In Praise of Biblical Language

By Kenneth Francis (September 2018)

Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, Marc Chagall, 1961



There is nothing quite like metaphors or symbolism to bring a book to life, especially when used as a literary device in poetry or fiction. However, many adults are metaphorically challenged, while younger children can be confused by homonyms (same-sounding words with different meanings) and metonymy (figure of speech with something associated with something else).


But the language in the Bible is where most people who don’t study Scripture go from being challenged to almost becoming illiterate. One example is a story from Genesis. For many atheists, the Garden of Eden is a soft target to mock Christianity, by saying it is literally about a naked man and woman, tempted by a talking snake, to eat a forbidden apple from a tree. However, the majority of theologians have a more sophisticated view of the poetic, figurative language in the Bible. Although they ultimately believe in the authenticity of the Genesis account, they also believe metaphor is used to communicate truth in the story, as well as symbolism (we’ll come back to this later).


Another example of atheists and early Church fathers’ confusion of biblical language is the story of Galileo, who was a devout Christian. During that time in the early-17th century, members of the then-Church interpreted the Bible on a geocentric system, which derived from Aristotle and Ptolemy. This influenced the theology of the early-Church fathers and was, during that period, the world view of the scientific establishment. But they failed to see that this view clashed with the teachings of the Bible, some of which are poetic in style, infused with metaphors, metonymy, similes, symbolism, etc.


Galileo was trying to show the Church members that the heliocentric system was more in line with how the universe works, as opposed to geocentricism, and not what Aristotle taught. However, Galileo was imprisoned for heresy but later pardoned by the Church, whose previous members took some of the biblical text literally, and not poetically. The Bible is not a science book, thus it describes things phenomenologically and poetically. And let’s face it: during sunrise or sunset, no one describes such a beautiful experience as an earth tilt.


And there is much truth and meaning in symbolism and metaphor. If we take the example in recent times when dilettantes in the media and chattering classes perpetually mined metaphors in a famous poem called The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats (1856-1939). The opening lines to the poem are as follows:


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned . . .


Jungle Book</em>); Adam and Eve are primordial beings, but can also be understood as a metaphor for the first developed Man and Woman (Hebrew for ‘Man’ and ‘Living’).


When you think of it, the profound meaning and spiritual authenticity of this story is acted out every day in the world by human beings trying to be their own god and failing miserably. And the fallen state of the world, after Adam and Eve sinned, is testament to the flawed condition of Mankind, despite our greatness and uniqueness.


partially understood metaphorically. In the story of Noah’s Ark (a baptism, renewal, or cleansing of Mankind), the chaos emerging from disharmony with the Creator is poetically represented by the primordial waters falling from the sky,” according to Christopher Kaczor, professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, L.A.


He adds: “The story of the Flood, in other words, is not a tale of God becoming frustrated and lashing out at human beings. The flood represents the consequences of disharmony with God. In acting out of harmony with Divine Love, we cause primordial chaos within ourselves. When we act against our ideals, we create within ourselves an inner schizophrenia. We pit the best of ourselves against the rest of ourselves.”


In the case of the Prodigal Son (Mankind) and his Father (God) who forgives and welcomes ‘home’ the genuinely remorseful son seeking redemption, we have a perfect parable rich in metaphor, love, hope and forgiveness.


And what to make of Jonah ‘entombed’ in the whale? Another apt metaphor foreshadowing the death and resurrection of Jesus on the third day. But it’s not just Christians who appreciate the rich language and metaphors of the Bible. The late atheist writer, Christopher Hitchens, once paid tribute to the King James version of the Bible, as did his friend, biologist Richard Dawkins.


During his time battling cancer, this quote by Hitchens contradicts the sub-title of one of his books, God Is Not Great (How Religion Poisons Everything). However, he relented when it came to honouring the King James Bible, which was first published in 1611.





Humans are unique in the universe. We have the capacity to understand semantics because we are created by God. But artificial intelligence (AI) created by humans will never comprehend semantics or understand when a metaphor is being used. And here is why: AI can only understand the syntax (grammatical rules and structure) but not semantics (abstract meaning) of language. Would a robot understand irony or sarcasm? To say to a robot, in an endearing way, ‘I’m going to kill you’, could have devastating consequences if the robot took it literally and defended itself by killing the human in ‘self-defence’.




Kenneth Francis is a Contributing Editor at New English Review. For the past 20 years, he has worked as an editor in various publications, as well as a university lecturer in journalism. He also holds an MA in Theology and is the author of The Little Book of God, Mind, Cosmos and Truth (St Pauls Publishing).

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