Getting beyond the literal meaning of the letter of the Word

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Reading: Gen 22:1-14

Arcana Coelestia 2831[10] …The reason why in the Word facts are called ‘thickets’ is that facts are by nature like thickets, especially when the desires of self-love and love of the world, and false assumptions, exert an influence on them.  Celestial and spiritual love is a love which arranges into order the facts that belong to the external memory, whereas self love and love of the world disrupt that order and bring confusion to everything there.  These are matters of which man is not aware because he takes that to be order which in fact is perverted order, that to be good which in fact is evil, and that to be truth which in fact is falsity; therefore those things are ‘in a thicket’.


And then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns.  So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. Gen 22v13.

All the stories of the Word found in the Bible present as a history of ancient peoples and their relationship to the Divine. We know from the Heavenly Doctrines however that on deeper examination that these stories describe spiritual states of life within the human mind that arise from its affirmation or rejection of goods and truths from the Lord’s Word.  Now because the things described in every part of the Word have an inner meaning that lies beyond its surface meaning and speaks to spiritual realities, there is a need for us to be able to extract ourselves from the temporal and natural associations that arise from it when reading the letter if we are to access the power of the Word as a true support for living a spiritually focused life.   That this is the case can be seen from this statement from the Arcana Coelestia,

It should be recognised that the internal sense is such that it holds no concept of time, a feature to which the original language also lends itself. Sometimes one and the same word there can apply to past, present, or future time, without using different words.  In this way interior things come out more clearly into the open. That language (Hebrew) derives this characteristic from the internal sense which is more manifold than anyone would ever credit. For this reason it does not allow itself to be limited by temporal connotations and distinctions. Arcana Coelestia 618

Now it is true that for you and I it’s often a struggle to get beyond thinking naturally about what is in essence a spiritual text when we read the Word.  But if we want to get beyond the literal meaning of the text then we must learn to read beyond it and the only way we can do that is to read it consciously, ever aware of its true nature and the tendency to have our attention captured by the natural meanings, associations and imagery that the facts found in the literal sense stir up in our minds.  Take a moment to think about the associations that arose for you when you heard this story of Abraham and Isaac read today.  Where was your attention placed?  For most of us I suspect our attention would have been drawn into its details as historical facts.  Were you able to extract your thought from natural associations?  Let’s take just one verse…

Genesis 22:13 Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son.

What is the meaning that comes to you in hearing these words?  For most people it describes an event in the history, their thought is locked into notions of a man named Abraham and his son Isaac.  But we know that the Word is not concerned with the life of Abraham, or Isaac or any other historical figure found within it, for its purpose as divine revelation is not to give us the personal history of people in the past but to provide people in the present with what is essential for their spiritual life.  If the Word is simply giving us some historical facts about someone called Abraham finding a ram in a thicket which he then substituted as a sacrifice in place of his son and went no further we would be hard pressed to say that it’s worthy of being attributed to the Divine as a revelation.

And so it is for many people who on reading or hearing the Word see only a collection of historical facts that may or may not have actually occurred and so end up rejecting it as having no worth beyond being some historical curiosity.  How mistaken they are, for the Word is from the divine and its form is the divine form by which goods and truths from heaven can be communicated to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.  Yet even for those of us who are affirmative of the divine nature of the Word and its teaching it is still difficult to break free of the literal meaning of the words and enter into its spiritual meaning.

New Church teaching states that the Word is written in correspondences, or if you like everything in it has a direct connection with spiritual realities, it corresponds to them, and so can connect people with them when it is approached in humility from an acknowledgement that it is divine.  Now by spiritual realities nothing else is meant than those things related to the structure and function of the human mind.  So everything in the Word has a level of meaning directed towards providing us with a deeper understanding of our states of mind so that we can enter consciously into the work of its regeneration by the Lord.  This is the purpose for a divine revelation being given to the human race.  With these things in mind we can now proceed in our look at this text from the basis that the people and things mentioned there tell the story of your relationship to, and experience of the Word.

Despite the fact that new church teaching states that the Word has a deeper meaning we know from first hand experience that knowing this doesn’t necessarily make that deeper meaning any easier for us to access.  We come to the Word, read a passage like this, and really struggle to grasp its spiritual meaning and application.  It’s like the power of our mind for seeing what is spiritual gets so caught up in the literal meaning of the words that it can’t move beyond the natural associations these present to our understanding.  The literal meaning of the words seem to captivate our thinking processes in a thicket of natural associations much like the thicket in the story that holds the ram by the horns.

