BibleProject | How to Read the Bible


Day 12: Poetic Metaphor

Metaphor is our fundamental way of thinking and perceiving the world. We use conceptual categories based on familiar experience to describe unfamiliar and complex realities. They provide the framework for how our minds make sense of the world around us, and they govern all of our thinking and language.

Every culture has its own way of developing metaphors and imagery unique to their history and experience. Similarly, biblical poetry draws on a core cultural understanding of the world from which the poets develop images and metaphors.

Basic conceptual metaphors are not the unique possession of a poet, but rather of the poet’s culture. And the creative poet will adapt these basic metaphors in unexpected directions, creating new ways of conceiving reality.

The rich metaphors in biblical poetry are rooted in images from earlier biblical narratives. That’s how metaphors work in the Bible. You need the narratives to understand the poetic images, and the images reveal deeper meaning in those narratives.

The best way to become familiar with the basic conceptual metaphors used in the Bible is to meditate on the Torah (i.e. the first five books of the Bible). The Torah provides the basic conceptual world in which biblical imagery makes sense, especially Genesis 1-11.

For example:
1. The ideal state is a mountain, garden temple (Genesis 1:8-10; Exodus 15:13, 17; Joel 2:1-3; Psalm 48:1-3).
2. Danger and death are found in the chaotic waters, but safety and life are found in the the river of Eden (Genesis 1:2; Psalm 18; Psalm 69; Isaiah 17:12-15).
3. The ideal state of shalom, or peace, is humanity living among the animals (Genesis 1:28-30; Deuteronomy 32:20-24; Hosea 2:18-19; Isaiah 11:6-9).
4. God’s ideal for creation is found in the garden of Eden (Psalm 1:1-3; Psalm 92:11-15; Jeremiah 17:5-8; John 4:13-14).
5. Covenant and marriage are ways that God talks about his relationship to his people (Jeremiah 2:2; Hosea 2:2-5, 8; Hosea 3:1-5; Revelation 21:1-3).

Understanding how metaphors are used in the Bible is an essential tool for reading biblical poetry. Any time someone references one thing to describe another thing, they are using metaphorical thinking whether they realize it or not. Metaphors are everywhere in the Bible and in our everyday speech. In today’s video, we’ll explore this crucial aspect of biblical language.