20 April 2010

Idioms and Images: Ancient Hebrew Speech

By Timothy S. Wilkinson

            It is impossible to truly understand the Bible (or other ancient Hebrew writing) without some understanding of idioms. The online reference site www.dictionary.com defines “idiom” as: “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements or from the general grammatical rules of language, and that is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics.”
            In ancient Hebrew a relatively small vocabulary was compensated for by recombining the same terms into word pictures. Most of these word pictures related in some way to parts of the body; others were based on cultural elements or religious concepts.
            Some of these idioms are quite straightforward or have entered the English vernacular: to “put your hands to” something, to “put your life in someone’s hands,” to  have “clean hands”, or “a handful” of something; we even use the term “closefisted” to refer to a lack of generosity.
            As may be apparent, the hands are an important idiomatic element. The hand is used as a symbol of power or ability, and so metaphoric hands are given to various things. The “hands of the tongue” is a reference to the power of language, and a person could fall victim to the “hands of a sword.”
 “In one’s hand” means “under one’s control.” “Strengthening the hands” refers to empowering or equipping; to “weaken the hands” or “cause the hands to droop” means to break down someone’s morale. Conversely, to “find the life of your hand” was to regain power or be revived. To “put your hands on” another’s goods is to steal them. A murderer had “hands filled with blood,” and a generous person “open hands.”
Some uses of the metaphoric hand are more obscure. A man who agreed to keep silent about something was said to “put his hand over his mouth.” If an individual could not afford something, it was said that “his hand did not reach” it.
Other parts of the body also provided the material for idiomatic expressions. To clear an accused person’s reputation was to “cover your eyes.” A beach was “the lip of the sea.” To “lengthen the nostrils” was to be patient or slow to anger, and “height of nose” was arrogance. A person who was “in want of heart” lacked good motives.
The expression “to lift up the face” is used in two ways. Disparagingly, it means to treat with partiality. It can also mean to accord a friendly reception. This idiom is based on Oriental greeting rituals. When entering a person’s presence an Israelite would bow and turn their face to the ground. Their host would then lift up, or raise the face of the one who is bowing.
Understanding many idioms requires us to picture daily and ritual life in ancient Palestine. Today we might say that something is “razor sharp;” in Palestine it would have been called “the most pointed of earthenware fragments.” To “cut a covenant” was to enter into a formal agreement. It was likely that this came from the practice of sacrificing an animal in symbol of such agreements. A man who was a good person was called “pure olive oil.”
A man was “one who urinated against a wall;” to “keep the feet hidden” was to ease nature. “Shortness of spirit” was impatience, and “height of spirit” was haughtiness.
Military terminology included such expressions as being “brought to silence” (being killed), to “tread the bow” (to prepare for war), and to “place on high” (to protect or safeguard).
Some of these expressions are virtually indecipherable translated into modern English. To say that someone had “become heavy” meant that they had gained honor or glory. The question “What is there to you and to me?” was mean to indicate that the speaker and listener had nothing in common in regards to the issue under discussion.
Modern translations paraphrase these idioms for us for obvious reasons. I cannot help but think that we lose some of the meaning of these expressions, though, in such summaries. Even if we do not immediately understand the meaning of a literally translated idiom, it often communicates more to us than is apparent on the surface. Each one tells us a little about the life and the thinking of the people. 

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