This transcription of my summary and review of Matthieu Pageau’s book The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis was transcribed by Lorraine O’Neal. If you would be interested in her transcription services—for sermons, lectures, talks, or something else—you can contact her here.
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Today I am going to be discussing a book that I read recently, called The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis, by Matthieu Pageau. Matthieu is the brother of Jonathan Pageau, who is perhaps the more famous of the two. Jonathan is known for his YouTube channel and his associations with Jordan Peterson. He is well worth following. And those connections are one of the reasons why I first looked at this work. I found it fascinating that Jordan Peterson’s readings of Genesis have had such resonance within the public conversation. And it seems strange that people who are not Christians at all are thinking about the meanings of Genesis. And it seems to me that Jonathan Pageau and his brother have something to do with that.
Reading Matthieu’s book was a fascinating experience, as I presume some of it is an influence upon Jordan Peterson. But the book is worth looking at in its own right. It is a deeply stimulating and often brilliantly insightful book. But yet, there are also parts that are perplexing, and frustrating, and, at certain points, completely unconvincing. Overall, however, I think it is a remarkably stimulating and thought-provoking work. There are points where I disagree, but in the main, I have not encountered much like this, beyond the work of people like James Jordan, and others, like Meredith Kline, who really get into depth into symbolism of Scripture—although with slightly different emphases—which I will get to in a moment.
The book is an unusual one in the way that it is set out. First of all, it is self-published, which is usually not an auspicious sign. But in this case, look past that. It is worth reading—well worth reading! It is composed of a great many chapters, I think eighty-some in all. And each chapter is fairly short, usually about two to four pages in length, and with large print. So, it is not the typical book that you would encounter. It has a lot of diagrams, and these diagrams are often developed cumulatively: there is a fundamental template, and that is developed over a series of different connections and contexts. In such a way, it shows that, when you connect all these things together, there are fundamental common principles that serve to illumine them. For me, these diagrams are one of the highlights of the book. The book really emphasizes its points effectively using these fundamental templates. There is usually, I would say, about three or four diagrams in every single chapter, and the chapters are very small, with large print. So, it is a very quick book to read, even though it is over 300 pages in length.
There is a fundamental concern of this book, and that is to get people thinking about symbolism, thinking about the world and cosmology differently. Now, when we think about cosmology in our modern age, we think in terms of a very scientific perspective. And within that scientific perspective, we have matter, which is fairly fungible and exchangeable. And then we have these universal laws that operate upon it. And we focus narrowly upon the questions of, “What is something made from?” and “How does it work?”
By contrast, biblical cosmology describes reality at a very different sort of level. It is not focused upon the same sort of things that science is focused upon. Rather, it is focused upon questions of meaning, and it operates very much at a level of deep human perception and engagement within the world. It is more attentive to questions of meaning, and it recognizes deep analogies between levels of reality and connections between things. This is something that really comes out in Pageau’s work.
For the materialist perspective, the universe can often be regarded as a sort of impersonal machine that is composed of meaningless and exchangeable matter and of energy. But for the spiritual or symbolic perspective, it is like a written language. In written language you have the ‘matter’ (the lines and curves that compose the letters, for instance), but that matter is the bearer of spiritual meaning, of some meaning that is imposed upon matter, that is given to matter and can be perceived within it.
It is important, for Pageau, that we do not set facts and meaning at odds with each other, just in the same way as you do not set the lines on the page at odds with the meaning that they bear and they communicate. Biblical cosmology, Pageau argues, is ‘dentrocentric’. It is centered upon a tree-like vision of the world. So, it is not heliocentric—centered upon the sun—nor is it centered upon the earth. Rather, it is centered upon a rootedness within the earth, upon groundedness—roots going down and the branches going up. This is a very different way of relating to time and space.
Earth is the lower half of the cosmos, and then the upper half are the heavens. This is one of the things that Pageau constantly does: he constantly integrates such themes with the fundamental principles. So, the heaven and earth analogy is related to meaning and matter: the earth provides the matter, and then the heaven imposes the meaning upon the matter. And that connection is then one that helps us to understand how language works. Language is a union of heaven and earth.
And so, the matter of the earth is akin to the marks upon the page, and then the meaning of those words is like what is formed according to the heavenly meaning. Symbolism is the union of abstract principle and concrete examples—abstract principle up here, and concrete examples down here. Symbolism is the mediating reality at the heart. It is neither pure specialization, nor is it just abstract generalization; it is something that mediates between those two levels of reality and brings them together.
