God as a dragon, or a leopard, or lye, or a hunter, or a woman in labor. God’s people as stubborn oxen, dry rot, pottery, silver, soil, dew, a bride. God’s relationship with his people as that of a lover wooing his sweetheart, a ferocious bear ready to tear up his prey, a parent teaching a toddler how to walk, a mother breastfeeding her baby. Outlandish comparisons? The extravagance of some modern paraphraser? No. A translation as dignified as the King James has them.

This figurative strain is an important dimension of biblical language. Some readers of Scripture may look upon it as a decorative device or a nice poetic touch. Others may consider the figurative language something that we have to look through or around or over in order to get the real meaning. I doubt whether those evaluations do justice to the biblical Word. Metaphor, simile, and image are central to scriptural language.

Much of our daily language is shot through with metaphor. Thus I say “shot through,” and your son eats like a horse, we drown in a sea of paperwork, the soloist has a velvety voice, the dentist works under the roof of my mouth. We know that your son’s horsiness is limited to his appetite and that my mouth doesn’t really resemble a building. But still we look for or intuitively see these likenesses, these correspondences and analogies between “levels” of existence—animal to man, man to animal, man to nature, plant to divine, abstract to concrete, touch to sound, and so forth.

Such comparisons (fresh when a poet sees them, as when Eliot sees the evening sky as a patient etherized upon a table, a bit stale in expressions like “brave as a lion” or “hungry as a horse”) often capture a truth or a situation or an insight more succinctly than a propositional ...

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