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Old Testament Exegesis Section One

Old Testament Exegesis Section Three

Old Testament Exegesis Section Four



Old Testament Exegesis Section Two  


A practical study of the procedures for doing sound exegesis in the various portions of the Old Testament.  The method will include the study of words, poetics, textual criticism, syntax, biblical theology, and practical exegetical exposition in the different genres of the Hebrew Bible.  

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Texture deals with the style or the composition of the text itself, the lower level of a work - syllables, words, sentences‑all that goes to make up the narrative.  It should go without saying that everything in a composition is important, especially in Scripture, for it is a piece of literary art.  Unfortunately, preachers and teachers are too often oblivious to it.  Not long ago I had the disturbing experience of catching a television preacher in his act.  Preaching on Joseph's rise to power in Egypt through the interpretation of the dreams, he said, “It's a long story - I won't bore you with the details.”  What this indicated was that his material, largely exhortation and illustration, was more important than the text.  Many expositors might not say it, but they actually subscribe to that way of thinking, for their expositions are not at all text-based.   Our point, however, is that God gave us “the details” because they are all absolutely essential to the meaning of the unit.  The more that we uncover, the richer will be our understanding

1.  Paronomasia and Phonetic Word Plays.   By these devices the writers were emphasizing and focusing the reader's attention on critical points in the text.  We may make a technical distinction that a paronomasia is a word play involving sound and sense, for the words used were cognate; whereas the phonetic word play only involves sound.  There are also a few word plays that involve only sense and not sound.  In general, all types may be classified as word plays, and then the significance in each case can be further explained.

Word plays regularly appear in naming narratives in narrative literature, the point of the word play being to stress the significant meaning of the story.  For example, in Genesis 16 we have the story of Sarai's giving Hagar to her husband in order to obtain a child.  At the end of the story, the LORD rescued Hagar in the wilderness and prophesied concerning her child, giving him the name Ishmael with the explanation that the LORD heard (shama‘) her affliction (v. 11).  She responded by naming God ’El roi, “a God who sees me,” and then named the place, Be’er lakhay roi, “the well of the living God who sees me.”  The word plays on these names focus the reader's attention to the fact that “God hears” and “God sees,” meaning, God is able to deliver people from their affliction.  Because these come through the revelation of God (a speech in the narrative), and because that revelation is the climax of the story of the expulsion of Hagar - who must return to her mistress - they provide the lesson (and rebuke) for Abram and Sarai.  Is it any wonder, then, that their son Isaac meditates at Beerlahayroi (24:62); and that when his wife was barren, he prayed instead of schemed - and the LORD provided children (25:21)?

But word plays are not limited to namings.  In the story of Jacob and Esau the narrative employs many word plays.  For example, in Genesis 25:27 Esau is described as a mighty hunter (tsayid); but then in verse 29 Jacob boiled (wayyazed) pottage (nazid).  The writer contrasts the two by playing on the sounds, for the words are not related.  But his point was that Jacob was also a hunter, laying the trap for this reddish, hairy animal of a brother who would came running to the bait.

2.  Double ententeThis latter example leads us into another area of the literary art of a passage, that is, deliberate ambiguity in the text by means of words with double meanings.  In Genesis 25:29 another significant meaning can be seen in the choice of the verb zid, for although it does mean “to boil,” it is also used to describe presumptuous activity (the idea of water boiling over the edge coming to represent someone overstepping bounds).  So the connotation of the word and the sounds of the word both go beyond the denotation “boil.”

An example of deliberate ambiguity may be seen in Jonah 4:6 where the LORD caused the tree to grow up over Jonah's head “to deliver him from his evil plight” (mera‘ato).  Does this word ra‘a refer to the angry attitude of Jonah (“it was very evil [wayyera‘] to him,” 4:1), or the sun beating down on his head, or both?  I am inclined to say it refers to both, for the word has been used in the passage for Jonah's attitude, but the immediate context suggests the hot sun is the referent.

At times the writer will use the same word or words in different senses.  For example, in Genesis 40 Joseph was called on to interpret the dreams of the cup-bearer and the baker.  The interpretation of the first was that Pharaoh would “Lift up your head” (yissa’ ’et ro’sheka), a restoration to the office (v. 13); but the interpretation for the latter was that Pharaoh would “lift up your head (yissa’ ’et ro’sheka) from you,”  that is, putting to death.  This grisly pun joins the two interpretations together by the repetition of the words, but plays on the different meanings to show the contrast.  The point seem to be part of the proof of Joseph's ability to interpret dreams that appeared similar but had very different meanings.

3.  Repetition.   As should be obvious by now, at the heart of the study of texture will be the repetition of important words within the narrative, psalm, or oracle.  These may be repeated in the same sense, giving direction then to the structure as well, or they may be repeated in a different sense.  For example, in the story of Joseph's dreams about his destiny (Genesis 37:1-11), three times the text explains that his brothers hated him (wayyisne’u  in verse 4; and wayyosipu ‘od seno’ in verses 5 and 8).  This repetition points the expositor in the direction of the point of the episode.  Incidently, the antonym of this verb, ’ahab, seems to fire the hatred, for the passage begins by stating that Jacob loved Joseph more than all the others.

If the repetition occurs between passages, then a sort of stitching takes place by which the narrator wishes the reader to trace the connections.  An analysis of the Book of Psalm reveals that this was part of the organizing pattern (as will be pointed out in the course).  But in narrative, one sample that is clear is in the story of Joseph.  The brothers hated Joseph and were not able to speak peaceably (leshalom) to him (37:4); but then the next section begins with Jacob's sending Joseph to discover the well-being (shelom) of his brothers.  The writer had prepared the reader for the failure of this mission by the repetition of the words.

Sometimes the repetition takes an ironic twist.  In Genesis 12:10‑20 we have the story of Abram's deception about Sarai his wife.  In verse 13 he instructed her to say that she was his sister, “in order that it might go well” (yitab) for him on her account.  But when she was taken from him, the text says that Pharaoh "treated him well" (hetib), giving him all kinds of possessions as a dowry.  The ironic repetition of the verb yatab shows emphatically how his plan backfired on him.

4.  Allusion and Foreshadowing By carefully choosing the words the writer can refer to previous events (allusions), or anticipate future events from the point of view of the text (foreshadowing).  Allusion can be effected by simply using a word that is well‑known from another context.  Psalmists, prophets, and narrators alike all make use of allusions.  The identification of allusions requires that the reader or listener be familiar with the referent.  For example, in Exodus 1:7 the text tells how the Israelites multiplied under the oppression of Egypt: “the Israelites were fruitful (paru) and increased abundantly (wayyisresu), and multiplied (wayyirbu) and became very, very mighty (wayya‘atsmu  bim’od  me’od).”  The words that are used here are drawn from Genesis 1:28 and 1:20, the commandments to “be fruitful” and “multiply,” and the decree that the earth “swarm” with living creatures.  The point of the allusion is to show that God's design for creation was now being developed in his formation of the new creation, Israel.

The story in Genesis 12:10-20 is a good example of foreshadowing in narrative art.  According to this account, there was a famine in the land, Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn, he was met with the possibility of the male being killed and the female taken alive, his wife was taken into bondage, the LORD delivered them by plagues, Pharaoh summoned Abram, and let them go, and they came up out of Egypt very rich.  All these points parallel the experience of Israel's bondage in the exodus from Egypt, down to the use of identical words.  Apparently Genesis 12:10-20 was written with that future experience in mind; in other words, the writer, knowing the later experience (so who better than Moses?), chose to word the patriarchal story to foreshadow the experience of Israel in Egypt - but not making up the story at all.  By doing this he could show that the earlier experience was a harbinger of Israel's experience, showing that God would deliver them.

5.  Notional Featrues.[15]  We now must turn to consider the use of notional features within the sentences of a narrative.  Here we are interested in observing the setting, referents, actions, and ideas as they occur within the text.  This will take in grammatical studies, vocabulary, sentence structure, and paragraph organization.  This part of the analysis is important because frequently the expositor does not know what the narrative is stressing, especially if it is a long and developed story.  The following procedure may prove helpful.

The first step is to list every being, object and place that is mentioned in the story (called referential taxonomy).  Everything plays some role in the story, and so nothing must be omitted.

The second step is to list every way in which a being, object or place is referred to in the course of the text.  A study of the referential variants used reveals something of the writer's style and is useful in determining the theme of a passage.  For example, in Genesis 4 Abel is referred to seven times as “Abel,” and seven times as “his [Cain's] brother,” further stressing that the murder was a sin against the brother.

The third step is to determine what has the prominent use in the narrative (in other words, analyze the material statistically).  Here you will distinguish the function of the referent within the grammar.  Is the referent used in the main sentence structure of the story, or in subordinate clauses, or in quotation?  Prominence can be determined by this, for the subject of a sentence is more important than an object (so Cain is more important to the story than Abel), the explicitly mentioned referent is more important than one referred to with only a suffix or a pronoun, and referents in a non-quotative sentence are more important to the structure of the story than referents in quotations.  By doing this the exegete will learn who or what the writer considered the most important characters) or items in the story.

The fourth step is to make a summary of line-event statement within the text.  This means culling from the text all statements which advance the story in action and time and then restating them an a separate list in the order in which they were introduced into the text (sometimes sentence diagraming will serve this purpose).  Certain things will be automatically excluded here: back references to previous events, supportive or explanatory material, non-event materials such as state-of-being propositions and projected or unrealized event statements, and narrator comments.  Now here you will have to be careful, for the narrative sequence in Hebrew, made with the consecutive and the preterite, is not always used to carry the story-line forward; it may be subordinated to another preterite.  For example, Genesis 3:6 should be translated, “When she saw (wattere’) . . . she took  (wattiqakh).” 

The fifth step is to map the verbs of the narrative.  Match up the verbs with their subjects to see what is the most dynamic subject of the story.  For example, in Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 God is the subject of the verbs “to say,” “to see,” “to create,” “to name,” “to make,” “to bless,” “to separate,” “to rest,” “to place,” “to finish,” and “to sanctify.”  No other subject has so many verbs.  God is obviously central to the theme of the story.  This would be obvious to any reading of this particular chapter; I am just using a clear chapter to show how it works so that it can be applied to other, less obvious,  chapters.

The sixth step is to identify thematic referents in the story.  Thematic referents are characters or items that are referred to in more than one episode and are the subject of at least one event-line verb.  For example, in Genesis 4 Abel is the thematic referent.  He is the subject of the verb “brought” in verse 4, but apart from that he is only referred to, or is the subject of a stative verb.

Finally, all this material is to be correlated with the findings of the studies of repetitions within the text in order to determine the theme.   In the creation story there are twelve verbs or verb-centered structures repeated throughout the story.  The familiar wayehi ken, “and it was so,”  occurs once in episode two, twice in episode three, once in episode four, and twice in episode six.  Also, the verb bara’, “create,” occurs six times in the narrative, once in the introduction, once in episode five, three times in episode six, and once in episode seven.  By charting where the repeated verb-centered ideas are concentrated we can determine the highlight of the narratives theme.  In the creation account this seems to be episode six, the creation of mankind.  Even the repeated expression, “there was evening and there was morning, a first day,” repeated for each of six episodes, is highlighted in the sixth episode because only there is the article used in conjunction with the ordinal number - “the sixth day.”  In the creation account episode six has the prominence because it has eight highlighted repetitions within it.  The second most prominent is episode three.  This is significant, because in the structure of the narrative, day one parallels day four, day two parallels day five. and day three parallels day six, each climaxing the twofold development of the narrative that accounts for correcting the waste (days 1-3) and the void (days 4-6).

The highlighted theme of the text would then concentrate on the sixth episode.  This does not mean that the rest of the chapter is secondary, or subordinate; it means that in the wording of the theme for the whole narrative we would focus our attention on that panel.  And that would be expected from the rest of the exegesis too, for that panel records the instructions to mankind that will be developed throughout the Pentateuch.  The exposition would focus, then, on God's creation of mankind and his commission to populate and dominate the totally good creation that God created, blessed, and sanctified.

6.  Scenes.   If we are analyzing stories in narrative literature, then there will be scenes in the development of the story.  These can be rather easily identified by change of characters, change of settings, or change of actions.  Not all will have the clear structural markers that the narrative about creation has, but there is usually enough to indicate the scenes.  For example, in Genesis 27 we have clearly marked scenes in the story by the change of characters: Isaac sends Esau to hunt game for a blessing, Rebekah prepares Jacob for the deception, Jacob deceives Isaac for the blessing, Esau returns for the blessing from Isaac, Rebekah advises Isaac to send Jacob away, Isaac sends Jacob away with the blessing (27:1-28:9).  What is interesting in this story is that no more than two of the people in the family are ever together in one of the scenes.  The first and last scenes are parallel in that Isaac is sending away his sons, the first to hunt game and be blessed, and the second with the blessing.  At the center of the story are two parallel blessing scenes, the first of Isaac blessing Jacob unwittingly, and the second of Isaac giving Esau the lesser blessing.  In a passage like this the analysis of subjects and main line verbs would differ from scene to scene, but the parallel patterns between the scenes would show the emphasis of the narrator.

7.  Poetic Language.   It is important in studying Hebrew narratives to understand that a lofty or poetic language is used throughout to capture the point very dramatically.  In short, highly figurative language is used to communicate the points, because the writer is trying to get the reader to live in the imagination of the story.  At times the language seems cryptic because just enough has been said to make the point, and the rest is left to the reader to imagine.  Note the classic understatement in Genesis 31:2: “And Jacob saw the countenance of Laban, and indeed it was not toward him as before.”   At times we find expressions like “the voice of the blood of your brother cries out from the ground” (Gen. 4:10),  and “sin is couching at the door” (Gen. 4:7), and “Why has your face fallen?” (Gen. 4:6).  Such figurative language brings the narrative alive in the imagination and memory of the reader.   I use these samples to make the point that what is often called narrative literature is also full of figures of speech.  You will need to master the skill of identifying, classifying, and interpreting figures to work anywhere Scripture. 


Genre Criticism


It was with Form Criticism that biblical scholars were awakened to the different literary forms used in the Bible.  By studying the structure and composition of a piece of literature, form critics could isolate different types of literature.  Now genre has become  prominent in literary studies in that the biblical scholar often uses genre in the interpretation of the text. 

Unfortunately, in actual practice, the identification of the form is being used by some critics to determine the question of historicity.  For Gundry, to identify the story of the Wise Men in Matthew as a Jewish midrash brings to an end the question of whether there ever were any magi.  Likewise, for Leslie Allen, to identify Jonah as parable removes the necessity of finding the historical connection with Nineveh or defending the episode with the fish.  In both cases we would have to say “not so fast.”  First, there are serious  questions about their criteria used for identifying those genres, for we know what forms midrash and parables have - and these do not fit those criteria. Second, the classification of a genre does not necessarily means the events did not happen.  If the Wise Men were a midrash, the telling of the story in that form would have the purpose of expounding some event or text.  So these uses of genre studies are questionable.

Genre studies are important for the complete exegesis of the text, but several qualifications are in order.  First, you should know that there is much debate over what genre actually is, and once it can be identified to any satisfaction, whether or not it is all that helpful.

Second, genre deals with the form of literature and cannot be used to determine historicity.  For example, an essay could be fact or fiction.  A play can be historical or non-historical.  Allegory can use real events or fictitious events.  Only when the genre specifically limits the nature of the material can it speak to the issue of historicity, but that limitation comes from the substance of the material, not the form per se (for example, fairy tales).  A story is a story; it can be about William the Conqueror or St, George and the Dragon.

Third, genre determination ivolves circular reasoning.  We use genre to determine the interpretation of the passage, but we use the exegesis of the passage to identify the genre.  But there are checks and balances, if we are careful to use them, to come to an accurate conclusion.  However, if a writer classifies a passage according to a certain genre, but must delete or ignore certain parts in the story that do not fit that genre, or overlook features of the genre, then the classification is to be rejected.  For example, Joseph is often classified as a hero, and the story of Joseph as heroic literature.  But Joseph never risks everything in a heroic act - one of the features of heroic literature.  On the other hand, the Jacob stories do fit the pattern of comedy (in the Greek sense), especially with Jacob's scheming and deceiving, and yet coming out well in the end.  Or, if the writer tries to identify a genre without any other samples of that genre, the entire classification is called into question.  For example, Westermann in his commentary on Genesis says that Genesis 29 is an old “substitution of the wife” story that was so common in the ancient world.  But then he gives no samples and no references.

Fourth, we are not always able to classify a passage according to its genre, whether it is a psalm or a narrative.  We can describe what seems to be the form and the function of the passage, and give it a name, but without being able to find parallels we really do not have a literary type.

And fifth, the study of form should have bearing on function.  That is the whole point of genre.  If we have a biblical narrative that fits a distinct form, then that form will convey something beyond the report of what happened in the narrative‑it captures the didactic element in the story.  We may read again and again stories about provisions in the wilderness in Exodus and Numbers; these types of stories with their similar structures and motifs prepared the readers for the messages.  You will find that it is easier to identify the forms and the functions of the different types of psalms than types of narratives.  But some very helpful samples can be found in G. Herbert Livingston, The Pentateuch in Its Cultural Environment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974).


