I Could Eat a Whole Cow: Understanding Hyperbole in the Bible

You’ve heard that old saying, haven’t you: “I’m so hungry I could eat a whole cow”? Actually, I’m not sure anyone ever says that anymore, but I think we’ve all heard this and other exaggerated statements. Try these on:

  • When I posted that, my phone blew up.
  • I ate something bad. I’m dying.
  • Everybody in the world was at the airport today.

Let’s be clear. When we say things like these, we don’t mean that our phone literally exploded, that we expect to be fitted for a grave, or that billions of people were at the airport. The person who says them doesn’t mean them to be taken literally, and the person who hears them understands that they are exaggerations for effect. There’s a name for this figure of speech: hyperbole.

That’s all fine, but when there is hyperbole in the Bible, things get interesting. When we take the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God, hyperbole can be a troublesome actor on the page. Do we take a particular statement at face value or understand it in its rhetorical context? Sometimes that seems easy, but other times it is more difficult. Let’s look at a few examples.

Not One Stone

In Matthew 24:2, Jesus looks at the temple and says, “Do you see all these things? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here on another that will not be thrown down.” In A.D. 70, Roman armies breached the walls of Jerusalem and put an end to Jewish dominance there for many centuries. Most notably, the Romans razed Herod’s Temple. But if we had walked onto the Temple Mount in, say, A.D. 75 and seen two stones still stacked, would that prove Jesus a liar or a false prophet?

If we see the mighty retaining wall known as the Western Wall, a wall that stood in Jerusalem when Jesus spoke, does that prove Him wrong? Of course not. Jesus did not mean His “not one stone” statement to be taken literally. Instead, it was hyperbole, intended to mean that great destruction was coming.

Elective Surgery?

In Galatians, Paul rails against those who are insisting that Greek believers in Jesus need to be circumcised. In a bit of a rage, Paul eventually says this:

I wish those who are disturbing you might also let themselves be mutilated!

Galatians 5:12

The King James is even more cryptic: “I would they were even cut off.” Basically, Paul is saying that he wishes these people who advocate a fairly invasive bit of cutting on others would do even greater cutting on themselves. Maybe it could be translated “let themselves be castrated!”

This is similar to Jesus, in Matthew 5, urging people to chop off hands or pluck out eyes that cause them to sin. We understand this to be an exaggeration. Otherwise, who among us would have two eyes and two hands?

When All Isn’t All

In many places in the Bible, words like “all” apparently don’t mean what they mean to us. That seems troubling, but we do it ourselves. For example, if I say, “All my children were here Sunday,” you should expect my four children. But what if I say, “The whole family was here on Sunday.” If you discover that actually one of my grandkids was not here, would you dismiss me as a liar?

Now let’s look at the Bible. In Exodus 9:6, in the fifth plague on Egypt, we read that “All the Egyptian livestock died.” All means all, right? How many Egyptian cattle were left? If I take this literally, then the answer is “zero.” Then how can I read, a few verses later, that the plague of boils afflicted people and animals? I suppose that could have been wild animals. But the seventh plague, the hail, specifically mentions livestock (Exodus 9:19-21). So the Egyptians protected the livestock that they didn’t have anymore? How do we explain that?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Maybe the Egyptians stole all the livestock that the Israelites had after plague five. I suppose that’s possible, but wouldn’t we expect to hear something like that mentioned? That seems a bit more significant than having to make bricks without straw! Finally, in Exodus 11:4-5, Moses announces the final plague, which will kill the firstborn of the livestock. Again, how many times are these animals going to be killed? Perhaps the simplest answer is best: all doesn’t always mean all.

But wait, you say. If “all” doesn’t mean all in in Exodus 9:6, then how do we know that it means “all” in Exodus 11 for the Passover? How do we know that “all” have sinned or that “everyone” in John 3:16 really means everyone? Isn’t this a pretty treacherous slippery slope?

Getting in Tune

Sometimes it is exceptionally easy to know that hyperbole is in use. When we hear John’s disciples say “everyone is going to” Jesus in John 3:26, we don’t insist that they mean literally “everyone.” That would have to include all the Pharisees and the Romans and, well, everyone. Instead, they meant a lot of people. We don’t think that Jesus really wanted us mutilating ourselves. (Paul remains an open question to me.) We don’t call Jesus a liar when we see the Western Wall. We recognize and understand many instances of hyperbole.

We can also see things that clearly need to be read literally. When Moses is given the specifications for building the Tabernacle, they’re not hyperbole. Where the trouble arises is in the areas between these two.

