An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 5b: Metaphor and Antithesis as Literary Devices)

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An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 5b: Metaphor and Antithesis as Literary Devices)

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Metaphor

A metaphor is “a figure of speech that makes an implicit, implied, or hidden comparison between two things that are unrelated, but which share some common characteristics. In other words, a resemblance of two contradictory or different objects is made based on a single or some common characteristics.”[1]

The Bible includes many metaphors, a great number of them being references to God or His kingdom. Some of the most well-known ones are:

  • “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.” (Rev. 22:13 NKJV)
  • “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NKJV)
  • “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.” (Matthew 5:13, NKJV).

Observing a metaphor is important for grasping the spiritual message of a story, and in doing so we need to first understand some of the essential characteristics of the thing something is being compared to.

A Biblical Example of Metaphor: As an example, let’s look at Matthew 3:7-12. In this passage, John the Baptist is preaching in the wilderness, calling people to repent and be ready for the coming kingdom of God. Among the listeners—many of whom were sincere, repentant Christians—were also some Pharisees and Sadducees. These are the words that John addresses them:

(7) […] “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (8) Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, (9) and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. (10) And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (11) I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (12) His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (NKJV, emphases mine)

 

Here Matthew makes use of two metaphors in order to illustrate true repentance and the outcome of the lack thereof: the cutting down and burning of fruitless trees (3:10), and the separation between wheat—which is gathered into the barn—and chaff, which is burnt (3:12). Both metaphors use the imagery of fruit to illustrate the lesson John meant to teach the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him for baptism: salvation depends on producing good fruit, not on being children of Abraham by blood. As France suggests,

“True repentance is not a matter of words and ritual, but a real change of life […] the basis of judgment is not failure to belong to the natural family of Abraham, but the lack of the ‘good fruit’ which comes with repentance.”[2]

Chopping down the three—a metaphor for God’s judgment on pagan nations (Isaiah 10:33-34; Ezek 31; Daniel 4:14) is now applied to Israel, too, which faces God’s judgment. Cutting at the root of the tree indicates final removal rather than pruning, and it is a symbol of permanent and irremediable cutting off. In his desire to see Israel repent, John does not hold back from uttering harsh words to describe the reality they would experience, were they to continue in their ways and refuse to recognize and accept the true Messiah and his Kingdom. The same words are true today, for the same means of salvation is equally available and unique to us today.

Whether for emphasis, love of rhetoric, or out of a desire to soften things up, the use of metaphor is a great way to convey a message strongly, yet subtly. A careful analysis of the components of a metaphor—both the object of comparison, as well as the object compared—will help uncover the meaning and purpose of a biblical passage.

Antithesis

Antithesis, “which literally means ‘opposite,’ is a rhetorical device in which two opposite ideas are put together in a sentence to achieve a contrasting effect.”[3]

A Biblical Example of Antithesis: Luke’s rendition of the beatitudes in Luke 6:20-26 is a great example of the use of antithesis in Scripture. The table below highlights the contrast between the opposing statements:

 

 

Blessings

 

Woes

 

20 “Blessed are you poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
For you have received your consolation.
21 a Blessed are you who hunger now,
For you shall be filled.
25 a Woe to you who are full,
For you shall hunger.
21bBlessed are you who weep now,
For you shall laugh.
25 b Woe to you who laugh now,
For you shall mourn and weep.
22  Blessed are you when men hate you,
And when they exclude you,
And revile you, and cast out your name as evil,
For the Son of Man’s sake.
23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!
For indeed your reward is great in heaven,
For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets.
26  Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
For so did their fathers to the false prophets. (NKJV)

 

The antithesis is introduced by the disjunctive conjunction but (vs. 24) and is evident via several elements of parallelism:

 

Blessings Woes
blessed are you who woe to you who
poor rich
hungry full
shall be satisfied shall be hungry
weep now   laugh now
shall laugh shall weep
when people hate you, exclude you, revile you, spurn you when people speak well of you
for so their fathers did for so their fathers did
to the prophets to the false prophets

 

To every blessing corresponds an antithetical woe. Additionally, each blessing and woe is structured in a temporal antithesis: the passing, present preoccupation of each group is contrasted with the future and permanent outcome of their momentary focus.

