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Dr Klaus Bung
68 Brantfell Road
Blackburn BB1-8DL

© 2010 Klaus Bung

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Klaus Bung:
A famine "of almost Biblical proportions"

Large, world-wide famines were described in the Bible, for example in the story of Joseph (Yusuf) and his brothers. Therefore it makes sense to speak of a famine of Biblical proportions if it was a very big one. One can also talk of a catastrophe of Biblical proportions. On their exodus from Egypt, the Israelites did not march in a straight line but made a detour of Biblical proportions, which cost them 40 years before they reached the "Gaza strip". Apart from this, the expression "of Biblical proportions" is often loosely used, simply to indicate that something is very big. Sometimes this is a misuse and overuse of the expression, just like the word "tragedy" or "hero" tends to be overused by the press. Not every sad event is a "tragedy" (check Hegel, Sophocles and Antigone for a good definition), and not every soldier who gets killed is a hero.Read more below.

2010-08-30 a famine "of almost Biblical proportions"

dead cow and mulim man in dried up land in nigerThe West African country of Niger (link 2) was in the news this week.

International agencies fear an impending food crisis and are debating how to avert it. Five years ago, the report said, there was, in Niger, a famine (= severe shortage of food) "of Biblical proportions". This means that it was a "big" famine, the biggest that we can possibly imagine. What does that have to do with the Bible?

It has nothing to do with the fact that the Bible is a very big book but rather with the fact that the Bible contains some stories of very big famines. Since in Christian countries ("Western countries") the Bible is, or used to be, for many people, a common point of reference, reminding people of something in the Bible is an easy way of conjuring up an image, a picture, something that can be imagined.

Even people who do not know or like the Bible will have seen some of the popular Hollywood films re-telling stories of the Bible. Usually these films too are working on a grand scale, i.e. everything in them is very large. Here are some of these popular Biblical films:

Many famines are mentioned in the Bible, and here is a list of them taken from the Internet:

Famines are recorded:

  • in the time of Abraham (Genesis 12:10, etc.),
  • of Isaac (Genesis 26:1),
  • of Jacob, when Joseph was in Egypt--seven years of famine even in Egypt after seven of plenty (Genesis 41:54), which also affected Canaan (Genesis 42:1), and, indeed, "was over all the face of the earth" (Genesis 41:56);
  • in the time of the Judges (Ruth 1:1),
  • of David, for three years (2 Samuel 21:1),
  • of Ahab and Elijah (1 Kings 17:1; 18:2; Ecclesiasticus 48:2,3),
  • of Elisha (2 Kings 4:38),
  • during the siege of Samaria (2 Kings 6:25),
  • the seven years foretold by Elisha (2 Kings 8:1),
  • in the reign of Zedekiah in Jerusalem when besieged by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:3;
  • Jeremiah 52:6; compare Jeremiah 14:1), its great severity is referred to (Lamentations 5:10; Baruch 2:25);
  • a "dearth" is also mentioned after the return from Captivity (Nehemiah 5:3);
  • when the city was besieged by Antiochus Eupator (1 Macc 6:54),
  • after the death of Judas (1 Macc 9:24), when Jerusalem was besieged by Simon (1 Macc 13:49),
  • in the time of Claudius (Acts 11:28, in his reign there were frequent famines, one of which in 45 AD severely affected Palestine; Josephus, Ant, XX, v);
  • Christ predicted "famines .... in divers places" as characterizing the end of the age (Matthew 24:7; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:11);
  • in the siege of Jerusalem by Titus a terrible famine raged, the consequences of which to the people have never been surpassed.

I do not know to which of these famines the expression "of Biblical proportions" refers; perhaps to all; or more likely to a very big or a very well-known one.

joseph in egyptThe only one that immediately comes to my mind is the one that is related to the story of Joseph in Egypt, a story which is mentioned not only in the Bible but also in the Qur'an Sharif (where Joseph is called Yusuf). Wikipedia gives an outline of the Biblical and the Koranic narratives.

