Studies by the Church of God
(Seventh Day), Denver, USA
FIGURING OUT FIGURES OF SPEECH
Savor the Spice on Every Page.
The previous lesson focused on the broad subject of the meaning
of words. This lesson will shine the spotlight on a special use
of words: FIGURES of speech. A figure of speech is a word,
phrase, or sentence that implies an idea or comparison that goes
beyond what we would normally expect from the literal meanings of
the words themselves. That's why figures of speech grab our
attention. They are a vivid and more interesting way of
expressing a thought, from the dramatic to the whimsical. They
spice up the language.
You are, no doubt, already familiar with various types of figures
of speech. After all, you hear and use them every day, even
though you may not know their technical names. There may be,
however, some expressions you have not recognized as figures of
Nine of the most common types are listed below. Examples of these
occur frequently, not only in everyday English, but also in the
Bible. In fact, they appear on every page. It's, therefore,
important that we recognize their use in the Bible for at least
1. It will increase our appreciation for the wonderful imagery
and artistic beauty of biblical literature - not just to know
what's being said but to feel the emotion behind it.
2. It guards against extreme literalistic interpretations. Some
people have taken the idea that "the Bible means exactly what it
says" so literally, they have failed to recognize that the very
authors who wrote the Bible used figurative language to do so. To
use a figure of speech, "they can't see the forest for the
trees." Extreme literalists especially miss the mark when
interpreting the highly poetic and figurative language of
prophetic material. By imposing their own literalism on the text,
they create expectations that were never intended by the authors.
The history of interpretations is littered with failed scenarios
of extreme literalists - an unfortunate situation that continues
to this day. ***The recognition of figures of speech is,
therefore, a crucial matter.***
a comparison of two unlike things by using the words like or as;
it usually involves identifying a characteristic or quality of
one object with another. Examples: "He is like a fox." "He came
in the night as a fox." "My heart is like wax; it has melted
within me" (Psalm 22:14). "The day of the Lord so comes as a
thief in the night" (1 Thessalonians 5:2).
a comparison or analogy in which a characteristic or
quality of one thing is used in place of another. Think of
metaphors as similes that don't use the words like or as.
Instead, they directly assert or imply the comparison, usually by
saying A is B ("he is a fox") or by phrasing it simply as B
("that fox" - Jesus speaking of Herod Antipas in Luke 13:32).
Similes and metaphors are the most common and easily spotted
figures of speech in the Bible. Here are a few more biblical
examples of metaphors: "The Lord is my shepherd" (Psalm 23:1); "I
am the door" (John 10:9); "Do not fear, little flock" (Luke
Metonymy or Word Association:
using the name of one object or concept for another because the
two are frequently associated together or because one may suggest
the other. Examples: "Buckingham Palace issued a statement today
expressing its solidarity with the recent decisions of the prime
minister." Of course, it wasn't the actual building that issued
the statement but the queen or her staff who reside in the
building. Buckingham Palace is so closely associated with
Britain's ruling monarch that it is used as a synonym for the
king or queen. The terms White House, Oval Office, and Washington
are often used in the same way to refer to the U.S. President.
Here's a biblical example: "There is one God who will justify the
circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith" (Romans
3:30). In this word association, "circumcised" and
"uncircumcised" are other ways of referring to the Jews and
Gentiles, respectively. Word associations can be difficult to
spot in the Bible because we may not understand the cultural
connections that allow one term to be substituted for another.
Foiled by those cultural gaps again!
a part of something is used to represent the whole thing, or the
whole is used for a part. Examples: "Fifty sails left the
harbor." A part of a ship, the sail, is being used as a
word-picture to represent the whole ship. "They shall beat their
swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks"
(Isaiah 2:4). Two implements of ancient warfare (swords and
spears) are used to represent all weapons, just as two farming
tools (plowshares and pruning hooks) are used to represent all
implements of peace. In other words, this verse is speaking of
total disarmament. As ridiculous as it sounds, an extreme
literalist might miss the figure of speech in this passage and
suggest that people in the last days will convert only their
swords and spears but keep the rest of their weapons intact.
