Metaphor (Gk. “transference”) is a mode of expression, whereby one thing is understood and described in terms of another. For example, in God’s promise of covenantal renewal to Israel: “I will take you for my wife forever” (Hos 2:19), the relationship between God and Israel is conceived and described in terms of espousal, or in God’s condemnation to Israel: “I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock—How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?!” (Jer 2:21), the same relationship is understood and described in terms of horticulture.

Metaphor is frequently discussed along with metonymy, synecdoche, simile, or allegory. Metonymy is a mode of expression whereby a whole being, concept, or event is understood and described in terms of its part, or vice versa (e.g., “throne” for “dominion as a whole”: “to set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan to Beer-sheba” [2 Sam 3:10]). Synecdoche is a mode of expression whereby a genus is understood and described in terms of its species, or vice versa (e.g., “bread” for “food in general”: “one does not live by bread alone” [Deut 8:3]). The oft-confused distinction between metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche can be put in terms of their respective, operating principle: metaphor is based on analogy, metonymy on partonomy, and synecdoche on taxonomy. Hence, as the linguist Ken-ichi Seto often puts it, “Snow White” is a metaphor, “Red Riding Hood” is a metonymy, and “Little Mermaid” is a synecdoche.

Simile, on the other hand, is a nonliteral comparison introduced by like or as. It is a kind of metaphor (Stern 2000, pp. 229–232). The difference between simile and metaphor is rhetorical in that a simile (e.g., “God is like my shepherd”) is less direct and less emphatic than the corresponding metaphor (e.g., “God is my shepherd”). Allegory is a symbolic representation of an idea or principle by means of figuration, such as drama, narrative, or painting. It is frequently referred to as an extended metaphor (e.g., Quintilian, Institutio oratoria, 8.6.44). Like metaphor, allegory operates according to the principle of analogy. However, unlike metaphor, allegory generally prioritizes the idea it communicates over the specific figuration it employs. It follows that in allegory, insofar as the clarity and communicative force of the idea is maintained, different images and motifs can be employed. In metaphor, this is not always the case.

Previously, general scholarship, with some important exceptions (e.g., G. Vico, F. Nietzsche, E. Cassirer, I. A. Richards, S. Pepper, M. Black, N. Goodman), usually treated metaphor as a (mere) stylistic device—a linguistic phenomenon limited mainly or solely to a specific aesthetic discourse such as poetry or oratory. Today, metaphor is regarded primarily as a conceptual phenomenon—a fundamental principle of human cognition that operates in all forms of symbolic activity. This is due, largely, to an interdisciplinary study known today as cognitive linguistics and science, which gradually emerged in the 1970s and 80s through an integration of research undertaken in a variety of fields, including anthropology, biology, computer science, linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy, physics, and psychology (see Ungerer and Schmid 200 ; Kövecses 2010). The emergence of this interdisciplinary study introduced a “cognitive turn,” in that it shifted the logical priority of scholarship from the study of language to the study of mind. The same kind of cognitive turn is also taking place in biblical studies. There is a growing amount of scholarly works that explore the hermeneutic force of the cognitive approach to the analysis of biblical religion and literature in general, and of biblical metaphors in particular (see van Wolde 2009 and Jindo 2010 and works cited there). As the amount of literature in metaphor scholarship has grown unceasingly, what follows will consider mainly issues and recent studies on metaphor that may facilitate the researcher in developing effective tools for biblical interpretation.

Below, the term “metaphor,” when used as an abstract noun, designates the phenomenon of metaphor; and when used as a concrete noun, designates a specific verbal utterance understood metaphorically.

General Scholarship on Metaphor.

