Racking my brain for extended metaphors in 1 Peter


I enjoyed yesterday’s discussion of the expression “gird the loins of your mind” in 1 Peter 1. I’ve been wondering whether “gird your loins” was a live metaphor or a dead metaphor. My first inclination was that it was a dead metaphor. Much like the metaphorical language in the title of this post it is possible to use a metaphor without necessarily calling to mind a very active image represented by that metaphor. “Rack your brain” is one such case in English. It has its origins in medieval torture chambers but I don’t think most people necessarily have an image of a person or a brain stretched out on a torture rack every time they use that expression. Still, the meaning exists somewhere in the background and gives a little oompf to our speech. Otherwise we would just say something like, “I’ve been trying without success to think of something.” Now on one hand this illustrates the danger of reading a dead metaphor in the original language as being alive. I suspect that “gird the loins of your mind” in Peter’s Greek is an analogous situation to “rack your brains” in modern English. It was a metaphor that over time became semantically bleached until it added just a bit of literary color to speech without necessarily calling to mind the image itself.

imageHowever, and this is a biggie, we shouldn’t make the opposite error of assuming that the metaphor was essentially dead and there is no need to worry about it at all. One option is to replace the metaphor with a metaphor having a similar meaning in English and call that good. While it’s a good option, I don’t think it’s the best option simply for the reason that the metaphor Peter uses here is part of an extended metaphor or at the very least a leitmotif that is threaded throughout this letter. I noticed it this morning while listening to 1 Peter in NIV. Chapter 4 begins with these words:

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin.

(1 Peter 4:1, NIV)

The phrase ὑμεῖς τὴν αὐτὴν ἔννοιαν ὁπλίσασθε, seems to have a close affinity with the phrase in 1 Peter 1:13 and indicates to me that Peter was possibly using military imagery from the Roman empire in his letter in an intentional way. In fact imagery from Roman culture permeates this book. And it is contrasted with very homely images from the Galilean countryside. Shepherds. Grass. Flowers. Rocks. The collision of these two cultures, urban vs. rural, hierarchical vs. pastoral create an extended meditation by Peter on the difference between Roman authoritianism and Christian humility.

imageIf we accept the proposition that the two images in 1 Peter are consciously related it would be a mistake to explain away the metaphors or to replace them with equivalent metaphors in English that do not reinforce the militaristic theme that Peter seems to be playing with here.

Reading 1 Peter 1:13 in the context of the whole letter suggests interconnections between this verse and others in the letter and also guides me in how I might choose to translate this verse in the light of the overall themes that Peter is developing.

I’d like to pick your brains now and see what other examples of extended metaphors you can cook up in 1 Peter. But as for myself I need to put my nose to the grindstone before I’m accused of being a lame brain by my slave driver boss. If I’ve made any glaring errors I’ll accept the tongue-lashing I have earned. [This paragraph is dedicated with affection to our resident punster, Wayne!]

11 thoughts on “Racking my brain for extended metaphors in 1 Peter

  1. WanderingFriar says:

    The HCSB has it right: “get your minds ready for action.” And the phrase has the hidden implication of a pending military action.

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    If we accept the proposition that the two images in 1 Peter are consciously related
    it would be a mistake to explain away the metaphors or to replace them with equivalent metaphors in English that do not reinforce the militaristic theme that Peter seems to be playing with here.

    Now, that’s good logic. If you shoot down the “militaristic theme that Peter seems to be playing with here,” then you’re just shooting your translation in the foot. Disarming this text does violence to it.

  3. Rich Rhodes says:

    I hope this doesn’t come across too critical, but the expression is wrack one’s brains. Wrack is a now otherwise obsolete word related to wreak as in wreak havoc and wreck, esp. a shipwreck. See the definitions here.

    But in a way, this only makes your point stronger. There are archaic words lying around everywhere in fixed expressions. Even highly educated native speakers misunderstand them. (The metaphor is about “wrecking” your brain, i.e., rendering it useless, not stretching it painfully.) The problem is to determine if the metaphor was “live”. Of that, I think there is little question. Words based on the root ζώνη ‘belt’, in particular, ζώννυμι, ‘tie smthg around the waist’ were all over in Greek from Classical times. The mistake in the discussion here has been to focus on the ‘loins’ word, ὀσφῦς, which we’ve mostly mistranslated because it covers waist, hips, and groin. We have no single word in English — there are plenty of translator’s lessons here — and we’ve been focused on the groin contexts. The NT uses are about the waist, and tying things around the waist.

  4. David Ker says:

    No problem at all, Rich. I have spelled it “wrack” in the past as well and I think both are acceptable. Check out the hyperlink I give at the beginning of my post to “rack your brains” and you’ll see a long history of this spelling. Of course that source could be wrong and then I am guilty of sloppy scholarship and deserve to be “wracked.” I tremble in my boots to disagree with you but I think my etymology of “rack your brains” is not without substance. Let me know what you think.

    See also here.