The above example is "a part for the whole." How about the
reverse: "the whole for a part"? In Acts 17:6 some Jews, upset at
the preaching of Paul and Silas in their city of Thessalonica,
cry out, "These who have turned the world upside down have come
here too." The term world in this verse does not mean the entire
planet, for the gospel had not yet extended that far. Instead, it
refers to only that region of the world where the preaching of
the gospel was causing quite a stir. The Jews who used this
figure of speech were just being overly dramatic to emphasize how
concerned they were about the threat of the gospel to their way
the giving of human qualities or characteristics to a nonhuman
thing, quality, or idea. Examples: "The fish waved good-bye as he
broke the fisherman's line." (Unless this happened in a Disney
movie, we know that fish don't have hands like humans, and they
don't wave good-bye, not even with their fins.) "Destruction and
Death say, 'We have heard a report about it with our ears"' (Job
28:22). "The land vomits out its inhabitants" (Leviticus 18:25).
There are two other figures of speech that are specialized
variations of personification: 1) anthropomorphism and 2)
apostrophe. Anthropomorphism applies human, fleshly
characteristics to God, who by definition is a spiritual,
non-fleshly being. Examples: "With the blast of [the Lord's]
nostrils the waters were gathered together . . ." (Exodus 15:8).
"[The Lord] will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather
the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom . . ."
(Isaiah 40:11). Apostrophe is an exclamation directly addressed
to an object or concept as if it were a person. Examples: "Hear,
O heavens, and give ear, O earth!" (Isaiah 1:2.) "O Death, where
is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?" (1 Corinthians
a deliberate exaggeration for emphasis. Examples: "I'm so hungry,
I could eat a horse." "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck
it out .... And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off
. . ." (Matthew 5:29,30). "And blood came out of the winepress,
up to the horses' bridles" (Revelation 14:20).
an expression that denotes the opposite of what is meant by the
words themselves. Irony is usually intended to be humorous,
sardonic (mocking), or sarcastic. Examples: Calling a tall person
"shorty." "And [Pilate] said to the Jews, 'Behold your King!'"
(John 19:14.) Job mockingly replies to his critics, "No doubt you
are the people, and wisdom will die with you!" (Job 12:2.)
the substitution of a less direct or more agreeable expression
for one that may be too blunt, offensive, distasteful, or taboo.
Euphemisms generally address subjects like death, sex, pregnancy,
body parts, and bodily functions. Examples: To soften the blow of
death, we might say, "Uncle Joe has passed away," especially if
he was one of our favorites. If he wasn't, we might say, "So the
old codger finally kicked the bucket." For an ancient Hebrew
version of "kick the bucket," notice Ecclesiastes 12:6: "Remember
your Creator before the silver cord is loosed, or the golden bowl
is broken, or the pitcher shattered at the fountain, or the wheel
[pulley] broken at the well" (Ecclesiastes 12:6). Perhaps the
best known euphemism in the Bible is found in Genesis 4:1: "Adam
knew Eve his wife," which to the Hebrew mind was a less offensive
way of referring to sexual intercourse.
an expression in which a totality (the whole of something) is
represented by two opposite or contrasting parts. This figure of
speech is often overlooked, especially in Scripture. Example:
"The picnic was enjoyed by old and young." Here "old and young"
represent not only the upper and lower age brackets, but all ages
in between. In other words, everyone had a good time. Other
common examples are "through thick and thin," that is, through
every kind of circumstance, and "to search near and far," meaning
to look everywhere.
A biblical, example appears in Genesis 2 - "the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil" - where the merism refers to the full
range of moral knowledge or discernment, to have a God-like
omniscience as indicated in Genesis 3:5, where the merism is
repeated. This merism occurs in numerous texts, such as
Deuteronomy 1:39, 2 Samuel 14:17, 1 Kings 3:9, and Hebrews 5:14,
to name a few.