We see this at a number of points within Scripture. Light and darkness, again, are related to these themes. Light is the central, overarching principle that helps to illumine those things that are material beneath it. The matter relates to those things that express and give power to that light. On the one hand, you can have the darkness of the earth that is unlit, and matter that is opaque and inscrutable. But then, you also have the dazzling reality of the light, which is very hard to perceive either. It is the bringing together of those things: the light—which does not have the same materiality, flesh, strength, and force to it—and the earth—which can be opaque, and lacking in light. Bringing those things together brings illumination. Light can be dazzling and matter can be confounding, but the two come together in symbolism and bring understanding.
There are different levels of reality: fire (or light), air, water, and earth. The association of fire with light is an important one. Most of the things that bring light are associated with fire. These levels of reality go from the most pure and abstract to the most concrete and are associated with relative levels of brightness and darkness. This also is related to levels of spirituality. So, there is the spiritual, and then there is the animal. And then the animal could be divided into the creatures of the air—the birds, the most related to spiritual beings—and then the creatures of the earth—the beasts, the most related to the earth—and then creatures of the sea like the fish. And each of these things represent or are associated with different levels of reality.
Now, we think in terms of different taxonomies within modern science. But the focus within Scripture is upon meaning. So, it does not really matter so much that a whale is a mammal: that is not really the point. The point is that the whale is a creature that represents the realm of the water, is a beast of the water. And that helps us to understand the meaning of that creature and how it relates to us.
And so, you have spiritual, animal, vegetable, mineral, in a descent down through different levels of reality. And humankind is both the offspring of and a mediator of heaven and earth. The man is formed of breath and body, of air and earth. The man is formed of the bringing together of the earth—the adamah—and the heavens, as God breathes into the man the breath of life. There is a union of heaven and earth: mankind is the offspring of heaven and earth. But on the other hand, mankind is the mediator of heaven and earth, bringing those things together, even in very bodily processes. The process of breathing—taking in air—the higher level thing, and then nutrition—taking the earth into ourselves. These different processes are relating us to different orders of reality.
And again, this is a dentrocentric way of looking at the world, one that focuses upon our rootedness within reality, and the symbolism and the analogies that arise from that. This the way that Scripture works. As a mediator of heaven and earth, mankind is supposed to bring heaven and its patterns down to earth, to bring heavenly meaning and impose it upon the earth, and raise up the flesh of the earth, and direct it towards the heavens. For instance, we see mankind naming the animals. In naming the animals, mankind is bringing the heavenly order down upon the earth. And then, in sacrificing animals, mankind is raising those animals up into the heavens.
Mankind taking in the earth into his body through nutrition is like the way language takes the marks on a page and brings them into the order of meaning.
[B]y simply staying alive, Adam is contributing to the greater goal of creation. Conversely, if Adam dies, a part of corporeal reality loses its higher spiritual purpose, and a part of spiritual reality loses its lower corporeal expression.
For humans, it is also important to remember that breathing involves the ability to speak, which makes it a vehicle of language and information. Thus, in the human microcosm, Adam’s head represents the first principle (wisdom) as the source of meaning for the body. The role of the head is to provide a unifying principle to answer the ‘dark’ (subconscious) enigmas of the flesh. In exchange, the body expresses and supports the head with the actions of the arms and the legs.… Therefore, humanity’s impetus in the universe can be adequately summed up as: “informing matter with meaning and expressing meaning with matter.” [52-53]
And so, Adam lowers meaning down into the world and raises matter up. There is a downward movement of informing and an upward movement of expressing.
Another important way to symbolize these relationships is through the interactions of both a rider and a mount. The rider informs the mount with direction and purpose, and the mount expresses that purpose with power and support. The mount extends the rider’s body by increasing the power of his legs, and the rider extends the mount’s spirit by increasing its wisdom.
The relationship between the rider and the mount is perfectly analogous to the relationship between Adam’s own mind and body. In this case, the body is his “animal component,” and the mind is his “spiritual component.” Thus, Adam’s impetus in the universe may also be described as: “raising the animal and lowering the spiritual,” both in himself and the world around him. 
This can play out in many different ways. Again, one of the strengths of this book is the way it integrates its themes into these core principles, while also expressing how those distribute out: condensing and expounding. He offers many different examples to illustrate these fundamental principles.
For instance, bread-making is a materialization of fine principles, a bringing down into matter, and then cooking is a raising up of flesh. Now, you may or not find that persuasive—I think there is something important there. But what he does throughout the book is show how these principles can bring light to bear upon many different phenomena that we would not give significance to, and as a result would not be attentive to. But throughout this book, there are many points where there are “Aha!” moments, because these fundamental principles really do shed a lot of light. There are issues with them at points, but they are worth attending to. There is a lot going on there.
