Literal Vs. Figurative

I’m a writer who loves to write about the world in my imagination. But when I write stories, I want people to understand that it is not an autobiography but a version of a reality that I know personally or a combination of real stories that I’ve put together.  It’s important to me that the reader understands where I’m coming from; otherwise, they will miss the important truth that I’m trying to illustrate with my words.

And I have a feeling, if we don’t look at the author’s intended meaning (whether literal or figurative) we are going to (as readers) misconstrue or overinterpret things found in scripture. (See my previous post on the Author’s Intended Meaning.)

Another main thing you must identify when reading through scripture is to ask yourself, “Is this to be taken literally or figuratively?” If you are reading through the Psalms and you are applying it as though it is literal- well, have fun with that. When you’re delving into the prayers of men, interlaced with poetry… you are in for a wild ride.

So, here’s the dealio. There’s a lot of weird stuff in scripture… (valley of dry bones, trees that clap their hands, Jesus is the light of the world… just to name a few.)  When we look at these weird things… the only thing we can do is ask ourselves- Is this for real? Or a metaphor for something? When reading through the Bible, you really need to understand grammar… or your head will be swimming.

Let’s look first at some examples of figurative language in the Bible.

Figurative

Most people, when reading the Bible, whether believers or not, usually can understand the Bible. It’s when the words point to something that they don’t agree with, or whether something seems far-fetched or confusing that brings any issues to the surface. There are ways to decipher the text’s original meaning, however. Take a look below.

Similes in Scripture

Most of us can spot a simile from a mile away. A simile is a phrase found within a sentence with the word, “like” or “as” in order to compare two obviously different things. For example, in Isaiah 53:6 we find it written, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” It’s pretty clear here that the author is comparing us to sheep who have wandered. We are acting like sheep… that wander…therefore, the author uses it to prove a point.

Metaphors in Scripture

When we look at metaphors found in scripture, it can be slightly harder to identify. According to the Merrier-Webster Dictionary, a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase pointing to one object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness. John 14:6 is a perfect example of this, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” By making this statement, Jesus was declaring that only through Him (and following His Way) would lead a person to the Father. He also declared that he was the Truth of God… living in the flesh. Finally, he declared that he was the holder of the key to Life… eternal life. Whoa. (Metaphors are the braver, bolder cousin to the simile.)

Other Figurative Language

While researching to write this post, I realized that by writing this, I had opened a can of worms.

There are not only our easily recognized metaphors or similes… but there are also figures of association, personification, illusion, understatement, completion, etc. (Here’s a super detailed article on the many areas of figurative in the Bible if you want to TOTALLY geek out: Click Here!).

And it wasn’t until I was knee-deep in a Psalms Project dissecting them for figures of speech that I realized the vastness within Scripture. If you’re really wanting to thoroughly understand all the nitty-gritty of metaphoric language, Ethelbert Williams Bullinger wrote an intense book for you called, “Figures of Speech Used in the Bible.” If you’re wanting a quicker version that just highlights a couple of examples from each, check out the notes from this class lecture. But here’s the point, Scripture is full of metaphorical language. You cannot just read something and always assume it is literal.

Moral of the story: Remember that the passage of Scripture you’re trying to figure out was written to a specific audience at a specific time by a specific author. Start with historical context and work from there. Check out other commentaries to determine if they believe it’s figurative or literal… but don’t always take their word for it.

Do your research!

What is the Gospel?

Let’s walk back in time for a second. Picture this: It’s 26 A.D in Nazareth (Israel). You’ve spent the week as a stonemason and your arms ache from the back-breaking work you do, day in and day out. This Sabbath morning, you’re sitting in the synagogue listening to...

What’s the Deal with Context?

I remember it vividly. A well-known and loved professor screaming at the top of his lungs, “CONTEXT IS KING!” At first, I had no idea what he was talking about. I felt out of the loop, like he had this private club that I didn’t have the key to. But the more I learn and study God’s Word, the more I understand the great importance of reading your Bible and understanding its surrounding context.

