John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: January 17

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: January 17

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Skin for Skin


Once more the sacred writer conducts us to the courts of heaven. Satan is there; and the Voice from the throne speaks to him respecting Job, declaring emphatically, that there was “none like him in the earth;” and, alluding to the late transactions, the Lord says—“And still he holdeth fast his integrity, though thou movedst Me against him to destroy him without cause.” What can the enemy say to this? Is he not dumb with shame and confusion? Not he. He ventures to insinuate that Job had come forth with honor in his trial, only because he had not been touched in his own person. “Skin for skin,” said he, “yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thy hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse Thee to thy face.” Upon this, the Lord, not seeing fit to leave the enemy this subterfuge, and confident that the faith of Job would bear yet further trial, allowed the adversary power over the body of this good man, but not unto death. “Behold he is in thine hand but save his life.”

It may seem difficult, without some explanation, to attach an intelligible idea to the phrase “skin for skin,” apparently proverbial, which Satan employed. It is a phrase that passes glibly over the tongue in the reading, and which most people have some vague impression that they do understand, and pass on without pausing to consider it. If they do, the more intently they regard it, the more difficult and unintelligible it seems, while there appears to be something in it which it were worth while to know. It is peculiarly the case of such proverbial expressions as this to pass out of intelligent knowledge. The reason is, that being established in use among the people, they continue to be employed in the correct traditional sense long after the custom to which they allude, or the knowledge of the circumstance in which they originated, have passed away. There are many such in our own language, correctly applied in current usage, but from one or both of these causes unintelligible, without antiquarian elucidation, in their primary aspect as a form of words. What meaning could any one attach, for instance, to such common English proverbs as these, if not taught to apply them with a traditional meaning and significance?

“The black ox never yet trod on his feet.”

“Hang not all your bells upon one horse.”

“The gray mare is the better horse.”

“Paternoster built churches, and Our Father pulled them down.”

“Blessed is the eye between Severn and Wye.”

“Make a pearl in your nail.”

Again, there is another set of such phrases which we meet with in old books in such connection as shows them to have been proverbial, but having passed out of ordinary use, they have not even an intelligible meaning or application, unless so far as the context enables us to guess at it. At the first view this proverb of “skin for skin” may seem to belong to this class. And so it would, were it an English proverb; or “Job” an English book. But it is a literal translation of a most ancient book, written in a far-off land, and in a language and under a set of ideas and customs altogether different from our own. Besides, therefore, being obscure in its primary aspect and in its traditional significance, we have the further difficulty of its being probably founded on an idea or custom altogether foreign to us, and which for that reason alone, if the other causes had no existence, it would be difficult or impossible to discover. There are at this day in current use in the East, scores of proverbs which are perfectly intelligible, both in their allusions and application, to those who use them, but which would, from this cause alone, be utterly inexplicable to an Englishman.

Take a few examples of Arabic proverbs—“Moonshine and oil are the ruin of a house.” How many would guess that this means that to light the lamp when the moon shines is an extravagance that will bring ruin upon a family: and hence, by application, a general rebuke to wasteful extravagance?

“It is written upon the cucumber leaf,” is in Egypt a common phrase used in introducing some sage maxim. Few would suppose that this means no more than, “It is written where the meanest may read it;” and in this sense it would be inappropriate in a country where cucumbers are less abundant and cheap.

“He went away with the fat of the kidney.” This means that the person went away, taking even the smallest trifle of what was due to him; founded upon the usage that when a private person slays a sheep, one of the bystanders takes away the kidneys, or at least the fat of them, as due to the public from him who slaughters the sheep.

“Who is Oweyshe in the market of cotton yarn?” This signifies that a person, however great or famous in his own neighborhood, becomes of no account when he enters the great world. Oweyshe is a woman’s name; and the allusion is to the custom for women to take in the morning, to a particular market for sale, the cotton yarn which they have spun in their domestic retirement.

These are perhaps sufficient illustrations, and will serve to show that there are proverbs in the East, and quite intelligible there, which are to us altogether as obscure from deficient knowledge as this of “skin for skin.”

We have entered into this matter somewhat fully, as there are other phrases, especially proverbial phrases, in the Scriptures, to which the same considerations will apply. That which has been stated will show the difficulty of supplying a satisfactory explanation of such passages. We shall not, however, quit the one before us without any attempt at an explanation. Of many that have been given, perhaps the best is that which refers its origin back to the time when trade was conducted by barter or exchange of goods, and when the skins of animals being a most frequent and valuable commodity, were used in some sort to represent property, as is still the case in many parts of the world. Tributes, ransoms, and the like, used also to be often paid in skins. Under this view, it would seem that Satan, after his proverbial allusion to the principle of exchange or barter, makes application of it in the next clause, “all that man hath will he give for his life.” It will then express the necessity of submitting to one great evil to avoid incurring a greater, answering to the Turkish proverb, “We must give our beards to save our heads.”