“Do you want a coke to drink?”
If you are asked this in the South and you answer in the affirmative, the response will undoubtedly be something like “What kind? Coca Cola? Dr. Pepper? Pepsi?” I’ve seen this confuse folk who haven’t been to the South before. “I said I wanted a Coke! If I wanted a Pepsi I would have said so,” is the usual reply. It is then explained that Southerners, recognizing the superiority of Coca Cola, have adopted the habit of referring to all soft drinks as “cokes.”
This sort of substitution1 is not unique to Southerners, not even to English speakers. We talk about someone’s “threads,” meaning their clothes. A person’s “bread and butter” is their livelihood. “Suits” are businessmen. “Strings” are stringed instruments. I’m sure you can think of plenty yourself. The idea is that some part of a thing can be used to refer to the whole. Threads make up clothes. Bread and butter are the products of a good job. Part of being a businessman is wearing a suit. Stringed instruments obviously have to have strings to make a sound. We are familiar enough with this that we don’t really think about it. We simply do it.
We use these figures of speech to make our communication interesting and bearable. And so do the authors of Holy Scripture. They do it so much that if we don’t consciously take it into account when we are interpreting the Bible, we risk missing most of what is being taught. Think about the commission of Matthew 28:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” – Matt. 28:19-20a (ESV)
Jesus employs this same kind of part-for-whole substitution to describe the means of making disciples. He says to make disciples by “baptizing and teaching.” He doesn’t mean that baptism and teaching are strictly and simply the only things we have to do to make disciples. Rather, he is using two of the most important aspects of the ministry of the Church to represent the entire ministry of the Church: that of Word and Sacrament.
Or think about Genesis 3 and the curses laid upon the Man and the Woman. The Woman is cursed with pain in childbearing. The Man is cursed with pain in his work to till the field. Is the curse merely that it will hurt to give birth? Or that men will sweat and get hurt when we farm the ground? Or is God using short-hand expressions to represent a more comprehensive frustration of the natural order? It’s definitely the latter. And if we recognize that, we learn something about what it means to be a Man or a Woman.
God curses the Woman with pain in childbearing. Childbearing, though, represents the whole of the Woman’s calling as wife and mother. It stands in for bearing children, nurturing them, enlivening and keeping the home, making it a place full of life and communion. And if God curses the Woman in this way, it means that is what the Woman is for. The curse is a frustration of the way God meant for things to be. Therefore, her task is to keep the home and bear children, which is no small thing. This is her particular help in subduing and dominating the earth.
Likewise, God curses the Man in his labor in the field, outside the garden. His work to make bread is fraught with danger and failure and hard toil. Working in the field embodies the Man’s calling as the protector and provider for his family. He is to go out into the wild and tame it. He is bringing in the raw materials that his wife and family need. He goes out into the public realm on behalf of his household. Since this is the particular way God afflicts the Man, we can see that this is his natural goal.
We would miss that, though, if we didn’t remember that God, the prophets, and the apostles often use a part of something to refer to the whole. Like we Southerners do when we order a coke.
 The technical term is synecdoche, if you’d like to study further.