Everyone who reads the Old Testament is aware that there is Poetry, Prophecy, Law, and Narrative.  Those classifications narrow the discussion, but do not give specific direction for the exegesis.

For psalms we can discern different types: individual lament psalms, national lament psalms, descriptive praise psalms, declarative praise psalms, and many, many more (as you will learn).  Each classification has a distinct but never stereotyped pattern, and distinct terminology and motifs.  The commonly used forms naturally suggest functions.  If a lament psalm records a cry out of physical suffering, then we may identify the type of situation and the function of such a prayer.  Or, if there is a praise psalm for victory in the battle, we may ascertain the setting in Israel's life, and how that praise would function in the worship of the congregation.

So too in other genres of literature do we have specific types.  In narrative literature there is a great deal of debate over the types, but this is not the place to discuss all that material.  But categories such as narrative, story (if dissociated from the idea of fiction), episode, and the like can be useful, for each have distinctive characteristics.  A narrative should have an arc of tension in which the passage traces the event through to a resolution.  If the narratives are part of a self-contained story, such as the story of Joseph, or the Book of Ruth, then the complete story will have such a plot.  And there are smaller units: genealogies, birth reports, burial reports, itinerary, wilderness wanderings, discourse narrative, and the like.  Even within the type genealogy we find sub-categories: vertical genealogies and horizontal genealogies.  The former traces lineage (Genesis 5 and 11), and the latter traces tribal federations (Genesis 10). They obviously have different structures and functions.

As you work through the passages, you will encounter current discussions of genre for each passage.  Some of the discussions will be helpful, and some will not.  You will have to evaluate the suggestions, and if they stand up under close scrutiny, then you will have to determine if they are helpful for exegesis.  For example, most students of the Bible know about the comparison of Hittite suzerainty treaties and Israel's Sinaitic covenant, specifically the Decalogue.  The use of this genre adds to our understanding and appreciation of the text.  On the other hand, the classification of the creation account as a myth, comparable to ancient Near Eastern mythologies, is problematic.  It requires us to understand what a myth is, and what it was supposed to do - and here are some major difficulties.  While one may recognize that Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 is primarily a theological treatise, the issue of truth is at the center of this discussion.  The same would be true of the story of the Flood.  While many would like to treat it as myth, some of us still come back to the question of whether or not there was a flood, a fall, or a tower of Babel.  If the classification of "myth" is being used to side-step the question, or make the denial of the facts of Scripture acceptable, then the classification of myth is unsatisfactory.

It must be stated that a passage can be understood apart from genre classification; yet, in many cases there are specific refinements that greatly enhance our understanding of the text.  For example, Micah 1:10-16 has been classified as a Klagelied, a funeral dirge over the cities of the Shephelah (lowlands).  It is characterized by the announcement of doom over the impending invasion of these cities, each of the cities receiving a word play on its name to suggest that the nomen was the omen.  It is written in a meter that characterizes such a song, and the word plays on the names of the cities have the force of drumming the news into the listener so it is never forgotten.  A parallel is Isaiah 10:27-34.  It was written about the same invasion, but concentrates on the northern part of the invasion that comes over the mountain passes into Jerusalem.  It too plays on the names of the cities with ominous word plays, showing that the names themselves speak of the invasion.  Now, in reading through the passage in an English Bible we can learn that there is an invasion coming and the cities will be destroyed.  But by analyzing the genre through the distinctive features we capture the force of this means of expression, and its memorability through the distinctive features of this song of death.  There are no other passages in the Bible that are formed exactly like these two, although the prophets frequently play on the meanings of names.




This section of the notes has briefly opened up the discussion of rhetorical and genre criticism. It should now be clear that the Scripture is literary art as well as historical and theological truth.  The writers employed all the conventions at their disposal in formulating and expressing their messages.  But this literary art is not merely ornamental; it is a part of the total meaning of the text, and must be included in the exegesis and in the exposition of the text.






     [1] This is the emphasis of canonical criticism for one; see Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament Scriptures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979).

     [2] James Muilenberg, “Form Criticism and Beyond,” JBL 88 (1969):1-18.

     [3] The literature is very helpful: see J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis and Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel: King David; John Barton, Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study; and John H. Patton, “Rhetoric and Biblical Criticism,” QJS 66 (1980):327-337.

     [4] Different writers stress different aspects of literary analysis.  For example, see S. Bar-Efrat, “Some Observations on the Analysis of Structure in Biblical Narrative,” VT 30 (1980):154-173; Mary Savage, “Literary Criticism and Biblical Studies: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Joseph Narratives,” in Scripture in Context, edited by Carl D. Evans, William H. Hallo, and John B. White (Pittsburgh: The Pickwick Press, 1980); and Roy F. Melugin, “Muilenberg, Form Criticism and Theological Exegesis,” in Encounter with the Text, edited by Martin J. Buss (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979).

     [5] For a good introduction, see Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Schocken Books, 1979).

     [6] See Michael Fishbane, Text and Texture: Close Readings of Selected Biblical Texts (New York: Schocken Books, 1979).

     [7] For samples of writings of literary scholars, see Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis, ed., Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives (Nashville: Abingdon, 1974).

     [8] James Muilenberg, “A Study of Hebrew Rhetoric: Repetition and Style,” VTS 1 (1953):97-111.

     [9] The work of Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), may illustrate this.  Trible has excellent insights into the texts of selected passages, but there is little attempt to articulate the meanings of the units apart from her use of them for studying terrorized women (which, to be fair, was her purpose).

     [10] If you wish to see this issue for Genesis 1-11 discussed, see Walter C. Kaiser, “The Literary Form of Genesis 1-11,” in New Perspectives on the Old Testament, edited by J. Barton Payne (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1970), pp. 48-65.

     [11] But one must remember that the Chronicler is writing to supplement the Book of Samuel and the Book of Kings, and so there was no attempt to conceal David’s sins, for the reader could read about that elsewhere.  The Chronicler simply had his own purpose, and it did not require reviewing those things.

     [12] It is not a naive faith that leads to the view that these events occurred, but rather a logical consistency in the interpretation of Scripture, as well as a rejection of the arbitrary and subjective elimination of material by the modern theologian just because it may not fit his system or approach.

     [13] See, as a start, Kenneth Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1966), pp. 135-138.

     [14] Franz Delitzsch, A New Commentary on Genesis, translated by Sophia Taylor (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1888), p. 238.

     [15] I am indebted for much of this section to Robert Bergen, who read a paper at the regional Society of Biblical Literature in March, 1983, entitled, “A Proposed Discourse Critical Methodology for Use with Hebrew Narrative Material.”









Our study of poetic discourse will include more than just the figures of speech used in the Bible, for before we can understand more precisely and appreciate fully the various words used by the writers we must come to an understanding of the nature of poetic language.


Hunt has provided a definition that would include what most would wish to see included, saying, “Poetry is the utterance of a passion for truth, beauty and power, embodying and illustrating its conceptions by imagination and fancy, and modulating its language on the principle of variety in uniformity” (cited by Abrams). Scott characterized its communicative aspect by saying that the painter, orator, and poet each has the motive of exciting in the reader, hearer, or spectator, a tone of feeling similar to that which existed in his own bosom, ere it was embodied forth by his pencil, tongue, or pen.  It is the artist's object, in short... to communicate, as well as colours and words can do, the same sublime sensations which had dictated his own composition.


In effect the poet recreates his or her emotional experience by the choice of words so that the reader may imitate the sensation.  To communicate such emotions necessarily requires the use of figurative language.  People think in pictures and symbols, and their conversations are filled with such expressions.  Thus, beautifully written literature which employs effective figures of speech is both satisfying to the human desire for aesthetics and meaningful to the human need for images.


It should come as no surprise, then, that poetic language can be found on almost every page of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments.  God chose to communicate His truth to people with high and low figure!  Such language not only brings an aesthetic quality to the Scriptures, but also brings the Word of God to the level of human experience so that it may be understood in both its truth and its spirit.



The following summary captures the points we are making here:


“It may be helpful to note that ‘in turning’ the word the poet often juxtaposes or transfers the word into a semantic field of thought where it is not normally at home.  For example, in the sentence ‘the LORD is my shepherd’ the word ‘shepherd’ which belongs to the semantic range of animal husbandry is juxtaposed to apply to a spiritual Being.  When David prays: ‘Cause me to hear joy and gladness’ he juxtaposes a word referring to a psychological state as the object of a verb denoting physical activity.  Elsewhere the poet says: ‘the mountains clapped’ whereby he transferred a verb denoting human activity to an inanimate subject.  A juxtaposition of semantic ranges of thought also takes place when Caesar says of Brutus: ‘For Brutus is an honorable man; so are they all honorable men,’ for a word of virtue is transferred to describe men of vice as the rest of the composition makes clear.  It is this transference, this juxtaposition, of a word into a foreign semantic field of thought that often alerts the reader to the realization that the writer has used a figure of speech.


“Furthermore, when an author artfully turns his words he does not fully explain his meaning because he is also attempting to create a feeling in his reader.  In other words all figures are elliptical and many are evocative.  For this reason the exegete in his endeavor to recreate in his mind and viscera what was inside the mind and viscera of the author tries to fill in the unstated thought and unstated feeling.  For example, when David says: ‘the LORD is my shepherd’ he evokes the image of a shepherd tending his sheep, an image pregnant with the thought that the shepherd feeds (v. 1), refreshes (v. 2), guides (v. 3) and protects (v. 4) his sheep.  His full thought seems to be: ‘as a shepherd is good and lovingly loyal to his sheep, so the LORD is good and lovingly‑loyal to me’ (v. 6).  Then, too, by this image the author evokes a feeling of tender concern.  Since the author does not fully explain his thought or his intended feeling, the exegete must at first guess at the writer’s intention and then try to validate his guesses by other indications in the composition under consideration.  These reconstructions are mostly intuitive, and therefore the process is more in the nature of an art than in the nature of a science.  Then too, the twentieth century urban reader is greatly removed from an Iron Age agrarian man.  It is therefore imperative that the modern reader try to steep himself in the culture of the author in order to be able to think and feel with the inspired poet (Bruce K. Waltke).


Misconceptions of Poetry


It is sad that many who study the Scriptures do not take the time to work with poetic language, for it is basic to interpretation and cannot be cast off as an esoteric study unrelated to the exegetical procedure.  Such a reluctance to work with poetry is caused in part by a failure to understand its nature.


I. C. Hungerland in Poetic Discourse states that there persists among critics of poetry the notion that the literal meaning and the poetic meaning are somehow opposed.  She explains that this idea is expressed in both naive and sophisticated ways (pp. 107ff.). In its naive form, the notion amounts roughly to the belief that “fancy” language, language exhibiting many figures of speech, is peculiar to, or characteristic of, poetry.  In its more sophisticated form the notion is implicit in current doctrines to the effect that ambiguity, paradox, and irony are essential to poetry.


Whether expressed naively or on a more sophisticated level, there is a half truth at the basis of the notion.  In order to take care of this half truth and avoid the mistake of limiting the kind of language which poetry uses, it will be well to start our study of figures by thinking about them in everyday discourse.


We accept without question such expressions as: “the White House said today,” “He waited an eternity,” “She floated into the room,” “He’s a pig.” But other expressions, although commonly used, are a bit more puzzling to us: “She dropped her eyes,” “They faced the difficulty,” “It is crystal clear,” “They were up in arms,” “Her almond eyes. . . .”


Also, if we try to evaluate slang expressions we have a difficult time with some figures: “It’s raining cats and dogs,” “I’ll take a raincheck on that,” “He’'s the spit’n image of his father.” “This baby has four hundred horses under the hood,” “I needed that like I needed a hole in the head,” and the expression attributed to a pilot from the Bronx before take‑off, “Give with the woid, and I’ll make like a boid.”


The Criterion in Studying Poetry


What is our criterion for distinguishing literal and figurative in such common expressions?  We might formulate it provisionally in this fashion: a figurative expression is one which, when its component words are employed in the usual or customary way, turns out to be either a patently false or a nonsensical statement.  In brief, figures exhibit a violation of some rule of usage.  It must be noted, of course, that not all violation of usage will be figurative language.


This criterion will be qualified by the following considerations.  In the first place, it is well to remember that poetic language is commonly employed as a device in expository and explanatory discourse, whether of an everyday sort or of a scientific sort.  The use of figures will help to clarify and specify the subject matter.


Moreover, figurative expressions have paraphrases or translations which, taken literally, make sense.  Here we must be careful, though, for the meaning of a figure will not be exactly the same as the figure.  The translation of the figure will differ from the original in tone, line of suggestion, and information conveyed by the speaker.


So the conclusion that poetic language is merely fancy and figurative on the one hand, or ambiguous and mystical on the other, fails to understand the nature of poetic language.  Our two conditions provide a basis for interpreting and evaluating figurative language (I say evaluating because an important part of the study is to determine the effectiveness of the figure in the author’s intent):


1.       there must be some ascertainable point in the deviation from ordinary usage (the violation of usage must be deliberate), and

2.       there must be available a literal rendering of the expression in question.


Our procedure will be to identify the figure of speech used and articulate its literal meaning as well as the feeling conveyed with it. (It should be mentioned in passing that even though some figurative expressions may be deliberate deviations in usage and may have literal renderings available, they still may fall short of the high standards for good poetic language.  We hear the expressions so often in popular or country music, a lot of modern Christian music, advertising, or journalism‑‑especially in sports‑‑that we easily lose touch with effective poetic language.  It may be said that if figurative language is contrived and pedestrian it is not good poetic discourse).


We must recognize how poets uses words.  They have two sides to words they select: the straightforward, explicit meaning of the word (its denotation); and the implied, suggested meaning (connotative).  Each word, or group of words, then becomes a carefully chosen device or tool with which poets produce the double effect of conveying a statement or comment about something and suggesting feelings or ideas beyond what they have literally said.


The context in which the word appears, moreover, may often help to determine

our feelings about the word.  Consider these two statements:


1.       His father stood over him while he did three problems in subtraction.


2.       The little cousin is dead by foul subtraction.


The denotative meaning of subtraction applies to both sentences; but the connotation of the word in the second sentence, especially with “foul” in close proximity as well as the idea of death, creates an emotional potential for the word.  Here, in this context, a mathematical term has tragic overtones.  So we see that the context may start a normal word vibrating in an unusual manner.


Emotional connotations, intellectual connotations, allusion effects and sound effects all increase the reach of meaning in a word.  Note in “Fern Hill” (Dylan Thomas) the line


. . .  it was all

Shining, it was Adam and maiden


The word “maiden” has several implications: 1) emotional, for the word suggests freshness, beauty and joy; 2) intellectual, for the word implies innocence, lack of experience; 3) allusion, for the name Adam is part of the context and the reference is to Eve, the first woman, supporting the above connotations but adding the emotion of potential sorrow; 4) sound, for the word is soft and graceful when used in the phrase A‑dam and Maiden, thereby producing a musical, lifting quality.


We may observe these same elements in the word of the prophet Isaiah (1: 18):


“though your sins be as scarlet

they shall be white as snow;

           though they be red like crimson

they shall be as wool.”


Here we have the repetition of two similes to stress the point being made.  In addition, the word order makes the contrasts within these lines more glaring: the two nouns which form the contrast meet in the middle, and the first and last cola use yihyu while the second and third the Hiphil of verbs denoting colors.


The emotional and intellectual connotations of the words used here are striking.  The “scarlet” (sani) refers to the highly prized brilliant red color produced from the Kermococcus vermillio Planch  used to produce the famous dye (Sanskrit krmi; Persian Kerema, kirm;  Pahlevi kalmir;  Hebrew karmil; and our carmine and crimson.  See also Persian sakirlat and Latin scarlatum).  There is great symbolism in the Bible for colors.  In Revelation, for example, the great Whore is in purple and scarlet while the Saints are in white.  Why does Isaiah use red for sin?  Dreschler suggested it meant bloodshed‑‑a blood stained garment enwrapping the sinner.  Delitzsch interpreted it as a fiery life that was selfish and passionate, a life characterized by wild tempestuous violence.  These ideas may well have been in Isaiah's mind.  At least we may say that red signifies that which is most enflamed‑‑conspicuous and glaring.


In contrast to the scarlet and crimson is the whiteness of wool and snow.  Not only do these terms represent purity from the cleansing from sin, but they convey the sensations of softness and freshness.  The emotional overtones of peace and tranquility offset those of violence and passion.




1. Emotional Connotations.  Emotional connotations have to do with our

feelings about a word, how the word appeals to our emotions of fear, delight or disgust.  An example suggesting pleasant, happy feelings is seen in E. E. Cummings’ poem:


anyone lived in a pretty how town

with up so floating many bells down


The words “up” and “floating” and “bells” as used in the context all have a joyous emotional potential.


On the other hand, Richard Eberhart’s poem “For a Lamb” shocks us by its use

of two unexpected words:


I saw on the slant hill a putrid lamb,

Propped with daisies . . .


