"This is like that..."

Metaphors in the Bible

By Jeff Laird

The Bible was written for the benefit of human beings. That's both a blessing, and a drawback. The blessing is a message meant to be understood. God didn't compose Scripture as an obscure, confusing jumble of tangled concepts. The drawback of a book written for human beings is that we have a talent for turning simple ideas into an overly complicated mess.

One area where this trend is common, even comical, is in how we interpret the Bible's use of analogies, similes, and metaphors. We read phrases such as "this is like that," or "this thing is that thing." These are the moments when the Bible compares one thing to another, in order to make a specific point. When that happens, well-meaning believers and hardened skeptics alike are prone to the same mistake: riding the comparison further than it's meant to go.

We focus heavily on context here at BibleRef, but the background of a Bible passage should inform our understanding, not override it. Once we grasp the author's intended point, further connections may not be justified. If the two items described were identical in every possible way, they would not be two items, but one! If we insist on connections between A and B which Scripture doesn't actually make, we risk missing the message entirely, or delving into ideas Scripture does not actually promote.

Biblical analogies are often direct, as in the parables of Jesus. Phrases such as "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field" (Matthew 13:44) highlight a particular point. In this case, something valuable, but not obvious to everyone, which a rational person makes every effort to obtain. We could legitimately extend this analogy by discussing what it means to "search for treasure" and make some useful spiritual points. But arguing about how the treasure is hidden in a "field," not a "plain," or a "beach," and taking great pains explaining the spiritual implications of dirt versus grass versus making things far more complicated than God intended.

Hebrews 4:12 describes the written Word as a sword, another metaphor which is often over-analyzed. Make no mistake: the use of specific words usually implies a specific meaning. And Biblical analogies can be multi-layered. However, this verse is meant to explain how Scripture resolves the boundary between right and wrong, even when we have difficulty seeing the difference ourselves. Stretching in other doctrinal points, tied to the fact that we carry swords in a sheath, we sharpen swords with stones, or that swords have handles, and so on, is an abuse of the analogy. The interpretation is already given in the passage itself, so there is no reason to scrabble at the Bible looking for more.

Some Biblical analogies are indirect, but no less prone to over-interpretation. The story of Noah and the ark foreshadows God's salvation of mankind in the face of his righteous wrath. We can reasonably see parallels between Christ and the ark: a single mode of salvation, provided only by God, grounded in faith, etc. Should we insist that, since the ark was made of gopher wood, not pine or birch, that Christ must have qualities defined by the differences in those trees? Or that some application of being covered in pitch needs to apply to Jesus (Genesis 6:14)? Of course not; that's taking the comparison too far — especially since it's one the Bible does not explicitly make in the first place.

Even prophecy, which is often heavily poetic, can be over-analyzed. Jesus is described as the "Passover Lamb" in 1 Corinthians 5:7. The entire festival of Passover was meant to predict the saving ministry of Christ: a spotless lamb whose blood marks those to be spared from God's wrath. Being spotless is a symbol of being sinless. Death is death, sacrifice is sacrifice, and blood is blood. From this, we can infer that Jesus' innocence, sacrifice, and death explain His fulfillment of the predicted role. Grinding through Scripture trying to see how Jesus was also somehow one year old (Exodus 12:5), or was "roasted" after His death (Exodus 12:9) is senseless. Jesus clearly fits the role of Passover Lamb, even if He doesn't happen to have hooves, wool, and a tail.

Whether in good faith, or a lame attempt to disprove the Bible, carrying an analogy too far is never reasonable. Every comparison made between two things, by God or man, carries an intended level of meaning, and that's all. Context might reveal a clever depth to that association, but there are limits. When we squeeze, twist, or strain the analogy looking for more than we're actually given, we're not interpreting the Word — we're re-writing it.

Image Credit: markus53; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life

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Published 4-18-17