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Biblical references in modern English idioms

A surprising number of idioms in common use in English originate in the Bible. In many cases people do not realise that they are quoting the Bible when they use them, and the use of such phrases does not necessarily mean that the speaker is making a religious reference.

There are a number of English translations of the Bible. These references are not all from the same version.

Old Testament

By the sweat of your brow
By hard physical work
Genesis 3:19

East of Eden
The Land of Nod to which Cain fled after murdering Abel. Also the title of a novel by John Steinbeck
Genesis 4:16 and 1 Samuel 13:14

He sold his birthright for a mess of pottage
Genesis 25:31-34

Stranger in a strange land
Exodus 2:21-22

Flesh pots
In the Bible these are pots for cooking meat but now means places of sexual excess
Exodus 16:3

Scapegoat
Leviticus 16:9-10

Eye for eye, tooth for tooth
Leviticus 24:20

Apple of his eye
A favourite, much-loved person
Deuteronomy 32:10 and Zechariah 2:8

A man after his own heart
Someone with the same values and attitudes
1 Samuel 13:14

I'll pin him to the wall
1 Samuel 18:10-11

You don't know the half of it
When the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon.
Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard
1 Kings 10:7

New Testament

The salt of the earth
Genuine true, honest people
Matthew 5:13

Turn the other cheek
Do not seek revenge.
Matthew 5:39 and Luke 6:29

Going the extra mile
Matthew 5:41

The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing
This is used to refer to lack of co-ordination in an organisation. It originates in
But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
Matthew 6:3:

No man can serve two masters
Ye cannot serve God and mammon
Matthew 6:24

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the
beam that is in thine own eye?

Matthew 7:3

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
Matthew 7:7

Straight and narrow
A course of honest and moral behaviour
Matthew 7:14

The full selection of biblical quotations is available to registered users of DIPLOTAXIS.