We expect the lamb, a creature of innocence, to be playing in the daisies there rather than being propped and putrid.  These two words stain the poem with the emotion of disgust and repulsion.


Finally, a less obvious example of emotional connotation comes from David

Ferry’s “Adam’s Dream”:


He was the lord of all the park,

And he was lonely in the dark,

Till Eve came smiling out of his side

To be his bride.


“Sweet Rib,” he said, astonished at her,

“This is my green environ!”

Eve answered no word, but for reply

The wilderness was in her eye.


As used in the context, the word “wilderness” strikes a note of fear or dismay.  The word does not mean “fear” or “dismay,” but denotes the surrounding natural, uncultivated scenes.  Yet the word has emotional overtones for the impending Fall.


Zechariah heightens the sense of abhorrence of sin by his choice of words:


“Now Joshua was clothed with excrement-bespattered garments,

and was standing before the Angel” (3:3)


Isaiah also conveys the worthlessness of man’s best deeds by using an emotionally freighted word:


“All our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (64:5)


The word ‘idda  refers to stains from menstruation.


2.   Intellectual Connotations.   Intellectual connotations have to do with the

additional intellectual meaning a word might have beyond its denotative meaning.  Words, as we know, often have several denotative meanings at the same time.  Emotional connotations register in our feelings or emotions, but intellectual connotations appeal to our minds and often involve a witty word play.


For example, W. H. Auden writes of a Chinese soldier killed in the war with Japan:  “Far from the heart of culture he was used.”   The word “heart” has a double meaning referring to the center of culture as well as referring to the emotional concerns; he dies in an indifferent, heartless world.


By employing a combination of semantic and syntactical ambiguity, poets gain depth or richness of meaning which straightforward prose writing rarely has.  Our challenge in reading poetry, then, is to become sensitive to the nuances of meaning possible in the artistic combinations of words of poetry.


A special case of intellectual connotation is irony which has to do with a double vision of experience where the words do not quite fully account for the reality of the situation.  Take a poem by Wilfred Owen, the British poet killed in World War I:


So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the firstborn spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt‑offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

And builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo!  An angel called out of heav'n.

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him.  Behold.

Abram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.


This is highly ironic when contrasted to the real story; Owen wished to dramatize that men allow wars to kill off their sons from generation to generation.  Man sets his own precedent for violence which ironically carries off his own sons.


In this we have the double view of reading the words and knowing the situation.

Ezekiel’s song of lament over the king of Tyre will serve to illustrate this from the Bible (Ezek. 28:11-19).


11   The word of Yahweh came unto me, saying,

12   “Son of man, take up a lament concerning the king of Tyre

    and say to him: ‘This is what the Lord Yahweh says:

You were the model of perfection,

    full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.

13   You were in Eden, the garden of God;

    every precious stone adorned you:

        ruby, topaz and emerald,

        chrysolite, onyx and jasper,

        sapphire, turquoise and beryl.

Your settings and mountings were made of gold;

    on the day you were created they were prepared.

14   You were anointed as a guardian cherub,

    for so I ordained you.

You were on the holy mount of God;

    you walked among the fiery stones ...

17   Your heart became proud

    on account of your beauty,

and you corrupted your wisdom

    because of your splendor.

 So I threw you to the earth;

    I made a spectacle of you before kings . . .’.”


This prophetic denunciation of the king of Tyre appears to contain references to Satan’s origin and fall.  Apparently they were analogous in the mind of Ezekiel.


3. Allusion Effects.   When a word in a poem has a specific reference to a place in geography, to an event in history or literature, or to a person, real or literary, this word is called an allusion.  The allusion in poetry is a particularly potent device for creating both emotional and intellectual meaning.


Notice the allusions in T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”:


Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water‑mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. 

Then we came to a tavern with vine‑leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine‑skins.

But there was no information and so we continued

And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.


All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death: There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt.  I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.



Now observe the allusions in these passages from the Old Testament:


23.  “I beheld the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;

     and the heavens, and they had no light.

24.  I beheld the mountains, and lo, they trembled,

     and all the hills moved to and fro.

25.  I beheld, and lo, there was no man,

     and all the birds of the heavens were fled.

26.  I beheld, and lo, the fruitful field was a wilderness,

     and all the cities thereof were broken down

at the presence of Yahweh

at the presence of His fierce anger” (Jer. 4:23‑26).


Here the prophet is definitely alluding to the creation account of Genesis in his oracle of judgment, but his usage of the terms and phrases reverses the order, as if to say judgment will undo creation.


In a similar way Zephaniah alludes to the confusion of tongues at Babel in his message, using terms such as “pure language,” “Kush,” “dispersed,” “proudly exulting” and “mountain”:


9.      “For then I will turn to the peoples a pure

  language that they may call upon the name of Yahweh

  to serve Him with one consent.

10.    From beyond the rivers of Kush, my suppliants,

  even the daughter of my dispersed shall bring my offering.

11.    In that day shall you not be put to shame

  for all your deeds wherein you transgressed against me

  For then I will take your proudly exulting ones

  and you shall no more be haughty in my holy mountain” (Zeph. 3:9‑11).


The psalmists, too, drew heavily upon early images and motifs.  In this selection from Psalm 36 we note that David alluded to Eden (“pleasure”) with its fountainhead of life (in words that find their way into the New Testament as well).  But the portion of the priests in the sanctuary also provided him with an image of divine blessing.


8[7]      “How precious is Your loyal love, O God,

    that humans may take refuge under the shadow of Your wings!

9[8]       They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of Your house;

    and You will make them drink of the river of Your pleasures.

10[9]   For with You is the fountain of life;

    in Your light we see light” (Ps. 36:7‑9).



4.    Sound Effects.   We should now add the obvious fact that a word represents in written characters a physical sound‑‑unpleasant, pleasant, funny, odd, or neutral‑‑but a sound.  The poet exploits sound in his verse when he can, as a way usually of emphasizing meaning, or as a means of drawing his lines together into a more artistically compact form.  We should think of sound as a way of reinforcing meaning, or understanding the denotations and connotations of the words.


The repetitions of sound we call alliteration (initial syllable), consonance (consonants), assonance (vowels), and rhyme (syllable sounds).   Observe the sound effects in T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker”:


The wounded surgeon plies the steel

That questions the distempered part;

Beneath the bleeding hands we feel

The sharp compassion of the healer’s art

Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.


Our only health is the disease

If we obey the dying nurse

Whose constant care is not to please

But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,

And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.


The whole earth is our hospital

Endowed by the ruined millionaire,

Wherein, if we do well, we shall

Die of the absolute paternal care

That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.


The chill ascends from feet to knees,

The fever sings in mental wires.

If to be warmed, then I must freeze


And quake in frigid purgatorial fires

Of which the flame is roses and the smoke is briars.


The dripping blood our only drink,

The bloody flesh our only food:

In spite of which we like to think

That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood‑‑

Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.


One good example of the way the Hebrew used sounds to strengthen the meaning may be seen in the story of the dispersion at Babel (Gen. 11:1-9).  The narrative is arranged to reflect the ironic turn of events after the visitation of Yahweh: whereas the earth had been of one language, it was now confused; whereas they could speak to one another, now they cannot; whereas they wished to make a name for themselves, they were given an ignominious name; whereas they desired to come together, they were now scattered; and whereas they wished to make a tower reaching into the heavens, Yahweh came down to see it and they left off building it.


A    all the earth had one language

  B    there

    C         one another

      D         come let us make bricks

        E        let us build for ourselves

          F        a city and a tower

  X    and Yahweh came down to see

          F’  the city and the tower

        E’     which the sons of man began to build

      D’     come . . .  let us confuse

    C’       everyone’s language

  B’ from there

A’     the language of all the earth (confused)



This antithetical structure displays the divine reversal of man's enterprise.  In

fact, the key words of each section are the reverse of one another:


                “make bricks”




Moreover, these sounds lead to the word play on the name “Babel” in verse 9, which according to the structure and design of the passage is the message's climax.  The name bab-ili (“gate of god” in Babylonian) is explained by the narrator by balal ( in a clever phonetic word play--“to confuse”).  So that  ancient kingdom of power and pride becomes to Israel the prime example of judgmental confusion because of their disobedience.













Quintilian defined a figure of speech as “any deviation either in thought or expression, from the ordinary and simple method of speaking . . .”  or “. . . a form of speech artfully varied from common usage” (Instit. Orat. IX, i, 11).   These forms were called by the Greeks Schema, and by the Romans Figura.  Both words mean “shape” or “figure.”   P. J. Corbett, however, divides figures of speech into two main groups‑‑the schemes and the tropes (Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student [New York: Oxford Press, 1971]).  He writes: “A scheme ... involves a deviation from the ordinary pattern or arrangement of words.  A trope involves a deviation from the ordinary and principal signification of a word” (p. 461).


In this discussion we shall survey the most important types of tropes and schemes.  More attention will be given to the tropes than the schemes because they are more difficult to learn.  The types listed below are those encountered most frequently in the study of the Psalter.  The student may find it helpful to use E. W. Bullinger (Figures of Speech Used in the Bible) for the less common types and problematic passages. But this book should not be used simply for finding obscure figures or technical jargon.  The table of contents and the Scripture index will provide the student with a beginning for the use of this reference tool.


Before surveying the common types of figures one must briefly, at least, consider a basic issue‑‑the tension between the literal and the figurative.  Many students of the Bible think that if something is figurative it means that no one can be sure what is being said (for this, see Bullinger’s preface).  Others, however, insist on a “literal interpretation” of the Bible to the exclusion of figures of speech.  If “literal interpretation” is taken literally, then there are all kinds of problems‑‑God would be a block of granite, Jesus a piece of wood on hinges, and believers grazing sheep or growing wheat.  The problem is confronted enough to warrant a survey of how the issue has been handled in the interpretation of the Bible.


Students of the Bible are perhaps aware of Augustine’s concept of multiple senses of Scripture, whereby both words and the things they signify point to spiritual or allegorical meanings.  Yet Augustine gave careful attention to the words of Scripture, the literal sense, as the ground for the spiritual significances.  Attention to the words involves knowledge of the original languages, of logic (rules of valid inference), or history, and especially the rhetorical figures.  He says,


Lettered men should know, moreover, that all those modes of expression which the grammarians designate with the Greek word tropes were used by our [Scriptural] authors, and more abundantly and copiously than those who do not know them . . . are able to suppose or believe.  Those who know these tropes, however, will recognize them in the sacred letters, and this knowledge will be of considerable assistance in understanding them . . . .  And not only examples of all these tropes are found in reading the sacred books, but also the names of some of  them, like allegoria, aenigma, parabola (De Doctrina, III, xxix).


Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of the senses of Scripture in Summa Theologica rationalized Augustine’s account of figurative meaning into the Catholic formula: a literal sense, and a spiritual sense having three levels‑‑allegorical or typological, tropological or moral, and anagogical  (I. Q. 1, Art. 10, Basic Writings, I, 16‑17).  With regard to the literal sense, Aquinas says,


By words things are signified properly and figuratively.  Nor is the figure itself, but that which is figured, the literal sense.  When Scripture speaks of God’s arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, namely, operative power (ibid).


While Aquinas classifies the meaning of the trope as the literal sense, he suggests that the poetic language often obscures the truth, making the reader look beyond the figures for the true meaning.  There is no real emphasis on the meaning conveyed by the metaphor itself.  Neither Augustine or Aquinas place great value upon the poetic language of Scripture as such.


The Reformation surfaced a new emphasis on literalism in the Scripture, along with the emphasis on the one sense of Scripture.  But a study of the writings of the Reformers shows that this was no prosaic literalism.  Tropes now became God’s chosen formulations of the revelation which must be understood correctly, in themselves, and not as a means to a higher, allegorical vision.  Calvin’s discussion of the doctrine of the sacraments, especially the expression “This is my body” is instructive:


[Those who state that] the bread is the body . . . truly prove themselves literalists . . . .  I say that this expression is a metonymy, a figure of speech commonly used in Scripture when mysteries are under discussion . . . .  For though the symbol differs in essence from the thing signified (in that the latter is spiritual and heavenly, while the former is physical and visible), still, because it not only symbolizes the thing that it has been consecrated to represent as a bare and empty token, but also truly exhibits it, why may its name not rightly belong to the thing? . . . Let our adversaries, therefore, cease to heap unsavory witticisms upon us by calling us “tropists” because we have explained the sacramental phraseology according to the common usage of Scripture (Institutes IV, xvii, 20‑21).


The irony here is that the Roman Catholic position on the sacrament (transubstantiation) is achieved by taking the text literally.  The figurative sense (metonymy) communicated by the physical signs was taken by the Reformers.


Based on such ideas the Protestants’ writings in the subsequent centuries systematized the study of the rhetorical devices used in Scripture.  The importance of understanding the tropes and schemes became paramount.  It was not that they were now taking the text literally whereas the Church had taken it allegorically or mystically; rather they were now studying the figures used in the Bible as means of communicating the divine revelation.  Because the Scripture made widespread use of figurative language, scholars realized that skillful use of the various types of figures was necessary for exegesis.  Handbooks on the figures of speech and interpretation appeared throughout Protestantism.  It was prompted by the recognition that figures of speech served as vehicles of truth; they were chosen by God for His revelation of himself to people.


The concept of God as a magnificent poet who uses figurative language to communicate His literal Word is graphically expressed by Donne:


My God, my God, Thou art a direct God, may I not say a literall God, a God that wouldst bee understood literally, and according to the plain sense of all that thou saiest?  But           thou art also . . . a figurative, a metaphoricall God too; A God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions . . . .   O, what words but thine, can expresse the inexpressible texture, and composition of thy word (Sermons, VII, 65).


So the concept that figurative language is the character of the literal Word of God in many places, and not some mystical sense, came to be the important distinctive of biblical exegesis after the Reformation.  Unfortunately, modern  “expositions” have not taken the time to understand much of this, but rather stand closer to some Puritan interpretations which considered rhetorical devices to be minimal or deceptive.  Each student of the Bible must recapture this important relationship between the figurative and the literal.  One must learn that not only is the figurative the means of communicating the literal, but that the figurative is the literal in its chosen means of expressing the truth, a means that includes intellectual and emotional connotations, allusions and sounds.  The figure is both unified in its communication, and diverse in its aspects.




The Classification of the Figures


Because writers turn their words in various ways, literary critics have attempted to analyze and categorize these deviations in the use of words in order to gain better control over the intended thought and feeling of the author.



I.  Figures Involving Comparison


In these figures of speech the author transfers a word into a foreign semantic field to illustrate or picture his thought and to evoke the appropriate feeling in his reader.  In this way the writer draws a comparison between two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common.  The subject matter is real, but that to which it is compared is present in the imagination.  That which the subject and things compared have in common is not stated and must be guessed at and validated by the interpreter from other indications in the composition.  The interpreter must also try to articulate the mood evoked by the figure.


1.       Simile: Resemblance, an explicit comparison (using “like” or “as”) between two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common (see Bullinger, pp. 726‑733).


“Silence settled on the audience like a block of granite.”


“Silence” settling down is here compared to a “block of granite.” The image is one of suddenness and absoluteness.  There is a contrast implied between the roar of an audience before a performance, and the sudden silence when the safety curtain goes up.


“All flesh is like grass.” (1 Pet. 1:24)


In this verse “flesh,” which is also a figure of speech representing all living creatures, is compared to “grass.”  The point is that grass is transitory‑‑it withers and dies easily.  This figure must be seen in the context of grass in Israel--in the heat it completely disappears from the hills until the rainy season.  The feeling that this simile evokes is one of pathos and futility.


“He shall be like a tree planted by rivers of waters.”  (Ps. 1:3)


The psalm is describing an individual who meditates in the Law of the LORD.  The comparison is now made to a tree.  Here, as is often the case, the simile is qualified: the tree produces fruit in season and does not wither because it is planted by water.  The qualifications lead us to conclude that the water represents the Law, and the fruit righteousness.  The common thought between the tree and the person is life or vitality.  It creates a positive feeling of desirability.



2.       Metaphor: Representation, an implicit comparison between two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common; a declaration that one thing is or represents another (see Bullinger, pp. 735‑743).  This description will serve the purpose of this introduction, but it must be acknowledged to be a simplification.  Pure metaphors are essentially figures of transference (for a detailed study, see Gustav Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning, chapter xi).  That is why many prefer to use “metaphorical language” as the equivalent of “figurative language” without further qualification of types.  The study must be aware of this; some commentaries will use the word “metaphor” to mean any figure of speech, when the actual figure under consideration is not a metaphor.


“The question of federal aid to education is a bramble patch.”


The idea of “federal aid to education” is now stated to be a “bramble patch” (not “like” a bramble patch).  The point is that it is tangled, not easily solved, “thorny.”  The metaphor conveys the feeling of frustration,

complexity, pain.


