Monday, February 2, 2009

Biblical Idioms

An idiom is a peculiar expression of speech that says one thing but means something else. Anyone who learns a new language must also become familiar with the common colloquialisms of that language.

Immigrants coming to the United States have difficulty understanding us when we speak idiomatic English. Even foreign scholars whose use of English is impeccable, often feel bewildered in the maze of everyday, common speech.

Most of the time we carry on conversations using these kinds of expressions without conscious awareness. We "blow our tops,""lose our marbles," and "become hot under the collar." Some of us dress ourselves "fit to kill.". We put "bugs in people's ears," and ask them to "get off our backs."

Confusion would arise if these statements were interpreted literally. Yet sometimes we take biblical idioms at face value, and their true meanings are misconstrued. There are more than 1000 biblical idioms. I¹m going to talk about two of them.

"Suffer me first to bury my father (Matthew 8:21)"

As a young person I was confused when reading this account:

"And Jesus said to a man, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. And the Lord replied, Let the dead bury their dead."

This answer seemed to me to be especially harsh and unsympathetic. Why wouldn't Jesus give this man a few hours to attend the funeral of his father? Aren't we supposed to honor our parents? My mistake was that I assumed that the father was either dead or very near death; but this probably was not the case. Chances were that the father was perfectly well and healthy and could remain so for years. A Middle Easterner would understand the man¹s request "to go and bury his father" to be nothing but an excuse which is still used today. As Americans, we could paraphrase his statement to read something like this: " Look, I'd really like to follow you, but I¹m going to hang around until my father dies, and then stay for another year to recite the prayers for the dead. There really isn¹t any way to know how long that will take, so I¹ll just get back to you later when it is more convenient."

Coals of Fire (Romans 12:20)

The next idiom is found in Romans, where Paul is quoting from the Old Testament. It says in Proverbs (25:22) that the Lord will reward us for "heaping coals of fire on the heads of our enemies." Paul says this can be done by giving food and drink to our enemies. When we say "heaping coals of fire on their heads," it doesn¹t sound like forgiveness to us, but more like taking revenge.

For this to make sense, we need to know that, in Bible lands, almost everything was carried on the head ­ water jars, baskets of fruit, vegetables, fish and other articles.

In many homes, the only fire they had was kept in a metal container, or brazier, which they used for simple cooking as well as for warmth. It was always kept burning. If it ever went out, a family member took the container to a neighbor¹s house to borrow fire. Then she would lift the brazier to her head and start for home. If the neighbor was a generous person, she would heap the container full of coals.

To feed an enemy and give him drink was like heaping the empty brazier with live coals ­ which meant food, warmth, and almost life itself to the person or home needing it. "To heap coals of fire upon their heads" was a saying which symbolized the very finest generosity.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Good to know...this is why the Old Testament is so confusing to most people--or at least one reason. :)

    (Sorry, I was signed in as Elliot so I deleted it and re-posted.)

  3. Re: "Heaping Coals of Fire on the Heads of our Enemies," I also think there might be some word play going on here. The "heaping coal of fire" is as the kether (crown) on the tree of life. By honoring his enemies with heaping coals of fire, the righteous tzadik is actually crowning his own head with "honor, and glory, and immortality, and eternal life." (D&C 75:5)

    Or perhaps he is reclaiming an enemy so that he might be turned from his ways to become so crowned/honored with "glory, and immortality, and eternal life."

  4. Donna, I love the help you give by teaching us about the cultural background. This allows us to see what Christ wants us to understand. These scriptures help me feel the relationship the Lord wants me to have with Him as well as with others; I love, love, love it!

  5. Do you have a list of all of them with the correct understandings?