The Foreignness of Biblical Metaphors
Years ago Raymond Van Leeuwen, professor of biblical studies Eastern College, wrote a helpful piece on Bible translation in Christianity Today, explaining why it is important to retain biblical metaphors as much as possible:
Metaphors grab us and work on us and in us. . . . Biblical metaphors drop into our hearts like a seed in soil and make us think, precisely because they are not obvious at first. . . . [I]t is the foreignness of metaphors that is their virtue. Metaphors make us stop and think, Now what does that mean? It is not clear to me that replacing metaphors with abstractions makes it easier for readers. . . . Metaphors are multifaceted and function to invoke active thought on the part of the receiver. Receivers must think and feel their way through a metaphor, and it is this very process that gives the metaphor its power to take hold of receivers as they take hold of it. . . . [I]f the original is mysterious, ambiguous, complex, rich in metaphorical suggestiveness, or just foreign and shocking to our sensibilities, so be it.
Alan Jacobs, in a piece on Bible translation for First Things, explains that we have to understand the difference between a metaphor and an idiom, applying this to the image that David is said to be “sleeping with his fathers” (1 Kings 2:10).
It is a distinction both simple and vital. It is highly unlikely that a Jew of David’s time, or at any time in Israel’s history, would have found a family member’s dead body and run to tell everyone that grandpa was now sleeping with his fathers. Hebrew has words to express quite directly that someone has died; the chronicler of Kings chooses here to eschew them in favor of a particularly hieratic and formal way of describing the death of David. When (in 2 Samuel 1) a man comes from the camp of Israel’s army to report to David, he says simply that Saul (along with his son Jonathan) has died. The deaths of Saul and Jonathan are given no cultural or political meaning, because by the time this history was written the people of Israel no longer identified Saul as having special importance for their national identity.
David, by contrast, is for the Israelites their first true King, the head of a proper dynastic line; therefore he does not merely die, he “sleeps with his fathers” in Jerusalem, the “city of David.” The phrase is not an idiom—a common phrase lacking an evident literal meaning—instead, it is a carefully chosen image of David’s place in the culture of Israel.
For more thinking on meaning and metaphors in general, here’s a recent conversation with Tony Reinke and Doug Wilson on the subject.