“The LORD God is a sun and a shield.” (Ps. 84:12 [11])


The LORD God is being compared to both a “sun” and a “shield.”  Each metaphor supplies different information about the LORD.  The “sun” conveys light, warmth, provision for growth among other things; the “shield” primarily represents protection.  So the line brings a feeling of security in God’s provision of and protection for life.


“The LORD is my shepherd.”  (Ps. 23:1)


In this line a comparison is expressed between the LORD (a spirit) and a shepherd (a human being who tends   flocks).  The essential qualities of the shepherd are transferred to the LORD so that a greater understanding of his nature may be achieved.  The subsequent lines of  the psalm (verses 1-4) extend and qualify the metaphor, so that the shepherding activates of feeding the flock, leading them, and refreshing them, are all brought to bear on the communication of the LORD's spiritual ministries to His people, i.e.,  teaching them the truth, cleansing them from sin, and leading them in righteousness.  So we can see that the context must be considered in explaining a figure.


The figure of “shepherd” was used frequently enough to achieve lexical status, and so dictionaries often list the figurative use as one of the categories of meaning.  Even in English dictionaries under “shepherd” you will find “ecclesiastical use for minister.”  When this    happens the figure is classified as a dead metaphor, or an idiom.  However, in your exegesis you must interpret it as you would any metaphor, because it is a figurative use of a term.


3.       Hypocatastasis: Implication, a declaration that implies a comparison between two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common.  Unlike the above, however, in hypocatastasis the subject must be inferred (see Bullinger, pp. 744‑747; Bullinger, however, does not give enough attention to this very common figure).  It may be simpler to refer to this as an implied metaphor if the title sounds too technical or difficult.  The main feature is that in the text, the figure will be expressed fully, but the true topic or subject will be suppressed.  For example, “Smite the shepherd and the flock will be scattered” is a statement that remains on the figurative level.  The exegete must discern from either the context or usage of the terms what is meant by “shepherd” and “flock.”


Dogs have surrounded me.”  (Ps. 22:17 [16])


The psalmist is comparing his enemies to dogs.  There are no dogs surrounding him; the context will state it is a company of evil‑doers.  If he had used a simile, he would           have stated explicitly “my enemies are like dogs.”  A straightforward metaphor would have said “my enemies are dogs.”  But he simply says “dogs have surrounded me,” and you are left to determine if they are real dogs, and if not, what are they.  Once this has been done, you have to return to the figure and ask why he compares them to dogs.  Dogs in the ancient Near East were scavengers‑‑they ran in packs and scoured for food.  Much like the vultures in the desert they would pick at carcases.  So the psalmist is saying a lot about his enemies, and a lot about his condition‑‑he is almost dead.


“Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them”  (Ps. 127:5)


In the context the psalmist has used a simile to compare children to arrows in the hand of a warrior.  Building on that point the psalmist uses “quiver” to refer to his household.  If the children are “like” arrows, then the house is like a quiver‑‑but house is not mentioned.  So the comparison is implied.


“My frame was not hidden from You,

     When I was made in secret,

  and skillfully wrought

      in the depths of the earth.”  (Ps. 139:15)


In this passage the psalmist is describing how God formed him in his mother's womb‑‑but he calls it the “depths of the earth.”  He is thus comparing the womb to the deepest recesses of the earth, stressing remoteness and hiddenness (this is before sonograms).  But he does not state the comparison; he merely uses the figure to imply the comparison.  One reason for this strange comparison is rhetorical: he wants to form a link to the preceding strophe in which he described God’s presence in such remote areas (see Ps. 139:7‑12).


“A lion has gone up from his thicket.”  (Jer. 4:7)


The context will make it clear that the idea is the king of Babylon who has left his domain.  The comparison with a lion stresses the fierce and brutish nature of this pagan power, and conveys a feeling of fear of attack and death.  Writers frequently use animals or beasts in their hypocatastases for rulers to stress such brutish power.  In fact, Daniel's visions of such grotesque beasts prepares for his vision of “one like the Son of Man” who will replace them  (Dan. 7:12, 13).


4.       Parable: a placing beside (from para = beside, and ballein = to cast) of two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common; an extended simile, an anecdotal narrative designed to teach a lesson.  The extent of the comparison must be guessed at and validated by other indications in the literature (see Bullinger, pp. 751‑753).


“Parable” is used about 30 times to translate lvm,  masal, and of no other word; but the most famous examples are those found in the New Testament.


“The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man that sowed good seed in his field.”  (Matt. 13:24ff.)


The parable is essentially a story based on a simile, i.e., an extended simile.  It is not always easy to determine how much of the story should be interpreted as part of the simile.  It is safe to say the main point of the parable is what was intended; but along the way other comparisons are obvious (e.g., the elder brother representing the Pharisees).


5.       Allegory: (from allos = another and agourein = to speak in the agora [i.e., where people assemble]); an extended metaphor   (see Bullinger, pp. 748‑750).


Expositors often say that an allegory refers to something non‑historical in the comparison; but this may be more apologetic than factual, designed to defend against the almost unlimited allegorical use of Scripture by some Church Fathers.  But in the classical sense an allegory is an extended metaphor; the thing used in the comparison could be historical or fictional, each allegory requiring specific attention.  Thus, Paul's use of the term in Galatians 4:24 is perfectly legitimate‑‑it does not deny the historicity of the Old Testament event.


There are not many examples of allegories in the Old Testament; and of those that come to mind, the images are not historical or actual.


The Allegory of the Fig, Olive, Vine, and Bramble (Ju. 9:7‑15):


This is not a parable because there is no similitude expressed explicitly.  Rather, it is a continued hypocatastasis, only one of the two things in the comparison is clearly stated.  In the context the point is that only the worthless one, the bramble, wants to rule over the nation.


The Allegory of the Unproductive Vineyard  (Isa. 5:1‑7):


The LORD is compared to the faithful gardener, the Beloved One, and Israel to an unproductive vineyard (v. 7).  The common thought between Israel and the vineyard is that of an unjust return, and the common feeling is contempt or disgust.  Israel should have produced “fruit” under the careful work of her “gardener.”


6.       Personification:  Personification: (From Latin persona: actor's mask, person + facio = to make; the making or feigning of a person); the investiment of non-human subjects (e.g., abstractions, inanimate objects, or animals) with human qualities or abilities.  With all the figures discussed thus far, this figure also belongs to the sub‑group of figures involving resemblance.  Here, too, the things compared are of  unlike nature, but the thing to which the comparison is made is always a person.  The figure is used to stir emotions and to create an empathy with the subject (see Bullinger, pp. 861‑869).


“The land mourns‑‑the oil languishes.”  (Joel 1:10)


The human traits of mourning and languishing are attributed to the land, thus making a comparison.  But the thought is the extreme agricultural disaster, and the feeling is sadness and grief.


“The voice of your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground.”  (Gen. 4:6)


Abel’s shed blood is personified as a voice crying out.  The point is that the blood is a witness that a murder  has been committed.  It is a demand for vengeance; and it conveys a feeling of condemnation and indignation.


“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  (Ps. 23:4)


Here the human ability to provide comfort in time of  trouble is ascribed to the LORD’s rod and staff.   Of course, “rod” and “staff” are also figures, carrying through the comparison of the LORD’s activities with those of the shepherd (so they are hypocatastases).  The line essentially affirms that the means of protection that the LORD uses brings comfort to the worried psalmist.  This is a good example of how some figures build on other figures.


7.       Anthropomorphism:  An implicit or explicit comparison of God to some corporeal aspect of mankind.  By this comparison the author does not intend to be evocative but to be didactic,      viz., to communicate a truth about the person of God.  The author will choose that part of human life which best corresponds to some characteristic of God’s person: e.g., the face denotes His presence, the eyes denote His awareness, the        ears signify His attentiveness, the nostrils signify His anger, and the heart speaks of His moral purpose (see Bullinger, pp. 871‑881, 883‑894).  Revelation of the Godhead demands the use of anthropomorphic language,  i.e., to communicate the nature of God in language people understand.  Throughout the OT God is described as if he has all such human parts and functions.  This is probably why Jesus is described as the complete revelation of God, the alpha and the omega, the Logos‑‑in the incarnation the Word (or should we say “the words”?) became flesh.


“His eyes behold, his eyelids try, the sons of men.”  (Ps. 11:4)


The psalmist, wishing to reveal God’s close examination of all human affairs, uses the expressions “eyes” and “eyelids.”  God is a Spirit and not corporeal; moreover, divine omniscience does not need to squint the eyelids to look more intently.  But what these mean for human life enables people to understand the divine activity of investigation and judgment.


“Incline your ear to me.”  (Ps. 31:3 [2])


Again, the expression is human‑‑one leaning over to listen more intently to what someone says.  God does not need to do this (nor does he have an ear that he lowers to the one praying).  Such anthropomorphisms are for our benefit‑‑it is an urgent cry for God to hear the prayer.


Hide your face from my sins.”  (Ps. 51:11 [9]).


This is in David’s confession of sin.  He prays that God would forgive him and not hold his sin against him.  The  human activity of “hiding one’s face.”  i.e., not looking at something, graphically conveys his wish and brings him comfort.


The Scriptures are filled with anthropomorphic expressions about God that will have to be interpreted clearly (and carefully since many people simply take these literally).  God is described as having “everlasting arms,” “saving hand,” “consuming breath of his nostrils,” “feet”; he is portrayed as “sitting enthroned,” “hurling a storm,” “blotting out of a book,” “putting tears in a bottle,” and a host of other figurative expressions from the human realm.  They are all meant to reveal the person and work of the LORD in terms that we can understand and appreciate.


But note this:  Many authors distinguish this figure from the description of God’s passion(s) which they designate as anthropopatheia: an implicit or explicit comparison between the nature of God and human passions.  Doing this may give the impression that God may not in fact possess passions or  emotions.  This notion greatly limits God's personality, traditionally defined as intellect, sensibility and will.  And so I do not use this category at all, but maintain that God’s passions are literal (see Bullinger includes it on pp. 882, 883).


8.       Zoomorphism:  An explicit or implicit comparison of God (or other entities) to the lower animals or parts of the lower animals (see Bullinger, pp. 894, 895;  Bullinger lists this under anthropomorphism).


“In the shadow of your wings I used to rejoice.”  (Ps. 63:8)


Of course, God is not a bird with wings.  Divine protection is frequently

expressed in zoomorphic terms,  e.g., trusting under the shadow of his wings.  It speaks of safety and security.


N.B.  Often animals take on a symbolic significance.  Bullinger cites Genesis 4:7 (“Sin crouches at the door”) as an example of personification.  Although the verb rabats, “to couch,” may signify human activity, it more frequently is used of animals, especially of lions, ready to pounce.  Moreover,     the figure should also be interpreted in light of the command to mankind to have dominion over the animals.  If so, then God is commanding Cain to rule over sin which threatens him like a lion.  If this interpretation is right, the figure employed is a zoomorphism.


We can see by this that zoomorphism is not limited to descriptions of God.  Psalm 139:9 says, “If I take the wings of the dawn, and settle in the remotest part of the sea,”  comparing the rays of the sun to wings of a bird that fly from the east and land in the distant west.  His point in the context is that no matter how fast or far he might “fly” (i.e., with the speed of light) God is always there.


9.       Proverb: (from pro + verbum = more at word); a brief popular witticism; a specific illustration to signify a general truth      about life.  “The wit of one is the wisdom of many”  (see Bullinger, pp. 755‑767).  The idea of comparison is often explicit (“like father‑‑like son”), but more often subtle.


“Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Samuel 10:11)


The action of Saul is like that of the prophets‑‑but he is the king.  The axiom is that they are amazed over his reversal of roles.  The comparison idea comes through clearly in an analysis of the usage of masal.  Psalm 49, a wisdom psalm, uses the verb in the repeated expression that the worldly man “is like” the beast that perishes.


“The fathers eat the sour grapes,

   but the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  (Ezek. 18:2)


The comparison is clear in the figure; the general truth expressed by the saying is that children unjustly receive the penalty earned by parents.


Proverbs are very complex in Hebrew literature.  The student of the Bible must research them further, especially when studying a book like Proverbs.  Proverbs will not figure predominantly in the study of the Book of Psalms, however.


10.     Idiom: the regular occurrence of figures of speech.  Any figure (including those to follow) can become idiomatic when by frequent use it achieves lexical status.  Bullinger offers many examples of idiomatic expressions of the Bible such as “breaking bread,” “open the mouth,” “the Son of Man,” “turn to ashes,” “three days and three nights” and many more (see Bullinger, pp. 819‑860).  An idiom is also called a dead metaphor, low figure, or a common use of a figure.  It may be easily activated if used in a fresh way. 


Even though idioms may be readily classified as idioms, the expositor will still have to evaluate what figure originally was involved.  Once this has been done, the interpretation will apply to subsequent usages.  For example, “way” is idiomatic.  It may also be metaphorical (“way” or “road” compared to pattern of life), a basic point that often needs to be made.  Do not assume biblical idioms are generally understood.



II.  Figures Involving Substitution


11.              Metonymy:  Change of Noun (or any idea), the change of a word naming an object for another word closely associated with it.  From meta indicating “change” and onoma meaning “a name, noun”; but a  metonymy can word with a verb as well, or a whole line.  The substitution of some attributive or suggestive word for what is meant.  For example, “crown” for “royalty,” “mitre” for “bishop,” “brass” for “military officer,” “pen” for “writer,” “bad hand” for “poorly-formed characters.”  In contrast to many of the above figures which are based on resemblance, metonymy is founded on relationship.  Whereas in figures based on resemblance, that to which a comparison is made is imaginative; in metonymy the word that triggers an association is historical reality--there really is a crown, a mitre, brass, pen, and the like.  But much more is meant.


This is important, because you will have the most difficulty in distinguishing metonymy from hypocatastasis.  If we say,      “the White House said today,” that is a metonymy, “White House” being substituted for the President in the White House. But there is a White House.  If we say “Uncle Sam wants you,” we have a hypocatastasis.  There is no Uncle Sam.  The letters U.S. have been taken and compared to a person (actually a personification as well).


Bullinger analyzes metonymy into four kinds; viz., of the cause, of the effect, of the subject, of the adjunct.  These are helpful, but it will be seen that the analysis cannot always fit neatly into one of them alone (see Bullinger, pp. 538‑608).


a.         Metonymy of the Cause:  When the writer states the cause but intends the effect (Bullinger, 540‑560).  The way to test this is that if you call something a metonymy of cause you must state what the intended effect would be.


Examples where the instrument is put for the effect:


“And the whole earth was of one lip.” (Gen. 11:1)


The verse means that everyone spoke the same language.  “Lip” is the cause, the instrument--so the expositor must state the effect, “language.”


“At the mouth of two or three witnesses”  (Deut. 17:6)


The intended meaning is the testimony of the witnesses; “mouth” is the cause, the instrument of giving testimony.


Examples where the thing or the action is put for the effect:


“Pour out your anger upon the nations.” (Ps. 79:6)


“Anger” is the emotion behind the judgment.  The psalmist wants God to pour out (also a figure, an implied comparison) acts of judgment.  So the cause is stated, the effect--judgment--is meant.


“Continue your loyal love to those who know you.” (Ps. 36:10)


The attribute is stated, but the spiritual and material blessings that God’s loyal love brings are intended.  In most cases the attributes of God will be metonymies of cause, because the communication of those attributes is meant (hence: communicable attributes).


Example where the person acting, the agent or actor, is put for the effect:


“They have Moses and the Prophets.”  (Luke 16:29)


What is meant is that they have the Scriptures that Moses and the Prophets wrote.  The cause is stated, the effect is meant.  It is a way of saying two things at once; it stresses the authority by giving the identification of the authors, but it clearly indicates that Scripture is meant (they do not have Moses).


b.         Metonymy of the EffectWhen the writer states the effect but intends the cause producing it (Bullinger, pp. 560‑567).


Sometimes one line of poetic parallelism will give both the metonymy of cause and the metonymy of effect to express the complete idea: “Then he will speak (cause) to them in his anger, and terrify (effect) them in his fury.”  (Ps. 2:5).


Examples where the effect is put for the thing or action producing it:


“Entreat the LORD your God, that he may take away from me this death only.”  (Exod. 10:17)


Locusts!  That is what the Pharaoh wanted removed.  But if they were allowed to remain, they would utterly destroy the land and its inhabitants.  To make the request more vivid he substitutes the effect for the cause.


“Cause me to hear joy and gladness.” (Ps. 51:10[8])


The entire line is a metonymy of effect.  The psalmist desires to hear the oracle of forgiveness from the prophet.  The effect of being forgiven is that the psalmist can once again join the congregation with shouts of praise to God and hear all the congregational rejoicing.  He wants both to be forgiven and to enter the praise; he states the effect and implies the cause.


Example where the effect is put for the material object from which it is produced:


“You split the fountain and the flood.” (Ps. 74:15)


He split the rock in two, and water came out.  The use of metonymies here is very economical, for it is obvious that God did not split the water.  The reader would know that the cause, the rock, is intended, but the effect, water from the rock, is stated.  “Fountain” and “flood” are also figurative expressions of water.  So the line is “saying” far more than what is literally expressed.


