Jamie Haffner


Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. 22-42.

The Bible is overflowing with rhetorical devices and to read and understand its contents, it is important to be able to identify and decipher tone, style, and rhetorical devices. Chapter Two introduces these topics and delves into some examples of rhetorical devices used most commonly in the Bible.

Before rhetorical devices can be studied, it is important to understand style and tone. Style is how the author arranges and organizes words as a mode of expression. Tone is the attitude and intonation the author uses.  For example, the tone of a piece of writing could be serious, ironic, or humorous.  Both the style and the tone of a piece of writing make each author unique and identifiable.

Rhetorical devices are used to manage language and manipulate aspects of culture to achieve particular effects. Many rhetorical devices can be categorized as a comparison, an association, or an arrangement of words. The devices that are considered a form of comparison are metaphor, simile, implication, allegory, parable, vision, sign, example, image, personification, and condescension. Devices that are considered associations are metonymy, appellation, and circumlocution. Examples of the arrangement of words include omissions, parallelisms, additions, irony, double meaning, belittlement, and incongruity.

Because each of these rhetorical devices is distinct and used differently in literature, Dr. Crain expounds on the main devices from each category. Metaphor, an implied comparison using “is”, and simile, an explicit comparison using “like” or “as”, are prolifically used in the Bible. Although these two devices seem to be similar and are commonly grouped together, they have very different implications. “Stating that one thing “is like” or resembles another (simile) differs substantially from saying that one thing “is” or represents the other (metaphor)” (p. 26). Metaphors can link two seemingly unrelated words and can have important theological connotations.

Personification devices represent or speak of things as persons. Parts of the body, like eyes, ears, and feet, are commonly personified in the Bible. An example of this is metonymy, which substitutes an attribute for the thing that is actually meant. Another example is synecdoche, a representation of a whole by naming only a part of the whole.  A type of synecdoche called merism joins two contrasting parts with the word “and” to express totality. A related device is oxymoron, which uses seemingly self-contradictory ideas in conjunction with each other.  

Explicit traits of a one group can be given to another party as a rhetorical device. Anthropomorphism gives human characteristics like body parts and emotions to God. This is a very important aspect of both the Jewish and Christian faiths because imitating God is a central theme. Zoomorphism gives animal characteristics to a different species.  Dr. Crain uses the example of Psalm 63.8, “In the shadow of your wings I used to rejoice” (p. 29).  This zoomorphism paints a mental picture of God protecting his people like a mother bird and serves as a visual metaphor. 

Referencing the Bible in other parts of the Bible is another common rhetorical strategy. Quotations of the Old Testament are commonly found in the New Testament.  Quotations can also allude to or reference other passages. In just one book of the New Testament (Revelations) there are over 350 allusions to the Old Testament (p. 32). Foreshadowing is also used to give subtle hints about future aspects of the story or to reinterpret other passages.  These devices contribute to the unification and coherence of the books of the Bible.

The authors of the Bible used irony to suggest the opposite of what was literally written.  A form of this irony is the use of rhetorical questions.  Rhetorical questions are commonly used in the Bible as God and humans have a conversation.  A great example of this is in Job 38.4 when God asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (p. 34).  God is emphasizing Job’s lack of authority and status as a creation and not the Creator.

Amplification is a device that uses more words than is required to emphasize or intensify. In sense, the opposite of this is euphemism, which uses an expression substitute for a word that could be considered offensive or upsetting.  The use of euphemisms in the Bible stands out against the plain language normally used by the authors. Sometimes this translation of euphemisms from one language to another is difficult to accurately achieve.

Different types of repetition can also be used deepen the meaning of literature as a rhetorical device. Recursion involves the repetition of key events from one narrative to another. Inclusio sets off the beginning and ending of a passage by framing it in repetition. Chiasm uses repetition by location the most important concept within juxtaposition or words or events. 

Two devices that carry symbolic meaning are signs and visions. Signs are occurrences that symbolically carry significance beyond its surface significance. Visions indicate that a person is “seeing beyond human sight and real existence” (p. 40). Many times visions occur within dreams of a person chosen by God for a specific purpose.

This chapter was an excellent overview of the most important rhetorical devices used in the Bible. The devices chosen to expound upon are very relevant in the texts of the Bible and understanding how these devices are used is critical for understanding the many layers of meaning within the Bible as a whole. Each of these devices was bolded, defined plainly, and supported with examples from the Bible. This made finding specific rhetorical devices convenient and also contributed to the textbook-style of the book.

The organization of this excerpt was difficult to grasp and made synthesizing the information difficult. The paragraph on “Style, Tone and Strategy” (p. 23-24) seemed unconnected to the focus of the chapter, rhetorical devices. The paragraph is really just a collection of definitions lacking any connection to each other. An explanation of why style and tone are not considered rhetorical devices would have tied the concepts together in a more logical manner.

The organization of the devices themselves was also confusing. The devices were grouped into small categories of two to four related devices, but no effort was made to acknowledge the connection among each device in the group. Dividing the detailed passages of the rhetorical devices into two larger sections (comparison/association and arrangement of words) and adding a small title or description of each category would tie the concepts together and make their relationships clearer to the reader.

Overall, Chapter Two of Dr. Crain’s “Reading the Bible as Literature,” contains much useful information on the major rhetorical devices used in the Bible.  While the organizational layout was difficult to decipher, the rhetorical devices chosen were key devices for understanding the Bible and each device was bolded, defined plainly, and well supported with examples.