8. Metaphor: Connection by Likeness

Metaphor stands at the heart of poetry. Monroe Beardsley called it “a poem in miniature.” However, metaphor also plays an important role in ordinary language. Everyone uses them and recognizes, at least unconsciously, how they work. This chapter seeks to help readers understand their power and their pervasive reach.

8.1. The Definition of Metaphor: A is (like) B

A metaphor is an assertion of likeness, and it can be analyzed as follows: A is (like) B.

For this book, the terms “comparison,” “analogy,” and “simile” are equivalent to metaphor. All assert that something is like something else. The two elements are not literally the same but only similar and, therefore, different as well. Unlike metonymy, which uses something for another thing associated with it from the same realm or cognitive domain, metaphor uses two entities from different cognitive domains. It asserts some likeness between the two terms and their two cognitive domains.

Take this statement: “All people are my brothers and sisters.” Literally, I have only one brother and three sisters. This statement, therefore, is not literally true for anyone else. Other people can only be “like” my own brother and sisters in some ways. Still, even though this statement is not literally true, most people today would say that it expresses a fundamental truth with many implications.

The first element ‘A’ is what we want to know more about, and the second element ‘B’ should help us understand the first by what is similar. Here my family relationship provides an insight into my relationship with everyone else.

Even if the metaphor asserts complete identity, we can tell that it is not a literal statement. The famous Psalm 23 asserts: “The LORD is my shepherd.” However, we know that it does not assert that God is literally running around and chasing after four-footed animals. The psalmist is only affirming some likeness between God and a shepherd.

In Ps 42:1 the psalmist sings:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.

Here the psalmist compares “my soul” to “a deer.” The deer is thirsty and longs for water. The psalmist claims that “my soul” is longing for God in a way similar to the deer longing for water. Here the psalmist uses the word “as” to indicate the comparison. Some people call statements using “as” or “like” a “simile,” and they separate them from statements without “as” or “like.”  However, both assert some likeness, and the audience must recognize that the speaker is not using the words literally, but metaphorically.

Clearly, Ps 42:1 is not a literal statement. “My soul” is not an animal with antlers. “My soul” does not have fur or four feet or a body that can thirst. This couplet invites us to imagine some way in which a soul longing for God is like a deer longing for water.

If we think of the two ideas as circles, they overlap in part, but only in part. The parts that overlap are similar, and the parts that do not are different. We must hide those parts that do not overlap to make sense of the metaphor: the antler, fur, four feet, body, etc.

Often, we need to stop and explore the ‘B’ part to figure out what is like and what is different. A deer is an animal that needs water to live. Without water, the animal will die. When the deer gets thirsty, it begins to look for water. The thirstier it gets, the greater its drive to find water. Here the psalmist also defines the water as “flowing streams.” Flowing water is not stagnant but purifies itself by running over rocks. So, it is healthy and refreshing. If you know some biology, you would be able to add to this description, but being alive makes us all aware of this basic fact.

The psalmist asserts that “my soul” longing for God is like this deer. The verse then implies that God is like water. Without it, we die. Though the statement is not literally true, it still asserts an important truth about the psalmist and God. Moreover, it would be difficult to explain all the implications of the metaphor.

Sometimes, a metaphorical relationship seems simple, but the more we explore the relationship, we find that more elements are similar than we originally thought. Still, some aspects of each would be nonsense or far-fetched if we try to insist on their similarity.

Metaphors are so prominent in our language that we easily and automatically shift from a literal to a metaphorical understanding without noticing. Still, we need to know how they work.

8.2. Implied Metaphors: Unless the LORD builds the house.

Every metaphor is not stated as “A is like B” or even “A is B.” Ps 127 begins:

Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.

The first line implies a metaphor though it does not state it directly. The word “builds” cannot be literal. God does not literally take up hammer and chisel but is only somehow like a builder. Though using a metaphor, the psalmist still wants to tell us something true.

Psalm 130 begins:

 “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
LORD, hear my voice!”

The word “depths” literally means a place deep down and is often used in English as a metonym for the sea because it is so deep. Clearly, the psalmist is not literally deep in the earth or the depths of the sea. Here “depths” must be a spatial metaphor in which down is bad, and the space is psychological and/or spiritual. The psalm goes on to link “depths” with sin:

“If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?”

Being in a state of sin is like being deep in the depths. Though not literally the case, the psalmist nonetheless points us toward the reality of the situation.

In Hos 8:7, we read:

For they sow the wind,
and they shall reap the whirlwind.

