Idioms in the Bible

One of the great blessings of being part of The Bethany Fellowship is our ongoing desire to connect authentically to “the faith OF Jesus” as part of our personal continuation of discipleship. An aspect of that reconnection is uncovering the latent meaning in idiomatic speech in the Holy Scriptures.

I wish to contrast two definitions of “idiom” here as a means of showing the challenge that studying idioms presents to a twenty-first century Christian in western culture.

First, an internet definition: “An idiom is a group of words established by usage the meaning of which cannot be deduced by the meaning of the individual words in the group. An example is, ‘It rained cats and dogs.’” Rain involves water, not cats and dogs. This idiom is a cultural expression that means “We experienced extreme rain.” One would have to be acquainted with the originating culture to understand the non-literal meaning of the word-group.

Second, the definition used by George M. Lamsa in the introduction to his remarkable book IDIOMS IN THE BIBLE EXPLAINED: “An idiom is a saying that foreigners cannot understand without being trained and is often taken literally and therefore misunderstood.” He goes on to elucidate by saying, “This is because when we use an idiom we say one thing, but we mean another. For example, in Aramaic [the common language of Jesus’ time] we say, ‘If your hand offends you, cut it off,’ which means, ‘If you have a habit of stealing, cut it out.’”

I might even extend his last statement to translate “cut it out” (itself idiomatic—how does one literally “cut out” a habit—a non-physical thing?) by simply saying, “Stop it!” In doing so I would simplify the whole expression this way: “If you have a habit of stealing, Stop it!” The idiom is in the exclamation mark “!” because the purpose of the idiom was to go beyond a mere factual expression (Stop stealing) and give it FORCE! (CUT IT OUT!)

When we read the Bible with our purpose being to apply it to our daily lives we need to understand exactly what it is saying in practical terms. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of idioms (cultural expressions) in the Bible. We need understanding of these manners of speech in order to translate them into the attitudes and actions of every-day life.

We are blessed that God has made the essence of his will in the scriptures so plain by means of direct statements that we need not be expert in the linguistic aspects of Holy Writ to know that we are to “Love God and Love our Fellow Humans” as a foundational approach to discipleship. But fleshing that out (to use an English idiom) takes study. Thankfully, such a pursuit is very pleasant to the soul and rewarding in life.

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