6) Western Culture
One reason for getting to know the Bible is the sheer impact it had on ‘Western’ art, writing and culture from the time it was translated into English.
It also had an impact on Middle Eastern Culture.
The following will examine some common ideas and concepts deeply embedded in Western, and in particular Anglo-American culture.
The ideal of sacrifice is highly regarded in Western culture. People who might die for their country in battle might be described as making a great sacrifice for their country. The word is assocated with individuals whose actions are considered to be totally, and unselfishly, dedicated to another person or nation. It is more than mere altruism, it is given to actions where there is no personal gain, rather personal loss.
The whole concept of such a sacrifice has its origins and power through the willing death of the Christ in crucifixion on a stake. The account or witnesses have Jesus chosing to submit to death to be a pattern of redemption, to do what God wished. Just as he submitted to those who were evil, so must others. Just as he was raised from the dead, so will others. In leading the way by being selfless, in giving his life for others, he is the pattern of what the Western world understands as ‘sacrifice.’
The word ‘sacrifice’ itself comes from the animals offered in the Old Testament, Law of Moses. This Law is the basis of Jewish culture. The New Testament parallels Jesus death with that of the animal sacrifices in the Law of Moses. Becasue of this common origin, Jewish culture aslo shares the idea.
To get a sense of what it means you might read one of the Gospel record. Mark is considered the simplest. You might then read a short section from the book of Hebrews to get the connection.
This word is used so often, yet few realise what it really means. It is a combination of two words ‘escape’ or ‘scape’ and ‘goat’. In Hebrew it is literally ‘goat of departure.’ In a complicated ceremony, every year, the tabernacle and the highpriest had their sins covered.
Leviticus 16:8-10): Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD’S lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness. KJV
This became such an important saying because of how it is explained,
Leviticus 16:21-22: Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. KJV
The key modern meaning of the term scape-goat from this event, is that, though innocent of any sin, it bears the sin of others, and by leaving and going far away from sight, it takes away the sin or inquity of others.
A David and Goliath battle
When people speak of a conflict where one party or company is small, and another is large and powerful, they may describe the situation as a David versus Goliath battle.
The whole account is to be found in 1 Samuel chapter 17. In a famous and pivotal incident in Israel’s history, the Philistine army (a people dwelt on the South coast about Gaza) had come to fight Israel. They had what we might regard as a novel approach in that they sent out their mightest man to begin the hostilities.
he stood and cried unto the armies of Israel, and said unto them, Why are ye come out to set your battle in array? am not I a Philistine, and ye servants to Saul? choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me. If he be able to fight with me, and to kill me, then will we be your servants: but if I prevail against him, and kill him, then shall ye be our servants, and serve us. (1Samuel 17:8-9)
It seems this man at about 3m was very, very tall, but bulky enough to carry the height. Much taller than king Saul of Israel, who was the tallest man in Isarel (1 Samuel 10:23). We have a few indications that the Israelites might not have been overly tall on average one is that their spies spoke of seeing tall people.
There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight. (Numbers 13:33)
In any case none of the Hebrews felt like taking on Goliath, and so the two armies faced each other, and did nothing.
Then young David, who looks after the sheep, is sent by his father to take food to his brothers. He is clearly not old enough to go to war. He hears the challenge and says to those about him, “who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
David convinces king Saul he can take Goliath on as if a lion or a bear. and we have this classic passage,
When the Philistine looked about, and saw David, he disdained him: for he was but a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair countenance. (1Samuel 17:42)
Then said David to the Philistine, “You came to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day will the LORD deliver you into mine hand; and I will smite you, and take thine head from you; and I will give the carcases of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. And all this assembly shall know that the LORD saves not with sword and spear: for the battle is the LORD’S, and he will give you into our hands. And it came to pass, when the Philistine arose, and came and drew nigh to meet David, that David hasted, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag, and took from there a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David. Therefore David ran, and stood upon the Philistine, and took his sword, and drew it out of the sheath, and slew him, and cut off his head with it. (1Samuel 17:45-51)
The picture that is taken form this is a thin slight and possibly not tall youth with not much apparent strength, overcoming a huge mighty man, bulky as he has been trained in warfare. The small had overcome the powerful. In context David is shown as having ‘right’ on his side. It is so powerful an image that it is useful to use where the small protagonist is thought to be ‘right’ in the issue in contention, and the bigger powerful party is seen as oppressing. This incident and others like it, might explain the cultural liking for’under-dogs’ or the weaker in sporting matches and similar situations, which is inexplicable otherwise.