Let’s do something fun- shall we?

I know we’ve all heard this verse quoted… and it’s a doozy. 

Matthew 19:26 reads, “And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

OOOO-kaaaay. I’m gonna just throw this out there. People overuse this verse and MISUSE this verse so much. I’ve heard people use this in relation to jobs, gaining wealth (so ironic as you’ll see), getting pregnant, and buying the house they want. 

I’m gonna be really firm here: You cannot take a verse out of its context. CANNOT. If you do- you will add an application to it that was never intended. 

Yiihhhhhiiikkkes. 

Bob Utley said in his article, Intro to Revelation, “The author’s intent, not literalness, is the key to proper understanding of the Bible.” As I mentioned in a previous post, the author’s intended meaning is everything!

If we look directly to the verses before this, we realize quite a few things. Right before this, a rich young man had come to Jesus asking what he must to to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him whether he had followed the commandments, and then asked him to sell all his possessions and follow him. The young man left, saddened, because he was very wealthy. His wealth held him back from following Jesus. I often wonder if this man ever regretted that decision. But I digress…

It was then that Jesus turned to his disciples. This is what he said to them.

“Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”25 When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?”  (Matthew 19:23-25)

 

And this… THIS… is when Jesus made our famous saying. This is where we’ve taken a verse and used to make it seem as though God is at our every bidding. We use this verse so that when we think we REALLY WANT SOMETHING, God will make it possible.

And that’s an absolutely incorrect interpretation of the scripture if we look at the Author’s Intended Meaning. If you read this passage in its entirety- you will realize that Jesus meant that God can do whatever He wants. So hard to hear. But that’s what the author is narrating here. The key in this passage is the question that the disciples ask Jesus IMMEDIATELY before the verse we are talking about. 

“Then who can be saved?”

There’s hope in our original verse now. But not what we’ve misused for so many years…. Jesus is basically reaffirming that if it were up to man- we would never gain eternal life- but with God, he can save us and give us eternal life. When we look at the literal meaning of this verse in light of the surrounding verses, the way to apply this verse is now more limiting (because we realize it has nothing to do with us… and everything to do with God.)

Before you apply anything from the Bible to your life, you must first understand the 

Author’s Intended Meaning (A.I.M.). (Find what that is here.) Without it- you will be applying the Bible INCORRECTLY to your life. And missing out on a huge factor: TRUTH.

When you first try and interpret a verse from the Bible to your life, make sure you know what the context of that verse is. Look at the surrounding verses to help you (don’t just pull that lone verse out by itself.) Next, read the rest of the chapter to determine if your understanding is correct. If the verse is at the end of the chapter, read on to the next chapter as well. Take a glance at the chapters before and after the chapter that your verse is located (make sure the theme that you are understanding doesn’t contradict the theme from the surrounding chapters.) Finally, take a gander at the theme of the entire book as a whole. Does your verse still make sense in light of the book’s theme? (You can find this in some Bibles in the Introduction of the book instead of reading the ENTIRE book just to discover the theme.)

 

Once you’ve looked at these things, it’s less likely that you will be taking a verse out of context. When you understand the context, you’ll be closer to understanding the author’s intent, the audience and the message the passage is trying to get across.

 

There is more to context… historical and culture context, literary and genre context, grammatical context, etc. But those are for another day.

And remember…

Context is King! (Welcome to the Club!)

 

What is the Author’s Intended Meaning?

What is the Author's Intended Meaning?

A.I.M. and Why It Matters

When we open our Bibles, we can go in several different directions when it comes to interpretation. We ask ourselves, “How do I feel in this moment while reading this? How do I WANT it to make me feel… Does this relate to what I learned on the flannelgraph in Sunday School? How can I relate this to my current life?”

 

However, the text in front of us could be interpreted as literal… figurative… narrative… prophecy… so, the odds of us landing on a similar genre across several different books are pretty slim. The problem I see across the board is when people open up their Bible to read- they immediately ask themselves after reading, “What does this mean to me?”