Example where the effect is put for the instrument or organic cause:


“Awake, my glory”  (Ps. 57:9[8])


The stated effect is “glory”; the intended cause is the tongue that sings praises to glorify God.  It is also possible that “glory” represents the real person (compare Exodus 33:18, “show me your glory,” which may mean “show me yourself” [ = LXX], the real you).


Example where the effect is put for the person or agent producing it:


“But you, O LORD, be not far off;

   O my help, hasten to my assistance.”  (Ps. 22:19[181)


The stated effect is help, what the psalmist will receive.  The intended cause is the LORD.


c.         Metonymy of the Subjectwhen the subject or thing is put for the attribute or adjunct of it, i.e., the place or the container is put for that which is contained (Bullinger, pp. 567‑587).


Examples where the container is put for the contents:


“The grave cannot praise you.” (Isa. 38:18)


This is a common motif in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The prophet means that a dead person in the grave cannot praise God.  To use the word “grave” heightens the tension and motivates God to keep the individual alive to praise Him.


“You prepare a table before me” (Ps. 23:5)


The stated subject‑idea is “table,” but the intended ideas are food and drink on the table.  The literal meaning of preparing a table, i.e., carpentry, would be most inappropriate here, for the psalmist is enumerating the LORD's spiritual and physical provisions for life.


“The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness.”  (Ps. 29:8)


As a metonymy of subject “wilderness” signifies the flora and fauna in the wilderness.  In the sentence “voice of Yahweh” is also figurative, either a metonymy of cause for the storm (God commanded it), or hypocatastasis for the similarity of thunder to a voice.


Examples where the thing or action is put for that which is connected with it (the adjunct):


“Soul” [if that is the translation, which is a misleading translation of the Hebrew word vp,n,, nephesh,  that means the whole person, body and soul] for desires, appetites; “heart” for thoughts, understanding, courage, will; “kidneys” for conscience, affections, passions; “liver” for emotions, center of immaterial part (see Bullinger, pp. 567‑570; see also Hans W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament).


“You are near in their mouth (i.e., words [met. of  cause]) but far from their kidneys.”                         


            The Hebrews associated the visceral organs with the will and the emotions,  much like the modern western world would use “heart” for strong will (“believe with your heart”) or strong affection (“love with all my heart”).  All these we classify as metonymy of subject, and then interpret the corresponding adjunct‑‑will, desire, thoughts, etc.


Example where the possessor is put for the thing possessed:


“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  (Acts 9:4)


The stated subject‑idea is “me,” i.e., Jesus; but the intended idea is His Church.  The point is a common one in Scripture‑‑to persecute the Church is to persecute Christ.


Examples where the sign is put for the thing signified:


“The scepter shall not depart from Judah.” (Gen. 49:10)


The point of the oracle is that Judah (here the tribe and not the patriarch [met. of cause]) will retain the tribal supremacy or rulership.  The sign of the rulership is a scepter, so we classify that as metonymy of subject because it signifies far more than (literally) retaining a scepter.


Kiss the son”  (Ps. 2:12)


In this example we have a verbal idea used as a metonymy.  This is not too common, but does happen.  The stated idea of kissing the son is intended to convey the adjunct, that is, what is connected to the act‑submission, showing homage.  “Son” also is figurative in the psalm, an implied metaphor here, but stated metaphor earlier in the passage (“you are my son”).


d.       Metonymy of Adjunct: The writer puts the adjunct or attribute or some circumstance pertaining to the subject for the subject (Bullinger, pp. 587-608).


Example where the attribute is put for the thing or object:


“Then shall you bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.” (Gen. 42:38)


Now we have the opposite of the metonymy of subject. Here the adjunct‑‑gray hairs‑‑is put for the subject‑‑old Jacob.  Obviously more than the gray hairs will be brought down to the grave (“grave” is a metonymy of subject for death).


Example where the time is put for the thing done in it:


“For the shouting for your summer”  (Isa. 16:9)


The intended idea is the harvest that takes place in the summer.  By substituting summer the prophet has economized his description and conveyed more than “harvest” alone would convey.  “Summer,” the time of the harvest, is an adjunct idea (something descriptive connected to the idea).


Example where the contents are put for the container:


“And when they had opened their treasures”  (Matt. 2:11)


They opened the chests that were holding the treasures.  Here the adjunct is stated (contents of the containers) but the subject is meant (containers).


Example where the appearance of a thing is put for the thing itself:


“His enemies shall lick the dust.”  (Ps. 72:9)


This is a vivid description of the defeat of enemies.  The intended subject‑idea is that the enemies be defeated, be in a state of humble prostration; but the stated description is an adjunct of that defeat.


Example where the thing signified is put for the sign:


“because the separation is on his head”  (Num. 6:7)


This expression comes from the chapter on Nazirite vows in which the person would not cut his hair.  The intended sign of the vow would be uncut hair (the subject), but the thing that is signified is stated--separation.  “Separation” is not a metonymy of effect, because that would say that long hair causes the vow.


Example where the Name of a person is put for the person:


“May the name of the God of Jacob protect you.”  (Ps.  20:2)


The stated title is “name”; but the intended meaning is the LORD Himself, or better, all the attributes of the LORD.   This would be the same for “ask anything in my name.”


12.     Synecdochethe exchange of one idea for another connected idea.  In this figure one word receives something from another which is unexpressed but associated with it because it belongs to the same genus.  Like metonymy the figure is based on a relationship rather than a resemblance.  But whereas in metonymy the exchange may be made between related words belonging to different genera (and so only loosely connected by contact or ascription). in synecdoche the exchange is made between two words related generically.  For example, “ends of  the earth” as a metonymy of subject would mean the people living in the ends of the earth, but as a synecdoche it would mean distant geographical locations as part of a larger mass of land--soil, not people.    


As a general guideline, one may use synecdoche for figures that are actually a part of the whole, or the whole for a part--more strictly connected to the thing intended than a metonymy would be.  The use of Genus and Species may not be as frequent as Whole and Part, but is serviceable for those things actually related generically.


a.       Synecdoche of the Genus: The genus is substituted for the species: e.g., weapon for sword, creature for man, arms for rifles, vehicle for bicycle (Bullinger, pp. 613‑656).


Words of wider meaning for a narrower sense:


“The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” (Isa. 40:5)


The general word “flesh” is used in place of the specific idea “mankind” (they stand in a genus‑species relationship).  Metonymy will not work (cause? effect? subject? adjunct?); if you think it might be a metonymy, you would need to state the intended idea to substantiate it.


“Preach the gospel to every creature.”  (Mark 16:15)


The stated genus is “creature”; the intended species is “people.” Recall how St. Francis took this literally.


“All” for the great part:


All the people were gathered to Jeremiah.” (Jer. 26:9)


This use of “all” might just as easily be handled as a lexical matter.  The stated genus here is “all the people,” but the intended sense is “the greater number of the people.”


“All” for all kinds:


“It contained all fourfooted animals.”  (Acts 10:12)


One would doubt that the vision contained all fourfooted animals.  What is meant no doubt is that all kinds of four‑footed animals (i.e., every kind) were represented.


Universal for a particular:


“Saul said nothing that day.” (1 Sam. 20:26)


The synecdoche is “nothing,” but the intended meaning is “nothing about David.” We find even in English that universals most often are intended to signify something more specific.  I am reminded of the line attributed to Yogi Berra, “Nobody goes there anymore, the place is too crowded.”



b.       Synecdoche of the Species: The species is substituted for the genus, a part for the whole; e.g., bread for food, cutthroat for assassin (Bullinger, pp. 623-635).


Words of a narrower sense for a wider meaning:


“I will not trust in my bow, neither shall my sword save  me.” (Ps. 44:7 [6])


This type of synecdoche is more helpful exegetically.  In this psalm “bow” and “sword” are stated, but the intended meaning is “weapons.”

The meaning then is broader than the stated figures‑‑but includes them.


Species for genus proper:


“A land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8, 17)


Often a tour bus in Israel will take its people to a location where there are cows and beehives in a field and then quote this verse.  But much more is meant: the intended genus is all luxurious foods.


“Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matt. 6:11)


The intended meaning is “basic food.” “Daily bread” is a species of the genus food.



c.       The Whole is put for the Parts:  (Bullinger, pp. 636‑640).  Many of the samples listed in Bullinger might better be treated as lexical matters, especially when “all” is used for parts.


“Behold, the world has gone after him.”  (John 12:19)


The synecdoche of the whole is “world”; the intended meaning (the part) is people of all sorts.


Many of these figures also involve metonymy of  subject‑‑the container for the contents.  Usually it is enough to classify it is a metonymy and then explain the meaning.  That explanation will show that the whole is put for the part.  It is worth noting that synecdoche is also frequently hyperbolic, or even understatement.


“And he shall serve him forever.”  (Ex. 21:6)


The whole is “forever”; the intended part is “as long as the slave lives.”  But again, this may be a lexical matter, or the way it has been translated that has to be discussed.


d.       The Part for the Whole e.g.,  sail for ship, canvas for  sail (Bullinger, pp. 640‑656).  These could also be classified under “species for genus,”  moreover, many of these are close to metonymy.  This is the most common use of synecdoche.


Part of man for the whole man:


“Their feet run to evil.”  (Prov. 1:16)


The part stated is the “feet”; the intended whole is “their entire bodies” = evil people.  The point is that heart and soul they are into evil deeds.


“The one who lifts up my head.”  (Ps. 3:4 [3])


For the stated part, “head,” the meaning is the whole person in dignity.  But “to lift up the head” may better be explained as either metonymy of effect or adjunct, i.e., restoration to dignity and honor.


A part of the thing for the whole thing:


“Your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.” (Gen. 22:17)


The stated part is “gate.” But the intended whole is the city.  As a synecdoche “gate” represents brick and mortar‑‑the actual city.  If you think gate means people in the gate, then that is metonymy of subject, because people and gate are not generically connected.


An integral part of men for others associated:


“Before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, stir up your  might.” (Ps. 80:2)


By these parts the psalmist means the northern tribes, southern tribes, and tribes of Transjordan.  In other contexts the patriarchal names could be metonymies of cause (e.g., “Judah gathered against him” means either the descendants of Judah [met. of cause] or the people living in Judah [met. of subject]‑‑but not Judah himself.  Words like “seed” and “sons of” will receive similar considerations.


13.     Merismthe use of two opposite statements to signify the whole; e.g., day and night, springtime and harvest, hell and high water (Bullinger, p. 435).  Note that Bullinger lists these passages under synecdoche, for merism is a kind of synecdoche.  But we shall use a separate category.


“You know when I sit down and when I get up.” (Ps. 139:2)


The ideas of “sitting down” and “rising up” are opposites; the intended whole is all the activities with reference to time‑‑including sitting down and getting up.  It means, “You know every move I make”--including these of course.   Here the expressed ideas are indeed literal, but more is meant.


“If I ascend to heaven, You are there;

If I make my bed in  Sheol, You are there.”  (Ps. 139:8)


“Heaven” and “Sheol” are opposites; the intended whole is universal

space and all the situations in it.  This line, then, expresses a vertical merism-‑everywhere from heaven above to Sheol below.


“From the rising of the sin to the place where it sets,

the  name of the LORD is to be praised.”  (Ps. 113:3).


This verse could be interpreted in one of two ways: it could mean everywhere‑‑from east to west; or, it could mean all the time‑‑from sunrise to sunset (“the place” is added by the NIV, the Hebrew simply having “its going in”).


14.     HendiadysTwo for One, the expression of one idea through two formally coordinate terms joined by “and,” instead of a noun and an adjective, or a verb and an adverb.  One component specifies the other   (Bullinger, pp. 657‑672).


“I will greatly multiply your pain and your conception.” (Gen. 3:16)


Two nouns are joined with a conjunction, but the next line clarifies it is a hendiadys: “in pain you shall bring forth children.” So the single idea is painful labor in bearing and rearing children (“conception” would have to be a synecdoche, a part for the whole process, since there is no pain in conception).


“My soul shall be satisfied with fat and fatness.” (Ps. 63:6[5])


The single idea is expressed better by making one of the nouns a modifier: “abundant fatness.”  This is how one tests the category.


“But Abel, he also brought from the firstborn of his flock and from the fat of them.”  (Gen. 4:4).


I have rendered this very literally so you can see the starting point of the interpretation.  Our interpretation would signify: “he also brought the fattest firstborn of his flock.”


“Who is like Yahweh our God? He makes high to sit." (Ps. 113:4).


The text has a participle followed by an infinitive; the hendiadys should

 be given a smooth reading‑‑“He sits on high.”  The idea of “sitting” is anthropomorphic as well, signifying in the idea of sitting enthroned his dominion over the earth.


15.     Euphemismthe substitution of an inoffensive or mild expression for an offensive one (Bullinger, pp. 684‑688).


“Then his wife said to him, Do you still hold your integrity?  Bless (= curse) God and die.”  (Job 2:9)


The text has substituted the word “bless” because it is more appropriate

with “God”; but “curse” is clearly required in the context.  Probably most

of the euphemisms have entered the text through scribal activity and were  not part of the original writing.  But since they exist, they must be understood.


16.     Apostrophea turning aside from the direct subject‑matter to address another who may be present in fact or in imagination (Bullinger, pp. 901‑905).


David turns from his prayer in trouble to address those who had brought the trouble upon him: “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity.” (Ps. 6:9[8]).


“Your glory, O Israel, is slain upon your high places . . . .  You mountains of Gilboa . . .” (2 Sam. 1: 19‑21)


“When Israel went forth out of Egypt . . . What ails you, O sea, that you flee?”   (Ps. 114:1‑5)


17.     Type:  a divinely prefigured illustration of a corresponding reality (called the antitype) (Bullinger, p. 768).  Typology is a form of predictive prophecy, the major difference being that the passage can only be understood as prophetic once the fulfilling antitype has come into full view.  This topic will be discussed at length in the notes on the royal psalms.


“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Ps. 22:2 [1])


The words of the psalm hyperbolically describe the suffering of David, but become historically true in Jesus.  Several of the verses from this psalm are used in the New Testament to describe the sufferings of Jesus.



18.     Symbol: a material object substituted for a moral or spiritual truth, a visible sign of something invisible.  The visible sign stands as a constant resemblance to some spiritual truth.


“I will appoint you . . . a light to the nations.”  (Isa. 42:6)


“Light” becomes a symbol for spiritual and moral instruction (contrast “darkness” in the next verse).  Actually, this symbol originated as a figure of comparison.


19.     Irony: the expression of thought in a form that conveys its opposite (from eironeia = dissimulation).  The word’s meaning is reversed by juxtaposing it into a semantic field of thought inappropriate to the speaker and/or subject.  By this casting of the word into an obviously inappropriate context the writer stimulates a mental response (Bullinger, pp. 807‑815).


In Greek comedy the character called the eiron was a “dissembler” who characteristically spoke in understatement and deliberately pretended to be less intelligent than he was, yet triumphed over the alazon‑‑the self‑deceiving and stupid braggart.   In most of the diverse critical uses of the term “irony” there remains the root sense of dissimulation, or of a difference between what is asserted and what is actually the case (Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms).


“Where are their gods, their rock in whom they trusted?” (Dt. 32:32)


The word “rock” (a hypocatastasis indicating strength and stability) is used here with the opposite intention.  Their gods lack stability and are not dependable.


“Cry louder, for he is a god.”  (1 Kings 18:27)


Obviously Elijah did not believe that Baal was a god, for if he was a god they would not have had to cry louder.  The point of the irony is that they should recognize that he is no god, and stop crying out to him.  The whole line is also an example of mockery (see below).


20.     ChleuasmosMocking, an expression of feeling by mocking and jeering (Bullinger, p. 942).


“He who sits in the heavens laughs,

The LORD holds them in derision.”  (Ps. 2:4)


In addition to forming chleuasmos, this line is boldly anthropomorphic, both in the expression of sitting and of  laughing/mocking.  The line means that God considers their futile plan utterly ridiculous.


21.     Maledictio:  Imprecation, an expression of feeling by way of a malediction or execration (Bullinger, p. 940).  See the discussion of the imprecations in the notes on lament psalms and prayers.


“When he shall be judged, let him be condemned,

                             and let his prayer become sin;

Let his days be few,

                             and let another take his office;

Let his children be fatherless,

                             and his wife a widow;”  (Ps. 109:7f)


The psalmist is filled with zeal for God’s program, and so prays for divine judgment on those who oppose it.  The judgment should take the form of graphic curses; but curses are only effectual if they are God's will.



III.   Figures Involving Addition or Amplification



22.     ParallelismParallel Lines, the correspondence of one verse or line with another (for full discussion see the introductions to the Psalms).   Be careful in using Bullinger because he discusses these differently (pp. 349‑362).  We would follow the classifications given in Anderson’s commentary of the Psalms.


23.     Repetitionthe repetition of the same word or words in the passage.  This phenomenon has many variations; and the expositor must state the type and purpose of repetition  (see Bullinger, pp. 189-263, which a rather extended section).


