Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Brief Noob Literary Analysis of Isaiah 40:6-7

This week for my Christianity study, Pastor Mark gave us an assignment focused on Isaiah 40:6-7 (ESV):
6A voice says, "Cry!"
And I said,"What shall I cry?"
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
7The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the LORD blows on it;
surely the people are grass.

In our last chapter that we studied, we covered several literary conventions and how they are used in the Bible. Looking back through my notes and the chapter, the following conventions are what I'll analyze the passage for:

  • literal speech

  • figurative speech

  • simile

  • metaphor

  • parable

  • allegory

  • symbolism

  • prophecy

  • poetry


Not real sure whether prophecy is really a literary convention along the same lines as simile or metaphor. To me, in the list above, it stands out from the rest as not being a convention that is applicable to any other writing. So it is not so much a literary convention as a Biblical convention. But since it was covered in our lesson, I'll at least consider it anyway.

Literal speech. By literal speech, the question is whether the passage can be read literally. That is, with the simple, well-understood plain meanings of the words. The passage records the vision of Isaiah. To the extent that it is recording “history” I think it can be read literally. This really is the vision that Isaiah experienced. The only exception might be the first line, which could be figurative (see below).

Figurative speech. Are any of the words used in a way that is slightly different from the normal, plain meaning? Do they stand for something else? I tend to think not. The language is pretty straightforward and I don't think any of the words are used in a way that is different from what is written. I suppose there is the possibility that the first line, “A voice says, 'Cry!'” could be figurative in that it is describing a voice calling out, but perhaps not a physical sound that we would normally associate with hearing with our ears. Kind of like the sunrise I saw the other morning, which could have been described as the sky painted by God. In the same way, the voice described may not be an actual sound. Maybe.

Simile. Since simile is identified through the use of the words “like” or “as”, we can pretty easily spot the simile in the line “its beauty is like the flower of the field”. Following the line above, I suppose “its” could refer to either flesh or grass.

Metaphor. A more direct comparison than simile, this is indicated when a thing is described as being another thing. In this passage, I think there are a couple instances. First is the line “All flesh is grass”, the metaphor being that flesh is grass. The second occurs at the end when it is stated “the people are grass”. Here again, people are being compared to grass directly.

Parable. A parable is defined in our text as an extended simile and has a single main point. I think this passage probably does qualify as a parable. It is a very brief story about grass being beautiful, but it and flowers fade when the LORD blows on it. The point being that people (as grass) are the same – we will eventually wither and fade.

Allegory. An allegory is defined as an extended metaphor with different parts of the story representing different points. I think with the first and last lines of the story of grass being metaphorical statements, there is a strong temptation to see the whole passage as an allegory. But I'm not sure it really contains multiple meanings or multiple metaphors for different things. So I'm going to come down on the side of this not being an allegory.

Prophecy. As we discussed in class and in the text, Biblical prophecy is not foretelling the future. Rather, it plays one of two roles. Calling people (back) to a holy life and/or predicting blessing or judgment. I don't see anything in this passage that plays to either of those roles, so I'm going with no for prophecy.

Poetry. We had a whole section in our text about poetry, including how Hebrew poetry differs from English poetry. Given some of the conventions used to indicate poetry in modern Bibles, I suppose it is possible the passage was written in a poetical(???) manner. Not real sure on this one.

Have I ever mentioned that literature and English classes in high school were my most difficult subjects.

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