When is the Bible metaphorical?

When is the Bible metaphorical? May 5, 2012

Carolyn Arends speaks my language and my experience when she says her old days were marked by reading the Bible literally but now she sees more metaphor, but that means we have to ask this question:

How do we know when something that can be read literally is actually metaphorical? What are the clues that something is metaphorical? How do you know a “parable” is more metaphor? How do you know “Jonah” is not metaphor? How do you know the world resting on pillars is “metaphor” (at least now it is)? How do you know the “dragon” or Rev 12 is not to be a real dragon?

Most of us were earnest, sincere evangelicals. We weren’t biblical studies majors, but we saw the defense of the Bible as our sworn duty. Against the onslaught of those who sought to undermine Scripture’s authority, we committed ourselves to upholding it as the reliable Word of God.

One of the unintended side effects of our fervor was that we took almost everything literally, at least in spiritual matters. Generally, we weren’t very good with oblique metaphors and analogies. And if, like Bono, you talked about spiritual things in a seemingly unorthodox way, well, we worried.

There was much that was good about our impulses, and maybe they were necessary in a time when the “battle for the Bible” was raging. But for me, and, I suspect, others like me, our “literalist” convictions left us confused in significant ways—not only about song lyrics, but, much more tragically, about Scripture itself.

All these years later, I’m learning that understanding the literal meaning of the Bible is a more nuanced adventure than my college friends and I imagined. We’d been blithely unaware that there is more than one genre in the Bible, or that literary context profoundly matters to meaning. We didn’t understand that when we read ancient Hebrew prose poems (like Genesis 1), wisdom literature (like Proverbs), or apocalyptic literature (like Revelation) as if they were science textbooks, we were actually obscuring their meaning….

If you’d told me back then that the language we have for God—even (especially) much of our biblical language—must be understood analogically, I would have prayed for you and backed away slowly. I wouldn’t have understood that there are no words that can be applied to God exactly the same way they are applied to creaturely things, no language that can be used “univocally.”

When I say that I am “alive” and God is “alive,” the word “alive” is analogical, not univocal—it does not apply to me (a temporal creature) the same way it applies to God (who is eternal). The same goes for words like “good” or “powerful.” Connotations of imperfection or limitation must be deleted from any word when it is applied to God, and the notions (as best as we can conceive them) of total perfection and completion must be added.

Understanding this sooner would have helped me with biblical descriptions of God’s “wrath.” I can only get a glimmer of what God’s wrath looks like when I divest the word of the human implications of self-centered, reactionary anger, and condition it with the unchanging goodness that must clarify all of God’s attributes. Or take the word “Father.” The claim that God is our heavenly “Father” can ultimately mean something wonderful, even to my friends who had terrible human dads, because the word is not used univocally when it’s applied to God.



"Well said. Thank you. My point is that all ideologies aren't compatible with Christianity. Aquinas ..."

Liberation Theology And A World Come ..."
"While perhaps helpful to many, and we all need help to better understand the concept ..."

The Light of the World (RJS)
"I don't know that any are specifically anti-Marxist, but most theology isn't specifically anti-Marxist.At the ..."

Liberation Theology And A World Come ..."
"A theological verb I've heard for the eternal relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit ..."

The Light of the World (RJS)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Dawne Piotrowski

    Thanks, Scot. I am on the journey from being sure of what scripture said to realizing it is not all as clear as it once appeared. It is an unsettling, humbling, but exciting journey!

  • The problem is compounded by an all-or-nothing stance. For example, my experience here is that, 1) some seem to believe that if a passage contains any metaphor at all, the whole passage must be taken as metaphor or poetry. 2) Conversely, a text that presents a historical account cannot contain any metaphor at all but must be taken completely literally ~ and if one can identify any metaphor in said text, then see 1).

    But, of course, that sort of all-or-nothing approach is not the way one usually reads literature. Prose can and often does contain metaphors and figures of speech.

  • One hospice patient who’d been abused by his dad over 70 years prior to the time I met him needed Carolyn’s spiritual insight in that last sentence before he could die, even though he’d spent half a century in Presby churches & was an ordained elder.

    The Holy Spirit guided me to pray a different sort of Lord’s Prayer w/ him in his last 2 days when he was too afraid to die:
    “Our Father who art in heaven”, thank God you’re not like our dads were!
    “Hallowed be Your name”, which isn’t the name & the power by which our fathers lived & acted…
    “Your kingdom come and your will be done” looks totally different than what our fathers and others tried to force on us…

    Many who’ve suffered abuse from parents & others make assumptions about their own & God’s ways which they don’t even realize, and part of our task, imho, is to unmask those assumptions. Of course, the unmasking requires us to see, first, how those assumptions have affected our own choices & behaviors, too, and that can be painful & humbling.

