metaphors and anthropomorphisms

In the TV series Game of Thrones, there is a character called the Hand of the King. This character wears a bronze hand to signify who he is. No reader or watcher is confused by this title. No reader or watcher believes the king has a disembodied body part walking around in the form of a man. No, everyone understands the metaphorical title.

Hands are powerful. Hands can do thing. The hand of the king is something precious to the king, close to the king, extension of the king, and a symbol of his power. Likewise, anyone called the Hand of the King represents all these things. But because symbols are not absolute, the Hand of the King can be betrayed by the king or can likewise betray the king. The king can die and the hand can live on. Any sort of normal expected life outcomes are possible. The metaphor serves a purpose, but that purpose cannot be extended indefinitely. The immediate point of a metaphor is usually readily accessible to the audience.

Metaphors have meaning, usually obvious meaning. If the meaning is not readily accessible, then the metaphor loses meaning. If a King sends out a proclamation that he regrets making a law while at the same time repealing the law (“I regret I made the law, and now I will repeal it”), the regret is not a “metaphor” for repealing that law. If it were, then there would be no need to declare the resulting action of repealing the law. In this case, if the king did not actually “regret” making that law, a casual observer would rightly call the king a liar. The casual observer would not make excuses that “regret” is some sort of metaphor.

A very similar story occurs in Genesis 6:
God see the wickedness on Earth (v5).
God regrets making man (v6).
God declares He regrets making man and vows to destroy man (v7).
God finds an exception to His anger (v8).

There are those that label this story as a metaphor or an anthropomorphism. They claim that God always knew He would destroy the earth and had no regrets. They claim the regret communicates a change in process, not true regret. There are plenty of reasons this fails.

1. An entire story cannot be a metaphor or and idiom. Metaphors are limited to a word or sentence meant to mirror a similar concept for the sake of analogy or flare. Extended metaphors quickly lose comprehensibility or are called “fables” (and do not communicate truth).

2. In Genesis, there is no indication that the author believed that God actually foresaw the extent of wickedness in man before it happened. If the author truly believed that, then within 50 chapters one would expect some inkling of this belief. But this is not found, and instead, innumerable counter-texts can be found.

3. The metaphor must have meaning. It has to communicate something equivalent to the audience. There needs to be some conceptual overlap with reality. But the Classical theologians are amiss to explain what this is. If it is an idiom, it is not easily explained violating the very purpose and use of idioms.

Back to the Hand of the King: it is a metaphor, but it surprisingly tells the audience very little about the king. The King could be handless or have hands. The metaphor is not about the king’s hands but about a delegate. Metaphors are limited by context. One often used metaphor which ascribes “wings” to God is found multiple times in Psalms:

Psa 17:8 Keep me as the apple of Your eye; Hide me under the shadow of Your wings,

Psa 91:4 He shall cover you with His feathers, And under His wings you shall take refuge; His truth shall be your shield and buckler.

These metaphors are common in human speech. People intuitively understand them and use them in every day speech. It is not hard to understand their meaning: If God is asked to hide someone under His wing we naturally envision a mother bird sheltering a baby bird as a parallel to what God would do. What these verses do not do is give the audience any sense as to if God does or does not have wings. That is not the point of these verses and would be terrible proof texts for either view.

What is needed would be a verse that is clearly not an idiom and which clear takes a position. Even then it has to be evaluated in context. Can that fact change? Does it hold of all contexts? That is the question.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Bible, critical thinking, Figures of Speech. Bookmark the permalink.

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