I would suggest testing for hyperbole by asking, “What difference would it make if I were to read this as exaggeration for effect?” If I read John 3:16 as hyperbole, then the gospel is utterly changed. If I read Exodus 9:6 as hyperbole, then the ensuing story makes more sense and a large number of animals can still be lost.

The bottom line is that we need to read the scripture with an open mind and a humble spirit, recognizing that the Holy Spirit can bridge the gaps in our cultural and language knowledge.

In John 16:13, we read

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.

Is that all truth or a great deal of truth? I’m going to have to stew on that one.

What’s an Ark?

About fifty years ago, a certain now-disgraced comic created a routine based on Noah. One of the memorable bits of this script was Noah being utterly flummoxed when instructed to build an ark. “What’s an ark?” he asks.

In Genesis 6:14, Noah is told

Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it with pitch inside and outside.

While we have no record of Noah asking what an ark might be, he would be perfectly justified in doing so. First of all, we have no record of boats in the pre-flood years. Did people use boats to go out and fish in those days? Did they run cruise lines? I can’t say for sure, but that’s not really the point. God didn’t say “Make yourself a boat of gopher wood.” He said, “Make yourself an ark.”

So what is an ark? My first inclination would be to look for other arks in the Bible. We all know that the other famous ark, the Ark of the Covenant, is sealed up in a wooden crate and hidden away in some gigantic government warehouse, thanks to Indiana Jones. Is that at all similar to what Noah was to build?

First popping up in Exodus 25, the word used for the ark of the covenant is ‘arown. Actually, I misspoke when I said it first showed up in Exodus 25 as it is rendered “coffin” in Genesis 50:26. This word appears 202 times in the Old Testament, most of them referring to the ark that David danced in front of.

Noahs_Ark_Italianate_mural_WEB_821x800The “ark” Noah was instructed to build was tebah, a word that appears 26 times in the Old Testament. Of those usages, 24 are in Genesis 6-9 and pertain to the thing that Noah built. The only other two appearances are in Exodus 2, describing the basket used to save baby Moses. In fact, there’s not a really great reason why tebah is translated as “ark.” It could be argued that Noah’s version was box-like, but can the same be said of Moses’ ark?

There is a significant difference between tebah and ‘arown. While the ‘arown ark is a box or chest that things are put into, it does not save anybody. Contrary to what the Indiana Jones version suggests, an army carrying the ark can be defeated. That ark is not a vehicle of salvation; it is a symbol of a convenant.

On the other hand, both examples of a tebah ark are vehicles (literally and figuratively) of salvation. Noah’s tebah preserves a righteous remnant of humanity in a time when things had gotten utterly dark. Moses’ tebah preserves a chosen child during a period when Hebrew babies were being exterminated. Absent either of these, the later story of salvation could not have carried on–at least not without huge changes.

What’s an ark? In this case, it is a vessel created by human hands to perform God’s work of salvation.


¡No Va! La Segunda Parte

How many Internet Trolls does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Forty-seven. One to screw in the lightbulb and forty-six to opine about the various conspiracy theories that explain the lightbulb. (Yeah, I just made that up. Sue me.)

A few days ago, I mentioned, in passing, the old Chevy Nova story, about how the cars apparently didn’t sell in Spanish-speaking countries because the name means “Doesn’t go.” I also mentioned that this story, although reproduced in any number of places, is a complete fabrication, probably an invention of disgruntled Ford executives.

It has shown up in marketing texts to emphasize the perils of not knowing your audience. It has been used to underscore the hubris of American corporate types. It has been used to show the danger of cultural ignorance. Finally, it pops up as a joke without any motivation beyond laughter. Probably no vehicle ever built has gotten better mileage than this false story. Like the old Energizer Bunny, it just keeps going and going.

I don’t believe that the original motivation behind the Nova Conspiracy can be known, but I can point to a host of people who have helped to keep it alive and spreading, most of them not people who wanted to attack Chevrolet. How many untrue stories (or true but unhelpful ones) circulate in our churches with the vigor of dandelions in an untended lawn?

People start rumors for various reasons. They might want to seem more important or to inflict harm on someone else. We can’t stop people from starting the next Nova Conspiracy; however, we don’t have to help the story to spread.

In Exodus 23:1, we read

You must not spread a false report. Do not join the wicked to be a malicious witness.

It’s the first half of this that I want to zoom in on. The second half suggests that a person might spread a  lie for potential gain, but the first half is absolute. Do not spread a false report, regardless of your motivation.

