Similes in the Bible (A Compendium)

by John E. Ziolkowski (Author)
©2022 Others XII, 394 Pages
Series: Religions and Discourse, Volume 63


This book lists all the similes in the Bible in three different versions (Greek, Latin and English), noting especially the variation in the use of introductory words (protheses). There are over 1000 examples, not counting the predicate and genitive versions, a significant collection.
The Introduction discusses the parts and types of similes as well as other similar figures of speech (e.g., analogies, comparisons and metaphors); examples are provided of prothetic (prosthesis expressed: he runs like a panther) and non-prothetic types (prothesis implied: he is [like] a lion in savagery). The Conclusion points out various aspects of Biblical usage, some differing from those in classical Greek authors (Homer and Plato). The importance of similes in clarifying difficult concepts while adding grace to the narrative accounts for their popularity in philosophical and religious writers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • 1 Introduction
  • 1 Parts of Similes
  • 2 Types of Similes
  • 3 Other Figures of Speech
  • 4 Similes and Metaphors
  • 5 Factual Comparisons
  • 6 Similes in the King James Bible
  • 7 Similes as (a) Words, (b) Phrases, or (c) Clauses
  • 8 Parables
  • 9 Doublet Similes
  • 10 Divine Comparisons and Transformations
  • 2 Similes in the Old Testament
  • 3 Similes in the New Testament
  • 4 Conclusion
  • A Biblical Usage of Similes
  • 1 Abstractions:
  • 2 Love:
  • 3 The Five Senses (You Hear, Feel, See, Smell, and Taste):
  • 4 Humans Compared with Animals:
  • 5 Cities as Tenors and Vehicles:
  • 6 Doublets:
  • 7 Religious Concepts: Heaven and Divinity
  • 8 Style:
  • 9 Special Characteristics:
  • a Occasionally the English Version Adds a Simile Not in the Greek or Latin Text:
  • b Or the English Differs Completely from the Greek and Latin:
  • c The Greek or Latin Prototype May Be Simply a Parallel Clause Rather Than a Simile with Prothesis:
  • d Prothetic Words:
  • 10 Why Are There Similes in the Bible?
  • 11 Considerations in Enumerating Similes in the Bible:
  • 12 Differences with Classical Greek Authors Plato and Homer:
  • B Summary of the Eight Appendices
  • Bible Chart 1
  • The Old Testament: Summary of Similes
  • The New Testament Summary of Similes
  • Appendices
  • Appendix I An Outline of Similes in the Old Testament
  • Appendix II An Outline of Similes in the New Testament
  • Appendix III Location of Similes in Each Book of the Bible with Summaries
  • Appendix IV Predicate Similes (*a1/ and *a/2) (Some predicate similes are also listed in the main collection if they occur in sentences with regular similes.)
  • Appendix V Genitive Similes
  • Appendix VI Factual Comparisons (Examples of literal transformations and comparisons that are more factual than figurative.)
  • Appendix VII Words for Simile; Some Metaphors; Verbal Similes
  • Appendix VIII Doublets and Recurring Vehicles
  • A Doublet Similes in the Old Testament
  • B Triplet Expressions in Jeremiah
  • Bibliography
  • Religions and Discourse

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I would like to thank members of the Production Team at Peter Lang for their generous assistance to me at many points along the way: Lucy Melville, Ashita Shah and Jaishree Thiyagarajan. Professors Diane Bergant and Paul Duff were also very helpful.

←x | xi→


Several years ago, my work concentrated on analyzing the similes in Plato’s Dialogues, which involved distinguishing similes from metaphors, starting with Aristotle’s discussion (Rhetoric Book 3.4.1–4 [1406b–1407]). Next some colleagues and I published a compendium of similes in the Iliad and Odyssey. (See Bibliography.) The purpose of the current study is to list all the similes in the Bible in three different versions (Greek, Latin, and English), noting especially the variation in the use of introductory words (protheses). There are over one thousand examples (not counting the predicate and genitive versions), a significant collection. The Introduction discusses the parts and types of similes as well as other similar figures of speech (e.g., analogies, comparisons, and metaphors); examples are provided of prothetic (prothesis expressed: he runs like a panther) and non-prothetic types (prothesis implied: he is [like] a lion in savagery).

