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Subject: ‘Language’

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In religious and moral terms less is often more

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Thursday, 29 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 389 published on 28 June 1969.

Widow gives her mite, picture, image, illustration
The widow's mite by Clive Uptton

If you look at the list of people who have contributed money to almost any good cause, you will find that not all of them have given their names. Beside some of the amounts you may read “anon” (short for “anonymous,” from a Greek word meaning “without a name”). Other people may have used what we call pseudonyms (from another Greek word meaning “false names”) such as “A Well-Wisher.” Among these latter you may very probably see “A Widow’s Mite.”

The sum of money contributed by such a donor will always be small – perhaps not more than half-a-crown, whereas others may have given tens or hundreds of pounds. Even so, the small amount may represent a bigger sacrifice on the part of the giver than the much larger sums donated by others.

This was appreciated by Jesus, who long ago drew attention to the happening which gave rise to this familiar phrase.

He and his friends were sitting together one day in the outer court of the great Jewish temple at Jerusalem. Crowds of visitors were constantly on the move through these courts, rather as they are in English cathedrals at holiday time. Some were worshippers, while others were only sightseers, but all of them were encouraged to contribute something to the upkeep of the temple and its services.

For this purpose, large collecting boxes were placed along the wall of one of the courts. They had funnel-shaped openings down which coins could be dropped.

These coins were not ordinary money, however. This was not allowed because it had the image of the Roman Emperor stamped on it, and this, in the eyes of the priests, would defile the temple. Visitors had to change their ordinary money at the entrance of the temple for special coins issued by the temple authorities.

In the special temple coinage, there was one coin of very low value indeed. It was made of copper, and the Authorised Version of the English Bible says that two of these coins were worth only a farthing (Mark 12, verse 42).

In a more recent translation, the Revised Standard Version published in 1952, the coins are stated to be worth a penny each. Either way, it is clear that they were worth very little indeed, even in their own day.

Jesus watched intently as various people placed gifts in the collecting boxes. Some put in a handful of coins, and were careful to be noticed as they did so. But Jesus saw one poor widow woman quietly drop in two of the little copper coins, or “mites.” (A “mite” was originally the name of a Flemish copper coin of low value.)

Turning to his friends, Jesus said, “I assure you that she has put in more than all these rich people, because what they gave they will never miss, but what she gave was the only money she had to live on.”

The Biblical Medes and Persians exemplified implacable inflexibilty

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Law, Religion on Thursday, 29 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 388 published on 21 June 1969.

Traffic warden, picture, image, illustration
Traffic wardens have become stereotypes of rigid inflexibility where the law is concerned

A motorist has pulled up on the side of the road marked with a yellow band. A Traffic Warden asks him politely but firmly to move on, and points to a vacant meter space nearby. The motorist tries to stay where he is. He only wants to stop a few minutes. The Warden insists that he can’t stay there, because if he does, he will be breaking the law.

“All right, all right!” mutters the driver. “But surely it’s not the law of the Medes and Persians, is it?”

Some laws are not always rigidly enforced. This strange phrase about the “Medes and Persians” refers to ones which are, and which allow no latitude at all.

The Bible, where the phrase is found, refers to “the law of the Medes and Persians which altereth not.” Once the king’s seal had been set upon any law in the ancient Persian kingdom, no one had the right to vary it in any way, nor to make exceptions to it.

The Jewish people had good reason to remember the rigidly severe laws of the Persian Empire, because for many years they were exiles from their homeland, forming what today we call a “minority” in the land of Babylon, which the Persians conquered. (The Medes, incidentally, were a people closely associated with the Persians.)

Under Persian rule, the Jews suffered many trials, particularly when one king tried to set himself above the invisible God to whom all the Jews were accustomed to pray. It was for continuing to pray to God instead of asking favours from the Persian king that the Jewish hero Daniel was imprisoned in a den of lions (from which he, nevertheless, emerged unharmed). The phrase in fact comes from the Book of Daniel (chapter 6, verses 8 and 15).

It occurs again in the strange and little-known Book of Esther (chapter 1, verses 19). This is another story of the time of the Jewish exiles in the Persian kingdom of the 6th century B.C.

Esther, a Jewish orphan, became the Persian king’s favourite. In order to save her people from a savage law which the king had been deceived into signing, and which permitted the massacre of all the Jews in his kingdom, she had to show great courage.

