Tentmaker Bible Matters #16

Hyperbole (exaggeration for effect) in the Bible and its Problems

By Gary Amirault

What’s in this article? The Christian Bible is full of figures of speech which have not been brought into our translations accurately. One of these figures of speech is hyperbole, to exaggerate or amplify something for effect. Due to the way Christians are taught to read the Bible (literally), and the fact that many of these figures of speech have not been brought into English translations saying they are figures of speech or what they meant, nor have Christians been taught to look for them, nor have many translations pointed them out in footnotes, many Christians misinterpret much of the hyperbolic language of the Bible. Christians are generally taught to read the Bible literally, only looking for figurative language when the literal approach makes no sense. Yet the Bible is full of over 200 different types of figures of speech which require a non-literal reading to gain true meaning. There are several factors that make it difficult for us to fully appreciate and try to understand the Bible using a non-literal approach. This article addresses some of these points. Here are the major points:

*Christians are taught exaggeration is a form of lying. God is not a man that He should lie. Many of the figures of speech in the Bible border what we in the West could consider a lie, but not so from an Eastern point of view.

*Many pastors use Rev 22:19 about adding and taking away from the words of this prophecy and apply it to the whole Bible. This false teaching makes one fearful to look for meaning beyond the literal text. The fact that there is a textual error right within this very verse and those who put it in did not receive the plagues, should be seriously thought about. The error will be pointed out later in this article.

*Personal spiritualizing opens up a Pandora’s Box of private interpretations which makes it difficult to teach and keep a church on the same page.

*Most Bible translations have been literal translations which do not inform the reader where a figure of speech may have been employed in the original. “The Companion Bible” by E.W. Bullinger published by Kregal Publications, does often note in the footnotes when a figure is employed in the King James text.

*Most Christians are unfamiliar with the manners and customs of ancient times making it difficult to understand the figures of speech they employed.

*A literalist dispensationalist theology in a large part of the church has kidnapped large portions of scripture placing their fulfillment in our times when in fact they were fulfilled in the first century.

*We have been taught the Bible does not contain any contradictions. The fact is many translations do contain contradictions. Furthermore, some passages appear to be contradictions because we do not understand that a figure of speech was employed in the original which must be considered.

I am convinced one of the greatest problems found among Christians is that they are not taught how to properly read and study the Bible. A hurdle few Christians ever jump in their understanding of Scriptures is the fact that the original languages of the Bible contain ever 200 different forms of figures of speech, many of which have NOT been brought into the modern languages in which most people read the scriptures. This Bible Matters edition just briefly touches on just one of those figures of speech (hyperbole) and the hurdles we have to jump over in order to really understand what the writers of the Scriptures were really trying to convey.

Because of the way most Christians have been taught to read the Bible, the figure of speech called hyperbole has usually been misread, leading to some gross misinterpretation of the original authors’ meaning. Misconstruing the meaning of the words of the original writers of the Bible is causing great problems in the world today and has caused many problems in the world throughout the Church Age. If a Christian President of the United States, for example, expects because of his understanding of the Bible, to have a battle of Armageddon to occur on his watch in which certain countries or ethnic groups are to be the good guys and others are to be the bad guys, then he is likely to make political and military decisions based upon his beliefs. If you believe the world is going to end in your lifetime and you teach this to your children, this will dramatically effect how those children will prepare for the future.

Hyberbole is exaggerating something beyond the bounds of normality to catch the reader’s attention. Sometimes truths can become mere clichés. Stating those truths in a “bigger than life” kind of way sometimes wakes a person up – refreshes what has been treated as common place. Jesus was a master of the hyperbole. “Christ had even a literary style of his own.…The diction used by Christ is quite curiously gigantesque; it is full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea.” G. K. Chesterton.

According to E.W. Bullinger in his “Figures of Speech Used in the Bible,” the meaning of the word hyperbole is from the Greek “’huper,’ over and above or beyond and ‘bolee’ a casting from ‘ballein’, to throw. Hence a casting or going beyond, overshooting, excess. The figure is so called because the expression adds to the sense so much that it exaggerates it, and enlarges or diminishes it more than is really meant in fact. Or, when more is said than is meant to be literally understood, in order to heighten the sense.”

Of the over 200 different types of figures of speech employed by the writers of the Bible, hyperbole is actually one of the more easy forms to figure out in the Bible although many of them are not recognized.

Before we look at some examples of hyperbole in the Bible, let us look at several mindsets or worldviews or understandings about the Bible that many Christians have been taught which cause many to “make the word of God of no effect” or actually produce a negative effect in their lives and the lives of those they influence.