The Conclusion points out various aspects of Biblical usage, some differing from those in classical Greek authors (Homer and Plato). The importance of similes in explaining abstractions accounts for their popularity in philosophers and religious writers, who compose similes to add clarity to their discussion. Examples are given of visualizing size (small as dust), love (kisses better than wine), and the senses (sweeter than honey). Similes are also an effective way of clarifying religious concepts (kingdom of heaven like a mustard seed or “the lord is my shepherd”). By comparing their presentation in different languages one can appreciate the variety of ways the same thoughts are expressed. (See examples below.) The eight Appendices provide abbreviated lists of the similes in the Old and New Testaments as well as examples of predicate and genitive similes, doublets (repeated similes with a slight change, e.g., Genesis 49.9, “he couched as a lion, and as an old lion,” an unusual feature of the Old Testament), and factual comparisons (Daniel 7.3, “And four great beasts came up from the sea ←xi | xii→… 4 The first was like a lion”). A chart provides an easy way to compare, for example, the use of the same prothetic words (as, ὡς and sicut) in different authors.

Here are two examples of similes in three languages (English, Greek, and Latin):

Proverbs 7.2 Keep my commandments, and live; and my law as the apple of thine eye.

7.2 φύλαξον ἐμὰς ἐντολάς, καὶ βιώσεις, τοὺς δὲ ἐμοὺς λόγους ὥσπερ κόρας ὀμμάτων·

7.2 Fili, serva mandata mea, et vives; et legem meam quasi pupillam oculi tui:

[my law (keep) ≈ the apple of your eye]

N.b. the variation: English has imperative “live” and the vehicle “apple”; whereas the Greek and Latin have future tense verbs (vives and βιώσεις) plus different words for the vehicle (pupillam and κόρας = pupil and “daughters”)

Psalm 144.4 Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away.

143.4 ἄνθρωπος ματαιότητι ὡμοιώθη, αἱ ἡμέραι αὐτοῦ ὡσεὶ σκιὰ παράγουσι.

143.4 Homo vanitati similis factus est; dies ejus sicut umbra praetereunt.

N.b. Greek has a verb for “is like,” the Latin an adjective; in the second clause the verb is placed with shadow in English instead of with days.

* * *

←0 | 1→

1 Introduction

The King James Bible (KJB) has been read and cited widely since its completion in 1611 CE. The translation was done by forty-seven scholars, who used the Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament (39 books) and the Greek for the New Testament (27 books). In this “treasure house of English prose”1 similes have played an important role, since they employ such a rich field of references and emphasis. Consider these examples:

And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven.

(Gen. 26.4)

Understand therefore this day, that the Lord thy God … as a consuming fire he shall destroy them. (Deut. 9.3)

Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese? (Job 10.10)

The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field.” (Matt. 13.31)

For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. (1 Thes. 5.2)

Such vivid comparisons help to clarify difficult concepts and add variety to the narrative.

Although collections of similes from various books of the Bible are available in print, currently there is no source that provides a complete compilation of Biblical similes (over one thousand in the Old Testament alone; see Appendix III). My work takes up this task with an additional feature: not only is the English provided but the Greek and Latin translations are also included. This is especially useful since it allows the reader to compare versions. Thus one finds that sometimes the simile is not included in other languages. Ideally one should also consult the Hebrew ←1 | 2→version (online texts are available), but this would have lengthened this study considerably. The Greek version is provided from the online text at <http://www.ellopos.net/ elpenor/physis/septuagint-genesis/default.asp>; and the Latin version from the online text at <http://www.drbo.org/lvb/chapter/28014.htm>. Appendices I (Old Testament) and II (New Testament) list all the similes in summary form; Appendix III locates them schematically in each book; and the two Charts present them in an abbreviated format. Thus there are various helpful ways to consult and compare the Biblical similes.

1 Parts of Similes

In copying the chosen passages, I have identified the three basic parts of similes: the tenor (italicized), the prothesis (underlined) and the vehicle (underlined and italicized), with the occasional apothesis marked in bold. Here is an example:

Psalm 42.1 As [prothesis] the hart [vehicle] panteth after the water brooks, so [apothesis] panteth my soul [tenor] after thee, O God.

41.2 ΟΝ ΤΡΟΠΟΝ ἐπιποθεῖ ἡ ἔλαφος ἐπὶ τὰς πηγὰς τῶν ὑδάτων, οὕτως ἐπιποθεῖ ἡ ψυχή μου πρός σέ, ὁ Θεός.

41.1 Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.

[my soul ≈ a hart desiring fountains of water]

Frequently the prothesis is contained in the verb or an adjective, as in the following Greek and Latin examples:

Verbal prothesis:

Matthew 25.1 Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins.

1 Τότε ὁμοιωθήσεται ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν δέκα παρθένοις.

The prothesis is contained in the verb.

