Metaphor for Heaven’s Sake (Literally)

Literal is not the right way to interpret the Bible when it “literally” means something else.

I have been writing and thinking about the odd similarity in the way atheists and fundamentalists interpret the Bible, which is the subject of Digging Deeper to Mine the Meaning from Scripture. At the same time, I have been going through the New Testament in my daily reading. As I read through Matthew, I have been thinking about the ancient tendency to use figures of speech, like metaphor and hyperbole. Perhaps, that is why I began to notice how often Jesus used figures of speech when Jesus spoke.

We are well-acquainted with the frequent use of parables throughout the Gospels. At one point Matthew observed, “All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable.” (Matt. 13:34)

He also used other figures of speech. A figure of speech is defined as “a word or phrase used in a non-literal sense for rhetorical or vivid effect”. Some of the more common figures of speech are hyperbole, symbol, simile, personification and metaphor.

For people who insist on reading Scripture literally, Jesus must be maddening. His words are full of figures of speech, and he interpreted the Old Testament by extrapolating on figures of speech in the Old Testament. A person would be hard-pressed to read very far in the New Testament or the Old Testament without encountering figures of speech.

Following are just a few examples from Matthew of the ways Jesus used figures of speech:

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you….

Matthew 6:30 ESV

If we insist on reading this literally, we would have to believe that God has an oven where He burns the grass of the field? Or consider this statement Jesus made:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

Matthew 7:3 ESV

If we read this literally, we might believe that the First Century Judeans had issues with wood in their eyes. Does the technique for removing a log depend on whether it is hard wood or soft wood? Then, there are the following examples:

[D]o not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. 

Matthew 7:6 ESV

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

Matthew 7:15 ESV

Do we really believe that Jesus is talking about literal pearls and sheep? Of course not!

Consider the way Jesus interprets the Old Testament:

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:  ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.  And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

Matthew 21:42-44 ESV

Jesus uses the “cornerstone” referenced in the Old Testament to speak about about himself. He is telling us that the cornerstone is a metaphor used in the Old Testament that applies to him!

Finally, consider the dialogue Jesus had after feeding thousands of people with a few pieces of bread and fish the crowd that followed him to a new area looking for more food:

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?  Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?  Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?  How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. 

Matthew 16:5-12 ESV [emphasis added]

Here, Jesus uses the literal act of feeding the crowd as a metaphor. The followers were looking for literal food, but Jesus encourages them to look beyond the literal act to a nonliteral and more significant understanding: that Jesus offers us bread (food) from heaven.

In this passage, Jesus chastises his followers for looking for literal food. He criticizes them for lacking faith to understand that he has metaphorical (spiritual) food to offer them.

Then, he extends the metaphor a step further by warning of the “leaven” of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He wasn’t talking about literal leaven. He was talking in metaphorical (spiritual) terms.

We might even say that their literal understanding, itself, was the problem. Their skepticism, hardheartedness, failure to understand and believe and their teaching that was informed by literal meanings showed a lack of faith and spiritual understanding.

Jesus spoke in parables everywhere he went for heaven’s sake. (Literally!)

If we take the Bible in a rigid, wooden way, insisting that every word must be taken literally (whatever that means), we miss the point. The literal meaning of the language in the Bible isn’t always the actual meaning.

Jesus “literally” meant something other than a physical door when he said,

“I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved.”

John 10:9

The New Testament is filled with metaphor, and most of it came from Jesus. Jesus said that he is the “bread of life” (John 6:35), the “Light of the world” (John 8:12), the “vine” (John 15:5) and the “good shepherd” (John 10:11), among other things. Jesus said his followers would be “salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13) and the “light of the world”. (Matt. 5:14)

Jesus also demonstrates in the one passage I have cited above (and in many other places) that we must identify, appreciate and understand the figures of speech in the Old Testament to understand it correctly. 

Do we believe that we are, literally, clay in the potter’s hand? (Isaiah 64:8) That God is a literal rock (Deut. 32:4) or fortress (2 Sam. 22:2)? Is God literally a shepherd? (Psalm 23:1) Did God really form man “from the dust of the ground”? (Genesis 2:7)

Here is another one: Are the days in Genesis literally 24-hour days (or 12 -hour days or periods of time between sun rise and sunset)? Or do days signify periods of time?

If we read the word translated “day” to mean something other than a period of time, how do we interpret Genesis 2:4?

This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven.

Didn’t Genesis 1 just give an account of six (6) days in which God made all of creation? Does Genesis 2:4 say that God did it all in only one day?

It doesn’t make sense or hold together unless we understand that day is used as a figure of speech to mean a period of time.

Literal is not the right way to interpret the Bible when it “literally” means something else. We can’t approach the Bible in a rigid, wooden way and expect for it to make sense to us or expect to understand what is really intended. As I have said before, we have to take the Bible more seriously than that.

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