Idioms in Bible Translation

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored ninety-two books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Idioms are a fixed expression with nonliteral meaning: a fixed distinctive expression whose meaning cannot be deduced from the combined meanings of its actual words. A drop in the bucket is a very small part of something big or whole. All in the same boat is when everyone is facing the same challenges. An axe to grind is to have a dispute with someone. Field day is an enjoyable day or circumstance. Method to my madness is strange or crazy actions that appear meaningless but in the end are done for good reason. Idioms are by far the most difficult of literature to interpret and translate.

“Between the Devil and the deep blue sea”[1] is equivalent to our “between a rock and a hard place.” Both mean that someone is in a serious dilemma of two very undesirable choices. Have we ever had to tell someone, ‘look you are beating a dead horse,’ meaning the continuation of the discussion is futile? On the other hand, how about, ‘listen, you are preaching to the choir,’ which means we are trying to convince our listener of something that he probably holds more strongly to than we do. Let us see one option that some dynamic equivalents have tried to use in dealing with an idiom.

Idioms can present unique problems to translators because there is the difficult decision of whether they should be rendered literally or be interpreted for the reader. An example would be the English expression “bite your tongue.” This expression in any other language would be taken literally to mean the act of biting one’s tongue, thus resulting in the infliction of pain to the tongue. Most of the American English-speaking community understands that the phrase means to ‘refrain from speaking.’ Below is a Biblical example of a Hebrew idiom in a literal translation wherein the idiom was rendered literally, and a thought-for-thought translation that presents the same verses using more interpretation for the reader.

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Psalm 10:15 (ESV)

15 Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none.

Psalm 10:15 (NCV)

15 Break the power of wicked people. Punish them for the evil they have done.

Breaking the arm does represent breaking one’s power. (Job 38:15; Ps 10:15; Jer. 48:25) Should the fact that, in some cases, the idioms are interpreted correctly in these dynamic equivalents cause us to let our guard down as to their trustworthiness? No. Why? Because in many cases, there is more than one option, and the reader has the right to be aware of them. If the translator chooses one, he has just cut the reader off from the others. Here are some other examples.

Deuteronomy 5:6 (UASV)

6 I am Jehovah your God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

Deuteronomy 5:6 (NLV)

‘I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house where you were servants.

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When we look at the Hebrew word eved that is rendered “slave” or “servant,” it does not necessarily mean one who is owned by another. It could be a reference to one who is owned by another member of the human race, especially a kindred human being. (Gen. 12:16; Ex. 20:17) On the other hand, it could refer to one who is a subject of a king. (2Sa 11:21; 2Ch 10:7) Then again, it could refer to a subjugated people who were obligated to pay tribute. (2 Sam. 8:2, 6) Alternatively, it could be persons in royal service, including cupbearers, bakers, seamen, military officers, advisers, and so forth, whether they were owned by their fellowmen or not (Gen. 40:20; 1 Sam. 29:3; 1 Ki 9:27; 2 Ch. 8:18; 9:10; 32:9). One must determine who is designated by the term, and in what sense it is being used and they should not shy away from the term “slave.”

Judges 3:28 (UASV)

28 And he said to them, “Follow after me; for Jehovah has delivered your enemies the Moabites into your hand.” So they went down after him and seized the fords of the Jordan against the Moabites and did not allow anyone to pass over.

Judges 3:28 (GNT)

28 He told them, “Follow me! The Lord has given you victory over your enemies, the Moabites.” So they followed Ehud down and captured the place where the Moabites were to cross the Jordan; they did not allow anyone to cross.

Here, we see that the dynamic equivalent has chosen to remove the idiomatic language, to spell it out for their reader. The idea is that Jehovah the Israelite God has given his people victory over the Moabites, ‘i.e.’ he has defeated them for his people. Therefore again, the GNT is not misleading or misinforming here, but it has stopped the reader from pausing, to learn more about the text.

