The Bible and English Literature by Northrop Frye - Full Lecture 3

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Bill Somerville
Robert Sandler
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Bob Rodgers
Robert Fysh (2008)
Jane Widdicombe

Northrop Frye and Michael Dolzani

Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University




This program initiates an examination of the imagery of the Bible, beginning with the category of the paradisal. The controlling images of this category are those of the tree and water of life, which stand for the ideal form of human existence. They also form a framework for the entire narrative of the Bible: the first event in the Bible is the loss of the tree and water of life in the Book of Genesis; the last event is the regaining of the tree and water of life in the Book of Revelation. This program also introduces the principle of typology, whereby every event in the Old Testament is a type, of which the New Testament contains the fulfillment or antitype.

Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts

  1. The paradisal: the ideal mode of human existence, the world God made for man rather than a world shaped by human effort.
  2. The paradisal is represented in the Bible by the garden of Eden (group form) and by the images of the tree and water of life (individual form).
  3. The garden of Eden was watered by four rivers, the Tigris, Euphrates, Gihon (Nile) and Pison (Ganges or Indus, according to Josephus).
  4. The Old Testament refers both to a sea of fresh water above the firmament (much higher than rain clouds) and a sea of fresh water below the earth.
  5. The water of life is not ordinary water but 'living water', in which man could live as he does in air.
  6. The first event in the Bible: loss of the tree and water of life. The last event: regaining the tree and water in Revelation 22.
  7. The New Testament's attitude to the Old Testament is expressed in typology: what happens in the Old Testament is a prophecy or type of what will happen in the New: what happens in the New Testament is a clarification or fulfillment, the antitype of what happened in the Old Testament. Adam is a type of Christ; baptism is an antitype of Noah's flood.
  8. The Old Testament type of the restoration of the water of life in Revelation: the redemption of the salt (dead) water of the Dead Sea in Ezekiel 47. Revelation's 'there was no more sea' means no more dead water, that is, no more death.

Biblical Passages Cited

Genesis 2:9.—The times of life and of the knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 1:1 f.f., 2:4 f.f.— The P (Priestly) and J (Jahwist) accounts of Creation.

Genesis 2:10.—The four rivers of Eden.

Genesis 1:6.—Creation of the firmament: the waters above and the waters below.

Psalm 148:4.—The waters above the firmament.

Genesis 7:11.—The windows of heaven and fountains of the deep.

Genesis 3:22-23.—Expulsion from the garden: loss of the tree and water of life. God addressing council of 'gods'.

Revelation 22:1-2.—Regaining of the tree and water of life.

Ezekiel 47:7-12.—The redeeming of the Dead Sea by the spring in the rebuilt temple. 'Very many trees'—plural form of the tree of life.

Revelation 21:1.—'There was no more sea'.

The Teacher's Perspective

1.       The Organizing Principles of This Series: Language, Myth, Metaphor, Typology.

The Bible may be looked at both as a narrative pattern of events in time and as a simultaneous structure of imagery. Program 2 introduced the respective informing principles of both these perspectives, myth and metaphor. Together, these comprehend the imaginative aspect of the Bible: they are the elements the Bible has in common with other literature, and are the major focus of the first part of this series, programs 1-15. But as well as an imaginative aspect, the Bible has what The Great Code calls a 'metahistorical' aspect (p. 52), which is closely related to the rhetoric of social concern (kerygma) that constitutes its linguistic idiom. The informing principle of this metahistorical aspect is typology, introduced at the end of this program.

In other words, the Bible is an intricate unity of the four factors introduced in these first three programs: language, myth, metaphor and typology. Such is the principle on which The Great Code is organized, as is clearly reflected in its chapter titles.

Typology will figure intermittently (but importantly) in the following programs, expecially in program 12, The Double Mirror. But its fullest elaboration is in the second part of the series, programs 16-30, which examine the phases of revelation that emerge out of Biblical typology. Meanwhile, having introduced our guiding principles, we settle down, beginning with this program, to an examination of the Bible's structure of imagery, that is, its interpenetrating categories of metaphor.

2. Gardens, trees and water

The images of the garden, and of the tree and water of life, are central to the imagery of Western literature: the two most important poets who took their subject matter directly from Christianity, Dante and Milton, deal with these images prominently, and the teacher may choose to compare Canto XXIII of thePurgatorio with the description of Eden in Paradise Lost, Book IV. To these medieval and Renaissance examples he might add a modern, Eliot's 'Burnt Norton', first of the Four Quartets, with its episode of the rose garden.

