Idioms and the Bible

Part 1
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

An idiom is a peculiar expression of everyday speech that says one thing while meaning something else. Sometimes we use idioms to soften blows or be kind about another's feelings; other times we use idioms and don't even know we're using them.

I am sure that at one time or another you have used or heard these American idioms: "I'm going to hit the sack (or hay)," or "I'm going to sack out." Have you ever known anyone who has been in "hot water" for weeks and months "on end"? Or perhaps someone you know has been "up in the air" for several days over a business deal?

We "blow our tops", "lose our marbles," and "become hot under the collar". Have you or a friend ever been in "a pickle", "a jam", or "out on a limb?" Have you ever paid "an arm and a leg" for something? Sometimes we dress ourselves "fit to kill." We put "bugs in people's ears," and ask them to "get off our backs." Sometimes we go around with a "chip on our shoulder."

The truth is that most of the time we carry on even important conversations using idiomatic expressions without stopping to think about it. Try for a day "to catch yourself" every time you "spout" an idiom. You will be surprised how often you say one thing but mean something else.

A long time ago there was a radio program called "Life with Luigi." The entire format of this half hour program built itself around the most outrageous use of idioms. The show's "gags" were structured entirely on American idioms. Poor Luigi would often understand these Americanisms only at "face value."

Luigi was an Italian immigrant who spoke "broken" English. Any one episode illustrates how literally he took our English phrases of speech: Luigi had just received his driver's license, and, while driving home he decided to make a "U" turn. However, there was a sign posted that forbade "U" turns at that intersection.

A motorcycle officer saw Luigi make the "U" turn, chased him down, brought him back to the sign, and questioned him about his ability to read. Luigi happily replied, "I can a-read anyding." the officer then asked him to read the street sign. Quickly and proudly, though nervously, the Italian began to read aloud, "Its-a-say, No U a-Turn" The patrol officer questioned, "Do you know what that means?" With great emphasis, Luigi answered,

"Yes sir, No You-A-Turn means its'-a-My Turn."

Interestingly, in our thinking we are often exactly like Luigi while reading and interpreting the Bible. We mistakenly understand biblical idioms literally. There are over a thousand known idioms in the Bible. Unfortunately for us, many of the older translations -- like the KJV -- translated them faithfully and accurately, but literally. Therefore, their true meanings are misconstrued. Allow me to illustrate what I mean by reference to an Hebraic (ie, Jewish) idiomatic turn of phrase that we find so common today.

Have you ever said "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse?" Or, have you ever said "I'm starving to death!" I have ... and, yet, just a glance at me would easily confirm that I'm at least 9 months of drastic fasting away from starving to death. When we express ourselves this way, we are exaggerating to make a point ... we're saying that we are very hungry.

The authors of the Old Testament did this kind of thing all the time. For example, when they make reference to tens of thousands of solders who fought and died in certain battles -- and particularly in Joshua -- what we're looking at is "Semitic hyperbole," or the habit of the Hebrew people to make their point by exaggeration. These are idiomatic "turns of phrase."

© 2001, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.