The Bible’s Figurative Use of Body Parts
IN OUR everyday speech we often use bodily parts in a figurative sense. For instance, we might say: “He risked his neck for him.” “He is my own bone and flesh.” “She was only tickling their ears.”
Such expressions add color to speech, often making it more vivid and alive. It tends to fix the idea better in the listener’s mind. How appropriate, therefore, that God’s Word the Bible should frequently use body parts in a figurative sense! In fact, in some form, each of the above expressions is used in the Bible.
For example, the apostle Paul asked that greetings be given to his fellow Christians Prisca and Aquila, “who have risked their own necks [their lives] for my soul.” (Rom. 16:4) Laban said of Jacob: “You are indeed my bone and my flesh,” meaning that they were relatives, Jacob being Laban’s nephew. (Gen. 29:14; 2 Sam. 5:1) And Paul wrote of persons who would “accumulate teachers for themselves to have their ears tickled.” In other words, they would acquire teachers that would say only what the people desired to hear.—2 Tim. 4:3.
DESTRUCTION AND PROTECTION
Since the neck is a vital as well as a vulnerable part of the human organism, it is frequently associated in the Scriptures with the destruction of life by the conquest of an enemy. Jacob’s deathbed blessing upon his son Judah included this: “Your hand will be on the back of the neck of your enemies,” or, in other words, God will give your enemies into your hand. (Gen. 49:8) Similarly, David praised Jehovah in song as the One who “will certainly give me the back of [my enemies’] neck.” (2 Sam. 22:41; Ps. 18:40) In God’s prophecy regarding the coming Assyrian aggression against Judah, he indicated it would become nearly overwhelming, saying: “Up to the neck he will reach.”—Isa. 8:8; 30:28.
Thus, it was also the ancient custom to place one’s feet upon the neck of a conquered foe. On monuments of Egypt and Assyria, monarchs are frequently represented in battle scenes as treading on the necks of their enemies. This, too, was a Hebrew practice, Judge Joshua instructing his commanders: “Come forward. Place your feet on the back of the necks of these kings.”—Josh. 10:24.
The removing of the hair and beard also were used to signify impending destruction. Why so? No doubt because these were viewed as prized possessions among ancient peoples of the East. The beard was considered an evidence of manly dignity by the Israelites. (1 Chron. 19:5) Thus, David’s strategy of neglecting his beard, allowing spittle to run down upon it, no doubt helped to convince King Achish that he was insane. (1 Sam. 21:13) It was generally only during extreme sorrow, shame or humiliation that the beard was mutilated or removed.—Ezra 9:3; Isa. 15:2; Jer. 41:5; 48:37.
With this background, the pronouncement regarding the conquests by Assyria is better understood: “In that day, by means of a hired razor in the region of the River, even by means of the king of Assyria, Jehovah will shave the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away even the beard itself.” (Isa. 7:20) Assyria was going to invade and conquer. And this Assyria did; only God’s miracle of striking down 185,000 of Sennacherib’s warriors prevented the capital city of Jerusalem from being destroyed by the Assyrian aggressors.—Isa. 37:33-38.
Jehovah God also had the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians vividly illustrated, instructing Ezekiel: “Take for yourself a sharp sword. As a barbers’ razor you will take it for yourself, and you must make it pass along upon your head and upon your beard, and you must take for yourself weighing scales and divide the hair” into three equal portions. (Ezek. 5:1, 2) The burning, striking and scattering of the three portions of hair represented that a third of the inhabitants would perish by famine and pestilence, a third were to die by the sword and the final third would be scattered to the wind.—Ezek. 5:12.
On the other hand, keeping one’s hair, or not allowing it to perish, is used in figure of speech to indicate complete safety or assured protection. The people said of beloved Jonathan, Whose life was threatened: “As Jehovah is alive, not as much as a single hair of his head will fall to the earth.” (1 Sam. 14:45) And Jesus said to his disciples: “Not a hair of your heads will by any means perish.”—Luke 21:18; 1 Ki. 1:52.
FIGURATIVE USE OF HIPS AND LOINS
The loose and flowing style of dress common among peoples in Bible times apparently required the gathering up of the skirts, drawing them forward between the legs and tucking them in the belt around the hips before engaging in vigorous activity such as running. The statement is made regarding the prophet Elijah: “He girded up his hips and went running ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.” (1 Ki. 18:46) In preparation for the long, hard run Elijah no doubt gathered up his skirts close to his hips. Understandably, therefore, the expressions “gird up your hips” and “gird up your loins” were used to signify preparation for vigorous activity.
