Literary Devices in the Bible, Part 1: Introduction

The Bible employs a variety of literary devices to convey its message. This dynamic is especially true of Hebrew poetry, which often features an array of verbal imagery and artistry to express the writer’s theological meaning.

Perhaps even more so than straight prose, poetry captures the attention, stirs the emotions, and stimulates the imagination, thus helping readers discover new dimensions of familiar truths. Consequently, it also has the ability to provoke deeper reflection on, and greater appreciation of, those sacred truths.

Alexander Pope, for example, once described Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine with an evocative sentence that is nearly unparalleled in English. The line he crafted portrays the miracle performed in Cana of Galilee in a creative and memorable way: “The conscious water saw its master and blushed.” Here the poet personifies the water, giving it a consciousness, the capacity to see, and the ability to feel embarrassed.

water-to-wine-pourThe profound theological message conveyed in this one line speaks volumes about the relationship of the creation to its creator (one of subordinate humility), as well as the exalted identity of the one who performed the miracle (the creator himself, incarnated and living humbly as a craftsman in Galilee). Narrative alone seldom attains to such levels of eloquence. In his book Subversive Spirituality, Eugene Peterson writes:

“Poetry is not the language of objective explanation but the language of imagination. It makes an image of reality in such a way as to invite our participation in it. We do not have more information after we read a poem, we have more experience. . . . St. John is a poet, not using words to tell us about God, but to intensify our relationship with God.”

While it may be true that we sometimes “murder to dissect” (William Wordsworth), in this study we will take a closer look at explanations and examples for:

  • Common Figures of Speech
  • Common Semantic, Rhetorical & Poetic Devices
  • Common Structuring Techniques

We do so not to “murder” the text through crass dissection, but to better understand and appreciate its inner workings—all in an effort to hear more accurately the biblical authors’ intended meaning.

Do note that multiple devices can be at work simultaneously in any give text. Note also that these artistic touches enhance the beauty and richness of the biblical composition, undercutting modern critical notions that the sacred texts were written hastily or edited haphazardly. Rather, they are carefully crafted works of art.