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1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible But Never Thought to Ask
By J. STEPHEN LANG
Nelson BooksCopyright © 2007 J. STEPHEN LANG
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFamiliar Phrases
1. eat, drink, and be merry
Yes, it's a phrase from the Bible. It's found in Jesus' "parable of the rich fool," a cautionary tale about being too attached to one's possessions. The rich fool said to himself, "You have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry." But then God said to him, "Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?" (Luke 12:13-21).
In the original sense it was a real goat. On the annual Day of Atonement, Israel's high priest would lay his hands on a goat, symbolically transferring the people's sins to it, then drive it away into the wilderness. The scapegoat fared better than the other Day of Atonement goat, which was sacrificed as a sin offering.
The word has come to mean "someone who takes the blame for others."
See 666 (atonement).
3. fat of the land
This familiar phrase is first used in Genesis 45:18, where Joseph tells his eleven brothers, "I will give you the best of the land of Egypt, and you will eat the fat of the land."
4. wolf in sheep's clothing
This familiar phrase is from the lips of Jesus: "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves" (Matt. 7:15). He was referring to religious teachers who appear good on the surface but are hypocrites.
5. the skin of my teeth
Meaning "just barely" or "by a very narrow margin," the phrase comes from Job 19:20, "My bone clings to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth."
6. eye for an eye
Yes, the idea of "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" really is in the Bible: "If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him-fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him" (Lev. 24:19-20).
This law from the Old Testament strikes us as spiteful and vindictive (or "mean-spirited," to use the now popular phrase). In the New Testament, Jesus taught a higher ethic: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also" (Matt. 5:38-39).
Isn't that better-more "Christian"?
For the record, the Old Testament law was pretty compassionate. "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" was a limit. It meant "tit for tat"-but no more. The common custom (human nature never changes!) was (and is) to get more than even. But the enlightened law in Leviticus said, No, if you're injured you can't take two teeth because you lost one tooth. It was actually a progressive law. Jesus took it a step further.
How would the Bible authors view personal injury lawsuits today?
7. fire and brimstone
People often refer to "fire-and-brimstone preachers" without knowing just what brimstone it. It is an old name for sulfur, something common in volcanic areas. When Genesis reports that God destroyed the immoral cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone, it may be referring to a volcano (Gen. 19:24). The book of Revelation says that at the end of the world Satan and all nonbelievers will be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone where they will burn eternally (Rev. 14:10; 19:20, 21:8). This is why "fire and brimstone" is another way of saying "the fires of hell."
William Tyndale produced his English translation of the New Testament in 1524. It was the first English Bible produced on a printing press. It was also the first English Bible to include a word we now use every day: beautiful. It was still a fairly new word at the time, and some people were amazed that Tyndale would use such a "novel" word in the Bible.
9. the blind leading the blind
This is one of many biblical phrases that have become part of the language. In Matthew 15:14 Jesus says, "If the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch." He was referring to false teachers who lead people astray.
10. can a leopard change his spots?
Jeremiah (13:23) raised the questions, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?" The leopard question passed into common language.
11. feet of clay
This expression comes from Daniel 2, where Daniel interprets the strange dream of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. In the dream a statue of a man is composed of various metals, but its feet are clay-or, to be precise, clay mixed with iron. "Feet of clay" has come to mean a personal flaw that isn't readily apparent.
12. brother's keeper
Cain, first child of Adam and Eve, killed the second child, his brother, Abel. According to Genesis 4:9, "The LORD said to Cain, 'Where is Abel your brother?' He said, 'I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?"
13. thorn in one's side
This familiar phrase comes from the apostle Paul, who admitted that he suffered because "a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me ... Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness'" (2 Cor. 12:7-9). Paul may have been referring to some physical ailment, though we can't be sure.
14. keeping the faith
This expression has become so common that we forget it originated in the Bible, where it refers to the faith, faith in Christ. The apostle Paul, who apparently expected to die soon, wrote to his young friend Timothy, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Tim. 4:7). "Fight the good fight" has also passed into common usage.
