Metaphor-Rich Bible Readings

by Glenn on September 29, 2014

The Bible readings for today (Book of Common Prayer) seemed exceptionally rich in metaphorical writing.

Yesterday I watched a TED Talk by James Geary entitled, “Metaphorically Speaking.”

It wasn’t the most inspiring of talks, but what the speaker lacked in affect made up for in good content and I wonder to what extent my Bible reading today was affected by what I heard yesterday.

The writer of Psalm 66 says that God “refined us like silver.” (verse 10) He follows this with an extended metaphor of prison, which I imagine for some of the Israelites who had been or would be carried off into slavery, had a more literal meaning than it does for me today.

“You brought us into prison
and laid burdens on our backs.
You let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water,
but you brought us to a place of abundance.”
(Psalm 66:11–12)

Then Psalm 19 describes a Pre-Copernican understanding of the crossing of the sun across the sky this way:

“In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.”
(Psalm 19:4–6)

Yesterday, we started in on Hosea who, in today’s reading, warns of God’s punishment if the nation of Israel doesn’t change her ways:

I will make her like a desert,
turn her into a parched land,
and slay her with thirst.
(Hosea 2:3)

Of course, Hosea’s whole life and ministry was a metaphor. He was given the instruction by God to “Go, marry a promiscuous woman …” (Hosea 1:2) The NIV, I think, tones down the shock value of that word from God. The ESV is a little less delicate: “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom …” Basically, “Hosea, go marry a prostitute,” so that your relationship with her can be a picture of my relationship with the nation of Israel.

James chapter 3 was where I noticed how metaphor-rich my reading environment was today. James wanted to show how a small thing can affect a larger thing, so he noted that just as the bit in the mouth controls the horse and the rudder steers the ship, the tongue, too, is a powerful thing. But no sooner did he establish that idea, then James wanted to show how small things can do great damage. A spark can start a forest fire and a poorly manged tongue can wreak havoc in a life.

While “animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea” can be tamed, nothing can tame a wild tongue, which is “full of deadly poison.” After James observed that we can one minute be praising God and the next minute cursing people, he then warned Christians not to be inconsistent with their tongues:

“Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” (James 3:11–12)

And then, finally, there was the Gospel reading from Matthew 13:44–52. The kingdom of heaven is like:
a field that a guy bought because he discovered there was a treasure in it.
a pearl purchased with everything a man had.
a net full of all kinds of fish that later would be sorted into good and bad.

That last image came with this warning:

“This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:49–50)

Jesus asked his disciples if they had understood his meaning. They said, “Yes,” and the meaning of each metaphor (more strictly defined as similes because of the “is like”) seems plain enough to me, although the differences in the three images add complexity and nuance to what is meant by the kingdom of heaven and that third image has a disturbing quality that the other two do not.

But then verse 52 has a metaphor that didn’t make sense to me:

“He said to them, ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.'” (Matthew 13:52)

I’ll have to think about that one.