Rhetorical and Symbolic Language in the Bible

The bible often uses symbolic language or figures of speech to communicate its message. Following are some definitions to help you to understand how to view these passages.

Figure of Speech

figure of speech is the use of a word or words diverging from the usual meaning.


metaphor is a figure of speech that describes a subject by asserting that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as another otherwise unrelated object. (ex.” The Lord is a strong tower” or “All the world is a stage”)


simile is a figure of speech that compares two different things, usually by employing the words “like” or “as” (ex. “He jumped like a rabbit”, “For he who doubts is like the wave of the sea”). It is different from a metaphor, which compares two unlike things by saying that the one thing is the other thing, unlike the simile that uses the words like or as.


Hyperbole is the use of exaggeration to evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression, but is not meant to be taken literally. The word comes from the Greek ὑπερβολή (hyperbol), which means “exaggeration”. (Ex. “If your right hand makes you sin, cut it off.”)


parable is a short story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more principles, or lessons. (Ex. “The Prodigal Son”)

The word “parable” comes from the Greek παραβολή (parabolē), meaning “comparison, illustration, analogy”

It differs from a fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as characters, while parables generally feature human characters. It is a type of analogy.


Allegory is a literal device in which characters, events or objects represent or symbolize abstract ideas and concepts. In its most general sense, it is an extended metaphor.


Analogy (from Greek ἀναλογία, analogia, meaning “proportion”) is a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject (the analogue or source) to another particular subject (the target).