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Recognizing Figurative Language in the Bible

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Recognizing Figurative Language in the Bible

The Bottom-Line Guide to Reading the Bible, Part 3
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

One of the most frequently asked questions about how to read the Bible is how to tell whether statements in the Bible are to be understood literally or figuratively. The question arises in part because the Bible is a large collection of ancient books written in other languages by people living in other cultures. Anyone who has ever visited another country knows that sometimes the language barrier is not just about decoding the words but recognizing how they are used. A visitor to England from Nepal might well be puzzled by hearing that someone had “lost his marbles,” even if he understood what the word marbles normally meant.

Avoiding Extremes

In part, however, the question about figurative language is made more pressing by extreme positions that many people take on the matter. On the one hand, some ultra-conservative readers of the Bible assume that everything in the Bible should be taken literally except where doing so appears to them to be impossible. On the other hand, liberal readers of the Bible commonly assume that nothing in the Bible should be taken literally except where not doing so appears to them to be impossible.

While both of these extremes are faulty, the liberal extreme of denying the literal truth of most of the Bible is by far the more destructive error. In reality, their approach to the Bible involves claiming that anything they don’t like was not meant to be taken literally. For example, liberal interpreters often claim that the resurrection of Jesus was meant nonliterally, perhaps as a mythical expression of belief in the message of Jesus. Yet these same interpreters usually admit that the death of Jesus on the cross literally happened. Since the Gospels treat the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus in the same way, there is no justification for claiming that the resurrection was not meant literally.

When evangelicals say that we should interpret the Bible “literally,” this statement is often misunderstood by others as meaning that there is nothing figurative anywhere in the Bible. However, what evangelicals mean is that we should treat the whole Bible and every part of the Bible in its context as conveying truth. Such a definition allows for figurative language in Scripture. The question remains, though, how one can reliably recognize language as figurative.

Figurative Language: Factors to Consider

Broadly speaking, we need to be aware of three factors that are relevant to whether specific words, expressions, or narratives in the Bible are to be interpreted figuratively: genre, subject, and usage.

1. Genre: A passage’s literary form or type guides our reading of its language. For example, references to a “road” in an historical narrative would normally be taken as referring to a physical road; references to a “road” in poetry might be taken as referring to a way of life. Thus, some genres are more likely to contain figurative language than others. In the Bible, the laws in the Law of Moses are least likely to use figurative language (though even they do so occasionally), while poems and songs are most likely to use figurative language.

2. Subject: Knowing something about the subject matter of a passage may help us to know whether a statement is literal or figurative. For example, knowing that rocks are inanimate objects naturally leads us to interpret Jesus’ statement about the rocks crying out (Luke 19:40) as figurative, as a way of saying that the truth about Jesus will be made known no matter what. Similarly, knowing that God transcends the physical world—because he made it—leads us to interpret references to God’s “throne” as a figurative way of speaking about his rule over his creation.

3. Usage: Sometimes we can recognize that a particular expression is figurative because we have seen it used in the same way in other places. For example, Mary’s question to the angel Gabriel about how she could become pregnant, “seeing I know not a man” (Luke 1:34 KJV), can be easily recognized as using “know” in a figurative way to mean that she had not had sexual relations with a man. One reason we can be sure of this is that the word is used in the same way many other places in the Bible (e.g., Genesis 4:1, 17, 25; 1 Samuel 1:19; see also Matthew 1:25).

More than one of these three factors are often relevant in the same passage. For example, the context of Mary’s statement that she did not “know” a man is the subject of her becoming pregnant, and it matches a recognizable figurative usage of the word “know” found elsewhere.

Types of Figurative Language

There are various types of figurative language in the Bible, and these types are found in modern English as well, although the specific examples usually are different. We’ve already seen one type of figurative language in the example about “knowing”; this figure of speech, in which something is spoken of indirectly in order to be delicate or polite, is called a euphemism. On the next page is a table listing the most common types of figurative language with some fairly easy to understand examples. Let’s look at a few of these types and some biblical passages where misunderstandings have arisen because readers didn’t recognize or properly interpret the figurative language.

A simile is a comparison with something that is actually very different. The comparison is made using the words “as” or “like” or an equivalent. Similes are usually the easiest types of figurative language to recognize, although their meaning may sometimes not be immediately clear due to the culture gap between us and the people of the Bible. When Jesus told his disciples to be “wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16), he meant that they should be shrewd and discerning, positive traits even if illustrated using serpents (which we normally think of as bad).

One simile that some readers have misunderstood is Luke’s description of Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane. Luke says that “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44 KJV). The words “as it were” mean that Jesus’ sweat was like great drops of blood, not that Jesus was literally sweating blood. (Just to confirm the point, the words “as it were” translate the Greek word hōsei, which meant “as” or “like.”) This misunderstanding led the Mormon religion to teach that Jesus was actually providing the Atonement in the Garden of Gethsemane, an idea found nowhere in the Bible. The Bible consistently says that Jesus atoned for our sins by his death on the cross (Romans 5:6-10; 6:3-10; Hebrews 9:12-22; 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18). Luke’s simile means that Jesus’ sweat was falling in large, heavy beads, similar to the way drops of blood fall to the ground.

Types of Figurative Language Biblical Examples
A comparison with something that is actually very different, made using “as” or “like” (e.g., “like a rock” = sturdy, dependable).

Wise as serpents
= shrewd (Matt. 10:16)
As a hen gathers her chicks under her wings = to protect them from harm (Matt. 23:37)
A comparison like a simile, but without “as” or “like” (e.g., “the dawn of a new day” = the start of a new era).

