was the symbolism: the symbols, images and metaphors that tell an inner psychological story – not about the journey of a nation, but about the journey of a human soul.
Let me share one such story, to show you what I mean: ~
Shortly after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, we are told that “Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim.” So Moses told Joshua to put together an army and go into battle with Amalek and his people.
Amalek was a descendant of Esau, the brother who was deceived by Jacob. So the Amalekites had a deep-rooted ferocious hatred toward Israel, the descendants of Jacob. They attacked whenever possible and with no provocation. They would sneak up behind the Israelites and use ambushes and cunning to attack the weak, the elderly, and the stragglers. Later, during Moses’ teachings by the Jordan River in Deuteronomy, he says that God will be at war with Amalek forever, and he transmits this divine command to his followers: “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
Taken literally, this appears to be one of many examples of a God who often approves of murder and slaughter, and wishes us to show our love for Him by killing certain other people. In fact, this particular story has sometimes been used to explain and justify a need for Israelis to kill Arabs. But this degrading excuse for violence and inhumanity takes literalism to the extreme and completely misses the point.
Like everything in these stories, the episode with Amalek is an internal symbol. Amalek represents the great enemy of the soul. He is lurking within each one of us. The name ‘Amalek’ has the root ‘malak’, a word which means ‘cutting at the neck’ – that is, severing the Mind from the Body. In addition, according to the Kabbalah the name ‘Amalek’ signifies Doubt. Thus, whenever one is considering an appropriate positive act, ‘Amalek’ introduces doubt into one’s being, and cuts off our mind (our wisdom, intelligence and better judgment) from our actions.
Now, doubt can be intelligent and rational, making sure we don’t jump to foolish conclusions and that we search for accuracy and truth. But there is also an irrational, automatic kind of doubt, the kind that mocks our Reason, belittles any argument without even listening, and reacts to the most inspiring moments with nothing but a cynical shrug. Amalek is that ugly inner voice that sneaks up and attacks goodness and truth, that laughs at decency and sincerity, that scoffs at kindness and altruism. Amalek represents the all-too-familiar cynicism that pounces on any sign of weakness, that seeks to prevent any attempt to improve oneself, that cavalierly denies God or anything more important than our selfish desires, and insists that everything must be ultimately meaningless.
This uncontrollable hatred of everything noble and good cannot be reasoned with, it cannot be persuaded by rational argument. Symbolically, then, there is no room for acts of diplomacy with Amalek: he must simply be annihilated! From this comes the injunction in Deuteronomy that we must “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”
But the only form of slaughter that is being justified here is the slaughter of our own cynicism and doubt.
This is a never-ending battle, and the soul must be ever vigilant. King Saul would later lose his kingship for letting the king of the Amalekites live. David, in his own battle against them, would fare better: he would not “let” any of the Amalekites live – but four hundred of them would escape. Some Amalekites always escape. And that’s the point the Bible is making. This deadly inner voice does not give up, it will never leave us in peace, and we ignore it at our peril.
Condescending cynicism and doubt are the worst spoilers of the soul. Like God, we must be at war with Amalek forever. ~
So as you see, even though the stories themselves may not be literally true, the meaning that is revealed by the stories is true. Among contemporary educated people, myths are typically dismissed as childish fantasies or the unscientific gropings of primitive minds. But the mythological view of the world has always been, and still remains, an important way of understanding and appreciating our world. This is not because they explain natural phenomena. It is because myths bring us face to face with our deepest psychological and spiritual truths.
And in western Scripture, as in all great mythology, they do even more. Through allegory and symbol they provide psychological instructions for a soul that has descended into material life and must now find its way ‘home’ again. This journey of transformation, from inner slavery to spiritual awakening and enlightenment, has been called “The Return to the Promised Land”, “The Quest for the Holy Grail”, “Muhammad’s Journey to the Seven Heavens”, and many other names. In other words, all the sacred Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have the common aim of teaching us how to raise our level of Being and return to a state of conscious union with Divinity – a process that is universally known as Spiritual Initiation. When this common purpose is understood, the stunning underlying unity of all our Traditions is revealed, and the major motivation for religious hatred and war disappears. The different ways that these stories are told attests to the marvelous range of the human imagination, but the commonality of method and purpose that unites these stories is infinitely more striking than any of the differences.
But the stories are written in a perplexing symbolic code that requires a key. Otherwise, they appear to be little more than unverified historical claims, punctuated with improbable miracles, and teeming with violence, cruelty and hopeless demands for an inconsistent and unrealistic morality. Fortunately, a key still exists in our time. A key to understanding the symbolism of ancient Myth and Scripture can still be found in many of the writings of Plato and several other early philosophers. Before we look at the stories and consider their symbolic interpretations, we will need this information. So we have to begin with Socrates.