Prior to the cognitive turn, the dominant conception in the general scholarship on metaphor was the rhetorical one, which can be traced back to the writings of Aristotle (Poetics 21, 1457b9–16 and 20–22; Rhetoric III). Although what Aristotle really meant is much debated, he is usually regarded as a major proponent of the rhetorical notion of metaphor, according to which metaphor functions as an ornament superadded to the content of the utterance; it follows, therefore, that the content can be extracted from the metaphor and re-expressed in a literal way. Underlying this view of metaphor as paraphrasable or dispensable is a dualism of form (metaphor) and content (proposition). For instance, if we consider a metaphorical utterance, “Man is a wolf,” the proposition of this utterance will be something like “Man is fierce and alarming,” and the word “wolf” is understood as a stylistic component operating to evoke feelings and attitudes associated with the notion of “wolf.” This dualistic conception also underlies what came to be two dominant traditional theories of metaphor, i.e., the substitution theory (i.e., metaphor as a substitution of a corresponding literal expression; e.g., “Man is a wolf” = “Man is fierce and alarming”) and the comparison theory (i.e., metaphor as a condensed or implied comparison; e.g., “Man is a wolf” = “Man is like a wolf”). During the Renaissance, the rhetorical notion of metaphor was reinterpreted not as a stylistic ornament but rather as an effective tool for persuasion. It is perhaps in this context that negative views on metaphor as deceptive and undesirable, such as Hobbes’ and Locke’s, are best understood (Stern 2000, p. 263). Be that as it may, it is not an exaggeration to describe the twenty-two hundred years of metaphor theory as variations of, or responses to, the “Aristotelian” (if not Aristotle’s) notion of metaphor (Johnson 1981, especially, pp. 3–47).

What generally has been neglected in this history of scholarship is the poetic or mimetic function of metaphor, the notion that a metaphor in poetry operates as a construct of a poetic reality. In his Poetics, Aristotle’s discussion of mimesis—the essential representation of human experiences—does seem to indicate an awareness of this poetic function of metaphor without explicitly addressing it. But in the succeeding millennia, this poetic conception of metaphor was overshadowed by the rhetorical conception and, consequently, was rarely discussed with any degree of sophistication and thoroughness (e.g., Richards 1936; Ricoeur 1977; Harshav 1984; White 1996; Stern 2000).

Studies of Metaphor in Modern Biblical Scholarship.

Until the mid-twentieth century, the main concern of modern biblical scholarship was historical (e.g., the authorship and prehistory of biblical texts, the actual history of ancient Israel and its religion, etc.). From the pre-modern works, we have a vast amount of philosophical and exegetical inquiry—inquiry that pertains to the interpretive issues of figurative and, especially, anthropomorphic expressions in the Hebrew Bible, such as Moses Ibn Ezra’s The Treatise of the Garden on Figurative and Literal Language and The Book of Discussion and Conversation (12th c.) or the first part of Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed (12th c.; see Cohen 2003 for medieval Jewish approaches to biblical metaphor)—as well as Robert Lowth’s classic work Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753), which presents an extensive disquisition of images and figures in biblical poetry (especially lectures 6–9). In modern biblical studies, however, only since the 1970s has particular focus been directed toward metaphors as literary components. This new approach should be viewed in the context of a broader development—the increasing recognition of the literary analysis of biblical texts as a scholarly discipline within biblical studies. It is mainly in the work of scholars well-versed in literary criticism and the method of close reading, such as Robert Alter (1985), Francis Landy (1983), and Meir Weiss (1984), that this new literary approach to the Bible in general, and the analysis of biblical metaphors in particular, has been developed.

Concomitant with this rise of the literary approach to biblical literature, there arose a trend of analysis known as rhetorical criticism, of which James Muilenburg was the major proponent. The basic concern of this approach is the relation between “linguistic patterns” and the “predications” (i.e., propositions) that those patterns convey. Metaphor is grouped among the “many and various devices by which the predications are formulated” (Muilenburg, “Form Criticism and Beyond,” JBL 88 [1969], p. 8). This approach supposes the dualistic assumption that metaphors and other tropes are superadded to (hence, separable from) the core content of an utterance.

The rise of this literary approach had an appreciable impact upon mainstream biblical scholarship: a number of scholarly works have offered meaningful interpretations of metaphor in specific biblical passages, and several collections of essays that focus on biblical metaphors have been published (e.g., Camp and Fontaine 1993; van Hecke 2005; van Hecke and Labahn 2010). So far, however, metaphor has not been regarded as one of the primary topics of research in modern biblical scholarship. This is a striking omission in view of the fact that the extensive use of images and figures is one of the most distinctive characteristics of biblical poetry.