Christians have traditionally been taught to read the Bible literally. Only when we absolutely cannot make sense out of the passage in its literal form are we allowed to look for a figure of speech in the Bible according to the traditional way of reading the Bible. We are taught that the Bible is THE truth, that it is the very “word of God.” We can trust and believe what is written. The Bible is literally true. We have been taught that a slight twisting of the truth is a lie. Half-truths are lies. We are reminded of how Eve was deceived by Satan by slightly twisting the truth. Through this kind of indoctrination regarding how to read and understand the Bible, our minds become conditioned to steer away from looking for symbolic meanings, spiritual interpretations, allegories and various other forms of figures of speech, which require more than just a surface reading of the text. I have been in dozens of different Bible studies. The way the Bible is taught in most of them reminds me of how kids are taught in the earliest grades in elementary school. Young children are incapable of handling abstract thoughts so memorization is what is most emphasized. Learning using abstract thought comes later in a child’s development. Christian adults in adult Bible studies are taught like first graders – literal reading and memorizing.

To read and understand the Bible as it was actually written, that is, filled with hundreds of different forms of figures of speech which should NOT be taken literally, requires some serious study – study which most Christians (including pastors) are not willing to do. Jesus said that Satan was a liar and the father of all lies. Many Christians, who have been taught to read the Bible literally, categorize some forms of figures of speech as lies. Stretching the truth is considered a lie in many Christian circles. Some hyperbole actually enters into the realm of what we, in the West, would call a lie. The Semitic languages (Hebrew being one of them) are exaggerative to an extreme. The Bible is FILLED with these exaggerative expressions. Because we are taught to take the text literally and because most Bible translations have used a literal nearly word-for-word approach in translating, we are left with thousands of passages of Scripture to which we have little to no accurate understanding – and the understandings we have been taught by our teachers are often false.

A bookbinder who specializes in old Bible repairs will tell you that most Christians spend most of their time in the last one quarter of the Bible. They can tell this by the wear and the number of passages that are underlined or have comments made in the margins by those to whom the Bible belonged. The New Testament portion of the Bible is far more marked up in most Christians’ Bibles than the Old. Unfortunately, all the definitions and meanings of things found in the New Testament come from the Old Testament. Without a thorough understanding of what the figures in the Old Testament mean from an ancient Semitic point of view, we can’t really understand the New Testament. For example, the meaning of the symbols in the book of Revelation are found in the Old Testament, not in modern day things like computers named “beast,” helicopters that look like locust or men like Ronald Wilson Reagan who has six letters in each of his names. Apart from learning a few Bible stories about the creation of the world and a few major characters like Abraham, Moses, David, etc., and reading the psalms for devotional purposes, the rest of the Old Testament portion of the Bible isn’t really studied too deeply in most Christian circles unless they are in a denomination which still practices portions of the Mosaic Law like the Seventh Day Adventists. These Mosaic Law centered groups, instead of learning the meaning of the types in the Old Covenant and applying them to the New, end up getting stuck in the types and shadows of the Old and fall from grace, if they ever received grace in the first place. Most Christians, when reading the Old Testament, glance over it, as reading laws that are no longer valid and endless genealogies that are no longer relevant. Boring stuff that can’t compete with the various forms of modern entertainment to which we have become addicted.

To understand the figures of speech buried beneath our English translations, one must dig beyond the surface of the words on at least two or maybe more different levels. Christians simply can’t or won’t do that. They say “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” “I don’t have to understand it; I only have to believe it.” This kind of mindset actually is the mindset that “twists” the words of Scriptures into the lie.

Let’s take the English saying, “It is raining cats and dogs” as an example. A child who heard this for the first time would not understand that it is a figurative expression meaning that it was raining very heavily. Someone would have to teach them that many words or phrases in the English language have multiple meanings and some words or phrases are not meant to be taken literally. Every language has its own figures of speech and there are many thousands of them. Learning the literal meaning of words and understanding the syntax of a language will not unlock their real meaning. One must be taught the meaning of the figure of speech which often doesn’t make much natural sense.

If we translate this English expression into Chinese word-for-word, the odds are that a Chinese person will not understand the sentence because the odds are that this English figure of speech doesn’t exist in the Chinese language. How would a Chinese person know this expression means that it is raining heavily? Someone familiar with English would have to explain it to them. Then the next time the Chinese person came across that phrase they could read into the literal text its actual meaning.

The same is true with the Bible which was originally written in Hebrew, a little Aramaic, and Greek. There are over 770,000 words in the Bible. This book is literally FILLED with expressions which should NOT be taken literally. One of the problems with knowing whether something should be taken literally or figuratively is that the Bible often deals with the supernatural. Something that normally would be considered a hyperbole in any other book may NOT be hyperbolic language at all. God does miracles that defy the normal. Typically, we can recognize a hyperbole when a literal reading of the text violates our senses and understanding of how things normally operate. But the Bible deals with super normal things. People walk on water, get raised from the grave, get caught up in the air on chariots, get swallowed up in giant fish, etc. Therefore, it is all the more difficult to discern the difference between an actual event or literal statement and a figure of speech, especially a hyperbole, an exaggeration of words to make a point.

