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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Figurative Language

Language is pervaded by semantic extensions and figurative usages of a more or less striking character (see Bullinger 1898; Gibson 1998; Caird 1980). But what was immediately recognized as figurative in the culture that produced the source text may not be so apprehended by those who have access to that text only through non-mother-tongue knowledge of its language or through a translation. For example, at Ps. 24: 4 the point of ‘one innocent of palms and pure of heart’ is lost without the understanding (if necessary, incorporated in the translation) that the body parts here are metonymous for the actions and thoughts associated with them—CEV's ‘Only those who do right for the right reasons’ is commendably adventurous here. In Jer. 47: 5, ‘baldness has come to Gaza’, there is both metonymy, i.e. baldness for the sense of mourning expressed by shaving the head, and synecdoche, of a place for the people living there, both well expressed by TEV: ‘Great sorrow has come to the people of Gaza’. Just as a place can stand for its people, so can part of a place stand for the whole, as in Gen. 22: 17, ‘and your seed will inherit the gate of your enemies’ (i.e. their city), and Ruth 4: 10, ‘and the name of the deceased will not be cut off…from the gate of his place’ (i.e. from his native city). LXX has ‘cities’ in the first verse (like Targum Onqelos) and ‘the tribe of his people’ in the second.

On many occasions, however, the existence of a figurative usage is not so clear. At Isa. 52: 7, ‘how beautiful on the mountains are the feet of a messenger’, it is unlikely that the aesthetic impact of the messenger's feet is really in primary focus here, but rather what they stand for: the messenger's footsteps (NJPS), his coming (TEV), or the messenger himself (CEV). Sometimes, our blindness to figurative language is caused by our culturally, or theologically, conditioned impressions of the context in which it occurs. For example, it is possible that ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ at Gen. 2: 17 and 3: 5 does not focus on moral issues at all, but is rather a merismus for ‘complete knowledge’ (compare the parallelism at 2 Sam. 14: 17, 20) or, less radically, that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ refer to what is advantageous or disadvantageous.

On other occasions, that a figure is being used is not in doubt, but we cannot be sure quite what its primary focus is. For example, at Prov. 25: 15, ‘a soft tongue will break a bone’, it is clear from the preceding statement, ‘with patience (literally “length of anger”) a judge will be persuaded’, that metaphorical language is intended. The problem is whether the primary focus of the metaphor is basically that of patience (in keeping with the first statement), or whether, as commonly, the word for ‘tongue’ is used metonymously for ‘speech’, in which case the point of the overall figure is that ‘gentle talk can…overcome any problem’ (CEV). Or compare the LXX rendering of ‘uncircumcised of lips’ at Exod. 6: 12 (alogos (literally ‘wordless’)) with that of v. 30 (ischnophonos (‘withered of sound’)). In the case of Deut. 34: 5, ‘and Moses died there…at the mouth of ['al pi] Y', most translations, ancient and modern, interpret ‘mouth’ as metonymous for ‘command, word’. However, a segment of the Jewish interpretative tradition (e.g. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Talmud, and Rashi) understands 'al pi to mean ‘by a kiss (from Y)’. Moreover, some biblical metaphors are especially rich or polyvalent. For example, in the case of ‘dust’, it is frequently difficult to decide where the primary focus of its use in a particular passage lies: on mortality, lowliness, unfruitfulness, or some other feature.

At Prov. 5: 3 (already discussed, above), the Hebrew translates literally as ‘for the lips of a (female) stranger drip honey and her palate is smoother than oil’. Now, given that in the Bible both lips and palate can function by metonymy for speech, which in turn can be called ‘smooth’, that is, ‘flattering’, it is likely that the primary image here is one of seductive talk. However, in recognizing this (and expressing it in translation), it is important not to lose sight of the evidently erotic tenor of the figure as a whole, although this is precisely what happens when (as in NRSV or CEV), ‘lips’ and ‘palate’ are translated as ‘words’, ‘speech’, etc. On the other hand, TEV has over-focused on the erotic imagery, ‘The lips of another man's wife may be as sweet as honey and her kisses as smooth as olive oil’, and has lost sight of the main point. In this case the safest course would seem to be, as NJPS, to translate literally and to leave it to the reader to discern, aided by context (and perhaps notes), the interplay of images.

Focusing on the salient point of an image can also lead translators to alter, for the sake of naturalness in the receptor language, some element in the original figure, so long as that modification does not affect the overall thrust of the figure. For example, at Prov. 27: 16 the LXX speaks of seizing the tail of a dog rather than, as in Hebrew, its ears (although here the change might also be for alliteration: kraton kerkou kunos (‘seizing a tail of a dog’); less likely is a difference in the Vorlage: bznb (‘by the tail of’) for MT b'zny (‘by the ears of’)).

A modern translation will often clarify, or decode, a figurative usage, if it is felt that readers will not readily comprehend it. Some precedents are already found in the ancient versions. For example, at Isa. 9: 13 (EVV 14) the Hebrew reads ‘head and tail, palm branch and reed’ (NRSV), which LXX interprets as ‘head and tail, great and small’, leaving the first figure as it was but interpreting the second one. The Vulgate adopts the same approach, but ‘clarifies’ differently, caput et caudam incurvantem et refrenantem (‘head and tail, the one that bends and the one that holds back’), an interesting illustration of the danger inherent in ‘explaining’ a metaphor, because, as already indicated, we can never be quite sure that the writer was focusing on one aspect (LXX: status) or another (Vulgate: flexibility).