Pageau relates further things to this, such as male and female.
[I]n order to create Adam in his image, God made Adam a creator or “reproducer” of his own image. Only then was the microcosm truly complete, when the image contained its own image within itself…. To truly grasp the significance of gender in the Bible, it is important to understand that Adam is the union of heaven and earth at the cosmic level, and that this union translates into a sexual union at the human level. Therefore, the male and female sides each re-present one half of the equation. The male is responsible for materializing meaning into seed, and the female is responsible for refining matter into food.
On the one side of the equation, the father produces the seed that implicitly contains the essence of humanity. Therefore, the role of the male is directly connected to heaven and language. On the other side of the equation, like the earth itself, the mother provides sustenance in the form of food. In particular, she raises food from her own body, first in the womb, and then in the breast. [68-69]
And so, the mother is associated with giving flesh to the child. The father gives the principle; the mother gives the flesh. Now, this, in part, is based upon a more primitive form of phenomenological cosmology, but there is truth to it on that level and it is important to understand how this plays out, in terms of the symbolism of heaven and earth.
Within Scripture, we see this fleshed out in other ways. So, the man is born of the adamah, which is associated with the woman. The woman is associated with the earth. The man is associated with the heavens, and the father figure of God, who acts from the heavens. And so, there is symbolism playing out within the text. Much of this is unwelcome within the current context, but it is important to recognize it is there within Genesis, and it is has great significance throughout the Scriptures in various ways. It is important to get back to this and see what is going on. I think that Pageau is very illuminating on these sorts of points. Even though there are points where I disagree, he has got the fundamental principles right.
Because human beings can multiply, the body of humanity can extend out into the world as well. We are not just single individuals, but we can form the body as the social body, the wider body of the human society—or the human race more generally. There are nested microcosms. And so, we have a more general cosmic level reality with heaven and earth. Then we have the social level, with the heaven and earth order, with the head of society, and then the body of society. And then we have it relating to sexual relations between the man and the woman. And then we have it relating to the life of the human body itself, and how we relate to our own bodies.
In each one of these levels, we can see analogies flowing between them. It is also connected to things like law and deed. The law is the principle that comes down, and the deed is the body that expresses it. There are problems that can come when you just have the pure law—the dazzling light of the pure law—which has not been expressed by matter. What you need is for the law to be made clear through many different cases, and those cases make the situations clear by bringing the light to bear upon them. But they also enable us to see the light with more distinction, because it is not just dazzling. It enables us to see the specific case and how justice applies in this specific case, and how that is an expression of the core light of the law, but without being dazzled by that. The core principle is expressed through the case law, like extending breath out into the body.
There are a couple of statements that I found helpful on this: ‘Laws bring light and meaning to human events, and human questions or “problems” provide tangible expressions for God’s spirit’ and ‘the Law is analogous to a tree and the deeds to its fruit. These fruits are concrete facts that point to a higher identity, or “fruits with their seed in them” .’ Consequently, you can know the identity of the seed through the fruits. It is that core thing that is expressed through its material expressions—that more abstract principle, that fine principle that gets expressed in more concrete ways.
The Tabernacle, again, is another pattern here. It is pattern and materials, the heavenly pattern that is given on the Mount. So, go up, receive the heavenly pattern from heaven, and take that pattern down, and then the earth provides support by giving materials, raising up materials to provide for the pattern to be applied in reality. There is a forming pattern, a forming of the order coming down, and then a filling pattern—the reality being supported by the earth as it gives forth material to uphold the pattern. The Tabernacle is about the lowering of spirit, and the altar associated with it is about the raising of matter.
Now, this is a very helpful way of thinking about it. There is a lot more going on in the Tabernacle, but this is a very helpful core orientation to the sorts of things that are taking place there. Beyond this, he also relates these sorts of things to various biblical stories. A few days ago, I talked about Cain and Abel. I found Pageau very helpful on the discussion of Cain and Abel; there are things that I found elsewhere, but he treats them with a fairly sure hand. He knows the key things that are taking place. And this is something I found on several occasions, when reading through him: I have looked into more depth in some of these passages, and I can see ways in which his reading makes sense in terms of the wider things that I know about the passages and the way these themes play out. I could bolster a number of his arguments with even further support, though some of them I find unconvincing. There is a fundamental core to his argument, and the very heart of his argument is very convincing. And there is a lot more that could be said to support it.
