Professor Jeanie C. Crain


The Bible as Literature


September 23, 2012


The Bible as Literature: An Introduction, Jeanie C. Crain, Polity Press, 2010. Pgs 22-40


Chapter two begins with the introduction of rhetorical devices commonly used in literature such as style, tone, and strategy. These rhetoric devices play a significant role in reading and understanding the Bible. Crain explains how she wants to introduce the Bible as a work which is extremely rich in rhetoric devices. Crain also stresses how important it is for the readers of this book to learn that the Bible is more than theology and doctrine and that it is not reducible to science, natural science, or history. The Bible, given its complicated composition history, multiple authors, and many translations, still presents itself as a whole piece of work, creating in its readers a sense of its styles. The Bible requires a hermeneutics in which the meaning must be found in its tiniest parts, while, at the same time, attention must be given to its meaning as a whole.

 Style, tone and strategy give additional power, spirit, understanding, and greater emphasis to the manifold forms, words, and sentences in the Bible. Style, derived from the Latin word for a tool used for writing (stilus), refers to how something is written, to the mode of expression, or to the author’s choice and arrangement of words and phrases into sentences and paragraphs. Tone, similar to mood or emotion, names and describes the way in which an author expresses attitude, which is the intonation of the voice that expresses meaning. The tone can be solemn, serious, objective, ironic, humorous, sarcastic, or tongue in cheek. Rhetorical strategies direct language to achieve certain effects. Rhetoric means persuasive speech; it includes the use of cultural conventions and expectations (ways of thinking, writing, and speaking), and the control of these to achieve effects. “Schema” (Greek) is defined as a deviation from the ordinary pattern of words. “Trope” is used to refer to a rhetorical figure of speech that deviates from the ordinary patter or importance of a word. A “figurative” use of language departs in either thought or expression from the normal method of speaking. The Bible, while based largely in concrete images, uses figurative or rhetorical devices liberally.

Readers of the Bible count upon experts of original Hebrew and Greek languages to construct accurate translations of the scriptures. Translation requires a macroscopic view of the whole Bible and a microscopic attention to words, sentences, and paragraphs, which make up the style. Literal Bible translations such as the King James Version tend to translate idioms or figurative language word for word. Here Crain is sure to mention that looking at the Bible as literature does not mean overlooking its own distinctive characteristics. In addition to translations, another prominent characteristic of the Bible is its “parataxis”, or the use of parallel clauses linked by “and.” This contributes to the “additive” nature in the way its content is presented. This allows macro-events in the Bible to occur in series of linked words, actions, and stories. When looked at more precisely the rhetorical devices common to literature and found throughout the Bible, which, if recognized, can lead to more informed reading and understanding of its content.

Countless rhetorical devices exist in the Bible such as personification, condescension, parable, allegory, and association. Association includes appellation, which is using a quality, office or attribute for a proper noun, such as when God is spoken of as “the Majesty” in Heb. 1.3. Circumlocution is another common device which uses a descriptive phrase in place of a name in order to emphasize the association: such as born of the woman (human) in Matt.11.11. In this chapter Crain also goes into detail describing the importance of similes and metaphors in the Bible.

The Bible has multiple examples of personification, where inhuman things are given human traits. For example in book of Genesis the use of the word breath is meant to symbolize life. Using synecdoche, another rhetorical device, a whole or totality is represented by naming a part. In Psalms 35.10 a synecdoche is used in which all the bones speak for a person: “All my bones shall say, ‘O LORD, who is like you?” In Genesis 6.12 uses synecdoche when it says “all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth”-flesh associated with people. The Bible also uses the figurative device of anthropomorphism to give human characteristics to God. For example God is given a soul (Lam. 3.20), a body and head (1 Cor. 11.3), a face (Ps. 16.11), eyes (Zech. 2.8) ears, (Ps. 31.2), nostrils (Job 4.9), a mouth, lips, and tongue (Num. 7.8), a voice (Isa. 30.30), arms (Ezek. 15.16), hands (Job 10.8), a finger (Exod. 8.19), a heart (Jer. 19.5), bowels (Isa. 43.15), a bosom (John 1.18), and feet (Isa. 60.13). For Jews, imitating God is very important just as imitating Christ plays a central role for Christians. Zoomorphism is another rhetorical device used in the Bible that attributes feature of an animal to a different species. For example in Ps. 63.8 the Psalmist says, “In the shadow of your wings I used to rejoice.” Crain stresses the importance of understanding figurative language in the Bible to help avoid misreading the text.