Some corollary images can be pointed out. The tree of life may bear the flower of life: in the west, this has traditionally been the rose; in the east, usually the lotus. In Eliot's rose garden, when the dry pool fills with water and 'the lotus rose', both flowers are present by way of a pun, the flower of life floating upon the water of life. The rose of love is sometimes imaged as springing from the sorrow of the cross: see Yeats, 'To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time' and Edith Sitwell's 'The Canticle of the Rose'.

Also closely associated is the imagery of childhood, and especially of the loss of childhood and innocence, as in the elusive laughter of the children in Eliot's rose garden. The class may examine the Biblical overtones in the imagery of Dylan Thomas' 'Fern Hill, and Wordsworth's 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality', with its 'tree of many one' and its 'immortal sea'.

The image of the garden paradise is for from being confined to a Biblical context. A book on the art of Minoan Crete will provide pictures of the many beautiful cylinder seals portraying a garden presided over by a goddess figure, with a tree of life in the center of it: these seals are something like 3500 years old. In Classical imagery, the garden becomes the garden of the Hesperides, as in Tennyson's haunting poem 'The Hesperides'. In the east, it is the Bo tree, beneath which the Buddha attained enlightenment. In many non-Biblical mythologies, it becomes the 'world tree' or axis mundi, the 'axle tree' of 'Burnt Norton'; the Bible deals with this image as a demonic parody, as we shall see in the next program.

Above all, the paradisal garden is the symbolic place of origin. This may be considered psychologically, where it becomes a myth of childhood innocence, or even of the bliss of the unborn child in the womb. Or it may be considered historically, in which case it becomes the focus of the continuing debate over what constitutes a civilized state for man. Is it a state of culture, as the Renaissance considered, or a state of nature, as in Rousseau and in many other writers from the Romantic age forward, as for example D.H. Lawrence? In an age when industrialism is destroying much of the environment, and big cities are commonly described as 'cancers', the teacher should have no trouble getting the class to discuss the potency of this pastoral image in our time. This part of the program overlaps with the discussion of the agricultural imagery of civilization in program 7, which may be consulted for other references.

Supplementary Reading

1. Biblical Passages.

Romans 5:14.—'the figure (typos) of him who was to come'.

I Peter 3:21.— 'the like figure whereunto even baptism doth now also save us'.

Isaiah 51:3.— 'he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord'.

Ezekiel 36:35.—'This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden'.

Isaiah 61:3.—'that they might be called trees of righteousness'.

Jeremiah 2:13.—'they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters'.

Jeremiah 17:8.—'as a tree planted by the waters'.

Jeremiah 17:13.—'the fountain of living waters'.

John 7:37.— 'If any man thirst, let him come unto me'.

John 7:38. — 'out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water'.

John 3:5.—'born of water and of the Spirit'.

Revelation 7:17.—'living fountains of waters'.

2.    Corresponding Passages in The Great Code

Chapter Six. Metaphor II.

pp. 144-148. Paradisal imagery: garden, trees and water.

Chapter Four. Typology I.

pp. 78-80. The nature of typology.

3. Other

Sumerian Mythology. Samuel Noah Kramer, revised edition, Harper and Brothers, 1961. To supplement material on Sumerian mythology found in the lecture transcript for this program.

Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions

  1. The phrase 'get back to the garden', mentioned in the seminar portion of this program, comes from Joni Mitchell's song 'Woodstock'. Bob Dylan's 'Gates of Eden, says 'There are no truths outside the gates of Eden'. The movement towards 'alternative life styles' that began in the period when these songs were written assumed that we can get back to the garden: that to some degree at least, the paradisal ideal is still achievable in human life. Do you agree or disagree, and for what reasons?
  2. Discuss the various ways of getting 'back to the garden' in the following works of American literature; Thoreau's Walden, Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, Faulkner's Go Down, Moses.
  3. In Milton's Paradise Lost, Adam is told that although man has lost the garden of Eden until the end of time, he will be granted a 'paradise within thee, happier far' (Book XII, 587). Discuss the possible implications of this phrase, its relation to Satan's 'myself am Hell' (IV, 75); see also XII,463-65, 'then this Earth/Shall all be Paradise, far happier place/Than this of Eden, and far happier days'.

Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University



I was speaking last day of a number of ups and downs in a chart that looked like the Loch Ness monster: of Israel rising to a certain ideal level, and then dropping to a level of bondage or invasion or exile. And I suggested that the categories on top and the categories on the bottom are all metaphorically identical with one another. One has to understand the extent to which the Bible relies on metaphorical identification. Metaphor in the Bible is not an ornament of language: it is the controlling mode of thought, and metaphor is a statement which grammatically reads, 'this is that'. As all statements that two things are the same thing while being two things are illogical, or rather anti-logical, we have to take into consideration too, as one of the important things about the Bible, that it is not using a language of logic or predication. It is using a language which it has in common with poetry, but using it for a slightly different purpose.

I said that there was, first of all, a story at the beginning of the Bible according to which Adam was placed in the garden of Eden and was then thrown out of it into the wilderness. We can call this, if you like, the paradisal form of existence. On the ideal side we have the apocalyptic: 'apocalypse' means 'revelation'. The last book in the Bible is Apocalypsis Iohannis—the Apocalypse, or Revelation of John. What the Bible has to reveal is, among other things, an ideal mode of living, which exists in various categories. The first category that's presented to us is the paradisal one, which is given us in the form of a garden or oasis. The paradisal is represented as the world that God made to put man into, rather than a world which achieved its form through human effort. And of course, for desert dwellers, the oasis, with its trees and water, would be the perfect image of providential creation, of something provided for man, without man's needing to do anything about it.

All these images in the Bible have both a group form and an individual form. The individual form of this garden or oasis imagery is the imagery of trees and water. We are told that there were two trees in the garden of Eden—the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There are certain complications there that we'll come to later: they would be metaphorically the same tree in two different areas or categories of existence. But we can say that there is the tree of life and the water of life. The water of life is not explicitly called that in the Genesis account. But it is quite clear that that is what it is from the use of the image elsewhere in the Bible. There are several interesting things about this. The account in Genesis doesn't speak, as I say, explicitly of the water of life, but it does speak of rivers.

There are two accounts of creation in the Book of Genesis. The one with which the Bible begins is a much later account: it's known as the Priestly account, and is a kind of semi-philosophical cosmogony. A much earlier account begins in chapter 2, verse 4, beginning with the paragraph, 'These are generations of the heavens and of the earth'. The way you tell it from its predecessor is that the word for God suddenly changes. In the first chapter of Genesis we read, 'In the beginning, the Elohim created the heavens and the earth'. That word 'Elohim' is plural. The 'im' ending is a regular Hebrew plural: and so it would be theoretically possible, though very bad scholarship, to translate the opening verse of Genesis as 'In the beginning, the gods created heaven and earth', a fact which greatly amused Voltaire when he learned it. But the fact had been known for many centuries before him, and St. Augustine had explained the plural form as referring to the Christian Trinity—which isn't very much better as scholarship. But actually, the 'im' is what is known as an intensive plural, a plural of majesty or impressiveness. When somebody told an off­color joke in the presence of Queen Victoria, she said, 'We are not amused', meaning the British Empire as represented by Queen Victoria: that was the use of an intensive plural. And so you get the plural form of God used in the first chapter of Genesis. Then in the second chapter, beginning in the fourth verse, the name for God shifts to 'Yahweh'. Nobody knows how it was pronounced: it's four Hebrew Letters. As you perhaps realize, in Old Testament Hebrew, only the consonants are written down, and all the vowels—or practically all the vowels—are editorial. The result was that in reading from the Scriptures in public worship, this word 'Yahweh' was regarded as too secret to be pronounced, so a different set of vowels was substituted from the word 'Adonai', which means 'Lord', and that gave you a hybrid form that would be something like 'Jehovah' and, by way of Luther's German Bible, that got into English as the normal anglicization of this word 'Yahweh'.

It is only in this second account that you get much emphasis on the story of the garden, the oasis. We are told that there was a river which watered the whole garden. It's spoken of as a single river in chapter 2, verse 10—'And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads'. Then the four rivers are listed. Two of them are the Euphrates and Tigris of Mesopotamia. The word 'Mesopotamia' means 'the land between the two rivers'. And the third, the Gihon, apparently is the Nile. The fourth one is more mysterious. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, who lived in New Testament times, the fourth river was the Gangas: he probably meant the Indus. But in any case, you have then a garden stretching from Egypt to India, which would provide a fair amount of space for two people to wander in. And it is watered by four rivers that are explicitly said to have one source.

