This use of idioms is common in most languages and when it comes to the Bible, ancient Hebrew was no exception. In fact, the Old Testament is particularly rich in this regard. A great many Hebrew idioms have to do with body parts – especially the face, hands and feet – and these are often “guessable” in context even if they sound strange to our ears – as when we read “his face was fallen” (Genesis 4:6) and we sense the meaning is that the individual was sad. To take a couple of other simple examples, in the Old Testament to have “clean hands” is to act purely (Psalm 24:4) and to have “closed hands” is to act selfishly (Deuteronomy 15:7).
These examples may make sense to us, but at other times it is not quite so easy to see the underlying meaning of Hebrew expressions. The idiom “his nose burned” means “he was furious” (as in Genesis 30:2), and the expression “the length of two noses” means “to be patient” (as in Exodus 34:6 and elsewhere). Fortunately, translators usually make such expressions understandable for us, and the more modern the translation, the more idioms tend to be translated with modern expressions rather than literally.
An example is found in 1 Samuel 24:3 where the Hebrew expression “to cover his feet” is translated literally, word for word, in the King James Bible (KJV), but more modern versions translate the meaning “to relieve himself,” as we find in the New International Version (NIV) and English Standard Version (ESV). While the KJV translates the Hebrew expression “having uncircumcised ears” literally in Jeremiah 6:10 and elsewhere, the NIV and ESV translate the idiom accurately as “not listening.”
This kind of idiom-to-meaning translation is particularly important because idioms can confuse us even though we may think we understand them. We may know that in Hebrew the idiom “hearts and kidneys” (KJV “hearts and reins”) means what we would call our “thoughts and emotions.” But even knowing that “hearts” means “thoughts,” we may miss the fact that the Hebrew expression “heart lifted up” does not always mean to be “happy” (as in 2 Chronicles 17:6), but can also mean “prideful” (as in Deuteronomy 8:11-14).
Again, most modern translations help us make sense of idioms such as the ones we have looked at, but they will also sometimes leave idioms untranslated. This is particularly true in the New Testament – and especially in the Gospel of Matthew which was likely originally written in Hebrew. We see this throughout Matthew when he speaks of the “kingdom of heaven” as opposed to the “kingdom of God” as we find in the other Gospels. In Hebrew, the word “heaven” was used idiomatically for “God” so a true meaning-to-meaning translation would render “kingdom of heaven” as “kingdom of God” in Matthew also.
Consider another example from Matthew. In Matthew 19:24 we read the famous words of Jesus: “… it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Most English translations from the KJV to the NIV translate this verse in this way, but for centuries commentators have disagreed on the origin for the phrase “a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” Some have speculated that the expression is based on a small “needle gate” next to a larger gate in Jerusalem – the smaller gate being left open at night so that a camel, kneeling down and without its rider, could just pass through. Attractive as this explanation might sound, there is no proof of it and no historical evidence of any such gate. In reality, the expression is based on a known idiom. The Hebrew word gemala translated “camel” does often mean camel, but idiomatically it can also mean a thick rope, and this is more likely the original meaning of Jesus’ words – that it is easier to thread a small needle with a thick rope (as opposed to a thin thread) than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
At least one modern translation does translate the idiom in this way, and the lesson for us is simple. No matter how much we may be attached to an older translation of the Bible, such as the KJV, we owe it to our understanding of the Scriptures to at least occasionally read a newer translation. Certainly no version is perfect, but good modern translations are more likely to translate Hebrew idioms with accurate meanings rather than with word for word translations that are often not fully understandable to the modern reader. A person who knows biblical Hebrew may recognize the idioms left untranslated in the KJV, but for most readers, a good modern translation will help render those idioms understandably – rather than with expressions that may require “the length of two noses” to understand.