In Tents #35 And the Cruse of Oil Failed Not to Trouble the Waters


Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.  (John 5.7)

Last month I ended with a contrast between metaphors and puns, saying that for puns the two things being compared are both necessary for the comparison to work, but for metaphors, only the metaphorical meaning counts. Tyler Chadwick objected, pointing out how the comparison is necessary for the metaphor to work, even if the comparison is immediately displaced by the metaphorical meaning.

I could have clarified what I was thinking about in the post by saying “only the metaphorical meaning counts rhetorically.” But I sometimes write in shorthand, leeaving out things that are obvious to me. Almost as soon as it’s spoken a metaphor sets up a hierarchy with the metaphorical meaning way up at the top and the literal meaning way down yonder, so far down yonder that we don’t think much about it. (More on this below.) Puns don’t set up a hierarchy. There’s no primary and secondary meaning. Both are primary.

But if I had said all that Tyler might not have felt the need to make his insightful analysis of metaphors. I’m still not sure I fully agree, but it may take me till next month to wholly explain why. In the meantime, stimulating thought is one of the benefits of debate. And while I was thinking about how to reply to Tyler I realized something about the difference between metaphor and simile that I might not have otherwise.

I’ve been fascinated for years by the fact that there’s no grammatical marker for a metaphor. Consider this phrase from Alma 50:30:

And behold, they would have carried this plan into effect, (which would have been a cause to have been lamented)

Alma (or Mormon) is talking about something that didn’t happen, but if it had happened it would have been lamentable. Our grammar can express a hypothetical future perfect tense for something that didn’t happen in the past. But our grammar can’t tell us if something is a metaphor or a statement of fact. Usually when I think about this I’m thinking about how someone claiming a passage in a literary or scriptural text is metaphorical validates that claim. You can’t validate it syntactically or grammatically. You have to validate through your knowledge of what seems reasonable, or your knowledge of common metaphors. But just because there is a figure of speech that describes a situation, that doesn’t mean the situation is figurative.

Think of that horrible scene in Black Boy where Richard Wright’s brother goes down to the outflow from the outhouse to find food and comes back with his mouth smeared with what he’s been searching through. There is a corresponding figure of speech for what the toddler has done, but I suspect Wright would be deeply offended if someone said, “That’s just too disgusting. He must be speaking figuratively.” And I’m sure he would be equally offended if someone were to read the scene in American Hunger where he and the waitress witness the Swedish cook spitting in the soup as she makes it, and say, “Oh, Wright’s just created an incident there to illustrate the figure of speech, ‘Eat spit!’”

But there is a grammatical marker for a simile, like or as. One thing this means is that we can always tell when someone is using a simile, but we can’t always be sure when someone is using a metaphor. In writing this up it occurs to me that the lack of grammatical marker may also mean we don’t care enough about the comparison in a metaphor to name it grammatically—but not because we don’t make a distinction between metaphorical statements and statements meant to be taken at face value. Rather, we may lack a grammatical marker for metaphors because we don’t really think of them as comparisons, or because the comparison is not what’s doing the rhetorical work in a metaphor. Despite what our English teachers taught us.

I heard a good example of a metaphor doing its work shortly after posting #34. On Wednesday Oct0ber 30, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius went before Congress to answer questions about the problem-beset rollout of After relating a story about a couple, her constituents, who were losing their insurance plan because it didn’t meet the new standards, Rep. Marsha Blackburn said “Some people like to drive a Ford not a Ferrari.” What’s the point of comparison? What point about the difference between plans is the same as the difference between a Ford and a Ferrari?

Suppose Sebelius had replied, “Which model of Ford? Jaguar, Astin Martin, Volvo, Land Rover, Lincoln?”

Blackburn may well have then said, and rightly so, “You’re missing the point, and being obtuse. You know what I mean.”

Or Sebelius could have said, “Yes, but we want to make sure every car has 4 safe tires, seatbelts, and an engine and transmission that work properly.”

Blackburn might have replied, “Touche,” but would she really want to suggest she was in a sword fight? She certainly wouldn’t have wanted Sebelius to engage the metaphor. The whole quote suggests what the point of comparison is: “Some people like to drive a Ford not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red solo cup, not a wine glass with a stem.”

But it also suggests one reason Blackburn wouldn’t want Sebelius to engage the metaphor. Surely she would be loath to offend all the Ford lovers and dealers and drivers and mechanics among her constituents by flat outright saying that a Ford is a cheap, basic, disposable red ride.

The rhetorical value in the metaphor isn’t to get Sebelius to start thinking about Fords or Ferraris and which car you might christen with an expensive bottle of champagne. The rhetorical value is to say something that sounds commonsensical enough that Sebelius won’t argue with it, then move on.

That’s one of the uses of metaphor, to seize common sense and shut down the discussion.

I’ll come back to this seizing of common sense, since it comes up a lot when we look at Jesus’ debates with others, but I want to return briefly to what I said earlier about not always being able to tell when something is a metaphor.

I was talking to a Catholic woman one day on my mission and she mentioned Padre Pio. “Who was he?” “He received the marks of the stigmata,” that is, she explained, the marks of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Now every time I hear Galatians 6:17 “From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord ‘Jesus,” I think, “Did Paul bear the marks of the stigmata?”

I recently came across a plausible non-Catholic interpretation of the passage as I finished reading Luke in The Jewish Annotated New Testament. I started Luke in December last but it takes a long time because I’m reading the cross references, and writing a lot of my own comments. While following a reference to Galatians 6:1 I came across Shaye Cohen’s comment on v. 17, which the NRSV translates as “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.”