  • DRT

    I posted on this on my site about a week ago, mainly in response to a video I saw of NT Wright discussing this subject. He added the language “abstract” and “concrete” to the discussion and I find that quite useful. (forgive the meandering in the post please)


    To use some of the examples in the past, Father is an abstract idea. God’s wrath is abstract, but there are times where folks have claimed some concrete instantiations.

  • AHH

    I think it is also important to recognize an “it doesn’t matter” category, where God’s message to us in Scripture is the same whether something is metaphor or not.

    I think the story of Jonah is a parable and not literal history, but the lessons about our tendency to flee God’s call and God’s desire for reconciliation for those we would rush to condemn are the same in either reading.
    I would also say that God’s message about universal human sinfulness stands whether Adam and Eve are historical individuals or literary figures (and so people should not make one interpretation an essential of the faith), but I know some would disagree with that.

  • DRT

    Jeff Doles @12:12pm, the wrightian views of abstract and concrete help with the issues you are talking about. Even in poetry there is abstract and concrete elements. We do indeed get too hung up on the literary genre and then go from there.

    One of the most annoying discussions I have had is regarding the genre of Genesis 1. There is a bunch of people out there (Jeff, I think you may be one of them) that would argue that Gen 1 is not the form of Hebrew poetry therefore we cannot take it as metaphor.

    But I think it is much easier to argue that Gen 1 has a lot of abstract concepts that it is trying to relay into the concrete language of the ANE. The abstract/concrete language is useful.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    We are all heirs of the modern Enlightenment that pretty much cut the chord between the objective and the subjective, between the literal and the figurative, etc. I find it interesting that Augustine whose deepest understanding of Scripture was spiritual and allegorical when it came to his interpretations of Scripture would call his commentary “literal.” Obviously literal today means something quite different than it did to the early church fathers.

    On the other hand, we have people like Marcus Borg and others who say they take the Bible seriously but not literally (undercutting what many Christians would understand as real, literal, or historical). Maybe the religous right needs a stronger dose of metaphor and the religious left needs a stronger does of the concrete and literal?

  • angusj

    “What are the clues that something is metaphorical?”

    I’d suggest we consider metaphor when we otherwise might start fumbling for ‘miraculous’ explanations.
    Eg The talking serpent (Gen 3:1); Jesus being shown the whole world from a mountain (Matt4:8); Jonah surviving inside a whale for 3 days (Jonah 2); and Jesus being in the heart of the earth for 3 days (Matt 12:40)

  • holdon

    Here C.S. Lewis bleating about some of this in “From Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”.

    In the footnote on the first page what gave rise to Lewis’ article: the Bishop recalls that when he asked him what he thought about it, (Alec Vidler’s “The Sign at Cana”, Lewis “expressed himself very freely about the sermon and said that he thought that it was quite incredible that we should have had to wait nearly 2000 years to be told by a theologian called Vidler, that what the Church has always regarded as miracle was, in fact, a parable”.

    In the text:
    ” A theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millenia – which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes – if offered to the uneducated man can produce only one or other of two effects. It will make him a Roman Catholic or an atheist.”

    “These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves”.

    “Once the layman was anxious to hide the fact that he believed so much less than the Vicar; he now tends to hide fact that he believes so much more. Missionary to the priests of one’s own church is an embarrassing role; though I have a horrid feeling that if such mission is not soon undertaken the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short”

  • Douglas Koch

    Figurative language would seem a more accurate subject word rather than metaphorical here IMO.

  • DRT @May 5, 2012 at 3:31 pm,

    I agree that “abstract” and “concrete” are useful terms, and I think the Hebrews were capable of speaking about abstract things in concrete terms. So, for example, when Genesis 1 speaks about the “firmament” (Hebrew, raqiya), I don’t think it they understood that literally as beaten brass or as a hard surface. It was concrete term used to speak of something that was not concrete.

    So I think there is some metaphorical expression, but as I noted earlier, the presence of metaphor does not indicate that the whole piece must be taken as metaphor. It is not an all-or-nothing proposition, as some seem to think. But it has been proposed to me, here and elsewhere, that to take Genesis 1 as a historical account, I have to take every bit of it with what amounts to a very wooden literalness. Or, conversely, that if there is any bit of metaphor present, then all must be taken as metaphor (and I think you might have just demonstrated my point).

    But that, of course, is not how historical genres work. Historical accounts often use metaphor and figures of speech (as, also, do journalistic pieces).

    The presence of metaphor does not automatically identify a text as poetry. And to call a piece like Genesis 1 poetry, when it does not bear the characteristics of Hebrew poetry is, in my view, to impose our own modern ideas about poetry onto the text.