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS
1 Samuel 10:9 (ASV)9 And it was so, that, when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, God gave him another heart: and all those signs came to pass that day.
1 Samuel 10:9 (GNT)

When Saul turned to leave Samuel, God gave Saul a new nature. And everything Samuel had told him happened that day.

1 Samuel 10:9 (ERV)

9 Just as Saul turned to leave Samuel, God turned Saul’s life around. All these things happened that day.

1 Samuel 10:9 (CEV)

As Saul turned around to leave Samuel, God made Saul feel like a different person. That same day, everything happened just as Samuel had said.

1 Samuel 10:9 (GW)

9 When Saul turned around to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s attitude. That day all these signs happened.

Did God change Saul’s attitude? Did he give Saul a new nature? If God gave Saul a new nature, it would affect other things that he would have said and done, so why did Saul continue to find himself being reprimanded by God his entire life until the kingship was taken from him? Did God turn Saul’s life around? On the other hand, did God make Saul feel like a different person?

2 Kings 4:29 (UASV)

29 Then he said to Gehazi, “Gird up your loins, and take my staff in your hand, and go your way; if you meet any man, do not salute him, and if anyone salutes you, do not answer him; and lay my staff on the face of the child.”

2 Kings 4:29 (CEV)

29 “Gehazi, get ready and go to her house,” Elisha said. “Take along my walking stick, and when you get there, lay it on the boy’s face. Don’t stop to talk to anyone, even if they try to talk to you.”

2 Kings 4:29 (GNT)

29 Elisha turned to Gehazi and said, “Hurry! Take my walking stick and go. Don’t stop to greet anyone you meet, and if anyone greets you, don’t take time to answer. Go straight to the house and hold my stick over the boy.”

2 Kings 4:29 (GW)

29 The man of God told Gehazi, “Put on a belt, take my shepherd’s staff in your hand, and go. Whenever you meet anyone, don’t stop to greet him. If he greets you, don’t stop to answer him. Lay my staff on the boy’s face.”

2 Kings 4:29 (NIRV)

29 Elisha said to Gehazi, “Tuck your coat into your belt. Take my wooden staff and run to Shunem. Don’t say hello to anyone you see. If anyone says hello to you, don’t answer. Lay my staff on the boy’s face.”

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

The loins are the area on each side of the backbone of a human between the ribs and hips. In ancient times, soldiers wore a belt or girdle. It was 2 to 6 inches in width. This belt served double duty: (1) to protect the soldier’s loins, (2) but it also serves in supporting his sword. When a soldier girded up his loins, this meant he was getting ready to go into battle. This soldier and his belt served as the perfect analogy, of how Elijah was to get ready, to prepare himself for vigorous activity. Another aspect of the Bible background is the simple fact that the people of Bible times wore a loose and flowing style of clothing. If one were to engage in some form of physical activity, it was common to gather up the skirt, pulling them forward between the legs and tucking them in the belt that was around their hips. The reader of God’s Word needs to pause to see what the author meant by his words. If they are to do this, they must actually have his words, as opposed to the interpreter’s determination of what they mean, (“get ready” or “Hurry!”), or a modern definition or description of the idiom (“put on a belt” or “tuck your coat into your belt”).

What must be understood is that all societies, past and present, have figures of speech that are commonly used to express meaning, just as did those in Bible times. Moreover, figures of speech convey a meaning that is no different from if it was used literally. This is not to say that we take the figurative speech literally, but when someone says that this is a figure of speech, he does not mean that its meaning is ambiguous (can contain more than one meaning), it is specific and has one intended meaning just as other forms of speech do.[2] Take for example; ‘off the top of your head,’ ‘by the skin of his teeth,’ and ‘the handwriting on the wall’ all are English examples of idioms.

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How Should the Idiom be Translated?

