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The Divine Allegory
by Hugo Lj. Odhner

The story of the peoples and lands of scripute and their spiritual significance as revealed in the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1954)


"These things are an allegory."
                                                         Paul, in Galatians 4:24

"Everywhere in the Word there are internal things which never appear at all on the surface, except for a very few which the Lord revealed and explained to the apostles: such as that the sacrifices signify the Lord; that the land of Canaan and Jerusalem signify heaven - being called the 'heavenly Canaan' and the 'heavenly Jerusalem'; and that Paradise has a similar meaning."

"No one can know the spiritual sense of the Word except from the science of correspondences."

Emanuel Swedenborg

It is widely believed among Christians that the holy Bible is Divinely inspired and worthy to be called the Word of God. But if one asks wherein its holiness lies or what makes it different from other religious books, few can give any adequate answer. On the surface, or in its literal sense, the Bible is a history of men and nations, giving intimate glimpses of domestic bliss and of human folly, highlights of moral wisdom and of tender faith, as well as examples of the lowest depravity to which men can sink. If we reflect we must admit that if God is the real Author of the Bible, His infinite wisdom must be present in the whole and in every part, even where the subject matter ostensibly is confined to wars between nations or the frank outpourings of human emotions of fear or revenge.

And how could this be, unless the story of the Biblical nations were in fact a parable intended to teach a wisdom far beyond the literal meaning of the words spoken to the prophets and the apostles? If the Bible be indeed the Word of God, it must contain a substratum of spiritual teachings so inexhaustible and profound that it can enlighten and inspire all generations to come.

That such a depth of truth is indeed present in the history and rituals of the Jews has sometimes been suspected by earnest students of Scripture. Paul warned that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Corinthians 3:6) and found an allegorical meaning in the story of Abraham's two sons (Galatians 4:22-31). He showed that the priests ministering in the tabernacle had served "as an example and shadow of heavenly things" (Hebrews 8, 9). Paul glimpsed these things only in part, as "in an enigma" or as "through a glass, darkly". But the rediscovery of the ancient knowledge of "correspondences", now presented clearly in the theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, makes it possible to demonstrate to any open-minded Christian that the story of the lands and peoples of the Bible is truly a Divine allegory - a continuous thread of spiritual teachings which are concealed within the language of consistent symbols and parables and representations: teachings about the nature and eternal destiny of the soul, about the laws of the regeneration of man's spirit, and about the modes whereby God our Creator becomes the Lord our Redeemer.

* * * * *

The Word, as it exists on earth, is the eternal foundation of the wisdom of the heavens. In it Divine truth is finally crystallized in its last or ultimate form. It was given as a mirror for all possible states of human life, in which we may see the relations of these states in their connection and contrast, and see their progressions as the angels see them, with the hope that we may thus be consociated with heaven.

Even a simple reading of the Sacred Scripture begins to accomplish these ends. For the Word - in its most obvious meaning - is clearly an account of how the Lord the Creator and Savior guided the human race toward an eventual salvation. Aside from its moral philosophy, which even the scoffer admires, it is a study of the ways of God with man and a record of man's fickle responses.

But in the New Church, we are promised, "every Divine truth of the Word in the sense of the letter with the men of that Church is translucent from the Divine truth in the spiritual sense" (AR 911). The spiritual sense is disclosed in the Writings, in order that the literal sense of the Word may become more and more a mirror of the Lord and of His Divine order. The objective in any New Church study of the letter of the Word is that the spiritual sense within it may come to light.

This objective is impossible of fulfillment unless the sense of the Letter be understood. It must be read and known and studied. It is true that the angels who attend man when he reverently reads the Word, do understand the internal sense without any idea of the persons and places about which man reads. And this is true also of the interior degrees of man's mind - upon which, subconsciously, spiritual ideas are inscribed without his knowledge; but man cannot on earth utilize these spiritual ideas, or think about them, or discuss them, unless he has seen them, either from open doctrine or in the sense of the Letter when this is rendered transparent.

Emanuel Swedenborg, in preparation for his mission as revelator, spent three years (1745-1748) in an intensive study of the literal sense of the Word; and this despite his having already been a constant reader of the Bible since his childhood. He was first led to search the literal sense and to see therein genuine truths of doctrine, before he could perceive the spiritual sense which he published in the Arcana Coelestia. And then the Heavenly Doctrine - which is a one with the internal sense of the Word - was published in a new series of volumes.

This is the order which we also need to follow. We cannot divorce the Doctrine from its foundations in Scripture. How can we understand what the 'New Jerusalem' implies, if we know nothing about the old Jerusalem? How can we follow the intricacies of the spiritual teachings given in the Arcana Coelestia, unless we have a clear idea of the natural events and the places and peoples that stand as the ultimate background of their representations and outline the connections between the spiritual states that are described? And abstract doctrines, even if known, are difficult to bear in mind, or to recollect, unless they are associated - by correspondence - with imagery from the natural world, through which they are suggested and held in their sacred connection.

For these reasons it is useful to take up the study of the places and the peoples about which the Word speaks in its letter. These places and these people were chosen for their role by a Divine selection. The more nearly we come to know and understand the peoples and the situations spoken of in the sense of the letter, the more details and the more profound depths can we discern in the spiritual meaning within. The less we know about the natural sense, the more general and obscure the internal sense becomes; as we may confirm from the fact that the Writings say about some nations, "What is signified by these cannot so well be seen, because they are not mentioned in other parts of the Word ..." (AC 1183, 1153, etc.); and of some others, "By these nations are signified so many rituals . . . But what these kinds of ritual are, it is impossible to say, because they are determined by their relation to the worship itself, and until this is known nothing can be said about its rituals; nor would it be of any use to know them; neither do the names recur in the Word . . ." (AC 1247).

It stands to reason that if we had an intimate knowledge of oriental life and customs, the literal sense of the Word would be endowed for us with new and more precise shades of meaning which would render it more transparent to the living spirit within. For words mean different things to different ages; and the same holds true of names and places, objects and gestures.. Many an obscure passage in the Prophets, referring to some strange little village or district, has received a new glow of beauty or a new and forceful meaning since archeologists have unearthed its secrets from the sand: perhaps it had a shrine to the Moon-goddess, or was a source of some spice for the sacrifices; perhaps it was the place of some decisive battle. Generations of New Church scholars are yet to come who will restore the ancient landmarks of the Word, and make its letter speak with a greater power. But in the meanwhile, the clergy and laity of the Church can at least learn to love the sacred books and seek to read their story with a sympathetic heart, maintain the study of its sacred languages - the Hebrew and the Greek - and encourage a more correct translation than the present versions, which still speak, in places, in the tones of old church theology.

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