Lecture 19: Idioms | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 19: Idioms

Course: Biblical Hermeneutics

Lecture: Idioms

Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason ’has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.

The first step is to recognize the fact that your moods change. The next is to make sure that, if you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. That is why daily prayers and religious reading and church-going are necessary parts of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed. And as a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?

~ C.S. Lewis, On the Importance of Faith

Now we are going to look at two Idioms today. The first is the … excuse me … the first genre, we are going to look at two genres and the first one is Idioms.  Alright, I had idioms in mind so I misspoke here. We want to look at Idioms and how to interpret idioms. The genre of Idioms being taught here by an idiot.


Sorry.  One of the problems with idioms is that they are difficult to interpret. You hear idioms lots of times and we don’t realize that what is taking place is someone is saying something that makes absolutely no sense unless it is an idiom. 

We have people saying things like, you sneeze, “God bless you!” Now think for a minute. That is an imperative. You are ordering God to bless me because I sneezed? Now come on Stein, that’s an idiom.  You don’t take it that way. It means hope you don’t sneeze again or something like that.


Have any of you been in theatre of any sort or studied in the theatre? There is an expression when someone starts a new play. What is it? “Break a leg.”  What in the world? Here is something that has to be an idiom. Minors in Germany, when they go down to the mine, miners are told, “Goot Alf”,  Good up. Makes little sense and yet it is also idiomatic.  Someone sees me in the hallway and they say, “How are you Dr. Stein?” What happens if I say, “Well. You know I am having some trouble with my hands right now. I am getting some carpal tunnel problems.”I mean you look at me.

What in the world is the matter with that professor? They didn’t mean, “How are you Dr. Stein?” They mean, “Hi!” It is an idiom. And the one thing about it is that you can interpret idioms literally.

It is a good example by the way and I will emphasize it later that meaning is found in not the text, but what the author means by the text.  Idioms are perfect examples of that. Idioms taken literally as words mean nothing.  The author’s use of them as an idiom can make a lot of sense. We have all sorts of other kinds of idioms that are expressions in the Bible we have an expression, “Not a man was left” which is exaggerated terminology meaning that there is a great victory over the enemies or something like that.

1st John 3:17 talks about finding a brother in need – a person in need – and shutting up your bowels to them. So you have a fellow Christian who is in need and you become constipated. The RSV has “close your heart to them.” Really it says bowels, but its an expression. New RSV, “refuses help,” New NIV, “has no pity.”  They are all translating for us what this idiom is.

We have, “as numerous as the sand of the sea” found lots and lots of times.  One idiom that is found in the Bible is “faith to remove mountains.” It is found both in Matthew 17:20, Paul quotes it in 1st Corinthians 13:2.  Matthew 17:20 if you put down 1st Corinthians 13:2.  And its in the Rabbinic literature, quoted by the Rabbis in [Hard to Hear]  3b

How do you detect if something is an idiom or not? Well here is an expression that is found frequently? I remember one experience after being on Sabbatical, I came back and my friend John [Hard to Hear]  said that there was a new restaurant that had opened and You ought to go there and take Joan with you, he said “Its really bad.”  I looked at him, I thought, “What in the world?” and I didn’t say anything and later on TV, I saw on a talk-show somebody said “Yeah. It was great. Its really bad.”  And it began to dawn on me. Here was an expression that had become some sort of idiomatic phrase during the time my wife and I had been in Europe.

And really bad had come to mean, really good.  It was an idiom.  I knew it was an idiom, figured it out, because it didn’t mean what the words literally meant and it was constantly said in that same kind of expression, so its repetition and the fact that didn’t mean literally what it seems to be.  That all indicated that it was an idiom.

Now, there are a number of idioms in the Bible and one that I deal in the text at length is Malachi 1:2 and 3. The Word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi,

“2 I have loved you, says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have you loved us?’ Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? says the Lord. Yet I have loved Jacob 3but I have hated Esau…”

Right away when I see something like that I say, “God so loved the world, except of course for Esau, that He gave His only begotten…”  You know there are other teachings in the Bible that make you start wondering about things like this. 
I began to look and this is repeated by the way in Romans 9:13, “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated.” The clue for me came, I don’t know if somebody pointed me to this or whether I read it by accident, in Genesis 29:30 and 31.  In the RSV and King James it still uses the literal language of the text.  It says,

“So Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. He served Laban for another seven years. When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” 

“He loved Rachel more than Leah,” the next verse, “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated.”

Well, the very fact that they are next to each other means that they are referring to the same thing.  He loved Rachel more than Leah. Leah is seen as being hated.  Now you know the word hated can’t mean literally hated.  I don’t know what their relationship exactly was, but they had some six children or so didn’t they? Something is going on there that we don’t usually refer to as plain hatred. Right?

Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, and in the Hebrew understanding, if you love one more than the other, you love the one and you hate the other.  Now what hate means is an idiom for being loved less. You have that in Deuteronomy 21:15-17.  Here all of the new translations, translate the idiom according to its meaning, not according to its words, but let me …I am reading from the New RSV, but I’ll put in the words, the literal words, and tell you how they translate it there.

In Deuteronomy 21, verse 15,

“15 If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other...”

Dr. Stein:  the Hebrew is hated - the New RSV has "disliked."

"and if both the loved and the disliked ..."

Dr. Stein: or hated one literally,

"have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked..."

Dr. Stein: hated

"16then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the ..."

Dr. Stein: hated.  Hated, loved, hated, loved.  It really doesn't mean hated. In fact, it doesn't even mean disliked. It means you prefer one over the other. You love one more than the other. But in that kind of an understanding, you love the one and you hate the other.