 Figures of speech, as well as the subcategory idiom,[3] add something to a language that could really be said no other way to get that color and depth. The idiom of “a land flowing with milk and honey” is so descriptive that even the most zealous interpretive translations dare not alter it:

Deuteronomy 6:3 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

 3“O Israel, you should listen and be careful to do it, that it may be well with you and that you may multiply greatly, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. [i.e., a fertile land, a land of plenty]

Jeremiah 31:29 (NASB)

29 “In those days they will not say again, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ [Lit., “got blunted (dulled)].”[4]

Jeremiah 31:29 (MSG)

29 “When that time comes you won’t hear the old proverb anymore,
Parents ate the green apples, their children got the stomachache.

Jeremiah 31:29 (NLT)

29 “The people will no longer quote this proverb: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their children’s mouths pucker at the taste.’

Jeremiah 31:29 (CEV)

29 No longer will anyone go around saying, “Sour grapes eaten by parents leave a sour taste in the mouths of their children.”

The above NASB leaves the Hebrew idiom “teeth are set on edge;” which means an irritating or upsetting experience. In the days just before the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, this was a common saying, in which the sons were saying the father’s wickedness put them in this predicament, ‘setting their teeth on edge.’ In this, they were trying to shift the blame to the fathers.  The interpretive translations attempted to modernize the idiom in the receptor language translation, substituting it in place of the Hebrew idiom. This process is one option, but one can see that even with the use of more modern terms, the meaning is still the same, though perhaps easier for some readers to understand. With this in mind, one can see how this option can be helpful, yet still leave opening the possibility of distorting the meaning of the idiom. Another option is to simply interpret the idiom and place that interpretation in place of the idiom as depicted in the following example:

Isaiah 13:18 (RSV) (literal)

“… they will have no mercy on the fruit of the womb” (RSV)

Isaiah 13:18 (NEB) (interpreted)

“… [they] have no pity on little children.”

However, either of these two options should be used as a last resort, and only if a misunderstanding would have been the result. The Bible is meant to be studied by the student. It is best to stay with what was written as the translator may alter the meaning of God’s Word by choosing to replace ancient idioms with modern-day language. One must realize that languages aside from the original can distort the idiom intact. For example Luke 2:51 reads, “… his mother kept all these things in her heart.” In Nigeria’s Kilba language, this would be understood as “to bear a grudge about something.” Thus, for them, it has been rendered: “his mother went on thinking about these things.”[5]

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As to Bible translation, every effort should be made to maintain the literal wording of idioms, unless it will adversely affect the understanding of the message for the modern-day reader. If so, it can either be rendered by the translator (adding any alternative possibilities in a footnote) or it can be rendered by the use of a modern-day idiom that carries a similar meaning such as in the example of equivalents used earlier, “between the Devil and the deep blue sea” and “between a rock and a hard place.”

BIBLE DIFFICULTIES

Biblical Idioms and Body Parts

Today, we use the body in a figurative way to convey a message that if heard outside of those who know what these strange phrases mean, would be quite confused. Such as, we might say, “He risked his neck for her.” “He is my own bone and flesh.” “She was only tickling their ears.”

These idioms add a vivid word picture to speech, often bringing it to life as it were. This plants the message more clearly and permanently in the listener’s mind. Therefore, it seems quite appropriate that Jehovah God the creator of human communication should fill his Word to us, with such an array of idioms.

For instance, the apostle Paul asked that the Roman congregation give greetings to his fellow Christians Prisca and Aquila, “who risked their necks [their lives] for my life.” (Rom. 16:4) Laban said of Jacob, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh,” which meant that they were related, Laban being Jacob’s uncle. (Gen. 29:14; 2 Sam. 5:1) In addition, Paul wrote of persons who were “wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires.” This means that these only wanted teachers that would say what they wanted to hear. 2 Timothy 4:3.