Basic Patterns of Research in Modern Biblical Scholarship.

There are four main patterns of research on biblical metaphors. They are not mutually exclusive, but rather are compatible with each other; a certain degree of overlapping is found in many of the works reviewed below.

Theory-oriented pattern.

This research pattern applies theoretical models to the analysis of biblical metaphor. Works that belong to this category include G. B. Caird’s The Language and Imagery of the Bible (London, 1980), Peter Macky, The Centrality of Metaphors to Biblical Thought (Lewiston, 1990), and David Aaron’s Biblical Ambiguities (Leiden, 2001). These works examine the phenomenon of biblical metaphor with a careful consideration of major existing theories of metaphor. Their scope of interest includes the relationship between the thought and language of biblical religion in general and the role metaphor plays within biblical thinking in particular. On the practical side, these works seek to elucidate the mechanism of metaphors and develop a means of identifying and classifying them according to their type and function. These works are useful when read at the very early stage of analysis to attain an overall understanding of metaphor and other tropes.

Metaphor-oriented pattern.

Under this heading are the works that explore a specific metaphor throughout the Bible. These works seek to identify the frame of reference to which a given image refers, as well as the associations and connotations it may evoke, thereby delineating its significance within the belief system of ancient biblical religion. The works of this group include Elaine Adler’s “The Background for the Metaphor of Covenant as Marriage in the Hebrew Bible” (PhD diss., U.C. Berkeley, 1990), Marc Brettler’s God Is King (Sheffield, 1989), and Gary Anderson’s Sin: A History (New Haven, 2009). Exegetes will find this research pattern useful, inter alia, for two kinds of investigation: (a) for determining the semantic range of a given metaphor, in light of which they can evaluate their own interpretation, and (b) for exploring the conceptual world of biblical religion and its history.

Text-oriented pattern.

The works that follow this research pattern examine a variety of metaphors in a specific biblical text. Examples of this group include Daniel Bourguet’s Des Métaphores de Jérémie (Paris, 1987), Katheryn Darr’s Isaiah’s Vision and the Family of God (Louisville, 1994), and Emmanuel Nwaoru’s Imagery in the Prophecy of Hosea (Wiesbaden, 1999). Studies under this category generally present an insightful analysis of metaphors as they appear in their immediate context, but they do not always succeed in integrating those insights into a broader framework.

Method-oriented pattern.

Studies within this research pattern seek to develop an exegetical method that enhances our understanding of metaphors in their literary context. An inquiry of this kind requires not only a penetrating exegetical sensitivity and sound command of literary criticism, but also an ability to formulate a working method in a way readily comprehensible and applicable. For this, and other reasons, the literature of this pattern is deficient and, therefore, more is sorely needed.

Among the biblical scholars who have made significant contributions in this field is Meir Weiss, who has applied the method of Total Interpretation to the analysis of poetic images (1984). He stresses the importance of the total context of images, analyzing them not in isolation but in relation to, and interaction with, all the structural elements of a given composition. Weiss also warns against the tendency of philological leveling, which regards the parallel uses of the same image as equivalent, thus overlooking the distinctive use of the image in respective contexts; see, e.g., his analysis of the recurring divine metaphor of roaring in the prophetic writings, such as Jer 25:30, AMOS 1:2, and JOEL 4:16 (Weiss 1984, pp. 239–240).

