Regular readers of my blog will know that I write endlessly about the culture of the ancient world, especially that of the Bible. As I constantly remind my readers, ancient culture is a gateway into better understanding all the nuances of what the Bible teaches. I write about this often because modern, mainstream Christians, skeptics and atheists do not understand just how much our modern culture differs from the culture of the Bible. In addition, we don’t realize just how much influence our culture wields over our interpretations of biblical teaching.
In this post, I want to discuss the ancient cultural value of hyperbole and exaggeration. The ancients used hyperbole and dramatic expression almost to a fault. In fact, as I understand it, many Middle-Eastern cultures still do. Almost 100 years ago, Abraham Rihbany, an American Christian wrote:
The Oriental (Middle-Eastern) piles up his metaphors and superlatives, reinforced by a theatrical display of gestures and facial expressions, in order to make his listener feel his meaning… Just as the Oriental loves to flavor his food strongly and to dress in bright colours, so is he fond of metaphor, exaggeration, and postiveness in speech. To him mild accuracy is a weakness (p. 83-84
According to Rihbany, who was himself from the Middle East, what matters is the “flavor of what is being said, not the details. At another point in the book, He writes of what an old friend said when Rihbany visited him:
In welcoming me to his house, an old friend of mine spoke with impressive cheerfulness as follows: ‘You have extremely honored me by coming into my abode. I am not worthy of it. This house is yours; you can burn it if you wish. My children also are at your disposal; i would sacrifice them all for your pleasure’ (p. 91)
Obviously, Rihbany’s friend isn’t endorsing child sacrifice here; it’s a clear use of hyperbole. Rihbany also notes that this is the world that Jesus lived in as well. Unlike our western culture, Jesus lived in a place where exaggeration and hyperbole were default modes of communication. What mattered was the “feeling” of the message, not the precision of it. Modern Christians and skeptics may chafe at this but modern scholarship confirms Rihbany’s point. In The Handbook of Biblical Social Values, scholar John J. Pilch writes:
Words and language are very important in Mediterranean culture, for they are related to manliness. The man who is eloquent and capable of strong rhetoric is viewed as a strong man… Eloquence involves the skill of verbal exaggeration and over-assertion… Exaggeration is quite common in the culture
This is very different from our culture which values precision and “getting to the point”. Only a little bit of googling is needed to show that modern Christians are heavily influenced by their culture’s distaste for exaggeration and hyperbole. In fact, one guy had the following question on a Christian forum:
Our culture so dislikes hyperbole and exaggeration that he actually has to wonder whether the Bible says anything about. In addition, I googled “verses about exaggeration” and found this:
Apparently what the Bible says about exaggeration is tied to what it says about lying, i.e. it’s bad. This should be enough to show a clear bias that modern, American Christians have. Generally, they equate lying and exaggeration as one and the same. You can’t exaggerate because that would be lying. The funny thing is that this is much more a product of modern, Western culture than anything the Bible teaches. Bible scholar, John J. Pilch sums it up quite nicely:
A technological society like mainstream Untied States culture is tied to precision. Dramatic orientation, exaggeration, and over-assertion waste precious time by not getting to the point… Creativity, Imagination and boasting… have no place in a society driven by productivity; machines will tolerate no exaggeration, imprecision, or tardiness. Dramatic orientation is suitable for the theater but not for real life.
This reaction against exaggeration, hyperbole, etc is due mainly to our culture and not what the Bible teaches. As I said above, the Biblical world was the exact opposite. Despite this, atheists and self-styled skeptics point to “questionable” and contradictory verses in the Bible and whine very loudly when they are told that these verses are hyperbole. Here are some examples of how hyperbole is used in the Bible.
29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and castit from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)
I know many atheist websites that point to this verse and claim that Jesus is commanding evil or something like that. Out of ignorance, they misread what is clear hyperbole. Jesus is not actually teaching us to cut off limbs; he is using hyperbole to make a rhetorical point.
[Jesus] told his followers to hate their families.
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children,and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:26
Clearly, this person is either willfully ignorant or stupid if he believes that Jesus actually was teaching his followers to hate is family. As I’ve said before, this is clearly hyperbole used to make the point that Jesus’ followers owed him their primary loyalty.
In addition, we see many instances of exaggeration and hyperbole in the Old Testament. In Exodus, for example, God pronounces judgment on on Egypt and says:
5 and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the female servant who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the animals. 6 Then there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as was not like it before, nor shall be like it again. (Exodus 11:5-6)
It should be obvious that the incomparable cry of Egypt is clearly hyperbolic. God is not making a statement about a literal cry that will literally be heard throughout the entire Egyptian nation that will never again be equaled. That much should be obvious. Here’s another example, God supposedly makes a promise to Solomon in the Old Testament:
12 wisdom and knowledge are granted to you; and I will give you riches and wealth and honor, such as none of the kings have had who were before you, nor shall any after you have the like. (2 Chronicles 1:12)
Really? Solomon is going to be a greater king than David? What about King Hezekiah?
5 He [Hezekiah] trusted in the Lord God of Israel, so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor who were before him. 6 For he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses. (2 Kings 18:5-6)
So which one is greater? The village idiots who run the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible would be delighted to call this a contradiction. These buffoons will not see this as the dramatic exaggeration that it is supposed to be. It’s not meant to be taken literally in the sense that King Solomon or Hezekiah really is the greatest monarch to have ever lived in all history.
Whether we like it or not, the authors in the Bible lived in a culture that continually used exaggeration and hyperbole in their communication. As a result, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that the Bible contains plenty of exaggeration and hyperbole. Christians need not be uncomfortable when faced with this. There is nothing wrong with exaggeration and hyperbole. I find it ridiculous that some Christians actually equate hyperbole and exaggeration with lying. Such notions display a complete ignorance of the Bible. In addition, skeptics would do well to avoid using instances of exaggeration and hyperbole as ammunition in their endless and fanatical crusade against Christianity.