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Biblical Idioms and Destruction and Protection

The human neck is a weak part of the human body that leaves us vulnerable. Therefore, in Scripture, it is often associated with the destruction of life by the defeat of an enemy. When Jacob was on his deathbed, he offered this expression in a blessing to his son Judah, “your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies,” which meant, God will give your enemies into your hand. (Gen. 49:8) Likewise, King David praised God in Song, saying, “You gave me my enemies’ necks” or God was the One who “will certainly give me the back of [my enemies’] neck.” [made my enemies run] As you can see, the expression likely comes from the enemy running away; thus, all they are seeing is the back of the enemy’s neck as he is running away. (2 Sam. 22:41; Ps. 18:40, ESV) Again, this illustrates the danger of translating idioms, as the New Living Translation reads, “you placed my foot on their necks.” This would tend to paint more of a picture of a battle, with defeat as the result. Then, Jehovah God warned of the coming Assyrians against Judah in these ominous terms, “It will reach even to the neck.” This simply meant that the Assyrian army was coming so strongly, with so many troops that they would be deep in them. Isaiah 8:8; 30:28.

Another expression is that of placing one’s foot on the neck of your enemy. Both the Egyptian and Assyrian monuments have depictions, where monarchs are pictured in battle with their foot on the enemy’s neck. We find this with Moses replacement, Joshua, the leader, and commander of the Israelites.

Joshua 10:24 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

 24When they brought these kings out to Joshua, Joshua called for all the men of Israel, and said to the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him, “Come near, put your feet on the necks of these kings.” So they came near and put their feet on their necks.

 In addition, the removal of one’s hair and beard represented imminent destruction. The Ancient Near East viewed the possession of such as a prize. The Israelites viewed the beard as manly dignity. (1 Chron. 19:5) It was only during extreme sorrow, shame, or humiliation that a beard would be mutilated or removed. (Ezra 9:3; Isa. 15:2; Jer. 41:5; 48:37) Therefore, we can better understand King David’s strategy of . . .

1 Samuel 21:13 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

 13So he disguised his sanity before them, and acted insanely in their hands, and scribbled on the doors of the gate, and let his saliva run down into his beard.

Now that we have this Bible background, we can better understand the conquest of Assyria:

Isaiah 7:20 English Standard Version (ESV)

 20In that day the Lord will shave with a razor that is hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away the beard also.

Assyria was going to invade and conquer Judah like they had Samaria and the rest of the region, but for the fact that …

Isaiah 37:33-38 English Standard Version (ESV)

 33“Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. 34By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the LORD. 35For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”

 36And the angel of the LORD went out and struck down a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. 37Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh. 38And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, struck him down with the sword. And after they escaped into the land of Ararat, Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place.

The destruction of Jerusalem had finally come at the hands of the Babylonians, more than a century later, it being illustrated this way …

Ezekiel 5:1-2 English Standard Version (ESV)

 1“And you, O son of man, take a sharp sword. Use it as a barber’s razor and pass it over your head and your beard. Then take balances for weighing and divide the hair. 2A third part you shall burn in the fire in the midst of the city, when the days of the siege are completed. And a third part you shall take and strike with the sword all around the city. And a third part you shall scatter to the wind, and I will unsheathe the sword after them.

The burning in the fire, striking with the sword and scattering to the wind of the three portions of hair signified that a third of the people would die of pestilence and be consumed with famine, a third were to die by the sword and the final third would be scattered to all the winds.

Ezekiel 5:12 English Standard Version (ESV)

12A third part of you shall die of pestilence and be consumed with famine in your midst; a third part shall fall by the sword all around you; and a third part I will scatter to all the winds and will unsheathe the sword after them.

At the opposite end, one who was able to keep his hair meant that he would not die, and signifies complete safety or guaranteed protection. The Israelite military loved Jonathan, his life was in danger, and they proclaimed,

1 Samuel 14:45 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

45But the people said to Saul, “Must Jonathan die, who accomplished such a great deliverance for Israel? No, as the LORD lives, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground, for he worked with God’s help today.” So the people rescued Jonathan, and he did not die.

Jesus said to his disciples,

Luke 21:18 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

18but not a hair of your head will be lost.

King Solomon said,

1 Kings 1:52 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

52 Then Solomon said, “If he is a man of character, then not a single hair of his will fall to the ground, but if evil is found in him, then he dies.”

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

Idioms Involving the Hips and Loins

1 Kings 18:46 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

46Then the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, and he girded up his loins and outran Ahab to Jezreel.