Another significant contribution was made by Edward Greenstein (2009), who suggested three exegetical directives for unpacking poetic metaphors in the book of Job, namely, to consider their “ramifications,” “specific concept,” and “intertextual function.” By the term “ramifications,” Greenstein differentiates the secondary meanings of a given image and the connotations it evokes from its primary contextual meaning. For instance, “fire,” depending on the context, may evoke in biblical readers a sense of divine presence (Exod 24:17), divine word (Jer 20:8–9), destruction (Jer 21:10), anger (Jer 21:12), purification (Mal 3:2–3), or love (Song 8:6). By assessing the range of its ramifications insofar as they are pertinent to its given context, the reader may unexpectedly attain a more meaningful and richer interpretation of that metaphor. By “specific concept,” Greenstein refers to the extraordinary specificity of the poet’s imagery. The poet may use metaphors in a precise, deliberate, concentrated fashion. To examine the author’s precision is to discover that the imagery, which at first sight may seem to embody a very vague notion, contains a rhetorical or poetic concept exactly fitted to the narrative’s development in its particular context. By “intertextual function,” Greenstein means an allusion to a concept or a passage in other biblical texts. For instance, the biblical expression “outstretched arm” (Exod 6:6; DEUT 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 26:8) may evoke in readers the concept or story of the exodus from Egypt. To read a passage while considering this function is to see how the author plays with the traditional knowledge associated with that image and adds new meaning to it. These three directives are very promising in advancing our understanding of metaphors not only in the poetry of Job but also in other biblical texts as well.

With all the contributions of these different research patterns, there are still hermeneutic considerations through which they can be substantially advanced. Of particularly import is the following aspect of poetic metaphor that has not been adequately considered (this oversight is especially manifest in studies that adopt the third research pattern): that the meaning of poetic metaphor is not always fixed in its immediate syntactic or literary context but can extend beyond it. In other words, metaphors that appear in different sections of a given literary composition may be part of the same conceptual framework, giving structure to the same poetic reality. The reader, therefore, must actively sort and integrate dispersed elements within the text—elements whose connections are not always immediately apparent—in order to reconstruct that poetic reality and, ultimately, the drama of the work itself (Harshav 1984; Jindo 2010).

The Cognitive Turn in Metaphor Scholarship.

As noted above, the cognitive turn in general scholarship has introduced a notion of metaphor primarily as a cognitive process, a conceptual (rather than a linguistic) phenomenon. Scholars who initiated this turn have developed a firm theoretical framework and effective methodological tools for conducting a systematic and empirical analysis of the relationship between language and mind. Consider, for example, the following expressions that English speakers use to describe their life experience in terms of journey:

"I am at a crossroads. I’ve lost my way. He is headed in the right direction. You are on the right track. It’s a dead end. This will lead you to where you want to go. Where am I?"

At first glance, these expressions may not seem metaphorical at all, but a closer examination reveals that beneath them are systematic correspondences between two conceptual domains, whereby speakers understand and experience life in terms of a journey. The basic correspondences of the two conceptual domains can be presented as follows:

the traveler the individual
the journey life
the distance covered the progress in maturity
the obstacles encountered hardships in life
decisions about the direction decisions about what to do in life
the destinations wishes and plans to achieve in life

As the chart shows, metaphorical communication involves the juxtaposition not merely of two individual concepts (e.g., the traveler and the person) but of two conceptual domains (e.g., journey and life). In other words, metaphor involves a mapping of structure from one domain onto another.

Cognitive scholars have observed many other instances of this sort in the everyday use of language. Below are but a few examples:


Your claims are indefensible. He attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument. I’ve never won an argument with him.


My idea is still half-baked. Your classmates won’t get your theory—you need to spoon-feed them. Let me digest it. Her theory is warmed-over. His presentation gave us food for thought.


Is that the foundation for your theory? The argument is shaky. We need to construct a strong argument for that. We need to buttress the theory with solid arguments. The theory will stand or fall on the strength of that argument.

In each case, language users understand and experience one domain in terms of another.

The same holds true for biblical metaphors. Take, for example, the following metaphorical expressions, all of which are related to horticultural imagery:

זרע אברהם “the seed of Abraham” (Isa 41:8); פרי בטן “fruit of the womb” (Gen 30:2); פרי מעלליו “fruit of his deeds” (Jer 17:10); עקרה “the barren (lit. uprooted)” (Gen 11:30); נכרת מעמיו “cut off from his kin” (Exod 30:33).

