Literary Devices in the Bible, Part 7: Personification

Introduction

We continue our look at biblical figures of speech involving comparison. In our previous post, we considered the allegory, which is an extended metaphor—an illustration or narrative featuring characters, a setting, and a brief storyline to teach a moral lesson or spiritual truth by way of representation. Today we consider the figure known as personification.

Personification 

Pronunciation: \ pər-ˌsän-ə-fə-ˈkā-shən \

Personification is the attributing of human characteristics to inanimate objects or abstract realities. It belongs to the sub-group of figures involving resemblance. The things compared are of unlike nature, but the thing to which the comparison is made is always an aspect of human activity, capacity, or personality. In addition to adding a certain richness, interest, or vividness to the comparison, the use of personification can reveal an author’s attitude toward the object or abstraction being personified. Personification is distinguished from anthropomorphism, which is the attributing of human characteristics to other living beings.

General Examples

•  Time has a way of creeping up on us.

•  The stars danced playfully in the moonlit sky.

•  The words leapt off the page as she read the story.

•  My computer throws a fit every time I try to use it.

•  The ocean waves lashed out at the boat as the storm approached.

•  “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon.” (William Shakespeare)

•  “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.” (Emily Dickinson)

•  “The conscious water saw its master and blushed.” (Alexander Pope)

Biblical Examples

•  “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Gen 4:10b)

•  “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Ps 19:1)

•  “Let the rivers clap their hands; let the mountains sing together for joy.” (Ps 98:8)

•  “When the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled.” (Ps 77:16b)

•  “Then the moon will be abashed, and the sun ashamed.” (Isa 24:23a)

•  “Evil will slay the wicked . . . .” (Ps 34:21a)

Additional Resources

The definition at Merriam-Webster.com for personification.

An audio pronunciation guide for the word personification.

Studies

Literary Devices in the Bible, Part 6: Allegory

Introduction

We continue our look at biblical figures of speech involving comparison. In our previous post, we considered the parable, which is an extended simile—an illustration or narrative featuring characters, a setting, and a brief storyline to teach a moral lesson or spiritual truth. Today we consider the figure known as allegory.

Allegory

Pronunciation: \ ˈal-ə-ˌɡôr-ē \

An allegory in biblical studies is an extended metaphor. As a metaphor, it is an implicit comparison between two things of unlike nature that nevertheless have something in common. As an extended metaphor, it consists of a narrative designed to teach a moral lesson or spiritual truth by way of representation. The narrative may have characters, a setting, and even a minor 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 allegory and parable.

General Examples

•  George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegorical novella symbolizing the Communist Revolution of Russia and the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II. The actions of the animals are used to expose the greed and corruption of the revolution. It also describes how powerful people can change the ideology of an entire society.

•  Edmund Spenser’s “Faerie Queene” is a work of allegorical poetry symbolizing a person’s moral and spiritual journey through myriad temptations toward the ultimate attainment of glory. The good characters represent virtues, and the bad characters represent vices.

•  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is a work of allegorical prose symbolizing the Christian disciple’s journey toward “the Celestial City.” Various characters representing spiritual vices, virtues, obstacles, and assistance are introduced throughout the pilgrim’s trek toward his ultimate destination.

Biblical Examples

•  “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. . . .” (Ps 80:8-16)

•  “One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king.’ But the olive tree answered, ‘Should I give up my oil . . . .’” (Jdgs 9:8-15)

•  “. . . when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim. . . .” (Eccl 12:3-7)

•  “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. . . .” (John 10:1-16)

Additional Resources

The definition at Merriam-Webster.com for allegory.

An audio pronunciation guide for the word allegory.

Studies

Literary Devices in the Bible, Part 5: Parable

Introduction

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.

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.

General Examples

•  “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”)

Biblical Examples

•  “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)

Additional Considerations

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.

Additional Resources

The definition at Merriam-Webster.com for parable.