The Israelites, in preparation for leaving Egypt, were to eat with “hips girded.” (Ex. 12:11) They were to be prepared to move on a moment’s notice. Similarly, when sending his servant Gehazi on an important mission, Elisha said to him: “Gird up your loins and take my staff in your hand and go.” (2 Ki. 4:29; 9:1) And in commissioning his fearful servant Jeremiah, God said: “You should gird up your hips, and you must rise up and speak to them everything that I myself command you.” (Jer. 1:17) Jeremiah was encouraged to acquire strength and prepare for vigorous activity in God’s service.
A person has strong muscles in the hips or loins. When these muscles are tensed, or braced up, there is tremendous potential power. The Bible proverb speaks of the capable wife as girding “her hips with strength.” (Prov. 31:17) In symbol, therefore, the prophet Nahum tells those who were about to experience an invasion: “Let there be a safeguarding of the fortified place. Watch the way. Strengthen the hips. Reinforce power very much.” (Nah. 2:1) Here hips are used figuratively in connection with strength or power.
This is also the case in Jehovah’s prophecy regarding the Persian conqueror Cyrus, in which God says: His “right hand I have taken hold of, to subdue before him nations, so that I may ungird even the hips of kings.” (Isa. 45:1) This expression means that God would take away the strength or power of these kings, so that Cyrus would be victorious. Those who have had their power removed and are in a weakened condition are therefore said to have wobbling or shaking hips.—Ps. 69:23; Ezek. 21:6; 29:7.
Interestingly, the expression “gird up the loins of your mind” is used by the apostle Peter. However, to make the sense of the expression clear to the modern reader, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures renders the expression: “Hence brace up your minds for activity.”—1 Pet. 1:13.
BOSOM AND INTESTINES
Other parts of the human body also came to be associated with particular qualities and emotions. For example, it was the custom, and still is today, to hold a dearly beloved or cherished one close to one’s bosom or breast. (Ruth 4:16; Song of Sol. 1:13) That place, therefore, came to signify favor or intimacy. Thus, when Jesus is spoken of as in the bosom position with the Father, and Lazarus as in the bosom position with Abraham, it means that they are in a favored position. (John 1:18; Luke 16:22, 23) Also, when God is said to carry his lambs in his bosom, it indicates that he cherishes and tenderly cares for them.—Isa. 40:11.
Consistently, therefore, the expression is used in the Bible, “the wife of thy bosom.” It is so rendered in many Bible translations, including the King James and American Standard versions. (Deut. 13:6; 28:54, 56) However, for clarity of understanding, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures at Deuteronomy 13:6 says: “Your cherished wife.”
In both the ancient Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures deep feelings and emotions were associated with the intestines or bowels. It was undoubtedly observed that the feeling of deep emotions caused abdominal distress, or at least stirrings in this region of the body. The bad tidings concerning the coming calamity upon Israel caused Jeremiah to exclaim: “My intestines, my intestines! I am in severe pains in the walls of my heart.” (Jer. 4:19) Later, at Jerusalem’s destruction, the great sorrow that Jeremiah felt caused painful commotion within, causing him to lament: “My very intestines are in a ferment.”—Lam. 1:20; 2:11.
That feelings of compassion or pity also affect the intestines is indicated by God’s expression as he contemplated the condition of the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel, represented by Ephraim: “That is why my intestines have become boisterous for him. By all means I shall have pity upon him.”—Jer. 31:20; Isa. 63:15; 1 Ki. 3:26.
In the Christian Greek Scriptures the Greek word for intestines or bowels is splagkhnon, and, while used literally (Acts 1:18), it is much more often used in a figurative sense, representing compassion or affection. Therefore, for clarity of understanding, instead of rendering the word “bowels” or “intestines” in such places, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures translates it “tender affections” or “tender compassions,” as at Philippians 2:1 and; 1 John 3:17.—Col. 3:12.
Really, it is amazing how often in the Scriptures body parts are used in a figurative sense. While this adds color and vividness to accounts, Bible translations that show the significance of the words are very helpful, particularly when the figurative use of the expression is not common in the language into which the translation is made.