Speaking of giant fish, let me divert from our subject slightly to make this even more complicated. According to Dr. George Lamsa, a man who grew up in a village that spoke a form of Aramaic very close to that spoken in Jesus’ day, the Aramaic phrase “The word of the Lord came…” means the person was in a vision. (See “Idioms in the Bible Explained and A Key to the Original Gospels” by Dr. George Lamsa.) In other words, everything that happened in the story of Jonah was actually a vision, not something that actually happened. However, if this is the case, it does NOT mean, the meaning of the vision is not actually true – the meaning of the story may actually be more true than the teaching that this story literally happened. The important thing in the story, whether an actual event or a vision, is what is God saying to us today? Just because a passage of scripture is a vision does not mean it is not divine or inspired. It is still important. That Jonah may not have actually been swallowed by a whale shouldn’t diminish the message of the story any whatsoever.

Normally, we know that a statement is an exaggeration when the literal interpretation violates our common sense logic and observation of how things generally operate. But the Bible instructs us in many ways to ignore our common and natural senses and “believe what we can’t see.” Faith is believing what we can’t see. Nothing is impossible with God. But what if someone believes in their heart they can tell mountains to be thrown into the sea and it will obey? God Himself speaks things as though they are, even though they do not yet exist and we are taught to emulate Him. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” So then, we must believe what doesn’t make sense to our natural understanding. As a matter of fact, the Bible warns us that our natural understanding is foolishness and an enemy of God. Put all these things together and it becomes easy to see that discerning what is a hyperbole or any other form of a figure of speech is much more difficult in the Bible than in any other book.

Another obstacle one must overcome to gain the true meaning of Scriptures is the fact that Revelation 22:19 has been used, or should I say misused, to hold Christians in fear of digging into the Bible too deeply:

“And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” (Revelation 22:19, KJV) Since these words are found at the end of the Bible, they have been used as a warning about messing too much with the entire Bible. Looking for symbolic meaning or understanding figures of speech employed by the writers of the Bible are considered “adding to” or “taking away” from the things written in the entire Bible. I personally believe John was referring only to the Book of Revelation. What is quite remarkable is the fact that this very verse has been “added to” and “taken away from” in the King James Version as well as some other translations. It is a well-known fact among Bible scholars that the foundational Greek Text of the King James “Authorized Version” was a later edition of Erasmus’s Greek text which came to be known through an advertising ploy of the publishers as the “Textus Receptus.” Erasmus, a Catholic monk, did not have complete ancient manuscripts with which to make his printed Greek Text in the early sixteenth century. The Greek manuscripts available to him lacked portions of the book of Revelation. The last few lines of Revelation were one of the parts missing. Since he was in a time rush to get his text printed because another group was also working on a Greek text to be put into print form, rather than looking for a Greek manuscript that contained those lines, he merely went into a Latin manuscript and translated that into his Greek text. That is where Erasmus found “the book of life,” instead of what all the known Greek texts have as “the tree of life.” I find it ironic that the verse used often to warn people not to add or take away from the Bible is actually a verse in which the “tree of life” was taken away and a “book of life” was added. Did Erasmus receive the plagues in the book? Did King James and his translators who used Erasmus’s Greek text? Are those who are using the King James Bible receiving these plagues? No, they are not. Give thanks we serve a merciful God! This ploy of adding curses at the beginning or end of writings of this nature was common during the time of the writing of the New Testament.

It is most unfortunate, that most modern English translations do not note these kinds of errors produced by those who give us translations into our own common languages. They are afraid honesty in the arena of Bible translating might cause people to disbelieve in the “Biblical Inerrancy Doctrines” which they have peddled for hundreds of years. These various forms of statements regarding the Bible’s inerrancy are either direct lies or carefully crafted statements that hide the fact they know that Bible translations have errors – ALL of them! They say the original writings of the Bible were divinely written. Fine, but we don’t have the originals. Church leaders write these inerrancy statements in such a way that makes it appear that the inspiration on the originals has passed on to the translations themselves which is not true. It is deceptive, that’s all there is to it. It misleads people into trusting their translation more than they should. The fact is modern Bible translations differ from one another in major doctrines. Anyone who honestly compares a dozen or so English translations can’t help but see that. And yet tens of thousands of seminary professors, Bible college teachers, pastors and ministers of all kind give the impression all translations read the same on major doctrines. This is categorically false.

One more problem with hyperbole and the Bible is that many of them deal with times and cultures with which we are no longer familiar. What was obviously a figure of speech to someone living 3,000 years ago in Shechem may not be so obvious to someone living in London, England who is totally unfamiliar with the manners and customs of the Semitic tribes of the Middle East.

