The Importance of Metaphor as a Thought Process

When speaking about images and symbols, metaphors give verbal representation of the images, pictures and symbols that are latent in mytho-poetic literature. Like the symbol, the metaphor transfers meaning from one domain to another. By the same token, the metaphor does not lend itself to literal, statistical, or reductionist thinking. The metaphor’s purpose does not merely inform–it is the language of meaning. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur points out that metaphors have a “cunning distortion” that is much more subtle than ordinary analogical language.

Metaphors tease the imagination, arousing it from slumber. They are evocative and create tension. Metaphors pulsate with movement and activity, transcending the boundaries of the written word. Metaphors serve as the bridges that link us with the realm of mystery; thus giving rise to new visions of reality that ordinary words would be incapable of portraying. Most importantly, they, compel us to encounter the image. What is true with ordinary metaphors applies even more so when dealing with biblical metaphors, which give rise to thought processes that impart our knowledge of God. Ricoeur further observes, “Metaphor, far from being limited to a linguistic artifact, is characterized by its epistemological function of discovering new meanings. . . . In this sense, metaphor is a thought process before being a language process.”

One of the deepest and most important theological attitudes about the latent power of metaphor derives from Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.). Augustine observes that one of the major reasons people have difficulty in understanding the figurative expressions of the Bible is because they do not understand the subtle meaning of metaphors. A personal knowledge of the individual metaphor provides a far deeper appreciation of the reality it is alluding to. Metaphors present a pictorial view of reality—but the picture is by no means static. Each metaphor tells a pictorial story and should not be construed as if it is a mere adornment to the text. Augustine gives an example:

Many, again, by reason of their ignorance of hyssop, not knowing the virtue it has in cleansing the lungs, nor the power it is said to have of piercing rocks with its roots, although it is a small and insignificant plant, cannot make out why it said, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (Psa. 51:7). Likewise, the ignorance of numbers, too, prevents us from understanding things that are set down in Scripture in a figurative and mystical way.

Thus to Augustine, if biblical metaphors seem foreign, or obscure, it is because we have not yet grasped the content of its imagery. In addition, without knowledge of the original Hebrew (a language that Augustine himself was not well familiar with), the reader will never go beyond a facile understanding of the Holy Text. Augustine adds the Bible’s metaphors and euphemisms are ambiguous for good reason–by meditating upon the image, we may uncover its deeper meanings.

The rabbis of the Midrash are in perfect agreement with Augustine on this point. Midrashic interpretation aims to uncover the meanings suggested by the different nuances suggested in the Hebrew language.

The ninth century Jewish philosopher and biblical translator, Saadia Gaon, believed that all religious discourse is bound by the limitations of human speech and experience. Saadia, observed that all human language (whether it be secular, or religious), is inherently anthropomorphic.

Without metaphors, language would be severely limited. Our words would not be able to convey even a fraction of what we think. Thus, if we wanted to speak of God in exact language, we would have necessarily to refrain altogether from describing Him as “hearing,” “seeing,” “being merciful,” or “desirous.” In the end, the only activity we could assign to Him, is existence!


  1. Yochanan Lavie  January 31, 2010

    Steven Pinker, in “The Stuff of Thought” writes extensively about metaphor. It is how the mind makes sense of the world, and how language functions.


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