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“A House Divided Against Itself”
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells an impudent crowd, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” However, the phrase didn’t enter the modern lexicon until it was quoted by Abraham Lincoln in his famous nomination acceptance speech of 1858. Addressing the contentious issue of slavery in the United States, he told an audience of Republican politicians that “a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” (Read these timeless Abraham Lincoln quotes.)
“Escape By the Skin of One’s Teeth”
This is one of the many proverbs that owe their origin to the colorful language of the Book of Job. The tormented hero Job is complaining about his woes. He has become, he says, so emaciated that “my bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” The proverbial meaning is that he has missed death by a tiny margin—as narrow as the (nonexistent) skin on a person’s teeth. But biblical scholars have argued endlessly about what the phrase originally signified. Some argue for a more literal interpretation: Afflicted with sores from head to toe, Job is left with only the thin porcelain “skin” of his teeth unblemished.
“Gird One’s Loins”
Two archaic words come together in this phrase. Gird, from the Old English gyrdan, means to put a belt (or girdle) around something. Loins, from the Latin lumbus, originally described the flanks of an animal and, from the fourteenth century, those parts of the human body that, as medieval writers primly put it, “should be covered.” In biblical times, when long robes were still in fashion, anyone embarking on strenuous physical activity or going into battle ran a serious risk of tripping on a trailing hem and falling flat on his or her face. The solution? To tuck one’s robe into one’s belt and get ready for action (i.e., to gird one’s loins).
The behemoth is a mysterious animal mentioned in the Book of Job. With bones “like bars of iron” and a tail “like a cedar,” this mighty beast was said to be able to suck the whole river Jordan into its mouth. Biblical scholars have long debated whether the behemoth is a mythical creature or just an exaggerated description of an ordinary animal (the most popular candidate is a hippopotamus). Whatever the original “behemoth” may have been, the name has become a metaphor for anything that reaches spectacular size.
The Book of Leviticus describes the proper ceremonies to be observed on the Jewish Day of Atonement, when the land of Israel would be ritually cleansed of its sins. The procedure was that one goat would be offered to God as a sacrifice, while the other—the “scapegoat”—would be symbolically loaded with all the misdeeds of the nation before being driven into the wilderness. This ceremony was said to have been carried out since the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.
“The Ends of the Earth”
Like most other ancient cultures, the ancient Israelites thought it obvious that since the earth was flat, it must have limits. “The ends of the earth” therefore appears repeatedly in the Old Testament as a way to describe the farthest reaches of the then-known world. When, in the Book of Job, God is said to “directeth … his lightning unto the ends of the earth,” it’s just a poetic way of saying that God is in charge everywhere.