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Idioms & Hyperbole Interpreting the Literary Types

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An idiom is probably the most difficult literature type to interpret because its intended meaning cannot be deduced from the literal meaning of the author's words, but refers to a figurative meaning known only by common use.  These common expressions, sometimes referred to as “slang”, can vary by context and change rapidly in time (just ask any parent with a teenager).  In most cases, the best course of action will be to consult a trusted Bible commentary (or two).

Sometimes, we can get an idea of the intended meaning of an idiom by consulting different Bible translations.  As an example, lets explore an idiom which has caused particular problems to readers, the “love-hate” idiom.  Paul, writing about God’s election, quotes Malachi 1:2-3, As it is written: Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated (Rom 9:13, HCSB).  Similarly, Jesus says “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26, also Mt 10:37).  Other occurrences of this idiom can be found in Deut 21:15-17 and Proverbs 13:24.

I think we can determine the intended meaning of the idiom by analyzing Genesis 29:30-31 in the various English translations of the Bible.  There are two basic methods used for translating the original Biblical languages into English, “word-for-word” and “thought-for-thought".  All modern translations are made up of various combinations of the two methods.  We find a word-for-word translation in the RSV and ESV which reads “he [Jacob] loved Rachel more than Leah... When the LORD saw that Leah was hated...”.  The thought-for-thought translations of the Hebrew read “unloved” (NASB) or “not loved” (NIV) instead of “hated”.  Thus, the literal Hebrew reads “hate”, but the intended meaning is “unloved".  We know the author of Genesis (Moses) knew that Jacob did not hate Leah (who bore six of Jacob's twelve sons), so we conclude that Leah was considered unloved when compared with the love Jacob had for Rachel.

Likewise, in Jesus' statements, the “love-hate” idiom, meaning “love-unloved”, is used as a comparative contrast, that we are to “love” Jesus to the extent that others could be thought of as “un-loved” by comparison.  Jesus is not stressing that we hate our relatives, but that we love Him more.

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The Bible's frequent use of hyperbole (exaggeration) has presented some difficulty for many Bible readers.  Some associate exaggeration in the Bible with inexactness or even downright falsehood.  As we've pointed out with other figures of speech, the use of hyperbole is a perfectly acceptable form of language when shared by both writer and reader (otherwise, it would be deceitful).  For example, if the writer is using hyperbole and the reader is interpreting the text literally, miscommunication will inevitably result.   Obviously, we would not employ hyperbole when speaking scientifically or mathematically, but it is actually very difficult to describe certain things without using hyperbole, particularly the concepts of the heart (expressions of love, for instance).  For this reason, we find poetry, proverbs and prophecy containing hyperbole by their very nature.  Hyperbole is also a great tool for emphasizing an important point, and for use as a memory enhancer, helping the hearers or readers to remember the saying.

Most folks are able to intuitively determine when hyperbole is being used in a passage.  There are two basic types of exaggeration, that which is literally impossible and that which is exaggerated but still literally possible.  The first type is obviously very easy to detect.  Mark quotes Jesus as saying “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mk 10:25).”  This is a proverb, expressing the general truth of the difficulty of someone preoccupied with money entering the kingdom.  We easily detect this as an exaggeration since its impossible for the camel to go through the needle eye, and there are monetarily rich persons who are dedicated Christians.  The second type is usually obvious, but there have been cases throughout history that a certain group or individual has taken a hyperbolic passage literally with drastic results.  Every now and then, we hear of someone mutilating themselves due to a misinterpretation of Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5:29-30, which  speaks of gouging out one's eye or cutting off one's limb to avoid hell.  Jesus was not teaching self-mutilation, but that we should take whatever measures are necessary to avoid the sin of lust.

There are a few principles we can apply to enable us to recognize when hyperbole is being used.  We already mentioned the first and most obvious, whenever the statement is literally impossible.  Another indication of possible hyperbole is when the writer's statement in the passage conflicts with his words or actions elsewhere.  For example, Jesus said “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Lk 14:26).”  This clearly conflicts with Jesus' teachings in Mark 7:10 and 10:19, where He affirms Moses' statement to honor your father and mother.

All of the Scriptures are in perfect harmony, therefore if the literal sense of a passage conflicts with the teachings of either the Old or New Testament, we should pause and consider whether the passage contains hyperbole.  Jesus saw his ethical teachings as being consistent with and in fulfillment of those of the OT.  We can also suspect hyperbole if another inspired Biblical writer interprets the passage in a non-literal manner, or if the literal fulfillment of the passage would not achieve what he speaker intended.  Returning to Jesus statement in Matt 5:29-30, removing one's eyes or limbs would not solve the problem, since lust comes from the heart.

Use of certain terms such as “no one”, “all”, “nothing”, “everyone”, “everything” and other universal language can certainly be used in a literal sense, but many times their unqualified use may suggest the possibility of hyperbole.  The little Greek word pas can be translated as dozens of words such as various forms of “all” or “every”, “whosoever”, “any”, “daily”, “thoroughly”, “the whole” etc.  It can also mean every kind or variety of people or things.  Jesus said “Everything is possible for him who believes” (Mk 9:23).  Yet, just because I believe, I can't flap my arms and fly to the moon, much less become God.   Jesus meant that we should not ask God to limit Himself due to our lack of faith.  The Pharisees said of Jesus, “the whole world has gone after him” (Jn 12:19), meaning a large number of people were following Him.  As we mentioned, there are cases where these terms are used universally (without exception), such as when all or everyone is called to repent.  Along with the principles mentioned above, we must also rely on the context to determine if literal or hyperbole is being used.

One last thing to watch for is that certain types of literature, such as poetry, proverbs, prophecy and even some idioms, which as we mentioned earlier, are prone to exaggeration by their very nature.

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