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Biblical Archaeology Review 46:2, Spring 2020

Epistles: Whence-A-Word?: Apple of His Eye

Biblical Archaeology Review

We’ve all heard the expression “apple of his eye,” but few people know that the phrase is actually from the Bible. Well, sort of.

The idiom comes from the 1611 King James translation of the Hebrew Bible, where it appears four times. The problem is that in none of these four instances in the KJV is the Hebrew word for “apple” ever used. Instead, two words for “pupil” are used, which if you think about it makes far more sense.

In Deuteronomy 32:10, the word אישׁון (ʾīshōn), meaning “pupil,” is used to describe the center of the eye (Hebrew: עין; ʿayin). Describing how God protected Jacob (Israel), the text reads, “He found him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste; he shielded him, cared for him, guarded him as the pupil [אישׁון; ʾīshōn] of his eye.” If you’ve ever tried to protect your eyes and face while caught in a sandstorm, you know how difficult this is to do. And yet this is the analogy used to describe how God protected Israel while they wandered in the desert.

Proverbs 7:2 also uses safeguarding the eyes as a metaphor to model the rigor with which Israelites should guard God’s laws: “Keep my commandments and live, and my teachings as the pupil of your eyes.” One should keep God’s laws as carefully as one protects one’s own eyes.

In Zechariah 2:8 (2:12 in the Hebrew Bible), a different Hebrew word is used: בבה (bāvāh), which appears to be another word for “pupil,” or specifically for “eyeball.” Regarding the way in which God will repay those who mistreated the Judahites while in exile, Zechariah says, “For thus said the LORD of hosts regarding the nations that plundered you: Truly, one who touches you, touches the pupil/ball of his eye (עינו בבבה; bəvāvat ʿeynō).” The idea is that anyone who harms Israel is essentially poking himself in his own eye. The KJV translated this as “apple of my eye,” changing the idiom into a term of endearment, understanding it as if God were saying, “Anyone who hurts you, hurts my beloved.” The problem is that’s not what the Hebrew text says; it says “the pupil/ball of his eye.” The Dead Sea Scrolls confirm this reading.

Interestingly, in Psalm 17:8, the psalmist uses both אישׁון (ʾīshōn) and בבה (bāvāh) together: “Guard me as the pupil of the eyeball [עין־בת כאישׁון]; hide me in the shadow of your wings.”

Perhaps most remarkably, one place we don’t find the expression “apple of his eye” is in the story of the Garden of Eden, where the specific type of tempting fruit on the Tree of Life is never identified.

So yes, the idiom “apple of his eye” does come from the Bible, but no, it doesn’t go back to the original text of the Hebrew Bible or New Testament. It is a mistranslated invention of the King James Version in 1611.—B.C.