 

Honestly? I don’t care what it means to you.

And I’m not trying to be mean- and here’s why.

My major issue? You weren’t the original audience for this book. No offense.

Books are written for specific audiences. And it’s pretty slim that you fit into that original audience. I mean, there aren’t alot of us who are from first century Israel… or earlier. If we don’t understand who the author was, where they were from or who they were writing to- we won’t understand the main depth to the message. We will only glean surface level information. If we are reading something and only applying it to our lives – we are missing the point. The message- the impact- the TRUTH. That life-changing “AHA” moment or epiphany you are looking for as a reader. Not to mention, if we miss his point,one could argue that he just wasted his time trying to get his message across. What a shame.

 

A Quick Exercise on the Importance of A.I.M.

 

As readers, we need to give author’s the credit they deserve. For example, read the statement to the right. 

 

Now, if we understand the speaker of the text to be a woman carrying out a birthday cake to the awaiting party guests in the backyard… it’s a happy scene.  But, if we understand the narrator to be a man who is intent on killing a family inside the house? Awful, horrific scene. Knowing the author’s intended meaning is HUGELY important.

 

A.I.M. Exercise

“I slid through the french doors, carrying what would indefinitely bring an end to the night.”

Get Rid of Preconceived Ideas

Every author has a purpose and message that they are trying to communicate. When I took a class on writing this past winter, one of the first things I learned was to ask myself, “Who is your audience? Who is the ‘person’ you’re writing to?” Without this- authors have no purpose or message to get out. 

 

When we layer our theology or beliefs about the world upon the words in the Bible as we read, we are missing a huge part of the message. (Or most of it… if we’re being really honest with ourselves.) Since we are not from the first century, how do we go about even determining what the author was trying to communicate to his audience? What was his main message?

 

When we seek to find out the Author’s Intended Meaning, we must put aside our cultural, emotional, personal, historical and denominational beliefs. Read in more detail here in this post. That means, if we think we know what the author is trying to say (maybe due to something we heard from a Sunday School teacher back in the day) then we may lose his actual meaning.

 

Do something quick for me. Try to determine the author’s intended meaning in Matthew 19:26. It’s a verse that’s largely taken out of context by our generation… and therefore, the author’s message is lost. (Find out my thoughts in my next post, “What’s the Deal with Context?”)

 

At the end of the day, we need to focus on the author’s intended meaning/message above all else. If not… are we even giving him the credit? And that’s a true shame.

 

Called Out.

Called Out.

This oneness seems to be elusive to many churches today. And I wonder if it’s because we are looking for the wrong thing when we look for a church family.

Before Opening Your Bible

Before Opening Your Bible

Tips on How To Begin Reading Your Bible

Here’s the thing I believe is the downfall to most Bible reading. 

People… JUST… START… READING. 

And that works for the most part. Until you run into something that doesn’t make sense… or seems to contradict something else you read… or makes you question everything you thought you knew about our Creator.

The more I understand and study this crazy, intense and intentionally designed book, the more I’m blown away. 

Here’s a couple of things that will set you up to be more interpretative of the text, rather than just taking it at face-value.

1- Start Fresh.

We don’t realize that when we sit down to read anything (even news articles or Facebook posts) we come PRELOADED with ideas, thoughts or past experiences that color the way we understand things. This is non-disputed science. In fact, our beliefs and how we perceive things are hardwired into our brains and are hard to change. If we cannot push aside these preconceived ideas, we will never see the text as it was intended to be read. 

Try to focus on reading with fresh eyes. If you’ve heard about a scripture that’s been used over and over, you may think you understand the meaning- but, hold that thought. You may be surprised to find out that what you thought it meant, may not mean what the author intended the text to be understood as. Be willing to have your perspective shift when you open your Bible; don’t try and read Scripture to prove your point. Decide now to read Scripture to learn more about who your God is.