An audio pronunciation guide for the word parable.

Studies

Literary Devices in the Bible, Part 4: Hypocatastasis

Introduction

We continue our look at biblical figures of speech involving comparison. In our previous post, we considered the metaphor, which is an implicit comparison between two things of unlike nature that nevertheless have something in common. Today we consider the closely related figure known as hypocatastasis.

Hypocatastasis

Pronunciation: \ ˌhī-pō-ˌka-ˈtasˌ-tə-sis \

A hypocatastasis captures implication. It is an inferred comparison between two things of unlike nature that nevertheless have something in common. Unlike metaphors, where the two points of comparison are both named, in a hypocatastasis only the one is named; the other is implied.

A hypocatastasis can therefore have more intensity than a metaphor, expressing a greater degree of resemblance because the referent is not named, and does not need to be. Consequently, the term has fallen out of general usage because it nearly becomes a figure of speech involving substitution (e.g., a metonymy or synechdoche). The term is thus largely confined to biblical studies.

General Examples

•  “Clean your pigsty [= your messy room]!”

•  “How could she marry that snake [= that awful person]?”

•  “An angel [= a very kind person] carried my groceries to the car.”

•  “That scum [= that mean person] took my wallet, keys, and phone.”

•  “That wretched beast [= that hostile person] shoved her up against the wall and screamed at her.”

•  “My baby [= my adorable husband] takes the morning train.” (Sheena Easton)

Biblical Examples

•  “Dogs [= evil men] have surrounded me . . . .” (Ps 22:16a)

•  “Blessed is the man who fills his quiver [= his family] with them!” (Ps 127:5a)

•  “A lion [= Babylon] has come out of his lair.” (Jer 4:7a)

•  “Watch and beware of the leaven [= the erroneous, spreading teaching] of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matt 16:6b)

•  “Look, the Lamb of God [= the substitutionary sacrifice], who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

•  “Destroy this temple [= my body], and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19b)

•  “I know that after I leave, savage wolves [= false teachers] will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” (Acts 20:29)

Additional Resources

The definition at Wikipedia for hypocatastasis.

An audio pronunciation guide for the word hypocatastasis.

 

Studies

Literary Devices in the Bible, Part 3: Metaphor

Introduction

We continue our look at biblical figures of speech involving comparison. In our previous post, we considered the simile, which is an explicit comparison between two things of unlike nature that nevertheless have something in common. Today we consider the closely related figure known as metaphor.

Metaphor                  

Pronunciation: \ ˈmet-ə-ˌfôr \ or \ ˈmet-ə-ˌfər \

A metaphor captures representation. It is an implicit comparison between two things of unlike nature that nevertheless have something in common. It is important to identify both the point of likeness and the mood or feeling evoked by the comparison.

General Examples

•  America is a melting pot.

•  Why would she lend money to a guy who is such a snake?

•  “Love is a battlefield.” (Pat Benatar)

•  “I am a rock. I am an island.” (Simon & Garfunkel)

•  “A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.” (Groucho Marx)

•  “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” (William Shakespeare)

•  “All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind.” (Khalil Gibran)

Biblical Examples

•  “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf . . . .” (Gen 49:27a)

•  “The Lord is my shepherd . . . .” (Ps 23:1a)

•  “The Lord is my rock, my fortress . . . .” (Ps 18:2a)

•  “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life.” (Prov 13:14a)

•  “We are the clay, and you are the potter.” (Isa 64:8b)

•  “Ephraim is a trained heifer that loves to thresh . . . .” (Hos 10:11a)

•  “I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:14a)

Additional Resources

The definition at Merriam-Webster.com for metaphor.

An audio pronunciation guide for the word metaphor.

 

Studies

Literary Devices in the Bible, Part 2: Simile

Overview

We’ve set out in this series to explore some of the literary devices in the Bible. Specifically, we’re looking at: (1) common figures of speech; (2) common semantic, rhetorical and poetic devices; and (3) common structuring techniques.