Another frequently occurring merism in Scripture is "heaven and
earth," as used in Genesis 1:1 or Psalm 121:2: "My help comes
from the Lord, who made heaven and earth." The two terms refer
not to heaven and earth as single entities but to everything they
contain - to all of creation.
Fun with figures of speech - for each of the following verses:
Identify the type of figure of speech used; some verses may have
more than one.
State what feature or characteristic makes it that type.
Briefly state what it means - that is, the plain message behind
1. Leviticus 7:27
2. 2 Samuel 22:2
3. 1 Kings 18:27
4. Psalm 98:8
5. Psalm 130:2
6. Psalm 139:2
7. Jeremiah 22:29
8. Hosea 14:5
9. Matthew 26:26
10. Luke 16:29
11. John 11:11
12. John 12:19
13. John 21:25
What has been the most surprising thing you have discovered about
the use of figures of speech in the Bible? What has been the most
Congratulations! You've reached the half-way point of this series
of lessons. We hope the journey has been beneficial so far. In
the first seven lessons, we examined the general principles of
hermeneutics, so called because they have application to all
texts in the Bible. With these basic tools in hand, you can work
on any passage to unlock its meaning. In the remaining lessons,
our focus will shift to a study of the major genres of Scripture
and the special features and issues involved in their composition
and interpretation. This is a less-travelled road - one that
rarely gets the attention it deserves. But it's lined with some
fantastic scenery and some awesome views. Are you still holding
on to your seats? Here we go!
OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVES
Just the Facts, Ma'am:
If you're older than 40, you'll recognize this phrase as the
famous line that police detective Joe Friday used when
questioning a witness on the 1950s TV series 'Dragnet.' Friday
was a no-nonsense guy and wanted a straightforward account of the
events leading up to and including the commission of a crime. In
literary terms, such an account would be called a narrative - the
reporting of an event or the telling of a story.
Narratives are written in prose, the ordinary way people speak
and think. When they want to report information, authors will
usually use prose, as opposed to poetry, because that's the
clearest and most direct way to communicate. Because the biblical
writers had a lot of information to report, it is not surprising
at all that they put it in narrative form. In fact, the most
common type of literature in the Bible is narrative. It dominates
the landscape. In the Old Testament alone, narrative constitutes
over 40 percent of the material. Almost all of Genesis, Joshua,
Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles,
Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Jonah, and Haggai are written in
narrative, as well as large portions of Exodus, Numbers, Job,
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is not just one kind of narrative
that we call Old Testament narrative. That's merely the title of
the overall category. Instead, there are many types of
narratives, each having its own distinct features and structure
and, therefore, intention. Depending on his purpose, the author
will pick the genre that best delivers the message. Some of the
most common types are report, origin, epic, hero, and prophet
narratives. You can learn more about the form, function, and
interpretation of these genres from the recommended books listed
in the back of this booklet. Also, the more you read the biblical
material with a structural eye, the more you'll begin to
recognize the patterns on your own. Knowledge and understanding
will come with experience.
Old Testament narrative also contains other types of genres that
are embedded within the flow of the storyline. These embedded
genres include law, legal codes, poetry, and genealogy. As you
might expect by now, each of these categories also has its own
unique forms and functions. For example, the one with the
simplest form, which most people recognize on their own, is
genealogy. The structure is merely a long series of names in
which so-and-so begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so, etc. As
boring as this genre may seem, it does have an important literary
function, other than vexing the modern reader with
hard-to-pronounce names. The genealogies serve as transitions
from one part of the storyline to another.
Five general principles for interpreting narratives
1. The Old Testament narrative functions on three levels. The
bottom level focuses on the individual narratives. At this level,
each narrative is read for its own value - that is, whatever
information or lesson it seeks to communicate. However, the
individual narratives are not just a collection of unrelated
stories. They have been woven together to present a larger
picture, which brings us to the next level - the middle level -
which centers on the development of the nation of Israel. Through
the telling of the individual narratives, the plot of a greater
narrative unfolds from the call of Abraham to enslavement, to
exodus, to kingdom, to exile, to return.