“Whom shall he teach knowledge  . . . for it is precept upon precept, precept

upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little . . . .”  (Isa. 28:10)


“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”  (Ps. 22:2[1])


The intense pathos of the verse is enhanced by the repetition beyond what one expression would convey.  Note also the irony--my God should not be forsaking me.


24.     Paronomasiathe repetition of words similar in sound and frequently in sense or origin as well (Bullinger, pp. 307-320).  If the words are etymologically connected, then it is a paronomasia in the classical sense; if the words are not so related, then it is a loose paronomasia, or, phonetic word          play.  You really need to work with Hebrew to notice this figure.


“Now the earth was waste and void.”  (Gen. 1:2)


The two words are tohu wabohu, a phonetic word play.  They sound like they might be related, but they are from different words.  The catch-phrase assists the memory and organizes the chapter.


“Therefore, the name of it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused (balal, i.e., turned into a babble) their language” (Gen. 11:9).


The name Babel is not etymologically related to the Hebrew verb balal, “to confuse”--they are different languages.  Bab-ili is a Babylonian word that means “gate of God”; but the verb in Hebrew captures the sounds of the name and makes a comment about it in the context.


“God has taken away (’asaph) my reproach; and she called his name Joseph (yoseph), saying, ‘May Yahweh add (yoseph) to me another son’.”  (Gen. 30:23, 24)


The paronomasia yoseph is a true one, being both etymologically connected (from yasaph) and morphologically identical‑‑both are hiphil jussives meaning “may he add.”  But the paronomasia with ‘asaph is merely a phonetic wordplay, in spite of attempts by some scholars to trace the root of “Joseph” to ‘asaph.


25.     Acrostic: repetition of the same or successive letters at the beginnings of words or clauses (Bullinger, pp. 180‑188).


Psalm 119 is the passage with which most people are familiar;  each line of each section begins with the sequential letters of the alphabet.  In Psalm 34, each verse is begun with a letter of the alphabet in sequence, omitting the waw and ending with verse 21.  Verse 22, beginning with a pe’, is outside the series and probably stressed.  See also the Book          of Lamentation; each chapter has 22 verses for the sequence of the alphabet, but the third chapter triples each letter’s use.  Acrostics served mnemonic purposes as well as rhetorical ones.


26.     Inclusio: the rhetorical figure in which a literary unit begins and ends with the same (or similar) word, phrase, or clause.  This repetition serves as a framing device, iterating the theme of the section.  It usually appears with chiastic constructions.


“O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth!”  (Ps. 8:2[l] and 10[9])


“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”   and

 . . .  “You are my God.”  (Ps. 22:2[l] and 11[10])


27.     Hyperbole: the use of exaggerated terms for the purpose of  emphasis or heightened effect; more is said than is literally meant (Bullinger, pp. 423‑428).


“The cities are great, and walled up to heaven.”  (Deut. 1:28)


The intent of the statement is that the cities are very high, formidable and awesome.


“I am worn out from groaning;

                             all light long I make my bed swim with weeping

                                                and drench my couch with tears.” (Ps. 6:6).


Flooding and drenching the bed with tears is probably not literally true.  But it certainly does signify a night of intense pain and uncontrollable weeping.



IV.   Figures Involving Omission or Suppression



28.     Ellipsis:  Omission, the omission of a word or words in a sentence (Bullinger, pp. 3‑113).


“When you shall make ready [       ] upon your strings.” (Ps. 21:13[12])


“Your arrows” is not in the text; it must be supplied from the context.  Sometimes words are left out because they are unnecessary to the context; other times they are left out for emphasis, such as in the next sample.


“there is in my heart [          ] like a burning fire” (Jer. 20:9b).


The NIV supplies the omitted subject: “your word is in my heart.” The context shows that this is the correct and most important subject.


29.     Aposiopesis:  Sudden Silence, the breaking off of what is being  said, with sudden silence (in anger, in grief, in deprecation, in promise) (Bullinger, pp. 151-154).


“My soul is greatly troubled; but You, O LORD, how long‑‑?”    (Ps. 6:3)


The sentence is not complete because of the intense emotion involved.  The psalmist simply breaks off the sentence and leaves it all in the care of the LORD.  Another good example is Isaiah 1:13 which expresses how “fed up” the LORD is with Israel’s hypocritical worship‑‑although the NIV smooths it out quite a bit.


32.     Erotesisalso called Rhetorical Question, Interrogating, the asking of questions without expecting an answer (to express affirmation, demonstration, wonder, exultation, wishes, denials, doubts, admonitions, expostulation, prohibitions, pity, disparagements, reproaches, lamentation, indignation, absurdities--you must decide which of these is the point [see samples in Bullinger]).  By using the figure one seeks to persuade an audience to adopt a point of view.  The response desired must be guessed at and validated from the composition (Bullinger, pp. 943‑956).


“Is anything too hard for the LORD?”  (Gen. 18:14)


The point of the question is that nothing is “too hard” (literally “marvelous, wonderful, surpassing”).  The question form is used to force Abraham and Sarah to realize the point.


“Who can find a virtuous woman?”  (Prov. 31:10)


The intention is to evoke a feeling of desire for  something so rare; it is not a literal question to be answered.  “Virtuous” in the line is a little misleading for Hebrew khayil, unless we think in terms of virtuoso.


“Why do the nations rage?”  (Ps. 2:1)


The psalmist is expressing amazement, possibly indignation, that the nations would rebel against the LORD.



33.     Meiosis: a be‑littleing of one thing to magnify another (also called litotes) (Bullinger, pp. 155‑158).


“And we were in our own sight as grasshoppers,

and so were we in their sight.” (Num. 13:33)


Note that this is also a simile, comparing people to grasshoppers.  The be-littleing is meant to enlarge the size and strength of the enemy.


34.     Tapeinosis: a lessening of a thing in order to increase it (Bullinger, pp. 159‑164).


“A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  (Ps. 51:19 [17])


We would have expected “you will joyfully receive.”  But an understatement is used to express two ideas: one idea is that God will receive and take pleasure in a broken heart‑‑that is the intended meaning; the other is that if one does not have a broken heart God will despise.  Of course, “broken” and “heart” are figures as well (hypocatastasis and metonymy respectively).



Summary and Illustration



There are several of the above figures of speech that can be easily confused at first glance.  The broader classification of the figures into four groups has proven helpful, for one may ask if the writer is comparing, substituting, adding, or omitting in the sentence.


The figures of comparison that appear most often are simile, metaphor, hypocatastasis (or implied metaphor), anthropomorphism and zoomorphism.  These essentially do the same thing, i.e., make a comparison; but they do it differently.  If we were to diagram how they work, we would have to represent the comparison of one genus and another.



GENUS                                    GENUS


 LORD                                       shield


The properties of one semantic field are transferred to another, forming a comparison, either stated or implied.  Many times the context will restrict or qualify the metaphorical language, limiting the range of the comparison or transference.  The task of the exegete is to determine the point of the comparison.  One way to do this is to write a new GENUS that would embrace both words, thus making them each species.  The above metaphor would be diagramed as follows:



                                                   (posited genus)


LORD                      =                         shield


The figures of substitution that demand attention are primarily the synecdoche and the metonymy.  The figure of synecdoche may be diagramed fairly easily because it involves the relationship of a GENUS (or WHOLE) and SPECIES (or PART).


GENUS                >       e.g., military weapons/

 peaceful implements


SPECIES              <       e.g., swords/ploughshares


So if the figure is synecdoche, one must think in terms of substitution in the direction of the genus or larger group to which the figure belongs, or the direction of the species (or part) intended by the mention of the genus.


One of the most common figures used in the psalms is the metonymy.  This is also a figure of substitution, but whereas the synecdoche is actually a part for the whole or the whole for the part, the metonymy is more loosely connected to the thing meant‑‑but it is connected, and this is where it differs from the figures of comparison.  With metonymy there is contiguity between the figure and the topic.  In the following diagrams I have tried to illustrate the four basic types (actually two types with reverse directions).  The sample figure is boxed.


CAUSE                     EFFECT


Moses          >      the Law Moses wrote


“They have Moses” is not to be taken literally.  They have the Scriptures that Moses wrote.  Thus, the cause (author) is stated, but the effect is meant.  Between an author and his literature there is a real connection, but not in the sense of a synecdoche.


       CAUSE                       EFFECT


the rock Moses hit      <        fountain



“You split the fountain” substitutes the word “fountain” for the rock that Moses struck, out of which came the fountain of water when he did it.  There is a real connection between the figure (fountain) and what is meant (rock) by it.


    SUBJECT                      ADJUNCT


       grave              >      the dead person in it


“The grave cannot praise you” substitutes the container for that which is contained in it (and so my diagram is designed to show the subject encompasses the reality meant).  There is a connection between “grave” and “dead”; but not a comparison.  “Grave” as a synecdoche would represent dirt, or the earth, or Sheol.


    SUBJECT                      ADJUNCT


  long hair signifying vow       <       separation



“The separation is on his head” substitutes a descriptive term for what is meant, the long hair of the vow.  The full statement would say that the long hair which represents his separation to the LORD is on his head.


In actual practice it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between these major types, but the more that one works with them the easier they come.  Of course, there will be times when different interpretations are possible, depending on how the passage is viewed.  The Lord’s Supper illustrates this, for a Roman Catholic position would take Jesus’ words “This is my blood” literally (yet with qualifications), a Lutheran  metonymically, and a Baptist metaphorically.




The Study of Textual Criticism






There are few aspects of exegesis that are more complicated and taxing than that of doing textual criticism.  It is the discipline that requires the exegete to know not only the languages, but all the information about the manuscripts and the versions as well as the scribal tendencies.  It also assumes that the textual critic will be familiar with the Bible, especially the literary characteristics and tendencies of each writer. Most students in seminaries and divinity schools are simply not prepared well enough for this work.  They could be, but curricula in these institutions has swung away from biblical and theological disciplines to an emphasis on training for a profession.  The additional emphasis is fine, and probably necessary--but not at the expense of the traditional disciplines. 


In his article entitled “The Textual Criticism of the Old Testament,” Harry Orlinsky wrote:


The past several decades have witnessed a flowering of Old Testament research under the influence largely of archeological discovery.  The Biblical lands, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt, coming as they did under the control of England and France, became fertile ground for the rediscovery by excavation of the Fertile Crescent of old.  And although the economy and social structure of the various parts of the Near East--as of the European powers--began to change in the twenties, thirties, and forties, so that England and France have been all but replaced by the authority of the United States and the Soviet Union, and such new political groupings as the United Arab Republic, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and Israel have come into being, with even the immediate end not yet in sight, enough archaeological work is still going on--in Israel more than in Transjordan and Iraq--to satisfy the desires of Biblical scholars, if not the needs of specialists in Biblical archaeology.


At about the same time, however, a new trend began to make itself felt in higher education on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean: the humanities and the social  sciences began to give way to the applied sciences.  The curricula of high schools and colleges generally became increasingly bereft of Latin and Greek and grammar--shades of days when a public school was sometimes called Latin school or grammar school!


The consequences for the textual criticism of the Old Testament were soon felt.  Here, on the one hand, the written and unwritten documents uncovered by archaeology were attracting the attention of the students of the Biblical world; and there, on the other hand, students of this same field of research found themselves more and more unable to handle the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, for they were entering and leaving their seminaries and Semitics departments with less direct knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin than the students of earlier decades.  We have gone a long way since Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, himself taught the freshman and other classes Hebrew, and in 1781 delivered his commencement address in Hebrew. (in The Bible and the Ancient Near East, ed. By G. Ernest Wright [Doubleday, 1965]).                     


In the years since Orlinsky wrote his article, things have not gotten any better; in fact, the study of Theology and Bible in general have been diminished over the years.  As a result, ministers and other educators today more than ever find themselves having to make critical decisions about translations, biblical interpretations, and major decisions about theology and ethics, all with less formal training in the disciplines to do so.   All that can be done in seminaries and graduate programs is to offer a survey of what the discipline of doing textual criticism would look like should someone actually learn it.   But seminary students need this survey, if for no other reason than to make them more careful in doing what exegetical work they do.  Because trained in it or not, they will have to deal with it.


The student’s first introduction to Old Testament textual criticism is usually baffling because of the amount of information that is necessary to understand what is going on.  There is a vast amount of literature on the various texts and text-types of the Old Testament, the different versions of the Old Testament, and the critical theories about such.  The little book by Ernst Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), provides a good introduction to all this material.  It is, though, a general survey.  But that is sufficient in seminary, because the purpose in studying this part of the discipline is not to make the students into a textual critic, but to make them aware of the text of the Bible--how it was written, how it was preserved, how reliable it is, and how to think through textual difficulties.  


Thinking through textual difficulties takes the most training.  It requires a good knowledge of the languages and then of the manuscript evidence--what the variations are.  This involves being able to read the apparatus in the foot notes of the Hebrew Bible and then evaluating the readings according to the canons of textual criticism.  You will only do a little of this, enough to make you aware of the process of thinking through a textual problem, so that when you read different versions or different commentaries you will be able to evaluate some of what they are saying.


The modern expositor does not have the luxury of avoiding this issue--unless that “expositor” (if the term applies) is planning to ignore the Bible.  The different versions of the Bible in English will make it necessary for you to say something significant about the changes in the readings.  Moreover, modern commentaries often change the text in their discussions.  You will have to determine if they are warranted, or if like scribes of old they are simply the preference for an easier reading by the commentator.  This matter, obviously, is at the base of all other disciplines in biblical and theological studies.


The task of the true textual critic, then, is to uncover, identify, or restore the original text of the Bible.  This is called “Lower Criticism.”  “Higher Criticism” deals with determining the author, date, purpose, and integrity of the books of the Bible, which is quite different.  “Textual Criticism” deals with manuscripts and versions of the Bible, and not, as some today think, with interpretation methods.   The reading in the bibliography below will be most helpful for any who wish to pursue this further.


But it must be reiterated--our purpose will be to survey the information about manuscripts, versions, and scribal activities, as well as the method for doing textual criticism, so that you will have a better understanding of the Holy Scriptures and how they have been preserved and translated.







Ap-Thomas, D. R.  A Primer of Old Testament Textual Criticism.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965.


Cross, F. M. and Talmon, S.  Qumran and the History of the Biblical Text.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.


Jellicoe, S.  The Septuagint and Modern Study.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.


Klein, R. W.  Textual Criticism of the Old Testament.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974.


Orlinsky, Harry M.  “The Textual Criticism of the Old Testament,” in The Bible and the Ancient Near East, edited by G. Ernest Wright.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1965.  Pp. 140-169.


Roberts, B. J.  The Old Testament Text and the Versions: The Hebrew Text in Transmission and the History of the Ancient Versions.  Cardiff: University of Wales press, 1951.


________.  “The Textual Transmission of the Old Testament,” in Tradition and Interpretation, edited by G. W. Anderson.  London: Oxford University Press, 1979. Pp. 1-30.


Thompson, J. A.  “Textual Criticism,” in Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplement.  Pp. 886-891.


Waltke,  Bruce K.  “The Textual Criticism of the Old Testament,” in Biblical Criticism: Historical, Literary and Textual, edited by R. K. Harrison, et. al.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.  Pp. 47-78.


Weingreen, J.  Introduction to the Critical Study of the Text of the Hebrew Bible.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.





The Hebrew Manuscripts


The manuscript evidence for the Hebrew text is rather late, but very well preserved.  Before 400 B.C. there is no extant manuscript (MS) of the Hebrew Bible, and so we are left to infer scribal practices from the Bible itself and from other ancient Near Eastern practices.  What can be readily demonstrated is that scribes had a determination to preserve the text.  The text survived through all the disasters and devastations because the books were considered sacred and the scribes insisted on accurate transmission.  There was a “psychology of canonicity” which fostered a care and a concern for the preservation of the sacred writings.  For a study of similar scribal care in the ancient world, see W. F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity, pp. 78-79; and K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament, p. 140.


But there was also the tendency in some scribal circles to revise the text.  They changed the script and the orthography according to literary conventions; they also changed linguistic features.  We know something of how the vocalization of Hebrew changed and can thereby discern such changes.  Moreover, the priests seem to have revised synoptic portions of the text in their teaching (compare Ps. 18 and 1 Sam. 22 in the Hebrew).  On top of all of this, there would have been the accidental errors such as dittography, haplography, and the like.


From 400 B.C. until the time of the standardization of the Hebrew Text in 70 A.D., the same tendencies continued.  The presence of a text-type among the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS; ca. 200 B.C. to 100 A.D.) identical with the one preserved by the Masoretes (whose earliest extant MS dates to ca. 900 A.D.) witnesses to the faithful preservation of the text.  We learn something of this process of preservation from the Rabbinic tradition (Talmud, Nedarim 37b-38a).


