Q&A: The Benefits of the Bible's Imagery and Metaphors

The Benefits of the Bible's Imagery and Metaphors

Why does the Bible use so many images and metaphors?

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Some people wonder, when the Bible uses so much imagery and metaphor, doesn't it just make it harder to understand? Well, I guess the first question is, what does God mean when he uses it? And if it makes it harder or easier, that's secondary. If God intends us to interpret symbols and metaphors, then that's what we have to do. But I think the answer to the question is, well, it depends. Is it harder for us to interpret metaphors and symbols? Well, often for Western people, people from Western cultures, it is harder, because we're not accustomed to those forms of communicating, but for the vast majority of the world, non-Western people, it's a perfectly natural, in fact, sometimes, preferable way of speaking and communicating. It's often said that children understand the book of Revelation better than grownups do, which is sort of a reminder of what C.S. Lewis played out in The Chronicles of Narnia. When the children got to a certain age, they were no longer allowed to go back to Narnia. They had grown up, and they had outgrown the kinds of demands on the imagination that going to Narnia required. And in Lewis' presentation, that's not a good thing. He, in fact, commends to us a more mystical and open-ended view of the world, rather than a sort of a reductionistic, precise, and formulaic view of the world. And so, to answer the question, although God hasn't said, "this is why I use poetry and symbols," I think we can derive pretty clearly that God uses symbols, he uses imagery, he uses metaphors, to give us a greater sense of the transcendence. Metaphors introduce tension into ideas or concepts that cause us to open our eyes wider. And also, they appeal to the whole person more, to the emotions, as well as, the intellect. We can identify with metaphorical language because they connect concepts to sensory experience, whether it's sight, sound, smell, and so forth. And so, I don't see how we could possibly know the Lord apart from whatever he would prefer to do. To the contrary, I don't see how we can possibly know the Lord apart from symbol, metaphor, imagery.

Answer by Rev. Michael J. Glodo

Rev. Michael J. Glodo is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.