Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Use of Non-literal Language in the Bible

By David Negley of Mishkan David blog*

Recently, in a discussion thread, I noticed that there seems to be some confusion about how to identify uses of non-literal language in the Bible. As the discussion went on, it became apparent that there was some need to define basic literary terms, like “parable”, “literal”, and “figurative”.

In this discussion, the question was asked whether certain passages were “literal” or “parable”. The responses were intriguing. No one wanted to say that anything was a “parable”, or a “metaphor”, because they seemed afraid it would leave them in a position where they were cutting meaningful parts out of the Bible. In other words, these people were avoiding the obvious answer—”it is a metaphor”—because they were afraid that was tantamount to saying the Bible has no clear meaning in those instances.

I can understand that concern. I used to feel the same way. I was certain that, “The Bible should always be taken literally. Saying some of it is allegorical or metaphorical leaves the interpretation up to the whim of the theologian.”

In Bible college, there was even a saying we had to memorize…

When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word, at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.

(Dr. David L. Cooper, “The Golden Rule of Biblical Hermeneutics”)

Now, this approach is far superior to the alternative technique of Bible interpretation that is popular among Christian theologians. I have been treated to interpretations of the prophets that denuded the prophetic visions of all reference to Israel. Christian theology is rife with allegorization of texts in order to exchange the roles of Israel and a Gentile entity we call “the Church”.

However, while this golden rule is an improvement over other approaches, it does make one glaring assumption that is rarely identified. In order to employ this rule accurately, one must have a firm grasp on the language and literary genres common to the Biblical authors. In short, one cannot know when “the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths” indicates a non-literal usage unless we are familiar with the axioms and fundamental truths employed by the authors!

In many cases, the choice of terms might be based on reasons that will not be immediately obvious to us, as we read 2,000 years later, within a different culture, and with a completely different set of experiences. We must learn to put ourselves in the place of the author and the original audience in order to understand what was written. In this particular conversation I mentioned, the issue was how to define what was intended to be taken as literal truth, as opposed to recognizing figurative language.

So, let’s start of with an assertion:

Calling something a “parable” or a “figure of speech” is not just a fancy way of saying it has no meaning.

We sometimes get the impression that calling something a metaphor is just an excuse to justify tossing out our dearly held beliefs. We are told, “The verse used to defend that doctrine isn’t literally true.” I used to take great offense at some of the writings of William Barclay for specifically that reason.

Some of us need to get over this negative feeling about identifying figures of speech in the Bible. The truth is, we use figures of speech and idioms all the time, regardless of what language we speak. Figures of speech are an unavoidable reality in life. It “rains cats and dogs”, while “Jack Frost is nipping at our noses”. We “hop in our wheels” to drive down town, to “eat a bean”. “Give me a call”? Where shall I put it when you have given it to me?

In the case of “mishlei/parables”, we have short stories—sometimes only a sentence or two—that communicate an actual truth, but through the use of symbolism. These are not literal uses of language. Stories about beating on a friend’s front door to borrow a loaf of bread are very relatable and homey… but not literal, factual accounts. The point of these stories is to involve the hearer/reader, and get the audience to relate to the characters in the story. That allows the audience to take a meaning from the story that was never explicitly stated—an excellent way to communicate when one is part of an underground political movement bent on crowning the new Planetary Emperor.

But most of us get that. Things become more tricky, though, when it comes to identifying terms that are so commonly used as jargon words that we don’t even recognize them as figurative, anymore. It can be downright challenging to tease out all the non-literal terms we are accustomed to using.

·        Israel is the “wife” of God”

This makes a wonderful word picture, but there is no way it is literally true. The same goes for “Bride of Messiah”. If we try to take these terms literally, then we have God in a homosexual, incestuous relationship with “Israel, my son, my firstborn”. And by the way… calling Israel a “son” is also a figure of speech! The eternal spirit Being we call “God” does not procreate.

·        We are the “Body” of Messiah

We are a collective community, but we are not a literal “body”. Sha’ul built on this metaphor (a comparison NOT using “like” or “as”) in First Corinthians 12, when he likened people to eyes, ears, hands, and feet.

·        We are “grafted in”

This is an agricultural term, by which we mean that one can identify with, and adhere to, a group to which s/he is not native-born.

·        Put on the “Armor” of God

Ephesians 6 does not intend that we should play-act putting on armor in any literal way. Sha’ul uses armor as a metaphor for the role of maturing in our spiritual character. As we learn truth, righteousness, trust, etc., we find these traits all help to sustain and protect us—LIKE armor on the battlefield.

And finally, I will end with one last example—

·        Yeshua is the “Lamb of God”

This beloved phrase says so much about Yeshua! The symbol of the lamb communicates gentleness, companionship, warmth, and ultimately, the ultimate sacrifice.
And yet, the lamb is only a symbol. Yeshua has no wool, and he walks on only two legs.This also leads us to recognize that Yeshua is not literally a Passover sacrifice. He was a human being, not a sacrificial lamb. It would have been against everything in the Torah for a priest to offer the life of a human on the Temple altar. Still, every year, there are more endless arguments over whether Yeshua died precisely at the time the Passover lambs were slain, as though he were literally a sacrificial lamb.

Obviously, metaphors can be very difficult to identify, since there is no semantic flag to signal, “I’m not being literal now!” When someone says, “You ARE the body, of which Messiah is the head”, or “We ARE ambassadors for Messiah”, or “You ARE the Temple of God”… we have to ask ourselves what the literal reality is that makes those symbols significant, and then apply that symbolism correctly.

Now, I have deliberately chosen examples that are relatively non-controversial. Most of us understand that we are being COMPARED to temples, bodies, soldiers, sheep, and trees and vines. But this illustrates a principle that we need to apply throughout the Messianic letters. We have all been taught—erroneously—to take literally MANY metaphorical and midrashic elements, especially in the letters of Rav Sha’ul.

For instance, how many of us have heard sermons and teachings on “the deep truths of the Messianic priesthood”, and been told of, “Yeshua, our high priest”? Do we realize that ALL of this sort of language is non-literal??? There are applications, to be sure. We can act AS priests when we intercede for others, or speak Hashem’s truth into their lives. But we are NOT literally priests in the sense of the Levitical priesthood.

(This) leads us to one final example of metaphorical application in the Messianic Writings. The entire book of Hebrews consists of one allegorical vignette after another. Many have read the section about Melchizedek with great interest, and have even created doctrine to the effect that Melchizedek is some sort of “pre-incarnate” Yeshua. But that was never the point the author was trying to make. The writer of Hebrews created a midrash based on the story in Genesis, drawing interesting points of comparison between the historical figure and Messiah Yeshua. Such statements make good sermonic rhetoric, but are not literal truth. By recognizing this, we save ourselves a great deal of angst and speculation.

We have become accustomed to accepting fantastic, unverifiable theology, and then we are told that we must hold to it as though our very eternal destiny relies upon it being true. There are many things we have been taught to accept as literal truths under the guise of “spiritual teaching” or “God can do anything”, but which really are based on taking non-literal language as literal.

There is much more to be said on this topic, and we will be returning to it more in the future. Keep reading here on the Mishkan, to learn more about the use of non-literal language, and its impact on our approach to Biblical interpretation.

שלום ברוך
Shalom and be blessed
Dan and Brenda Cathcart

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* Visit the Mishkan David blog site at www.

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