Monday, December 8, 2008

Figures of Speech in the Bible

The Bible contains many figures of speech. This fact does not mean that the Bible should be interpreted allegorically. Usual human conversation also contains figures of speech, for example, idioms. This does not mean that when people talk to one another, their whole speaking is an allegory. Usually, the context shows that a person uses a figure of speech and that his or her words should not be understood literally. The same is with the Bible. Figures of speech in the Bible should not be understood literally. Figures of speech are often used in biblical poetry

This material is based on the books:
1. Vitaly Tkachuk Methods and Principles of Interpretation of the Holy Scriptures (in Russian)
2. Carl B. Gibbs Principles of Biblical Interpretation
Bible verses are quoted from New King James Version.

1. Metaphor - use of a word in a figurative meaning on the basis of the similarity of two objects or phenomena in some way.
1) John 6:51
"I am the living bread"
2) Matthew 5:13
"You are the salt of the earth"
3) John 1:29
"Behold! The Lamb of God"

2. Comparison - one object is compared to the other on the basis of their common attributes. The difference between comparison and metaphor is that in comparison two things are obviously compared (joined by the words "as" or "like"), in metaphor comparison is implied.
1) Isaiah 53:6
"All we like sheep have gone astray"
2) Jeremiah 23:29
"Is not My word like a fire?"
3) Matthew 17:2
"His face shone like the sun"

3. Metonymy - the name of one object is used instead of the name of the other object on the basis of their outward or inner connection. The possible connections:
a. Between the object and the material it was made of.
Jeremiah 15:12
"Can anyone break iron,
The northern iron and the bronze?"
Iron and bronze are used instead of the armor made of them.

b. Between the name of the person and circumstances of his or her life.
Luke 17:32
"Remember Lot's wife"
The name is used instead of the event in this person's life.

c. Between the action and the tool of the action.
1) Genesis 49:10
"The scepter shall not depart from Judah"
The scepter is used instead of reign.
2) Isaiah 2:4
"They shall beat their swords into plowshares"
3) Isaiah 22:22
"The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder"

d. Between the place and the people in this place.
Matthew 3:5
"Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him"

4. Personification - attributes of living beings are ascribed to inanimate objects.
1) Luke 19:40
"If these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out"
2) Matthew 6:34
"Sufficient for the day is its own trouble"
3) Psalm 114:3
"The sea saw it and fled;
Jordan turned back."
4) Psalm 114:4
"The mountains skipped like rams,
The little hills like lambs."

5. Hyperbola - exaggeration of the size, power, meaning, and so on, of an object or phenomenon in order to emphasize that.
1) Judges 7:12
"Their camels were without number, as the sand by the seashore in multitude"
2) 2 Kings 1:23
"Saul and Jonathan ... were swifter than eagles,
They were stronger than lions."

6. Litotes - emphatic understatement. Litotes is antonymous to hyperbola.
Hebrew 11:28
"By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, lest he who destroyed the firstborn should touch them."
Here "touch" is used instead of "kill".

7. Synecdoche - the name of the whole is used instead of the name of the part or vise versa. Sometimes, the plural number is used instead of the singular number or the singular number is used instead of the plural number.
1) Matthew 6:11
"Give us this day our daily bread."
Here "bread" is used instead of "food".
2) Jeremiah 25:29
"I will call for a sword on all the inhabitants of the earth."
"Sword" is used instead of "swords".

8. Irony - a word or expression is used in the meaning oppositional to the literal meaning.
1) Job 12:1-2
"Then Job answered and said:
'No doubt you are the people,
And wisdom will die with you!'"
2) Ecclesiastes 11:9
"Rejoice, O young man, in your youth,
And let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth;
Walk in the ways of your heart,
And in the sight of your eyes;
But know that for all these
God will bring you into judgment."

9. Anthropomorphism - human attributes, feelings, actions, or parts of the body are ascribed to God.
1) Psalm 8:3
"When I consider Your heavens, the work of your fingers"
2) Psalm 66:7
"He rules by His power forever;
His eyes observe the nations"
3) Isaiah 59:1
"Behold, the LORD's hand is not shortened,
That it cannot save;
Nor His ear heavy,
That it cannot hear."

10. Paradox - a statement that seems to be absurd or contradictory. However, actually, it is not absurd or contradictory.
1) Matthew 16:25
"For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it."
2) Matthew 23:11-12
"But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

Regarding the figures of speech in the Bible there are some principles:
1. In the beginning, consider the text literally.
2. If the literal meaning is absurd or contradictory, consider that this is a figure of speech.
3. Try to find some hints to the meaning in the context. Every figure of speech in the Bible has only one meaning.

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