The future is defined in the first part of the antithesis as the coming kingdom of God. Thus, the two contrasts—here-and-now versus then-and-there—as well as the contrast between the two groups of people, build upon each other and revolve around the kingdom of God. It is the differing understanding of the nature of this future kingdom and the present preparation for it that creates two groups of people.

On one hand, those who understand the true nature of God’s kingdom choose momentary suffering in preparation for this kingdom and service to its members. Following the example of Jesus, they prefer temporary poverty and hunger over a false sense of fulfillment. These are the people who leave everything behind to follow Jesus, who lose the notion of time soaking the coveted words of Life so utterly that they need miraculous feeding, who obey Jesus’s command to “carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals” when roaming the villages ministering to people (Luke 10:4).

Those who, in the presence of the holy Son of God, become deeply aware of their spiritual poverty and need for atonement, and who accept that Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf brings radical character transformation—these will be spiritually fulfilled and materially rewarded a hundredfold in the kingdom to come. Those persecuted, abused, threatened, rejected, and ridiculed because they are mistaken for evil by unsanctified people in power –these will prove to be eligible members of the kingdom of heaven.

On the other hand, those whose hardened hearts precluded the light of truth from healing their spiritual blindness, those who clutched their material and political expectations ever more tightly, who felt spiritually rich and full—not by a sense of divine indwelling, but by ancestral ties to the chosen Israel, who felt no need to sacrifice temporary prosperity in service to those who would inherit the kingdom of timeless abundance, those who live now with a false sense of consolation that hinders them from grasping what Jesus offers, will eventually prove to be outlawed from the true kingdom of God.

Their laughter will be followed by a mournful recognition of what they’ve lost while under spiritual blindness. Over and over again Jesus sought to impress the minds of His audience with the true nature of God’s kingdom. Sadly, misplaced expectations of national superiority, derived from a misunderstanding of a calling to serve others as witnesses of God’s love, would betray some to utter loss.

The antithesis also creates an irony. Those who think they are spiritually rich are in fact spiritually poor, and vice versa. Thus, the double contrast in this version of the beatitudes illuminates more clearly the double nature—physical and spiritual—of the blessings and woes. The insertion of the word false in verse 26 indicates the truthful character of the blessed, who (by implicit contrast) follow in the footsteps of the true prophets. The knowledge that in former times the prophets of God received no better treatment is as comforting as it is stirring. It is with this last—and quite explicit—revelation of which group is truly following God, spoken in words of sustenance, that Jesus concludes the blessings pronouncements.

Your Turn to Practice:

  • Can you find any metaphors in Genesis 37:12-36?
  • Can you find any antithesis in Genesis 37:12-36?
  • In what way does any of them, if present in the text, contribute to understanding the plot development and main message of the story?

The passage we will be studying is Genesis 37:12-36 (ESV):

(12) Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. (13) And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” (14) So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. (15) And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” (16) “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” (17) And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.

(18) They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. (19) They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. (20) Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” (21) But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” (22) And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. (23) So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. (24) And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

(25) Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. (26) Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? (27) Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. (28) Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.

(29) When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes (30) and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” (31) Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. (32) And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” (33) And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” (34) Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. (35) All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. (36) Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.

Your Turn to Practice: After reviewing the questions, comment below with your analysis of the metaphor and antithesis in the passage above.

Click here to read the rest of Adelina’s series on Biblical narrative analysis

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Notes.

[1]  https://literarydevices.net/metaphor/ accessed June 2, 2018.

[2] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing House, 2007), pg. 111-112.

[3] https://literarydevices.net/antithesis/, accessed June 2, 2018.

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About the author

Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.