Hyperbole. So I don’t have to explain it a billion times.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 September

You saw what I did there, right?

Hyperbole /haɪ'pər.bə.li/ n. Deliberate exaggeration: A claim not meant to be taken literally.
[Hyperbolic /haɪ.pər'bɑl.ək/ adj.]

You may not be so familiar with this word, but you’ve seen examples of it all your life. And that’s not hyperbole.

Humans use hyperbolic language to get attention. You might not think much of the statement, “I had to clean a lot of dishes.” You pay a little more attention to, “I had to clean a truckload of dishes.” The exaggerated image gets attention. May even inspire a mental image of a literal truckload of dishes. May even strike us as funny, horrifying, sad, irritating; like most acts of creativity, it runs the risk of pushing the wrong buttons.

Of course some hyperboles are so overused, they get no reaction anymore. They’ve become clichés. “I worked my fingers to the bone” probably horrified someone the first time they heard it—“No, really? Ewww”—but nobody bothers to flinch at it anymore. Not even if people claim, “I literally worked my fingers to the bone.” Usually no they didn’t.

Humans have always used hyperbolic language. Nope, that’s not a hyperbole either: We really have. We find it in every culture. We find it in the bible. Even God used it.

Amos 2.9 KWL
“I destroyed the Amorite before their very eyes,
whose height was like that of cedars, strong like oaks.
I destroyed their fruit above, and root below.”

So, do you imagine the Amorites were literally as tall as cedar trees? After all, God said so. And surely God doesn’t lie

See, that’s the problem with hyperbole and biblical interpretation. Too many people take the scriptures literally. They figure if God’s word is nothing but truth, Jn 17.17 the scriptures oughta be absolutely valid in every instance, and contain no exaggerations whatsoever. ’Cause liars exaggerate, but God’s no liar. Tt 1.2 And if these two ideas (“liars exaggerate” and “God’s no liar”) are equivalent, it logically follows God doesn’t exaggerate. Ever.

Neither does Jesus.

Luke 14.26 KWL
“If anyone comes to me yet won’t ‘hate’ their father, mother, woman, children, brothers, and sisters,
or even their own soul, they can’t be my student.”

See, I put “hate” in quotes, ’cause Jesus doesn’t literally mean hate; middle easterners used that word when they spoke about things which took lower priority. Top priority was “loved.” Lower priorities might’ve also been loved, but in comparison to that top priority, they weren’t loved as much; so “hated.”

This is one of those examples, like “working my fingers to the bone,” where the exaggeration is such a cliché, middle easterners thought nothing of it. Problem is, our culture doesn’t. To literalists—particularly members of cults—this means they’re to cut themselves off from their families entirely. Divorce spouses, abandon children, have nothing more to do with anyone from their past. Don’t honor parents; Ex 20.12 hate them. In so doing, the cult can gain greater control over their followers.

This is why I had to add quotes. The NLT went with, “You must hate everyone else by comparison.” Lk 14.26 NLT That works too.

Not everything is hyperbole.

On the other side of the coin, we have skeptics who treat everything in the bible as hyperbole. Particularly the stuff they don’t have any faith in.

Fr’instance, when Jesus tells us—

John 14.13-14 KWL
13 “You can ask whatever in my name. I’ll do it so, in the Son, the Father can be thought well of.
14 When what you ask me is in my name, I’ll do it.”

—well, they just don’t believe that’s true.

In their experience, Jesus doesn’t do whatever we ask for. Not just because they know he’s not a magic genie; they’ve tried asking for stuff, and didn’t get it. They’re pretty sure they weren’t asking for inappropriate stuff; Jm 4.3 we’re not talking about a 4-year-old wishing for a pony, or a 40-year-old wishing for his hair to grow back. They asked for the sick to be well, or for a bad situation to be resolved, and things didn’t work out like they expected, so they no longer figure prayer works.

So why’d Jesus say otherwise? Well (unless they’re nontheist) they don’t wanna straight-up call Jesus delusional or a liar. So they’ll figure he was exaggerating. He said that to encourage his followers. But he didn’t really mean it. Or, if they’re cessationist, they figure he only meant it for the next 70 years till he turned the miracles off.

For such people, the bible is full of hyperbole. Their litmus test? Their own credulity. If they believe it, it’s valid; if not, it’s hyperbole. Jesus is God incarnate? If they don’t buy it, it’s hyperbole. Jesus was resurrected? If they figure it can’t be a literal resurrection, it’s gotta be hyperbole. Jesus is returning? If they don’t believe he ever will, it’s hyperbole. Basically we can go through the creed, and these folks will throw out every core belief as hyperbole. Yet still call themselves Christian, ’cause they like Christianity, though they believe none of it.

