Digging for Treasure in the Bible

As we return to our series comparing accounts of the Great Flood, we need to recognize that Sacred Scripture hides its greatest truths from profane eyes.

I’ve been looking forward to returning, finally, to my blog series on “The Great Flood in Literature.” Although I said when I started that I wanted to demonstrate how the meaning of the story depends on the context and the way in which it is told, more than in the big plot elements, I also had a personal, ulterior motive. My secret reason for beginning this marathon exercise was to break through the surface of the Bible and really dig into the real heart of the matter: the thing that God is saying to me—to us all—in the great Story that He wrote for us.

I mentioned several times before (here and here, for example) that the Bible is not just an anthology of holy books, but tells a single, unified story that spans all of human history. But, being God’s story, it is not like the stories we normally read or write or tell. It is a story that is told for “ears that can hear,” one to be read by “eyes that can see.” Anyone can pick up a Bible and read it, of course, but not everyone will be able to see the truth embedded in its story or hear what is really being said. Part of the reason for that is that we don’t realize that the most important truths that the Bible has to convey are not visible on the surface. They are hidden, like a treasure buried in a field.

Living on the Surface

Until the dawn of the modern age, Christians believed in two “books of Divine Revelation,” one being Sacred Scripture and the other the Book of Nature. People knew how to see the truth of God in the created world around them, evidence of His Hand at work, and they believed in unseen realities just as easily as they believed in things they saw with their eyes. All that changed when Man began to think he himself could master nature and, consequently, began to ignore, depreciate, or even deny the existence of the supernatural.

As a result, most people in our modern age, (even many who consider themselves Christians) know and believe in very little beyond the surface of our life in this world. We live as if the surface is all that exists; we have superficial relationships and limit our aspirations to the things this material world can provide. Those with worldly power have their own reasons for not wanting us to look down beneath the surface—certainly not the surface of our everday life—because they know that if we peek beneath the veil that they have thrown over their own scheming, we will find all sorts of filth and corruption, monsters secretly grinding the weak and powerless of this world into a bloody mess, all to satisfy their own insatiable desires. Those things they keep carefully hidden because they don’t want their scheming to be found out. But that’s not the deeper meaning that I’m referring to.

The deepest and highest truths are the ones that the haughty powers of this world deny, believing that nothing can be higher and mightier than they themselves. They deal in lies because they don’t believe in truth, and they manipulate the organs of communication to cover up the truth about their worldly excesses and violations. All the more reason for those of us who believe in Truth to relearn how to see it wherever it is revealed. In nature, yes: Truth made this world and all that therein is, created order and beauty and all good things, living and inert. The Creator, being eternal and infinitely wise, knew before He began just how quickly his beautiful created order would be disfigured. Therefore, to protect the goodness and the truth that He has intended from the beginning to share with us, creatures made in His image, when He wrote His Story, he threw a veil over the Truth, not to hide it so much as to protect it from marauders and murderers. For those who earnestly seek it, the depth and beauty of Truth lies safe beneath its veil, unsullied and more beautiful, true, and good than any of us could ever hope or imagine.

Buried Treasure in the Bible

Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure buried in a field. Like a man who owns a field in which he has buried a great treasure, God wrote His story in such a way that the surface remains rather unremarkable in most places, so as not to give away its secrets to every passerby. But He wants us to use our eyes to look, our ears to hear what He really wants to tell us. Preoccupation with worldly matters, however, can easily blind and deafen even those who would like to hear what God has to say. If you don’t believe me, ask St. Augustine of Hippo.

In his Confessions, Augustine tells a story about how he himself let his professional pride and worldly ambitions blind him to the Truth of Sacred Scripture. As a young man, Augustine was a quite a hotshot, a rising star in fifth-century Roman high society. He had worked his way up from his lowly origins in Podunk, North Africa, first going off to the “big city” of Carthage to get an education and then slogging through years of teaching rich, rotten brats in Rome. He put up with his bratty pupils because that was the way to build his reputation as a rhetorician among the wealthy families who employed him.

His field of expertise, rhetoric (writing and speaking with persuasive power) had long been an important and admired art in the upper echelons of Roman society. Augustine studied all the Greats, so that he could become great himself; these included the greatest of all Roman orators, the long-dead Cicero. Marcus Tullius Cicero had been another self-made man who, five centuries before Augustine, had also worked his way up from a dusty little country town to the Big Top of Rome, largely by virtue of his rhetorical ability. Augustine absorbed everything Cicero could teach him and eventually, while still in his twenties, he achieved his dream job, writing clever speeches for the Emperor. He moved to Milan, where the Imperial court was then located, and prepared to get rid of his beloved common-law wife, the mother of his son, so that he could take on a trophy wife in high society. All the glitter and honor of the world was now within his grasp. Another year or two, and he would be as close to the top of the heap as he could ever hope to get.

If that had been all he wanted—worldly success, riches, power—today we would not know the name of Augustine of Hippo. In fact, there would never have been an “Augustine of Hippo,” since he never would have become bishop of that city. History would have made little note of one upstart African if two things hadn’t happened: Augustine read Cicero’s great (now lost) philosophical dialogue, Hortensius, and his mother, Monica, moved to Rome to be near the great bishop there, Ambrose. 

