One of the interesting things that happens in our desire for and understanding of Scripture is that we THINK we want a literal translation of the Bible … only to find that this is NOT always possible …. nor is it always desirable … especially in the case of idioms.
Idiom is defined as
1. an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements, as kick the bucket or hang one's head, or from the general grammatical rules of a language, as the table round for the round table, and that is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics.
2. a language, dialect, or style of speaking peculiar to a people.
3. a construction or expression of one language whose parts correspond to elements in another language but whose total structure or meaning is not matched in the same way in the second language.
4. the peculiar character or genius of a language.1
What this means is that a “word-for-word” translation may (and probably WILL) yield something other than the desired result AND the true meaning.
A great example of this is found in Exodus 34:6 where God reveals characteristics of Himself to Moses.
Read verses 4-7:
So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the LORD had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.
Keep in mind that this passage is God revealing something about Himself.
In verse 6, God literally says of Himself that He is “long of nose.” This idiomatic expression usually gets translated as “slow to anger.” Other versions translated it as “patient” or “longsuffering.”
Yet, in the Hebrew, this expression, (erek appayim), literally means “long of nose” but is an idiom used to refer to someone who is patient and slow to anger.
Proverbs 14:29 uses the same phrase, “A patient man has great understanding…” yet a few verses earlier, in 14:17, the converse of that phrase is used, “A quick-tempered man does foolish things..” stating in the Hebrew that this person is short of nose.
Before we become too amused with these word pictures, we might want to think for a minute that we, in the common vernacular, would refer to this latter type person today as “hot-headed” or as having a “sort fuse.”
The bottom line of the initial funny sounding idiom is this, because God is patient and slow to anger, He has made a way wherein His people do not have to perish. Because God’s “nose is long,” humankind is not treated as it deserves to be treated.
2 Peter 3:15 reminds us, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation…”
The Psalmist David spoke it another way in Psalm 103:8-10-
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”
Perhaps we should remember another idiom, but should do so in light of the Scripture, “God is not fair!”
No God is not fair; instead, He is long- nosed, meaning He is patient, He is long-suffering, and He is slow to anger. Because He is long-nosed, we can experience relationship with Him and eternal life.
… And too, we might be careful in wanting a literal translation … or it least as close to being literal as possible. We might end up finding us missing the true meaning of a passage in our search for literality.
1. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/idiom accessed 01/25/2011