In fact, the Creation, in the Yahwist (or Jahwist) account, begins with the watering; of the garden in verse 6. 'But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground'. The word 'mist', though it's a fairly accurate rendering of the Hebrew word, doesn't make much sense in this context The Septuagint, the Greek translation, has pege, 'fountain', and the fountain is something that recurs throughout the imagery of the Bible.

What is interesting is the assumption that there are two seas to the earth—a sea of sweet, or fresh water, and a sea of salt water. After all, it's a matter of common observation that fresh water is under the ground, because it comes up in springs and in wells. Therefore you have, scattered through the early books of the Bible, various references to a sea of fresh water under the ground. It is this sea of fresh water that waters the garden of Eden.

In the Ten Commandments, the second commandment forbids the Israelites to make an image of any god, including the god of the waters under the earth. That suggests by implication that there must have been other people living near the Israelites who did have such gods and did have statues and temples erected in their honor. The Sumerians, who are the beginning of Near Eastern civilization, had such a god, by the name of Enki. He was, like many fertility gods, an un­wearied seducer of female divinities. But he also seems to have been something of a protector of the human race, and speaks up for it when the equivalent of the flood story turns up and the gods propose to destroy humanity.

The kingdom which replaced Sumeria was the kingdom of Akkad, a Semitic kingdom that spoke a Semitic language and took most of its mythology over from Sumer. They also had a god of the sweet waters, which they called Abzu. Some people have tried to connect it with the Greek word, 'abyss'. His consort, Tiamat, was the goddess of the bitter waters, the salt waters. According to the Akkadian creation poem, Abzu was killed and his consort Tiamat, now a widow, decided to revenge herself on the gods. The gods were terrified of her, except for the hero god Marduk. Marduk killed Tiamat, split her in two, and made the heavens out of half of her body and the earth out of the other half.

That story of the creation beginning with the dragon-killing is something that the Hebrew authors of the Old Testament were quite familiar with, though they used it as poetic imagery, not as a matter of belief. Even the late account of creation in Genesis 1 with which the Bible begins, has some faint echoes of an earlier account where the creation was the result of a victory over a dragon. Genesis begins, 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void': Tohu wa bohu. 'And darkness was upon the face of the deep'. The word 'deep' is tehom. And the scholars tell us that those Hebrew words are connected etymologically with the proper name 'Tiamat', the goddess of the bitter waters. The Biblical account of creation makes it out of a chaos, which is a more philosophical version of the salt sea: nevertheless, the sea remains an image of chaos all through the Bible.

In addition to the fresh water sea under the ground, there is also assumed to be a source of fresh water up in the sky, much higher up than the rain clouds. In the first chapter of Genesis we are told that after the creation of light there was a creation of a firmament, that is, a sky which divided the waters below from the waters above. Those waters above the heavens are referred to later in Psalm 148. Only once in history did these two bodies of water, above and below, prove destructive: that was when, at the time of Noah's flood, they poured in to reinforce the rains and the bursting out of the sea, and helped to drown the world. In Genesis 7:11, 'In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights'. The windows of heaven suggest a source of water above the rain clouds. If you look at that Psalm that I mentioned earlier, Psalm 148, in the fourth verse: 'Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens'. Well, it's a matter of common observation that the rain clouds are below the heavens. And the implication of there being water above, or behind the windows of heaven, indicates another dimension of water. So that you are, first of all, presented with a conception of a water of life which is both above and below, and that leads to the suggestion that the water of life that is being talked about here is not quite the same thing as ordinary drinking water. In other words, the suggestion is that man could live in water like a fish: there would be a state of existence in which water does not necessarily drown, in which man can live in water as one of his own elements.

All through the early books of the Bible, particularly in the account of the Exodus, the wanderings in the wilderness, the water supply was naturally a matter of life and death, so there are a great many references to trees and water. One of the most important contrasts in Biblical imagery is the contrast between living water and dead water. The great weakness of the King James Bible as a translation is its fondness for rationalized translations, or what the funeral service calls the 'comfort of a reasonable religion': consequently, it is much less metaphorical than the actual Bible is and will say things like 'springing water', where the Hebrew original has 'living water'.