  • CGC

    Hi Jeff,
    I think you may a great point of not taking an all or nothing view and much of language has a mix of literal and figurative, concrete and fluid that come together. And I understand some of the negative responses when people hear things like the first chapters of Genesis are mere “poetry” or “truthful fictions.” And I think your point about not imposing modern poetry onto the text is well taken. But I will caution against the reverse as well. That we take our modern notions of poetry and we define poetry by our modern ways rather than listening to the ancient ways of the text which may fuction differently than today. Or to say that the first chapters of Genesis bear no resemblence to Hebrew poetry, I go “what?”

    The first chapters of Genesis alone are filled with Hebrew parellelisms, a Hebrew poetic like structure around the use of the word ‘create’ and so forth. The whole creation narrative is structured poetically. That does not mean it did not really happen or it is all figurative but it does mean there are Hebrew poetic aspects to the early part of the book of Genesis. This does not diminish the truth of Scripture in any way but shows its beauty and flowing prose as it highlights certain features that God wants us “to get.” I think your caution is worth noting but there is a caution from the other side we need to hold with it.

  • Dan Arnold


    I’m not sure how someone could read the text of Genesis 1 in Hebrew and not see it as at least highly stylized prose. Hebrew poetry is both complex and multifacited and is far more than parallelism, even while that is a common aspect. The cadence, the repetition, the patterns of 14’s and 28’s in Genesis 1 all exemplify this complexity. To say that we are imposing our modern idea of poetry on the text seems almost like a category mistake because Hebrew poetry is quite different from modern, English poetry.

    Now as you imply, just because something is poetic does not make it non historical (although we should be careful to define what is meant by historical) nor does it mean that it is metaphorical. Given the concreteness of the Hebrew language, it would be interesting how you support the assertion that ancient Hebrews did not think the raqiya was not some sort of physical barrier. The Hebrew language uses concrete terms to express non-concrete realities all the time. That’s how the language works. Here we agree. But I have not seen any evidence from the ANE context where anyone thought that the raqiya was not a real barrier. Indeed, the idea of a physical barrier fits very nicely with the separating motif of Genesis 1. However, if you have some counter evidence, I would love to learn. (We do have evidence that later Greco-Roman writers had different cosmological understandings.)

    Shalom uvrecha,

  • Genesis 1 certainly has an elegant rhetorical and purposeful structure, and within that structure we can find some parallel elements. But that does not mean it is poetry.

    I am currently reading Kenneth Bailey’s “Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes,” in which he goes through 1 Corinthians and identifies it as Hebrew rhetoric. He sees it as a very elegant rhetorical structure, sectioned out with inclusios and carefully built with parallel elements in which the elements of the last half of a section answer back to elements in the first half.

    But that does not mean that 1 Corinthians is therefore a poem. Beautifully and elegantly structured? Yes. But poetry? No. Though we might say of a beautiful, well-structured thing ~ whether a piece of literature, a flower, an equation, or any number of things ~ that it is “poetic,” that does not mean that it is actually poetry. That is, rather, us imposing a poetic notion upon it. So, when we come across an elegantly written piece of Hebrew literature full or rhetorical flourish, that does not equate to Hebrew poetry or mean that it was intended as poetry.

    Genesis 1 comes at the beginning of a book that presents as history ~ that is, about things that happened in time and space. Indeed, it has a structure as does the whole book, and though it is elegant and beautiful, it does not present as poetry, however poetic it may make us feel.

  • holdon

    “But I have not seen any evidence from the ANE context.”

    Why do you need the ANE context here? To sound interesting or what the context of ancient near-east peoples bring to the meaning of the hebrew “raqiya”?

    Talking about context: if we just read Gen 1, the writer apparently means to indicate that raqiya is a created thing and in simply put in a “what you see is what you get” form means what we call: sky. Birds in the sky; stars in the sky; etc..

    It is kind of foolish that because “raqa” means hammering, that “raqiya” must mean “a copper dome with the stars nailed to it.” You can say what you want but I don’t think those people then were so primitive that they could not observe the movements in the sky but could have thought it to be a metal dome.

  • This article affirms so much of the multi-year process of detoxing my background and training divinizing the Bible and calling it the exclusive “Word of God”. I am a recovering literalist and finding a new and improved approach to a God-inspired book that I have loved and read all my life. The difference is that I no longer worship the words in the Bible as if they themselves ARE God. That which I read is given ample space to “divide soul and spirit” and truly inspire the faith planted in me by the Mystery we call “God”. The Trinity is not meant to be a Quadrinity.
    You are welcome to explore my blog called “Pushing Back” at obscuritus.blogspot.com

  • CGC

    Can you please then define what exactly is in your understanding ancient Hebrew poetry? And is there a source for this definition?