The first category, common figures of speech, can be subdivided into: (a) figures of speech involving comparison; and (b) figures of speech involving substitution. We begin today with the first figure of speech involving comparison—the simile.

Simile

Pronunciation: \ ˈsi-mə-lē \

A simile captures resemblance. It is an explicit comparison (i.e., using “like” or “as”) between two things of unlike nature that nevertheless have something in common. It is important to identify both the point of likeness and the mood or feeling evoked by the comparison.

General Examples

•  His temper was like a volcano.

•  When we’re out on the dance floor, we’re as happy as pigs in mud.

•  “It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog.” (The Beatles)

•  “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.” (Simon & Garfunkel)

•  “The water made a sound like kittens lapping.” (M. K. Rawlings)

•  “In the eastern sky there was a yellow patch like a rug laid for the feet of the coming sun.” (Stephen Crane)

•  “Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.” (Vladimir Nabokov)

•  “Snow lay here and there in patches in the hollow of the banks, like a lady’s gloves forgotten.” (R. D. Blackmore)

Biblical Examples

•  “…his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau.” (Gen 25:25b)

•  “Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was leprous, like snow.” (Exod 4:6b)

•  “At midday you will grope about like a blind man in the dark.” (Deut 28:29)

•  “He is like a tree planted by streams of water.” (Ps 1:3a)

•  “My heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast.” (Ps 22:14b)

•  “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” (Ps 42:1)

•  “His heart is hard as a stone, hard as the lower millstone.” (Job 41:24)

•  “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” (Isa 1:18b)

•  “His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.” (Rev 1:14)

Additional Resources

The definition at Merriam-Webster.com for simile.

An audio pronunciation guide for the word simile.

 

 

 

Studies

Literary Devices in the Bible, Part 1: Introduction

The Bible employs a variety of literary devices to convey its message. This dynamic is especially true of Hebrew poetry, which often features an array of verbal imagery and artistry to express the writer’s theological meaning. Perhaps even more so than straight prose, poetry captures the attention, stirs the emotions, and stimulates the imagination, thus helping readers discover new dimensions of familiar truths. Consequently, it also has the ability to provoke deeper reflection on, and greater appreciation of, those truths.

Alexander Pope, for example, once described Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine with an evocative sentence that is nearly unparalleled in English. The verse he crafted portrays the miracle performed in Cana of Galilee in a creative and memorable way: “The conscious water saw its master and blushed.” Here the poet personifies the water, giving it a consciousness, the capacity to see, and the ability to feel embarrassed.

water-to-wine-pourThe profound theological message conveyed in this one line speaks volumes about the relationship of the creation to its creator (one of subordinate humility), as well as the exalted identity of the one who performed the miracle (the creator himself, incarnated and living humbly as a craftsman in Galilee). Narrative alone seldom attains to such levels of eloquence. In his book Subversive Spirituality, Eugene Peterson writes:

“Poetry is not the language of objective explanation but the language of imagination. It makes an image of reality in such a way as to invite our participation in it. We do not have more information after we read a poem, we have more experience. . . . St. John is a poet, not using words to tell us about God, but to intensify our relationship with God.”

While it may be true that we sometimes “murder to dissect” (William Wordsworth), in this study we will take a closer look at explanations and examples for:

  • Common Figures of Speech
  • Common Semantic, Rhetorical & Poetic Devices
  • Common Structuring Techniques

We do so not to “murder” the text through crass dissection, but to better understand and appreciate its inner workings—all in an effort to hear more accurately the biblical authors’ intended meaning.

Do note that multiple devices can be at work simultaneously in any give text. Note also that these artistic touches enhance the beauty and richness of the biblical composition, undercutting modern critical notions that the sacred texts were written hastily or edited haphazardly. Rather, they are carefully crafted works of art.

Studies