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.

The Sun Goes Camping (Psalm 19:4c)

In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. –Psalm 19:4c

“Oh, those silly, superstitious people. Do they honestly believe that there’s a tent up there in the sky or that the sun needs a tent to live in? How absurd.” While this quotation does not record the actual words of anyone I’ve ever heard, it does capture the basic attitude of some of our current atheist set. These self-styled “free thinkers” and “sceptics” have latched onto a very literal view of life. If their yardstick cannot measure it, then it does not exist.

In the early going of Hamlet, the prince points out his friend’s excessively skeptical nature. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So it is with the Psalmist and the sun. Did David truly desire to personify the sun, thinking that it lived in an enormous tent that formed the canopy of the heavens. “The canopy! There’s another one. How ignorant are these Bible readers?” I rather think David more sophisticated that that. He is, after all, writing poetry. Inspired poetry, yes, but poetry nonetheless.

Part of what the heavens speak forth throughout these verses of Psalm 19 is the greatness of God in contrast with the smallness of Man. The God who placed each of the stars and planets in its place, who created a dwelling place for something as essential and powerful as the sun, can do anything He desires. By contrast, can Man reach those stars that God cast around the sky so effortlessly? Can Man stop the progress of the sun in the sky? “Foolish people! They take the idea of Joshua stopping the sun in the sky literally!”

When I listen to the message of the heavens, I learn two very important lessons. There is a God, and I am not Him. When we limit the world we will accept to the world we can fully explain and comprehend, we dwell in a far smaller tent than the metaphorical one that David suggests for the sun.