“No man can serve two masters for either he will love the one and hate the other.” It is an idiom for you prefer one over the... You love the one more than you love the other. And you have that later on in an idiom when Jesus says, “If any man would come after Me, he must hate his father and mother” Luke 14:26.  The parallel in Matthew, same saying but translated thought for thought is, “If any man loves his mother and father more than me he is not worthy of me.” So here is an idiomatic expression. Proverbs – same thing. You love the one more than you love the other and so forth.

Idioms are a good example of the fact that the meaning of words is determined by the author. The fact that we have idioms destroys the idea that a text can in and of itself bear meaning, because it is just a collection of words. The words taken literally are quite different than the actual meaning.

If you learn a different language, then of course idioms become really a problem.  My wife on our first sabbatical was studying German at the U.S. Army base at Heidelberg. There was a class there for learning German and she took it.  And the teacher was a German woman and the first day of class all she did was speak in German; no English was spoken. And she always said at the end, “Now, try talking some German to some people.”

It was a great experience and … my wife, I remember, after about 3 weeks or maybe even only 2 had bought a garment at a German store and it didn’t fit right. She wanted to return it and she asked me to go with her. And I said, “No. You go. You go alone.” She was real mad. But she went, spoke some German. She came back very very happy. Proud that she was able to communicate and so forth and so on.

Well on one of the days, it was a very hot day – at the end of class, she said, “I know you always like to talk German but when you talk German today, don’t talk to any people out there about the weather. Don’t say something like “Ich bin heib[Hard to Hear] ” Is there anything like that. Just don’t say it. And everybody in class said, “Now. Wait a minute. You just can’t say something. Why can’t we say it?” She said, “Well. You don’t need to know. Just don’t say it.” And so finally they kept on saying, “You have to tell us why can’t we say to somebody in this hot weather “Ich bin heib” – “I am hot.”

She said “Well. You should say, “Mich ist es heib,” “To me it is hot.”

So they said, “Whats the difference?”

“Well. “Ich bin heib” is an idiom that describes not you physical temperature but you sexual temperature. You can just imagine all the Americans trying to learn German on a hot day in August and trying to strike up a conversation with people and saying something to somebody and the Germans just shocked and you realize they are Americans and then they say, “Oh. Yeah. Mich ist es auch heib,” – “To me it is also warm” and walking away, turning the corner and then just rolling over and laughing.

It is always a problem. Someone told me, I had another thing happen to me in German which was idiomatic. We had some company in German. We had been there for some time and one of the person said, “Jetzt habe ich mir die nase voll.”  Jetzt habe ich mir die nase voll. Literally, “Now, I have my nose full.” Jetzt habe ich mir die - my nose full.

So she went into the kitchen and got a box of Kleenex and came back and gave it to the person.  He looked at her and then he just started to smile, because “Jetzt habe ich mir die nase voll” is an idiom.  It means, “I have had it up to here with this stuff.”  Does not interest me any more. I have … have it up to here “Jetzt habe ich mir die nase voll” with this political situation or something like that.

There are lots of languages that have idioms and one of the things in learning another language is make sure you learn the idioms, because you can embarrass yourself rather seriously, if you are not careful.  The Bible has those kinds of idioms, many times we see them, so that we have to understand, for instance, I have heard people say they have faith to remove mountains and to understand it very literally. It was never intended to be understood literally.  Mean to have great faith. Faith that accomplish many things.  It is not a challenge to sit next to the … to Mount Everest and practice faith of mountain removal or something like that.  It is not understood that way.  It was never meant to be understood literally in that respect.  So idioms – it goes pretty straightforward.  I think you can read the chapter on that.  I am not going to deal with it much more.  You have any questions or anything like that? Yes?

Student: [Hard to Hear] Why do you think they chose [Hard to Hear]  literal.

Dr. Stein: If you are committed to a particular philosophy of word for word translation, then like the King James you translate it word for word.  Now, I don’t know if the King James knew some of these were idioms.  By the time you get to the RSV, they begin to know they are idiomatic and they begin to hedge on that. Now the question is, should you translate this word for word, when you come to, “the man has two wives, the one loved, the other hated.” Will that cause confusion to the reader, when you put a footnote this is idiomatic for the expression of preferring one wife over the other or you do that already in the translation? And you say, “the one loved, the other – the one loved more and the other less.”  You have to make that decision. It is two different ways of translating, but my understanding would be I think it makes more sense to translate a passage like that, “the one loved more and the other loved less.” That makes sense. People can understand it.

They miss the idiom to be sure, but they don’t get confused about the meaning, so that here you come to a place where a thought for thought translation is more conducive than a word for word, but the problem of course is that when you do that, you lose the idiom and so forth and so on, but I don’t think that for the average person that is a great loss.

Student: Be careful in assuming that the idiom [Hard to Hear]

Dr. Stein: The norms of language possibilities of an expression.  If we have an idiom, they tend to continue that way quite a bit and change in expressions like that in Biblical times would be far far, less frequently than the changes in our language in say 50, 80 years or something like that. So if you knew this was an idiom, I think you could probably assume that, but the context always has to be the final determiner.

Student: [Hard to Hear]

Dr. Stein: A sin to?

Student: [Hard to Hear]

Dr. Stein: No, I don’t think it is. I think what they mean by that is “May the Lord bless you in a general way, probably and …” if you translated it, most people would translate it, “Gesundheit.”

It is no longer so much “God bless you” but “good health” or something like that, “Hope you get over your sneezing” or something like that. Doesn’t really mean that and it might be wise for us to be more careful when we use God’s name, than to be more precise with it. I think we are very very casual in the way we use God’s name much to much so.  If anything, we could learn something from Orthodox Jewish people who have such a reverence for the name of God that they don’t even repeat it. We use such things as that God is going to get you for what you did to me and using it in that lighthearted sense, I am uneasy about that.