Cultural Idioms, Anachronisms and Euphemisms

Cultural Idioms

Throughout the Bible, Jewish cultural idioms are used. American authors do this all the time. They speak of “hitting the road”, someone “stabbing” someone in the back, or doing something “against the clock”. It would be a tragic injustice for future readers not to understand cultural idioms and, instead, interpret the words literally. Take a few Biblical examples:

Job 1:21 And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.

This is a very curious passage. Taken literally, the events described would horrify any normal person. The text, however, seems to gloss over (“glossing over” is another American idiom) this statement. This statement makes very little sense unless it is realized that “lowest parts of the earth” and “womb” were idiomatically identical in Jewish culture. See King David’s Psalm on the formation of unborn children:

Psa 139:13 For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.
Psa 139:14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.
Psa 139:15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

It is clear, from the wording of verse 13 and verse 15 that womb and lowest parts of the earth are used interchangeably.

Anachronisms

Because the Bible was written to actual human beings by actual human beings to convey actual ideas, sometimes words and concepts are used anachronistically. If someone is talking about the foundation of the city of Rome, they may say that “Romulus and Remus arrived at Rome around 750 BC”. Although the city was not yet founded, it is normal to give listeners an adequate understanding of events by anachronistically using words and concepts. The Bible does this several times:

Gen 21:14 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.

…

Gen 21:31 Wherefore he called that place Beersheba; because there they sware both of them.
Gen 21:32 Thus they made a covenant at Beersheba: then Abimelech rose up, and Phichol the chief captain of his host, and they returned into the land of the Philistines.

Before Beersheba is even named, Abraham is said to be wandering in the wilderness of Beersheba. Likewise, take an example from the New Testament. In Luke the story develops John the Baptist far into his ministry before it introduces the birth of Christ:

Luk 1:80 And the child [John the Baptist] grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.
[very next verse is Luk 2:1]
Luk 2:1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
…
Luk 2:5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

Someone wishing to critique the Bible might object that this was introduced anachronistically. But because human beings converse, write, and explain concepts anachronistically, these critiques should be ignored. Anachronistic use of words are normal in conversation, especially if they are used to convey meaningful concepts.

Euphemisms

The Bible loves using euphemisms (note that the “Bible loves” is another American idiom). This is especially true when talking about shameful body anatomy and shameful actions of which Paul describes as shameful “even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret.” (Eph 5:12). The Bible is replete with examples of this:

Gen 4:1 And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.

Did Adam “know” his wife? Did Adam not meet his wife until she had a baby? Or is this a euphemism for sexual relations as used also in Mat 1:25.

Mat 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

What does “came together” mean? Does it mean that he had never seen or talked to Mary before this event? Or is this a euphemism for sexual relations?

Deu 25:11 When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets:

Take him by his “secrets”? This is definitely a euphemism for male anatomy.

Paul uses euphemisms when talking about death:

1Co 15:6 After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.

Also,

1Co 15:18 Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.

Peter uses the same euphemism while quoting a hypothetical scoffer:

2Pe 3:4 And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.

Pretend a Biblical literalist would come along claiming each word was not to be taken figuratively. Each time a Biblical scholar would claim “falling asleep” meant death, the literalist would claim it meant “to take a nap”. How would one prove to this person that “falling asleep” meant death?

Hopefully, the literalist could be explained the concept that human beings communicate in idioms. Idioms communicate very effectively and efficiently to intended audiences. Where consistent phrases are used that make very little sense by the same author of another culture, the chance is that an idiom is at play. If an author explains an idiom, texts by that author which use the same words have a high probability of being an idiom.’

source: Christopher Fisher, “was Canaan the child of Ham and Noah’s wife” (realityisnotoptional).

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