Every once in a while I feel a little lost in space here in New York. This is my home, and I love it, but my Tennesee upbringing tends to come out at inconvenient times. I was talking to a woman who is a chaplain on Friday, and she commented on the difficulty of working with a colleague of another religion. “I think he doesn’t like me because I’m a woman, but I just keep being nice to him,” she said.
I replied, “Heaping coals of fire on his head!” She looked at me like I had lost my mind, and said, “No, no, killing with kindness.” I agreed, somewhat abashed. Then I came home and looked it up in the Bible. Sure enough, Romans 12:20-21 says, “Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.”
I’m certainly no Bible scholar but I was brought up Southern Baptist in Tennessee some years ago, and Bible study was part of my youth. We memorized verses, and many, many verses were expressions that my parents, aunts and uncles used.
“The ox is in the ditch” was one that probably seems obscure to most people. It comes from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. In his story, the religious teachers passed by an injured man who was lying by the road because it was the Sabbath, and they were forbidden by Jewish law to work on the Sabbath. The Samaritan stopped and helped him. Jesus seems to say in this story that human need is greater than religious law. And he says, “Which of you will have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit on the Sabbath day, and will not pull him out?” So in the South it came to mean, an unavoidable job that has to be done, even on a Sunday, or an excuse to do something on a Sunday.
Sword drills were another odd thing we did in Sunday school when I was a teenager. A sword drill was a find-the-Bible-verse contest. I was a keen competitor (I’ve always been a Type A, I’m sorry to say). Basically you had to know the order of the books of the Bible and have fast page-flipping skills. The competitors would stand in a circle so you couldn’t see each other’s Bibles. The Sunday School teacher would say the book, chapter, and verse, such as “2nd Samuel, 12:1.” The first person to find it was the winner. One lived in dread of the obscure books of the Old Testament. I’m not even sure how to spell Habakkuh now (woops! just looked it up, Habakkuk).
Putting aside any religious effect on me (probably less than my parents hoped), the Bible study enriched my life with stories, poetry, and quotes I would find in literature as an adult, and expressions that added salt to the blandness of speech. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, anyone?