Unfortunately, many readers will not get this, because many of the arguments that he makes are a bit beyond the level of people’s initial perception. It takes quite a while to get to the point where you would see these patterns in a helpful and sure-footed way. But you can see them if you give enough time to them. They are there, and many of them could readily be arrived at independently and otherwise.
Getting back to Cain and Abel, he talks about, for instance, Cain being related to the earth. He does not mention his name, I do not think, but his name is related to the earth, with the smith connection. And Abel is related to the heavens: again, Abel’s name relates to hebel—or “vapor” or “breath.” For Pageau, those connections are played out in terms of one being a keeper of sheep and the other raising up food from the earth. The relationship between them is then expressed in their sacrifices as well, expressing those two realities. He is very thought-provoking on a number of these things.
The breaking of the relationship between the two is significant once you have seen that particular connection and what they represent. There is a breaking of the bond between heaven and earth as Cain takes the life of Abel. And Cain is the one that should be empowering and giving power and strength to Abel, and Abel is the one that should be acting in a priestly manner and giving that fundamental order.
He also points out the relationship between the sons of Noah. And this is one area where he is very thought-provoking and perhaps a bit controversial. He talks about the northern heights of Japheth, the southern depths of Ham, and the realm in between of Shem. As you read the story of Genesis in particular, you descend into the south for sustenance. You ascend to the north to get new seed. Jacob is also caught between Edom in the south and Laban in the north. Edom is associated with the red of the earth, and Laban with the whites of the north—with the snowy peaks, with the air, and these sorts of things. These themes are actually present in Genesis to a degree that he does not fully flesh out, although I am sure he is aware of that.
For instance, the deception of Esau plays heavily upon the name Edom. He is given that name, Edom, immediately afterwards, related to red—also to the name of Adam, and to the adamah. He is red. And he is deceived with the red red stuff. The stew is described as “red red stuff.” Whereas, Laban is tricked with white strips, stripped from the white tree, so that white shows. Again, it is very much a play upon Laban’s name and its association with “white.” These themes are playing out in the story in ways that he is quite thought-provoking about.
Another example of this:
Like Cain, the descendants of Ham are kingly prototypes credited with building the first cities and ruling over powerful empires. Nimrod is called a “hunter” which points to his ability to kill wild animals as opposed to pasturing domesticated animals. This is the expression of power in contrast with authority, an important pattern that is repeated in the relationship between Jacob and Esau.
These patterns are representations of the conflicted relationship between Cain and Abel, which is itself a representation of the relationship between earth and heaven. These reiterated patterns of earthly power versus heavenly authority are reflected in the geography of biblical narratives. Once these structures have been recognized, many stories in the Bible no longer appear as random events. Instead, they are transformed into coherent narratives, leading to the union of heaven and earth at the center of creation. 
And so, he compares Esau as a nation of kings and Israel as a nation of priests.
There are some important things going on there, and it is worth paying attention to some of the themes that he brings out here. He also relates this to Joseph and Judah, and the tensions between them: Joseph, as the higher of the two; and Judah as the one that is related more to the earth—and Benjamin in the middle. Interesting and suggestive connections. I am not completely persuaded, but there is something there. Again, in this book, there are so many suggestive connections like that—connections that, if you pursued them, might offer genuine insight.
At perhaps the heart of the book, and one of the more questionable yet simultaneously stimulating elements—by turns frustrating and illuminating—is his contrast between time and space. Time is the cause of change and transformation, and space is the stabilizing force. Time is related to the flooded world, and space to the dry land. So, when the world is flooded, everything is rendered opaque and things are rendered mysterious, and it is not clear anymore. The place is disordered and chaotic, and there is not an integrating order. With dry land, we have order created out of that disorder, and there is an orienting center in the cosmic mountain, around which everything can find its bearings. And this is a key theme at the heart of the book.
There is a distinction between formation—which is when something produces more of itself and extends itself out into the world, produces a firmer and surer order, and arrives at a more integrated identity—and then transformation, which is its opposite—where something becomes less of itself, is recreated, transformed, or changed into something else. This is the difference between turning into something else and producing a greater version of one’s self.