2- Find a Translation You Understand

I remember the first time I read another translation other than the NIV (New International Version.) My parents bought me a Student Bible as a teenage, and it was the NLT (New Living Translation). It was a GAME-CHANGER for me. Where once I had thought of the Bible  as boring, was now talking to me in a slightly different way. Just enough to grab and hold my attention. Not only that, but it was full of notes in the margins and even sidenotes in the text filling in history, culture or parallel passages to help me fill in the blanks.

Okay… so, when you begin looking into different translations or versions of the Bible, you may become overwhelmed. (There are a TON out there…). Fret not!  I can give you a couple of options that will help you determine the route to go. 

Difference Between Translations and Versions

Here’s the first thing you must understand: the Bible was written in several languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). The first translation into English was by John Wycliff in 1382 (over 500 years before I was born!) Can you imagine that moment though? To read about the Savior in your own language? And this is still going on around the world today. (Check out Pioneer Bible Translators and Wycliff Bible Translators!)

When something is translated into another language, it can be generally translated “word for word” or “thought for thought”. On the arrow below… there are versions that are almost word for word what is in the original text… and translations that take what is the in the original text and try to match the thought, voice or emotion of the text. 

I honestly prefer having several different versions/translations open when I’m intently studying a passage. But when I’m just wanting to lean into the words and allow them to speak to me? I choose a translation that has emotion and tone built into the words. It seems to bring them to life for me. One amazing resource is the YouVersion Bible app. You can jump between translations with just a click. 

 A couple of translations/versions that I recommend? If you’re leaning toward the “word for word” versions, pick up the NASB (New American Standard Bible) or the ESV (English Standard Version.) For the middle of the road? Definitely, the NIV (New International Version.). If you’re wanting to aim towards finding a translation that tries to capture the original author’s thought? Then reach for the NLT, (New Living Translation.) When I’m helping someone determine which version they prefer, the NLT is usually the one that they land on. It’s a very clean and understandable translation and reads in contemporary English.   

Recently, a friend introduced me to a new translation that is still being written. It’s called The Passion Translation and according to their website,  “is a new, heart-level translation, using Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic manuscripts, that expresses God’s fiery heart of love to this generation, merging the emotion and life-changing truth of God’s Word.” Right now, the New Testament, as well as Psalm, Proverbs, Isaiah and Genesis, are finished and you can purchase some of them together or separately.     

What I love about this new translation is the fact that almost HALF of each page is FOOTNOTES. Being as I’m a huge nerd, the more notes, the better. Ha! The notes here are chock full of original language insight and cultural/historical insight. And it is full of emotion and poetry that I’ve never picked up in any other translation or version. Below is a graphic comparing several translations and versions of the same verse. Notice their differences and similarities!

Whatever version or translation you decide upon, get ready to have the lights come on in a way that you’ve never seen before. Imagery will come alive and stories will dance off the page.   

 

3- Start a Little Digging.   

Okay, now you’re thinking… wait- research?  It’s a lot simpler than it sounds. 

Before you begin reading, you need to understand what the author was trying to communicate. So, start by looking at the culture, time period, history of the area, and the people involved (author, audience and bystanders.) This kind of information is easily found sometimes in the Bible you’re holding (look in the footnotes or in the introduction section of each book of the Bible.) If your Bible doesn’t have these options, it may be wise to invest in one. I’ve bought several study Bibles from christianbook.com. Having these kinds of options can help you to immediately bring the story to life.  

When you finally sit down to actually read the passage, try to imagine yourself as one of the original people that it was written to. How would they have felt to read the passage for the first time? Would they have known the author? Would they have met Jesus? Putting yourself in their “sandals” will more than likely help you to determine what the author of the book was trying to communicate in these exact passages.

If you can nail down what the audience would have felt, you’re more likely to begin to understand where the author was coming from. Was the author describing a historical timeline? Were they trying to guide the audience into knowing how to share about the Kingdom?

 

And now? You’re ready to open your Bible…

Called Out.

Called Out.

This oneness seems to be elusive to many churches today. And I wonder if it’s because we are looking for the wrong thing when we look for a church family.