Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Beware the Evil Eye

Remember Gilligan’s Island? Growing up, I spent many yours watching re-runs of that classic (and very silly) sitcom. In spite of it's obvious silliness the show included allusions to Shakespeare, Melville, and Becket. Gilligan’s Island also explored many popular American idioms. Gilligan, the knave character, regularly took idiomatic expressions quite literally, to the amusement of generations of Americans.

Idioms are fruitful sources of humor. My wife has told me about her childhood affection for Amelia Bedelia, a children’s book character who made the same sort of jokes as Gilligan (taking idioms in a wooden literal sense). Not only do idioms provide us with fuel for comedy, they add color to our linguistic worlds. Phrases like: 

“Break a leg”

“Chew the fat”

“Face the music”

“On the ball”

“Let the cat out of the bag”

“Sleep tight”

“Toe the line”

Idioms provide variety, beauty, and clarity. At least, that is, until they don’t.

Idioms make sense when they’re born. Eventually they become so embedded in a language that they die. They lose their poignancy. If I tell you that I’m “under the weather” I suspect that you’ll not think of weather at all. You’ll not even notice the idiom. I might as well have simply said “I’m sick.” And so, new idioms are constantly being born to replace geriatric and deceased idioms. But what happens to the old idioms? Eventually, they fall out of circulation and then cease to communicate.

Take, for instance, the expression “swimmingly.” I think the original idea was that events were transpiring in a way that could be likened to swimming – smoothly, like through water. Only a couple of weeks ago I learned that the term (which until then was a regular part of my vocabulary) is basically obsolete. People no longer know what it means.

The Bible, being as ancient as it is, contains many obsolete idioms. We don’t understand them. And sometimes we don’t even recognize their presence. We’re a bit like Gilligan or Amelia Bedelia – taking things quite literally.

One example of an idiom we miss is the “evil eye” Jesus spoke of in Matthew 6:23.

"The lamp of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. "But if your eye is bad [or evil], your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Mat 6:22-23)

The verses immediately preceding teach the importance of laying up treasure in heaven rather than on earth. And the verse immediately following these verses warns against attempts at dividing ones loyalty between God and mammon (an Aramaic word for riches, here personified as a false God). So the context certainly leads us to expect that these two verses (22-23) relate to riches.

An old Hebrew idiom is hidden in this text. “The evil eye” was a way of referring to the sin of greed (Prov 28:22; 23:6; Mat 20:15; Mark 7:22 – visible in KJV). So it may be that the “clear” or “single” eye of verse 22 actually refers to generosity. And “the evil eye” of verse 23 refers to contrasting stinginess.

There remains some question about the “good” eye. It could refer to a singular focus on discipleship. It could also refer to generosity. However, there seems to be some consensus about “the evil eye” of verse 23 – it is a warning against greed.

“Clueing in” (or “catching on”) to this sort of ancient foreign idiom can be difficult. Some translators leave them be in all their befuddling glory while others attempt to adapt them so that their intended meaning will not be lost on the contemporary audience. Yet none of the translations I regularly use (KJV, NAS, NET, NIV, NAB, NKJ, ESV, NLT, NRS, RSV, YLT) gave any indication that covetousness might be in view in verse 23. This is a good example of why good bible commentaries are a valuable tool for Christian disciples.

Perhaps we’d better “hit the books.”

Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament
Carson, “Matthew” Expositor’s Bible Commentary
Hagner, “Matthew” Word Biblical Commentary