But there was also a tendency among scribes to revise.  The Sopherim (“scribes”) were “authorized revisers of the text” according to C. D. Ginsberg (in his Introduction to the Masoretico-Critico Edition of the Hebrew Bible [New York: KTAV, 1966], p. 307).  After the return from the captivity the scribes altered the script from the old form to the Aramaic form of writing.  But more importantly, some of the more liberal scribes altered the text for both philological and theological reasons.  They modernized the text by replacing archaic forms and constructions, they smoothed our difficulties, they supplemented the text with additions and glosses from parallel passages, and they substituted euphemisms for vulgarities, altered names of false gods, and safe-guarded the divine name by substituting vowels from other forms.


The result of all these tendencies was the emergence of three different recensions of the Bible: the text preserved by the Masoretes (the textus receptus), the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP), and the Septuagint (LXX)--all three of which are corroborated by the DSS.


Gesenius demonstrated that the agreements between SP and LXX can be explained by assuming a common ancestor.  This has been confirmed by the work of Cross on Samuel, and of Gerleman on Chronicles (Cross, Ancient Library of Qumran, p. 142; Gerleman, “Synoptic Studies in the Old Testament,” Lunds Universitets Arsskrift, p. 9).  The common ancestor probably existed in Palestine at the time of the Chronicler (400 B.C.).  This “old Palestinian recension” was brought to Egypt during the fifth century B.C. and was further vulgarized before it became the base of the LXX (ca. 300 B.C.).  It also survived in Palestine and became the base of SP.[1]


It may be that the “old Babylonian recension” (Cross’s description of the text that the Masoretes eventually used) was reintroduced into Palestine about the time of the Maccabees (ca. 160 B.C.).  What is clear is that in the Gospel times there was a fluid state of recensions in Palestine.  This is seen in the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament, Rabbinic literature, and apocryphal books.


The Rabbinic testimony is that there was a movement away from plurality of recensions to a standardization of the Hebrew Text.  The rules of biblical hermeneutics, compiled by Hillel the Elder, demanded a sacrosanct text.  The evidence points to the existence of an official text with binding authority from a time shortly after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.   Exegetical comments and hermeneutical principles enunciated by Zechariah ben ha-Kazzav, Nahum of Gimzo, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Ishmael, all presuppose a stabilized text, the Masoretic text type.  The Rabbis had settled on this conservative recension and adopted it for Judaism (conservative in that it made less changes and preserved more of the unusual and difficult things).      


The work of the scribes now changed from clarifying the text to standardizing and preserving it, even with the many archaic and difficult forms in it.  Because the scribes sought to conserve the text, no further developments of any significance occurred.


The work of conserving the text was the interest of the schools of families of Jewish scholars.  They represented symbolically the vowels and liturgical cantillations by diacritical marks.  They were known as “Masoretes” (Hebrew masar means “to hand down” by tradition); their tradition is called “Masorah”; and the text they preserved and vocalized is called the “Masoretic Text.”  The work of the family of Ben Asher of the school of Tiberias (a city on the western shore of Galilee) achieved prominence with the support of Maimonides in the eleventh century.


For a summary of the history of the printing of the Hebrew Bible, see N. H. Sarna, “Bible: Text,” in Encyclopedia Judaica 4 (1971):831-35.



Ancient Versions


The Septuagint.   Wurthwein provides a basic introduction to the Old Greek Old Testament.  To that outline I shall add some helpful background from other sources.  In general, we may say that the Torah or Law was translated into Greek between 295--247 B.C., the Prophets were translated before the end of the third century B.C., and the Hagiagrapha by 132 B.C.


Lagarde argued, apparently convincingly, that all extant manuscripts of the Old Greek translations go back to three recensions mentioned by Jerome, namely, the Egyptian by Hesychius, the Palestinian by Origen, and the Syrian by Lucien.  These three in turn go back to the original Greek version.


The two modern editions of the Greek are based on Lagarde’s theory and model.  The Cambridge Septuagint, containing the Pentateuch and historical books, presents Vaticanus (Codex B)  because it is the purest.  Gaps are filled in with Alexandrinus and Sinaiaticus.  It includes an immense Greek critical apparatus.  The Cambridge Septuagint has been preserved in a Greek-English Old Testament (Zondervan) that many check first as a time saving measure.  The other edition, Rahlf’s, is the Gottingen LXX; this is a critical issue, but generally comes back to B.  It does not have the Pentateuch and historical books.  Rahlf’s edition covers these parts.


Recensions of the Septuagint.   Waltke summarizes this thorny problem:


From his studies in Samuel--Kings, Cross concluded that the original LXX was revised no later than the first century B.C. toward a Hebrew text found in the Chronicler, some Qumran MSS, quotations of Josephus, the Greek minuscles boc2e2, and in the sixth column of Origen’s Hexapla, which is not Theodotionic but also Proto-Lucianic. This so-called Proto-Lucianic recension was then revised to the kai ge revision in favor of the Proto-Masoretic Text.  The third revision came in the second century A.D. by Aq. (Aquila) and Sym. (Symmachus), who revised the kai ge recension toward the Rabbinic Masoretic Text.  Barthelemy, on the other hand, contended that this Proto-Lucianic text is the original LXX, and thus envisions only two subsequent revisions.  But G. Howard contended that both these lacked definitive proof.


Waltke then demonstrates that the evidence in the Minor Prophets more conclusively shows such a revision of the Old Greek to the Proto-MT.  From it are the recensions of the second century A.D.  Aquila, a student of Aqiba, made a literal translation to suit his exegetical principles.  Symmachus tried more for the Greek idiom.  Theodotion’s version superseded the original translation in the editions of the LXX.


In the third and fourth centuries A.D., then, recensions of Hesychius, Origen, and Lucian appeared.  Origen’s fifth column of the Hexapla was influential on later copies of the LXX.  It was a text consistently corrected to the Hebrew textus receptus and therefore most corrupt.


Waltke concludes, “In the light of this history, Lagarde is perfectly correct in saying that, other things being equal, the Greek reading deviating from MT should be regarded as the original LXX.”


The Aramaic Targums.   The Aramaic translations of the Old Testament are less helpful for textual criticism.  They were standardized later in history, but more significantly they are paraphrastic in nature, containing haggadic material, modernizations of names, explanations of figurative language, etc.   Some of the Targumic materials are helpful, though, in understanding the official interpretations of the passage in the Synagogue.   This often has some bearing on the textual difficulty.  For a discussion of the Targums, see Wurthwein’s general introduction.


The Old Latin and the Vulgate The Old Latin is probably a Jewish translation based on the LXX.  The evidence for it is based not on a complete manuscript of it, but from manuscripts exhibiting a pre-Vulgate text, quotations in the Fathers, and marginal annotations in the Vulgate.


The Latin Vulgate was commissioned by Pope Damasus for Jerome (345-420).  Jerome attempted several approaches of revising the Latin texts, and eventually worked out a translation from the Hebrew Text.  His translation of the Psalms that is in the Vulgate (the so-called Gallican Psalter) was essentially drawn from the Hexapla.


Later, under the influence of the Jewish scholars at Bethlehem, Jerome produced a translation of the Psalms into Latin that is based on the Hebrew Text, called Psalterium iuxta hebraeos hieronymi, PIH.


The Syriac Peshitta.   This was the translation begun in Edessa, started in the first century A.D. for the Pentateuch, and completed by the end of the fourth century.  It appears to follow the Hebrew closely, but may have been translated from the LXX.  The Pentateuch, Isaiah, the Minor Prophets, and in part the Psalms, show the influence of the LXX.  Ezekiel and Proverbs are close to the Targums.  Job is literal.  Ruth is midrashic.  Chronicles is partially midrashic.


The division of the Syrian Christians into Nestorians and Jacobites meant separate versions of the Peshitta (“simple”) based on the earlier translation.






In addition to a knowledge of the history and development of the texts and versions, textual critics must be aware of the kinds of changes that have been made in the manuscripts if they are going to evaluate the problems.  The following outline will familiarize the readers with the scribal tendencies, but will not provide a thorough discussion of each.  For that, see the bibliography, but especially Klein, pp. 76-82, where these samples are discussed.


Unintentional Changes


1. Confusion of similar lettersAt times a textual difficulty arose because a scribe confused a letter in the reading.[2]  Note the difference in I Samuel 14:47:


MT:      “He pronounced (them) wicked” ( y r sh y ‘ )

LXX:    “He was victorious” (y w sh ‘ -- reading a w for an r )


2. Confusion of words that sound alike The scribe may have not heard the pronunciation of the word distinctly and mistook it for another word.  I Samuel 28:2 shows such a change:


MT:      “you”  (’attah)

LXX: “now” (apparently reading ‘attah)


3. Omission because of similar endings (homoeoteleutonThe eye of the scribe may have skipped from one ending or a word or a sentence to a similar one later on, leaving out the intervening material.  Observe how this happened in the MT of I Samuel 13:15:


MT:      “And Samuel arose and set out from Gilgal to Gibeah of Benjamin”

LXX: “And Samuel arose and set out from Gilgal-- and went on his way; but  the rest of the people went up after Saul to meet the soldiers.  Then they came from Gilgal--to Gibeah of Benjamin.”


4. Omission because of a similar beginning (homoeoarchton).  This is the same kind of error as the last, although less frequent.  The scribe’s eye may skipped from one beginning to the next, leaving out the intervening material.


5. Haplography or single writingThis refers to the single writing of two letters or words which appear together, but also to the accidental omission of letters or words.  I Samuel 17:46 has such a case:


LXX: “I will leave your corpses and the corpses of the Philistine army” (the words apparently coming from consonants p g r k)

MT      For the words in italics the MT only has one p g r.


6. Dittography or double-writing.    At times the scribe would copy over again some of the words that he had just finished.  A good example comes from the text of II Samuel 6:3-4:   


“And they made the ark of God ride on a new cart, and they took it away from the house of Abinadab which is on the hill.  Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, guided the--new cart, and they took it away from the house of Abinadab which is on the hill.”


That this is a dittography is supported by 4QSama and the LXX.


7. Incorrect word division.  The difficulty is more common in Greek manuscripts than in Hebrew because of the spacing.  The following example, however, is one which depends on reading the letter  h  as a suffix or as an article.


MT:      “And he built the city” (I Chron. 11:8  [w y b n   h ‘ y r])

LXX:    “And he built it a city” (II Sam. 5:9 [ w y b n h   ‘ y r])


8. Incorrect vocalization.  The vowel points record the traditional pronunciation, but at times this was missed, either by the Greek translators who were working from a manuscript without vowel points at all, or by the Masoretes themselves who may have mispointed it.  Psalm 130:4 has this problem:


MT:      “there is forgiveness that you might be feared” (tiwware’)

LXX:    “law” (the translator saw the consonants and assumed it was the common noun t w r ’  [tora], rather than a very rare, irregular verb he probably did not know).


9. Transposition of words or letters (metathesis).   The scribes at times got the letters reversed, changing the sense, as in I Samuel 17:39):


MT:      “and he endeavored unsuccessfully” ( w y ’ l  )--an awkward reading!

LXX:    “and he exerted himself” (apparently reading w y l ’ )


10. Substitution of synonyms.  The scribe’s memory may have accidently slipped as he put in a similar, perhaps more familiar word for the precise one.  I Samuel 10:25 has:


MT:      “each man to his home”

LXX:    “each man to his place” (also in 4QSama)


11. Assimilation of the wording in one passage to the slightly different wording in the context or in a parallel passage.  I Samuel 12:15 has:


MT:      “the hand of Yahweh will be against you and your fathers.”


The reading “fathers” is difficult.  LXXL has “your king.”  S. R. Driver suggests that the frequent use of “fathers” in verses 6-8 may have led to the change accidently.  In this kind of problem the exegete should be alert to frequent patterns and stylistic devices in the context.


12. Mistaken inclusion of marginal comments into the text.  S. Talmon (in Textus 4 [1964]:118) has illustrated this with Isaiah 24:4:


MT:      “the heights with the land (mourn)”

1QIsa    “the heights of the land (mourn)”


Talmon shows that above the line in the Qumran scroll a scribe wrote the word ‘m (if pointed ‘am, then “people”).  He thinks this was part of an alternate form of the line: “the people of the land (mourn).”  At a subsequent copying of this manuscript, the interlinear word was inserted into the text where it was thought to be the preposition ‘m (pointed ‘im), “with,” giving rise to the strange reading in the MT.


Intentional Changes


            There were scribes who occasionally felt compelled to correct what appeared to

them to be corruptions in the text.  The most reliable scribes tried to preserve the text even if they thought there were archaic or incorrect forms--but some were not so reserved in their work.


1. Changes in spelling or grammar.   Scribes who felt free to change the text tended to smooth out readings, making verbs agree grammatically with their subjects, for example.  Several minor additions might also be added to make a better, clearer reading.  Modern translations often do this as well, occasionally putting the additions in italics, but not always.


2. Harmonizations.   Scribes may add things to the text to harmonize the line with other indications in the context.  I Samuel 20:5 may be a good example; the context of verses 34-35 tells that David hid for three days.


MT:      “Let me hide in the open country until the third evening.”

LXX:    “Let me hide in the country until evening.”


3. Conflation of variant readings.   A scribe may include both variants without realizing only one was the original.  In the following verse, Ezekiel 1:20, the italicized words are missing in some Hebrew manuscripts, LXX, and Syriac.


MT:      “Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, wherever the spirit wanted to go, and the wheels rose along with them.”


4. Filling out names and epithets.   There are many rather involved textual problems with names in the Old Testament.  Scribes tended to give the fuller spellings of names, which in turn often led to conflated readings as well.  The following sample from II Samuel 3:3a is a thorny one:


MT:      “Chileab of Abigail ( k l ’ b    l ’ b y g l )  the widow of Nabal the Carmelite”

LXX:    “Dalouia the son of Abigaia the Carmelitess”


The other bits of evidence for this problem are as follows: I Chronicles 3:1 has the name as D n y ’ l  (“Daniel”);  the Latin Vulgate has “Cheloab”; the Syriac Peshitta has “Chelab”; Josephus has “Danielos”; and the DSS 4Q has  d l w y h  as does the LXX.


Either the boy had two names, or there has been a confusion by dittography.  One may posit an original name “Daniel” (laynd) as represented in I Chronicles 3:1.  Then, by dittography   d / l ’ b  crept into the text and  n y ’ l  dropped out or was replaced by the repeated writing.  This would explain the name “Dalouia” in the LXX and Qumran.  Then, the   d   in   d l ’ b  changed to k perhaps when the letters were written similarly in the Hasmonean period.  This gave rise to the MT reading of Chileab.


5. Supplying subjects and objects.   When the original text failed to mention explicitly the subject or the object, scribes tended to clarify them for the reader.  Wellhausen formed the rule that “if LXX and MT differ in respect of a subject, it is probable that the original text had neither” (see Driver, Notes on the Hebrew Text, p. lxii).


6. Expansion from parallel passages.   There were times when the scribe was familiar with passages elsewhere and that caused him to add to his text from the familiar parallel section.


7. Removal of difficult expressions.   This section pertains to matters of history, geography, or theology that seemed to the scribe incorrect or offensive.  One example is Job 1:5, 11 and 2:5, 9, where the expression “curse God” was the original.  The expression was offensive, and so was changed for the euphemism “bless God”--although the scribes knew it was “curse God.”


8. Replacement of rare words with more common ones.   Scribes might have a tendency to use a more familiar term in the copy.  Isaiah 39:1 seems to show such a case:


MT:      “[Hezekiah] became well” ( w y kh  z  q )

1QIsa   “[Hezekiah] became well” ( w y kh y h )


These samples provide a brief survey of the tendencies of the scribes in copying and translating manuscripts.  The selection of samples is in no way designed to prejudice the reader’s bias towards MT or LXX in any problem.  The scribal tendencies listed here are true of all copyists, ancient and modern.  Knowing what scribes do helps the exegete work through the problems in the Hebrew Bible with a good deal of confidence; consequently, in most cases the resolution of the problem will be fairly clear.









When working through a passage in the Bible the expositor is bound to come across several textual difficulties.  These will be obvious from the different ways that English Bibles translate the verse, or from the discussions in the commentaries.  Those that are major textual problems will have to be studied, in so far as the expositor is equipped to do that.  This may mean relying on the better commentaries for the discussion.


In the Hebrew Bible, however, the data is laid out pretty clearly in the footnotes (called the apparatus) and in the marginal notes (known as the Masorah, the traditional ideas of the Masoretes).  Knowing how to use this material is the easiest, quickest avenue to resolving any textual problem. 


Footnotes in the text of the Scripture direct the reader to the apparatus for the information.  There the material will be arranged verse by verse for easy reference.  A series of abbreviations and signs will indicate what versions and manuscripts read some variant.  If there is no footnote on a given verse, then the expositor may safely assume that in all the scores and scores of manuscripts in the various languages there is no variation.  It is amazing how few textual problems there are in the Old Testament passages, given the number of manuscripts in all the languages!  People sometimes think the verses are just loaded with problems.  But, for example, in the Pilgrim Psalms, Psalms 120-134, there may be one, two, or three major textual problems in each of the fifteen psalms, and these can be settled with confidence by following sound principles.[3]  Occasionally there are verses that have problems on several of the words..  But the text for the most part is in excellent shape.  And where there is a textual problem, it is not a question of whether or not we have the original, it is a question of which it is.


