The Old Testament – Book of Jeremiah II: Biblical Metaphors

I had assumed that the dentist and the hygienist were clearly kidding that flossing regularly and brushing would be a good idea.  When I was a kid I had pretty sad oral hygiene, which is why I had a bunch of cavities. I wanted NOTHING to do with getting shot up with Novocain and having my enamel drilled out, thank you very much. Like with most things, though, the reality isn’t as bad as the ideas you’ve concocted.  Still. When it came time to get my first cavity filled, I had all kinds of questions about what to expect, particularly about the pain I imagined being involved.

The details included the drilling, the filling, etc. but no mention of the needle he was holding behind his back. I was most concerned about what I would and would not feel. “All you’ll feel is a little pinch when I give you the shot”. I guess all pinches are equal, though I had had my fair share of painful ones. To ease my anxiety though, Dad was invited to watch. He held my hand and kept me updated on what was happening. And since Dad was fascinated with what he saw, I was a little calmer.

I still wished the doc would have found a different way to explain what the whole thing would feel like, for although I did feel the “pinch” I also felt the drill, the instruments in my mouth, although I didn’t feel any “pain.”

But I guess my old dentist explained the experience of pain and discomfort the best way he knew how: using a metaphor.

In the Book of Jeremiah, Jeremiah uses metaphors often to explain the extent to which the Israelites have screwed up and need to course correct. As his audience changes—his words span the reign of five different kings—he apparently had to find the metaphor that would make the most sense.

But not everyone has a clear idea of what a metaphor is.

In grade school (or perhaps later) you probably learned that a metaphor is a comparison between two things without using like or as (a simile uses those two). You probably learned that a metaphor helps a poet paint a pretty word picture.

Metaphors do more than sound cool.

A better way of thinking about this literary device is that a metaphor explains something abstract (like love) in terms of something concrete (like a rose).  You take everything you know about the concrete thing and graft it onto the abstract thing.  So if you can’t articulate an abstract concept, like what a person’s love means to you, for example, you turn to a metaphor (or a buy a card with one developed on it) to do the heavy lifting.  The outside of the card might read: my love for you is like a blooming rose.  The inside might follow with: it is just opening up, smells pretty, is delicate, etc.

All metaphors are incomplete, though, for in the rose=my love example, the author might omit how roses need careful watering, have thorns that will prick you, and they will die soon, no matter what you do for it.

So, although metaphors can be effective in explaining something, they should be used carefully.

In trying to explain how bad Israel has treated God, Jeremiah explains how they are like a woman who leaves her husband, lived as a prostitute, and then tries to reconcile with her husband (3:1). Seems like women are the only people who step out of marriage, but that aside, this seems to make a strong impression, for being a prostitute is so prevalent in the Old Testament, this is bound to make the point.

But God really has a problem with the false prophets, who claim to speak on God’s behalf.  To articulate how bad these have been, Jeremiah has been armed with God’s true words, and these words will be like fire that consume these prophets as if they were wood(5:14). And we all know what fire does to wood.

But things take a dark turn when a rape metaphor is used (13:22). Not only is the suggestion that people will punished as they deserved—they will be raped; but rather God is the one who will do the raping (13:26). Where to begin with this one? So some rape is justified?

Thankfully, the brutal metaphors soften when the clay metaphor is used to explain God’s relationship with the Israelites: he is the potter and they the clay. He lets Israel know that not only are they his people and he will do with them as he wishes—he gave them the rules and they broke them, so deal with his punishment, which he will decide—but he is preparing a disaster for them (18:5-10).

But perhaps such harsh metaphors needed to be tempered, and what better way to man’s head than through his stomach. Thus, the fig basket metaphor uses to explain things to Jeremiah. The good figs, the ones that can be eaten and worth being enjoyed are the recently exiled Israelites in Babylon (the ones who went where they were supposed to) (24:5-7). The bad, poor figs represent King Zedekiah who, with his advisors and other survivors of Jerusalem, is hiding out in Egypt.  God has all kinds of nastiness planned for them—things beyond what one would do to a bad basket of figs (24:8-10).  This fig metaphor is apparently so effective, it’s used to convey to the priests in exile that all who did not go into exile in Babylon will be treated like a bad batch of figs (29:17).

Given how little impact all the warnings had on the Israelites, it appears they should have used better metaphors. Or perhaps they just needed someone to hold their hands and do a better job of explaining things in general, as my dad did, who throughout my first cavity filling kept me updated and made the whole experience a little more pleasant—or perhaps about as pleasant as such a thing can be.


About virgowriter

Brad Windhauser has a Master's in English from Rutgers University (Camden campus) and an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He is an Associate Professor (Teaching/Instruction) in the English Department at Temple University. His short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Santa Fe Writer's Project Journal, Ray's Road Review, Philadelphia Review of Books, Northern Liberty Review, and Jonathan. His first novel, Regret (a gay-themed thriller set in Philadelphia) was published in 2007. You can read more about (and buy) it here: His second novel, The Intersection, is being published by Black Rose Writing September 2016. He is one of five regular contributors to On his solo blog, he is chronicling his experience as a gay writer reading the Bible for the first time: Follow his work at:
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1 Response to The Old Testament – Book of Jeremiah II: Biblical Metaphors

  1. Dana Taylor says:

    This was very helpful. Especially since I am trying to gain a better understanding of God’s word. Thank you so much.

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