Pageau relates this to God as the creator of heaven and earth, and then God as the creator of time and space. “According to that second pattern,” he writes, “God is the source of two very different influences. One is a positive expression of God’s identity, and the other a negative retraction or concealment of God’s identity. God’s influence as creator of space is analogous to the pillar of a house, and God’s influence as creator of time is analogous to the axle of a wheel. The first is firmly attached to the positive foundation, and the second is loosely attached to the empty hub of a wheel. One is the power that builds a consistent and stable reality, and the other is the mystery that subverts and overturns existing reality with inconsistency and confusion. ”
That is, again, one of those statements that I would like to tweak in a number of important ways. It is gesturing at something important, and that is part of the frustration of it: that he has definitely got his hand on something, just not quite as surely as I would like it to be. I think there are a lot of areas in which the language around this time-space dichotomy could be tweaked and improved upon. I do not think the dichotomy is quite as straightforward as he presents it to be. However, as he develops it, it becomes clearer, and many of the problems are dealt with. That does not mean that it does not remain frustrating in certain ways. But I think it is a principle that shows its worth on many fronts. It is a distinction that is quite useful, even though I would want to frame that in a somewhat different way.
Getting back to the issue of flooded land, it is associated with primitive uncertainty and the dominion of time. And that is the realm of divination, this mysterious realm where you are just trying to work out—through mysterious processes, and chants, and luck—what reality is. Dry land is associated with the order of law and established knowledge. So, scientific order, for instance, is associated with the dry land. And pillar and axle: pillar is associated with the dominion of space, axle with the dominion of time and the revolution of time and its change.
There are associations, again, with Israel’s dwelling in the land. When they are in the land, there is stability, and order, and structure. They are surrounded by the waters and the nations, which are represented by the waters. But the land itself is dry land; it is ordered space. It has structure to it. But when they are cast into the sea, and they are wandering in the wilderness, that is the dominion of time—when there is a transformation, a breaking down, an overwhelming of space by this realm of disordering chaos and transformation.
Integration to the core principle is the drying out of the flooded land. So, the more that we bring things into integration with core principles—which is what he is trying to do in this book, in a number of different ways—the ‘land’ is being dried out. For instance, in your reading of the Bible, there can be a lot of the drying out of the land. You are reading a text, and a lot of it is mysterious and strange. And then you start to find these principles that make sense of things. For instance, the identities of priests, king, and prophet, and how those different vocations relate to each other. For me, that was a very important principle that helped to dry out the land of Scripture and to integrate it to a more central principle. Now, there is much of that land that is still covered by water—or pockets of it that are covered by water—but that core principle establishes a dry order within that flooded land. And it gradually dries it out.
When you come to difficult passages and you have that integrating principle, it helps you to make sense of things. You read those passages now, and they are no longer strange in the same way, because there is a core principle that can relate the concrete details and bring them into a larger symbolic structure. And this is a lot of what he is doing within the book.
On the other hand, you have a failure of integration leading a flooding of the land. And so, when there is some point where the order breaks down, where the order does not hold, where some fact overwhelms things—some stumbling stone that you trip upon—then the order breaks down and the land is flooded. It can be very hard to establish order again within that structure. You have lost the order, and so there must be some new integrating principle that must come along if you are going to re-establish that.
The purity system that we see within Scripture is, in many respects, an attempt to establish stability and order and remove elements that unsettle order, leaving them as remainders outside. It is not a totalizing thing. It recognizes remainder and those things outside the camp. It is not an attempt to totalize an order, but rather it is an attempt to have a realm within which order exists, leaving space for remainder, and not just doing away with any remainder: there are still areas that will be flooded. There are still areas of mystery and uncertainty. There are still areas that are hebel—vapor—that we cannot grasp and control. But yet, wisdom, as the core principle, brings light. And it helps to understand core realities around which we can make sense of things.
The purity system is very much establishing that order within the life of Israel. There is leniency and there is rigour within God’s ordering. And so, the leniency is allowing for the loosening of things by time. The rigour is establishing order and structure. The danger of going too far in one direction, in the direction of order, is a sort of tyranny that is a brittle tyranny—that can easily be broken down by the remainder or the element that will not fit in. On the other hand, where there is looseness, there is disorder, and there is no consistency, things do not hold. Things are constantly breaking down, there is no consistency of the self, there is no consistency of the social order, etc. And so, it is establishing a balance between time and space that is very important within Pageau’s argument.
And that relationship between time and space is expressed in things like work and rest. Work is associated with space, and structure, and order, and time is associated with rest. Time is a sort of entropy, and it is related also to waste or leftover. It involves renewal and change. Time is a sort of re-creation or a recreation.
