Knowing Biblical Metaphors

Listening to Sissy Spacek read aloud what little Scout Finch asks, I’m struck by the biblical metaphors throughout.  Here’s another from Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird:

“… what’s rape, Cal?”

“It’s somethin’ you’ll have to ask Mr. [Atticus] Finch about,” she said.  “He can explain it better than I can.  You all hungry?  The Reverend took a long time unwindin’ this morning, he’s not usually so tedius.”

“He’s just like our [white] preacher,” said Jem [Finch], “but why do you all [in the black church] sing hymns that way?” ….

“What’s rape?” I asked him that night.  [Scout asks her daddy as Calpurnia her nanny suggested she should].

….  He sighed, and said rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.

“Well if that’s all it is why did Calpurnia dry me up when I asked her what it was?”


2 responses to “Knowing Biblical Metaphors

  1. “carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent” is a phrase from the English common law. You’ll find it in Blackstone’s Commentaries, from the mid-1700s, at Further back, it’s in William Hawkins’s Pleas of the Crown (1716) with citations to Edward Coke’s Institutes.

    Carnal knowledge is most likely a translation of a Latin phrase, and those same Latin words were used to translate Greek words like “sarx” in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It may be a Biblical allusion, but it’s most likely filtered through American law, English common law, Justinian’s civil law, and Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the New Testament.

    • Thanks, and welcome Nathan. You’ve definitely done good homework on the legal etymologies. Seems Harper Lee did too. Still, it appears she knew this is (what Wayne Leman at Better Bibles Blog calls) “biblish.” It may be Latinized, which may be Hellenized from Paul’s writings to the Romans, but it seems even this likely stems from what Robert Alter calls “a certain Hebraic coloration.”

      Oxford English Dictionary has this to show it’s been around in English for quite some time: “c1450 Merlin i. 17 That myght haue childe with-owte carnall knowynge of man.”

      And Robert Alter, in his Five Books of Moses (page xxxvi) has this:

      In Genesis, three different [Hebrew] terms [for having sex] occur [with the following English literal senses]: “to know,” “to lie with,” and “to come into.” “To know,” with one striking antithetical exception, indicates sexual possession by a man of his legitimate spouse. Modern solutions such as “to be intimate with,” “to cohabit with,” “to sleep with, are all egregiously wrong in tone and implication. Fortunately the King James Version has established a strong precedent in English by translating the verb literally, and “carnal knowledge” is part of our language, so it is feasible to preserve the literal Hebrew usage in translation. (There is, I think, a good deal to be said for the general procedure of Tyndale and the King James Version in imitating many Hebrew idioms and thus giving the English a certain Hebraic coloration.)

      Alter uses the phrase himself when translating the Hebrew of Genesis 38:26 into English, retaining the biblical Hebraic coloration (in The Art of Biblical Narrative, page 10):

      Judah recognized [vayaker] them and he said, “She is more in the right than I for I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he had no carnal knowledge of her again.

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