Yeesh. But before you get too hard on them, bear in mind most Christians do precisely the same thing. It’s just the devout ones believe more of the scriptures than the mostly-pagan ones. And probably take more of the scriptures literal than they oughta, but I’m getting to that.

No, we don’t interpret things as hyperbole based on our own doubts. That’s the fastest way to develop a faithless form of Christianity which believes nothing and therefore does nothing. Plenty enough of those as it is.

How to identify hyperbole.

So how do we tell when a scripture is hyperbolic? Relax; it’s not that difficult.

Make exceptions for miracles. First of all, we follow a God who can make the impossible possible. Lk 18.27 So when we read about God doing the impossible, it’s not an appropriate place to claim, “That’s just hyperbole.” We don’t know that it’s just hyperbole. ’Cause if God wanted, he could totally pull it off.

So when Joshua ordered the sun and moon to stand still—

Joshua 10.12-13 KWL
12 Then Joshua spoke with the LORD
on the day the LORD gave over the Amorites in Israel’s descendants’ presence.
Joshua said before Israel’s eyes: “Sun, stop at Giveón. Moon, at Ayyalón Valley.”
13 The sun stopped and the moon stood till the nation took vengeance on their enemies.
Isn’t this written in Yašár’s scroll?—
“The sun stood halfway in heaven and didn’t try to set for a full day.”

—yeah it’s hard to imagine, because if the earth literally stopped spinning, you’d expect massive earthquakes or something. My favorite explanation is to say God stopped time, or at least slowed it down a lot.

But don’t hold me to that. And don’t make the same mistake young-earth creationists regularly do, and insist you have an explanation for how God did it, and it’s the only valid explanation a bible-believing Christian can accept. Too many such Christians claim they’re doing so in faith, but really they’re trying to swap a shaky faith in the text, for a more solid faith in their explanations… and hope nobody ever notices the switcheroo.

The text said God did it. Doesn’t say how. We can agree to disagree about how. We can even agree to disagree about how much hyperbole is involved in the explanation. The important thing is to accept God did something, and if he didn’t do it as literally as the text puts it, he at least has the power to do it literally.

Moving right along.

Miracles aside, it’s not reasonable to take it literally. When Joshua had the sun and moon hold still, he really did expect ’em to do so. Now, when Jesus told his students they could shove around mountains—

Matthew 17.19-20 KWL
19 Hence the students, coming to Jesus when they were alone, said, “Why weren’t we able to throw it out?”
20 Jesus told them, “Because of your inadequate faith.
Amen, I promise you when you’ve faith like a grain of mustard,
you’ll tell this hill, ‘Move here to there,’ and it’ll move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

—he didn’t expect them to try it just then. Or ever. God’s kinda happy with where he already placed his hills.

The point of this lesson wasn’t to get Christians involved with massive earthmoving excavations. It’s to memorably teach us nothing is beyond God’s ability, and we shouldn’t hesitate to ask him for big stuff. It wasn’t to literally move mountains.

Hence Jesus’s statement is hyperbole, and Joshua’s wasn’t.

Another example. When David said he could do the following—

Psalm 18.29 KWL
For with you, I outrun a troop; I hurdle walls with my God’s might.

—yeah, he could of course be supernaturally empowered to do those things. But we’ve no record of David literally outrunning armies, nor clearing one of those 30-foot walls which surrounded the average ancient city.

Not that he needed to; not that this was what his psalm was about. David was writing about God’s greatness. He wasn’t recalling some mighty act, nor prophesying any future mighty act. He was writing about what he could do, with God’s aid. Is it exaggeration? A bit. So it’s hyperbole.

When Jesus said the Pharisees swallowed camels, Mt 23.24 again, he wasn’t talking about them literally doing that. (Since camels aren’t ritually clean, it’s not like a Pharisee would ever knowingly eat camel.) Likewise when the Pharisees griped the entire world was following Jesus, Jn 12.19 they weren’t speaking prophetically. (Don’t we wish.)

Remember, just because God can turn every hyperbole into reality doesn’t mean he will, or even plans to. We do the bible great violence when we act like every impossible statement is a future act of God. They are not. And good thing for the Pharisees, ’cause swallowing a camel entire would make you explode.

When it’s possible—but don’t do that! Remember when Jesus said it’s better to gouge out an eye, or lop off a hand, than sin?