Sometimes the editors of the Hebrew Bible put suggestions in the footnotes; these are called conjectural emendations--how they think the text should be changed.  There is no manuscript evidence for these; they simply reflect what modern scholars think the text should have.  Conservative textual critics will read these, but hardly ever accept them since there is no evidence for them whatsoever.  Some of the more critical commentaries (like the old ICC series) adopted most of these and set about re-writing a good deal of text.


Not all textual difficulties are worth studying.  One has to develop a sense or an instinct for this (which is why we say exegesis is both a skill and an art).  If the variants are minimal, or make no difference in meaning or translation, they need not be studied.  For example, if the noun is singular with a collective meaning, and a version makes it plural, this would be of no serious consequence.  Or, if the variant has hardly any evidence--say only one late version, then this too may be passed over most of the time.  As a general rule, if there is manuscript evidence, and the variant makes a difference, then it must be looked at closely.


When you survey English Bibles or the Prayer Book you will be able to tell right away where the major ones are.  And whether you are good at textual criticism or not, you will have to be able to say something about the difference.


The method for doing textual criticism involves external evidence, internal evidence, and intrinsic evidence.  For those who can work with the languages the process will be complete and much easier.  For those who must rely on secondary sources, being aware of the process should help in discerning whether a commentary is following sound procedure or not.  Too often commentators, like more liberal scribes, want to smooth out the text to where it makes better sense to them.  That may not be the right thing to do.


External Evidence


External Evidence refers to the assessment of the manuscripts and versions that have the various readings--which are older, which are better.  Rather than simply having a chart of the major manuscripts and mechanically adding up the witnesses on each side, Old Testament textual work requires a little more individual evaluation.  It is true that the Masoretic Text (MT), our Hebrew text, is rugged and reliable, and usually the better reading.  But at times its readings may be too rugged and may not preserve the best reading (meaning, a word, a phrase, part of a word).  It is true that the Greek (generally referred to popularly as the LXX or Septuagint) is an inferior text type on the whole; but it may preserve the superior reading here or there and so cannot be swept aside in a cavalier fashion.  Other versions will have their bearing on the consideration as well, and each alignment of witnesses (manuscripts and versions) must be given careful evaluation. 


Even then, however, a decision is not normally made on the basis of external evidence alone.  Do not assume that what the MT has is correct and that it would require a mountain of evidence to dislodge it.  The Babylonian Text Type (that is, the proto-Masoretic text) was selected as the authoritative text because it was superior in the Torah.  It is clearly not superior in some of the other books.


The most important step in dealing with a textual problem is understanding the problem.  One cannot evaluate the evidence until all the variants have been translated and understood--how they interpret the verse.  Each has to be translated literally and analyzed carefully for grammar and syntax.  This should be sufficient to isolate the differences and identify the difficulty.  It will be seen that problems usually grew up where the Hebrew text was difficult, archaic, or rare. 


The apparatus of the recent Hebrew Bible will put the actual Greek forms from the Greek translation in the footnote, as well as the Syriac and the Aramaic.  The process involves understanding what these say (by translating and analyzing them), and then by attempting to discover what Hebrew form they might have been looking at to get what they have.   Older Hebrew Bibles (Kittel’s edition) and better commentaries, will try to reconstruct the Hebrew Vorlage for you, but not always.  Once you have put the form in Hebrew, then you can tell how it differs from the standard Hebrew text, if it does.


There are some shortcuts and time savers that expositors learn about in the process.  For example, there is a copy of the LXX available with an English translation (as you will see in some of the assignments).  This lets you see immediately the difference in the Greek.   But two cautions are in order here.  First, make sure you compare that English of the Greek to a fairly literal modern English translation of the Hebrew (like the New American Standard Bible) to see most clearly the difference.  And second, note that that column Greek-English Bible is simply one Greek manuscript--Vaticanus (Codex B).  It is undoubtedly the best, but may not always be correct.  So before relying on it completely, make sure that the Greek it is translating into English for you is the original Greek reading.  This can be done by checking the discussion in the commentaries.  


So once you lay out the two or three possible readings you will be able to evaluate them.  For example, in Psalm 127 the MT has “whose quiver is full” [of arrows that represent children].  The Greek has “whose desire is full.”  You cannot solve this without getting the Hebrew word for “quiver,” and then trying to see what Hebrew words the Greek translator might have been looking at to get “desire.”  You would find in the dictionary that there is a word for “desire” that has the same letters as the word for “quiver,” but not in the exact same order.  Now it will begin to look like there as a confusion of letters--but by whom?  That is where the next step will come in.  But this has to be laid out clearly first.


Evaluating the external evidence enables the exegete to make a preliminary judgment on the direction of the decision.  With the understanding of the problem in mind, an experienced textual critic will find it difficult not to be doing the internal evidence at the same time.  But the following suggestions should help the beginner to think through external evidence:


1)                  Remember that there are basically three text types--the Babylonian which is reflected in the Masoretic Text (our Hebrew Bible), the Palestinian which is reflected in the Samaritan Pentateuch, Dead Sea Scrolls, and other various minor witnesses, and the Egyptian which is reflected in the Old Greek, what we call the Septuagint.  Great caution must be exercised in sorting these families out, because sometimes there is later development in each toward the other.  For example, one has to be sure that the exact Old Greek is uncovered (and this involves comparing the Cambridge Septuagint with Rahlf’s), and then the later recensions have to be checked (in Fields) to see, for example, how Aquila changed the Greek to bring it into conformity with the authorized Hebrew text that had been established.  Actually, the whole process takes the shape of detective work, tracing clues to see where they lead.


2)                  The evaluation must consider the relative value of all these sources and the quality of them from book to book--so there is no simple answer.  It will take some time to learn this, but the Hebrew has been preserved well in certain books and not so well in others, and the Greek has been done better in some than in others (not all the same translators).  Generally, if the Hebrew and the Greek agree, that is fairly strong evidence for the original reading.  But if they have different readings, then one must consider all the evidence.


3)                  The other versions will have an important bearing on the information.  The Vulgate usually supports the MT, the Old Latin usually supports the Greek, and the Syriac may reflect a Palestinian tradition or the MT or the Greek--it should not be passed off too lightly in the material, although often it shows signs of smoothing the text.  The Dead Sea Scrolls provide a great amount of detail, and on the whole attests to the antiquity of the proto-Masoretic tradition--something the critical scholars denied for the longest time.  The Targum is of little help for textual criticism, except that it gives the understanding of the verse that was the accepted Jewish interpretation for the synagogue.  Most often it follows a paraphrastic translation rather than literal.




Internal Evidence


Once a preliminary evaluation has been made on the problem, the exegete must evaluate the matter internally.  This is essentially where the scribal tendencies are considered in the process of reasoning through what might have happened to come to a conclusion.  To be sure, this process might seem to be more subjective; but if it follows the accepted canons (rules) of textual criticism, the whole procedure can be  consistently maintained.  Unfortunately, translators and commentators often go against the canons of criticism and accept what they think is a better reading (i.e., it makes more sense to them).


So this step requires a knowledge of the kinds of errors that were made, either accidental errors or intentional changes.  It is not always easy to tell if the change was intentional or accidental.  A scribal change could be considered unintentional if we mean that the translator of an unpointed (no vowels) Hebrew manuscript made a choice for the translation on the basis of his knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, thinking that the word in question was a common word (that he knew well) but which in fact was a rare word (which he could never have known without some oral tradition).


It is hard to imagine the difficulty we would be in if it were not for Jewish oral tradition.  They preserved the text so accurately by memory that all the rare and difficult forms were preserved equally as well as the common and well-known.  Thus, the Masoretes were not inventing vowels or making up words (as the Greek did on occasion), but were inventing signs and marks to preserve what had been given to them.  For the reliability of this tradition, see James Barr, Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament.


When it comes to deciding on the correct reading, the textual critic is both scientist and artist--the decision will depend on both the knowledge of the data and how to use it as well as instinct and skill in understanding the work of the author.  The skill can only be developed with practice, and only on the basis of the knowledge gained by study.  Most students of the Bible will not develop the skill sufficiently to do this kind of work properly. 


But they should at least be familiar with the canons of textual criticism so that they can think clearly about the history and preservation of the text.  


1.         Where the Hebrew manuscripts and the ancient versions agree, it may be concluded with confidence that the original reading has been preserved.


It is always possible that a new manuscript will be found that might have a different reading, and it might be the preferred reading.  But after all this time with the thousands and thousands of manuscripts in the different languages it seems more likely that we have seen the variations.  Most of these variants can be evaluated with confidence.   And given the number of words, phrases, and verses that have no textual variants, there is no reason to question the preservation of the text.


2.                  Where the Hebrew manuscripts and the ancient versions differ, one should choose the reading that most readily makes the development of the other reading(s) intelligible.


This means that the exegete must work through the change from both perspectives.  For example, if the Greek and Hebrew differ, one must work through the problem starting from both sides.  So, if the Hebrew were the original reading, what would have prompted the translator of the Greek to come up with the form he did (was there an accidental change, an intentional change, and if so which).  Then, if the Greek were the original, what would have prompted the scribe in the Hebrew tradition to make the change that is there.


Here is where one finds that the reading that is the most difficult is to be preferred.  This is not automatic, for sometimes there is a corruption that is too difficult.  But on the whole, a difficult form, an unusual spelling or grammatical use, or a difficult idea, prompted some scribe or translator to make a change.  Scribes do not tend to introduce difficulties into the text!  They do not change clear forms into archaic forms or easy grammar into difficult or common idioms into unusual expressions.  So we know that the easier reading is likely to be secondary.


Of course, this requires that the one doing the textual criticism know what an easy and a difficult form would be.  That comes with study of the Bible and especially the Hebrew text.  Usually a working knowledge of beginning Hebrew grammar is enough to know what are the difficult forms and what are common.


Often the preferred reading will be the shorter reading.  This does not apply to places where the scribe deleted lines by jumping to a similar ending, and so is not automatic.  And it is of no help when the only difference is the vowels in a word.  But scribes did tend to add and clarify the text.  That has to be kept in mind.



Intrinsic Evidence


All of this is getting to the third aspect, the intrinsic evidence.  This is where the knowledge of the author of the book or passage has to be considered--and this comes in time with careful exegesis of the larger sections.  But knowing what David, or Isaiah, or Malachi would normally say, or perhaps what they nowhere else say, might influence a decision on a particular textual variation.






Ruth 1:21


Text and Apparatus.  Ruth 1:21 in the MT says, “the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.”   


The reading in question in the Masoretic Text is a ‘ n h   b y  a (‘anah  bi)  which is translated “has testified against me” (the qal perfect of this verb followed by this preposition means “answer against” in a legal sense). 


BHS under 1:21a-a in the apparatus at the bottom of the page tells us that the G(reek),  probably the  S(yriac) and the V(ulgate) attest to a variant reading.  The evidence from the Greek translation is in the rendering etapeinosen me, translated something like “he has oppressed me” or “he has afflicted me” or “he has humbled me.”


External Evidence.   The evidence, then, shows two different verbs entirely.  On the one side we have the Hebrew MT tradition, and on the other side the LXX tradition.  Normally, before we could weigh this evidence, we would have to know how well the text of Ruth was preserved in the MT and how good the translation of Ruth is in the LXX.  On the basis of that information, we could make a preliminary judgment in favor of the MT, for the Greek has several difficult places in its translation of Ruth.  But since we would not dismiss the variant reading on external evidence alone, we must think through the internal argument.


Internal Evidence.   Before reasoning through the canons of criticism we have to look for explanations of the Greek variant.  Here the exegete must go to the Hebrew dictionaries and word books and look for a word that is similar to ‘anah but has the meaning of “oppress” or “afflict.”  The dictionary by BDB is most helpful as it lists all related forms together.  Doing this one would find that there is a verb , ‘innah, a piel form, that means “afflict.” 


The translators of the Greek Old Testament were working with an unpointed Hebrew text, so they would not see any vowels that would indicate which verbal stem this was.  But they had the parallel “had dealt bitterly with me” and assumed this was to be synonymous parallelism to that.   So then, we can explain rather easily how the Greek version came about.


But if the original had the piel form, meaning “afflict,” and made such a nice parallelism between the clauses, there would be no reason why a Hebrew scribe would change it to the qal and introduce the legal terminology.   The qal in the MT  had to be the original.


So an unpointed text would explain the origin of the Greek translation; moreover, the MT is a slightly harder reading.  This is why we can conclude that the MT preserves the preferred reading.        



Ruth 2:7


Text and Apparatus.  Ruth 2:7 says, “and she came and remained from the morning until now--except she sat in the house . . . . ”


This last clause in the MT   bzeh shibtsh habbayit,b is “except her sitting in the house.”   The verb form is the qal infinitive construct of yashab with the 3fsg suffix.  


BH under  2:7b-b says: G(reek) is:   ou katepausen en to agro.


BH3 under 2:72-2 says : l (egendum) c(um) G(reek)--“read with the Greek.”  Then the editors reconstruct what Hebrew the Greek was looking at:  lo’  shabetah bassaddeh;   it also adds what the V(ulgate) must have read: welo’  shabah habbayit , and finally it tells you that the Syriac deleted the whole clause ( > ).


External Evidence.   In this example I have pieced together the information from both editions of the Hebrew Bible that are available.  The BHS text is what most people buy today; but BH3 has more material and arranges it slightly differently.


The first thing to do is to translate the signs and abbreviations in the apparatus.  Once this has been done the variants must be translated and the Hebrew reconstructed.  This is where BH3 comes in handy, for it tries to reconstruct what the Greek translator was translating--BHS simply gives the Greek form.


The evidence would look like this:


1)                  Masoretic text has “except she sat in the house,” reading with the qal infinitive construct of yashab, with a pronominal suffix.  The reading raises the question of what house she might have sat in for a while.


2)                  LXX has “she has [not] stopped in the [field] a little,” reading apparently a qal  perfect of shabat.   Note that BH3 says to read with this reading as the better reading (they do this a lot).  Apparently the Greek translator saw the Hebrew letters   sh b t  h and immediately thought of “she rested” rather than “her sitting.”


3)                  Vulgate has “not for a moment has she returned to the house,” apparently taking the verb form as shabah (< shub), “return.”


4)                  The Syriac text deleted the entire clause.


We should note in passing that the versions all had different resolutions for the translation of what in the Hebrew text was a difficult infinitive construct form.  We should also note that the Vulgate and the MT mention “the house,” but the LXX has “field.”  Because the versions are not strongly united against the Hebrew in these two readings, one would hesitate before making a change in the MT here on the basis of external evidence alone.


Internal Evidence.  Regarding the reading of the verb, the MT is to be preferred because the form  shibtah  best explains the origin of the other reading(s).  If the MT had had the common word shabetah, “she rested”--so well-known in the Old Testament--there would be no reason why a scribe would change it to the rare and difficult infinitive.  And if the Greek translator saw the unpointed sh b t h in the text, he would most likely have thought of shabat,  “to rest,” especially in this story.  The Vulgate was also trying to make sense out of it to reflect the best idea.


Regarding the reading “house,” the MT is to be preferred again.  The reading is difficult because it raises the question of what house she could have stayed in for a little while.  The LXX tried to harmonize this with the idea of working in the field--but that is not supported by the Vulgate which also reads “house.”  Rudolph suggested that there might have been a dittography:   shabeteh/habbayit to account for “house.”  However, it could also be that the word was omitted in the LXX for a similar reason, and agro introduced.


People who worked in the fields had little shelters that they could use for shade and rest.  The use of the term here need not imply that there was a normal “house.”





 Be aware that the term “Palestine” here is more convenient than accurate.  The land was not called Palestine until 135 A.D. when Hadrian named it that and banned the Jews from Jerusalem.

 The term “reading” refers to any variation under consideration, a word, a part of a word, a phrase, a whole line.   If the apparatus in the Hebrew Bible offers no variant reading, one assumes all the versions and manuscripts agree (they may not, but this is a safe assumption).

 For example, in Psalm 125 there are three variants (and I list them so you get a better idea of the scope of what we call a variant or a reading): In verse 1 the MT has “Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion which can never be moved but remains forever; Jerusalem--as the mountains are around it . . .” and the Greek has “Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion; the one who remains in Jerusalem can never be moved.”  The second problem concerns the MT reading of verse 3, “the rod of wickedness” which the Greek has “the rod of the wicked.”  And the third problem is that the MT has that as the subject, “The rod of wickedness will not rest on the righteous” but the Greek has “The LORD will not permit the rod of the wicked to rest on the righteous.”  In all three cases the Greek was smoothing out a more difficult (and therefore correct) Hebrew text.




Old Testament Exegesis Section Two  


A practical study of the procedures for doing sound exegesis in the various portions of the Old Testament.  The method will include the study of words, poetics, textual criticism, syntax, biblical theology, and practical exegetical exposition in the different genres of the Hebrew Bible.