Risking the king’s displeasure, and her own punishment, she caught his attention and talked him into a plan by which she hoped to convince him of the evil intentions of his advisers.

By charm, tact – and a splendid dinner-party – Esther succeeded in persuading the king that the law against her people was unjust. The man responsible for advising him was punished, and the Jews were given the right to defend themselves against anyone who dared to attack them.

This was as far as even the king could go in altering a “law of the Medes and Persians” to which he had already put his official seal!

The prophet gains most credence and honour from complete strangers

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Thursday, 29 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 387 published on 14 June 1969.

Jesus preaches in Nazareth, picture, image, illustration
Jesus's teaching rejected by his own townsfolk in Nazareth by William Hole

If you are ever given this title, it simply means that you are considered to be too well-known to the people you are dealing with for them to take much notice of you. Let us imagine you are a candidate for your local Council. If people remember you as a little boy with a scooter, or a little girl with a doll, it will be hard for them to think of you as a person of importance.

But why “a prophet without honour”?

Like many other picturesque phrases, this comes from the Bible. The expression was used by Jesus himself, but from the way he spoke, it seems it must have been familiar to his hearers already.

Jesus had just done the very thing we have been talking about. He came back to the town of Nazareth, where he had spent his childhood, and began to preach in the local synagogue. What he said made quite a stir, for he claimed that the promises made by one of the ancient prophets had come true that very day. He even seemed to be suggesting that he himself was the long-awaited “messiah”, or saviour, sent by God to be the leader of the Jewish nation.

This was more than his hearers could stand. Elsewhere, the words of this earnest and persuasive speaker made a great impression. People crowded to hear him, and even followed him out into the country, hoping to hear more. They brought sick people to him and, by laying his hands on them, Jesus healed a great many. But none of these things happened in his home town of Nazareth.

As the people in the synagogue there listened to the extraordinary claims Jesus was making, they began to whisper to one another, like this:

“Who is this man anyway? Where does he get it all?”

“Don’t you know? This is Jesus, the son of Joseph.”

The whispering grew to an angry buzz, and Jesus realised that the people of Nazareth were showing none of the faith in him that he had found in other villages of Galilee. So he challenged them with words that they had probably heard before.

“A prophet,” he said, “is not without honour, except in his own country, and among his own relations, and in his own home.”

He went on to tell them of other prophets who had been neglected or despised by those who knew them best. This made his hearers very angry. They stood up in the synagogue, grabbed hold of him, and hustled him outside. Some even wanted to kill him. They dragged him up to the brow of a hill and prepared to throw him headlong down a cliff. But he made them let him go, and went into hiding until the danger was over.

It is from this incident, recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel, chapter four (verses 16 to 30) that we have gained the phrase, “a prophet without honour.”

“Pride goes before a fall” is a Biblical proverb for the rich and powerful

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Wednesday, 28 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 386 published on 7 June 1969.

Pharisee and publican, picture, image, illustration
The Pharisee is proud and boastful in prayer while the Publican, or tax collector, is humble and self-deprecating

Perhaps there is a story in the morning paper about someone who has boasted of some success. This boasting has led to enquiries which show that the person in question has achieved that by dishonest means. He is convicted and sent to prison, and on reading his story we may remark, “Pride goes before a fall.”

However apt the words may seem for such a situation, they are not an actual quotation. Look up the Book of Proverbs in the Bible (chapter 16, verse 18) and you will find these words:

“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

You may say that the meaning is just the same, and you will be right. The way of emphasising anything in the Hebrew language, in which these proverbs were originally written, was to say it twice, the second sentence repeating the sense of the first in a slightly different way. This gave stronger force to the original sentence, even though it did not say anything new, and was one of the ways in which Hebrew poetry was composed. You will find many examples in the Bible, notably in the Psalms, such as the opening verse of Psalm 19:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.” The same pattern of repetition is found in the Book of Proverbs from which this saying is taken, but which for convenience has been shortened by popular English usage to “Pride goes before a fall.”

In the Middle Ages, Pride was listed as the first of the “seven deadly sins” and it has always been looked on as the worst of human failings.

One of the most famous stories told by Jesus was about a man whose pride blinded him to his own shortcomings.

According to this story, two men went into the temple one day to pray. One was wealthy, influential and educated; the other was a tax-gatherer, which in those days was a despised occupation, followed only by the least reputable members of the community.