Merism is a special use of synecdoche which uses “and” to join together contrasting parts to express totality. For example in Genesis 1.1 it says “God made heaven and earth”, which are polar opposites of each other. Old Testament poetry uses merisms liberally. These include light (day) and darkness (night), life and death, beginning and end, and heaven and hell. Macroscopically it can be said that merism is used to connect the Old Testament and New Testament into one book of God’s word and the “Bible” as totality. The rhetoric device oxymoron refers to a locution that produces an incongruous, self-contradictory effect and can be recognized in putting together contrasting words or ideas. A well-known example of an oxymoron can be found in Matthew 16.25, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” This statement appears to contradict itself, to save oneself one would have to lose it. Because the Bible works on both the material and spiritual level the clear meaning of this statement can be derived. Foreshadowing is also prominent throughout the Bible. Foreshadowing advances a plot by providing subtle hints about developments that will come later in the story. At the same time reinterpretation repeats details that have already been mentioned in the story. Foreshadowing and reinterpretation are both used to advance and reintegrate plot details throughout the Bible.

Irony uses words to suggest the opposite of their literal meaning; dramatic irony happens when others know what the characters do not know. A well-known example of irony can be found when reading about Abraham attempting to offer Isaac as a burnt offering to God. We as readers know that God did not intend Abraham to sacrifice is son Isaac but because Abraham did not know this dramatic irony resulted. Amplification is another rhetorical device used throughout the Bible that refers to using more words than grammar requires. In general the Bible uses clear plain language. From time to time however euphemism is used to soften delicate subjects. Humans use euphemism to make a word of phrase less offensive, disturbing, or troubling to the listener that which it replaces. For example, death may be referred to as a friend, such when Abraham died in his old age. God unlike human beings calls death a calamity, the last enemy, the king of terrors.

Inclusio uses repetition to mark off the beginning and ending section, framing or bracketing the material it contains. An example can be found in Psalm 73, which begins with “God is good” and ends by saying “it is good to be near God.” Another form of repetition, chiasm, reverses and contrasts words, dialogues, episodes, scenes and events with the most important idea in the apex, middle, or crossover in the story. A sign refers to an actual occurrence that carries importance beyond its surface meaning. The kiss of Judas for example signifies betrayal. Visions in the Bible refer to seeing beyond human sight and real existence and carries symbolic meaning. In Revelation for example the throne stands for rule and the Temple for religion, the Lamb for the sacrifice of Christ, and the wild beast for the opposing powers. Crain closes chapter two by reiterating that a more insightful approach is required to comprehend the Bible accurately. We must pay attention to the idiom of the original languages as well as that of the language into which the Bible is translated. Our approach must take into account the literalness of the word(s) as well as the appeal to the imagination. It will understand that metaphor expresses truth beyond logic and proposition and that interpretation need not be restricted to physical realities. Crain argues that the Bible must be read in a way that disregarding what it says figuratively would simply not make sense.

Chapter two was very informative regarding the different rhetorical devices used throughout the Bible. I felt that Crain’s main goal of this chapter was to equip the readers with the rhetorical skills needed to properly interpret the Bible. I found the information discussed in this chapter very interesting, it really helped clarify how and when to use rhetoric devices when interpreting part of the Bible. The one thing I can say however is because of the vast number of rhetoric devices defined in the chapter, the text didn’t flow so well at times. This I believe was unavoidable though considering the topic this chapter discussed. I feel like I am one step closer to being able to interpret the Bible with precision and accuracy after reading this chapter. I am very excited to begin chapter three and further my knowledge of reading the Bible as literature.