Hebraisms and the Idiomatic language of the culture

There are some today that suggest it matters not how the Bible is viewed (contextually, culturally). These hold that the message is "for today", and can be treated as if it were written today; "God's message for us today". I readily agree that the message is as much for today as ever, with the realization that the message of original intent will not be fully realized until you put the words back in the original world and ways. I am not saying that one can't get anything out of the scriptures without its proper cultural context, I am saying that we will not get the greater picture and literary devices used in the times they were given. When I speak on this subject, I prefer to use pictures, because it shows this better than I could explain it in 2000 words.
On the first painting, you can see the outline, and there is no mistaking what it contains, but yet the fuller beauty of the painting is not realized until you view it as the author/painter intended it to be viewed.

I want to show some quick examples of how looking at the Bible from one side, can lead us to some misunderstandings. Specifically, I want to talk about idioms. These are phrases that mean something different from the literal meaning of the words they use. Most English speaking Americans are familiar with the phrases "hit the ceiling," "kill time," "eat your heart out", or “go fly a kite.” If someone from another culture, heard them in his or her own language, translated literally, they would have quite a different impression then what the speaker is most likely trying to convey. If the listener didn't think that they were “English idioms” and took them at face value, the information he received would be very misleading. The same principle is true of Scripture, where context is a very important factor.

It is virtually impossible to translate the correct cultural meaning of words and their "nuances" from one language to another in every instance. There are phrases and words and ideas that just don’t have an equal in other cultures and languages. Scripture is most accurately interpreted within its Hebrew cultural context, so in order to understand the meaning of words from a different culture, we must understand the culture of the people using that language. The meaning of the word is in its use. In all reality, the majority of a lot of our doctrinal differences would probably be resolved if more Believers had an understanding of the ancient Hebrew culture that serves as the backdrop for Scripture, and not this anti-Jewish bias that has for so long been nurtured.

The problem that arises, is how do we handle these cultural idioms? If you translate idiomatic expressions literally, there is little doubt that they will be taken completely out of context. An example can be shown in yet another English idiom we all have come to know and love, "It's raining cats and dogs." Translate that little phrase literally into another language and it probably won't make much sense. Not only that, the listener is going to be looking into the sky, and reporting you to a psychiatric ward.

It is vital to realize that the Bible was put in a setting, time and culture different to that which we are familiar. Why? Because each culture takes on its own identity, and in that culture, there will be things that don’t need to be explained to someone brought up in it. Everyone in that culture understands them, and uses them. But to an outsider who is not privy to its “quirks”, they will find themselves scratching their heads saying, “this makes no sense”, or coming up altogether with a conclusion that is not even close to what culturally would have been understood.

Throughout the Bible, we find that there are many of these idioms. And by taking these Hebrew idioms literally, we can come up with a terrible misunderstanding, that is far from what the writer intended. I will share such an idiom to illustrate this fact.

Matthew 6:22-23 literally reads:

"The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is good, your whole body is full of light; but if your eye is evil your whole body is full of darkness..." 

"If your eye is good" is a Hebrew idiom that means, "if you are generous." But most English translators (David Sterns Complete Jewish Bible is a welcome exception) have not recognized this Hebrew idiom. Almost all translations preserve the singular, "eye," even though "eyes" would make more sense in English.

So, if a "good eye" speaks to generosity, what is an evil eye? If you take this phrase literally you might think it has to do with looking always for evil, but in Hebrew culture, having an "evil eye," means to be stingy, as opposed to having a "good eye," means being generous. Jesus was [is] warning against lack of generosity by using a common expression of His day, and nothing else. This fits the context perfectly: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also...You cannot serve both God and money."

There are so many of these idioms and phrases in the Old and New Testaments, because they are both rooted in the Hebrew culture, written by Hebrews, in the Hebrew context, with Hebraic idiomatic language.

Here are some common ones that we find:

Joshua 23, Isaiah 30 ...one man chases a thousand.

Isaiah 60 ...smallest will grow to a thousand.

Isaiah 65...a child will die 100 years old.

Psalm 90, 2 Peter 3 ...A thousand years to the Lord is as a day.

The phrase "poor in spirit: in Matthew 5:3 is an abbreviated idiom that refers to the "poor and crippled in spirit" from Isaiah 66:2. It means those that have come to the end of their strength and cry out in desperation to God, acknowledging they have no righteousness of their own.

Still another example are the terms "destroy" and "fulfill" (I have not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it) from Matthew 5:17-18. When it was felt that a sage had misinterpreted a passage, it was said he had "destroyed" the Torah. When it was felt he had interpreted correctly, it was said he had "fulfilled" it. In light of this, we could paraphrase these verses to read, "I have not come to abolish the Torah, but to complete it, to make the meaning full." Jesus did not come to abolish, but to make full the meaning of what Torah and the Prophets taught. He came to complete our understanding of the Torah and the Prophets so that we can more effectively know what it is God wants in His relationship with man.

A few more examples of often misunderstood words and phrases are found in Matthew 11:15 and Rev. 2 & 3 in the letters to the churches ("he who has ears, let him hear" which simply means that everyone should listen carefully), in Matthew 23:32 (" Fill up the measure of . . . your fathers!" which means to finish what your ancestors began), Mark 10:38 - ("Drink the cup I drink" which is a Jewish expression that means to share someone's fate), John 9:24 ("Give glory to God" which comes from Joshua 7:19 and is a solemn charge, a promise under oath to tell the truth), and Acts 28:27 ("they hear heavily with their ears" which means they are slow to understand).

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope that by taking a peek at some of these "Hebraisms" (I just showed a touch of what is found in the OT) the importance of understanding the "Hebraic Background" of our faith can be seen. It enriches the pictures that God has given His people, pictures that are ultimately about him and his unfolding plan of redemption to all mankind.

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