We continue our look at biblical figures of speech involving comparison. In our previous post, we considered the hypocatastasis, which is an inferred comparison between two things of unlike nature that nevertheless have something in common. Today we consider the figure known as parable.
Pronunciation: \ ˈpar-ə-bəl \
A parable in biblical studies is an extended simile. As a simile, it is an explicit comparison between two things of unlike nature that nevertheless have something in common. As an extended simile, it consists of an illustration or narrative designed to teach a moral lesson or spiritual truth by way of resemblance. The narrative may have characters, a setting, and a brief storyline. When the characters are personified plants or animals, it is considered a fable. Do note that scholars often diverge on the precise difference between parable and allegory.
• “Rabbi Yitzḥak Nappaḥa said to them: I will relate a parable. To what can this be compared? It can be compared to a man who has two wives, one young and one old. The young wife pulls out his white hairs, so that her husband will appear younger. The old wife pulls out his black hairs so that he will appear older. And it turns out that he is bald from here and from there.” (B. Bava Kamma 60b)
• “A man traveling along a path came to a great expanse of water. As he stood on the shore, he realized there were dangers and discomforts all about. But the other shore appeared safe and inviting. The man looked for a boat or a bridge and found neither. But with great effort he gathered grass, twigs and branches and tied them all together to make a simple raft. Relying on the raft to keep himself afloat, the man paddled with his hands and feet and reached the safety of the other shore. He could continue his journey on dry land. Now, what would he do with his makeshift raft? Would he drag it along with him or leave it behind?” [Buddha said he would leave the raft behind, explaining that it is useful for crossing over but not for holding onto. The abandoned raft is likened to other things in life that people need to release in order to keep moving forward on their journey.] (Buddha’s “Parable of the Raft”)
• “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. . . . You are the man.” (2 Sam 12:1-7a)
• “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. . . .” (Matt 13:24-30)
• “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. . . . This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matt 18:23-35)
As noted above, scholars often diverge on the precise difference between parable and allegory. The Greek term parabole literally means “to throw alongside,” and that’s largely what a parable does. It makes comparisons. It sets one thing next to another to clarify the second thing. It portrays scenes from everyday life—sowing seed, catching fish, kneading dough, going on a journey—in order to convey spiritual truth, taking the reader from the known to the unknown.
Parabole is closely linked to the Hebrew word mashal, meaning “to be like,” which is the normal word for “proverb.” But the Old Testament mashalim and the New Testaent parabolai are broader categories than their English counterparts. They might include riddles, allegories, proverbs, and sayings, as well as analogies and stories. As such, we might categorize them as:
• Extended similes (explicit comparisons):
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.”
• Extended metaphors (implicit comparisons):
“A city on a hill cannot be hidden.”
• Fuller parables (contains narrative elements):
“A certain man had two sons. . . .”
The Sunday school definition of parable is “an earthly story with heavenly meaning,” which is not a bad place to start. It should be noted, however, that the meaning of a parable has implications for life on earth, too. A more sophisticated definition—and one that has withstood the test of time—comes from Bible scholar C. H. Dodd:
“At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
The only adjustment we will make to Dodd’s definition is to confine our definition of parable to an extended simile, and regard the extended metaphor as an allegory, which we will consider next time.
The definition at Merriam-Webster.com for parable.
An audio pronunciation guide for the word parable.