Moreover, in this matter, as in almost every other in connection with translation, it is often difficult to see where linguistic assistance ends and interpretative imposition begins. An uncomplicated example is Deut. 8: 9, ‘a land whose stones are iron’, where Symmachus adds an ‘as (iron)’. One cannot help but think that here the translator was being more pedantic than helpful! At Exod. 19: 4, where God says that he carried Israel ‘on eagles’ wings', CEV, as an aid to the secularized reader, renders ‘just as a mighty eagle’. LXX and Symmachus, obviously aware of the literal untruthfulness of the Hebrew statement, also inserted a hos(ei) (‘as, as though’), thus ensuring that the original sequence would be understood figuratively. However, the Greek translators' decision here probably derived less from any supposed linguistic difficulty than from a perceived danger of a materialistic, idolatrous understanding of God. Similarly, in Deuteronomy 32 (the Song of Moses), the Hebrew word ṣur (‘rock’) occurs eight times, once with literal reference, five times in reference to Y, and twice in reference to other gods. The repeated usage and the context mean that the figurative reference is clear, and so modern versions tend to translate literally, leaving it to the reader to decode the metaphor. In view of this, it is likely that LXX's rendering of ṣur in reference to God as theos (‘God’) is intended less to clarify a difficult metaphor as to avoid any wording that might be conducive to idolatry. Similar comments probably apply to Targum Onqelos's rendering of ṣur as taqqip̄ (‘strong (one)’) and teqop̄ (‘strength’). Compare as well the LXX's eradication of pagan allusions at Deut. 32: 24, where the parallel Hebrew terms rešep̄ and qeṭeb (at least the first of which is also found as the name of a Canaanite deity) are ‘demythologized’ by being rendered as ‘birds’ and ‘destruction’. Within MT itself we see a further stage in this kind of process in the treatment of the name of the god Baal, which is replaced by the dysphemism bošet (‘shame’) on various occasions (especially in the names ‘Ishbosheth’ and ‘Mephibosheth’ in 2 Samuel as against ‘Eshbaal’ and ‘Meribbaal’ in 1 Chronicles; see also Jer. 3: 24 and Hos. 9: 10). Although this alteration is reflected in both Masoretic and non-Masoretic (LXX, 4QSama) traditions, it seems to have been stronger in the Masoretic one—see Jer. 11: 13, where MT has ‘you placed altars to shame, altars to offer incense to Baal’, but LXX lacks ‘altars to shame’.

Also attested are euphemistic changes, or toning down of language, for example in connection with sex. Thus, the Masoretes replace the verb šaḡal (Deut. 28: 30; Isa. 13: 16; Jer. 3: 2; Zech. 14: 2), apparently ‘rape, treat as prostitute’, with the phonetically similar šakab, apparently, ‘bed, lay’. LXX reflects the same sensitivities, rendering ‘have’ in the first two instances and ‘defile’ in the second two. In Deuteronomy, the Samaritan Pentateuch has the modest ‘will lie with her’, and Targum Onqelos, ‘will accommodate her’ (in some manuscripts). At Judg. 19: 2, the MT appears to say that the Levite's concubine ‘prostituted herself [zana (znh)] against him’, i.e. had sex with another man, but manuscripts of LXX say either that she was angry (zanaḥ [znḥ], or perhaps zana in a different sense) with him or, as the Vulgate, that she left him ('azab). If MT's reading is original here, then LXX (or its Vorlage) would appear to be an attempt to soften the candour of the sexual imagery preserved by MT.

In other cases, figurative, and non-figurative, language may be interpreted in the service of the translator's contemporary religious situation. Thus, for example, at Num. 24: 17, LXX renders Hebrew ‘star’ literally, but ‘staff’ (šebeṭ perhaps originally in this context ‘comet’) by ‘man’, probably in allusion to a messianic figure. However, in the later Targum Onqelos, the messianic reference is more obvious: ‘star’ is ‘king’ and ‘staff’ is ‘messiah’. In connection with LXX's rendering of ‘tent’ in MT by ‘house’ (see above), some of the passages might represent a type of exegeticizing interpretation in which the conditions of early Israel are ‘updated’ to those of the translators’ Jewish contemporaries; a striking example is Gen. 25: 27, where for MT 'ohalim (‘tents’) the LXX has oikia (‘a house’), and Targum Onqelos has bet 'ulpana (‘a house of instruction’), thus providing from its interpretation of the text an ancient precedent for the study houses of the targumist's time. Renderings that are explicitly conditioned by ideology can be used not just to guide the beliefs of the receptor community, but also to defend it against the claims of rival belief systems sharing the same text. Against this background may be seen the replacement by the later Greek translators, Aquila and Theodotion, of LXX's parthenos (‘virgin’) in the messianic text (for early Christians) Isa. 7: 14 by neanis (‘young woman’). Most scholars would agree that this is a more accurate rendering of the Hebrew ('alma), but the improvement in translation was probably driven primarily by ideological factors.

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