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?

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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.

Two Births–John 3:3-6

John gospel iconJesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

Back in 1976, when Jimmy Carter made headlines by being interviewed in the pages of Playboy, he also arched some readers’ eyebrows by using the term “born again,” as in born-again Christian. As peculiar as the term might have seemed to the vast non-evangelical masses, it doesn’t biblical Christians as an odd term, coming straight out of this passage from John 3.

My Catholic sister-in-law, presumably representing a common Catholic reading of this passage, understands the “born of water,” the first of the two births mentioned here, to refer to baptism. Since that phrase follows hard on the heels of Nicodemus’ reference to climbing back into his mother’s womb, I think it much more likely to refer to that original birth. For me, it took place on December 28, 1962 and, like all human births, involved the shedding of some water.

Everyone who reads these words has experienced that first birth, the birth of water. That birth is the common legacy of all humanity. In fact, every human to come along since Adam and Eve has passed through that birth of water in one way or another. The person you love and appreciate the most has not experience birth of water any more than the worst ISIS militant or annoying driver on your morning commute.

The other birth, on the other hand, belongs only to those who, presumably like Jimmy Carter, have trusted in Christ and been regenerated, reborn, by the Holy Spirit. I mention President Carter because I find the man both fascinating and annoying. He’s the only U.S. President I’ve met. I admire his woodworking and his attempts as President to be a decent human being. On the other hand, he has stood for some things, over the years, that I would wholeheartedly stand against.

And in the end, Jimmy Carter will have to put up with me for eternity in the presence of God just as I will have to put up with him. We share–assuming that he was telling the truth to that interviewer, which I believe he was–that second birth, a birth of the Spirit.

Look around your church on Sunday. There are certain to be people who have, like you, experienced the second birth and who drive you bonkers. Maybe you argue with them on committees or just find them rude and abrasive. It doesn’t matter. We’re all stuck with each other.

Some day, perhaps soon, we’ll all–you, me, your annoying person, Jimmy Carter, and a host of others–will find ourselves, by virtue of our second birth, spending eternity with God. All those annoyances from this world, the world of the first birth, will seem like nothing in that day.