Readers of the ancient Israelite book of Ezekiel have long been fascinated, bewildered, and provoked by its imagery. One well-known example is the description of the prophet’s visionary experience in the first chapter, in which he sees multi-headed creatures, wheels with eyes, and the deity seated on a throne. This text became important as a model for ancient readers who wished to have similar ecstatic experiences. In more recent times, it has inspired numerous songs, paintings, and drawings.
I remember reading this text for a seminar in graduate school, where I noticed the curiously high density of the words “like” and “likeness” in the descriptions of Ezekiel’s vision (e.g., v. 13, “their workmanship being like a wheel within a wheel”; v. 26, “and on the likeness of the throne was a likeness like an appearance of a human”). Our teacher for this seminar challenged the assumption that such language was vague, the result of human inability to describe the ineffable. Rather, he contended, the repetitive similes and analogical language pointed to an extraordinarily careful attempt at precision and the facilitation of understanding via comparison.
Our ability to make comparisons lies at the heart of how we learn and communicate. Indeed, researchers have argued that analogy is central to human cognition—something that is certainly true in the construction and use of metaphor. The book of Ezekiel is particularly rich in metaphor, and one of the most unusual metaphors in the book is based on the image of meat in a cooking pot. We first encounter the metaphor in chapter 11, where it initially occurs in a speech attributed to upper-class citizens of Jerusalem:
“It [i.e., the city] is the pot, and we are the meat” (v. 3b)
This is followed by two statements attributed to God:
“Your slain which you placed in the midst of it—they are the meat, and it is the pot” (v. 7)
“I will bring you out from the midst of it . . . . It will not be a pot for you, nor will you be meat in its midst.” (vv. 9a, 11a)
These metaphorical sayings are realizations of the conceptual metaphor A CITY IS A CONTAINER. While classical conceptual approaches (see e.g. Lakoff & Johnson) would analyse the metaphor “this city is a pot” as the mapping of elements from a source domain onto a target domain—in this case, “cooking pot” is mapped onto “city”—newer approaches (see e.g. Fauconnier & Turner) would speak of the metaphor as the blending of information from two spaces: our knowledge about containers, and our knowledge about cities.
But the metaphor is immediately complicated (or we might say: further information is being brought into the blend) by the issue of the contents of the container, here identified as “meat in the pot.” The upper-class citizens claim that they are the meat in the pot. But how are the citizens of a city comparable to meat in a cooking pot? Is this a positive expression, or a negative expression?
The speech attributed to God in vv. 9, 11 is clearly an expression of judgment and a contradiction of the initial statement by the city’s citizens. This causes the reader to take the initial statement in v. 3 as an expression that is positive (from the perspective of the speakers). It is a comprehensible—though admittedly unusual—image of a good fit: meat is properly contained in a cooking pot, and the upper-class citizens are properly contained in the city of Jerusalem. In other words: We belong here. This is the claim that is contradicted and reversed in vv. 9, 11.
But we see yet another contradiction of the initial claim: the speech attributed to God in v. 7. Here it is asserted that the upper-class citizens are guilty of murder, and that they have placed the corpses of their victims inside the city just as meat is placed in a cooking pot. So we now have two metaphors of the city-as-container: one in which the meat in the pot is equated with living citizens (a positive claim), and one in which the meat in the pot is equated with the bodies of their victims (a negative accusation).
What is striking about these metaphors is that the images usually associated with meat in a pot—namely, cooking and eating—are never mentioned in the chapter! The purpose for placing meat in a pot is assiduously avoided in order to concentrate on the notion of fit, whether that fit is proper (v. 3) or improper (v. 7) or negated (vv. 9, 11).
The avoidance of references to cooking (or we might say: the strategic absence of expected information in the blend) is most likely deliberate, being delayed until chapter 24. In this chapter the city is again metaphorically depicted as a pot (24:6a), and here too the metaphor is used to make multiple arguments. In 24:3-6, the description of cooking and the removal of meat from the pot seems to be a metaphor for the siege of the city and the exile of its inhabitants. In 24:6-7, 10-14 we find an argument that filth caked onto the bottom of a cooking pot cannot be cleansed by normal means—it can only be burnt off with intense heat. This is a metaphorical argument about the moral condition of the inhabitants of the city and God’s response to it, and it is built from the conceptual metaphors IMMORALITY IS FILTH, PUNISHMENT IS BURNING, and ANGER IS FIRE.
The value of cognitive studies for reading texts like Ezekiel is that it provides precise categories for describing how the same image can be used to describe different things, for explaining rapid shifts in the ways that metaphors are constructed and juxtaposed, and for describing relationships between metaphors. The usefulness of conceptual metaphor and conceptual blending theory for understanding the book of Ezekiel will be further explored in a volume to which I am contributing: History in Disguise: Metaphor and the Interpretation of the Past in the Book of Ezekiel, ed. Antje Labahn and Joel Kemp (T&T Clark; forthcoming 2023).
Dancygier, Barbara, and Eve Sweetser. Figurative Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Freeman, Margaret H. “Cognitive Mapping in Literary Analysis.” Style 36.3 (2002): 466-483.
Gentner, Dedre, Keith J. Holyoak, and Boicho K. Kokinov, eds. The Analogical Mind. Perspectives from Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003.
Van Hecke, Pierre, ed. Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible. Leuven: Peeters, 2005.
Verde, Danilo, and Antje Labahn, eds. Networks of Metaphors in the Hebrew Bible. Leuven: Peeters, 2020.