The middle level, in turn, leads to the ultimate narrative of the
top level - the unfolding of the universal plan of God for the
salvation of the world. At this level, the plot continues beyond
the Old Testament and into the New. The overall theme of the
storyline moves from the fall of Adam to redemption in Christ.
Recognition of this hierarchy of levels will help you put the
individual narratives of the Old Testament in perspective. From a
Christian viewpoint, they should be interpreted in terms of what
they contribute to the ultimate storyline. Therefore, any
application of their details to one's life should be within that
context, rather than in the context of some earlier point in the
storyline that is still in the process of being developed.
2. The Old Testament narratives rarely teach doctrines directly.
However, they do illustrate doctrines as directly set forth
elsewhere in Scripture. For example, Joseph's refusal to commit
adultery with Potiphar's wife illustrates the direct command of
3. Because narratives record what happened - not necessarily what
ought to have happened - the characters in the story do not
always present good examples to follow. Most are far from
perfect. For example, to save his own skin, Abraham lied to the
Egyptian Pharaoh about Sarah being his wife (Genesis 12:10-20)
and then repeated the lie to Abimelech, king of Gerar (Genesis
20). Jacob deceived his blind father to obtain his brother's
birthright by hook or crook (Genesis 27). Judah slept with a
prostitute, who turned out to be his daughter-in-law in disguise
and to whom he had failed to keep an earlier promise (Genesis
38)... Gideon reluctant to believe that the Lord had chosen him
to deliver Israel from the Midianites, and despite a personal
appearance by the angel of the Lord, asked God to send him a sign
involving a fleece of wool - twice! (Judges 6:11 40.)
Therefore, we should be careful about imitating the behavior of
the characters of the narrative, as if their behavior were a word
from the Lord address directly to us. A narrative's conclusion
does not always draw an identifiable moral or always indicate
whether what happened was good or bad. We are expected to judge
what happened on the basis of clear and direct teachings found
elsewhere in Scripture.
4. Don't allegorize the story. Look for the obvious meaning
rather than some hidden meaning beyond the text. Though there are
some allegorical passages in the Bible, they are not of the same
genre and form as narratives.
5. Don't get lost in the details of a story to the extent that
you turn them into the intent of the passage. Instead,
concentrate on the overall sweep of the passage as indicated by
its historical and literary contexts.
The genre of law:
Because law plays such an important role in the Old Testament
storyline, we must take a few minutes to survey this genre. Of
the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, only the first five
contain laws: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and
Deuteronomy. These books are often referred to as the Books of
the Law, the Old Testament Law, the Law of Moses, or the Torah.
The purpose of most every other book of the Old Testament is
largely to illustrate and apply the laws found in these first
five. According to Jewish calculation, these books contain 613
commands, including the Ten Commandments. Thus, when the Law is
spoken of in the Bible, it usually means the 613 - that is, the
entire body of legal material, the vast bulk of which is recorded
from Exodus 20 through Deuteronomy 26.
Most of the Old Testament laws fall into one of two main types,
or sub-genres: apodictic law (or absolute law) and casuistic law
(or case law).
(Technically, Genesis contains very few laws, except for the
so-called "Noachid laws," seven commands given to Adam, Noah, and
the patriarchs that includ such things as "be fruitful and
multiply" and prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, sexual
sins, murder, theft, and eating blood, most of which are restated
in later legislation. Over 95 percent of the laws are actually
contained in the other four books).
1. The structure of apodictic law is characterized by an absolute
command, often expressed in the negative, using the second person
singular, future tense: "Thou shalt not . . . " or in modern
English, "You shall not . . . " or "You will not . . ." Also, the
apodictic form usually prescribes no penalties.