Taking the Mantle
In business or public life, a sucessor might be described as ‘taking the mantle’ of a predecessor. This might puzzle someone who has not read the Bible. It is not about merely taking on a role, it is about taking on their whole ethos and acting as if the previous person has never left. The anology is powerful because there is a story behind it.
Elijah a Hebrew prophet was sorrowful that after demonstrating the great power of their God to Israel at Carmel, the foriegn king’s wife, who worshipped another god, wished to kill him. He fled to Mt Horeb in Sinai. There he confessed his sorrow. His God, the God of isarel showed him his power was in a ‘still small voice’ and gave him the promise of help. He was to anoint Elisha the son of Shaphat to take his place. Elisha followed Elijah as a servant for a while, then he is told Elijah is to be taken. Elisha sticks with Elijah to the very end, and askes for a double portion of Elijah’s power to heal and do miracles. When Elijah is taken, his mantle falls to the ground. Elisha picks up this mantle. Witnessed by the son of the prophets, they see Elisha use this claok to stop the waters of the Jordan and cross over dry. In this way they could know Elisha was prophet in the role of Elijah.
Drop in a Bucket
A drop in a bucket is a very small quantity. The idea is from the English translation of a Hebrew analogy.
Isaiah 40:1: Who hath directed the Spirit of the LORD, or being his counsellor hath taught him? With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of judgment, and taught him knowledge, and shewed to him the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing. KJV
Nations to us might seem large things, but they, by comparison to the God of the Bible, even the large and mightly nation of Russia, or the empire of Ancient Rome, are just drop into a bucket.
Skin of my Teeth
The meaning of this might seem odd, as we know teeth don’t have skin. If we have a ‘close shave’ we might have escaped by the skin of our teeth. The expression is from a very ancient Hebrew source, from the book of Job, when he loses all his family, all his wealth and then finally all his health.
Job 19:20: My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth. KJV
Weak as Water
This saying has a long history, and is entwined with Hebrew history. In the ancient account of Job, he speaks of being poured out like milk (Job 10:10). In the time of the Judges, before the kings, Samuel gathers the nation togther to re-dedicate themselves to the true worship if God of Israel. To begin things he pours out water before God. They fasted and confessed their sin.
Later in the history, King David is brought water from Bethleham by three brave men who broke through enemy lines to get it. King David, though he wished to drink it, poured it out to the Lord as ‘it was the blood of men who went in jeopardy of their lives.’ In all there is a sense of how water represents human fragility and weakness. Psalm 22, a national song of Israel, includes “I am poured out like water”(v14)
By the time of Ezekiel it appears to have become a saying (see also Ezek 21:7),
Ezekiel 7:17: All hands shall be feeble, and all knees shall be weak as water. KJV
We have not place to mention all influences culture as the Bible imagery has been borrowed heavily. In addition borrowed metaphors and images relating to doves, rainbows, olive leaves, lambs and lions, of natiosn as trees and etc. abound.
A talent is from Greek ‘talanton’ and is a measure of weight. As currency was valued by weight, it might also be used a measure of currency. It is used this way as meaning ‘a sum of money’ in one parable by Jesus.
For the kingdom is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money. (Matthew 25:14-18)
From this parable the great lesson was that peope must do things with the abilities they had been given by God. It was so culturally powerful that ‘talent’ came to mean ‘ability.’ It is an undlying Christian value that everyone do things to their best ability.