8 phrases that come from Exodus
The film Exodus, directed by Ridley Scott and released this month, is part of a continuing trend of depicting the Bible on screen. Noah was released earlier in 2014, and Christian scripture has long provided material for the silver screen – from The Passion of the Christ and The Ten Commandments to (more tangentially) Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
In 2013, we quizzed your knowledge of Scripture (and Shakespeare) by seeing if you could identify which everyday expressions came from the Bible and which from the Bard. The Book of Exodus (the second in the Old Testament, after Genesis) is a fruitful linguistic source all by itself – so let’s take a look at terms and phrases found in English translations of Exodus.
While the earliest known examples of Exodus in English have a capitalized initial letter and refer to Christian and Jewish Scripture, the word comes from the Greek exodus, from ex- ‘out of’ + hodos ‘way’. This refers to the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, led by Moses, and is also applied more widely (as exodus) to any mass departure of people.
Bricks without straw
Before the Israelites were led out of Egypt, one of their mistreatments (while in slavery) was being forced to make bricks without straw (Exodus 5). This has led to the proverb ‘you can’t make bricks without straw’ – meaning that nothing can be accomplished without proper or adequate material or information. This is actually based on a misinterpretation of the chapter, wherein Pharaoh commands the Israelites to gather their own straw, rather than to make bricks without using any.
Manna from Heaven
After the Israelites left Egypt, they wandered in the desert for forty years. During this period, Exodus 16 states, food was miraculously provided each day. In verse 4, God tells Moses ‘“I will rain down bread from heaven for you”’, and (v.31) ‘The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.’ Subsequently, manna has taken on the figurative meaning of spiritual nourishment or ‘something beneficial that appears or is provided unexpectedly or opportunely’, whether tangible or abstract.
The Israelites weren’t just in the desert for a wander – they were headed for the Promised Land. This was the land of Canaan, promised to Abraham and his descendants in Genesis 12:7 and elsewhere, and eventually occupied by the Israelites. As with manna, promised land has taken on the more general meaning of ‘a place or situation in which someone expects to find great happiness’; for example, ‘Italy is the promised land for any musician’. Less commonly, the same use is given to land of milk and honey (as the Promised Land is prophesied as being a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ when Moses sees the burning bush).
The Israelites were distracted from their plan. Aaron made an image of gold in the shape of a calf, in response to Israelites’ plea for a god while they awaited Moses’ return from Mount Sinai, where he was receiving the Ten Commandments. Subsequently, golden calf has come to have the broader meaning ‘an unworthy or inappropriate object of worship, typically wealth’.
Which brings us onto the bush in question! Before Moses led the Exodus, Exodus 3 tells of how God spoke to him through a bush that was on fire (‘Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight – why the bush does not burn up.”’). This event is commonly known as ‘Moses and the burning bush’, and the term burning bush has subsequently been adopted for various shrubs or trees with bright red leaves or fruits, and plants including the gas plant and the North American spindles of the genus Euonymus such as the wahoo.
Moses’ early days also contributed to the English that we use today. The Pharaoh had ordered that every Hebrew boy should be killed at birth; to avoid this fate, Moses’ mother hid him in the bulrushes in a ‘papyrus basket’ (Exodus 2:3). The legacy of this makeshift cot is the term Moses basket, denoting ‘a carrycot or small portable cot made of wickerwork’.
The Jewish festival of Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, is observed in the spring, from the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nisan for either seven or eight days. The term ‘passover’ comes from the story of the ten plagues God sent upon Egyptians in order to secure the release of the Israelites. The final plague was the death of each Egyptian firstborn; Jewish households were instructed by God to mark their doorposts with the blood of a lamb: ‘the blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.’