There are associations of this with ‘tools’ and ‘instruments’. So, the tool is that which can take an order and impose it upon reality. It can take the point and distribute it upon reality. Or it can focus matter towards a point as well. It can take the strength of matter and give it order, and structure, and direction. And it can also distribute that point—that order, structure, and direction—upon reality so that it is expressed effectively. Whereas, alongside that tool, you also have the instrument, musical instruments, which are means of establishing play and rest, and the loosening of bonds, the rigorous bonds that would tie things together.
And so, time is a cycle of recreation. There is reason, on the one hand—the order of work and rationality, and structure, and tools—and then there is the order of time—the order of play, of recreation, the order of irrationality and absurdity. It is the order of change and rest, of sleep. And if you just have cyclical time, it is pointless change. But if you have a positive form of time that is controlled and well-contained, with a fundamentally ordered reality, then it is renewing and refreshing. It loosens overly-tight bonds and it makes us whole again. Sabbath is a connection between time and space, between natural change and artificial stability. It relates consistency and completeness.
Completeness is associated with time—just all there is—whereas consistency is that which integrates things into a higher principle, so that matter becomes a power that holds principle and bears principle, so principle is expressed effectively in matter. Time is a loosening of all of that. He discusses a marriage of the two, a subsuming time and space to a higher identity—crowning space with the mystery of time.
He talks about, for instance, the garment and the fringe. So, the garment has this tightly-integrated structure, which represents the core integration of work, of structure, of meaning, of space. And then there is time, and disorder, and irrationality, and absurdity, and the exception. And that is expressed in the fringes—those things that are outside the order, on the margins, on the edges. And there is space made for that. The order is not completely one of land, but rather, there is a realm for sea as well. Not everything is dried-out land. The principle is not fully expressed in matter yet. Perhaps this is related to the account in Revelation, of there being no more sea. But I am not sure where he would land upon that.
Within the Garden, many of these themes are expressed: whether that is dry land or flooded land, or the way that that is more structured, with rivers going out and dividing out lands and the way that that is structured. Adam in the Garden establishes an order and a balance between heaven and earth and between time and space. Heaven is associated with breath. Earth is associated with body. Time is associated with blood—with the flow of blood that gives life and all these sorts of things. Space is associated with bones, those things that give structure and order. The human body is a microcosm of all of these forces at work in relationship to each other.
He gives lots of different examples, which are loose analogies, but which help us to flesh out the principles and see what is going on here. For example, the left hand and the right hand. For those of us who are right-handed, the right hand expresses the tight relationship between mind and body, between matter and spirit, between heaven and earth. It is a very tight relationship, that you are able to give structure and order, and work with it, and bring things into integration—tight integration. Whereas, the left hand does not have that same tight integration. It is looser and weaker. And that looser and weaker connection is also important. It is a recognition of the fact that we cannot fully integrate disorder. There is room for weakness, and there is play, and rest, and all these things that represent a break within order, and manifest the fact that it does not control everything.
So, one hand is for work, while the less-dominant hand is more for play, for assistance, and these sorts of things. That relationship between tighter and looser integration of body and spirit is important. The heart is the point where everything comes together. It is the point where the head—the place where principles and the spirit are at work—and body—where strength, and matter, and power are all at work—come together (the chest). These are the meeting points of head and body, where those principles are related to each other.
And then, he talks in fascinating ways about things like dreaming. Dreaming is associated with the axis of time. It is a time of loosening of the connection between head and body. And the body becomes weak, and the head wanders in sleep. There is a loosening of that connection, so that we might be flooded: we are flooded by thoughts. We are flooded by the mindlessness and the forgetfulness of sleep. This is a refreshing thing that renews us so that, when we wake up, we can work and establish structure and order. Being asleep and awake is like the evening and the morning within the human self. There is a loss of the hierarchical relationship between the head and body at rest.
It is also related to nakedness and dress. We remove our clothes when we go to sleep. There is a recognition that we are unclothed. The body is no longer clothed with the order of the mind. The body is unclothed, and it is weak, and our mind is wandering. Death is also related to this. Death is a descent of the body into the earth as the body is no longer informed by the spirit, and it becomes a corpse.
Now, Adam failed to name the animal and keep the law, so that is a failure to inform the material with the spirit in the right way. He also wrongly took the fruit into himself, akin to taking in poison—wrongful integration and wrongful taking up of flesh. The serpent is associated with time, and the tree is associated with space, and order, and structure. These themes, at points, are unpersuasive. But I think more generally he is onto something very important here. These themes are deep within the text and they are worth paying attention to.
