The Book of Mormon contains an allegory or two, maybe more than the New Testament, and it presupposes a typological interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. But if my perception is accurate, as a whole we are not very willing to interpret the Book of Mormon other than literally. Which is curious, not because the boundaries between literal and non-literal interpretation are questionable, being tied up with appeals to (objective) history and authorial intent, but because the Book of Mormon itself offers at least one non-literal interpretation of itself. Referring to the Liahona, Alma tells Helaman:

And now, my son, I would that ye should understand that these things are not without a shadow; for as our fathers were slothful to give heed to this compass (now these things were temporal) they did not prosper; even so it is with things which are spiritual. For behold, it is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land. And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise.

If Alma can read sections of 1 Nephi other than literally, why can’t we do the same? Before getting too carried away, it should be noted that Alma gives no indication of doubt as to the historicity of the Liahona. In fact, he would have had the compass in his possession along with the records and interpreters that he was entrusting to Helaman. That is, for Alma, non-literal interpretation was not necessarily mutually exclusive of literal; literal interpretation need not be threatened by non-literal.

With this in mind, I’d like to issue a friendly challenge. Liken the scriptures to yourselves and do what Alma did. Read the Book of Mormon typologically or allegorically and see what happens. Should you need inspiration, you might consider Middle- and Neo-platonic interpretation of Homer, in which Odysseus is read as the soul, Circe as the danger of reincarnation, the Cyclops as attempted suicide, and the cave of Nymphs as the cosmos in miniature. As Porphyry writes, “when one takes into consideration the ancient wisdom and the vast intelligence of Homer … one cannot reject the idea that he has hinted at images of more divine things in molding his little story.”

6 Replies to “Allēgoroumena”

  1. I am surprised that suicide would be looked upon negatively by Middle- and Neo-Platonists since their contemporary Stoics, referring to the same Socrates as model wise man, totally allowed for and even romanticized suicide as a proper final action for the philosopher. Did the Middles and Neos allow for suicide if permission was granted by the divinity? I have been reading Seneca all day and I have the suicide-of-the-wise-man motif on the brain.

    In regard to your challenge, I am constantly amazed at church members who staunchly refuse to see the temple rites/drama as anything but literal even though GAs keep asserting how symbolic everything is and how they are keep learning stuff when they go to the temple. GAs insist on symbolism, members scream literalism and get their dander up if somebody says otherwise. Yes, I am painting in broad strokes.

  2. #1, Outside of divine revelation, neither you nor I have the slightest idea of what was “true” 2500 years ago in the American continents (or really anywhere). Perhaps you might say we have the evidence (ruins, etc.) of things not seen with our visible eyes, and with these remnants we hopefully apply interpretations to them.

    I agree with this post and I love looking at the scriptures in the BoM and in the Old Testament in new ways other than just sticking to the historical narrative in the text. Interestingly enough I think this is what the teaching manuals attempt to do and get flayed for it over all over the place online.

  3. I didn’t get too far: How about Lehi as the Super-ego, Nephi as the Ego, and Laman and Lemeul as the Id? or Lehi as Spirit, Nephi as Reason and Laman and Lemuel as Appetite.

  4. chris h,

    since folks like yourself in the b-nac are already comfortable with less than literal interpretation, i probably should have used a passive agressive exortation (let’s …) instead of imperatives.

    i admit to being a little duplicitous in my claim that non-literal need not threaten literal or serve as a last ditch effort. but i did just read that philo judaeus apparently believed as much. so alma is in good company.


    i’m not up on stoic suicide. perhaps you could post something in it. one of plotinus’ commentators in the 6th century says that plotinus rejected all five stoic motives, and he preserves a frament of a work that looks to be by plotinus (enn. 1.9). i gather that there is debate as to whether the fragment is as strict as the commentator says. still it looks like plotinus allows for suicide only with the onset insanity, but even then he equivocates.

    i don’t know how he would have dealt with socrates’ suicide (maybe he does somewhere). the reasons against it are that you don’t want to shorten your chances for betterment and progress in this life, with their accordant status in the hereafter, and that suicide involves the very passions and emotions that the philosopher must free himself from in order to ascend to the one. plotinus also seems to hold somewhat to the astrological notion that time of death is already set with the horoscope and ought not to be otherwise. also, contrary to the practice among some religious studies professors (of the 1960s), plotinus does not think that drug induced altered states of conciousness are good for the soul.

    this is what porphyry says about it in his cave of nymphs:

    “It was not in the nature of things for Odysseus to cast off this life of the senses simply by blinding it — and attempt to put an end to it abruptly — and the wrath of the gods of the sea and of matter came upon him as a result of his presumption in trying to do so. These gods must first be appeased by sacrifice and by the hard labor of the poor and by patience. He must at one moment confront and conquer the passions, then bewitch and trick them and so totally free himself from them that, stripped of his rags, he may destroy them all — and even so, he will not be freed from his labors until he has become completely free of the sea and wiped away his very experience of the sea and of matter, so that he thinks an oar is a winnowing fan in utter ignorance of the business of seafaring.”

    the translation is from lamberton’s edition (he also has a book on middle and neoplat allegorical interpretation of homer called homer the theologian). as lamberton points out, according to porphyry’s own words in his bio of plotinus, plotinus narrowly saved porphyry from taking his life one day (whether he was depressed or just eager to get to heaven, i don’t know).

    which is interesting, since in his criticism of the (sethian) gnostics (enn 2.9) plotinus suggests that they might as well go ahead and kill themselves if they think the creator and creation are so bad.

    and in zostrianos (nhc 8.1), when the author gets overwhelmed trying to wrap his head around the finer points of protology, he decides to kill himself so as to find out:

    “While pondering these things to understand them, then after the custom of my reace I kept bringing them up daily to the god of my fathers. I kept praising them all, for my fore-fathers and fathers who sought found. As for me, I did not cease seeking a place of repose worthy of my spirit where I would not be bound in the perceptible world. Then, as I was deeply troubled and gloomy because of the discouragement which surrounded me, I dared to act and to deliver myself to the wild beasts of the desert for a violent death.”

    The story seems plausible enough to me. Then an angel shows up and chews him out for considering suicide. But of course the angel then takes the author on an out of body soul flight. So everyone’s happy.


    you raise a fair point about the manuals that is worth some follow up. for my part, i would say that there is a difference between ignoring the more literal and historical intepretation and suspending or subverting it in order to allegorize or whatever. but i could be wrong.


    sure, why not a psychoanalytic interpretation? you should develop this. my secret hope in posting was that others would come up with the interpretations that i lack the creativity for myself.

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