Idioms and the Bible

Part 2
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

As I said in the previous article that one of the problems inherent in any language is the frequent use of idioms; this is true of both English and in the Biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek. Due to our ignorance as to the meaning of many of the Biblical idioms, for centuries many of them have been literally — and mistakenly — translated into English. Thanks to the advancement in linguistics over the last century, however, many of the Biblical idioms have now been properly understood and the more recent translations of the Scriptures into English have reflected this development in our understanding of Hebrew and Greek idiom.

I have already pointed out that one of the idiomatic features of the Hebrew language is its common use of "hyperbole." Again, hyperbole is the tendency to make one's point by exaggeration. When I say "I'm starving to death," or "I could eat a horse," the fact is that I'm not really starving to death, nor could I really eat a horse, but what I mean by these two statements is that I'm very hungry. This kind of exaggeration is very common in the Old Testament.

There are several other kinds of idioms, and many examples, that could be noted. Most idioms in Hebrew and Greek are powered by the grammar rules of the language, and hence they don't translate well into English at all. But, some of the Biblical idioms are clearly translated, and I'll list a few of these below. Verbal idioms include some of the following:

"To be able" means "a willingness to do" as well as "an ability to do"
"To eat" or "To drink" means "to comprehend" or to "come to understand"
"To touch" often means "to harm"
"To hear" means "to obey"
"To know" means to "have sexual relations with"
"To prevent" means "to go before" with intention of "enabling" or allowing"
"To let" means "to hinder"

Some other idiomatic nouns, verbs, and phrases from Greek and from the Hebrew include:

"Bowels" means "inner self," or "heart," and sometimes "reproduction."
"Feet" is sometimes used as an idiom or euphemism for reproductive organs.
"Head" means "leader"
"My soul" means "myself"
"Out from inside of" means "of the way"
"Breaking Bread" means "partaking of food" or "having a meal"
"What have I to do with you?" means "What do we have in common?"
"By and by" means "immediately"
"Come at" means to "come near"
"Do to wit" means "make to know"
"Very" means "really" or "truly"

I know, I was surprised to find out that "by and by" means "immediately." I had thought it meant "eventually" ... as in "we will understand it better by and by." While "eventually" may be the meaning of the idiom as it was incorrectly communicated into English, it is not the Biblical meaning of the idiom. The same is true for "prevent." For us, "prevent" means to hinder, not to allow or to go ahead of. Likewise, to "let" means to allow, not to hinder!

And where the biblical people got the idea that "to know" means "to have sexual relations with" and exposing one's "feet" can sometimes mean exposing one's "sexual organs," I'll never understand. These are simply idiomatic usages of words and concepts for different purposes than their lexical meaning makes clear.

© 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.