A Closer Look:
#10 Figures of Speech

By Joel Heller

I have heard people say “I don’t believe the Bible, because I don’t believe [something that it doesn’t say].” I have also been given advice “Don’t take the Bible so literally.” Before we can decide whether we believe literally what the Bible says, we must first literally read it. Though the plain meaning of the text might not be the literal meaning of the words used, but a figure of speech.

E. W. Bullinger, in his Figures of Speech Used in the Bible,1 identifies more than 200 different figures. Figures of speech are departures from regular usage to emphasize a particular aspect of an idea. Many of us were exposed to maybe a half dozen in high school English class. We learned about simile, which uses “like” or “as” to compare one thing to another; metaphor, which compares one thing to another saying one thing is another. On the street, we hear a disagreeable person denigrated by someone saying he is an [unpleasant body part]. That is what Spock called a “colorful metaphor” in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

And replacing the name of the unpleasant body part with more polite language, is an example of euphemismos, or euphemism.

When a teenager argues, “But everybody else gets to,” that is not a literally true statement. It is the figure hyperbole, an exaggeration made to emphasize a point. Mom usually answers, “But I’m not everybody else’s mother.” When Yeshua says if your hand, foot or eye causes you to sin, cut it off,2 The plain meaning is hyperbolic. I heard of a tragic case where a young man emasculated himself, because he believed that part was causing him to sin. Had he consulted with a trusted elder, I doubt that he would have made that horrible decision. The part where sin originates is the imagination which cannot be cut out, not the hands, feet, nor eyes.

When the KJV translates Ephesians 1:19, “. . . the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe . . .,” the emphasis is on “us.” This is an example of tmesis or cutting in two. A simple statement could have said “toward us,” but to emphasize that His power is toward us, “toward” is cut in two, and “us” is inserted into the cut. When the starship Enterprise was given her mission “. . . to boldly go where no one had gone before,” the split infinitive “to boldly go” is not a grammatical error, it is a tmesis, emphasizing the boldness in her going.

In saying that the ship has a mission, we see an example of metonymy, or change of nouns. The people on board, the captain and crew had their orders from Starfleet, not the ship. The ship is named in the place of the people.

At a time where Elijah was discouraged about his prophetic ministry, he had this encounter with God:

And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.3

The words “still, small voice” might be better translated “silent, thin voice (or sound).” Many translators have had difficulty rendering this verse in idiomatic English. A “silent voice” is an example of the figure oxymoron, or sharp-dull. It evokes a mental image through internal contradiction.

I’ll bring this to a close with the favorite figure of punsters, paronomasia, the use of words with similar sound, but different meanings. When we are instructed to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” the figure doesn’t survive translation. The similar sounding words are sha’alu for the shalom of Yeru-shalayim. When Joseph is instructed to name Mary’s child “Jesus for he will save his people from their sins,” the paronomasia only shows in the Hebrew version. In Greek, the instruction was to call his name Iesuon because sosei, he will save. The pun makes no sense in the Greek.  In Hebrew, Yosef is instructed, you shall call him Yeshua, salvation, because yisha, he will save.

I said I’d close with paronomasia, but I cannot resist one more: ellipsis. Ellipsis leaves out some information emphasizing precisely what is left out. For example, we can divide people into two groups, those who can extrapolate from incomplete data . . .


1 Bullinger, E. W. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. London, Eyre & Spottiswoode; New York, E. & J. B. Young & Co. 1898. No win public domain, available free online.
Mt 18:8–9; Mk 9:45–47.
1Kg 19:11–12 KJV.
“Voice” and “sound” are the same word in Hebrew: qol.

5 Ps 122:6

6 Mt 1:21

Joel Heller Profile Picture

Joel Heller is the author of Neither Yavne nor Antioch: Recovering Nazarean Judaism. He is a retired member of the Kansas Bar. In place of traditional Protestant presuppositions, he brings the common-law principles of legal interpretation to the interpretation of God’s Law, called the Torah or Nomos. You can reach him by email.