Thursday, September 22

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, September 22, 2016 7 comments
The other day, my teen daughter heard Alanis Morissette's "You Ought to Know" and got rather confused by a line in the lyrics.
Image by svklimkin on

"Is she really singing about a cross-eyed bear? Am I hearing that wrong?"

I explained to her that the lyric is "the cross I bear," alluding to Jesus' crucifixion and his teachings prior to it about following his example of living self-sacrificially. This is a kid raised going to church weekly and attends Christian school. So if that allusion whipped right by her, chances are, there are plenty of folks without and even with a Judeo-Christian faith background who don't quite get a number of English idioms that are allusions to Bible stories.

Allusions are complex as literary devices go. An allusion is meant to bring an entire story and its context to bear on a present situation. Therefore, as I explain each, I'll note not only what a phrase typically signifies, but also the context from which the words are taken.

Am I my brother's keeper?

What it means: Not really my problem. I'm not going to take responsibility.

What it alludes to: Genesis 4:1-16
God likes Abel's sacrifice of lamb better than his brother Cain's first fruits offering. Cain gets so envious that he kills Abel. When God asks, "Where is your brother?" Cain's playing-dumb response is, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain hoped to evade responsibility and punishment, but he got both, in spades.

Beat swords into ploughshares

What it means: A picture of perfect peace, when weapons aren't needed, and the metal would best be put to use making farm equipment, leading to plenty of food for all.

What it alludes to: Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3
These verses are nearly identical in describing a time when humanity is living peacefully under God's leadership: "He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore" (Micah 4:3 NIV). Folks are so much at peace that weapons are obsolete--a waste of good metal that could be put to better use. Without the weapons, folks don't even train for battle. They have better things to do, like keep agriculture humming along.

Cross to bear

What it means: A difficulty that requires walking a path of suffering; a situation that requires "dying to self" or putting aside one's desires, demands and rights.

To be clear, in popular understanding, the former meaning is more prominent, though it is theologically an incorrect interpretation. The latter meaning more accurately reflect what the Matthew 16 verses mean--radical humility, not masochism of Stoicism. Christian teaching on suffering is more accurately reflected in a "thorn in the flesh" (see below).

What it alludes to: John 19:16-18; Matthew 16:24-26
Two contexts here: first, Jesus' own crucifixion, in which he was made to carry the wood beams on which he would be executed. It's a picture of carrying the means of your death, of extreme self-sacrifice. Second, Jesus taught his disciples that being his followers meant having a similar willingness to  be selfless and to obey God instead of following one's self-serving, throw-others-under-the-bus desire to be first.

Forbidden fruit

What it means: a tempting, bad / wrong thing

What it alludes to: Genesis 2:15-3:24
God gave Adam and Eve and entire garden of food to eat, except for the fruit of one tree, but the cunning serpent convinced them to eat anyway. Breaking that simple rule lost them the privilege of being in the garden and brought pain and curses.

Gird up your loins

What it means: Get ready to fight or do a difficult task.

What it alludes to: Job 40:7, Jeremiah 1:17, Ephesians 6:14, I Peter 1:13
In a culture that wore long, flowing tunics, it was difficult to get anywhere fast with all that fabric flapping around you. "Girding" meant gathering and securing the extra cloth in a girth or belt, and the "loins," or lower torso, would thus be wrapped up, enabling freer leg movement.

Here's a helpful image of the process:

Image by Ted Slampyak (

Good Samaritan

What it means: a complete stranger who cares for someone in need or danger

What it alludes to: Luke 10:25-37
When Jesus says the second greatest commandment is "love your neighbor as yourself," a listener asks "But who is my neighbor?"

He goes on to tell the parable--a fictional teaching story--of a man who gets robbed and beaten and left for dead. Two of his countrymen pass him by, doing nothing (probably not wanting the inconvenience of becoming ritually impure from possibly touching a dead body.) A third guy comes by -- someone from Samaria, land of half-breeds who practice a divergent form of Judaism -- and he helps. And not just a little. The Samaritan cleans the victim's wounds, gives him a ride on his donkey, takes him to a nearby inn, then pays for his care.

Jesus uses the story to teach that loving neighbor isn't about deciding who's part of the in group or out group, it's about showing the care you'd want to receive when you see someone in need--even weirdos, outsiders, and enemies.

Out of the mouths of babes

What it means: Wise words coming from a young person.

