Sunday, September 25, 2016

What We Miss By Missing Metaphors (Brief Note Concerning Hyperliterality)

I once studied the Bible with a man, who was quite intelligent, but he would read the Bible hyperliterally. Admittedly, one can read Scripture hypermetaphorically too, but reading and understanding everything scriptural at face value (and hyperliterally) also has its pitfalls. To illustrate:

Gen. 1:3-God speaks light into existence.

Gen. 3:8-"And they hear the sound of Jehovah God walking up and down in the garden at the breeze of the day" (YLT)

"And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day" (ERV)

Deut. 23:14-"for Jehovah thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp, to deliver thee, and to give up thine enemies before thee; therefore shall thy camp be holy, that he may not see an unclean thing in thee, and turn away from thee" (ASV).

Should these verses be understood literally (even hyperliterally) or be construed metaphorically? Did God just speak light into existence? Did Jehovah or his voice walk about in Eden? Did Jehovah circumambulate in the Israelite camp, and need to avoid human excrement, if Israel did not obey Deut. 23:13?

All of these verses make more sense, it appears, when they're read as metaphors or understood to be figures of speech.


Duncan said...

Does it depend on how you translate the words. Like speak.

Why is the speaking of light so hard to take seriously?

As for 3:8 sound and voice hold very different ideas.

Deut 23:14 is not quite the same just as Noah walked with elohim.

Edgar Foster said...


I'm not just saying that he spoke light, but Jehovah said "let there be light" or "let light come to be" and there was light (i.e., light came into existence). So it could be said that God spoke light into being: He did not do something physically to bring light into existence. However, my point is that speaking (event A) and light coming to be (event B) is a potentially a metaphorical act. I want to emphasize that this is not an attempt to trivialize divine action.

Whether we render "sound" (as Young's Literal Translation does" or "voice" (English Revised Version), the point is that sounds or voices don't literally walk. Moreover, I would submit that Jehovah himself was not literally in Eden.

It seems that the language "Noah walked with elohim" and YHWH walked among the Israelites are both examples of metaphorical speech/language. We don't literally walk with God nor does God literally/physically walk among Israel. Literal walking requires a physical body, which God doesn't have.

Jesse Hendricks said...

Hi Edgar.How can I get a hold of you(email if possible)

Your brother
Edward Hendricks

Duncan said...

Is 1 kings 8:27 telling us that God is not here on earth or amongst us? If God is not physical then he does not have physical constraints. If God is observing us literally without eyes or the need for light then one has to choose between anthropomorphism or metaphorical illustration.

Edgar Foster said...

Hi Edward,

if you supply an email address by means of submitting a comment--I won't publish it here--then I'll send you a message.

Your brother,


Edgar Foster said...

The point of 1 Kings 8:27--or one point--seems to be that God (Jehovah) cannot reside on earth or literally dwell amongst us. I think most agree that he does not have physical constraints: he is transcendent in relation to the universe. Having said the foregoing, I must say that Jehovah is also immanent by mans of his holy spirit. In terms of metaphor or anthropomorphism, I think the Bible uses both for God. To say that God has eyes is evidently anthropomorphic speech, but other cases may involve metaphorical predication.

Duncan said...

πνεύμα ο θεός

Edgar Foster said...

That means "spirit the God" or possibly "God the spirit" or "God is the spirit."

Anonymous said...

Hi Edgar,

I couldn't agree with you more. As I pointed out on another forum somewhat recently, many people read richly poetic and metaphorical biblical language as though they were reading an article they pulled from PubMed delineating the intricacies of performing knee surgery. In doing so they are viewing the metaphorical material through the wrong lens, so to speak, which inhibits a clear picture.


Edgar Foster said...

Hi Kaz,

Thanks for your contribution. I have to admit that it took me years to start reading more texts as metaphors. To be fair, I'm not saying that the approach is always right. However, the other extreme is not good either.

One example is the common understanding of Sheol/Hades: churches love to understand such language in matter-of-fact ways. One study of mine also used to be horrified when he thought about the Israelites, who worshiped those "dungy idols." The man told me that Israel bowed down to "excrement." Yeah, sort of . . . :)

Anonymous said...

LOL, yes, I too wouldn't want to smell those "dungy idols"!

On another forum a fellow insisted that the LOGOS is an attribute of God, and that Jesus was the *literal* incarnation of that attribute, based on the Johannine Prologue. As I explained to him, I can see how someone could be the incarnation of an attribute of God metaphorically, i.e.:

Someone who is the incarnation of God's Wisdom could be called a wise person.

Someone who is the incarnation of God's power could be called a a powerful person.

Someone who is the incarnation of God's beauty could be called a beautiful person.

But what would you call someone who is the incarnation of God's LOGOS? A LOGOS person? What would that even mean?

It seems unintelligible to suggest that someone is the *literal* incarnation of an attribute, but someone could certainly be referred to in such ways metaphorically.


Edgar Foster said...

The fellow you mentioned seems to have a perspective that diverges from most Trinitarians. Jesus is normally viewed as the incarnation of God's essence; however, I see what you mean about the incongruent claim that Christ is the literal incarnation of a divine attribute. After all, we speak of humans being evil incarnate or being justice incarnate. But each case signifies a metaphorical incarnation of the designated attribute.

Scholars often point to Sirach 24:8 to substantiate the idea that ancient Judaism professed the incarnate status of Torah.

Anonymous said...

"Jesus is normally viewed as the incarnation of God's essence;"

And if it were to turn out that that's what the Prologue is getting at (it's not, but...), then that could easily be understood metaphorically as well. A man can't be the literal incarnation of God's essence anymore than he could be the literal incarnation of a sheep's essence. But I think that a man who perfectly reflects God's character and purposes to mankind through is absolute obedience could be called the incarnation of God's being/essence metaphorically, because in such a man we would learn what God is like.


Edgar Foster said...

I agree, Kaz. For me personally, it's not the language of "incarnation" that is so objectionable, but the problem is how such terminology has been misconstrued by historical orthodoxy.

Edgar Foster said...

One website tries to "explain" the Incarnation this way:

"The doctrine of the Incarnation, in which the nature of God unites with the nature of man in one person, is an unfathomable mystery to the human mind. It is in fact the most profound mystery that can face man during his time on earth. While the Incarnation is incomprehensible to the finite mind, it cannot be rejected as incoherent or absurd, not if one believes in an omnipotent (all-powerful) God. Divine truth may indeed be above and beyond reason, but never against reason, for God is the source and ground of true rationality."


Same old, same old . . . :)