Classical Figures

One way to better appreciate the impact of biblical prose is through attention to the so-called classical figures. The “standard” reference work for biblical figures is E.W. Bullinger’s Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. Bullinger’s work, originally published in 1898 and since reprinted, contains sections on 217 different figures, some with more than 30 variations.

Following Bullinger, a figure “is a word or sentence thrown into a peculiar form, different from its original or simplest meaning or us” (p. xv). Therefore, recognition and classification of a figure is not strictly an objective decision. Bullinger’s samples represent a very generous estimate. If in doubt, you can always consult a more modern commentary.

Bullinger writes on both the positive value of noting these figures, and on the deleterious effects of missing them with all the piety of a 19th century churchman. On the value of classical figures, Bullinger notes that they are used:

“always for the purpose of giving additional force, more life, intensified feeling and greater emphasis. Whereas today ‘Figurative language’ is ignorantly spoken of as though it made less of the meaning, and deprived the words of their power and force. A passage of God’s Word is quoted; and it is met with the cry ‘Oh, that is figurative’ – implying that its meaning is weakened, or that it has quite a different meaning, or that it has no meaning at all. But the very opposite is the case. For an unusual form is never used except to add force to the truth conveyed, emphasis to the statement of it, and depth to the meaning of it” (p. vi; emphasis in original).

Bullinger’s point is that figures break the expected diction or syntax in an attempt to call the reader’s attention to something. An alert reader is usually rewarded for pausing to sort the matter out. On the other hand, those who do not invest the effort are warned:

“…translators have made blunders as serious as they are foolish. Sometimes they have translated the figure literally…sometimes they have taken literal words and translated them figuratively. Commentators and interpreters, from inattention to the figures, have been led astray from the real meaning of many important passages in God’s Word; while ignorance of them has been the fruitful parent of error and false doctrine. It may be truly said that…the erroneous and conflicting view of the Lord’s People have their root and source, either in figuratively explaining away passages which should be taken literally, or in taking literally what has been thrown into a peculiar form….thus, not only falling into error, but losing the express teaching, and missing the special emphasis which the particular Figure was designed to impart to them” (p.xvi).

With that, here are three examples drawn from the opening chapters of Genesis, with Bullinger’s commentary:

Anadiplosis, or like sentence endings and beginnings, is the very first figure in the OT.

From Gen 1:1-2: In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void…

This figure “is used to call our attention to, and emphasize the fact that, while the first statement refers to two things, “the heaven and the earth,” the following statement proceeds to speak of only one, leaving the other entirely out of consideration” (p. 251).

Similarly Gen 7:18-19: “…and the ark went upon the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed exceedingly.”

and Gen 31:6-7: “Ye know that with all my power I have served your father. And your father hath deceived me, and changed my wages ten times…?

The second figure found in the Bible is paronomasia, or rhyming-words. With this figure, our attention is called to two things by a similarity of sound. “Otherwise, we might read the passage, and pass it by unnoticed; but the eye or the ear is at once attracted…and our attention is thus drawn to a solemn or important statement which otherwise would have been unheeded” (p. 307).

From Gen 1:2 And the earth was tohu va-vohu (unformed and void).

Finally, the third figure is aposiopesis, or sudden-silence. “It is the sudden breaking off of what is being said (or written) so that the mind may be more impressed by what is too wonderful, solemn, or awful for words: or when a thing may be, as we sometimes say, ‘better imagined than described.’” (p. 152). The earliest example of this in the OT is an example what is “too awful” for words:

Gen 3:22 And now, lest he put forth his hand, take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever—Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden…

Pausing long enough to note the sound of this sudden silence definitely adds to the impact of the story.

But Bullinger was not totally without a sense of humor and proportion. From his entry on battalogia, or vain repetition, we read:

“These are repetitions, of course, which are vain, meaningless, and senseless. None of these is to be found in the word of God. Indeed, we are exhorted not to use them as the heathen do…The Holy Spirit therefore does not use them: so that we have no examples to give for this figure which man has named and so frequently uses.

Examples of man’s use of battalogia may be easily found, e.g., 1 Ki 18:26 or Acts 29:34, etc. Also in the Prayer Book.” (p. 404).

One cannot help but wonder whether Bullinger’s pastor was acquainted with Bullinger’s thoughts on the matter.

8 Replies to “Classical Figures”

  1. N.B. In the future when I add info on classical figures I will put them in as comments under the “Secular Sam” thread.

  2. Mogget,

    Bullinger’s is a sweet book (available now for cheap hardback at, but I also found that Hugh Pinnock’s Finding Biblical Hebrew and Other Ancient Literary Forms in the Book of Mormon summarizes most of Bullinger’s observations nicely, and he even includes little diagrams to help the right-brained folks among us better visualize the type of ancient literary form he describes. Pinnock is kind enough to include also parallel examples from the Bible along with his BofM observations.

  3. I just took a look at Pinnock. It’s a pretty book, but it totals about 182 pages, while Bulliger has almost 1200. Far fewer figures, with far fewer examples in Pinnock. Nothing on the NT at all. And no index of scriptures cited.

    It is, however, very nice on the entries it does cover.

    How is it that a guy who digs Bruggeman, Westermann, and von Rad can go for Pinnock? I feel like I need to click my ruby-heeled slippers, here!


  4. Mogget,

    Now that the floodgates have been opened, I must confess I felt the same thing when you mentioned Alter… ha ha.

    Seriously, I bought Pinnock back in the naive, WTF stages of pre-graduate school confusion, but held on to it because I liked the pictures! My three year old would concur. Ha!

    So, I picked up Bullinger’s after noticing Pinnock referred to it a bzillion times, and have used it occasionally when I want to sound smart in a paper. But you’re right — it is a great work, especially given its age. Oh, and you can buy it on CD-ROM at too.

  5. Those were the days…

    Wasn’t it great? Kabbalah was cool, Strong’s was the shiz, Mesoamerican archaeology fit the BofM just fine, and I thought an angel would appear to me every time I prayed…

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