One of my favorites quotes is from George Bernard Shaw. When I was working, I had it pinned up in my cubicle.
“The problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”George Bernard Shaw
Working in a global company it is even more evident. We may be using the same words, but the meaning poured into them may be different. The figures of speech we use in the United States are not always understood in other countries and cultures. So just because you wrote a beautifully crafted sentence does not mean that all who speak the language will understand your intended meaning.
Idioms related to sports are not always understood by those who do not engage in the particular game referenced. “Right off the bat” is an idiom related to baseball meaning at the beginning, immediately, the first thing. In countries where baseball is popular, they understand this idiom. But for those not familiar with the game, they may not know what the black flying animal with webbed wings has to do with what we are talking about.
Now let’s relate this to the Bible. Depending on the specific book of the Bible in question, it was written in either Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. It was written from those ancient cultural perspectives. And even though we know that on some level, when we pick up our Bibles and begin to read, we trip all over the words, concepts, idioms, and meanings to our detriment.
We are so very steeped in our 21st century, Western mind-set that we can’t get past it much of the time. Couple that with the fact that in standard Christianity nothing is really taught in our Sunday churches and Sunday schools about the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek language and culture. Nothing.
In some “brands” of Christianity the pastors will refer to the meaning of a specific Hebrew or Greek word in the text. This usually comes from consulting the Strong’s Concordance or a lexicon and not from any legitimate study of either of these languages. I even do this in the articles I write on this blog. However understanding the meaning of a word in an idiom is not always helpful, because it is the entire phrase as a whole that needs to be understood.
When in Rome…
The more I study and understand that all of the writers of the Bible were Hebrews or Jews who spoke Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek, and that they lived in an ancient Middle Eastern culture which is very unlike the modern Western culture and the American culture, the more I think some things just got lost in translation. I find it very troubling that pastors who have been to seminary seem to not take that into account.
To really understand scripture, we need to understand the people and the times, their figures of speech, customs, and traditions. If I were to travel to Mexico without understanding the language, customs, expectations, and nuances of life in that country, I would be very lost and at a disadvantage.
It is the same when we travel to the Holy Land through our Bibles. When we read with our 21st century thinking-caps on, we miss a lot. When we strip Christianity of its Jewish heritage and customs, we miss the big picture.
Hebrew Idioms – Good Eye / Evil Eye
Let’s look at an idiom that you may not think of as an idiom.
“Good eye” and “bad eye or evil eye”. In our American culture we sometimes give people the evil or stink eye. Stink eye is a disgusted, contemptuous, or distrustful look. Evil eye can be the same thing, but in various cultures dating back millennia, the evil eye has been a look superstitiously believed to cause harm—like voodoo. But the Hebrew idioms of good eye and evil eye are not steeped in superstition. Someone with a good eye is a generous person—they don’t want everything they see. They give to others. They leave some for others. Someone with an evil eye is stingy and greedy. They want everything they see. Lust of the eye.
If we are following the two greatest commandments, love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, we should want to give of what we have to those in need because we trust the God that we love to give us what we need. Remember, He told the Israelites that when they harvested their field and vineyards, not to reap everything. Leave the corners unharvested. If they dropped something on the way to the wagon or barn, they were to leave it for those less fortunate—the fatherless, widows, and orphans. If we love God, we will follow His commandments. We will with our good eye see someone’s need and we will be generous. If we are not generous, we have an evil eye. We are doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord.
Knowing the meaning of this idiom makes the following passage in Luke make a bit more sense. Don’t your agree?
“No one, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a secret place or under a basket, but on a lampstand, that those who come in may see the light. The lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore, when your eye is good, your whole body also is full of light. But when your eye is bad, your body also is full of darkness. Therefore take heed that the light which is in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, the whole body will be full of light, as when the bright shining of a lamp gives you light.”
Luke 11:33-36 NKJV
What are some phrases you come across in your Bible reading that you have trouble with? What are some Hebrew idioms that you have always wondered what they meant? What are some of the idioms found in the Bible that you have come to understand that you can share? Let’s learn together.
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