Lesson 3

You Can’t Take Some Words Literally!

BHC's Seventh Bible Study Guideline
Every language is laden with idioms and euphemisms. 

You are about to be introduced to two new vocabulary terms - idioms & euphemisms.  Please add them to your list of previous vocabulary words.  Every language is laden with idioms and euphemisms.  They are words that cannot be translated literally into another language.  They usually create some very difficult situations for both Bible readers and translators.

  1. Idiom = A word or group of words that cannot be translated literally into  another language, and the meaning of it cannot be understood by defining its component parts.

  2. Euphemism = The substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant. 

Familiar American Idioms

It is always easier to teach a lesson about idioms by using examples of them.  Below are some sentences that contain idioms.  The idioms are underlined and in bold type. 


Write your meaning for each idiom.

(1) It's raining cats and dogs outside.  
(2) He really blew a fuse.  
(3) If that happens, I will eat my hat.  
(4) I got it straight from the horse's mouth.  
(5) You really put your foot in your mouth this time.  
(6) You will have to grease his palm.  
(7) You had better not upset the apple cart!  
(8) She is up the creek without a paddle.  
(9) I'll do it when the cows come home!  
(10) Her bark is worse than her bite.  
(11) Don’t let the cat out of the bag.  
(12) The boss just gave him the ax.  
(13) Go jump in the lake.  
(14) Lend me a hand.  
(15) He has rocks in his head.  
(16) Don’t spill the beans.  

After you write your answers click here for answers.

Idioms Are Found in the Bible

Idioms are a very important linguistic structure, therefore an understanding of them will add a new dimension to your Bible study.  I am sure that you would agree that idioms are extremely common and they are used by everyone.  Our mind automatically interprets them without our ever being aware of it.  Therefore, even though everyone uses idioms, very few are even aware of it.

In the above assignment you were asked to interpret a few idioms literally.  Some of the mental pictures of literal idioms were pretty funny - "I really put my foot in my mouth this time."  Can you imagine what someone from a different culture would think if he heard someone using any of our most common idioms?  For centuries millions of Bible readers have been in that situation.  

Bible translators have been translating Hebrew and Greek idioms literally for hundreds of years. The unsuspecting Bible readers were faithfully reading the  words of their Bibles, but the idioms simply didn't make any sense.  Our minds have a way of dealing with words that don't mean anything to us - they just skip over them and treat them as thought they weren't there.  

Believe it or not, Jesus even used idioms in his teachings. They were very common idioms in his culture and his audience clearly understood them.  But now, almost two thousand years later, many things have changed, including the audience Unless the Bible reader has been trained to deal with idioms, he will never understand one of Jesus' most important lessons.  We are going to learn about two of Jesus' idioms that have caused problems for countless Bible readers. 

"The light of the body is the eye: If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.  But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be  full of darkness . . . " Matthew 6.22-23a, KJV

What do the above words of Jesus mean to you?  Think about them for a few minutes before continuing.  Your mind is going to try to ignore the fact that they simply don't make any sense in English.  These verses are full of terms that really cause us problems.  What do they mean to you?

  • light of the body

  • the eye

  • eye be single

  • body shall be full of light

  • eye be evil

  • body shall be  full of darkness

Because of space limitations I am only going to be able to discuss two of the above idioms at this time - EYE BE SINGLE & EYE BE EVILWhat do they mean to a modern American?  If you don’t know or are not sure, don’t feel bad, even professional Bible translators don't seem to have a clue. If you have more than one translation of the New Testament available, look up the verses.  Below are the different translations of the first idiom:

  • eye be whole 

  • eye be simple

  • eye be sound 

  • eye be plain

  • eye be healthy 

  • eye be sincere

  • eye be clear 

  • eye be honest

  • eye be good

Don't forget that it was Jesus who used these idioms!  His words are the most important words in the Bible of almost 2,000,000,000 Christians.  How will they ever understand his words, if translators continue to produce work like this?

 I have already warned you of the fact that Jesus’ words contains several idioms.  Our next step is to identify the cultures of the Source (Jesus) and the Receptor (his audience). Both were members of the same culture at the same point in time - Israel's culture of the first century CE.  Now we know where and when these idioms were used, so we can focus our search there.  

In the case of the two idioms we are researching, we are going to be very fortunate.  Not only were they used in Israel during Jesus' life, but they were also used there hundreds of years before and they are still used there today.  Another good point is that they are both used in the Tanakh or Christian Old TestamentIt will always be a good tool to use to unlock idiomatic meanings.  

I must point out that there are a few steps in this process that must take place before a Biblical Analyst would be able to connect the idioms of Matthew with those below.  You will learn those steps in future lessons.  However, at this time, I will just provide the results of that work - eye be single should have been translated as good eye in order to be in the correct Hebrew idiomatic form.  Now let's look at a verse from the Hebrew Bible that contains that idiom.

