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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.


    The principal subject of the Bible is God in his relation to his world, his people, and humanity. But the God of the Bible is holy, transcendent, other, unlike anything in all creation. It follows, then, that language about God must be figurative, because it attempts to describe in terms of this world one who is totally different from this world.

    We can speak about God and our relation to him, however, because he has revealed himself through his own words and deeds in the history recorded in the scriptures. All metaphoric language about God must be consonant with that self‐revelation in order to be true.

    God is known in the biblical account only in relationship. The five most frequent metaphors of his relationship with his people are king/subject, judge/litigant, husband/wife, father/child, and lord or master/servant. All are commissive metaphors, implying an obligation in the relationship described.

    Yet every metaphoric term for God breaks its limits and transforms the way in which it is ordinarily understood. For example, when God is described as father, the term is filled with the meaning given it by God's self‐revelation, and human fathers then become responsible for growing up into the measure of God's compassionate and loving fatherhood. In short, metaphors for God come to define the goal of human life, which is to conform to the image of God.

    None of the metaphors for God are intended to be taken literally in their human sense, a fact sometimes overlooked. For example, God as father or husband is never literally male, nor does he exercise sexual functions. Similarly, the use of metaphoric language for God says nothing about the historicity of his deeds and words.

    Many terms for God participate in metaphoric systems and undergo rich development in the scriptures. God as father is source of life, names, care, love, discipline, family unity, and an example to children; he feeds, clothes, gives inheritance, legal rights, property, home, and a sense of belonging. Because such a metaphoric system is involved, God is never called mother in the Bible, though he exercises mother‐like love and care for his children. Female terms for God are used in the Bible only in similes, pointing to one activity (see Feminism and the Bible). If they are interpreted as metaphors, the deity is then connected with the images of birth and suckling, and they erroneously result in the view of a goddess giving birth to all things and persons, who then participate in the divine being. The distinction that the Bible insists on between creator and creature is then lost.

    Figures for God can have a high or low degree of correspondence with their referents. When God is described as like a bear, lion, leopard, moth, withering wind, devouring fire, eagle, or even dry rot, the correspondence is low, and such images are used for their shock or surprise value. More appropriate are the descriptions of God as rock, sun, living water, fortress, refuge; similarly, the descriptions of his actions in terms of those of a healer, potter, vintner, builder, farmer, tailor, shepherd, or warrior yield vivid pictures. Indeed, God is most often portrayed in anthropomorphic terms; this prevents his identification with some diffuse soul of nature, and it expresses the fact that he meets us person to person and demands from us the full depth of our personal devotion and love.

    Some metaphors for God have lost their meaning because they have lost their context, such as the metaphor “redeemer,” which originally referred to a relative who bought back a family member from slavery. The metaphor is recovered when the original context is recalled. Similarly, some figures become objectionable to some groups, for example, those of God as mighty warrior or as judge or, for feminists, as father or lord. But such metaphors are indispensable to the canonical witness to God and should be recovered by an explication of their full biblical content.

    Human beings' relation to God is also described metaphorically because it deals with that which is evident only to the eyes of the faithful and must describe the unknown in terms of the known. Thus, God's faithful people are called in the Bible his adopted sons or children, his bride, kingdom of priests, holy nation, peculiar treasure, servants, jewels, witnesses, noble vine, pleasant planting, fruitful trees, and so on.

    The church, in the New Testament, is called the new Jerusalem, the bride of Christ, the true circumcision, the Israel of God, the body of Christ, God's temple, building, field, his covenant people, new creation, or colony of heaven. Church members are pilgrims, aliens, exiles, strangers on the earth, slaves of righteousness or of Christ, heirs, fools for Christ, citizens of heaven, or ministers of reconciliation. Christ himself is their righteousness, sanctification, redemption, first fruits, covenant, temple, high priest, sacrifice, word, or wisdom and power of God. He is called priest after the order of Melchizedek, man of heaven, Son of God, servant, last Adam, Son of man, Messiah, and Lord.

    The life of faith is described in an almost limitless stock of pictures. It is soaring or being set in a broad place or on the heights. It is enjoying freedom, light, order, joy, life. It is being granted never‐failing water and food, knowing shade and rest. It is experiencing the gift of a new heart and spirit.

    On the other hand, the life of faithlessness is described as slavery to sin and death, and sinners are compared to rebels, disobedient sons, adulterous wives, whores, worms, backsliders, dead bones, waterless clouds, fruitless trees, wild waves, wandering stars, restless young camels, plunging horses, wild asses, rudderless ships, stubborn heifers, dogs, wilting grass, and choking tares. They are the old Adam, those of the flesh, cursed by God, and slaves to the principalities and powers of this present evil darkness.

    Some metaphor systems permeate the Bible from beginning to end, for example, those connected with the Exodus, or with the Temple and sacrificial system, or the law court. Other metaphors, such as those of light and darkness, are given expression by many different words (cf. morning star, dayspring on high), while others draw on the perennial relationships and rounds of family life, as well as birth and death.

    Metaphors may change their meaning from one context to another. Thus, the wilderness can be an expression of danger and judgment or of love and care; a yoke can be a figure of sin or of faithfulness. Meanings can be determined only by the context and by the intention of the author.

    Other metaphorical forms, such as those of synecdoche, eponymy, metonomy, parable, and allegory are frequent in the scriptures. The Bible is rich in figurative terms, of which we use only a very small portion.

    See also Literature, The Bible as; Symbols


    Elizabeth Achtemeier

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    Oxford University Press

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