Mark 9.43-48 KWL
43 “When your hand trips you up, amputate it. It’s better for you to enter life crippled
than have two hands and go into ge-Henna, into the endless fire.
45 When your foot trips you up, amputate it. It’s better for you to enter life limping
than have two feet and be thrown into ge-Henna.
47 When your eye trips you up, toss it. It’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom one-eyed
than have two eyes and be thrown into ge-Henna.
48 Where their worm doesn’t stop and the fire doesn’t end.”

This does not mean Jesus expects us to literally blind ourselves, or start sawing off limbs. This is obvious hyperbole. Which most Christians are sane enough to realize, and not just because we don’t care to dismember ourselves.

But from time to time throughout history, some fool has thought, “If I’m really Jesus’s follower, I need to start taking him seriously,” and starts hacking away. That’s not taking him seriously. Just the opposite. Taking him seriously means to find out what he means by his teachings, rather than blindly (pun intended) take ’em at face value.

When it violates scripture, or God’s character. Yep, sometimes God’ll say something which violates his own commands. No fooling.

Ezekiel 4.12-15 KWL
12 “You’ll eat barley hardtack, baked in front of them over human turds.”
13 The LORD said, “Likewise Israel’s sons will eat unclean bread in the nations I expel them to.”
14 I said, “Aee, my master LORD! Look, my soul isn’t unclean!
I never ate something found dead, nor roadkill, from childhood to now!
Such disgusting meat never went into my mouth!”
15 The LORD told me, “Look, I’ll let you use cowflop instead of human turds.
Make your bread over them.”

God wanted Ezekiel to bake and eat “Ezekiel bread” as a prophetic demonstration, and just to horrify the viewers, God ordered him to cook it over turds. Probably his own turds. Which Ezekiel immediately objected to, ’cause that’s ritually unclean. Dt 23.12-14 Plus it’s super nasty.

God’s response? Fine; cow turds then. Still nasty, but not ritually unclean. Plus now Ezekiel could tell his listeners, “You think that’s disgusting; you should hear what the LORD originally wanted me to do.” (Relax: I’m pretty sure the folks who sell “Ezekiel bread” nowadays have skipped that part of the recipe.)

See, from time to time the scriptures show God acting out of character. he won’t appear as loving, patient, kind, or gentle as he is. And the reason he does that is to get our attention. He’s being outrageous because he’s testing to see whether we’ve paid attention to the scriptures, or are listening to him now.

Various folks have passed these tests with flying colors. Moses objected when God talked about how Israel worked his last nerve, and now he was gonna kill ’em. Ex 32.9-14 The Syrian Greek woman ignored when Jesus basically called her a dog. Mk 7.24-29 Simon Peter refused to kill and eat unclean animals in a vision. Ac 10.11-16

Literalists, in comparison, don’t pass these tests at all. They claim God always behaves in character, even when he’s deliberately being outrageous. They use it to justify their own outrageous behaviors.

“What if I misidentified a passage as hyperbole?”

I already brought up those folks who claim everything’s hyperbole—mainly so they can ignore the scriptures, and believe and do as they want.

Understandably, some Christians are kinda nervous lest we fall into doing the same thing. So they’re hesitant about interpreting any passage as hyperbole: Just to be on the safe side, act as if God’s being entirely literal! It’s not very wise of them, but to be fair, we’re seldom talking about mature Christians here.

In my experience, if we interpret a passage as hyperbole when God really means it, the Holy Spirit is really gonna bug us about it. If he meant it, he’s not gonna let us get away with treating it as if he didn’t. Like an annoying song you can’t seem to get out of your head, it’s gonna come up over and over and over till we take it seriously. We’re gonna run into circumstances where, annoyingly enough, that scripture literally applies. The Spirit’ll show us he wasn’t exaggerating. He’ll be kind about it, but he’ll be relentless too.

Plus—same as every interpretation of the scriptures, double-check it with other Christians. Do they think it’s literal, or hyperbole? And pay close attention to those Christians’ fruit. There are a lot of bible commentators who, when you look at their personal lives, are really fruitless individuals. Mt 7.15-20 Impatient, ungracious, inconsistent, shady… They bend the parts not meant to bend, and build on the parts meant to be flexible. Their lives demonstrate they’re not following the Holy Spirit, so of course they’re not interpreting his bible correctly.

Consider what’d happen if we did take a possibly-hyperbolic passage literally. Would our behavior better reflect God’s goodness and grace? Or would we simply look ridiculous for no good reason? Would it do God’s kingdom any long-term good if we cut off a finger every time we sinned? Or would we be just another sinning amputee?

Either way, take the hyperboles seriously. Yeah, people exaggerated. Now, why’d they exaggerate? What’s the greater point they wanted to make? Figure it out, then follow that.