Understanding Biblical Periphrasis
NCW 75, April-June 2002
Q. What does it mean, "I have sinned against heaven" (Lk.15:18,21). Can one sin against a place as well as against God and against people?
A. This is an example of biblical periphrasis. Here "heaven" is a roundabout way of saying "God" (Elohim) and therefore the Godhead. Since heaven is the exclusive abode of the Godhead (Father, Son, Ruach/Spirit, and redeemed men and angels), to sin against heaven is to sin against these.
Literalists, who do not understand the Hebrew mindframe, have a tendency to miss such things. A careful comparison of scripture makes the identification of periphrasis relatively easy with a little care. For instance, rewards are said "to be given ... from heaven" (Jn.3:27). Since we know from elsewhere that all good things and rewards come from God (Elohim) (e.g. Ps.58:11; Is.40:10; 49:4; Ruth 2:12) it follows that heaven is again a roundabout away of saying God (Elohim).
Other examples of periphrases (though they may be personifications, abstractions and/or other things as well) would be using the terms Wisdom (Hochmah), Zion, the Shulamite woman, and Jerusalem as representations of the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit). In a spiritually shallow world where reverence and the day-to-day use of poetry has been taken out of language and replaced by meaningless coarseness and vulgarity, these things become increasingly difficult for the modern Christian to understand or appreciate.
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Last updated on 15 June 2004
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