When we read our bibles we’ll often come across well-crafted images which were meant, at the time, to pack tremendous rhetorical punch. Two of the biggest mistakes we can make are to:
- Read over the images with no feeling and think of them as ancient curiosities.
- Work hard to understand them academically without reference to the feelings that the human and divine authors wished you to feel.
These two common responses to the Biblical imagery are common for those of us from less meditative versions of Christianity or who have academic training in biblical interpretation.
An example of this might be to read something like Psalm 23 and simply observe that it is about God’s care or to read it and look at ancient parallels and attitudes toward shepherds or whether or not David wrote it. But the Psalm is using imagery to be formative and evocative.
In one of my favorite studies of metaphor, though flawed in some of its historical analysis, is More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor.
The author’s make several observations about the power of barely noticed or entirely unnoticed metaphor in thought to structure our experience. But more core to the book’s message is their observation of the power of intentionally constructed metaphor to communicate actual knowledge and to give structure to human experience. The authors outline the power of metaphor under these headings (explanations are my own):
- The power to structure
Metaphors can add structure to a concept that does not natively have that structure. For instance to consider spiritual progress to be a war now means that there are short term tactics, long term strategies, and that enemies to spiritual progress (like the seven vices) deserve no quarter because they are passions which wage war against your soul (your very being as a human). Not coincidentally, even the word progress add structure to the concept of the spiritual life. The spiritual life has milestones, a destination, and so-on.
- The power of options
A metaphor is powerful because of its many options. If I explain metaphor like a closet from which structures can be pulled depending on the weather, but I do not say whether or not it is a walk-in closet then leave the option open. But I can close the option to make the metaphor more specific: Poetic metaphor is like a walk-in closet with a gun-safe, and four seasonal racks of clothes. You can pull clothes out for purpose, or even take stashed metaphors for dry months financially or grab a dangerous metaphor for a home invasion.
- The power of reason
Metaphors allow us to import new ways of reasoning to current life circumstances. So to use metaphor of this sort in a speech or poem or in your self-talk, is to offer people the power, not just to feel, but to think differently. An example from Scripture would be, “There is a way that seems right to a man, be the end of its way is death.” Many people, once they start a course of action feel like the result is predetermined and forget that they can back out or change course. But reminding people that life functions like a road and you can often turn around before you reach a dead end allows them to reason their way out of their current situation.
- The power of evaluation
Metaphors can bring in evaluative force from other domains into the domain utilized. For any of my lawyer readers, this is part of the power of legal analogy and precedent. Case ‘X’ is like case ‘Y’ wherein verdict ‘Z’ was reached. Therefore, verdict ‘Z’ is appropriate. Similarly, most people like being strong more than being weak. So in politics, somebody who takes metaphors of strength versus weakness to frame policy differences has imported a fundamental human preference as a metaphor for evaluating ideas.
- The power of being there
Metaphors are simply there. For instance, most people have been on journeys. This is the power of “life is a high way,” “walk in the Spirit,” “the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.” The image is already there to be exploited.
Of course, I would add and the authors do all over their book, that metaphor has the power to cause feeling.
What this means is that poetry and poetic language when properly engaged has the power to be a formative experience and it is, indeed, meant to do so. This is because they engage our emotions by calling upon past experiences (available pictures), they engage our intellect by adding structure, new paths of thought, and the ability to evaluate things differently, and they engage our imagination by causing us to use images to see the options used, available, and unavailable by the writer/speaker.
By the way, some people might balk at using Lakoff and Turner’s manual for Biblical interpretation, but Robert Alter says basically the same thing:
“The psalm are of course poems written out of deep and often passionate faith. What I am proposing is that the poetic medium made it possible to articulate the emotional freight, the moral consequences, the altered perception of the world that flowed from this monotheistic belief, in compact verbal structures that could in some instances seem [to be] simplicity itself.”
The poetry in the Bible, particularly the Psalms, is meant to give concrete expression to the philosophical, moral, and emotional consequences of the monotheistic beliefs of the psalmists. In other words, the metaphors of Scripture provide grist for the intellectual, imaginative, and emotional mill.
We read a poem, place ourselves in the appropriate frame of mind to understand it’s meaning and accept or reject (in whole or in part) the message therein.
In short, when we come across imagery/metaphor in the Bible’s poetry or moral teachings we should attempt to interpret it using intellect, emotion, and imagination. The exercise below is simply meant to show how to interpret the Biblical imagery to determine what it means. The exercises below could be applied to any poem and are not meant to be explicitly spiritual, they just seem that way because they’re about the Bible.
Here we look at the structure the metaphor provides to the thing described and the new pathways of reason and evaluation the metaphor seeks to convey. This involves understanding the metaphor in its ancient context as well then making the appropriate inferences from the metaphor to our own lives. For instance, “Our Father, who are in heaven” might be meant to lead us to think of our struggles not as God’s hatred or indifference but as either discipline or his respect for us as sons (see Hebrews 12).
In this case, we seek to place ourselves in an emotional frame of mind similar to the one the metaphor intends to place us. In the case of hearing that the Father of Jesus loves us in the same way he loves Jesus, we might remember a time that we felt extremely loved. To do this, I recommend sitting in silence and really thinking about it, imagine the circumstances that led to the feeling, the person who loved you that way, and the specific feelings in your physical body (hairs standing up, tears, blood rushing to your cheeks, that strange warmth in your chest like you want to shout and cry for joy at once). Then realize that God’s love for you is like this but infinite. That’s what the imagery is, apparently, meant to invoke.
Use your imagination to place yourself in the position that the metaphor demands of you and to look at the options it leaves open. “Our Father, who art in heaven,” takes away the option of seeing God as opposed to your well-being, even if his commands are opposed to your immediate desires or goals. The image does leave open the option of there being an older brother in the family to explain the Father’s orders to his children.
This post might be a bit more academic than some would like. The practical payoff for spiritual formation will be in another post.
 George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989),
 Lakoff and Turner, 64-65.
 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 113.
 On this aspect of poetry, see especially C. S Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: University Press, 1961). His notion of making sure to take an author’s work on its own terms in order to accept or reject one’s orders is great. On this score, I also recommend Mortimer Jerome Adler and Charles Lincoln Van Doren, How to Read a Book, 1972.