Genesis 49 recounts Jacob calling his sons together to bless them. How are we to understand this passage? Is Judah really a “lion’s whelp (49:7)? Zebulun a haven for ships (49:13)? Issacher a strong donkey (49:14)? Are we to take Jacob’s words literally or not?
We use figurative language all the time: “I’ll have to face the music.” “I’m bored to tears.” “She has a green thumb.” “Don’t let the cat out of the bag.” “He died of embarrassment.”
Biblical writers also used figurative language and vivid imagery. How are we to understand it?
Literal interpretation means taking the language in its normal sense, and expecting the writer to communicate in the ways that people normally communicate. “Taking the bible literally” means we do not look for hidden clues, esoteric numbers or secret meanings. But it also means that if Jesus says Herod is a fox, we don’t assume Herod has a red bushy tail. We assume this is figurative language and Jesus is comparing some trait of a fox to a trait of Herod.
Here are some guidelines for deciding when a phrase is figurative and when it isn’t.
Use the literal sense unless there is some good reason not to.
People tend to “over-spiritualize” the Bible. We lean toward making a metaphor out of everything that happens in a story. For example, “The disciples got in a boat and crossed the sea of Galilee while Jesus stayed behind. Aren’t we like that? We start our plans and forget to include Jesus. Jesus wants to be in the boat with us. . . . What is your boat? Your job? Your good looks?” Or we make everything in the Old Testament refer to Jesus, whether the writer intended to talk about the Messiah or not.
Use the figurative sense when the context demands it.
For example, dreams and visions tend to require figurative interpretation. Verbal clues (‘like,’ ‘as’, ‘may be compared to’, ‘resembles’) indicate metaphor and comparison. Expect figurative language when a literal interpretation would contradict the context of the passage and/or would be contrary to the style of the passage (e.g. poetry, proverbs) Use the figurative sense when a literal interpretation contradicts other Scriptures.
Use the figurative meaning if a literal sense is impossible or absurd.
For example, “Out of his mouth came a two-edged sword (Rev. 1:16)”.
Use the figurative sense if the literal sense would imply the immoral
For example, John 6:53-55.
Use the figurative if the expression is an obvious figure of speech.
See Table below.
Common Figures of Speech
|Figure of Speed||Definition||Example|
|Anthropomorphism||The attribution of human features or actions to God.||Isaiah 59:1 Behold, the LORD’s hand is not so short That it cannot save; Neither is His ear so dull That it cannot hear.|
|Apostrophe||Addressing a thing as if it were a person; or an absent person as if he were present||1 Cor 15:55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”|
|Euphemism||The use of a obscure expression in place of a shocking expression.||Gal. 5:12 Would that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves.|
|Hyperbole||Exaggeration to make a point.||2 Cor 11:8 I robbed other churches, taking wages from them to serve you|
|Hypocatastasis||A comparison in which likeness is implied rather than directly stated.||Luke 12:1 Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.|
|Idiom||An expression peculiar to a particular people.||Gen. 49:33 Jacob … breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.|
|Irony||Saying the opposite of what you mean||Job 12:1 No doubt you are the people, and wisdom will die with you.|
|Merism||A substitution of two contrasting or opposites parts for the whole.||Psalm 139:2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up|
|Metaphor||A comparison in which one thing represents another.||Matthew 5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.|
|Paradox||A statement that seems absurd or contradictory to make a point||Matthew 16:25 “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it.|
|Personification||The attribution of human features to inanimate objects.||Isaiah 24:23 Then the moon will be abashed and the sun ashamed|
|Simile||A comparison using “like” or “as”||Psalm 1:3 And he will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water|
|Synecdoche||The part stands for the whole or vice versa||Psalm 42:3 My tears have been my food day and night…|