The wealthy man, who was very pleased with himself, began his prayers by saying how generous he was, and how carefully he was keeping all the rules and regulations of his religion. He even thanked God for having made him so different from other people, and especially for making him different from men like the tax-gatherer.

The tax-gatherer prayed quite differently. Feeling very humble in the house of God, he stood there with his head bowed, and simply said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus said that, of the two men, it was the tax-gatherer’s prayer which pleased God, thus bearing out the truth of the old proverb about pride and a haughty spirit.

“Give us this day our daily bread” is a prayer for an honest day’s work

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Wednesday, 28 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 385 published on 31 May 1969.

Lazarus and rich man, picture, image, illustration
Lazarus at the Rich Man's gate

In France, people talk about “gaining their beef-steak” when they mean “earning their living,” but in Britain we talk less readily of beef-steaks than of bread. “To earn our daily bread” is a familiar way of saying that we work for a living.

Commonplace as the phrase may sound, it is an echo of the Bible. According to St. Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 6, verse 11), Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” or – in the words of a modern translation – “Give us each day the bread we need.”

There are other phrases in common use which refer to bread, and which arise from incidents or sayings in the Bible. You might hear people at a conference or reception say of another guest, “He is only here for the loaves and fishes,” meaning that he has come only for the food. This is a reminder of the way in which, according to all four writers of the Gospels, Jesus fed a crowd of several thousand people, who had come a long way to hear him speak, by miraculously dividing five loaves and two fishes, the offering of a boy in the crowd, among them all.

Again, when we receive some small gift or token sum of money from a person who could easily afford to be more generous to us, we sometimes call such gifts “the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table.” This too, is a phrase from the Bible (Luke, Chapter 16, verse 21). It occurs in a story which Jesus told about a rich man who “fared sumptuously everyday” or, to quote again from a modern version by J. B. Phillips, “who used to lead a life of daily luxury.”

At the door of this man’s house, a beggar named Lazarus used to wait, longing “to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.” The story went on to tell how, after this life, the beggar was consoled for his sufferings, while the rich man was punished for his selfishness. We still use the words today.

A more curious phrase still is “cast your bread upon the waters,” which continues, in the words of the Book of Ecclesiastes, “for you will find it after many days” (Chapter II, verse 1). Here the meaning is “take a chance,” or more exactly, “risk things now, in the hope of a rich return from them later.”

St Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ is as metaphorical as his shipwreck

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Tuesday, 27 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 383 published on 17 May 1969.

St Paul is shipwrecked, picture, image, illustration
St Paul and the Roman centurion, Julius, after their ship is famously wrecked, by Clive Uptton

Occasionally, you may hear someone refer to another person as “a thorn in the flesh.” There is no doubt as to what the speaker means by this unusual expression, for the comparison between an irritating person and a sharp thorn or splinter is an obvious one. But few of the people who use this saying realise how old it is, and that behind it there lies something of a mystery.

The phrase comes from the Bible, and you will find it in St. Paul’s second Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 7, which reads: “. . . there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.”

Whatever St. Paul meant by the words, he did not mean that he had a splinter in his finger or anything like that. He used the words as a means of illustrating the continual pain and irritation which he suffered as a result of some distressing complaint.

In his writings, St. Paul mentions the suffering which this complaint caused him, but he gives no clue as to the nature of it. Perhaps his readers already knew. Or perhaps St. Paul did not want to remind himself of the details of his handicap or infirmity, which seems to have been as embarrassing and humiliating to him as it was undoubtedly painful.

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A broken reed is a simple and powerful Biblical image of unreliability

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Thursday, 22 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible.originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 382 published on 10 May 1969.

Rabshakeh, picture, image, illustration
Rabshakeh denounces the Egyptians as he demands Hezekiah's surrender by Don Lawrence

Sometimes, when people are talking about an unreliable person they know, you may hear them say: “Don’t rely on him – he’s a broken reed.”

In saying this, they are using a word-picture many centuries old. It was first recorded (so far as we know) in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, in connection with an incident which took place in about 700 B.C.

Evidently the speaker knew the injury that could be inflicted by the sharp stems of a plant which grows by the waterside in most countries in the Near East. He probably had in mind the tall bullrushes which stand up like spears and look strong enough to support anyone who may stumble and cling to them for support. Being hollow, however, these rushes become brittle in the heat of the sun and can be snapped off under light pressure. Anyone who grasps one in falling may easily have a hand badly gashed and possibly infected by the jagged edge of the broken lower part of the stem. Perhaps the speaker was recalling a personal experience of this kind when he mentioned “a broken reed.”

