Bible Quzzes for Smart People XI
Bill Long 1/1/07
A "False" Quotation
We saw in an earlier quiz (relating to the movies), that the Bible is seemingly quoted in some instances in movies or literature but, in fact, the quotation is not from the Bible. In Shawshank Redemption Warden Norton's stitched quotation behind his desk, made by the ladies in his wife's church group, said "His Judgment Cometh and That Right Soon." The words have a biblical sonority and just seems to come from somewhere in the Bible, but it ain't there (unless you are Catholic or Episcopalian and consider a rough rendering of a passage in Sirach to be what is referred to). So, let's study another quotation which seems so biblical, but really isn't.
"Between the upper and nether millstones..."
The picture ought to be pretty clear. In "milling" or crushing grain, the ancients used a rounded "upper" millstone and pounded the grain, which rested on the lower or "nether" millstone, with it. The image of the grain being caught in between the two stones tended to trigger the imagination of people. Though we might say today, or at least we might have said a generation ago, that one was caught between a "rock and a hard place" (cf. the title of former Senator Mark Hatfield's autobiography), in earlier times one could be "caught" or "pounded" between the "upper and the nether millstones." For example, US. Rep. Wendell Phillips (R-MA), Radical Republican during and right after the Civil War, spoke against the 14th Amendment after its passage by the Congress (1866) and before ratification by the states (completed in 1868). He said that the amendment was a "swindle" that sacrificed the freed slaves "between the upper and nether millstones of Rebeldom" (quoted in Epps, Democracy Restored, p. 244).
That this image retained its power after the Civil War era can be seen in a 1902 speech on "The Ethics of the Negro Question" by Anna J. Cooper. She said:
"A professor in a Southern school who in a magazine article condemned the saturnalia of blood and savagery known as lynching arguing that the Negro, while inferior, was yet a man and should be accorded the fundamental rights of a man, lost his position for his frankness and fairness. The Negro is being ground to powder between the upper and nether millstones (my emphasis). The South, intolerant of interference from either outside or inside, the North too polite or too busy or too gleeful over the promised handshaking to manifest the most distant concern."
Though the phrase could be used well into the 1990s, I think that it is dying out in our day. Whereas there are only about 450 Google references to that phrase, there are more than 66,000 to "between a rock and a hard place." I am afraid that the rocks triumph, not only over scissors, but also over the millstones.
But a few words should be said about millstones in the Bible. After all, Ahimilech was killed when a woman threw an upper millstone on his head, crushing his skull, so at least the millstone was important to one Biblical character (Jud. 9:53). I love that little story. While Ahimilech was reeling after being bonked by the upper millstone, he said to his young male retainers, "Draw your sword and kill me, so people will not say about me, 'A woman killed him,'" (Jud. 9:54). Male pride, even to the end.
The only place where the phrase "upper and nether millstones" appears in the Bible is in the KJV of Deut. 24:6. It says: "No man shall take the nether or the upper millstone to pledge: for he taketh a man's life to pledge." A very sensible Scripture--don't take the economic livelihood of your countryman for a pledge, because by that act you will be assuring his inability to pay you back. The NRSV translates the verse differently: "No one shall take a mill or an upper millstone in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge." No reference, however, to being crushed between the upper and nether millstones.
When did this phrase originate? I couldn't discover that. Even the OED doesn't tell us, but it has the following quotation from a 1720 work on the history of the Quakers which is "most of the way there" with respect to our image. "When I was between the mill-stones, and as one crushed with the weight of his adversary." It is ironic that this most pacifistic of Christian sects would first feel the crush of the millstones.
A Few More Biblical Words on Millstones
Two biblical passages, however, did form the foundation in Western literature for the use of the word "millstone." One is from the KJV of Job 41, an eloquent poetic passage describing Leviathan, and the other is from Jesus' teaching in the Gospels. The Geneva Bible translates Job 41:24 as follows: "His heart is as strong as a stone, and as hard as the nether millstone." This phrase was picked up in a 1764 work on British colonies: "'tis called by those whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone..." And Trollope could say in 1874: "Mrs. Bluestone, whose heart was all softness towards Lady Anna, but as hard as a millstone towards the tailor."
The other use picks up from Jesus' words in Matt. 18:6: "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastned around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea." So popular and part of the educated speech of 18th century Britain was this image that Jeremy Bentham, whom we don't normally think of as particularly sympathetic to biblical usages, could say (1787): "The mill-stone intended for the necks of those vermin...the dealers in corn, was found to fall upon the heads of the consumers."
Well, this has gone far beyond what I thought I would write, but you get the picture. I hope your days this year don't catch you between upper and nether millstones or, for that matter, between rocks and hard places.