As we just read in the above, the people of Bible times wore a loose and flowing style of clothing. If one were to engage in some form of physical activity, it was common to gather up the skirt, pulling them forward between the legs and tucking them in the belt that was around their hips. We find this in the case of Elijah, as he prepared for a long and arduous run. Therefore, the idiom to “gird up your loins” signified preparation for vigorous activity.

The Israelites preparing to exodus Egypt after eating the Passover lamb,

 Exodus 12:11 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

11 ‘Now you shall eat it in this manner: with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste–it is the LORD’S Passover.

Elisha sends his servant Gehazi on an important mission, saying,

2 Kings 4:29 New American Standard Bible(NASB)

29 Then he said to Gehazi, “Gird up your loins and take my staff in your hand, and go your way; if you meet any man, do not salute him, and if anyone salutes you, do not answer him; and lay my staff on the lad’s face.”

Elisha sending a prophet to anoint Jehu,

2 Kings 9:1 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

1 Now Elisha the prophet called one of the sons of the prophets and said to him, “Gird up your loins, and take this flask of oil in your hand and go to Ramoth-gilead.

Jeremiah was commissioned by Jehovah God Himself, to prepare for vigorous activity in serving as a prophet. Therefore, what was an actual activity of girding one’s loins to prepare for some physical activity like running, or working in the field, was not an idiomatic expression about any vigorous undertaking.

Jeremiah 1:17 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

17 “Now, gird up your loins and arise, and speak to them all which I command you do not be dismayed before them, or I will dismay you before them.

While the human neck may be weak and vulnerable, the muscles in the hips and loins are quite strong. That is why Proverbs 31:17 says of the capable wife, “She girded her loins with strength.” (ASV) Thus, we see the Prophet Nahum use the hips in an idiomatic sense as he warns those who were about to get invaded, “He that dashes in pieces is come up against you: keep the fortress, watch the way, make thy loins strong, fortify thy power mightily.” (Nah. 2:1, ASV) This is a figurative expression of strength and power.

DEFENDING OLD TESTAMENT AUTHORSHIP Agabus Cover BIBLICAL CRITICISM

Jehovah God would use Cyrus the Great, the Persian conqueror, to destroy kings and their kingdoms, which He expresses this way, “to Cyrus, whose right hand I have [taken hold of], to subdue nations before him, and I will lose the loins of kings; to open the doors before him, and the gates shall not be shut.” The idiomatic expression means that Jehovah will remove the strength and power of these kings, giving Cyrus the victory. Ones in such a condition are referred to as having wobbling or shaking hips. Psalm 69:23; Ezek. 21:6; 29:7.

This expression means that God would take away the strength or power of these kings so that Cyrus would be victorious. Those who have had their power removed and are in a weakened condition are therefore said to have breaking, quaking or shaking hips.

Psalm 69:23 American Standard Version (ASV)

 23 Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see; And make their loins continually to shake.

Ezekiel 21:6 American Standard Version (ASV)

6 Sigh therefore, thou son of man; with the breaking of thy loins and with bitterness shalt thou sigh before their eyes.

Ezekiel 29:7 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

7 “When they took hold of you with the hand, You broke and tore all their hands; And when they leaned on you, You broke and made all their loins quake.”

In a sense, you can see how an idiom can grow into other areas, taking its meaning with it. As the apostle Peter literally said, wherefore girding up the loins of your mind, be sober and set your hope perfectly on the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet 1:13, ASV) In this idiomatic expression of “girding up the loins of your mind,” he meant for them to “prepare their minds for action.”

THE CREATION DAYS OF GENESIS gift of prophecy

Biblical Idioms Involving One’s Bosom or Breasts

The human body has always been used to express certain qualities and emotions. It has been the custom, all throughout human history, to hold a cherished loved one to one’s bosom or breast. (Ruth 4:16; Song of Sol. 1:13) That position came to signify favor and intimacy.

John 1:18 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

 18 No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.

Luke 16:22-23 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

 22 “Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 “In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom.

