Metaphor Theory and Societal Change: Exile in the Hebrew Bible – By Katie Heffelfinger

Katie Heffelfinger on Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor Enduring Exile: The Metaphorization of Exile in the Hebrew Bible

Enduring Exile
Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor, Enduring Exile: The Metaphorization of Exile in the Hebrew Bible, Brill, 2010, 230p., $130

Metaphors are powerful shapers of cultural concepts. Last January’s use of the expression “fiscal cliff” successfully metaphorized a set of political and economic issues by incorporating cultural associations of cliffs: they are dangerous, they are a point of no return, those who go over cliffs crash at the bottom, and so on. Previous economic crises had already introduced the idea of a crash into economic discourse. “Cliff” resonated well with metaphorical language already present in modern Western culture about the nature of economic crises, lending the metaphor credence and in turn fostering a sense of innate urgency in American collective thinking. One can imagine future crises drawing on the power and success of this metaphor: an “environmental cliff” or a “student loan cliff.” Hence, the march of metaphor proceeds: concepts from one area of life are joined with another, enabling a new way of envisioning a situation.

Metaphor theory proves invaluable for examining the development of a culture’s driving ideas — in this case, one of the central concepts in ancient Israelite literature, that of exile. In Enduring Exile: The Metaphorization of Exile in the Hebrew Bible, Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor traces the emergence of what she calls the “enduring exile motif,” describing how post-return Judeans came to see the exile as an ongoing condition. Through a process of metaphorization, “exile” accrues meanings beyond the historical deportation of Judeans in the sixth century BCE. Exile was not just a past event or a static notion but a focus of developing reflection in postexilic biblical literature. Halvorson-Taylor reads her primary texts (Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation, Second and Third Isaiah, and Zechariah 1–8) in ways that are insightful and sensitive to their literary features to highlight the variety of images and associations used to convey the idea of exile in this literature. Her readings build a case that attention to progressive change in the exile motif over time is warranted.

Halverson-Taylor’s approach to the history of ideas in biblical literature is innovative in that she brings metaphor theory to bear on the question of the Bible’s composition history. The interactionist theory of metaphor — associated with names like I.A. Richards, Max Black, Janet Martin Soskice, and Paul Ricoeur — focuses on the productive tension between two terms of a metaphor: the “tenor” and the “vehicle.” The tenor is the primary subject of the metaphor, the thing being described in metaphorical language. The vehicle is the descriptor. (In “exile is death,” “exile” is the tenor and “death” is the vehicle.) The two terms of the metaphor impact each other’s meanings, forging a relationship between the sets of implications associated with each term. The vehicle primarily tells us something new about the tenor, but there is an effect upon the way we view the vehicle as well. “Exile is death” guides us to think about exile in terms appropriate to death that, for a modern, Western reader, might include cessation, decay, irreversibility, and so on. But we also begin to see death in ways colored by the idea of exile, such as being forced, removed from the familiar, or estranged from one’s true home. Novel uses of metaphor put different systems of associations together, and effective metaphors have the power to add associations to the way we view a concept. This cultural productivity is key to examining the development of an idea such as exile.

The interactionist approach proves particularly fruitful in Halvorson-Taylor’s study, since she uses it to describe not only the process by which exile becomes a metaphor but also the emergence of unending associations. Metaphor becomes relevant for understanding how a text was originally created and then shaped through time. Exile’s journey to metaphor begins with the cluster of associations commonly attributed to exile. Pre-exilic treaty curses associate exile with YHWH’s wrath, punishment, death, disease, infertility, and divine abandonment. These ideas do not yet function as metaphors for exile. Exile is listed as one punishment alongside the others, not described as a disease. Exile is not yet a tenor with these vehicles, even though it joins their conceptual orbit. The process continues in Jeremiah’s book of consolation, where a later editor juxtaposes pre-exilic images including the Day of YHWH, wilderness, the cry of Rachel, and a battered lover with passages about the exile. This editorial strategy gives exile vehicles that did not originally refer to it but which develop the meaning of exile. The development of that meaning lends a paradigmatic quality to the exile.

The same process is at work in Isaiah. Second Isaiah rarely refers to exile except metaphorically. Exile is the tenor and a variety of dire situations requiring divine intervention are the vehicles. Slavery, bereavement, infertility, and spousal abandonment as tenors produce a vision of exile that is not solely geographical or political. Exile has attained a meaning whose resolution cannot be accomplished purely through geo-political restoration. Exile is now a metaphorical concept whose meaning transcends its literal referent. A pivotal moment occurs when Third Isaiah takes up Second Isaiah’s language of exile, applying it to a wide range of dire circumstances — primarily social ills — that demand deliverance in the post-return community. Exile has been metaphorized. It is no longer the tenor but becomes the vehicle, and this reversal of metaphorical terms enables its ongoing relevance.

Zechariah metaphorized exile differently, as an expression of the wrath of God. Since the mutual estrangement between God and the people is not limited to the exile but continues into the period of return, Zechariah continues to apply the metaphor of exile to the post-return community. Of the biblical texts that Halvorson-Taylor examines, Zechariah most clearly depicts the exile as an ongoing condition: the reality of life after the return is fully continuous with the exilic past.

Halvorson-Taylor’s application of interactionist metaphor theory to this progressive development of meaning proves quite useful, and she succeeds particularly when she traces the associations that metaphor gains, and when she highlights the reversal of metaphor’s direction in the shift of meanings between Second and Third Isaiah. The broad outlines of her trajectory for enduring exile’s development are convincing. Halvorson-Taylor makes an important contribution to how metaphor theory might inform our study of change in societal thinking over time and adds to our understanding of the idea of exile in the post-exilic period by looking at this idea with this method.

Metaphor theory is typically used in synchronic (final-form) studies of biblical literature, so its pairing with redaction criticism in Enduring Exile is innovative. The problem is that the composition history of these texts is difficult, and the conclusions of redaction criticism are very tentative. That tentativeness rubs off on Halvorson-Taylor’s account of how the metaphorical meaning of exile developed. It is also worth asking whether it is necessary for the metaphorization of exile to be accomplished using redactional strategies. Is it not equally possible that creative authors juxtaposed ideas in order to create new meanings without redeploying extant texts for that purpose?

Even if the history of an idea will always be tentative, Halvorson-Taylor’s readings of these prophetic texts and her insights into the ways exile was imagined, reflected upon, and responded to in the literature of the exilic and early post-exilic periods are rich. She clearly establishes that exile was neither simply a past geo-political event nor a static notion in the post-exilic biblical literature, but a focus of developing reflection. The method Halvorson-Taylor applies in Enduring Exile presents an important reminder of the power metaphor can have in developing societal thought and challenges scholars to think more broadly about the impact of metaphor as a shaper of cultural concepts.