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Five Baffling Cultural Idioms in the Bible

Updated on October 24, 2019
lambservant profile image

As a writer, Lori is interested in words, common phrases and their history and origin, and keeping up with cultural language trends.


The Bible presents many idioms, words or phrases that make us scratch our heads and ask, 'What does that mean?' Often times these sayings come from Hebrew culture. Understanding their meaning helps us put the passage into context. Some of these sayings we have adopted into our own culture, sometimes with a different meaning. Join me in this walk through the Bible to learn the etymology of idioms and how we use them today.

Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’" (Matthew 5:38).

"But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth..." (Exodus 21:24).

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is a curious statement. The term came from the code of Hammurabi (a legal code) established by King Hammurabi of Babylon from 1792 to 1750 B.C.1 It is the notion that for every wrong done, there should be a compensating measure of justice. Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you do not resist an evil person."

The Pharisees loved this idea, convincing themselves that it was justifiable to take the law into their own hands and retaliate against those who wronged them. In Exodus 21:24 this law was meant to be a legal, civil law, to be carried out by civic authorities, not for private citizens to get personal revenge.

We Americans use this term figuratively with similar meaning.

Gird Up the Loins of Your Mind

"Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:13).

There are two different perspectives on this saying. One is that girding up the loins refers to a soldier binding up his groin/loin area for protection in battle. In this context, it seems logical that this phrase is saying to protect your mind. Another view is that girding up your loins is referring to the custom of tucking in the hem of one’s tunic into a girdle or loin cloth to allow for freedom of movement. Back in biblical times, this was done in preparation for doing a task that required freedom of movement.

In a devotional (June 27, 2016) titled Gird Up the Loins of Your Mind! Author and Pastor Rick Renner states, "If we want to be successful in our spiritual lives and truly walk with God, then we must start by dealing with the “loins of our minds.” In other words, we must seek to deal with all the loose ends in our thinking that haven’t yet been submitted to the Word of God or surrendered to the Holy Spirit’s power."

From there we are prepared to serve God with our minds focused on God's will for us.

If we want to be successful in our spiritual lives and truly walk with God, then we must start by dealing with the “loins of our minds.”

— Pastor Rick Renner, Gird Up the Loins of Your Mind (June 27, 2016)

Kick Against the Goads

"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 9:5).

Many people are puzzled by this term "kick against the goads." The King James Version uses the term "pricks."

Acts 9 gives us the story of Saul's (also known as Paul) conversion to Christianity. Saul was a zealous Pharisee whose goal in life was to defend God's honor and kill and incarcerate Christians. He was on the road to Damascus one day with papers giving him permission to throw more Christians into jail. He was galloping toward the city with the adrenaline of rage pumping through him. He could almost taste the blood and hear the screams of the men and women of The Way. All of a sudden a brilliant light from heaven flashed all around him. It knocked him off his horse and blinded him, upon which he heard a powerful voice say "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads."

Goads were long sticks used to prod and guide stubborn oxen forward. They were slender, pointed and sharp. It would prick the oxen to goad him on and the pain would cause them to kick back against it in rebellion, which only served to deepen the wound and create more pain. According to Easton's Bible Dictionary, "The expression 'It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks', i.e., against the goad, was proverbial for unavailing resistance to superior power." That's what Christ was trying to point out to Saul on that wonderful, terrible day on the road to Damascus. He'd been blind to the truth of who Jesus was, and He had to literally knock Saul off his high horse, physically blind him and speak to Him in a powerful voice to set him straight.

Later, blinded, he was led to Damascus and was too sick to get out of bed for three days. A disciple named Ananias very reluctantly went to Saul at God's command and prayed that his vision would be restored and that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit. After he prayed for Saul it said "...something like scales fell from his eyes." I find that imagery interesting. Saul had been blind in his heart. So then God blinded his eyes. Through this whole process, we see that the scales or veils over his heart were fallen away as well. God was merciful, he later told Timothy, because as awful as he had been, he did it in ignorance and unbelief (1 Tim. 1:13).

One last thing. When God told Ananias to go and pray for Saul to receive his sight, He also said him, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Saul had been kicking against the goads, in God's name he thought, but now he must suffer for God's name. He embraced that directive and suffered for God's glory. No one suffered more than Paul in the Church. But he did it gladly.

"But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ... that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead."

Philippians 3:7-8, 10-11.

You Will Heap Burning Coals Upon Their Heads

Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head" (Romans 12:20).

"If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; For so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you (Proverbs 25:21-22).

There are many conflicting interpretations of this idiom and many commentators say no one can really be sure what it means. Two of the most common views for "heap burning coals of fire on his head" is that figuratively it means punishment and revenge to an enemy (hot coals burn), or that it means being kind to an enemy will bring them to remorse and repentance.