  • CGC

    PS – Maybe it’s a semantic thing but it seems like your main concern is somebody looking at a whole book, for examples Corinthians or Genesis as Hebrew poems. I think what people are really arguing for: there are real elements of poetic prose within various books of the Bible? Or more specifically, does the first ten chapters of Genesis contain sections or areas of Hebrew poetic elements? It is one thing to argue that the book of Genesis as a whole is not poetry. It is quite something else to say there are no poetic elements found within the book of Genesis.

  • DRT

    Jeff Doles, your insistence that Gen 1 is not poetry is a red herring. It does not matter whether it meets the rules for Hebrew poetry or not for it to be obvious that Gen 1 is not representing concrete happenings. It is abstract. The sequencing, repetition, the lack of congruity to reality, all of these make it very clear that it is not descriptions of concrete happenings. The spirit of god hovering is an abstract thought. God resting is an abstract thought. The evening and morining without sun and moon etc are abstract thoughts.

    Separating the expanse of the waters, the water in the sky and the water below is an abstract thought, not a concrete reality.

    It is incumbent on someone to show how it is concrete when it goes against every single concrete piece of knowledge we have about the way things are formed.

  • DRT May 5, 3:27 & 3:31,

    I think you may have misapplied Wright’s use of “abstract” and concrete”. See the way he explains it in the preface to The Resurrection of the Son of God, in which he echoes one of Caird’s major points in his section on metaphor in The Language and Imagery of the Bible. Wright’s point (and behind him, Caird’s point), is to clarify that words like “literal” and “metaphorical” speak of the ways that words refer to things, not of the things to which the words refer, and that a metaphorical expression can refer equally to something abstract or something concrete the same as a literal expression. In other words, to say that a description is “metaphorical” is not to say that it is physically abstract or “spiritual” in the platonic sense. For example, the phrase “pick up your cross and follow me” refers metaphorically to a concrete reality, namely clinging to Jesus’ deeply subversive kingdom agenda. The fact that language is being used metaphorically tells us nothing, in and of itself, about the sort of reality it is referring to.

  • Here’s how Caird makes this point:

    “Any statement, literal or metaphorical, may be true or false, and its referent may be real or unreal… In short, literal and metaphorical are terms which describe types of language, and the type of language we use has very little to do with the truth or falsity of what we say and with the existence of the things we refer to… [Many scholars] seem to be beset with the fear that, if once they admitted a word to be metaphor, they would forfeit the right to believe in the reality of that which it signified. This fear would justified only on one of two assumptions: either that metaphor is an optional embroidery which adds nothing substantial to the meaning of a sentence; or that metaphor can be used only in emotive and evocative utterances which have no truth value. Both these assumptions we shall find to be ungrounded… For us it is enough to note that if we call an expression ‘literal’ or ‘metaphorical’ we are talking about the nature of the language employed, whereas if we call it ‘ontological’ we are talking about the reality of its referent. Linguistic statements must not be confused with metaphysical ones… Just as words are not identical with their referents, so linguistic statements (i.e. statements about words) are not to be confused with metaphysical statements (i.e. statements about reality. If I say the words ‘king’ and ‘father’ when applied to God are metaphors, that is a linguistic statement. If I say that God is the archetypal king and father, from whom all human kingship and fatherhood are derived, that is a metaphysical statement; and the second does not invalidate the first” (The Language and Imagery of the Bible, pp. 131-133, 193-194).

    Similarly, this is how Wright explains it:

    “I constantly run into loose talk about a ‘literal’ resurrection as opposed to a ‘metaphorical’ one. I know what people mean when they say that, but those words are unhelpful ways of saying it. The terms ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ refer, properly, to the ways words refer to things, not to the things to which the words refer. For the latter task, the appropriate words might be ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’. The phrase ‘Plato’s theory of forms’ literally refers to an abstract entity (in fact, a doubly abstract one). The phrase ‘the greasy spoon’ refers metaphorically, and perhaps also metonymically, to a concrete entity, namely the cheap restaurant down the road” (RSG, pp. xviii-xix).

  • DRT

    Matt, thanks.

    So to apply that, the Wrightian sense in your discourse would be that the actual language of Gen 1 etc could be metapohorical or whatever, but the language itself refers to a concrete event, the creation of the universe. Is that right?

    And that the number of days may, or may not, be concrete happenings, and may or may not be metaphorical. But the debate we are having about gen 1 is undeniably concrete, in that god made the universe, it is more of a debate to say whether it is metaphorical or not.


  • Exactly! That’s a great way to put it.

  • Hi, I’m currently on the same journey as many of you and trying to understand when the bible is speaking in metaphors and when it is literal. I’m scouring Amazon to see if there are any books that can help me (especially those downloadable to Kindle). Can anyone recommend a book(s) that deal with this specific subject? Not just the NT but the OT too. You would have my sincere thanks. Best wishes, Damie