  5. Peter Kirk says:

    David, at least you don’t deserve to be racked.

    In fact I think you are probably right. I note that according to this page the noun “wrack” is

    Often confused in this sense since 16c. with rack (1) in the verb sense of “to torture on the rack;” to wrack one’s brains is thus erroneous.

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    Rich R writes:
    Words based on the root ζώνη ‘belt’, in particular, ζώννυμι, ‘tie smthg around the waist’ were all over in Greek from Classical times. The mistake in the discussion here has been to focus on the ‘loins’ word, ὀσφῦς, which we’ve mostly mistranslated because it covers waist, hips, and groin.

    How about:

    “Put that mid-section girdle on your minds” for Peter’s αναζωσαμενοι τας οσφυας της διανοιας υμων?

    The soldiers hearing his letter would get the reference.

    As for the focus on the belting girdle, or the girding belt, (and not so much on the groin, etc.), I think the Jews played with this when describing Elijah (in 2 Kings 1:8a) :

    וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו אִישׁ בַּעַל שֵׂעָר וְאֵזֹור עֹור אָזוּר

    There’s play (emphasis) in the repetition of וְאֵזֹור and אָזוּר.

    The Jews translating into Greek (in LXX) kept the repetitive wordplay with:

    καὶ εἶπον πρὸς αὐτόν Ἀνὴρ δασὺς καὶ ζώνην δερματίνην περιεζωσμένος τὴν ὀσφὺν αὐτοῦ.

    But Mark (1:6) and Matthew (3:4) lose the repetitions and include the (wrap-around) preposition περὶ in their descriptions of John the Baptist:

    καὶ ἦν ὁ Ἰωάννης ἐνδεδυμένος τρίχας καμήλου καὶ ζώνην δερματίνην περὶ τὴν ὀσφὺν αὐτοῦ

    αὐτὸς δὲ ὁ Ἰωάννης εἶχεν τὸ ἔνδυμα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τριχῶν καμήλου καὶ ζώνην δερματίνην περὶ τὴν ὀσφὺν αὐτοῦ

    And yet John the Baptist must have looked so much like the 2 Kings description of Elijah in the minds of the Pharisees confronting him that they had to ask him if he was Elijah (as per the other John’s translation in his gospel 1:21) :

    καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτόν τί οὖν σύ Ἠλίας (and they asked him, Who are you? Elijah?)

    The metaphor of a girdled midsection seems very much alive.

  7. Rich Rhodes says:


    It does seem to be rack one’s brain historically and not wrack one’s brain, in spite of my high school English teacher’s protestations. (That’ll teach me not to double check in the OED before opening my big mouth.) It’s interesting the earliest attestations of that use of rack cited in the OED are later than the merger of wr- and r-, including one in 1990!

    But, the point I wanted to make is still valid. There are lots of archaisms lying around in fixed phrases, and they get interpreted in different ways by sophisticated native speakers. (These kind of parsing ambiguities are how language change happens.) So you can’t take an apparent archaism in Greek and say that that means the language is archaic unless you know that it isn’t in a fixed phrase.

    Because both gird and loins are not normal 20th/21st century English words — we buckle belts and talk about the groin — we are inclined to think that the Greek words were odd, too. But they weren’t. It’s just that they tied their belts and they only had one word for the waist-hip-groin section of the body.

    So in one way, buckle down is the current English figurative language most analogous to ζώννυμι. I find it curious that no Bible translation gives any hint that the ἀνα- part could be read as ‘again’, which I think makes a lot of sense here. So let me throw this idea out:

    So buckle back down to the task at hand. Get serious. Focus on the good things that will come to you when Jesus is finally revealed.

    As a side note, there are, as we all know, all sorts of Greek morphemes around in technical medical English. In that vocabulary osphy- refers hips and lower backs, not groins — most tellingly osphyocele refers a lumbar hernia, not the normal hernia in the groin.

  8. David Ker says:

    Buckle down is a good option I hadn’t thought of.

    I like your translation very much. Maybe “buckle down again” might sound more natural.

  9. John Hobbins says:


    Now you’re thinking. Excellent translation involves much more than putting a discrete phrase into natural English. It has to attempt to preserve thematic coherence across entire larger literary units, if possible, across the whole Bible. Metaphors, if chosen carefully, do this better than straight-up, washed-out propositional language. Don’t forget 1 Peter 2:11! But the key, I think, might be 2:22-23.

    There is a church in the arts district of Indianapolis called the Garden. The service is choreographed around video clips from the movies and television themed to a Bible passage. In that context, I would so want to do a sermon on 1 Peter 2:22-23 and the theme of the wounded healer in which all the other “fight” passages in the letter were sucked into the exposition, with clips from Karate Kid I (remember the final fight scene?), the Passion of Christ, and V for Vendetta in the background.

    You’re hitting the jackpot on this one. You might want to take up some of these questions with Torry Seland who, if memory serves, is the keeper of a 1 Peter blog.

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