The other day I heard someone on the news use a phrase about the current financial crisis. Basically he said something like “We should have seen the writing on the wall when…blah, blah, blah.” As I listened I wondered how many people watching that program would know that the phrase he used had it’s origin in the Bible. Even devout Jews or Christians might not consciously realize it because the saying has been so adopted by our present culture. This got me thinking about all of the other phrases that have Biblical origins that most people probably don’t know about. So below, I have listed a few of the most common ones.
Am I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4:9) – This is what Cain said to God when God asked where Abel was. Let me just say that Cain must have had a set of stones on him as big as basketballs! I mean, you’ve just commited the first murder in the history of mankind and it’s your own brother. Now God Himself is asking you where your brother is and that’s what you throw out? Really? I feel that Cain was actually pretty lucky to get off with being branded and roaming the earth for the rest of his life.
The writing is on the wall (Daniel 5) – We use this phrase in a milder way than the Bible story it is derived from. When we say the writing is on the wall we mean we can see something coming. But in the Bible the writing on the wall was a little more, shall we say, lethal. In Daniel 5 we see king Belshazzar partying with his nobles, wives and concubines (now that’s my kind of party) when he decides that the Solo cups he’s using just aren’t up to his kingly standards. So he calls for someone to fetch the silver and gold goblets that his father, king Nebuchadnezzar, had stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem. Since this story is from the Old Testament you can guess that this was probably not a good move. The New International Version of the Bible tells what happened next this way:
5 Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. 6 His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.
The king tries to find someone to interpret the writing saying that anyone who can will be rewarded with the 3rd highest office in the kingdom. No one can except Daniel. The king is relieved when he learns that Daniel can indeed interpret the writing but that relief is very short lived. Daniel basically says that God doesn’t like you, your partying days are over and your kingdom is going to be divided by your enemies. Even though this probably isn’t what he wanted to hear, the king lived up to his word and made Daniel the 3rd highest ruler in the kingdom. Oh yeah, and that night the king was killed.
By the skin of your teeth (Job 19:20) I didn’t know about this one until a friend of mine told me about it. We use this prhase to mean a narrow escape. But Job uses it to say that he has come away with nothing.
20 I am nothing but skin and bones;
I have escaped with only the skin of my teeth.
The note for the verse says that the skin of the teeth can be translated as “gums”.
Go the extra mile (Matthew 5:41) The actual verse that this phrase comes from says it this way (NIV):
If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
Back in the day, under Roman law, a Roman soldier could compel you to cary his pack for one mile. Jesus used this analogy to tell his followers that they should go beyond expectations in helping people and demonstrating love to their neighbors. This verse is part of the Sermon on the Mount that included the Beatitudes (Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth) and saw Jesus radically re-interpret Jewish law.
Thorn in the side (2 Corinthians 12:7, Numbers 33:55, Judges 2:3) This meaning is pretty obvious and while we still use this phrase, it has been replaced in more informal settings by the phrase “pain in the ass”. The Corinthians verse is the most famous of the three and reads:
6Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.
7To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
There has been endless scholarly debate about what the “thorn” was. The following is from Coffman Commentaries of the Old and New Testament:
Tertullian thought it was a headache.
Klausner believed it was epilepsy.
Ramsay identified it as recurrent malarial fever.
Chrysostom said it was “all the adversaries of the Word.”
John Calvin made it “fleshly temptation.”
Martin Luther considered it “spiritual temptation.”
John Knox decided it was “infirmities of the mind.”
Catholic commentators generally say “lustful thoughts.”
McGarvey: “acute, disfiguring ophthalmia.”
Macknight spoke of some who believed it was “the false teachers.”
Lightfoot suggested “blasphemous thoughts of the devil.”
Alexander was sure it was “Malta fever.”
I took New Testament class in college and my professor told us there were many scholars who thought the thorn was Paul’s wife. But maybe they were just projecting.