English Sayings With Biblical Origins

Ilana Quinn

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Tara Winstead/Pexels

There is no doubt much of North America is increasingly secular.

Despite the United States being classified by Pew Research as 70.6% Christian in 2021, church attendance is rapidly declining and religious non-affiliation is growing. Needless to say, there is an increasingly large number of people who would define themselves as religiously unaffiliated.

In Canada, only 55% of the population identify as Christian. A recent law in the province of Québec banning all public employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace represents the growing current against religious expression. Many have rightfully argued this law discriminates against Muslim women and violates freedom of religion.

Although religion is nowhere near as pervasive in North America as it used to be, many aspects of Christian philosophy still permeate secular life.

The Bible is of particular significance.

The Bible is a collection of books including genres such as poetry, prophesies, epics, letters and apocalypse. Interestingly, as with Shakespeare and many great works of literature, many non-religious individuals and skeptics frequently but unintentionally quote from Biblical Scriptures. In fact, our modern lexicon brims with distinctly Biblical sayings.

The following is a non-extensive list of common words and phrases with meanings many don’t realize are actually from the Bible.

"Scapegoat"

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"Sending Out the Scapegoat" by William James WebbPublic Domain

A scapegoat was an animal burdened with the sins of the Jewish people on the “Day of Atonement,” or Yom Kippur. In this tradition, one goat was slaughtered as a sacrifice to God, while the other was sent into the wilderness.

References to this tradition are found in the Book of Leviticus, which is the third book of the Torah and the third of the Bible:

He is to cast lots for the two goats — one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat. (Leviticus 16:8–10)

Ancient Israel was not the only civilization that practiced atonement. Remarkably, however, Israel was the only ancient civilization that did not use human scapegoats.

In Ancient Greece, people were used as human scapegoats to mitigate disasters such as floods or plagues. Human scapegoats in Ancient Greece were called pharmakoi.

Ancient Athenians also selected a man and woman at Thargelia, the Greek festival celebrating the god Apollo. Those chosen as human “scapegoats” were often considered because of their ugliness or other undesirable traits. The pair was adorned in figs, feasted, then whipped and led through Athens before possibly being thrown into the sea or burned to death.

The term scapegoat is now used in the English language to represent a person or thing blamed for the faults of others.

"Broken heart"

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RODNAE Productions/Pexels

Though the saying “broken heart,” which means to be extremely downtrodden or saddened, seems simple — it is an established phrase in our modern lexicon.

The phrase comes from the Book of Psalms, which is a book comprised of sacred poems and songs. Specifically, the psalmist reminds the readers of God’s infinite kindness during times of deep sorrow:

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all; he protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken. (Psalm 34:18–20)

In our modern context, the term “broken heart” is often employed when speaking about failed romantic relationships. In its original context, however, the “broken heart” is seen as something to be divinely healed.

"Writings on the wall"

People often say “the writings on the wall” in reference to something bad about to happen. It has the same meaning in the Book of Daniel where it was first introduced.

The Book of Daniel covers the period when the Jewish people were captives in Babylon. The titular character and possible author of the text, Daniel, lived through this turbulent time.

Daniel was a learned scholar and interpreter of dreams which was deemed an extremely valuable gift by ancient civilizations. In fact, ancient peoples of Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia and Rome considered dream interpretation a science or art form that required divine inspiration.

The importance of dream interpretation is reflected in the fifth chapter of Daniel when he is asked to make sense of an unusual scene.

Namely, when the Babylonian King Belshazzar is feasting with thousands of his nobles, praising the “gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” as they eat, a mysterious human hand begins writing on the wall. Daniel is asked to interpret the meaning of the words left behind.

After correctly interpreting the inscription, Daniel is honoured by the King and made the third highest ruler in the Kingdom.

"Behemoth"

Behemoth first appears in the Book of Job, the text which addresses the problem of evil. In the book, Job is robbed of his wealth, family and health. He spends much of the narrative grappling with God’s goodness and mercy in the face of profound suffering.

The word “behemoth” is used when God is speaking to Job about His sovereignty. In creating and having power over the seemingly terrifying creature, He gives evidence of His authority and leads the bereaved man to trust:

Look at Behemoth, which I made along with you and which feeds on grass like an ox.What strength it has in its loins, what power in the muscles of its belly! Its tail sways like a cedar; the sinews of its thighs are close-knit. Its bones are tubes of bronze, its limbs like rods of iron. It ranks first among the works of God, yet its Maker can approach it with his sword. (Job 40:15–19)

Although scholars unanimously believe the behemoth referred to a great beast, there is more controversy over which animal it represented. Some believe it was an Egyptian word meaning “water-ox,” while others suppose it was a hippopotamus. A few people have even argued the behemoth was a dinosaur that survived Job’s period.

Regardless of its mysterious origins, behemoth is a commonplace word used by modern English speakers to describe something of great size.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand"

While the prolific President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, is credited with popularizing this phrase when he predicted the imminent Civil War, it was first spoken by Jesus Christ.

The words were uttered when Jesus was addressing a group of Pharisees — members of the religious elite known for their stringent legalism. The Pharisees were astounded by Jesus’s ability to perform miracles and perceived Him as a threat to their religious authority. Because of this, they attributed Jesus’s ability to drive evil spirits out of people to His supposed demonic possession.

Jesus refuted their illogical claim, stating:

How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. (Mark 3: 23–28)

Since the phrase is logically sound, modern speakers employ the aphorism in a variety of different settings.

Final thoughts

Overall, English speakers unknowingly borrow many expressions from the Bible in everyday conversations.

Despite living in an increasingly secular society, we are continually influenced by these phrases — which often contain hidden histories and deep spiritual meanings. In light of these pervasive tropes, one could argue the Bible is more culturally relevant than we give it credit for.

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