Some of the more controversial points—which, again, fit in strongly with some biblical themes—are the male association with space, construction, formation, and the imposition of reason and the female association with time, renewal, and transformation. And we see these expressions more generally, the man being more associated with the sun and the woman with the moon. The woman is associated particularly with the earth as well. And then the man is associated more with heaven and its order. Menstruation can be associated with the significance of blood and the tides, and the moon, and the seasons. The body of the woman can be associated with the body of the earth, to which the man gives order. Within a phenomenological cosmology, the man represents the order of the seed that gives life to the child that is given matter by the body of the woman.
These are all themes that play out in important ways within Genesis, particularly within the first three chapters. To understand the view of male and female within Scripture, it is important to understand some of these dynamics, because they are developed in a great many ways. It is one of the reasons why we see the association of women closely with the death and resurrection of Christ, or why there is such a focus upon women at the dawn of the narratives. It is worth thinking about these connections and thinking about the deeper symbolism of human existence, the ways that these play out at all levels or reality. We experience the world at a deep level in these ways. Our body creates a template for understanding the world, and these other things are at play when we experience reality.
For instance, right hand and left, or the way that we think of up representing things that are higher in principle, and things that are down associated with death or lower in principle. These are examples of basic ways in which we order the world around our body and around certain patterns, the world being understood from a rooted situation within it that is a dentrocentric understanding of reality. It is very important for understanding Scripture. It is quite alien to us in a society that is focused narrowly upon science. But it is very important for understanding what is going on in the biblical text.
And this leads to some interesting connections that help us read certain stories. For instance, the association, in the story of Solomon, of the King of Tyre with six days of work—he helps building the Temple—and the Queen of Sheba with the seventh day of rest. Now, this is interesting. What are we supposed to make of it? The King of Tyre from the North and the Queen of Sheba from the South. These connections are not actually alien to Scripture. The more you look into these texts, there are things that back up some of the connections that he is drawing. And so, it is worth tarrying with some of these things, even if you are not finally persuaded by them. He is onto something and he is nearer to the truth than those who reject this sort of symbolism outright would appreciate. Those who would reject this sort of symbolism just do not have the first beginnings of how to understand the biblical cosmology. There is so much going on the biblical cosmology that requires a deep-rootedness in such a symbolic way of viewing the world.
Extreme time and extreme space both lead to judgment, the establishment of radical disorder and the breaking of boundaries, on the one hand, and then, on the other hand, an establishment of extreme integration, a false integration. For instance, the Tower of Babel would be an example of this. And the establishment of the radical confusion would be an example of the sons of men with the daughters of women prior to the flood. Both of these are examples of a breaking apart of the proper order between the dry land and the waters within this more general symbolic paradigm that Pageau is presenting.
There are points where he makes some very controversial claims. I think one of the most controversial—one that is worth thinking about and not dismissing thoughtlessly as there is something more to it—is when he writes:
Like the concepts of grace and the Sabbath … the rainbow symbolizes the elevation of ‘space’ by the realization that God is the principle of time and space, straight and crooked, familiar and foreign, rational and irrational, revealed and hidden, true and false, good and bad. etc.
I will no longer curse the ground for humanity’s sake, nor will I destroy everything alive again, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Genesis 8:21).
The realization quoted above implies that “evil” is inherently part of humanity, which means a certain degree of “wrong” must be acknowledge for its perfection. More precisely, there exists a higher reality, a meta-space, in which a certain degree of “lower evil” can be transmuted into a “higher good” for the knowledge of God. This is the spiritual truth that Adam and Eve were not equipped to handle in the Garden of Eden, which led to their death.
This “meta-truth” is also what the biblical story of Job reveals. In that context, Job’s excessive righteousness forced him to realize that God was ultimately the cause of his downfall and evil plight. Shall we accept the good at the hand of God, but not the bad? (Job 2:10). The story of Job concludes that righteousness is incomplete because God legitimately created both “good” and “bad” as part of the human experience. In other words, some degree of exile and death is required for the perfection of Adam and the knowledge of God. [315-317]
Now, I think that is quite infelicitously expressed, but there is something there. I think it is important to recognize the element of truth that is there. There are principles that we would often see as purely negative principles, as evil principles—principles associated with things like death, decay, and the danger, animality, and bestiality of the human being. We would associate those with evil and the passions, these sorts of things. These things that can be assigned to evil are not necessarily straightforwardly evil. They can be very important for establishing an order that exceeds the good of pure rationality. There is something there that needs to be integrated into a higher order. And part of the danger of the human being—there is an appropriate danger, and animality, and bestiality—should be retained.