The metaphor builds on the image of a farmer planting a seed and reaping a big plant. Here the wind is like a seed, and the whirlwind is like the harvest. The metaphor asserts that the wind, though insubstantial, can grow into a tornado. Hosea uses this metaphor to explain another reality: idol worship.

Worshipping idols is (like) planting the wind, which will yield a harvest of destruction.

Sometimes poets make us work for our understanding. They know that if we have to work, we will remember.

Many metaphors are implied like those above, and we easily move between a literal and metaphorical understanding.

8.3. Wide and Narrow Metaphors

Narrow metaphors assert only a small degree of likeness. For example, tables have “legs” but cannot run, while cars can “run” but have no legs. Neither explores other dimensions of animals that have literal legs. Table legs keep the top off the ground, and cars move like animals. These metaphors provide little more than that basic narrow insight.

On the other hand, wide metaphors suggest a complex, multi-valent relationship between the two images, such as the metaphor we began with: “All people are (like) my brothers and sisters.” To understand this metaphor, we must first explore the literal meaning of “brother and sister,” which has many dimensions. Then we must decide which of those many possible dimensions offer insights into “my” relationship with people who are not literally my siblings. It would be hard to express all the possible implications of that metaphor.

As the diagram below indicates, the narrow metaphor has a small overlap while the wide metaphor has a much larger overlap.

Wide and narrow are ends of a continuum rather than two different categories, and usually, we know where we are on this continuum. Still, sometimes what we expect to be narrow can become complex in the imagination of a poet who gives us tables walking away or cars looking for their feet.

Again, the more we explore a metaphor, the more it may surprise us with similarities we had not first imagined.

8.4. Paul Ricoeur: Live and Dead Metaphors

Traditionally, metaphors were considered rhetorical decorations for literal language.

Paul Ricoeur has written extensively about metaphors, particularly about what he calls “live metaphors.” He argues against the older understanding that considered metaphors only as substitutes for the original word, as decoration that brought no new understanding. Instead, Ricoeur argues that metaphors create new relationships and bring new information; it “tells us something new about reality.” These live metaphors “are not translatable because they create their meaning.” By bringing the two unrelated elements together and asserting their relationship, the speaker gives these “tension metaphors” a surplus of meaning. Even infinite paraphrase would be “incapable of exhausting the innovative meaning” (Interpretation Theory, 52-53). Metaphor, therefore, expands our understanding of the world.

The prophet Hosea was a master of metaphor, and in 5:12, God says:

Therefore I am like maggots to Ephraim,
and like rottenness to the house of Judah.

God’s claim to be maggots cannot be literal and must be metaphorical. To understand this, we must first be clear about maggots. They are the larva of house flies that live on the rotting flesh or dead tissue of animals or plants. This metaphor causes us to stop and reimagine what this could mean. It not only asserts that God is like maggots but also that Ephraim and Judah are like the dead matter. By feeding on dead matter, maggots clear away the dead matter. Hosea demands that we think about God in a way that we probably have not imagined. It offers us possibilities.

Ricoeur contrasts these “live metaphors” with “dead metaphors,” which have become so familiar and so trite that they no longer engage our imagination because we think of them as literal and no longer metaphorical. However, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have pointed out that much of our everyday thought depends on metaphorical thinking that we largely take for granted.

8.5. Lakoff & Johnson: Metaphors as Conceptual Frameworks

In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that we understand parts of our lives metaphorically. We make sense of life by thinking of one area being similar to another. As an example, they give us “ARGUMENT IS LIKE WAR” (4). According to this metaphor, when we argue, we think of it as waging war. This metaphor shapes the way we think about argument, and it appears in our language.

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all my arguments.

These statements are not isolated metaphors but reflect the larger idea that ARGUMENT IS LIKE WAR. This does not mean that we must approach every disagreement as a war to win or lose. Still, the linguistic evidence indicates that this is one of the common ways English speakers think about arguments.

Lakoff and Johnson call this a conceptual metaphor because it shapes how we think about a part of our life. They argue that this metaphorical thinking is pervasive and give other examples:

Example: You are wasting my time (7-9).

Example: I don’t think this relationship is going anywhere (44)

The Conduit Metaphor (10-13):
Try to pack more ideas into your sentences.
Your reasons came through to us.

Orientation Metaphors (14-21):
Example: Things are looking up.

Example: She has a lofty position.

Example: She is at the peak of health. He fell ill.

Example: He has big plans for getting ahead.

Again, Lakoff and Johnson argue that we commonly understand parts of life, not literally but metaphorically. We understand time, love, ideas, power, and more by their perceived similarity to other parts of our lives. Zoltan Kövecses builds and expands upon this insight in Metaphor: A Practical Introduction.