To put the story even more briefly, Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob, was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and ended up at the court of the Pharao (King) of Egypt.

He was such a good and trustworthy servant, that he rose to power, and became the second most powerful man in Egypt.

Through his dreams, he was able to predict a forthcoming famine (which would last for seven years). He ensured that the government saved huge quantities of grain during the years when grain was plentiful. When the famine came, it hit the whole world, including the land of Canaan, where Jacob and his remaining sons lived.

Only in Egypt food was plentiful because of the reserves saved by Joseph over many years. Joseph had been a "prudent Prime Minister".

Follow this link. It is a must if you are interested in modern British politics. The writer makes a comparison between ex-Prime-Minister Gordon Brown and Joseph of Egypt. "Prudence" was one of Gordon Brown's favourite concepts. It also shows you how Biblical concepts, stories and expressions are imporant to the English way of talking and thinking, even in politics, regardless of whether the speaker is a practising Christian or not.

Jacob then sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain, ... And so the story continues. Read it in the Bible or in the Qur'an Sharif.

It is a thrilling story, and you can practise your English (or Arabic) at the same time. Many English translations of the Qur'an Sharif are available, including a popular and easy-to-read one published by Penguin Books.

Apart from famines, what else can be of Biblical proportions?

You can NOT say of a big or fat woman that she is "of Biblical proportions" (unless you want to make a really cruel joke). You also can NOT say that something is of Biblical "proportion" (is must be plural: "proportions") or of Biblical "size", even though size is, in theory, the better word here.

What is a proportion

A proportion is something that involves two measurements, e.g. an image is in the proportion of 10 cm (width) by 20 cm (height). This is not the case when we say that a famine is of Biblical proportions. It should really be "of Biblical size", but the expression "of Biblical proportions" is so well established and has been used for such a long time that we must accept it as correct.

The witness of Google

I searched in Google and found the following expressions:

  • a disaster of Biblical proportions: 500 hits
  • a disaster of almost Biblical proportions: 2,000 hits
  • a famine of Biblical proportions: 7,300 hits
  • a famine of almost Biblical proportions: 6 hits
  • a mistake of Biblical proportions: 12,000 hits
  • a catastrophe of Biblical proportions: 191,000 hits

You notice that in case of "disaster", "almost" is likely to be added, but not in the case of "famine".

A "catastrophe of Biblical proportions" was applied, for example, to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The holocaust (murder of six million Jews in Nazi Germany) and any genocide might be called "a crime of Biblical proportions".

  • a crime of Biblical proportions: 4,000 hits
  • a crime of almost Biblical proportions: 4 hits
  • "a crime of Biblical proportions", holocaust: 200 hits, not always referring to the Nazi holocaust, but also to the vision of nuclear war, etc

I found an article by Professor Walter Brueggemann about Hurricane Katrina. Brueggemann states: "Commentators in the media have often invoked the term biblical to describe the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, which has gone beyond our imagination and our explanatory categories. The term has not been used with any precision -- it seems to mean simply vast or awe-inspiring."


I found the headline: "Same-sex marriage spat of biblical proportions" (spat = quarrel). The article starts: "A holy war of words broke out Wednesday between religious leaders on opposing sides of Iowa’s volatile same-sex marriage dispute."

Muslim readers may be interested to see that the expression "holy war" (jihad) was used to describe a fierce theological debate among non-Muslims. This is a complex expression.

"Holy war" is used here not because of its Islamic meaning, but because it makes a nice pun (play on words), since it refers to a discussion about religion (holy matters) and the participants, as far as they are theologians, are meant to be "holy".

The pun starts with the expression "war of words" (to which the word "holy" was then added to create the pun). "War of words" is a common expression (google it!), a synonym of "heated discussion or debate", which you could also add to your English language repertory and try to use in practice.

There is a difference between

  • (1) HOLY-WAR of words (a holy war which is conducted with words and not with swords)
  • (2) holy WAR-OF-WORDS (a war of words which is holy, dealing with holy things or conducted by holy men)

In the newspaper article we have meaning (2), not (1).