In the same way, there is a degree of death that is needed in order to allow for the processes of life. And so, there are problems with treating death just as a purely negative force—something that is purely consigned to the category of evil—because death is often that which clears the way for life, for new life, to arise. Death can be part of the processes of renewal in certain places. It is death that must precede resurrection. Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone. But if it dies, it produces much fruit. And so, I think that is what he is trying to get at. I do not think he expresses it in a way that is the best. I think it provokes more concerns than it actually gives illumination at this point. Yet he is getting at something that is important, and I would want to express it that way. I am not sure if that is what he is trying to say, but that is how I would express a similar point.
He talks about things like bread and wine in this context. Bread is associated with materialization of order and that core principle, and it is associated with work—bread gives strength to mankind, strength to the heart of man. And wine makes the heart of man glad. And so, there is work and rest associated with bread and wine. Bread is what you eat at the beginning of the day of work; wine is what you drink at the end, when you have done the work, and you are refreshed.
Then he associates grapes and wine with blood in this connection, which is, again, very illuminating. He draws attention to the fact that we first see the drinking of wine after the prohibition on the drinking of blood. Again, what do we make of that? I am not sure. But it is a very interesting connection, and there is almost certainly something there to be picked out. Wine loosens the connection between the head and the body. It allows for us to be refreshed. It is associated with sleep. And it is associated with refreshment and rest. And yet, the leavening of bread is a sort of union of time and space, a union of the process of fermentation and the processes of order. These sorts of connections, again, are very stimulating; they are interesting, symbolic connections. How much weight we put on each one of them is uncertain. But together, I think they present a very compelling and thought-provoking picture. And I highly recommend people read this book for that reason.
There is a lot to disagree with; particularly, I think, in his readings of specific passages. At points they are deeply stimulating and there are all sorts of interesting thoughts that he brings out. At other points, they are less persuasive. A lot of what he has to say upon Ezekiel’s chariot vision is unpersuasive to me. I do not think that he gets into the particularity of that story well enough. At certain points it is helpful, but much of the time it is not. I think part of this is the danger of his symbolic structure, of trying to find this underlying order and pattern to reality. Often, it can strip away the particularity. If you are constantly returning to these fundamental templates and structures, you may lose the significance of the variations. I have argued that Scripture is musical, and part of the significance of musical patterns is that it is not just a fundamental template that is lying behind all these different expressions of a theme. It is not that you have to get to that underlying theme and sweep away the particularities as remainder; rather, the significance is found in the variations and the union.
It is the way in which there is this significant variation. It is the fundamental order of the type or the symbol that enables us to see the significance of the variation, because the significant variation is that which plays with the fundamental order and construes it in a particular way. It is a specific conjugation of that underlying pattern.
I believe that is one of the areas where he is weaker. Again, the particularity of these stories is often lost. You are often returning to these fundamental principles of heaven and earth, time and space, and seeing all these fundamental axes at play, but, in the process, missing the significance of specific figures like Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Israel and the different figures within its history. Now, he pays attention to them in some ways, but often in a way that is at risk of reducing them to what they symbolize.
I think if he was maybe engaged in a different sort of biblical interpretation, speaking on a particular passage, he would speak about this in a different way. I do not know; maybe I am being unfair in my criticisms here. But this was one of my concerns about the book. I thought that it failed to get at the particularity of these symbols in quite the way that someone like James Jordan really gets the particularities of the symbols. So, what is the difference between the cypress tree, and the olive tree, or the vine? That is not the sort of question that Pageau is going to answer that well within this book. Rather, that is the sort of thing that James Jordan gets at. He really is alert to that—or the difference between the sin offering and the memorial sacrifice. Pageau will have helpful comments on that, but James Jordan will get into far more depth on those particular sorts of questions.
But there is a complementary value to what both of them are saying here, and I would recommend reading both of them alongside each other, for seeing different aspects of biblical symbolism and typology. The space and time dichotomy is perhaps one of the areas where I really think things could be expressed in a slightly different way that would be somewhat better. But at heart, I believe it gets at something important. We should be patient with that sort of thing too, because there is definitely something there.
And there are certain connections, again, which might seem to be negative, and people can often react against: for instance, the connection between male and female in some of these themes. But tarry with those. Be patient with them, because, again, there is something there. And it is very hard to understand Scripture without being alert to those sorts of themes. And so, I highly recommend this book to you. I think it is worth getting your teeth into. There is a great deal more within it that I do not mention.
The book is The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis by Matthieu Pageau. You should buy a copy.