Isaiah 40:11 (English Standard Version)

11He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.

Deuteronomy 13:6 (ASV)

6 If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, that is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;

Deuteronomy 13:6 (ESV)

6“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known,

Deuteronomy 13:6 (NLT)

6 “Suppose someone secretly entices you, even your brother, your son or daughter, your beloved wife, or your closest friend, and says, ‘Let us go worship other gods,’ gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known.

Deuteronomy 28:54 (ASV)

54 The man that is tender among you, and very delicate, his eye shall be evil toward his brother, and toward the wife of his bosom, and toward the remnant of his children whom he hath remaining;

Deuteronomy 28:54 (ESV)

54The man who is the most tender and refined among you will begrudge food to his brother, to the wife he embraces, and to the last of the children whom he has left,

Deuteronomy 28:54 (NLT)

54 The most tenderhearted man among you will have no compassion for his own brother, his beloved wife, and his surviving children.

Deuteronomy 28:56 (ASV)

56 The tender and delicate woman among you, who would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground for delicateness and tenderness, her eye shall be evil toward the husband of her bosom, and toward her son, and toward her daughter,

Deuteronomy 28:56 (ESV)

56 The most tender and refined woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground because she is so delicate and tender, will begrudge to the husband she embraces, to her son and to her daughter,

Deuteronomy 28:56 (NLT)

56 The most tender and delicate woman among you—so delicate she would not so much as touch the ground with her foot—will be selfish toward the husband she loves and toward her own son or daughter.

The intestines or bowels are linked with deep feeling and emotions in both Biblical Hebrew and Greek. This is likely the case because that emotional distress caused abdominal distress.  The bad reports regarding the coming disaster upon Israel caused Jeremiah to exclaim “My anguish [“intestines”], my anguish [“intestines”]! I am pained at my very heart.” (Jer. 4:19, ASV) When the time of Jerusalem’s destruction came, the abundant sorrow that Jeremiah felt caused excruciating uproar within, causing him to lament, “My very intestines are in a ferment.” Lamentations 1:20; 2:11

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Biblical Idioms and Compassion and Pity

Jeremiah 31:20 (ESV)

20 Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he my darling child?
For as often as I speak against him,
I do remember him still.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 31:20 (UASV)

20 Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he my darling child?
For as often as I speak against him,
I certainly still remember him.
That is why my intestines are stirred for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
declares Jehovah.

Jeremiah 31:20 (LEB)

20 Is Ephraim my dear son,
or the child of my delight?
For as often as I have earnestly spoken against him,
I still remember him.
Therefore my bowels are turbulent for him,
surely I will have compassion on him,” declares Yahweh.

Jesus Paul THE EVANGELISM HANDBOOK

The Hebrew word meʽeh refers to interior organs, such as the “intestines” or “bowels” of men and animals. (Ex 12:9; 29:13; Ps 5:9) “The noun mēʿeh is used thirty-two times in the OT, always in the plural, mēʿîm. The KJV most often retains the translation “bowels,” but the RSV opts for a more euphemistic translation [i.e., my heart (Jer. 31:20)] unless the word is used in a passage with the literal sense of the intestines.”[6] Therefore, almost all literal translations, even the most ardent ones, abandon their translation policy here at Jeremiah 31:20. Why? Do they fear being misunderstood? Do they feel that is would be too difficult to understand? While this author cannot read the minds of the ASV, NASB, and the ESV translation teams, it has to be something of this nature. The very reasons offered by the dynamic equivalents, of which they argue against elsewhere, they now accept. Was it necessary to abandon their translation philosophy here? No. How hard would this be to the reader, to have found an answer?

The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary by Chad Brand, Archie England and Charles W. Draper (Oct 1, 2003), merely costs $9.99 for the eBook and only $18.34 for the hardback. It is one of the best, most affordable Bible dictionaries available. Even if the excuse is that the person is an impoverished area, and cannot afford such a book, it is online for free (https://www.mystudybible.com/). If they do not have a computer, libraries do. Worst case scenario, the church they attend likely has it, and if not, they should have. If the Bible student pauses just for a moment and looks up the word “bowels,” what does he find?