The “broken reed” of which he spoke in this instance was not a person but the Egyptian nation. The speaker was a soldier, sent to King Hezekiah, who was besieged in Jerusalem, the capital of his little kingdom, by the dreaded Assyrian invaders, under their own king, Sennacherib. Believing that he had Hezekiah at his mercy, Sennacherib sent an officer named Rabshakeh to demand his surrender. This officer met two envoys from Hezekiah and gave them a boastful message to take back to their master inside the besieged city.

Rabshakeh knew that Hezekiah was counting on an army of Egyptian soldiers to march up from the south and relieve Jerusalem. His message was a scornful warning that Hezekiah should not count on any such help. “Do not depend on the Egyptians for horses and chariots,” he said to the ambassadors who came out to meet him:

“Lo, thou trustest in the staff of this broken reed, on Egypt; whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand and pierce it: so is Pharoah, king of Egypt, to all that trust in him.” (Isaiah, chapter 36, verse 6.)

In the end, the Assyrians failed to capture Jerusalem, but not because of any help the defenders received from the Egyptians, who, many Scripture passages suggest, had a reputation for being unreliable in Bible times.

This became plain to me when I had charge of a bookshop in Egypt a few years ago. Thinking that it might encourage local people to buy the Bible, I arranged a window display, showing how often Egypt and the Egyptians were mentioned in its pages. But when I made a list of the many references to that country and its people, I found that for the most part they were so unfavourable – like the one about the broken reed – that I had to give up the idea!

“A broken reed” is, then, often quoted by people who have no idea that they are using the words so scornfully uttered by Sennacherib’s messenger nearly twenty-seven centuries ago!

Killing the fatted calf marks the celebration of unconfined joy

Posted in Animals, Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Thursday, 22 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 381 published on 3 May 1969.

Prodigal son, picture, image, illustration
The return of the prodigal son

It is Michael’s twenty-first birthday. He has been away from home for the past few months, working overseas to gain experience in his job. But he has come back for this great day. A splendid party is being held, and in the course of it someone says: “This is a great party, Michael! They’ve certainly killed the fatted calf for you!”

He means, of course, that Michael’s parents have gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to provide such splendid things to eat and drink. But why, you may wonder, should he say so in this way?

For the answer, we must turn to St. Luke’s Gospel, chapter fifteen, verses 11 to 32, and read there the story of another boy who left home, many centuries ago.

This boy was restless and not very considerate. He asked if he could have right away the inheritance to which he would be entitled on his father’s death.

This request rather upset the boy’s father, but he agreed, hoping no doubt that this would make his son more content and help him to settle down. Instead of doing this, however, the boy packed his belongings, took his inheritance, and set off.

Soon he had spent every penny he had, and, to make matters worse, a great famine made food very scarce, so that it was impossible to get any even by begging. The boy did manage to find a job of sorts, minding pigs, but as he worked at that very humble task, he felt so hungry that he would gladly have eaten the food on which the pigs were fed. He began to realise how foolish he had been, and how much better off the humblest servant in his father’s house was. In the end, he set off home, ready to tell his father how sorry he was, and to ask if he could be taken back, not as a son, but as a servant.

All this time, the father had been waiting anxiously for news of his son, and when he saw the boy coming, he could not wait for him to reach the house. Instead, he ran along the road to meet him, flung his arms around him, and, before more than a few faltering words had escaped the boy’s lips, called to the servants – “Quick! A new coat for him! And some shoes! Make a feast! Kill the fatted calf! My son, whom I thought was dead, is alive again; he was lost, and is found!”

This story, or “parable,” is often called the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.”

Why it is ominous when we see the writing on the wall

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Wednesday, 21 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 380 published on 26 April 1969.

Belshazzar's Feast, picture, image, illustration
The writing on the wall at Belshazzar's Feast by Peter Jackson

Everyone in the firm knew that John Barker was about to get the sack. There had been so many complaints about his work, and the manager had made it plain that, unless things improved, John would have to go. Instead of waiting for this to happen, John resigned, and so avoided the disgrace of being dismissed. When he heard the news, one of John’s mates said to another, “He must have seen the writing on the wall!”

We all know what the speaker meant, but how many of us know the story in which “the writing on the wall” first appeared?