A close examination of these expressions reveals that behind them are the conceptual mappings between the domain of human life and that of horticulture. The correspondences of some of the basic elements can be laid out as follows:

The chart clearly illustrates that the language user experiences and understands human life in terms of horticulture (though, perhaps, unconsciously in most cases). This underlying concept was widely shared in the ancient Near East, as the same metaphorical mappings can be found also in other Semitic languages; for example, in Akkadian, the word z ē ru “seed” (cf. זרע in Heb.) is also used for “descendants,” and inbu “fruit” (cf. ענב in Heb.) for “children, offspring.”

tree person
fruit child, or the result of one’s deeds
seed descendants
uprooted tree the one who lacks productive potency
soil word (cf. Ps 52:7), land of promise (cf. Exod 15:17), or temple (cf. Ps 92:14)
being cut off death, annihilation
water divine word or instruction (cf. Ps 1:2—3)
source of living water God (cf. Jer 2:13)

The basic features of metaphor that cognitive scholars have identified through these and many other empirical data can be summarized as follows: (1) conceptuality—metaphorical linguistic utterances are manifestations of metaphorical concepts and the conceptual world of language users; (2) systematicity—elements of one conceptual domain are systematically mapped onto the elements of another domain; (3) ubiquity—metaphor is ubiquitous in everyday discourse, not limited to a specific aesthetic discourse such as poetry or oratory; (4) fundamentality—metaphor, in many cases, operates subconsciously and remains unnoticed by language users, and yet it is fundamental to the cognitive activity of human beings and ultimately to the conceptualization of reality.

Considering these features of metaphor, the following points emerge as basic heuristic principles in dealing with metaphors:

  • (1) Because the phenomenon of metaphor is first and foremost conceptual, the exegete should clarify the interrelations of metaphorical verbal expressions on the conceptual level and the cognitive orientation as reflected in the use of these expressions. The exegete may, thereby, realize that metaphorical expressions that seem unrelated on the textual surface level are, in fact, conceptually interrelated on the deeper level.
  • (2) Because the phenomenon of metaphor involves systematic correspondences between two conceptual domains, the exegete should approach metaphor holistically and not atomistically. Thus, even if the exegete happens to explore only one correspondence in a given metaphorical concept (e.g., between “tree” and “person” in the above example), the exegete should explore it in light of the whole of the given metaphorical concept. Indeed, both the semantic and conceptual significance of each correspondence is determined in relation to other correspondences, as well as to the whole.
  • (3) Because the conceptual information upon which metaphorical communication is established is already known to language users and therefore, usually not spelled out in a given discourse, the exegete must clarify this information. Put differently, language users usually do not transmit new conceptual information in metaphorical communication but manipulate the conceptual system known beforehand to their audiences. Therefore, the exegete must clarify the conceptual information in case it is not fully articulated in the given discourse.

The explanatory power of the cognitive approach to metaphor has been demonstrated through its application to a variety of cultural and literary studies, ranging from general analysis of the metaphor in culture, to specific analyses, for example, of political and social discourse in the United States, to the analysis of literary works by Dante, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Yeats, Wordsworth, and Haiku poems (see, e.g., Kövecses 2010, especially, chs. 4, 5, 13, 14, 18). In biblical scholarship, too, this cognitive turn is gradually taking place (see works cited above).

Metaphor and the Study of Biblical Religion.

Metaphor analysis can substantially enhance our understanding of biblical religion. Take, for example, the biblical metaphor of God as king. Biblical authors portray God with such terms and images as “glory” (Ps 24:8), “honor and majesty” (Ps 96:6), “judg[ing]” (Ps 96:13), “majestic” (Ps 93:4), “mighty” (Ps 24:8), “rod [or scepter]” (Isa 10:5), “strength and beauty” (Ps 96:6), and “throne” (Ps 93:2), all of which convey royal overtones. Whoever considers such terms merely as a stylistic or emotive device designed to evoke an overwhelming sense of divine majesty, however, overlooks the terms’ cognitive value because beneath them lies a fundamental metaphorical concept of biblical cosmology. That is, biblical writers conceptualized the complex operation of the cosmos in terms of a human polity and their deity as the supreme authority. In cognitive linguistic terms, a conceptual domain of human polity was systematically mapped onto the domain of the cosmos. The basic correspondences of the two domains can be presented as follows:

king God
king’s dominion cosmos
royal palace temple, celestial or terrestrial
royal capital Jerusalem
royal manor Jerusalem, the land of Israel
royal garden the garden of Eden
royal council heavenly council
council members celestial beings, prophets
king’s confidants Abraham, Moses, prophets
palace attendants priests
palace workers Levites
royal messengers prophets
constituents Israelites, humans, or all the creatures
taxes tithes
tributes cultic offerings
loyalty devotion
disloyalty idolatry
lese majesty sacrilege/blasphemy