These conceptual metaphors are so pervasive that we forget that our understanding is metaphorical, but it is. An argument is not and does not have to be like a war. There are other ways of understanding arguments. Time is not always like money. More is not necessarily better, and less is not always a problem. However, since these metaphors have become part of our language and thinking (or vice versa), they shape how we deal with our world. They may be dead metaphors for Ricoeur, but as Lakoff and Johnson have shown, they remain very powerful and play important roles in our thinking and living.

8.6. Some Metaphors That the Bible Lives By

Some metaphors in the Bible surprise us as Ricoeur would have it, but the most important metaphors in the Bible are so pervasive that we can forget that they are metaphors.

Though the metaphor of God as shepherd may be the most famous, the Bible contains various conceptual metaphors for God, with the most pervasive being YHWH as lord. The Hebrew word ˀadon, meaning “lord” or “master” of a household or land, belongs to the language of covenant. The more powerful party is the “lord,” and the less powerful is the “servant.” A covenant seeks to secure the life of both parties, and so the lord and the servant swear and take on the responsibility to protect and fight for each other in this covenant relationship. Ittai, the Gittite, captures this most succinctly when he swears his fealty to David in 1 Sam 15:21.

“As the LORD lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king may be, whether for death or for life, there also your servant will be.”

This understanding shapes much of the Bible’s language about Israel’s relationship with God. The prohibition against using God’s name in vain caused Israel to replace the saying of YHWH with ˀadonay, in English, “my lord.” English Bibles regularly use LORD in small caps to indicate that the Hebrew word is YHWH. In contrast, the lowercase “lord” or “Lord” indicates the Hebrew word is ˀadon, as are the references to David in the quote above.

A related metaphor, “The LORD is king,” appears in many psalms, e.g., Pss 47:2; 93:1; 95:3; 96:10, etc. The metaphor of God as king projects an idea of God as Israel’s warrior, lawgiver, and judge. This conceptual metaphor pervades both the Old and the New Testaments. It is a “dead metaphor” in the sense that we so take it for granted, but it is a metaphor. This does not deny its truth, but it is a metaphorical truth.

God is also the creator, and Hebrew has a word for “create,” baraˀ, which has only God as its subject. Gen 1:1 then is literal language: “In the beginning when God created (baraˀ) the heavens and the earth… .” Human beings do not baraˀ. However, in Gen 2:7, God “forms” the earth creature “from the dust of the ground,” like a potter shaping a vessel. Isaiah and Jeremiah also use the metaphor of God as a potter (Isa 45:9; 64:8; Jer 18:6,11). Unlike the human potter, God can breathe life into the clay figure.

Some Old Testament texts call God “father,” but it does not have the primacy that “Abba” has in the New Testament. There are also references to God as a mother in Isa 49:15; 66:13 and elsewhere, as in Hosea 11. Indeed, God in the Bible has traits often attributed to women rather than men. The primary Hebrew word for mercy (rehamim) is the plural of the word for womb (reḥem). More attention should be paid to this metaphorical language.

God is also the husband, and Israel the wife. The Jewish and Christian communities have typically understood The Song of Songs metaphorically in this sense. Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel use this metaphor to cast Israel as the adulterous wife. Though the language can be highly charged, the differences between their understanding and ours demand that we deal critically with this metaphorical language.

All of these metaphors understand God anthropomorphically—that is, they understand God as a human being. The justification for this comes in Gen 1:27, which tells us that God made humanity, male and female, in the image and likeness of God.  Therefore, God walks in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:8), dwells in a house (1 Kgs 8:3), gets angry (often), and loves (also often). On the other hand, Exod 20:4 commands: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Though the chosen people put no image of God in the Temple, their metaphors of God are often anthropomorphic. As with the metaphor of the shepherd, part is true, and part is not.

Finally, we should note that the metaphorical language for God can work both ways. If God is like a human king, a human king is or should be like God somehow. A human ruler should be like God by being just and merciful as God is, but the biblical stories make it clear that this was not always the case. God is the ideal ruler whom human rulers should imitate. Yet to grasp the metaphor of kingship, we must also understand this institution in the ancient Near East and its role in shaping this conceptual metaphor in its original context.

