Modern metaphors

Yesterday my emailed daily Bible reading took me to Revelation 1:9-20, where the appearance of Jesus is described. I realize that much of the language of Revelation is figurative, so I don’t know how much benefit there is to trying to compose a mental picture from John’s description of Jesus. But I tried anyway – if nothing else, it serves as a counterbalance to the pictures of Jesus in the stained glass windows at the church we have been visiting recently (images which, to me, convey little except adherence to a particular style of religious painting).

I tried not to get too distracted by a literal interpretation – I do tend to take things rather literally, and even when I know they are not meant that way I can’t avoid thinking of what it would mean if they were. For instance, if his face were “like the sun shining in full strength,” it would be rather hard to distinguish a detail such as that his eyes were “like a flame of fire.”

Mostly I tried to focus on the sword coming from his mouth, and what that was symbolic of. My first thought, of course, is Paul’s reference to the word of God as the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17). Hebrews 4:12 also compares the word of God to a sword, saying that the word is even sharper, penetrating “even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

I associate the image of the sword with truthfulness, though I can’t say why, other than its use to represent the word of God in the verses referenced above. (I looked up commentary on this verse in Revelation and it did say the sword indicates truthfulness and accuracy.)

I realized that I really find it hard to think of swords except in a symbolic sense, which means that their symbolism is whatever I have been taught that it is, unlike the people to whom these words were written, who experienced the use of swords in everyday life. (We do own a ceremonial sword that is kept in its sheath in a closet; it would have been nice if our older son could have used it as part of his costume when he had to dress up as an explorer of the New World for school, but of course today’s zero-tolerance policies made that impossible even though the sword is quite blunt.)

(I have, of course, seen movies in which swords were used, and movie magic made the injuries they caused look relatively realistic. But I know when watching a movie how fake it all is – so much so that I had a hard time, when viewing the footage of 9/11, the morning it happened, convincing myself that it was real people falling to real death and not just another example of Hollywood at work. I knew it was real, but it just didn’t feel real – does that make sense?)

Another passage I read yesterday, in the same emailed Bible reading, was Psalm 23. I’ve read books on the details of sheep and shepherding to help understand the Scriptural use of such metaphors, and even collaborated with my husband on a sermon series on this psalm. But knowing what it means and feeling the emotional impact of it are two different things. People to whom these metaphors were part of daily experience must have felt a greater impact from these Scriptures.

I know that God chose to have the Scriptures written in a certain time and place and therefore culture, and these metaphors no doubt have greater universal significance through other times and places and cultures than if they had been written in our time and culture. There have been paraphrases of the Bible (or at least parts of it) that try to use metaphors suited to our modern life, and they quickly become dated, as our modern life at the end of 2010 is different from what modern life was like just ten or twenty years ago.

But I found myself wondering, as I do from time to time, what certain Scripture passages would sound like if they had been written today. I am certain that people inspired by the Spirit could have found appropriate metaphors to express eternal truths in our culture or any other. That doesn’t mean the originals are unable to speak to us today, just that one way to meditate on Scripture is to imagine how it might be rephrased in terms more familiar to us today.

For instance, if I were writing Hebrews 4:12 I think I would refer to the word of God as sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel. (I thought of perhaps a laser, which is used in much surgery today, but it just doesn’t have the connotation of “sharpness” that a scalpel does.) The scalpel metaphor doesn’t work so well for Ephesian 6, though. Today’s weapons tend to be explosive rather than piercing, which doesn’t work well to describe the word of God.

I thought of a Kevlar vest to take the place of the breastplate in Eph. 6, but that left me without anything to substitute for the shield. Helmets still work just fine, but army boots? Hmm, I don’t know that much about military stuff myself anyway, better to think of some different sorts of metaphors.

How about if Psalm 119 were written today? What modern metaphors could we find for the word of God?

The law from your mouth is more precious to me than billions of dollars in stocks and bonds. (See Ps. 119:72.) Of course, these days people aren’t too sure of the worth of a lot of stocks and bonds. But the idea of billions of dollars still means more to me, in an emotional sense, than pieces of gold and silver.

Your word is a flashlight for my feet, a light on my path. (See Ps. 119:105). A flashlight is a good substitute for a lamp in terms of how much light it gives, since the oil lamps they used back then didn’t light one’s way very far. But somehow it doesn’t sound very impressive, since – at least in urban and suburban areas – we’ve used to having bright streetlights to show the way in the dark.

Instead of trying to adapt existing verses, I decided to just look for metaphors that seemed appropriate.

Your word is like a traffic light. It tells me when to stop and when to go.

Your word is sweeter than pecan pie, more satisfying than ice cream.

Your word makes me wiser than winners of the Nobel Prize.

Your word is like a GPS. It gives me directions, step by step, which way to go. (And it is better than a GPS because it doesn’t give wrong directions sometimes.)

[1/1/2011 – forgot to add this one]
Your word is like a radio, always broadcasting your truth – but only heard by those who are “tuned in.”

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3 Responses to Modern metaphors

  1. Peter L says:

    The Living Bible from the 70s uses some of your suggested metaphors, but I don’t find them that helpful. A flashlight, for instance, only shines light in one direction, whereas a lamp or lantern is omni-directional.

    Instead of trying to fit the Bible language to modern times, isn’t better to educate modern readers in Bible language? If we take the metaphors and change them, then in a few years, the next generation has to do the same. And how would you change the parable of the sower? Modern farming does not scatter the seed, but places it directly where it is wanted, so there is no “modern metaphor” for that one.

    I think God knew what he was doing when He inspired David and others to write what they wrote.

    • Pauline says:

      Peter L,
      I tried – perhaps not successfully – to convey that in my post, that I am not suggesting the Bible needs to be changed or improved, because God knew what He was doing when He had it written in the time and culture He did.

      But for myself I find it helpful to sometimes try to find additional metaphors. I also study the culture of the time to better understand the metaphors that were used, as you say, and I try to teach those to others in Bible studies.

      But just as one can understand in one’s head the meaning of Scripture in another language, yet not feel the full emotional impact of it, I can understand in my head the meaning of agricultural metaphors yet not feel their full emotional impact.

      When I was in high school, one of my English teachers (maybe more than one but I remember Mrs. Fleming best) had us paraphrase passages of literature, especially from Shakespeare. She certainly didn’t think that Shakespeare’s language could be improved on, but it was to help us as students better understand the material by putting it in our own words. I think of this as a similar exercise – for my own benefit, not to “improve” Scripture.

  2. Nanny of 12 says:

    Really like this. Paul used metaphors to explain in language that those he spoke with, could understand.
    Thank you.

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