As the chart shows, this metaphorical mode of conceptualization involves the juxtaposition not merely of two individual concepts (e.g., king and God) but of two conceptual domains (e.g., human polity and the cosmos). The monotheistic system thereby transferred not only the constituent elements of the source domain but also the relations and tensions inherent within that domain. These are the tensions and interactions—the very elements which give vitality to the biblical drama—that the atomistic kind of conventional approach overlooks in its analysis of metaphors in biblical literature, thus inevitably producing a static interpretation of them and, also, undermining the significance of each element within the broader context.

Metaphor analysis also enables us to recognize the hitherto overlooked nuances and meanings of biblical ideas and motifs. As the chart above shows, for example, the biblical motif of prophetic intercession—e.g., Abraham’s intercession on behalf of Sodom (Gen 18), Moses on behalf of the people of Israel (Exod 32–33), and Jeremiah on behalf of Judah and Jerusalem (Jer 12, 14–15)—which is hitherto treated discretely, is best understood in light of this royal metaphor. This intercessory role is typologically equivalent to the royal functionary called the king’s ibru in Mesopotamia (cf. חבר in Heb.) or רע(ה) המלך “king’s friend” in Israel (e.g., 1 Kgs 4:5; 1 Chr 27:33). This official served at the royal court as an advisor to, or “confidant” of, the king in his palace or ruling territories. Consider, for example, the following lines from a so-called boundary stone, kudurru, of Nebuchadnezzar I that describe the king’s ibru as a valued advisor to the king:

PN son of PN the ibru of his lord (the king)

Who stands before the king,

The servant whose counsel was always chosen.

In this respect, the prophet is God’s ibru (cf. “The LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to רעהו—his friend [or confidant]” [Exod 33:11]). Just as the words of the ibru are highly esteemed in the royal court, so, too, the prophet’s intercession is greatly valued in the council of God. Hence, we read: “Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). Metaphor study, in short, is a key to identifying the overtones, connotations, and implications of biblical ideas and motifs.

The above-mentioned kind of sociomorphic conceptualization is not unique to biblical religion. Indeed, both Mesopotamian polytheism and biblical monotheism shared the same mode of, and model for, conceptualization: they both perceived the cosmos as a state. The difference between the two religious systems lies in the specific political model through which they perceived the operation of the world, namely, an oligarchic versus an autocratic model. The polytheistic mind perceives a plurality of divine wills behind the operation of the world, whereas the monotheistic mind intuits the supreme and ultimate will of a single deity behind it (see Jindo 2010, pp. 75–100 and works cited there). Clearly, metaphor played a crucial role in the formation of the worldview and self-understanding of ancient people in both Mesopotamia and Israel.

As the example above illustrates, delving into the meaning of metaphor reveals the inner world of biblical authors—how they conceived of God, humans, and the world.

Metaphor and the Study of Biblical Literature.

Critics have commonly understood poetic metaphor in biblical literature solely as an artistic flourish intended to create certain rhetorical effects. Seen this way, metaphor appears expendable and unrelated to the core content of the composition—however engaging it may be, aesthetically or otherwise. The case can be made otherwise—namely, that metaphor is the very essence of biblical literature. Literary images and expressions that appear as metaphors in a literary work can function as conceptual constructs of a poetic reality to orient, or reorient, the perception of the reader. As Shelley puts it: “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”

Metaphor communicates two kinds of knowledge—propositional and perspectival. Propositional knowledge, on the one hand, here refers to a descriptive knowledge about beings, conditions, or events, be they observable or imaginary, factual or hypothetical. Perspectival knowledge, on the other hand, refers to ways of seeing and thinking, or particular modes of cognition, whereby people perceive and experience such beings, conditions, or events. Put differently, we communicate through metaphor not only what we think, feel, or believe but also how we think, feel, or believe. Accordingly, the interpretation of a metaphor substantially changes depending on the interpretive assumption of each reader as to which knowledge the metaphor is primarily conveying, and what function that metaphor is meant to serve.