Cohen says the passage translates literally as

“For I carry the scars (“Stigmata”) of Jesus on my body” (“branded” is not in the Gk). “Stigmata” can indicate branding (as of a slave) or tattooing (as of a religious devotee). Paul’s scars are the result of his beatings (2 Cor 6.4-6; 11:23-27) which he understands to mirror Jesus’ sufferings (2 Cor 4.7-10). Alternatively, the scars may be metaphorical (cf. 1 Cor 15.32, whose reference to “fighting beasts” may be literal or metaphorical.)

And I can’t help saying, why couldn’t Paul’s wounds be both literal and figurative—a type of the Savior’s wounds? Why do we insist on thinking of literal and figurative interpretation as mutually exclusive?

I found a good example over the weekend of a passage that is both literal and figurative. Around 1986 a 7-volume copy (plus index volume) of the Documentary History of the Church came through Seattle DI for a song, and I sang for it. A couple of years later, my notes tell me, I slogged through B. H. Roberts’ XCIV-page intro to V. I, and started Ch. I noting the contrast between the two as the difference between a philosopher and a prophet. But I didn’t keep reading. Till this year. I just finished Chapter IX, which describes two trials. As soon as Joseph was acquitted in Chenango County, someone served a warrant for Broome County. The constable treated him roughly:

He took me to a tavern, and gathered in a number of men, who used every means to abuse, ridicule and insult me. They spit upon me, pointed their fingers at me, saying, “Prophesy, prophesy!” and thus did they imitate those who crucified the Savior of mankind, not knowing what they did (91).

The men were doing something to Joseph that was both very physical, and highly archetypal, and if someone had called Joseph out for comparing himself to the Savior, he would surely have replied, “If the Master suffered thus, how can the disciples escape?”

One final comparison, or maybe two. The visiting Seventy at yesterday’s stake conference was Elder Marcos A. Aidukaitis (“I pronounce it Eye-dew-k-eye-chis” he said at the priesthood leadership session, “but it took me till I was 10 years old to learn it. My grandparents immigrated from Lithuania to Brazil.”)

At one point he said, “We have all learned to brush our teeth every night, but if we miss a few nights we don’t say, Oh, I’ve missed a few nights. I’m not worthy to brush my teeth anymore.”

He is a charming and funny speaker, and when we went over to the nursing home to do our home teaching afterward, one of the staff members told us she was going to pass that story on to her children, so they could tell it to their young children.

I think Elder Aidukaitis wanted us to think both about brushing our teeth and repentance, and coming back to church if we’ve been away. Which makes his story more of a parable than a metaphor. He wants us to engage both parts of the comparison, to use the literal meaning as a peg to hang the spiritual meaning on, or to use brushing our teeth as a reminder of our ability to repent and return.

He also included a more enigmatic comparison when he talked about his grandparents emigrating from Lithuania to Scotland.

When my father was 8 years old his father died in the First World War, and he had to go to work in the mines, like many in Europe, and he lost the opportunity for further education. My grandmother decided to take the family to Brazil years later and my father worked hard and made very little. He loved to read books but didn’t have formal education, so he urged us to get education in the field of our choice. I graduated as a mechanical engineer, then I got an MBA.

My father earned very little, but when he joined the Church he followed the law of tithing. He is dead many years, and he died poor–as to the things of the world. But we never lacked the things we needed. The law of multiplication was in effect. He would bring home three or four loaves and fishes and there would be enough for all of us, and to spare. It was a miracle.
(close paraphrase)

Clearly Elder Aidukaitis is speaking figuratively here, seeing his father’s life as a type for the widow of Zarephath’s, (he used the phrase, “the barrel of meal wasted not”) and for the multitudes Jesus fed, but the figure he’s using is not the kind that works through displacement. His figure invites us to think about God giving us our daily bread and multiplying it to our benefit, and the figure doesn’t preclude the possibility that he really is talking about a meal, or meals, that wasted not.

More about different comparisons later.

Your turn.

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2 Responses to In Tents #35 And the Cruse of Oil Failed Not to Trouble the Waters

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Your statement that “we can always tell when someone is using a simile” because of the grammatical marker of course invites me to see if I can find an exception. And I can. If we say that someone is “calm as a summer morning,” we can mean that he/she is calm in the same way (or to the same extent) that a summer morning is calm, but we *could* mean that when he or she happens to be a summer morning, he or she also is calm. We have to use our common sense to identify the meaning. (All in service to my perception that in English, we don’t capture meaning so much as suggest it — an important caution to all those like myself who make a living from trying to write clearly.)

    There’s a similar ambivalence in the phrase “marks of Jesus,” which typifies what I learned while studying Latin to think of as the multiple potential meanings of the genitive case. Does it mean the Paul’s devotion to Jesus? The same marks Jesus bore on his body? The marks placed on Paul by Jesus? We assume not the last, but if Paul means to emphasize his status as the servant (or slave) of Jesus, then we can’t rule it out.

    Perhaps the most potentially ambivalent phrase along those lines is “the love of God.” Do we mean the love that is characteristic of God? The love that belongs to God, and can be given to us only as a gift? God’s love for us? Our love for God? “All of them at once, and a very fine morning,” as Bilbo responds to Gandalf’s similar comment about the many possible meanings of “Good morning!”

  2. Thank you, Harlow and Jonathan. I was fascinated by this entire discussion. And my only point is: context. (And why it takes me a full novel to say something!)

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