Hyperbole in the Bible

Critics often attack citations in the Bible that use exclusive or hyperbolic language. (I.e., "all", "none", "utterly") In general it is enough to note that such language may be legitimately construed as rhetorical, whether it be in modern times ("Everyone likes chocolate ice cream.") or ancient times ("Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.").

In the second case, and elsewhere, the rhetorical principle of brevity accounts for many such phrases. Emphasis is needed, but to spell out exceptions or to explain that the exclusivity is made for the sake of emphasis would dull the point. Thus exceptions can not be ruled out on the basis of exclusive language, and contradictions cannot be asserted because of it.

Critics may object, but they do so without knowledge of the ancient principles of rhetoric (as expressed by writers like Quintillian) and exaggeration (as is found typically on Ancient Near Eastern war inscriptions and elsewhere; see below). But let us emphasize the difficulty that will result if we ignore the nature and purpose of exclusive language.

The laws of our country speak in exclusive terms. A sign that says "Speed Limit 55" is absolute. It does not specify exceptions such as ambulance drivers or people who have passengers who become deathly sick. Yet no judge would penalize an ambulance driver or other person who dared exempt himself from the absolute language of the law on that sign.

And yet, we see that problems arise when this principle is ignored. Our federal government produces reams of rules in an attempt to cover "exceptions".

Not long ago two heroic laborers rescued a co-worker from death in a situation where prompt action saved the co-worker's life; yet the powers that be in the realm of safety regulation attempted to force the absolute letter of the law, and imposed fines on the rescuers for not putting on safety gear before coming to aid. The public outrage that followed was no surprise: The man on the street recognizes the language of exclusivity for what it is.

The language of exclusion, whether ancient or modern, should be recognized for what it is and not used to create contradiction and difficulty where none exists.

As a further demonstration, let us now consider an ancient example from outside the Bible. First, here is a cite from the Scriptures that is sometimes regarded by critics as problematic:

1 Samuel 15:8 And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.

Critics find it odd that a people here recorded as being "utterly destroyed" come back making trouble just a few chapters later in 1 Samuel. But compare this to an inscription offered by the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses III [taken from Moshe and Trude Dothan, Peoples of the Sea, 27]:

I slew the Denyon in their islands, while the Tjekker and Philistines were made ashes. The Sherden and the Washesh of the sea were made non-existent, captured all together and brought on captivity to Egypt like the sands of the shore.

Cleary when Ramsses tells us his enemies were "made non-existent," he was not meaning this literally, since he goes on to indicate that they were captured. In ancient context, then, such claims as 1 Samuel 15:8 makes are not to be taken literally either. They are no more absolute statements than those of football fans who celebrate a team's win by shouting, "We're #1!" -- even if the team has lost more games than it has won.

Another example cited by critics is Luke 14:26, in which Jesus tells use that we must "hate" others for the sake of the Gospel. Critics want to read this as literal hate; we reply by identifying such sayings as containing a rhetorical emphasis, not referring to literal hate.

And in fact, such rhetorical emphasis typifies ancient and even modern Semitic cultures. G. B. Caird, in The Language and Imagery of the Bible [110ff], notes the frequent use of hyperbole among Semitic peoples, and notes that "its frequent use arises out of a habitual cast of mind" which tends to view matters in extremes, or as we would say, "black and white." The Semitic mindset is dogmatic, and despises doubt; things are either one way or another, and there is no room for introspection. As a result, statements like Luke 14:26 are simply typical of this mindset that encourages extreme forms of expression.

(For more on Luke 14:26, see link 1 below.)

More examples may be found from Rihbany's The Syrian Christ [108ff]. I think this quote from Rihbany is helpful:

A case may be overstated or understated, not necessarily for the purpose of deceiving, but to impress the hearer with the significance or insignificance of it. If a sleeper who has been expected to rise at sunrise should oversleep and need to be awakened, say half an hour or an hour later than the appointed time, he is then aroused with the call, 'Arise, it is noon already...' Of a strong and brave man it is said, 'He can split the earth.' The Syrians suffer from no misunderstanding in such cases. They discern each other's meaning.

Rihbany offers other examples of such sayings from daily life. Here is a welcome he received from an old friend when he came to his home: "You have extremely honored me by coming into my abode. I am not worthy of it. This house is yours; you may burn it if you wish. My children are also at your disposal; I would sacrifice them all for your pleasure."

The Westerner who hears this might well be shocked and offended, but what is being said behind the verbiage is no more than "I am delighted to see you; please make yourself at home." Jesus' pledge of faith moving mountains is of the same order (and Rihbany for one takes Ingersoll mildly to task for reading the passage literally -- noting that we have no evidence that Jesus or his disciples ever took up on such a literal offer).

Pilch and Malina in the Handbook of Biblical Social Values concur [52]. They note that in modern Western society, culture is tied to precision; time is a commodity, and dramatic orientation wastes time by not getting to the point. Unlike in the ancient world, when dramatic speech and eloquence were held in high esteem, "Creativity, imagination, and boasting are activities that waste precious time" and "have no place in a society driven by productivity: machines will tolerate no exaggeration, imprecision, or tardiness."

Critics who therefore accuse the Bible of exaggeration need to realize that they haven't signed on the same semantic contract.

For more on Biblical hyperbole and excessive language, see link 2 below.


  1. here
  2. here