The Hortensius lit in Augustine an ardent desire to know Truth and convinced him that he could grasp the Truth in his mind if he dedicated himself to its contemplation. Suddenly, worldly honors began to lose their appeal. He considered quitting his job for the Emperor so that he could devote himself completely to philosophy. He was especially impressed by the Platonists, who regarded Truth itself as a transcendant reality, a kind of god–in fact, the only true God, eternal and incorporeal, not subject to change, corruption, or decay.

The great irony of Augustine’s life was that the very books that brought him to perceive that God is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness all in one also hindered his ability to accept the Christian faith. Although he had been educated in the faith as a boy, Augustine had never embraced it and remained unbaptized. He couldn’t believe that a God who was infinite Spirit would take on a material, human form and die. What is more, Augustine had tried reading the Bible and found it embarrassingly inferior to the carefully composed works he studied to perfect his own style of writing and speaking. His conclusion was that Christianity must be a religion that only the simple-minded and unsophisticated would fall for.

But his mother, Monica, a devout and lifelong Catholic Christian, convinced him that her bishop, Ambrose, was just the sort of man he should get to know: wise, well-regarded by important people in society and the government, and a marvelous preacher. These credentials convinced her ambitious son that he should meet the great man and see what profit he could gain by the association.

Augustine looked forward to showing off his argumentative skills against the bishop, but found that a private interview would be impossible, since Ambrose was constantly in demand to settle very practical (not rhetorical) disputes amongst the faithful. Not to miss an opportunity of knowing the influential bishop, Augustine stayed on to hear Ambrose preach, instead. He certainly was not prepared for the way that preaching would change his life.

Here is how Augustine himself explains how his false notions about Christianity were completed destroyed as he listened to Ambrose preaching:

Even if it was not yet evident that the Church taught the truth, yet she did not teach the things of which I harshly accused her. So I was confused with shame. I was being turned around. And I was glad, my God, that your one Church, the body of your only Son in which on me as an infant Christ’s name was put, did not hold infantile follies nor in her sound doctrine maintain that you, the Creator of all things, occupy a vast and huge area of space and are nevertheless bounded on all sides and confined within the shape of the human body. I was also pleased that when the old writings of the Law and the Prophets came before me, they were no longer read with an eye to which they had previously looked absurd, when I used to attack your saints as if they thought what in fact they did not think at all.

The Confessions (Oxford World’s Classics) p. 94. Henry Chadwick, trans.

One of the reasons that Augustine’s mistaken ideas were so quickly transformed was that the bishop, preaching to his Christian congregation, peeled back the surface of Scripture to reveal the sacred truths hidden inside. This is what made Augustine open the eyes of his heart to see the truth:

I was delighted to hear Ambrose in his sermons to the people saying, as if he were most carefully enunciating a principle of exegesis: ‘The letter kills, the spirit gives life’ (2 Cor. 3: 6). Those texts which, taken literally, seemed to contain perverse teaching he would expound spiritually, removing the mystical veil.

Although it would take a bit more convincing before Augustine would be willing to give up his worldly ambitions to embrace the Christian faith, the one real stumbling block that had stood in his way was suddenly removed. He had learned that spiritual truth was concealed beneath the literal meaning of the Biblical account.

The Letter Is the Just the Beginning of Truth

Augustine did not yet know it, but until he heard Ambrose preach, he had been like the crowds who liked to listen to Jesus tell stories but did not stay around long enough to learn what they meant. The thirteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel recounts just such a situation.

Jesus tells the parable of a sower who scatters seed, some on good ground, some on rocky, etc., with the yield of each depending on the quality of the soil on which it fell. Many of those listening to this simple story wander off afterward, probably not too impressed by this teacher who tells such dull, simple stories about things they already understood, such as agriculture. Taking His stories at face value, such people little suspect that they themselves are the stony soil referred to in the parable. Jesus’ true disciples—those who want to learn from him rather than simply to be entertained—realize that there is more to the story. When they ask Jesus why He speaks in parables rather than making his meaning plain, He explains that those who walked away were not really interested in the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. They were like those of whom Isaiah had prophesied:

“You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them.

Having explained this, Jesus goes on to reveal, to those who are eager to hear it, the meaning that lies beneath the literal story of the sower and the seed.

Since this is the way Sacred Scripture is written, with its deepest truths veiled by the surface of the account, as we approach the story of the Flood in Genesis to complete the comparison I began with the Epic of Gilgamesh and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I’ll need to go about things somewhat differently than I did with the pagan poems. As we look at the Biblical account of the Great Flood, first we’ll look at the literal level, which can be approached in much the same way we approached Metamorphoses and the Epic of Gilgamesh, but this will elucidate only what the human author intended: i.e., the literal meaning. Once we have done this, however, we will then go on to explore the spiritual meanings that elude those who take the story at face value. I think we’ll find that this simple story, as our Divine Creator tells it, has a lot more truth to convey than we ever suspected.

Next Time: Meet Joe Schmoe

The thing about spiritual truth is that, once you’ve seen it, you can never not see it. So, in order to look at the literal meaning of the Flood account in the Bible, I’m going to need some help from someone who has never read it before, who doesn’t even suspect that there is more to it than meets the eye, but who has all the skills of careful reading that he needs to do a good job of discerning what the human author intended. This “someone” is actually an imaginary friend of mine, whom I’ll call Joe Schmoe. You’ll meet him next time, when we finally resume our adventure in comparative mythology, reading the story of Noah and the Flood as if we had never read it before.

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