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What Is a Biblical Metaphor?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 23, 2024
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A Biblical metaphor is a figure of speech that appears in the Christian Bible or is otherwise associated with that text. Some metaphors are so deeply associated with the Bible that they are called Biblical metaphors even outside that document. There are many different examples of metaphor being used in the Bible, including many sustained metaphorical traditions. Whether a term is being used metaphorically in the Bible can sometimes be difficult to determine, and the intended meaning of metaphors is not always clear either. The use of non-literal language in the Bible can lead to vastly different interpretations of its meaning.

Many Biblical metaphors appear in multiple places in the Bible. References to followers of Christ as sheep, for example, are common, as is the metaphorical description of Christ as a shepherd. Other metaphors compare groups to animals or plants. On a larger scale, many parts of the Bible use parables to make important philosophical points. Parables are essentially metaphorical stories that use this figure of speech to make a point about a subject not addressed in the parable itself.

In some cases, a Biblical metaphor can be so important that it is permanently associated with Christianity and the Bible. The Biblical metaphor that names Jesus as a shepherd, for example, is so important to the faith that the term "shepherd" is used outside the Bible to mean Jesus. This is true only of certain popular metaphors from the Bible, as not every metaphor used in the Bible is permanently associated with that text.

It is also possible to use imagery from the Bible to create an effective metaphor. In some cases, this can also be thought of as a Biblical metaphor. Metaphorically calling something a burning bush, for example, requires an understanding of the Bible for meaning. Certain authors use snakes in metaphors specifically in reference to the Bible. Whether this type of metaphor is effective depends on the reader's knowledge in many cases.

One problem with Biblical metaphors is that the Bible is often read in translation, and the original intention of many metaphors has been lost historically. In some cases, the original meaning of the metaphor can be recovered through historical research and knowledge about the period, but in other cases metaphors may not even be apparent. Many alternative interpretations of the Bible, for example, assert that the Holy Grail is a kind of metaphor, though the intended meaning is not always understood. In some interpretations, the Grail is understood to be the womb of Mary Magdalene.

The Bible is filled with many metaphors, and only a detailed reading informed by historical information can uncover their intended meaning. For Christians, however, the intended meaning is not always the most important meaning. Many people read the Bible as literature, and many more read the Bible purely as a religious text without consideration of its history. In these cases, the meaning of the Bible depends on personal interpretation and the construction of meaning within the text itself.

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Discussion Comments
By burcinc — On Oct 10, 2014

@serenesurface-- Definitely. I'm not really an expert on this but I know that Shakespeare uses biblical metaphors in many of his works. That is, he uses metaphors to refer to characters or ideas in the Bible but it is not all too apparent. It requires some skilled reading and interpretation.

For example, Hamlet's talk about the gravedigger in this play is believed to be a metaphor for Adam. There are also references to the Garden of Eden in the play. There is talk of gardens and snakes and of venom. It's a metaphor for how the devil in the shape of a snake convinced Eve to eat from the tree that God had forbidden Adam and Eve to eat from.

By serenesurface — On Oct 09, 2014

I thought that biblical metaphors referred to metaphors in literary works about the bible. This is common too right?

By bear78 — On Oct 09, 2014

Although I believe that any scripture sent by God has everlasting application and should be easily understood by everyone, I also believe that it's necessary to keep the historical events in mind at the time to make the right interpretation.

The Bible isn't the only scripture where God uses metaphors to explain ideas. This is a trend in various other scriptures like the Torah and the Qur'an. Considering that language and the names of objects were taught to man by God, it is not surprising that God would use metaphors to better explain ideas to people.

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