Adjectival prothesis:

Judges 14.18 What [tenor] is sweeter than [prothesis] honey [vehicle] and what is stronger than a lion?

18 τί γλυκύτερον μέλιτος, καὶ τί ἰσχυρότερον λέοντος;←2 | 3→

18 Quid dulcius melle, et quid fortius leone?

The prothesis here is contained in the Greek and Latin adjectives.

2 Types of Similes

Similes are figurative comparisons that could be removed from the text with little logical effect and are usually not part of a series. There are two main types that may be distinguished by the presence or absence of an introductory “prothetic” word (e.g., “like” or “than”):

Prothetic (prothesis expressed): He runs like a panther.

or, He is fatter than a pig.

Non-prothetic (prothesis implied):

*a/1 Predicate nominative: He is [like] a lion in savagery.

or Appositive: He, [like] a lion in savagery, attacked.

*a/2 Predicate accusative: They considered him [like] a snake.

*b/1 Comparative adjective: My love is sweeter-than honey.

*b/2 Comparative verb: What is like (e.g., ὁμοιωθήσεται) honey?

*c/ Genitive: He put on a helmet of salvation (= salvation [like] a helmet)

NB: it is not the genitive that is similetic, but rather the noun on which it depends. [See Appendix V.]

*d/ Verbal: They trumpeted (= sounded [like] a trumpet) their victory. [See Appendix VII-3]

Similetic verbs, as in Daniel 13.5: ἐγὼ ἐποίμανόν σε.

5 I tended-thee-[as]-a shepherd (≈ I shepherded thee).

3 Other Figures of Speech

The Bible contains various figures of speech that are like similes:

←3 | 4→

a Analogy – a factual comparison or concrete example closely tied to a specific passage, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification. See Job 14.7–10: “hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again” … “but man dieth.”

b Comparison – a discussion of the similarity between things. See Section 5 below and Appendix VI: Factual Comparisons.

c Metaphor – a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. See Section 4 below and Appendix VII-2: Examples of Metaphors.

d Parable – a short story designed to teach a moral or religious lesson. In the parables, Jesus teaches abstract spiritual concepts (how people react to the gospel, God’s mercy, etc.) in the form of relatable stories, through which we gain a deeper understanding of God’s truth. See Section 8 below.

Another group of figures occurs more rarely: allegories, aphorisms, fables, and riddles:

e Allegory – a story in which ideas are symbolized as people; some would call the parables of Jesus allegories. In these stories, the characters and events represent a truth about the Kingdom of God or the Christian life. For example, in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3–9) the seed and different types of soil illustrate the Word of God and various responses to it (as Jesus explains in verses 18–23). The story of the Prodigal Son also makes use of allegory. In this story (Luke 15:11–32), the titular son represents the average person: sinful and prone to selfishness. The wealthy father represents God, and the son’s harsh life of hedonism and, later, poverty represents the hollowness of the ungodly lifestyle. When the son returns home in genuine sorrow, we have an illustration of repentance. In the father’s mercy and willingness to receive his son back, we see God’s joy when we turn from sin and seek His forgiveness.

f Aphorism – a concise saying or instructive maxim that contains a general truth, sometimes part of a simile (see Eccl. 10.1 below). ←4 | 5→Also called an “apophthem” (from Greek apophthegma): a “terse, pointed saying.” e.g.,“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!” (Proverbs 6:6) Or “Physician, heal Thyself” (Luke 4:23). A similetic aphorism (Eccl.10.1): “[just as] Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so [apothesis] doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.”

g Fable – a short story in which animals or objects speak a story, to teach a moral or religious lesson.

h Riddle – a question or statement intentionally phrased so as to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer or meaning. Samson’s riddle appears in the biblical narrative where Samson wagered a riddle to thirty Philistine guests, in these words: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness” (Judges 14.14). Also see Proverbs 30:18–19.

4 Similes and Metaphors

As a simile is an explicit figurative comparison (“But [God] made his own people to go forth like sheep,” Ps. 78.52), a metaphor is an implied comparison (“Ye have plowed wickedness, ye have reaped iniquity; ye have eaten the fruit of lies,” Hosea 10.13) based on a shift in meaning of the verb or other word (i.e., “plowed” is not meant literally). The two figures may be distinguished by the fact that simile is a grammatical construction (where both tenor and vehicle are expressed with or without a prothesis), whereas metaphor is a play on the double meaning of a word.