BOWELS Translation used in modern versions to refer to intestines and other entrails (Acts 1:18). In the KJV “bowels” is also used to refer to the sexual reproductive system (2 Sam. 16:11; Ps. 71:6) and, figuratively, to strong emotions (Job 30:27), especially love (Song 5:4) and compassion (Col. 3:12). Both Hebrew and Greek picture the entrails as the center of human emotions and excitement.[7]

Yes, within minutes, he has the answer to what Jeremiah meant by the words “my intestines are stirred for him” or “my bowels are turbulent for him”? Then, he might even want to investigate the Bible background.

Young Christians AN ENCOURAGING THOUGHT_01

Many decades before Jeremiah was even born, the northern ten-tribe kingdom of Israel was conquered and taken captive by the Assyrian Empire. God allowed this to happen because they had been unfaithful, falling into false worship, very depraved sexual activities, and even the killing of one another. However, God had not forgotten them, his love for them as his people ran deep. He refers to them by the name of the most prominent tribe, Ephraim, asking, “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I certainly still remember him. That is why my intestines [or bowels] are stirred for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares Jehovah.” By saying, “my intestines [or bowels] are stirred for him,” God used a figure of speech to refer to his deep feeling for his people in exile.

Isaiah 63:15 (ESV)

15 Look down from heaven and see,
from your holy and beautiful habitation.
Where are your zeal and your might?
The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion
are held back from me.

Isaiah 63:15 (NASB)

15 Look down from heaven and see from Your holy and glorious habitation;
Where are Your zeal and Your mighty deeds?
The stirrings of Your heart and Your compassion are restrained toward me.

Isaiah 63:15 (UASV)

15 Look down from heaven and see,
from your holy and beautiful habitation.
Where are your zeal and your might?
The agitation of your intestines and your compassion
are held back from me.

1 Kings 3:26 (ESV)

26 Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him.”

1 Kings 3:26 (NASB)

26 Then the woman whose child was the living one spoke to the king, for she was deeply stirred over her son and said, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him!”

1 Kings 3:26 (UASV)

26 Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her inward emotions for her son, and said, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him.”

Philippians 2:1 American Standard Version (ASV)

1 If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies [if any bowels] and compassions,

1 John 3:17 English Standard Version (ESV

17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him [he might shut up the bowels of him], how does God’s love abide in him?

Colossians 3:12 English Standard Version (ESV)

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts [bowels of compassion], kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,

The entire Bible from beginning to end uses the body and its parts in an idiomatic figurative sense. There is little doubt that such phrases are colorful and vivid, such as “bowels of compassion.” In many cases, it is possible to leave the literal rendering while others would only cause major confusion. Regardless, most literal translations give the sense of the meaning in either the main text or a footnote. Then, they should provide the reader with the literal rendering in the opposite place.

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[1] Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea was written by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen, and recorded by Cab Calloway in 1931

[2] Figure of speech is different from literal in that it contains a nonliteral sense of a word or words (e.g., a cup of mud does not mean a cup of we dirt, but a cup of coffee), but it is similar in that the figurative meaning (a cup of coffee) is to be taken literally, and there is only one intended meaning.

[3] Figures of speech: a nonliteral expression or use of language: an expression or use of language in a nonliteral sense in order to achieve a particular effect. Metaphors, similes, idioms, and hyperbole are all common figures of speech. Idiom: fixed expression with nonliteral meaning: a fixed distinctive expression whose meaning cannot be deduced from the combined meanings of its actual words.

[4] William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 1031.

[5] Katharine Barnwell, Bible Translation: An Introductory Course in Translation Principles. (Dallas, TX.: SIL International. 1986), 19.

[6] Victor P. Hamilton, “1227 מעה,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 518.

[7] Chad Brand, Charles Draper, et al., eds., “Bowels,” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 233.

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