Take, for example, the utterance, “You [God] brought them [the people of Israel] in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession” (Exod 15:17). The utterance involves a metaphor of planting, by which the transporting of the people is conceived and described. A question then arises: How much substantive value should we assume in the cognitive function of this metaphor? If we assume the minimum, we would understand the function of the verb “plant” as stylistic—as a (mere) restatement of the verb “bring,” adding some aesthetic or emotive quality. In this reading, the utterance is stating, essentially, the same proposition twice; namely once literally and once metaphorically that God brought the people to the Land of Promise. Hence, the metaphor is not part of the core content of the utterance. If, however, we assume the maximum, we would understand its function as cognitive—as a mode of orientation that is meant to direct or redirect the perception of the reader. In this reading, the utterance is meant to present not only a proposition, but also a specific viewpoint through which to perceive that proposition; namely, the Exodus event as God’s plantation project. Just as ancient rulers planted pleasure gardens in or around their palace, God here appears as a divine king who finds an exquisite plant (Israel) on his military campaign (Exodus) and plants it upon his manorial mountain (the Promised Land) to create his treasure garden (cf. Isa 5:1–7; Jer 2:21; Ezek 15:6; Hos 9:10; see Jindo 2010, pp. 151–179). Hence, in this reading, once we paraphrase the metaphor, we lose the very perspective the utterance is designed to communicate.

The reader, thus, can de facto approach the same metaphor as a stylistic or as a cognitive device, and the preference for one or the other depends on the reader’s assumption as to the primary goal of the authors, namely, to convey a proposition or a perception, to assert a dogma or represent a drama.

It is not hard to imagine why the latter conception of metaphor—as a mode of communicating perception and insight—has been generally overlooked in scholarship. This negligence stems from a perceived familiarity with the use of metaphorical language that is taken for granted. Readers accustomed to the use of metaphor only or mainly as rhetorical embellishment have presumed that this is the only way to use metaphor and that metaphor is being used this way in biblical literature. In this reading, as soon as the propositional meaning of the metaphor is fathomed—be it with or without rhetorical considerations of that metaphor—the goal of interpretation is assumed to be accomplished.

There are many other playful, yet fundamental, uses of poetic metaphor—such as “Janus metaphor,” “mixed metaphor,” and “revivification of dead/conventional metaphors”—the recognition of which can substantially enhance our reading experience and appreciation of biblical literature. These and many other poetic uses of biblical metaphors have not received the attention they merit and await a thorough monograph-length analysis.

In a word, poetic metaphor as a mode of orientation is double-directed. Internally, it operates as a conceptual construct to reproduce a drama of the composition in the mind of readers. Externally, it directs readers to perceive their reality in light of that drama, thereby enabling them to recognize the relations and distinctions they may not have previously noticed. In this way, readers can approach metaphor in biblical literature—and in fact in all mytho-poetic literature—as an indispensable mode to reveal the “metaphysical truth” (Henri Frankfort) underlying the events unfolding in the human world. Readers thereby receive what one may call the very essence of biblical literature—to wit, biblical insight into reality.



  • Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic Books, 1985. A collection of essays that include sensitive and imaginative analyses of biblical poems and metaphors.
  • Black, Max. Models and Metaphors: Studies in Language and Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962. A collection of seminal essays on metaphor and its distinctive cognitive value, as well as on other related issues in analytical philosophy, including Black’s seminal “interaction” theory of metaphor—metaphorical meaning as emerging through the selective interaction between systems of implications or “associated common places.”
  • Camp, Claudia V., and Carole R. Fontaine, eds. Woman, War and Metaphor: Language and Society in the Study of the Hebrew Bible. Semeia 61. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1993. A series of essays by various biblicists with an attempt to introduce exemplary discussions related to biblical metaphors.
  • Cohen, Mordechai Z. Three Approaches to Biblical Metaphor: From Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides to David Kimhi. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003. A lucid and informative study of medieval Jewish approaches to biblical metaphor and related literary issues in the Spanish exegetical tradition.
  • Greenstein, Edward L. “Remarks on Some Metaphors in the Book of Job” (in Hebrew). In Bible and Exegesis IX, edited by Shmuel Vargon et al., pp. 231–41. Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2009. An earlier, English version of this article is “Some Remarks on Metaphors in the Poetry of Job.” SBL annual meeting, Atlanta, Ga. 22 November 2003; The University of Wisconsin, Madison, March 22, 2004. Presents three interpretive principles for attaining richer meanings of poetic metaphors in Job.
  • Harshav [Hrushovski], Benjamin. “Poetic Metaphor and Frames of Reference: With Examples from Eliot, Rilke, Mayakovsky, Mandelshtam, Pound, Creely, Amichai, and the New York Times.” Poetics Today 5 (1984): 5–43. Reprint in Explorations in Poetics, pages 32–75. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007. Presents a sophisticated and pragmatic theory of poetic metaphor, which can substantially enhance our understanding of complex literary phenomena of metaphor.
  • Hecke, Pierre van, ed. Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible. Dudley, Mass.: Peeters, 2005. Papers discussing various aspect of metaphor research in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Hecke, Pierre van and Antje Labahn, eds. Metaphors in the Psalms. Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters, 2010. Articles addressing interpretive, conceptual, and/or functional issues of metaphors in the book of Psalms.
  • Jindo, Job Y. Biblical Metaphor Reconsidered: A Cognitive Approach to Poetic Prophecy in Jeremiah 1–24. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2010. Presents an interpretive approach that enables the reader to consider the hitherto generally overlooked cognitive and creative function of poetic metaphor in biblical prophecy.
  • Johnson, Mark, ed. Philosophical Perspectives on Metaphor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981. An anthology of metaphor theories with a critical survey of the history of metaphor scholarship and a very helpful annotated bibliography of major works in metaphor studies.
  • Kövecses, Zoltán. Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. A very accessible introduction to the cognitive linguistic account of metaphor.
  • Landy, Francis. Paradoxes of Paradise: Identity and Difference in the Song of Songs. BLS 7. Sheffield: Almond, 1983. An eloquent study of the poetry and imagery in the Song of Songs.
  • Ortony, Andrew ed., Metaphor and Thought. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993. One of the best available anthologies of contemporary theories of metaphor.
  • Richards, I. A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. London: Oxford University Press, 1936. Includes the so-called “interaction” theory of metaphor that is meant to do justice to the creative power and complexity of metaphor.
  • Ricoeur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. Translated by Robert Czerny et al. University of Toronto Romance Series 37. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977. English translation of Métaphore vive. Paris: Seuil, 1975. An exhaustive, interdisciplinary examination of metaphor theory from Aristotle to the present by one of the most distinguished philosophers of the twentieth century.
  • Stern, Josef. Metaphor in Context. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000. A penetrating full-scale research that seeks to develop a formal theory for metaphorical interpretation.
  • Ungerer, Friedrich, and Hans-Jörg Schmid. An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics. 2d ed. Harlow, England: Pearson, 2006. A lucid, comprehensive overview of cognitive linguistics.
  • Weiss, Meir. The Bible from Within: The Method of Total Interpretation. Translated by Baruch J. Schwartz. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1984. An English, revised translation of Ha-Mikra Ki-demuto. 2d ed. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1967. An excellent introduction to holistic reading of the Bible, which presents, inter alia, meticulous analyses of poetic imagery in biblical literature.
  • White, Roger M. The Structure of Metaphor: The Way the Language of Metaphor Works. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. Full of insightful discussions and has a fine and concise bibliography of theoretical studies on poetic metaphor.
  • Wolde, Ellen van. Reframing Biblical Studies: When Language and Text Meet Culture, Cognition, and Context. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2009. A programmatic work which introduces cognitive linguistics to biblical studies.

Job Y. Jindo