That Most Notorious Number, 666:
Taking a Metaphor Literally
A mischievous friend in Las Vegas asked for our take on the Number of the Beast, 666. Our first sentence is a beast in itself, but bear with us:, for we'll address the perverse, diabolical importance of taking metaphors literally:
We’re reminded by Prof. Thomas Peterson that a religious symbol can be a medium for transcendence, framing as it does the cosmological boundaries of a spiritual threshold, when it operates as a riddle (an interrogative metaphor) that actively engages one in a life-long quest for meaning.
Solutions to religious enigmas are never simple, Peterson notes, for they must bridge domains of ever-changing human experiences. The best puzzles take one beyond purely literal meanings and into ever-deeper metaphorical unities; momentarily solved, they become more profoundly mysterious as they embrace greater ranges of everyday life. There is always some aspect that continues to haunt the religious seeker, especially during periods of crisis. These riddles destroy simplistic and literal interpretations of the sacred (“Initiation Rite as Riddle,” Journal of Ritual Studies, Jan. 1987, p. 73).
In light of Prof. Peterson’s insights into the riddles of sacred initiation, we see the great enigma of the Number of the Beast as another invitation to discover profoundly deeper meaning. The riddle concerning the number “six hundred threescore and six” has a devastatingly simple solution that Wikipedia, once again, manages to overlook. It involves absolutely no mathematics but rather the spelling of the Hebrew numbers—in a bit of wordplay, the syllables express a person’s name as well as numbers. Be that as it may, ancient riddles take on a special mystique over the centuries, and that’s a marvelous thing. The number of the beast in the Book of Revelation is a metaphor, but to solve it is to dissolve it. If, instead, we take that metaphor literally, we preserve the riddle as a possible tool for transcendence.
Granted, the party line is that taking metaphors literally is “absurd,” a “fallacy,” “nonsensical,” “stupid,” “dangerous,” even “a cardinal sin.”
Yet, there’s a word in poetry for taking metaphors literally—“reification,” bringing something abstract into realization.
If they hadn’t taken metaphors literally, we’d have none of Kafka’s timeless visions, nor Lewis Carroll’s or Edward Lear's, nor any of the world’s great legends. What if we don't say, “the beast of Revelation symbolizes this” or “the number 666 decodes as that.” What if we say, as in the scripture, a beast is a number of a man? Remember, the verse begins, “Here is wisdom.” Where might the wisdom of 666 take us?