Years ago, inaugural Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Coach John McKay was asked, after yet another loss, about his team’s execution. He quipped without hesitation, “I’m all for it.” McKay had the ability to quickly recognize not only the original, intended meaning of a word, but also other meanings as well. This quick-recognition skill helped him to be a master of wordplay. Yogi Berra, former Yankees’ player and manager, was also skilled at this, once referring to a recurrence as “déjà vu all over again.”
In communication we appreciate wordplay, but we often fail to consider that without initial, intended meaning, there could be no wordplay, puns, or discernible metaphor. Original meaning is vitally important, and it is an irony that without it we would lose the capacity to violate it in ways humorous or otherwise.
The Biblical writers are not strangers to wordplay, and we have several fine examples to consider. Paul’s allegory in Galatians 4:22-31 wouldn’t be useful at all if the original referents, Sarah and Hagar, weren’t discussed at length in earlier Scripture. Paul doesn’t change the meaning of the original texts (Gen. 16), but rather he uses that original intended meaning to teach a new lesson to the Galatians, using Hagar to illustrate the mother of those born under law, and Sarah, the mother of those born in freedom. Paul’s retasking of Genesis 16 comes with a transparent admission (“This is allegorically speaking,” Gal. 4:24) that he is borrowing the passage to illustrate something not discussed in the initial passage. In other words, Paul’s wordplay is obvious, intentional, and transparently announced. Further, it makes no attempt to reinterpret or redefine the earlier passage. The later passage simply employs the earlier one simply as fodder for an object lesson.
Solomon personifies wisdom as a woman in Proverbs 3:13-18, adding that she has a right and left hand (3:16). He extends the metaphor further by objectifying “her” as a tree of life (3:18), using personification and objectification in the same phrase. The result is to make wisdom a very personal and desirable thing – an effective tool with which to begin a book of proverbs extolling and advocating wisdom.
In 1 Kings 18:27, Elijah mocks (hatal) the prophets of Baal with sarcasm, affirming that Baal is indeed a god (elohim), so the prophets must not be calling on him with a loud enough (great, gadol) voice. Adding insult to injury, Elijah suggests perhaps Baal is asleep and needs to be awakened (hence the need for loud voices). In this case, the text announces Elijah’s wordplay (sarcasm). It is obvious Elijah does not view Baal as a deity.
Jesus gets in on the action, introducing parables in which the main characters are fictional by referencing people without the definite articles: “A man had two sons”(Lk 15:11), “Now, there was a rich man…”(Lk 16:1), “Now, there was a rich man…” (Lk 16:19). Notice especially the 16:19 reference, which introduces what some consider a historical narrative of Lazarus and the rich man. The introduction to the narrative is word-for-word identical to the previous one in 16:1 (anthropos tis en plousios) except for the word now or but (de), and that is different only because of the placement of the introduction to the story after the statement of setting in 16:1 (“Now He was also saying to the disciples…”). Jesus introduces the stories of 16:1 and 16:19 identically, showing the reader (or the listener, in the original setting) that the stories have the same weight, and are of the same literary kind. In other words, characteristics of Jesus’ metaphorical storytelling help us to contrast Jesus’ parables with His non-fiction statements – like the ones alluded to in Luke 24:27, “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”
Like Solomon says, “The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd” (Eccl 12:11). The masterful use of words is helpful on many levels. But Solomon also adds a warning regarding excessiveness with respect to words: “But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body” (Eccl 12:12). As readers and Biblical interpreters, we need to keep things simple, appreciate meaning, and take the text as it was intended. Going beyond these simple principles provides fodder for voluminosity, but leaves little room for perspicuity.