Author and Bible scholar Lois Tverberg had this take on the matter: “The picture of putting coals on a person's head initially sounds like a picture of causing burning pain, but it really is not. Instead, it seems to be a picture of stirring up the coals of a fire to rouse it back to life again. It is a picture of stirring within a person a response of remorse when they see your kindness in the face of their meanness." 2

Many commentators tell that in ancient times when one’s fire burned out, he went to a neighbor to borrow some live coals which he put in a container and carried on his head. The person who would give him some live coals would be meeting his desperate need and showing him an outstanding kindness. If the neighbor was an enemy who has wronged you, and you treat them kindly, they will feel remorse and repent.

William Barclay said in his book Growing in Christian Faith: A Book of Daily Readings, "Vengeance may break his spirit; but kindness will break his heart … and ―move him to burning shame."

I will confess that I am not a professional Bible scholar but I think context is everything. The context of Proverbs 25:22 is giving water and drink to an enemy who is hungry and thirsty, followed by the "heaping coals on their heads." But then it says "and the Lord will reward you." Does the Lord reward us for vengeance? Jesus said to love our enemies and pray for them. We pray they will repent and come to Him. We don't pray they will burn in hell.

Let's go to the Romans passage and back up a bit. Here's are some highlights of the chapter starting in verse 14.

  • Vs. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
  • Vs. 17 Repay no one evil for evil but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.
  • Vs. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
  • Vs. 19 ...never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.
  • Now we come to verse 20 which is a quote of Proverbs 25:20. "To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
  • Vs 21 ends the chapter with, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

I've read tons of commentary on this verse, but my own conclusion is that heaping coals are not meant as vengeance in the Romans 12:20 and Proverbs 25:22. In looking at the context from verses before and after it appears that we are to extend kindness to an enemy and if the enemy is sorry and repentant, that is good, but if not, he is in the Lord's hands. We cannot win someone over to Christ by being vengeful. The Lord desires that none should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).


A Millstone Around One's Neck

"Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!" (Matthew18:6)

Millstones were large stones made into a wheel like structure used to grind out grain to make bread. They were extremely heavy. In this passage, Jesus is saying if a believer causes another child of God to sin, the consequences would be as grave as having a millstone put around the neck and tossed into sea. In other words. there would be little hope for them, as it is nearly, if not always, impossible to rise to the surface with such a heavy burden of sin.

"The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise vas some count slowness but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).


1 Code of Hammurabi editors UPDATED:AUG 21, 2018ORIGINAL:NOV 9, 2009

2 Heaping Burning Coals July 8, 2015 Lois tverberg En Gedi Resource Center

© 2019 Lori Colbo


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    • lifegate profile image

      William Kovacic 

      3 weeks ago from Pleasant Gap, PA


    • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

      Lori Colbo 

      3 weeks ago from Pacific Northwest

      Bill, all my research says Hammarubi had it first.

    • lifegate profile image

      William Kovacic 

      3 weeks ago from Pleasant Gap, PA

      Interesting stuff, Lori. I am just curious - "an eye for an eye", did Moses borrow that from Hammurabi or did Hammurabi borrow it from Moses? Just wondering.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      3 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks, Lori. I appreciate these interpretations of Bible idioms from another culture. Now we can use them more accurately and with more understanding. Explanation of the "goads" is especially helpful to me.

    • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

      Lori Colbo 

      4 weeks ago from Pacific Northwest

      Thanks for visiting TripleAMom.

    • TripleAMom profile image


      4 weeks ago from Florida

      Interesting article. Always interesting to see interpretations of scripture.

    • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

      Lori Colbo 

      4 weeks ago from Pacific Northwest

      Bill, I find it hilarious too. First of all, it's a funny image and second, it so exemplifies human nature, stubbornness.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Thank you for this excellent article as you explained some of the difficult things to understand so well. I truly appreciate the explanations you put forth and it helped me understand.

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 

      4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Lori, thank you for explaining some of these idioms. It helps to put Biblical language into words that all of us can understand. Makes Scripture more approachable and relevant.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I like kicking the goads. For a variety of reasons that one makes me laugh but then I have a pretty sick sense of humor.

    • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

      Lori Colbo 

      4 weeks ago from Pacific Northwest

      I'm glad you found it helpful Ruby.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      4 weeks ago from Southern Illinois

      Trying to understand the bible is difficult to say the least, but understanding the times and the people is helpful. I have often thought " How evil they were back in the bible era. Your explanation makes the idioms more reasonable and understandable. Good review Lori.


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