In fact it is this very issue that the inner meaning of this verse is concerned with.  It’s describing our experience of the Word when we can’t get beyond its literal meaning.  A thicket in the Word corresponds to the mass of facts found in its literal sense and the ram corresponds to our affection for spiritual truths. Now a ram’s horns are where its power is able to be concentrated in full.  And because the horns are an extension of the skull or head, they corresponding to the intellectual faculty through which the affection for truth concentrates its power.  So we see illustrated here in the story our tendency to have our intellectual powers caught up in the natural associations inherent in the literal sense of the Word.  The dominance of such associations in our minds when we read the Word is due to our attachment to the loves of self and the world which sees only what is natural as having any reality and regards spiritual things as non-existent.  The effect of the presence of these lower loves, and in particular their attachment to our sense of self, is what makes it difficult for people to see beyond the surface meaning of the words themselves.

We have to get beyond the natural associations of the letter if the spiritual meaning is to emerge.  In order to help us to do that the Lord has provided us with teachings that illuminate the Sacred Scriptures opening up the possibility to those who are prepared to respond to them in a life committed to self examination and repentance to see the Lord within them.  The Heavenly Doctrines teach that “characters” or “persons” found in the letter of the Word are not to be thought of as persons at all, but that the “proper names” found there describe particular qualities of spiritual and celestial realities that relate to the thought and affectional processes active in our minds.  The Heavenly Doctrines deal at length with representation of Abraham and Isaac in volumes 2 and 3 of the Arcana Coelestia but in general terms we can say that Abraham represents what is of a celestial quality in the Word and Isaac the spiritual aspects that proceed forth from that.  Or another way of saying this is to say that Abraham represents what relates to the Divine Love and Isaac represents things belonging to Divine Wisdom.  These qualities are found within the Word and they reside in our minds by when we look to live from the Word as the basis for our life.

When we see that Abraham represents the Divine Love we can then see that he must represent the Lord Himself who is the very embodiment of that love.  Now the Divine Love is concerned with one thing and one thing alone, and that is the salvation of the human race.  The means by which it accomplishes that is the Word, which as the light of heaven or divine truth is able to penetrate into the darkness of fallen human consciousness and reveal what binds us to hell and its influence.  You will notice that in the story it is Abraham that frees the ram from the thicket due to the prompting from what is described there as the Angel of the Lord.  These four elements, the Angel of the Lord, Abraham, the ram and the thicket collectively form different levels of consciousness that are active in the human mind due to the presence of the Word there.  The story describes our state when of our sense of self is stuck at the level of the thicket as we struggle to get beyond the sense of the letter of the Word.

We have to compel ourselves to work with the Word and make every effort to see how it is to be applied in dealing with our thought and affectional life by getting our horns or minds engaged with it.  It is when we apply our minds to understanding it with a view to examining our life that a process is initiated whereby our intellectual faculties can be freed up and purified so as to discern its deeper meaning and applications.  If we won’t do this then it will largely remain closed as to its inner meaning.  So what motivates a person to actually engage in this struggle?  How can knowing that the Word is divine and that it’s the means by which our salvation is effected translate into actually getting engaged with it on a daily basis?  Well we have to come to see for ourselves that the Sacred Scriptures and the Heavenly Doctrines are the Word and as such are the Lord Jesus Christ present with us.  They are the Lord in His Divine Human fully present in the world today.

The Heavenly Doctrines in dealing with this passage state that Abraham specifically represents the Lord’s Divine Human.  The Angel of the Lord in this case represents the Divine in Itself.  The voice of the Angel of the Lord which Abraham responds to corresponds to the communication of the Lord’s love for the human race that comes forth from the inmost level of the Word into truths that make up the Divine Human that can then exert their influence on those truths from the Word that make up its letter, the thicket, using our affection for truth or effort to engage with it represented by the ram.

This process by which we can be released from natural associations when reading the Word and enter into the deeper things of the Spirit found there can only take place when we acknowledge that the Word is Divine, which is the same as saying the Lord’s Human is Divine, for the Lord’s Human incorporates all truths accommodated to human and angelic apprehension and as remarkable as this may sound these are found in all their fullness in the Word we have in our possession.  Once the Word is seen for what it truly is, that it is the Lord, we will engage with it because when we see this our relationship to it will be changed forever.  Such an acknowledgement will be seen in a life of engagement with the Word that involves the work of self examination and repentance.  We will find that our desire for it will strengthen as we look to it as the Lord in search for its meaning and applications to our inner life.

Genesis 22:13 Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son.


About David Millar

My passion revolves around supporting people to engage with the Lord's Word, or Divine truths in the form of sacred texts, to cultivate an intentional spiritual practice. Through the works penned by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) we find that the Biblical texts contain a deeper meaning that, once understood, enables them to be applied in ways that open the human mind to the realisation of its spiritual potential. The goal of the Divine Life is to free each and every human being from the pain of self centred living and bring them into the experience of all that is heavenly through the promotion of what is genuinely good and true. The material shared here is offered in the pursuit of that aim.
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