It is a very old story, dating from the time (about the 6th century B.C.) when the Kingdom of Babylon was ruled by a man named Belshazzar. Among the inhabitants of his country were many Jewish exiles, brought there from Jerusalem when their homeland was conquered by the armies of Babylon.

One day, Belshazzar gave a great feast for the members of his court. In order to surprise them with something new, he ordered the sacred gold vessels which had been seized from the temple at Jerusalem to be used for serving the food and wine at his feast. This was a terrible crime in the eyes of the Jews, and it gave Belshazzar satisfaction to torment his old enemies in this way. No doubt, his guests thought his idea very clever and amusing.

Then, in the middle of the feast, silence suddenly fell upon the assembled guests. They found themselves peering into the shadows at the palace wall opposite where Belshazzar was sitting. A mysterious hand was slowly writing a message on the wall in letters large enough for all to read, but in words which no one there could understand.

The hand vanished, but the writing on the wall remained. The King sent for the cleverest of his wise men, but none of them could tell him what the message said.

Then someone remembered one of the Jewish exiles, called Daniel, who had won a great reputation for interpreting dreams. Daniel was sent for, and to everyone’s amazement he was able to tell Belshazzar what the mysterious writing meant.

The guests were first shocked, then terrified, by the message which Daniel slowly translated: GOD HATH NUMBERED THY KINGDOM AND FINISHED IT. THOU ART WEIGHED IN THE BALANCES AND ART FOUND WANTING. THY KINGDOM IS DIVIDED AND GIVEN TO THE MEDES AND PERSIANS (Daniel, Chapter 5, verses 26-28).

That very night, the armies of the Medes and Persians stormed the city of Babylon. Belshazzar himself was killed, and the dreadful prophecy written by the mysterious hand came true.

Those who have some disaster or misfortune revealed to them before it happens are therefore said, like Belshazzar and his guests, to have seen “the writing on the wall”.

The much reviled Samaritan turned out to be a saviour

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Wednesday, 21 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 379 published on 19 April 1969.

Good Samaritan, picture, image, illustration
The good Samaritan helps out as the Levite passes on the other side

Earlier this year, there was a nasty accident in the snow. A small boy, unable to control the rather large sledge he was riding on, cut his face badly when it crashed into a fence. His big brother was uncertain what to do, for they were a long way from home. But then a woman came up and said, “Put him into my car, and we will run him straight to hospital.” The woman waited for the boys at the hospital, and then drove them home.

“Thank you so much!” the boys’ mother said. “You really have been a good Samaritan!”

Most of us have heard these words in similar situations, but some of us may not know why it has become proverbial to call a person who is ready to help another in trouble “a good Samaritan.”

The Samaritans are a small tribe, akin to the Jews, who still live in a little district called Samaria, a few miles north of Jerusalem. Today, they number only a few hundred people, but they have their own language and customs, of which they are very proud. In the time of Jesus Christ, they were more numerous, but they were despised by their Jewish fellow-countrymen because of their separate history and strange beliefs. Jesus, however, seems to have had a particular regard for them, because he spoke favourably about them on more than one occasion.

It was a story told by Jesus which made the word “Samaritan” world-famous. You will find this story in Chapter Ten of St. Luke’s Gospel. Jesus described how a man was travelling from Jerusalem down the steep mountain track to Jericho, when he was attacked by bandits. Having robbed him of everything he had, even his clothes, the bandits beat him senseless.

A little while afterwards, two other people came along. One was a priest and the second was a Levite (an assistant from the Temple). Being supposedly religious men, either of these might have been expected to come to the aid of the wounded traveller, but neither of them did so. Perhaps they were afraid of being attacked themselves, or perhaps (as people sometimes say today) they “just did not want to get involved.” Whatever the reason, they passed on quickly.

Then a third man arrived. He was not a Jew, but a Samaritan, and as such might not have been expected to show much sympathy for the man who had been attacked. But, in his pity for this wounded traveller, he forgot all differences of race, and went to his side. Not only did he give him “first aid”, but he put him on his own donkey and, after taking him to the next inn on the road, paid for him to be looked after there till he recovered.

When Jesus asked which of the three had been a true neighbour to the man who was robbed, everyone naturally replied, “The one who took care of him.” And because he was a Samaritan, this man became known as “the good Samaritan.”

This name has since been given to countless people who have followed the good Samaritan’s example of helping those in trouble.