The first event in the Bible, then, is the expulsion from Eden and the loss of the tree of life and the water of life. In Genesis 3:22­23, 'And the Lord God said, Behold, the Man has become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken'. That's a rather strange verse, that verse 22. It has God addressing an assembly of other gods, and speaking as somebody actually terrified of the power that man as now acquired through his knowledge of good and evil. In fact, he's so terrified he can't even finish his sentence. And the sense of losing the tree of life, at any rate, and by implication the water of life, is certainly very strongly marked in its emphasis.

That is the first event. If you look at the last event in the Bible, that is, in Revelation 22, the very last chapter of the last book in the New Testament: that begins,' And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, as there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations'. So the opening incident in the Bible is man's loss of the tree and water of life. The closing incident of the Bible is his regaining of the tree and water of life. And you notice that the river of life is described as the 'street': that is, it has become an element in which man can live.

Now, at this point, I want to introduce a principle which is going to be very central in this course, which is that of the New Testament's attitude to the Old Testament. The New Testament's view of the Old Testament is that it presents what is essentially a prophecy of what is going to happen later, namely, the coming of Christ. And consequently, everything that happens in the Old Testament is a type of something that happens in the New. What happens in the New Testament explains the Old Testament happening, and therefore it's called an antitype.

If you look, for example, at Romans 5:14: Paul says 'Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come'. The Greek word that Paul uses, translated 'figure' here, is the word typos. The Latin rendering in the vulgate is forma, but the King James Bible has 'figure' because, for the most part, it was the word figura that had come to be the Latin equivalent of the Greek word typos, from which we get 'type'. And so what Paul is saying is that Adam is a type of Christ. And elsewhere he speaks of Christ as the second Adam.

If you look at I Peter 3:21, 'The like figure whereunto even baptism doth now also save us'. Here again is the word 'figure', but the Greek word is not typos, but antitypos—antitype. And what Peter is saying, or what the First Epistle of Peter is saying, is that the Christian rite of baptism is the antitype of the saving of Noah's family from drowning.

That means that the New Testament is, among other things, a dense mosaic of allusions to the Old Testament. That's particularly due of some books, of the Book of Revelation and the Epistle to the Hebrews, but there's hardly a passage in the New Testament—I suspect that there is not a single passage in the New Testament—that is not related in this type-antitype manner to something in the Old Testament.

Consequently, that passage at the end of Revelation about the tree and water of life being restored to man must come from something in the Old Testament too. You'll find it in the very middle of the Bible, in Ezekiel 47:7. Ezekiel represents himself as being in Babylon during the captivity, and his prophecy is directing the Jews returning from the Babylonian captivity to their homeland to start by rebuilding the Temple. The last eight chapters of the Book of Ezekiel are a detailed vision of the proper worship of God being re-established in the forsaken and abandoned Temple.

By the time of chapter 47, the Temple has been pretty well rebuilt. The angel who was showing him this prophecy also shows him the rebuilt Temple, and says that as soon as the Temple was complete, a spring of water bubbled up from the threshold and formed a river which flowed eastward. Now a river that arose on the hill of Jerusalem and flowed eastward would flow into the Dead Sea. And the Dead Sea, which is so salty that nothing can live in or around it, is a consistent image of dead water all the way through the Bible. We are told that this fresh water, running into the Dead Sea, will bring it to life. In verse 8, 'Then said he to me, These waters issue out towards the east country, and go down into the desert, and go into the sea: which being brought forth into the sea, the waters shall be healed'. I think that he has here a sense, not merely of the Dead Sea being turned into fresh water, but of all salt water being turned into fresh water. That is picked up by the author of Revelation, who says, at the beginning of the twenty-first chapter, just as the final vision begins, that heaven and earth were passed away and there was no more sea. And again, one has to think of that metaphorically. What the author of Revelation is saying is that in the final apocalypse, there is no more Dead Sea, that is, there is no more dead water. That is, there is no more death.

In Ezekiel's vision, you notice that, along with the river, there comes a growth of trees along its bank. In Verse 7, 'Now when I had returned, behold, at the bank of the river more very many trees on the one side and on the other', which suggests that metaphorically, the tree of life in Eden is not so much a single tree as all the trees. He says that these trees are also trees of life in verse 12, 'By the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees for meat, whose leaf shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed: it shall bring forth new fruit according to his months'. 'Meat' in 1611 meant any kind of food. And all that is picked up and quoted by the author of Revelation.