What it alludes to: Psalm 8:2, Matthew 21:16
"From the mouth of infants and nursing babes
You have established strength
Because of Your adversaries,
To make the enemy and the revengeful cease." (Psalm 8:2)

Jesus refers to the verse when, following the events of Palm Sunday, the religious leaders are angry that kids are following him around, yelling "Hosanna to the Son of David!" He's making the harsh point that God has given this insight about his identity, and that the temple leaders are, therefore, in enmity with God if they dislike these words.

Pearls before swine

What it means: Know your audience, and be discerning. If a group won't be inclined to value the very good thing you're offering, better to not waste it.

What it alludes to: Matthew 7:6
As part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his listeners: "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces."

Dogs in the Bible are scavenger beasts that do gross things like eat dead bodies; swine/pigs are paralleled here, and likewise "unclean." Similarly, a parallel is being drawn between "what is sacred" and pearls. This verse is part of the section that teaches "do not judge lest you be judged." So it's a counterbalance--don't condemn others, but do be discerning.

Salt of the earth

What it means: A truly good person who embodies loving God and neighbor. A solid citizen who does good and influences others to do the same.

What it alludes to: Matthew 5:13
"You are the salt of the earth," Jesus tells his listeners in this Sermon on the Mount word-picture of being a positive influence. Salt was used in this era to preserve perishable foods (salted meats, pickled vegetables), and as a flavoring. The verse also warns against "losing saltiness"--failing to be a positive force who keeps decay (especially moral decay) at bay.


What it means: An innocent forced to take on someone else's guilt

What it alludes to: Leviticus 16: 20-22
As part of the original rituals of Yom Kippur / Day of Atonement, a live goat ritually had all the sins (deliberate wrongdoing) and trespasses (straying) of the people prayed onto it by the high priest. It was then set loose to wander in the wilderness. It is a picture of evil being removed through substitution--an innocent one carrying another's guilt.

Thorn in the flesh

What it means: Chronic infirmity, annoyance or trouble, especially that cements your sense of limitation and keeps you humble.

What it alludes to: II Corinthians 12:7-9
In his epistles, St. Paul refers a number of times to a problem with his eyesight that hindered his ability to keep up one important part of his church-building enterprise--sending letters to congregations to train and encourage them. He realized it was more than an annoyance--it was teaching him to not become arrogant about his success spreading Christianity. (There are other theories and interpretations of what St. Paul's "thorn" might have been,)

Writing is on the wall / Handwriting on the wall

What it means: Judgement is imminent / the bad ending is obvious

What it alludes to: Daniel 5
Babylonian King Belshazzar threw a big banquet using sacred vessels looted from the temple in Jerusalem. A hand appeared and wrote a cryptic message on the wall: "Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin." No one could figure out what it meant, so the prophet Daniel was brought in, and he told them the specific judgment about to befall this bad king. The very next day, the prophecy came true.

Were these terms familiar to you? Which one(s) surprised you most?


  1. Ooh, great idea for a blog post. I knew all of these, but I'd never actually seen what it meant to gird one's actual loins -- love that diagram!

    1. Thanks, Deniz! It seems that increasingly the culture at large is less and less familiar with the Bible as literature, though it's hard to understand most literary classics without some familiarity. Indeed, it's a great graphic. I'd seen someone use it on Twitter for Motivation Monday and knew I had to share it.

  2. When I was in college (University of California), my professors frequently had to explain these allusions to students because there was very little familiarity with the Bible. And sometimes the allusions are hard to catch because writers are trying to avoid cliche. I remember one lecture where a professor pointed out that a cuckoo clock sounding was an allusion to the cock crowing after Peter denied Christ. That one had totally gone over my head.

    1. It does seem like making allusions of any kind is getting tricker in a globalized world, where any sense of "canon" that everyone ought to know is pretty much going out the window. The more one makes a twist on the original, the tougher it is for the audience to pick it up, so I doubt I'd have seen that allusion either! :-)

  3. I knew all of these, but it was the first time I saw an image of how girding one's loins used to look. :-D

    1. Cool image, isn't it? I think I'd seen something similar in a Sunday school workbook when I was a kid.

  4. I knew these, but it's good to see them again and re-think how I might use them. I remember the first time I saw the girding one's loins picture too and it made so much more sense. As a kid, I pictured something different and . . . unfortunately, worse.