Leaven of the Pharisees = permeating hypocrisy in their teaching (Matt. 16:5-12; Luke 12:1)
You serpents = deceiving, hurtful creatures, like Satan (Matt. 23:33)
A fixed expression with a distinctive sense typically not obvious from the words themselves, often rooted in a metaphor (e.g., “kick the bucket” = die).

Their hearts melted = they lost courage (e.g., Josh. 5:1; cf. Ps. 22:14)
What to me and to you = What business do you have with me? (Matt. 18:29; John 2:4)
Idiom used to refer indirectly, and so more politely or delicately, to someone or something (e.g., “visit the men’s room” = use the toilet).

= have sexual relations with (e.g., Matt. 1:25; Luke 2:33; Gen. 19:5, 8)
Uncover the nakedness of = have sexual relations with (Lev. 18:6-19)
Irony and Sarcasm
Language that says the opposite of what is meant, for effect; irony tends to be witty and more subtle, while sarcasm tends to be more biting (e.g., “Yeah, right” = I don’t believe it).

Irony: You have already become rich; you have become kings without us (1 Cor. 4:8)
Sarcasm: How the king of Israel distinguished himself today! (2 Sam. 6:20)
Exaggerated or overstated language, often idiomatic (e.g., “tons of money” = lots of money).

The whole city (Mark 1:33) = a large crowd
If your right eye trips you up, pluck it out (Matt. 5:29) = don’t allow what you see to cause you to sin
Non-metaphorical statement succinctly expressing a general truth or principle (e.g., “Honesty is the best policy”).

Pride before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Prov. 16:18).
Better is open rebuke than concealed love (Prov. 27:5).
Typically metaphorical statement expressing in picturesque way a general truth (e.g., “The early bird gets the worm”).

Drink water from your own cistern, and fresh water from your own well (Prov. 5:15).
A man reaps what he sows (Gal. 6:7b) = what you get is a function of what you give
A story functioning as an extended simile, typically illustrating a central point.

The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin (Luke 15:3-10): parables illustrating God’s rejoicing over the lost who are found
A story based on an extended metaphor in which various elements of a story correspond to various realities (e.g., Orwell’s Animal Farm in which the animals represent citizens in different positions in a state).

Song of the Vineyard (Isa. 5:1-7): Owner’s vineyard = God’s people Israel
I am the true Vine (John 15:1-6): branches united to vine = Christians united to Christ
Speaking of inanimate objects, animals, and abstractions as if they were persons (e.g., “Stop in the name of the law!”).

I, wisdom, dwell with prudence (Prov. 8:12) = wisdom is a virtue associated with prudence
Death reigned from Adam to Moses (Rom. 5:14) = death was universal in mankind
Some of the definitions and English examples given here are adapted from The Oxford Companion to the English Language, edited by Tom McArthur (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

A proverb is a short statement that expresses in a picturesque way a general truth or principle of life. For example, “The early bird gets the worm” is a modern proverb that means that success usually requires doing the right thing at the right time, before most others would get started. We misunderstand proverbs if we treat them as immutable laws of the cosmos. For example, the statement, “A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7) means that what you get out of life is dependent on the choices you make. It is not some sort of ironclad truth that people always get what they deserve. It certainly does not mean that if you give you are guaranteed to get the equivalent in return. Unfortunately, some preachers (especially many televangelists) teach that this verse means that if you give money to their ministry, God promises to bless you financially. Here again, this is an idea never taught in the Bible; it is an abuse of Scripture.

Speaking of proverbs, the Book of Proverbs has several types of figurative language. In addition to proverbs in the specific sense just explained, it also contains similes, metaphors, and maxims. (The term maxim is a synonym for proverb; both are short statements of general truths, but proverbs in the narrow sense are metaphorical while maxims are not.) The Book of Proverbs also uses personification, which means language that treats something that is not a person as though it were. Most famously, Proverbs personifies wisdom as a noble lady who urges young men to follow her:

Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you” (Prov. 1:20-23 ESV).

Much of Proverbs 1-9, in which Solomon instructs his son to seek wisdom, personifies wisdom in this way (especially Proverbs 1:20-33; 8:1-36; 9:1-18). In the midst of this section of Proverbs is a verse in which wisdom is quoted as saying (in some translations), “The Lord created me as the beginning of his works, before his deeds of long ago” (Proverbs 8:22 NET). In the fourth century, a false teacher named Arius claimed that Proverbs 8:22 was a statement by the Son of God (before he became a man) saying that God had created him as the first of his creatures. Jehovah’s Witnesses make the same claim today. However, all three of the factors we mentioned earlier in this article indicate that Arius’s interpretation fails to recognize the figurative language in the passage. First, the genre (type of literature) of Proverbs 1-9 is poetry, in which figurative language is especially common. Second, the subject of the passage is God’s wisdom, which must be eternal or else God could not be wise by nature. Third, the usage of Lady Wisdom speaking in the first person about herself has already been established as personification in two major passages in Proverbs 1-8, and it continues into chapter 9. Thus, the reader is expected to understand Wisdom speaking in Proverbs 8:22 (which is simply part of Wisdom’s speech in 8:4-36) as also personification. Solomon’s point is that God made wisdom to be the foundation of his creation. He was not talking literally about the Son of God, although much of what he says about wisdom is also applicable to Christ.

Understanding the figurative language of the Bible, then, is immensely practical. It can help us spot misinterpretations of the Bible used to take advantage of people or to teach false doctrine. On the positive side, understanding figurative language greatly enhances our grasp of God’s word.


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Reading the Bible in Context