Webster's defines it as "weakly and effusively sentimental." The word maudlin actually comes from Magdalene, referring to Mary Magdalene in the Gospels. Mary, one of the devoted women followers of Jesus, was usually presented in artwork as weeping over her sins, so being "maudlin" came to mean "overdoing it emotionally."
16. salt of the earth
The phrase appears in Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Matthew 5:13 states, "You are the salt of the earth." Jesus was telling His disciplines that they were to serve as both a seasoning and a preservative in the world. If they were not doing this, they were useless.
Salt was a valuable commodity in the ancient world. Some people, including Roman soldiers, were paid their wages in salt instead of money. Our word salary comes from the Latin world salarium, meaning "salt money."
When Jesus referred to His followers as "salt," He wasn't referring to a cheap everyday item, but to something valuable and important.
See 393 (Sermon on the Mount).
17. the handwriting on the wall
Daniel 5 presents one of the Bible's most colorful stories, set at a feast given by the Babylonian ruler Belshazzar. The king was drinking from vessels plundered from the Jewish temple at Jerusalem. During the feast, a strange disembodied hand appeared and wrote mysterious words on the palace wall: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. Belshazzar was so terrified that "his knees knocked against each other." The faithful Jew Daniel appeared and interpreted the message, which meant that God had brought the Babylonian Empire to an end and given it over to the Medes and Persians. That very night Belshazzar, king of Babylon, was killed, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom.
Artists have delighted in capturing this story on canvas, and the great Rembrandt's painting Belshazzar's Feast is only one of many.
18. forbidden fruit
According to Genesis, the original man and woman had an ideal existence in the Garden of Eden, with only one rule that God imposed on them: "Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17). The fruit of that one tree was the "forbidden fruit." The serpent tempted Eve (who then tempted Adam) into eating the fruit by telling Eve a lie: "You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:4-5). Adam and Eve disobeyed God, leading to their own punishment, and the serpent's as well.
The tradition that the fruit was an apple has no basis in the Bible. We don't know what kind of fruit it was, except that it was the one that should have been avoided.
19. Adam's apple
According to an ancient tradition, when Adam ate the fruit from the tree that God had declared off-limits (Gen. 3), a piece of it stuck in his throat forever. The Bible doesn't actually say that the forbidden fruit was an apple. The legend does provided an amusing explanation for why men (more so than women) have a bulge in the center of the throat.
20. money is the root of all evil
Is it? The Bible never says so. What Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:10 is "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." Money itself is not evil-loving it is. Note something else: Money is not the root of all evil, but the root of all kinds of evil.
21. Woe is me!
Jeremiah, the "weeping prophet," used the phrase several times, but the most familiar "woe" was in the vision of Isaiah, who was awestruck at encountering the Almighty in the temple: "Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips; and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts" (Isa. 6:5).
See 214 (Isaiah's vision).
22. sweating blood
Luke's gospel tells of Jesus' anguish in the Garden of Gethesemane. Knowing He would soon be arrested and executed, He prayed to His Father, and "being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat becamelike great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Luke 22:44).
23. spare the rod and spoil the child
According to Proverbs 13:24, "He who spares his rode hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly." This bit of ancient wisdom passed into English as "spare the road and spoil the child." The ancient Hebrews took a view of corporal punishment different from that of many modern parents.
24. a drop in the bucket
Probably one of the most commonly used phrases from the Bible, it is found in Isaiah, who claimed that God was not impressed with mighty empires: "the nations are as a drop in a bucket, and are counted as the small dust on the scales" (40:15).
25. holier than thou
Today we connect the phrase with self-righteousness-a "holier than-thou" attitude. In the Bible God condemned this attitude and mocked the words of self-righteous people: "I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people, which walketh in a way that was not good, after their own thoughts; a people that provoketh me to anger continually to my face; ... which say, 'Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou'" (Isa. 65:2-5 KJV).