The most familiar examples of this genre are found in the Ten
Commandments of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Yet, by no means are
the Ten Commandments the only apodictic laws. They are spread
throughout the legal material of the first five books. For
example, "You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child"
(Exodus 22:22). "You shall not shave around the side of your
head, nor shall you disfigure the edges of your beard" (Leviticus
19:27). "You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show
partiality, nor take a bribe . . . " (Deuteronomy 16:19).
Also, apodictic laws are not always expressed in the negative.
For example, most of the instructions for building the tabernacle
are in a positive, apodictic form: "You shall make an altar of
acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide . . ." (Exodus
27:1). One of the most famous apodictic laws of all is stated in
the positive: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself . . ."
(Leviticus 19:18). And sometimes both the negative and positive
forms are used together: "You shall not see your brother's ox or
his sheep going astray, and hide yourself from them; you shall
certainly bring them back to your brother" (Deuteronomy 22:1,
2. The structure of casuistic law is characterized by an opening
conditional clause ("If this happens . . ."), followed by a main
clause or statement of penalty (". . . then this will be the
punishment"). Examples: "If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and
slaughters it or sells it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox
and four sheep for a sheep" (Exodus 22:1). "If a person sins
unintentionally, then he shall bring a female goat in its first
year as a sin offering" (Numbers 15:27). "If a man is found lying
with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die .
. ." (Deuteronomy 22:22).
Casuistic law is also called case law because it describes case
by case what a particular judgment ought to be. ("If this is the
case, then this is the penalty.") These laws, however, should not
be regarded as hypothetical but as representing real-life
situations where intent and extenuating circumstances are often
involved. For example, in Exodus 21 the death penalty is
prescribed for a man who commits premeditated murder, but in the
case of a man who only injures another, a monetary penalty is
required (vv. 12, 18, 19).
The laws of the Old Testament are not presented as isolated
statements. They are grouped together in collections or codes.
Apodictic laws often occur in a short series of similarly styled
precepts. The Decalogues (series of ten laws) in Exodus 20 and
Deuteronomy 5 are no doubt the best known, but other series can
be seen in Exodus 34 and Leviticus 18.
In contrast, because casuistic laws deal with contingencies, they
tend to be more complex and wordy than apodictic laws. Therefore,
they are arranged, not in short series, but in topical groups or
codes. The four major codes of Old Testament law are the Covenant
Code (Exodus 20:22-23:33), the Priest Code (Exodus 25-31; 34:29
through Leviticus 16; and parts of Numbers), the Holiness Code
(Leviticus 17-26), and the Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12-26).
Three key principles for interpreting law
1. The Old Testament laws were representative, not exhaustive. As
detailed as the laws appear to be, even numbering 613 in all,
they did not cover every conceivable moral, religious, social, or
civil issue. Instead, they provided a representative sample of
the kinds of principles that were to guide Israel.
2. The Old Testament laws were instructional, rather than strict
judicial or legalistic, codes. Their purpose was to teach
fundamental values from which other principles could be
extrapolated when necessary. Even the original Hebrew word for
law - torah, literally means "instruction."
3. The Old Testament laws were relational, not abstract or
arbitrary. They are best understood within the context of God's
covenant or agreement with Israel. As an act of grace, God
promised to protect and bless Israel. Our of gratitude for these
blessings, Israel promised to follow God's stipulations. Thus,
the giving of the law was predicated on this mutual relationship
of grace and gratitude. It was not an abstract system of morality
or an arbitrary legal code forced upon Israel. The law,
therefore, should be interpreted relationally - that is, as the
guiding principles for Israel's ongoing relationship with he
Class Exercise: Interpreting Narrative
1. Judges 4 contains the narrative account of the victory of
Deborah and Barak over the Canaanites. Read the account section
by section as given below, and answer the accompanying questions.
As you read, note not only the content (what is being said) but
also the narrative style (how it's being said).
A. The Setting (introduction of the oppressors) - Judges 4:1-3 1)
1) Who are introduced here as the main characters?
2) Where are they from?
3) What have they done to Israel? And what is Israel's response?
B. Introduction of the deliverers and report of battle
preparations - verses 4-10
1) How is Deborah described?