Personally, I have come to the conclusion, that if a Christian does not determine to seek our Maker with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, if one does not earnestly seek to have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth as their primary guide, if one does not purpose to take Bible study more seriously than the entertainment that swallows up the majority of our leisure time, if one is not interested in understanding the intricacies of the art of language and does not appreciate the tremendous power of words (both in their creative and destructive power), then they are very likely to misunderstand and misrepresent what the Holy Scriptures actually say. I have been in scores of Bible study classes in the United States. Sadly, our understanding of the scriptures is somewhere below pathetic. The average American Christian knows far more about stars from movies, TV and sports than about the things of the Bible.

Exaggeration is hyperbole:

Hyperbole in the Bible presents some great difficulty for the average English reader. The Bible states that “God is not a man that He should lie.” (Numbers 23:19) In Semitic languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, for example), hyperbole is used so often and in such grossly exaggerated forms that for the average English speaking person it borders on lying. Years ago, I attended a wedding in Israel. The man getting married had to negotiate the purchase of food for the wedding with a local Arab businessman. My friend invited me to come along. He warned me that the negotiations might get loud – that this was part of the way they did business in the Arab culture. The hands began to start flailing during the negotiations and I thought they were going to get into a fist fight. But when it was all over, the two shook hands and all was well. The “heat” was just a ritual that was part of their culture. The Semitic languages are full of “heat.” What makes it even more difficult is that God, who is a consuming fire, communicates to mankind in this hot language. A truly bigger than life God Who is supernatural speaks to us through an explosive language that often sounds like what we Westerners are accustomed to calling lies.

Here are some examples:

“And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell (Hades).” (Matt. 11:23) The entire city of Capernaum was never in heaven and would never be brought to a place of Hell or Hades. This phrase simply means that Capernaum was highly favored of God -- it was exalted above all cities in the world because it saw the mighty miracles Jesus wrought. But the trade routes that made Capernaum a prosperous city moved causing the city to be abandoned. Soon the entire city was beneath sand and became “unseen,” which is what the Greek word hades means. It was not until the twentieth century that the city of Capernaum surfaced again through archaeological excavation. Jesus prophetically predicted the city would die.

“When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3); “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24); The kingdom of God “is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches” (Luke 13:19).

Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

“I beat [my enemies] fine as dust before the wind” (Ps. 18:42); “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you” (Ps. 91:7); “You are all together beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you” (Song 4:7); The wicked “cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble” (Prov. 4:16).

“When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3); “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24); The kingdom of God “is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches” (Luke 13:19).

Example: Matthew 23:24 “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (NIV)

Let’s look at a few hyperboles in modern American English. I say “American” because there are many hyperboles in the United States English language which do not occur in England or other English speaking countries and vice-a-versa.

This book weighs a ton.

She is always talking.

I could sleep for a year.

This is the worst day of my life.

She is a hot tomato.

I called you a hundred times to come to supper.

Hyperbole versus reality:

“I am so hungry I could eat a horse.” (Hyperbole)

“I am so hungry I could eat until I couldn’t eat anymore.” (Reality)

Examples of hyperbole in the Bible that are often overlooked or misinterpreted:

Speaking of King Hezekiah, “After him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him.” (2 Kings 18:5) But in 2 Kings 23:25 we read about King Josiah that “like unto him was there no king before him, . . . neither after him arose there any like him.” The Bible is either lying or we have here a hyperbole. The Bible is filled with these kinds of exaggerations. Secular humanists and atheists who try to prove the Bible is full of errors use hundreds of examples like these to prove the inaccuracy of the Bible. Unfortunately, we, Christians, have given them ample ammunition because we have not recognized that the Bible is filled with figures of speech which must NOT be taken literally. These atheist apologists are merely mouthing back to us what is commonly taught in Bible studies every day. They see contradictions in the Bible because we are not willing to acknowledge plain hyperbole.

Here’s another example:

Speaking of God judging Israel by taking them to Babylon, we find in the book of Ezekiel God saying, “because of all your abominations, I will do among you what I have not done, and the like of which I will never do again.” (Ezekiel 5:9). Here we find God pronouncing a great judgment the likes of which He will never do again. Yet Jesus informs us that there would be a Great Tribulation upon Israel that would supercede the Babylonian captivity: “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.” (Matthew 24:21)

Was Ezekiel lying about what God said? Or is Jesus lying? Or do we have here a figure of speech we have not been taught to recognize? You see, many of us Christians have unconsciously avoided looking carefully at these seeming discrepancies in the Bible for fear of becoming unbelievers or being accused of “spiritualizing” the Bible.

When it comes to “rightly dividing the word of truth” the very people who teach the Bible must be read literally in order not to “twist the truth into a lie” often are the very ones who have “taken away” precious meaning from the scriptures.

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