Augustine and Saadia Gaon’s View on Metaphor

Augustine and Saadia Gaon’s View on Metaphor

From: Psalm 23: An Odyssey of Faith (Spring 2023)

Earlier philosophers and theologians of history were well aware of metaphor’s importance. One of the deepest and most important theological attitudes about the power of metaphor derives from Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.). He considered that one of the major reasons people have difficulty understanding the figurative expressions of the Tanakh is that they do not understand the subtle meaning of metaphors. Personal knowledge of the individual metaphor provides a far deeper appreciation of the reality it is intimating. Metaphors present a pictorial view of reality—but the picture is by no means static; it moves and breathes with vitality.

Metaphor tells a story that is subtle and saturated with hidden meaning. More importantly, its imagery captures the imagination. Augustine observes that place names, numbers, and names of biblical personalities are difficult to understand or comprehend because a reader lacks familiarity with the original biblical languages.

Ignorance of things, too, renders figurative expressions obscure, as when we do not know the nature of the animals, or minerals, or plants, which are frequently referred to in Scripture by way of comparison…. We find it easy to understand why the olive branch symbolizes perpetual peace because the dove brought with it when it returned to the ark. We also know that a fluid of another kind does not easily spoil the smooth touch of olive oil, and that the tree itself is an evergreen. Many, again, by reason of their ignorance of hyssop, not knowing the virtue it has in cleansing the lungs, nor the power it is said to have of piercing rocks with its roots, although it is a small and insignificant plant, cannot make out why it said, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (Psa. 51:7).  Likewise, the ignorance of numbers prevents us from understanding things that are set down in Scripture in a figurative and mystical way.[1]

For Augustine, if a biblical metaphor seems foreign, or obscure, it is because we have not yet grasped the content of its imagery and its contextual meaning as it applies to the biblical text. In addition, without the knowledge of the original Hebrew (a language that Augustine himself did not know well), the reader will never go beyond a facile understanding of the Holy Text. Augustine further notes that the fact Scriptures’ metaphors and euphemisms seem ambiguous to us is not happenstance—they are purposely ambiguous so that we may uncover its deeper meanings. If Scriptures seem difficult to comprehend, it is because its language points to something subtle beyond its surface meaning. Although human beings wrote the Scriptures, people of faith believe that God inspires these writers so that their words would illuminate the mind with spiritual clarity. He notes, “It is a wretched slavery that takes figurative expressions of Scripture in a literal sense. But the ambiguities of metaphorical words… demand no ordinary care and diligence. [2]

Rabbis of the Midrash are in perfect agreement with Augustine on this point. The very purpose of Midrashic interpretation aims to “search out”  and uncover the meanings suggested by the different nuances suggested in the Hebrew language. Saadia Gaon, the ninth-century Jewish philosopher, and biblical translator and author of the Arabic Bible known as the Tafsir, explained that all religious discourse is imprecise and bound by human speech and experience limitations. Human language (whether it is secular or religious), is inherently anthropomorphic and reminded his readers:

Without metaphors, language would be severely limited. Our words would not be able to convey even a fraction of what we think. Thus, if we wanted to speak of God in exact language, we would have necessarily to refrain altogether from describing Him as “hearing,” “seeing,” “being merciful,” or “desirous.” In the end, the only activity we could assign to Him, is existence![3]

Though Saadia criticizes metaphorical language, he realizes that the popular imagination cannot subsist without it. This is no less true with regard to the nature of religious language. Saadia argued that people need a functional language of faith that would make the Presence of God more meaningful to worshippers. He recognized how the metaphor can awaken the poetic and emotional faculties of the human heart. Without a feeling language, any spiritual discourse about the Sacred is impotent—even meaningless, for the heart is not aroused by prose language alone. Saadia further adds (like Augustine before him) that ambiguity of human language is paradoxically a wellspring for revelation and insight. The biblical authors purposely invite the reader to explore, decipher and interpret the words of the sacred text. The veiled meanings of the biblical words lend themselves to a multiplicity of interpretations. If one were to eliminate metaphoric language, human communication would soon become dull, as Saadia further observes:

These and similar words reveal the tendency of language to broaden the meaning of words. Each of the above expressions covers a certain range of meanings, and their allegorical meaning is established by their use in contexts where there is no reference to God. We know that language is an essential feature to extend the meaning of words and use metaphors and images.[4]

Saadia’s theory of language sounds remarkably modern. The use of metaphor goes far beyond the boundary of biblical or theological literature.  A poetic imagination never ceases utilizing metaphors describing the Heavens as “speaking,” or that a storm that is “raging” or “a wall listening.” The presence of another type of metaphor better known to theologians as “anthropomorphism” is ubiquitous in every human field of endeavor from science, art, ethics, music, cinema, literature, poetry, and especially in the realm of advertising. Automobile advertisers sometimes portray their cars as “sexy,” or advertise an engine as “muscular.” Movies frequently depict animals engaging in human activities or pastimes.

[1] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine,  II Chapter 16:24.

[2] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine,  II Chapter 5:9.

[3] Alexander Altmann, Saadia Gaon, Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, reprinted in Three Jewish Philosophers (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 87-90.

[4] Alexander Altmann, Saadia Gaon, Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, reprinted in Three Jewish Philosophers, op. cit.

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