We should also note two types of metaphor, one like the example above (“Ye have plowed wickedness”) and another (“The Lord is my shepherd” from Psalm 23), where the metaphorical word is part of a simile (with an implied “like”: “The Lord is [like] my shepherd”). In the second example the metaphorical word (“shepherd”) becomes the vehicle. Many ←5 | 6→“non-prothetic” or “predicate” similes (traditionally identified as metaphors) are included in this collection and placed in a separate Appendix IV.

Appendix V presents another type of grammatical construction not normally considered similetic: phrases like “he put … an helmet of salvation upon his head” (Isaiah 59.17), here placed next to an explicit simile (“he put on righteousness as a breast-plate”). These expressions usually include an abstract word (salvation) visualized by a particular word (helmet). See 2 – *c/ above. Occasionally such constructions in the Greek or Latin are translated as normal similes in English: Lord,with favour wilt thou compass him as with a shield (for ut scuto bonae voluntatis tuae at Psalms 5.12).

We frequently add English words (especially verbs or protheses) that are understood in the Greek text:

For example, the Song of Solomon:

1.13 ἀπόδεσμος τῆς στακτῆς ἀδελφιδός μου ἐμοί, ἀνὰ μέσον τῶν μαστῶν μου αὐλισθήσεται.

13 My kinsman [is] to me [like] a bundle of myrrh; he shall lie between my breasts.

The justification for calling such constructions “similes” is that they are figurative comparisons with explicit tenors and vehicles, even though there is no expressed prothesis.

(a) Sometimes a second version of the English includes a prothesis (e.g. Deut. 4.24 is without a prothesis but the same phrase in Deut. 9.3 has one):

Deut. 4.24 For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.

Deut. 9.3 As a consuming fire he shall destroy them.

(b) Occasionally the prothesis that is missing in the English version is expressed in the Greek or Latin text, as at Exodus 14.22 (where the Latin translation adds a prothesis):

the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand and on their left.” 22 erat enim aqua quasi murus a dextra eorum et laeva.

Or vice versa: At Proverbs 25.25 the English has a prothesis (As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country), whereas it is missing in the Latin version (Aqua frigida animae sitienti, et nuntius bonus de terra longinqua).

Other examples of this feature may be found at Job 8.14, Job 41.19, 1 Samuel 17.43 = I Kings, II Kings.21.14, and Jeremiah 9.11.←6 | 7→

(c) Often a phrase with a prothesis (like the great mountains) is followed by a phrase without one (are a great deep):

Ps 36.6 Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep.

35.7 ἡ δικαιοσύνη σου ὡς ὄρη Θεοῦ, τὰ κρίματά σου ὡσεὶ ἄβυσσος πολλή·

35.7 Justitia tua sicut montes Dei; judicia tua abyssus multa.

(d) A non-prothetic simile (Deut. 4.24 For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire) may be followed by the same phrase with a

prothesis in English (Deut. 9.3: as a consuming fire):

24 ὅτι Κύριος ὁ Θεός σου πῦρ καταναλίσκον ἐστί, Θεὸς ζηλωτής. [the Lord ≈ a consuming fire] Moses quoting the Lord

24 quia Dominus Deus tuus ignis consumens est.

These examples show that a prothesis (e.g., “like”) is not a crucial part of a simile since it is expressed in some translations and omitted in others with no change in meaning.

5 Factual Comparisons

When the comparison is not figurative it is simply a factual statement rather than a simile:

Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies (Psalms 119.98). See Appendix VI for more examples.

6 Similes in the King James Bible

Sometimes the King James Bible has a simile where the online Greek or Latin text does not: e.g., at Job 3.24 the Latin version has a simile that is not in the Greek:

Job 3.24 my roarings are poured out like the waters.

24 δακρύω δὲ ἐγὼ συνεχόμενος φόβῳ·←7 | 8→

24 et tamquam inundantes aquae, sic rugitus meus.

Occasionally the English differs considerably from the Greek and Latin:

Ps. 90.9 we spend our years as a tale that is told.


XII, 394
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (December)
similes (1000) in the Bible compendium Biblical usage of similes Similes in the Bible (A Compendium) John E. Ziolkowski
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XII, 394 pp.

Biographical notes

John E. Ziolkowski (Author)

John E. Ziolkowski received his BA from Duke University (1958) and his PhD from the University of North Carolina (1963). He taught Greek, Latin and classics in translation at the George Washington University for forty years (1967-2007) and served as Chairman of the Classics Department for almost half that time. His publications have been on Thucydides, Roman musical instruments, and the classical tradition. Since retirement he has published studies on similes in Plato and Homer. He has given many public and professional lectures on literary subjects as well as classical influences on the public architecture of Washington, D. C.


Title: Similes in the Bible (A Compendium)
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