“But I didn’t know it wasn’t true!” you protest. If we’re taking Exodus seriously, then ignorance is no excuse. If you don’t know it to be true, then you don’t spread the thing. The more potentially hurtful that the story might be, the more we need to cling to this prohibition on spreading false reports. If the report is “I think Laney likes cats,” then it is probably not too important, but if the report is “I think Laney eats cats . . .” You get the difference. And of course, which sorts of questionable stories do we like to repeat?

In the long run, I don’t think the Nova Conspiracy did any harm to anybody, but the spread of false reports–of Fake News–can cause harm within families, within communities, within churches, and within the nation.

Loose lips sink ships, the old posters said. They can sink relationships and trust and organizations just as readily. That’s why we need to determine that regardless of where the story began, it will not go beyond us. ¡No va!

A Sluggish Tongue?

ordinationLast night, I got to participate in the ordination of a friend, Chris, as a deacon. Our new addition–the guy in the tie in the photo–went from being a servant to being a Servant. And my guess is that not much will change about this man, despite his newfound capital letter and a nifty ordination plaque.

Before the ordination prayer, Chris had an opportunity to share his testimony. I don’t think he really looked forward to that. He’d probably agree with Moses from Exodus 4:10: “my mouth and my tongue are sluggish.” Nobody wants to hear Chris preach a sermon next Sunday, least of all him!

Despite what I think any honest hearer would describe as a labored presentation, Chris’ friends and family on social media thanked him for his “excellent testimony.” As I reflect on it, his words, although not eloquent, were all the right words.

But honestly, those few minutes of public speaking, his notecards shaking in his left hand, were not Chris’ excellent testimony. His testimony is as a gentle father, a devoted husband, and a man who takes on some of the most difficult children that our church has to offer. Over the years I’ve known him, he continually has shown everyone the individual attention, love, and discipline that they require.

If a deacon should happen to be a good teacher or preacher, that’s wonderful. It’s a bonus, but eloquence is not in the job description. Read 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Unlike the overseer in 1 Timothy 3:2, the deacon need not be “able to teach,” but he must be able to serve. As we’ve seen before, service is in the very name of a deacon.

The eloquent testimony that Chris has given was not in the five minutes or so that he spoke to us last night. His testimony is in how he deals humbly and faithfully with DJ and LJ, a couple of the challenging children that others might just dismiss. He seems to honestly enjoy those interactions. Just don’t ask him to give a speech about the work.

A Briggs and Stratton Sabbath

A couple of weeks ago, I went outside during the evening to mow my grass. I really didn’t want to mow the grass–who ever does?–but I knew that it needed to be done. The temperature on that evening was mild for summer in Kansas City and the next several days promised the sort of blast-furnace peaks that June and July have delivered this year. Clearly, I needed to lace up my grimy shoes and drag the mower out.

But here’s the deal. That coolish evening was a Sunday. Sure, I’d done all of my Sunday obligations–gone to church, served in the children’s ministry, spent time with my family, all that–but I still couldn’t help remaining completely aware of doing non-essential work on the Lord’s Day. After all:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work,  but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, your livestock, or the resident alien who is within your city gates. For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy. –Exodus 20:8-11

That’s the fourth commandment, the longest of the ten. Jesus never got accused of murder or idolatry, but he was hit with accusations of violating the Sabbath right and left. It’s true that this commandment was the only one of the ten not reaffirmed in the New Testament, but I couldn’t shake the thought that I was pushing my mower back and forth on Sunday when I could have done it easily enough–although with more sweat–on Monday or Tuesday.

Back in Exodus 16, we encounter God’s message regarding the Sabbath via the provision of manna. You get a single ration every day except Friday when you can take a double ration to last you through Saturday. The message was clear: Trust God.

Shouldn’t I have trusted God better with my lawn mowing? Couldn’t I have trusted him to see me through mowing in the beastly heat on Monday?

This isn’t really just a question about the lawn or even about the Lord’s Day. Instead, it’s a question about trusting God to give me enough of everything in the time (or money or skill or whatever) allowed. I don’t think it was strictly an ecological thing that led God to declare the sabbatical year every seven years in Leviticus 25:4:

But there will be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land in the seventh year, a Sabbath to the Lord: you are not to sow your field or prune your vineyard.

Instead, he wanted the Israelites to do something harder than working, which was not working. He wanted them to realize that even though they hadn’t done the agricultural work that had served them (hopefully) so well in the preceding six years, the land would still produce sufficient crops to support them.

I’d like to spend some time developing this idea of trusting God in the time and resources allotted. I think it will lead into some surprising and sometimes uncomfortable ideas.