Figures of Speech – Antanaclasis (Word Clashing)

The ability to communicate with words is one thing that sets mankind apart from all other creatures. God is the Author of language, and no one has ever used language as precisely as God does in the Bible, including His use of figures of speech, of which there are more than 200 varieties in Scripture. [1] When most people say, “a figure of speech,” they are speaking in general terms of something that is not true to fact. However, genuine “figures of speech” are legitimate grammatical and lexical forms that add emphasis and feeling to what we say and write. In the Bible, God uses figures of speech to emphasize things that He wants us to see as important. Many people who read the Bible never think to ask themselves, “How do we know what God wants emphasized in His Word?” God uses figures of speech to put emphasis where He wants emphasis, so it is important that we recognize and properly interpret the figures of speech in the Bible. Knowing the figures of speech God uses in the Bible helps us to understand the true meaning of Scripture and enables us to more fully enjoy its richness.

The figure of speech we are going to study in this article is Antanaclasis, or “Word Clashing.” It occurs when the same word occurs in the same sentence, but the word has a different meaning each time it occurs. At the time of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin used Antanaclasis in his famous line about American unity in the face of British opposition. He said, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we will hang separately.” In this famous line, the word “hang” has two different meanings. When used to elicit a humorous response, many cases of Antanaclasis are puns. One has to be careful when examining puns for the possibility of the figure of speech Antanaclasis. However, just because a word is spelled the same and sounds the same, does not mean it is the same. Many puns are created from homonyms, words that are spelled the same but mean different things. A good example is “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like peaches.” This is a good pun. The word “like” is an Antanaclasis, but the word “flies” is not, because it is a homonym. Examples of Antanaclasis in the Bible include:

1 Samuel 1:24 (KJV)
“…and the child was young.”

In this sentence, the Hebrew word na’ar (child) occurs twice. If we were to render the verse more literally, we might say, “And the child was a child.” In Hebrew, as in English, the word “child” can refer to an individual person who is young (“This child is a good student”) or it can specifically refer to the age of the individual (“I am amazed he plays the piano so well, he’s just a child”). The Antanaclasis in this verse emphasizes the young age of Samuel when his mother took him to the Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle).

Jeremiah 34:17 (KJV)
“Therefore thus saith the LORD; Ye have not hearkened unto me, in proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother, and every man to his neighbour: behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, saith the LORD, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine; and I will make you to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth.”

The word “liberty” is used in two different ways in this verse. The Jews would not set at “liberty” the slaves they illegally owned (using “liberty” in the sense of a legal release from slavery), so God will allow “liberty” to the sword, famine and disease (using “liberty” in the sense of freedom of movement).

Matthew 8:22 (KJV)
“But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.”

The first use of “dead” refers to those who are spiritually dead while the second use of “dead” refers to those who are physically dead. Jesus used the figure Antanaclasis to emphasize that people who are spiritually dead are just as dead as those who are physically dead, because unless the person changes and becomes saved, physical death will inevitably follow spiritual death.

John 3:31 (Young’s Literal Translation)
“he who from above is coming is above all; he who is from the earth, from the earth he is, and from the earth he speaketh; he who from the heaven is coming is above all.”

The Antanaclasis in this verse involves the word “earth” which is used in two different ways. The verse is contrasting the one who is “from above” (Jesus Christ) with those who are “from the earth,” i.e., naturally born. The one who is “from the earth” in respect to birth, is “from the earth” in respect to his nature, and thus speaks “of the earth,” i.e., out from his earthly nature. The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) [2] picks up the sense of the Antanaclasis and translates the middle of the verse: “…The one who is from the earth is earthly and speaks in earthly terms….” The difference between “earth” and “earthly” catches the sense of the Antanaclasis, but loses the figure itself. By repeating the word “earth,” Jesus emphasizes the earth as the source of both the man himself and his nature.

Romans 12:13 and 14 (KJV)
“…given to hospitality. Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.”

The figure of speech Antanaclasis can be clearly seen in the Greek, because the words “given to” and “persecute” are the same word, dioko. The actual meaning of dioko is “pursue,” or “go after,” and it has both a good side and an evil side. The good side is seen in verse 13, as in “pursue,” “go after,” and thus, “practice” hospitality, while the evil side is seen in verse 14 in those who “pursue” or “go after” us to hurt us, thus, they “persecute” us. The Antanaclasis emphasizes that while we “go after” hospitality, we must also bless those who “go after” us.


[1] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1968).
[2] Scripture quotations marked HCSB are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible, Copyright ©1999, 2000, 2002, 2003 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible, Holman CSB, and HCSB are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.

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