Reading The Bible As Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. 213 pp.
The third chapter of Reading The Bible As Literature: An Introduction by Jeanie C. Crain discusses image, metaphor, symbol, and archetype. These literary elements overlap and weave together to create the much interconnected literature of the Bible. Although, these connections are often hard to see, especially for someone who is just reading the Bible or is not very familiar with literary concepts. Knowing these literary concepts and being able to recognize them can help the reader to more easily see the interconnectedness, and therefore learn and understand more of the Bible, as a whole. “Rather than thinking of the Old Testament as ‘old’ and the New Testament as ‘new,’ it should be possible to explain them as providing a full metaphorical and archetypal picture of the envisioned ideal world realized in the final descent of a new heaven and earth,” Crain states. This seems to be done through these literary elements.
An image helps the reader to picture what is literally happening. A metaphor is a comparison, using figurative language to help the reader make a connection between two different things. A simile is a direct comparison which uses the words “like” or “as”. Motif involves a pattern of related events that unfolds. A symbol is something that represents something else; it provides greater, deeper meaning. Archetype is described as a “universal pattern in image or symbol (mountain top, city), plot motif (crime and punishment), and character type (jealous sibling),” Crain states.
The author discusses two unifying images. As Crain states, “master images recur in the Bible and serve as links between the Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible, between creation and the new creation, between physical reality and spiritual reality, the real and the ideal.” In Genesis, during God’s creation of the heavens and the earth, he states that he made light and called it day. He then made darkness and called it night. He then makes the distinction between land, naming it earth, and water, naming it sea. Light begins to represent life, goodness, and God’s gifts and He states that he can make darkness as light. It also signifies the right thing to do, in many cases. Darkness, light, and fire are said to portray God’s absence or presence on a very basic level.
Related to light is blindness. There is often a correlation in the Bible that can be noted between physical blindness and spiritual blindness, representing an inability to see the truth. As Crain notes, “the extinguishing of light becomes a notable archetype in the apocalyptic visions of the end of time.” This repetition of light providing deeper meaning to a pattern of stories, allows the reader to make a connection in different situations with a similar relationship. Light has been used in the Bible to represent creation, the fall, exodus and migration, destruction and redemption.
Knowing about these literary concepts will help the reader to recognize them and think about their underlying, deeper meanings. Knowing something about the context can help clarify the significance of the reference and what is being portrayed. Having the information that light often means having done the right thing, or God’s great power, can lead the reader to a better understanding of the situation. They will be able to recognize that there is a more intense meaning to light, more than just a simple single-syllable word. It has representation of God’s great abilities, and a guide to the right way to live.
“Water imagery in the Bible triples that of light…functioning in three main ways: as a cosmic force of life that can be controlled only by God; as a source of life; and as a cleansing agent.” Water is mentioned frequently in the Bible. There are stories where people are retrieving water from a well, washing others’ feet, floods, storms, boats on water. Water is used in baptism and as a cleansing and seas are parted. All these mentions of water have deeper and more significant meanings. Jesus tells a woman who asks for a drink of water about the difference between physical and metaphorical water. Crain notes that “physical water quenches physical thirst for only a short time; speaking of water metaphorically, he tells her about a water that satisfies the spirit,” the water that leads to eternal life.
Crain discusses five metaphors of divine-human relationship. First, the Metaphor of King and Subject, where God reigns as the King in the Kingdom of God and sits on his heavenly throne, a symbol of His great power. The subject represents the human counterparts, His followers. Second, in the Metaphor of Judge and Litigant, God is presented as the perfect judge. He warns His imperfect followers, the litigants and immoral humankind, of their impending final judgment. Third, the Metaphor of Husband and Wife relates to marriage, which “metaphorically, describes an ideal unity, a relationship built upon mutual love and realized in a permanent form,” Crain states. Christ is said to be united in such a way with the Church. There are also many examples of husband and wife in the Bible from Adam and Eve to Mary and Joseph, where it is said that two become one. This is also the case with new birth, being born of water and spirit. The many references to marriage represent a bonded, faithful relationship. Fourth, the Metaphor of Father and Child, which seems to me to be most prevalent, signifies God the Father who is the example of what the perfect father should be. In the Lord’s Prayer, believers pray to “Our Father in heaven”. This is something that is very relatable for readers, a father-figure; a provider, protector, and source of knowledge that is their father. Finally, the Metaphor of Master and Servant, portrays the Lord’s followers as servants, and even his son, Jesus, as a servant. And, it is noted that servants are not greater than their master.
Finally, Crain discusses “two dramatic encounters of the divine and human [that] occur on Mount Horeb and at Golgotha” as archetypal encounters of the divine and human. The mountains and hills are said to represent an awe inspiring and sacred site. God appears to Moses and the Israelites at mountaintops. The mountains are said to signify the progression toward redemption. They further symbolize the Law and sacrifice. Also, Christ is the intermediary of a New Covenant, making a connection from the old covenants of Noah, David, Moses and Abraham, to the new covenant.
The Mount of the Skull is represented with the crucifixion of Jesus. The cross has become “an expression of suffering, commitment, self-denial, and the bridging of the gap between humanity and God, the breaking of the barrier between Jew and Gentile, and the restoration, in fact, of the entire cosmos.” This representation of the cross can be seen on a daily basis in the form of jewelry, stickers, decoration, and many other things. Believers used this symbol as a reminder of what is represented with the cross. The Old Testament seems to exemplify sin in various contexts. Blood is a prevalent symbol mentioned in the Bible, often representing a source of life. Trees have also been made to create deeper meaning in the Bible. They prosper with water, provide shade, protection, fruition, and nutrition. They have deep roots and “symbolize strength, power, glory, wealth, honor - qualities that, in human beings, can lead to pride, exaltation, and arrogance”, Crain states. Representing life and immorality in Genesis is the well-known tree of life.
“Literature, unlike religion, generally neither affirms nor denies the reality of the vision,” Crain states. To me, this means that there are often a lot of things in literature that are kind of open to personal interpretation. Images, metaphors, symbols, and archetypes used in literature guide the reader to understand the writing in the way the author intended. But then again, everyone will likely interpret and understand these literary tools in different ways. Crain also notes that “although extremely literal, rooted in concrete human experience, the Bible always stands for something in addition to the literal; it is laden with symbolic meaning”, meaning that different readers could, and likely do, interpret and understand differently. I think this is partly what makes reading and studying literature so valuable.