Biblical illiteracy equals cultural illiteracy

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 19, 2005

Some years ago, Tonight Show host Jay Leno surveyed a random selection of everyday folks to find out how well they knew the Bible.

"What was Eve created from?" he asked one woman.

"From an apple?" she hesitantly responded.

"What did Jacob give to Joseph that made his brothers envious?" he asked another.

"A new car?" she wondered.

Or how about this question he posed to a 25-ish fellow: "Who was swallowed by a whale?"

"Moby Dick?" the fellow said.

If you're not sure about the answers to the above yourself, here they are: According to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Eve was made from one of Adam's ribs, and Jacob gave his son Joseph a coat of many colours. And according to the book of the prophet Jonah, it was Jonah himself who was swallowed by a big fish (the Bible doesn't say it was a whale).

Recent polls by Gallup and others indicate a significant drop in familiarity with the Bible.

Yet, how can we ever hope to understand much of our cultural heritage without some knowledge of the book that so singularly has shaped western civilization? Indeed, to be biblically illiterate is to be culturally illiterate.

For example, Aldous Huxley, in The Olive Tree, writes, "There is only one fly in the ointment offered by commercial propagandists; they want your money." It's helpful to know that Huxley is alluding to Ecclesiastes 10:1, "Dead flies make the perfumer's ointment give off a foul odor."

Here are a few more examples of biblical allusions in English literature. Let's do this as a quiz (the answers appear at the end of the column). I'll make this simple. All the examples are from just three of the books of the Bible: Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (collectively referred to as the Hebrew Wisdom Literature). Let me know how you do.

  1. In Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, when Angel Clare carried Tess and her dairymaid friends across the flooded road, Izz said, "There is a time for everything, a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; the first is now going to be mine."

    "Fie – it is Scripture, Lizz!" said Tess.

    "Yes," said Lizz, "I've always a 'ear at church for pretty verses."

    Where is this "pretty verse" originally found?

    1. the words of Bildad in the book of Job
    2. the words of the seductress in Proverbs
    3. a poem in Ecclesiastes
  2. In Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, Aunt Polly says to Tom, who has just pulled a trick on her, "Every time I let him off, my conscience does hurt me so, and every time I hit him my old heart most breaks. Well-a-well, man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble."

    Aunt Polly is borrowing from

    1. Job
    2. Proverbs
    3. Ecclesiastes
  3. In Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I, Fallstaff casts aspersion on Prince Hal's reputation. "An old lord of the Council rated me the other day on the street about you, sir, but I marked him not; and yet he talked very wisely, but I regarded him not; and yet he talked very wisely, and in the street, too."

    Hal replies, "Thou didst well, for wisdom cries out in the streets, and no one regards it."

    The allusion is to a saying in

    1. Job
    2. Proverbs
    3. Ecclesiastes
  4. In Melville's Moby Dick the statement is made: "'All is vanity.' ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of . . . Solomon's wisdom yet."

    The reference is to the characteristic saying of

    1. Job
    2. Proverbs
    3. Ecclesiastes
  5. Thoreau, in Walden, comments: "Some are dinning in our ears that we . . . moderns . . . are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? A living dog is better than a dead lion."

    Thoreau is quoting from

    1. Job
    2. Proverbs
    3. Ecclesiastes
  6. Our last reference isn't from true literature, but rather from several Web sites, which seem to be taking on a literary life of their own these days: "What the Internet giveth, it may now taketh away." (Grammatical purists, take note!)

    The allusion is to a statement in

    1. Job
    2. Proverbs
    3. Ecclesiastes

Click here for the answers.


© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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