Metaphors for humanity abound in the Bible. If God is lord and king, then we are servants in a covenant with responsibilities to that relationship. The prophets are sentinels who watch and announce the coming dangers. Though the Hebrew term for prophet means “ecstatic” and therefore someone who can pierce the mystery of God, they often use the ancient messenger formula: “Thus says the LORD….” This statement shows them to be like ancient messengers bringing royal pronouncements from afar. Their Greek title, “prophet,” meaning “one who speaks for,” captures this understanding.

This little survey barely scratches the surface of metaphor in the Bible. It can only serve to alert readers to its presence.

8.7. Metaphor and Metonymy

Metonymy and metaphor are not mutually exclusive. A metonym may serve as either term in “A is like B.” In Ps 45:1, the psalmist proclaims: “My tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.” The psalmist’s “tongue” stands for the poet’s ability to make poetry, and the pen represents the ready scribe’s ability to write down the language. Examples could easily be multiplied.

Sometimes the psalmist challenges us to use our power of imagination, as at the beginning of Psalm 131

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;

Here we have heart and eyes as metonyms for the person. Then we have to ask ourselves what “not lifted up” and “nor raised too high” could mean? Usually, “up” is good, and “down” is bad, but as the following couplet shows, “up” here is problematic.

I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.

The translators of the NABRE seemed to have been afraid that readers would not understand, and so they have made the metaphor into a literal statement:

LORD, my heart is not proud;
nor are my eyes haughty.

Surely, Paul Ricoeur would have the translators give us the metaphor and let us struggle with it.

8.8. Exercises for Chapter 8


  • analogy: another name for metaphor. §8.1
  • anthropomorphism: the understanding of God as being like a human being. §8.6
  • comparison: another name for metaphor. §8.1
  • metaphor: an assertion that something is like something else: A is (like) B. Comparison, analogy, and simile are other names for this assertion of likeness. §8.1
  • simile: a type of metaphor that acknowledges the comparison with the word “like” or “as.” §8.1


1. Write three statements that reflect the conceptual metaphors:

TIME IS LIKE MONEY. E.g., Don’t spend a lot of time on that assignment.

LIFE IS LIKE A JOURNEY. E.g., He has lost his way.

2. Find three metaphorical statements in the news or other media.

3. Metaphors help us understand something (A) by asserting its likeness to another thing (B). The ‘A’ line should have what we want to understand better, and the ‘B’ line should have the elements that help us understand. Sometimes the metaphor offers us various possibilities for filling in the blanks. In Ps 63:1, the first line is literal, but the second line has several possibilities for metaphor. To discover the metaphor, ask yourself what word does not make sense if you understand it literally.

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you. (Ps 63:1)

A            my soul           is (like)  B          a person thirsting     .

             God           is (like)  B          water          .

   desire for God   is (like)  B           thirsting     .


  1. The LORD is king, he is robed in majesty;
    the LORD is robed, he is girded with strength. (Ps 93:1)

         LORD                 is (like) B                                                    

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. LORD, you have been our dwelling place
    in all generations. (Ps 90:1)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. (God) will cover you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you will find refuge. (Ps 91:4)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. My days are like an evening shadow;
    I wither away like grass. (Ps 102:11)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin. (Ps 51:2)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. For I eat ashes like bread,
    and mingle tears with my drink,
    because of your indignation and anger;
    for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside. (Ps 102:9-10)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
    as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
    so our eyes look to the LORD our God. (Ps 123:2)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. God sends out his command to the earth;
    his word runs swiftly. (Ps 147:15)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. The LORD has established his throne in the heavens,
    and his kingdom rules over all. (Ps 103:19)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb. (Ps 139:13)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. Thus says the LORD:
    “As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion
    two legs, or a piece of an ear,
    so shall the people of Israel who dwell in Samaria be rescued,
    with the corner of a couch and part of a bed.” (Amos 3:12)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. O you who turn justice to wormwood,
    and cast down righteousness to the earth! (Amos 5:7)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. Therefore because you trample upon the poor
    and take from him exactions of wheat, … (Amos 5:11)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. Your love is like a morning cloud,
    like the dew that goes away early. (Hos 6:4b)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. Therefore, I have hewn them by the prophets,
    I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
    and my judgment goes forth as the light. (Hos 6:5)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. For they sow the wind,
    and they shall reap the whirlwind. (Hos 8:7)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs,
    and will tear open the covering of their heart. (Hos. 13:8)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. For my people have committed two evils:
    they have forsaken me,
    the fountain of living water,
    and dug out cisterns for themselves,
    cracked cisterns
    that can hold no water. (Jer 2: 13)

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    

  1. As a mother comforts her child,
    so I [the LORD] will comfort you;
    you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. Isa 66:13

                                                    is (like)  B                                                    


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