He that has a good eye shall be blessed;
for he gives of his bread to the poor
(Proverbs 22:9).

This verse is written in a Hebrew poetic style called a parallelism. You will also cover parallelisms in more detail in a future lesson.  At this time, I will simply give you the new vocabulary term.

  • parallelism = Two or more phrases that are directly related to, and modify each other.  The second phrase helps unlock the meaning of the first. 

Phrase 1 is divided into two parts - A & BPhrase 2 has only one part written - a - the second part is understood to be a repeat of 1B.

Phrase 1     (A) he that has a good eye/              (B) shall be blessed

Phrase 2     (a) he gives his bread to the poor    (b) [shall be blessed]

In order to unlock the meaning of the idiom in 1A, we simply need to compare it to its corresponding part in 2a.

1A = 2a.

1A (he that has a good eye) = 2a (he gives his bread to the poor)

A good way to simplify this step is to change 1A to a question that will be answered by 2a.  

  • Question: "Who is the one with a good eye?" 
  • Answer: "He who gives his bread to the poor."

Now we have the answer and are able to understand the meaning of the Hebrew idiom GOOD EYE - "to help meet the needs of the poor."  Therefore, we could translate Jesus’ words this way:

"The light of the body is the eye: 
therefore if you help meet the needs of the poor,
your whole body will be full of light."

Another option would be:

"The light of the body is the eye:
therefore if you are a generous almsgiver,
your whole body will be full of light." 

Evil Eye 

We will be able to use the same process to unlock the meaning of the Hebrew idiom evil eye.  This time our key will be found in Deuteronomy 15:9: 

"Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and you have an evil eye against your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry unto the LORD against thee, and it be sin unto thee. " 

Parallelism Analysis

  Phrase 1 (A) you have an evil eye against your poor brother

  Phrase 2 (a) you give him nothing

  • Question: Who is the person with an ‘evil eye’?
  • Answer: "the one who gives his poor brother nothing."

Now let’s reconstruct the original meaning of the words of Jesus:

The light of the body is the eye:
therefore if you are a generous person, an almsgiver,
your whole body shall be full of light.
But if you are stingy person, one who does not help the poor,
your whole body shall be full of darkness.


A euphemism is the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.  A common euphemism is - "I'm going to powder my nose."

One of the most famous words in the Bible is YHVH, the primary name of God.  It is called the tetragrammaton because it consists of four Hebrew letters that we transliterate into English as YHVH.  In many parts of the Jewish culture it was not pronounced because there is a concern that if it is done incorrectly, it would be a sin.  It would be the breaking of the commandment -  "You shall not take YHVH's name in vain."  Therefore, they substitute a number of euphemisms for YHVH.  

  • HaShem (The Name)
  • The Power
  • Heaven
  • The Holy One
  • The Most High
  • The Blessed One
  • Adonai
  • LORD (all capital letters)

This cultural tradition is also found in the New Testament.  For an example, we will look at two verses from Mark, 1:1 and 14:61.  Compare the underlined words. 

"The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."

". . . Again the High Priest asked him, Are you the Christ, the Son of The Blessed One."

Notice that the first verse Luke, a Gentile, used the word God. But, in the second verse, which is a quote of the High Priest, we find the euphemism The Blessed One. This is an amazing clue of just how literal many of the words of the Synoptic Gospels have been preserved over the centuries.  The High Priest would have been expected to use an acceptable euphemism in order to not sin, while it may not have been a problem for Luke or his Gentile readers.  We see the same thing in two very well known biblical phrases.

Kingdom of Heaven
Kingdom of God?

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the
   kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:3)

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the
kingdom of God (Luke 6:20)

Many theological books have been written about the difference between the terms kingdom of Heaven and kingdom of God If the writers had been familiar with Hebrew euphemisms, they would have recognized that both terms mean the same thing. Heaven is a Hebrew euphemism for God.  A basic belief of Rabbinic Judaism is that there is only one true king of Israel and that king is God.  Today, many Jews still use euphemisms instead of the word God. You have probably seen the euphemism G-d.  

In the above verses we find the two different terms because of the backgrounds of the authors.  Luke is traditionally understood to be either a Gentile or a convert, and his message was written to Gentiles. Therefore he used the word God.  Tradition indicates that Matthew was Jewish by birth and that his writings were addressed to Jewish readers. Therefore, Matthew used the euphemism Heaven.

One final piece of information will also probably help.  In Jewish theology there is no belief that when people die or at some point in the future anyone will leave this planet and go to a place called heaven.  Their belief is that whatever may happen at that point in the future, it will take place right here on the earth.  So, the "kingdom of Heaven" isn't a place; instead it's the people who are "subjects" under the rule of God.

Congratulations! You have completed the third lesson!

Continue to lesson number four.


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