Five Bible Images You Probably Misunderstand

Flawed translations conceal biblical messages from modern readers by failing to convey the significance of images and metaphors. Here's what goes wrong.
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Originally, Jesus' most important commandment wasn't to love God with all one's heart or with all one's soul. God was a warrior, not a shepherd. Men and women were supposed to be equal. And as with many other people, Adam's lifespan was symbolic.

But flawed translations conceal these biblical messages from modern readers by failing to convey the significance of images and metaphors. Here's what goes wrong.

Sometimes a word, in modern English or in the Bible, simply refers to something. For example, "Washington, DC" is a city and "blue" is a color.

But more often, words convey specific concepts that are associated with a thing. When "Washington comes out in favor of a plan," the word "Washington" means governmental leaders. When people "feel blue," they are sad or depressed, not blue in any sense related to color, just as "blue laws" and "blue states" have almost nothing in common beyond the word "blue." (Blue laws restrict sales on Sunday. Blue states tend to vote democratic.)

A particularly clear example comes from a captain who shouts the common nautical phrase, "all hands on deck." Presumably the captain wants the sailors in their entirety, and not just their hands, on the deck.

A word is usually connected to different images in different languages. For example, "blue" in German has to do with absenteeism, so the correct English translation for the German "to do blue" is "to skip work."

Unfortunately, Bible translations mangle this common kind of language, masking the original sense of the text from readers.

The most important commandment, according to Jesus in Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27 (quoting Deuteronomy 6:5) is commonly, if wrongly, translated as "love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul...."

The English word "heart" refers to emotion, and generally excludes intellect. This is why "thinking with your heart" in English means being irrational. But the Hebrew and Greek words translated as "heart" (levav in Hebrew and kardia in Greek) had a different metaphoric meaning. They were the seat of internal processes, including both feeling and thinking, as well as dreading, ruminating, aspiring, and so forth. The English translation "heart" therefore misses most of the original intent.

Worse, the English word "soul" usually indicates some non-tangible, ethereal part of a person that may even live on after the death of the body. But the words in the original languages (nephesh or nefesh in Hebrew and psuche in Greek) referred to the physical body itself, and, slightly more broadly, to the tangible aspects of human existence: the flesh, the blood, and the breath. So the English translation "soul" is practically the opposite of what the original meant.

Taken together, "heart and soul" in English form a narrow slice of human existence. But the original was all encompassing. The point was "love the Lord your God with everything that is intangible and everything that is tangible." (Learn more: "How to Love the Lord Your God.")

Similarly, Psalm 23 describes God metaphorically as a shepherd (ro'eh). Modern images of shepherds usually focus on kindness, guidance, tranquility, and even meekness. But the ancient shepherd was mighty and fierce, like a modern-day marine, firefighter, or even Rambo. The point was that the Psalmist had a great fighting force watching his back, so he had nothing to worry about. (Learn more: "The Lord isn't the Shepherd You Think.")

Likewise, in Song of Solomon's detailed description of romantic love, the man addresses the woman as "my sister, my bride" or "my sister, my spouse." The English word "sister" is used primarily for family relationships, and also more generally for familiarity. But the Hebrew word (achot) specifically referred to equality of power. The point was that the man and the woman in a relationship should be equal. (This presents a significant challenge for those who want Scripture to support the subservience of women.)

Numbers represent another kind of imagery. English readers know that 1,000 is a round number, often an approximation or an obvious exaggeration. Modern readers are less likely to know that 930 (the years of Adam's life) was a round number in antiquity, because ancient math was based on the Babylonian system of multiplying small numbers: the round numbers were 6, 12, 30, 60, etc. (This is why, to this day, there are 12 hours in a day and 60 seconds in a minute.) Nine-hundred and thirty is 30 times 30 plus 30, and an ancient reader would immediately have understood that it was a symbolic number.

Here and in many other places we get a better sense of the original beauty and intent of the Bible by moving past a naive understanding of the words to the metaphors that they represent.

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