The Figures of Speech – Asyndeton and Polysyndeton as used in the Bible

The ability to communicate by words is one thing that sets apart mankind 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. 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. Recognizing and properly interpreting the figures of speech in the Bible has many advantages. It helps to understand the true meaning of Scripture and enables us to more fully enjoy the richness of the Word of God. It is important that we become at least somewhat familiar with the figures of speech in Scripture, of which there are more than 200 varieties. [1]

In this article we are going to cover two contrasting figures, Asyndeton and Polysyndeton, which we might refer to in English as, “No Ands” and “Many Ands.” Mankind has always used lists and/or referred to multiple things in a single sentence, and so grammatical rules have arisen in each language to communicate how the list should be written. The standard grammatical practice in Hebrew, Greek, and English is to write the list and place the word “and” before the last item. Thus, we would write, “When you go to the grocery store, get milk, eggs, butter, and bread.” We do not write, “…get milk and eggs and butter and bread,” nor do we write, “…get milk, eggs, butter, bread.”

The proper rules of grammar for making lists or stating things in sequence opens a door of opportunity for the figures of speech Asyndeton and Polysyndeton. From God’s perspective, there are three ways He considers lists. First, if each item in the list is important, but not especially emphasized, then He uses proper grammar. Second, if each item in the list is individually important and especially emphasized, then He uses the figure of speech Polysyndeton, placing an “and” before each item. Third, if the items in the list are not to be individually emphasized, but instead what is important is the general sense of the list, or a concluding statement that occurs afterward, He uses the figure of speech Asyndeton, which does not have an “and” before the final item in the list.

Asyndeton

Asyndeton purposely leaves off the “and” that would ordinarily connect the last two items in the list, making the list seem to run by very quickly to its conclusion, thus emphasizing the conclusion. For example:

Who to invite
In Luke 14:13 and 14, Jesus said, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Proper grammar would have placed an “and” between “the lame” and “the blind” in verse 13. By not putting the “and” in the sentence, the list runs along to its conclusion: “and you will be blessed.” Jesus was not emphasizing the individuals to invite, as if a blind person which he mentioned, was more important than, say, a deaf person or mentally ill person that he did not. He was emphasizing that if you invited that type of person, you would be blessed. The point is not the individual members in the list, but the sense of the list and/or its conclusion.

Out of the heart

Mark 7:21-23 (ESV)
(21) For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery,
(22) coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.
(23) All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

To be proper grammar, there should be an “and” between “pride” and “foolishness” in verse 22. Not putting it there deemphasizes the individual sins and emphasizes the conclusion—that such things defile the person. We all know there are many things that defile a person that Jesus did not mention in this particular list. Unfortunately, some versions, such as the NIV, try to “help” the English reader by adding the word “and” between “pride” and “foolishness,” but that obscures the point God is trying to make. Many lists in the Bible have the final “and,” and this one could have it if God had wanted it. Adding the final “and” does not help the Bible reader, it obscures truth.

The fruit of the spirit

Galatians 5:22 and 23 (ESV)
(22) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
(23) gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

It is so difficult to walk in the fullness of the fruit of the spirit that we Christians put great emphasis on each individual fruit. However, we should note that from God’s standpoint, they are each part of a list that runs to the conclusion, “against such things there is no law.” The “such things” should alert us to the fact that there are other wonderful fruit of the spirit that are not mentioned here, such as perhaps holiness or generosity. The new spiritual nature we received when we got born again leads us to godliness in all aspects of life, which is why in another place we read about the fruit of righteousness (Amos 6:12; Heb. 12:11; James 3:18). There is no law of God, and there should be no law of man, against living a godly lifestyle. We should add that, as in the previous example, the NIV and some other versions add the word “and” to the fruit of the spirit, obscuring the truth of what God is trying to say.

 

 

Polysyndeton

In contrast to Asyndeton (No Ands), in which no item in the list is specifically emphasized, God uses Polysyndeton (Many Ands) when He wants to emphasize each item in the list. For example:

Who to invite
Our first example of Polysyndeton is in stark contrast to the first example of Asyndeton, in which Jesus was making the point that if you invite those who are normally not invited, you will be blessed. After that teaching, he told a parable to further clarify his point. In the parable, a homeowner made a great banquet and invited his guests, but they all made excuses for not coming. The homeowner was outraged, and told his servants: “…Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (Luke 14:21- ESV). In this case, the homeowner, in his anger, wanted his servants to bring each kind of person who seemed the least likely to be invited to such a feast. The homeowner did not want any unfortunate person left out, so he emphasized each category. Again, the NIV and some other versions are unhelpful because they translate the Polysyndeton out of the text.

Famine

Haggai 1:11 (KJV)
And I called for a drought upon the land, and upon the mountains, and upon the corn, and upon the new wine, and upon the oil, and upon that which the ground bringeth forth, and upon men, and upon cattle, and upon all the labour of the hands.

In this case, the severity of the famine is pointed out by emphasizing each thing that will be affected by it. Again, many modern versions do not pay attention to the Polysyndeton, and translate the Polysyndeton out of the Bible.

Witnesses

Acts 1:8 (ESV)
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Christians are supposed to share their Christian faith with others, and every single place on earth where people live is important to God and must be reached with the Good News. God drives home that point with this important Polysyndeton.

One conclusion we can certainly draw from this study is that if the English-reading Christian is going to get what God is trying to communicate from the Bible, it is imperative that translators do a good job in bringing the Hebrew and Greek into English. When they do not, astute students of the Bible should take the time to make a marginal note so as not to miss God’s emphasis when they read the Bible.

Endnotes

[1] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1968).

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