Judges 12 relates that this word was pronounced differently on the two sides of the Jordan River. The judge Jephthah used the word as a test to determine if the speaker was friend or foe. ("Sibboleth" was the pronunciation that led to execution.) The word passed into our language as meaning a custom that a group uses to distinguish itself from another group, usually for purposes of snobbery.
A lament or song of sorrow is called a jeremiad after the prophet Jeremiah, the "weeping prophet," who was also the author of Lamentations, the sad reflection on the city of Jerusalem, devastated by the Babylonians.
28. land of milk and honey
The phrase means "a rich, fertile land" or even "a nice place to live." It is used many times in the Old Testament to refer to Canaan, the land God promised the Israelites after they left their slavery in Egypt.
See 879 (Canaan).
29. Job's comforters
In the book of Job, poor Job suffers all kinds of calamities. Three close friends come to (supposedly) comfort him but, in fact, insist that he must have done something horrible to bring the disasters on himself. The expression "Job's comforters" refers to people who discourage or depress while claiming to be consoling.
God was appalled at the wickedness of Israel's King Ahab and his family, and His instrument of punishment was one of Ahab's military men, Jehu. God ordered the prophet Elisha to anoint Jehu king, and Jehu proceeded to wipe out (in brutal fashion) Ahab's entire clan, including Ahab's wicked wife, Jezebel, who was devoured by dogs. Jehu then tricked the worshippers of the false god Baal into a trap and killed them all. So Jehu destroyed Baal worship in Israel (2 Kings 10:28).
A "Jehu" has come to mean a fast and furious driver. This is based on 2 Kings 9:20: "The driving is like the driving of Jehu ... for he driveth furiously" (KJV).
31. a lamb to the slaughter
Isaiah 53:7 describes God's chosen servant, who "was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mount." The early Christians saw this as a prophecy of Jesus, condemned to death but passively accepting His fate. "Lamb to the slaughter" has come to mean any innocent victim.
32. lusting in one's heart
This gained fame in 1976, when presidential candidate Jimmy Carter admitted in an interview that he had never committed adultery, except "in his heart." He was referring to Jesus' words on adultery: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:27-28). Jesus did not mean that lustful looks were the same as adultery, but that our thoughts are as important to God as our actual deeds are.
"Something or someone odious" is the dictionary definition of this Aramaic word found in Paul's epistles. Anathema is translated "accursed" (Rom. 9:3) and "let him be accursed" (1 Cor. 16:22; Gal. 1:9). As the church grew and councils met to decide questions of doctine, a false teaching would be pronounced anathema.
34. Apple of the eye
The Hebrew words that we translate "apple of the eye" refer to the center of the eye, the pupil. But the expression also refers to someone who is light valued by another (as in "his son is the apple of his eye"). The phrase occurs several times in the Bible. Deuteronomy 32:10 says that God guarded Israel "as the apple of His eye." The prayer of Psalm 17:8 implores God, "Keep me as the apple of Your eye; hide me under the shadow of Your wings."
35. a little wine for the stomach
These words are often used in jest, and most people have no idea they are from the Bible. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul advised the young pastor, "No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach's sake and your frequent infirmities" (5:23).
36. what God hath joined together
Traditional marriage ceremonies contain these words spoken by the minister: "What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder" (Mark 10:9 KJV). The words are those of Jesus, who was speaking of the permanence of marriage.
37. God helps those who help themselves
Many people believe this oft-quoted proverb is in the Bible. It definitely is not. John F. Kennedy made it famous in one of his speeches, but the words actually are not Kennedy's but are from another noted American, Benjamin Franklin.
38. we reap what we sow
The phrase is so much a part of our language and thought that we forget it originated in the New Testament: "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap" (Gal. 6:7).
39. pride goeth before a fall
It isn't quoted as often as it once was (meaning we are more accepting of pride?), but for centuries it was part of the English language. It is found in full in Proverbs 16:18: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall" (KJV).
Excerpted from 1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible But Never Thought to Ask by J. STEPHEN LANG Copyright © 2007 by J. STEPHEN LANG. Excerpted by permission.
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