War of words vs Slanging match

man and woman screaming at each otherRelated to the metaphor of "war of words" is the expression "slanging match". In a war of words, the opponents exchange, or are meant to exchange, rational arguments with each other. If they are calm, the event might be called an argument or a dispute or a debate. If the argument becomes heated and the speakers become excited and are determined to win and perhaps even show their contempt for each other, the event might be called a war of words.

If they attack each other personally (rather than each other's views), and call each other names (i.e. bad, offensive names), if they "trade insults" (= exchange insults), and especially if they try to "outdo each other" in the abusive names they hurl at each other, then the event can be called a "slanging match". The speakers throw slang words at each other.

  • A: "You bastard!"
    B responds: "You son of a bitch" (often spelt: sonofabitch)
    (German: Hurensohn = son of a whore.
    Spanish: Hijo de puta.
    Tagalog: Putang inai.
    And so on in every language under the sun.)
  • Religious slanging match:
    A: "You are a heretic (person with wrong religious beliefs)."
    B: "You are the Anti-Christ" (the devil).
  • A: "You dog"
    B: "You pig".
  • A: "Your mother is a thief."
    B: "Your father is a pedophile".
  • A: "You arsehole".
    B: "You bloody f***ing c***."
    (If you can guess the missing letters correctly, you are a genius. Send me a stamped addressed envelope, and I will pay you one penny for every letter correctly guessed, but only for the first three answers received.)

This can continue for a few minutes, and the insults fly to and fro as in a tennis match. But instead of tennis balls the opponents throw slang words at each other. That's why it is called a slanging match.

Escalation is possible. Something may start as a different point of view, turn into an argument, escalate to a war of words and, when the opponents have run out of arguments, turn into a slanging match. The next stage is murder, and "the rest is silence" (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2).

While an argument can "escalate" (= go up the ladder, grow in scale, become bigger, become more intensive) into a war, one does NOT normally say that an argument "escalated" into a slanging match. When that happens, observers feel that the participants are losing their dignity, are doing something that is not good, are behaving worse. Therefore the change is more likely to be described by saying: The argument DESCENDED ( = went down, became worse, became lower) into a slanging match; no more arguments were used, people were just throwing insults at each other.

Something like it happened at a summit meeting of the European Union on or before 13 September 2010. The French government had started a policy of expelling gypsies and flying them back to Romania. Politicians of other countries (e.g. one from the tiny state of Luxembourg) claimed that his was illegal and inhuman. The president of France countered: "If you feel so sorry for the gypsies, why don't give all of them asylum in Luxembourg" (or words to that effect). A politician from another country said about the French: "Your behaviour is as bad as that of the Germans under Hitler" (1933-1945; Nazi period).

When the European summit was held, the delegates were unable to discuss their normal business because the French expulsion of gypsies "dominated the discussion". The BBC then reported: The discussion "descended into a mass argument."

Mistakes and detours

A "mistake of Biblical proportions", which came up 12,000 times, does not refer to a particular mistake made somewhere in the Bible but simply to a mistake with ruinous consequences. The fact that this is the most freqent use of the Biblical proportions phrase, confirms Brueggemann's point, above, that the term is often not used with much precision.

map egypt to israelA "detour of Biblical proportions" came up only once, in an obscure blog, even though the Israelites when leaving Egypt took 40 years zigzagging in the desert (Sinai Peninsula) to travel the few miles from Egypt to the Gaza Strip and the borders of Palestine, land of the Philistines, i.e. Palestinians, which they were told to conquer ("Promised Land"). Most of those who started the long trek died of old age along the route, and it was only their children who eventually crossed into Canaan and blew down the walls of Jericho, which had obviously been built by English builders (otherwise they would not have collapsed at the sound of a trumpet) - LOL.

The lesson seems to be that anyone who makes a "detour of Biblical proportions" does not live to tell the tale, and therefore it is no wonder we do not find that expression in Google, ROFL.

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