2) Who is Barak? What city and tribe is he from?
3) In verses 6 and 7 Deborah's call for Barak is presented as a
command from whom?
4) What request does Barak make in verse 8, and what is Deborah's
reply in verse 9?
5) How ironic for Barak is Deborah's prophecy that Sisera will be
handed over to a woman? What suspense does this prediction add
to the plot of the story? Also, at this point, who might the
reader suspect the woman to be?
6) What city does Barak use as the staging ground for his attack?
C. Parenthetical statement - verse 11
(This statement about a person called Heber interrupts the
flow of the narrative. Why has the author inserted it here?
Let's find out.)
1) How is Heber identified?
2) Who are the Kenites? Are they native Israelites? (See Numbers
10:29 and Judges 1:16.)
3) In what nearby Israelite city does Heber live, and what is
happening at that city in the story?
D. Report of the battle - verses 12-16
1) What is the result of the battle?
2) To what degree of detail does the author describe the battle?
E. Report of the death of Israel's oppressor - verses 17-22
1) As Sisera flees the battlefield, lo and behold, whose tent
does he come to?
2) Why is Sisera willing to enter Jael's tent and to trust her
when she says, "Do not fear?" Do you suppose he would have been
just as willing to enter the tent of an Israelite?
3) In what manner and to what degree of detail does the author
describe Sisera's death in verse 22?
4) Identify the two unexpected twists (irony) in the plot of the
story as who the hero turns out to be. The first has to do
with Deborah's re to Barak in verse 9 and the second with the
author's parenthetic statement in verse 11.
F. Conclusion - verses 23, 24
2. Analyzing the Narrative
A. Style and genre
1) In what manner and style has the author presented the story?
How would you describe his use of language? Has he used a lot
of embellishments, such as descriptive words or figures of
2) Narratives are usually plot-driven. What literary technique
has this author used to hold the reader's interest and to move
the plot along, even without the use of a lot of detailed and
3) We know that this passage is a narrative, but what kind of
narrative it? Based on the author's presentation, what name
would you give this sub-genre of narrative?
4) For what purpose would an author use this sub-genre?
B. The author's intention
1) Beyond merely offering a historical report, what message is
the author intending to convey to his readers? To answer this
question, let's review the information we have gathered from the
text. As noted above, the author uses irony to move the plot
along. The story ends with a surprising twist on two counts. It
is not Deborah, the esteemed prophetess and judge of Israel, who
is the hero in the end. Nor is it Barak, the mighty commander,
and his army of ten thousand. It is Jael, a heretofore unknown
woman. And on top of that, she's not even an Israelite! How does
this unexpected outcome reveal who the real hero of the story is
for the author? Who is behind the turn of events? (Note again the
author's concluding statement in verse 23.)
2) Therefore, what is the author's underlying intention in
telling the story? What does the story ultimately seek to prove
or illustrate? And perhaps even more to the point, what response
is the author seeking from his audience, particularly his
immediate Jewish audience?
C. Modern Christian application
1) Recall "the three levels of narrative" mentioned in the lesson
commentary: a) the bottom level - the narrative's own intrinsic
value; b) the middle level - the development of the nation of
Israel; and c) the top level - the unfolding of the universal
plan of God. In your opinion, on which level does this story best
function for the Christian reader?
2) In your opinion, would an interpretation of Judges 4 that
sought to draw some lesson, moral, or application based on the
characters' actions be appropriate? For example, to say, "Be like
Deborah or Barak or Jael" or to say, "Don't be like Sisera." In
formulating your answer, consider who the author suggests is the
real hero of the story and what his intention is in telling the
story. Also consider general principle #3 for interpreting
narratives, mentioned in the lesson commentary. In essence, that
principle cautions about imitating the behavior of narrative
characters, as if that were a word from the Lord addressed
directly to us. Though it may be good to note the example of
others, is that the message we should draw from this particular
Note: The Teacher's Guide contains additional material for this
TO BE CONTINUED