October 22, 2020

Judging Scripture

A Survey of The Surprising Language of the Bible, by Philip Winn

BHT fellow Philip Winn has written a survey of crude language in scripture. It’s a helpful orientation to some little known statements in the Bible, and the language Christians believe- in one way or another- is divinely inspired. It’s an eye opening tour, and will give your youth groups plenty of Bible reading opportunities. PW is an excellent teacher. Be his student for a while. -Michael

I’ve previously written about the horrible content of the Biblical book of Judges, but perhaps I should have set my sights a little wider. After all, Scripture is littered with offensive passages and words and phrase choices, and purpose, too. The Gospel itself is offensive, involving as it does a recognition that our own efforts at “being good” are as worthless as used feminine hygiene products!

But that’s not all…

In Exodus 34:15-16, people who do not worship God are referred to as going a-whoring. “Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods.” The same term is used in Leviticus 20:5-6 as well. I guess I have to explain to my children what “whoring” means when this comes up in daily devotions.

In fact, I think Levitical law is very offensive in how it sets rules for orderly society. In Leviticus 15:16-18, there are rules about ejaculation. “And if any man’s seed of copulation go out from him, then he shall wash all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the even. And every garment, and every skin, whereon is the seed of copulation, shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the even. The woman also with whom man shall lie with seed of copulation, they shall both bathe themselves in water, and be unclean until the even.” Can we talk about ejaculation, and the relative cleanliness of people who have had sex?

Leviticus does occasionally rely on euphemism, by the way. Let it never be said that God is indiscreet! In Leviticus 18, the term “uncover their nakedness” is a euphemism for “have sex with them,” which a lot of people might not realize. So when Leviticus 18:6-19 talks a lot about nakedness, it’s actually listing categories of people with whom sexual relations are prohibited: “any that is near of kin” is disallowed, as are your mother, your father’s wife, your sister (or half-sister), your granddaughter, your aunt (by blood or marriage), your daughter-in-law, and your sister-in-law, they’re all off-limits. And forget threesomes involving sisters, or mother-daughter pairs, or mother-granddaughter pairs. I’m pretty sure that some of these possibilities never even occurred to me before I read about them being prohibited in such detail. Should Scripture have remained silent on the subject, so as not to put the thoughts into my head?

A few verses later, Leviticus 17:23 goes even farther: “Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion.” Well, yuck! I don’t want to read about people having sex with animals! Or not, as the case may be.

Come to think of it, the imagery of circumcision isn’t really a topic suitable for family discussion, is it? It starts in Deuteronomy, where God talks about my penis, or viewing my heart as a penis. “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.” Frankly, this doesn’t bother me much, because my children know all about these things at 4, 6, and 7, but I think my kids tend to be somewhat ahead of the curve compared to the average American Christian child.

What about “bastard?” I remember, as a teenager, quoting Captain Kirk using that word in Star Trek III: Search for Spock. I didn’t realize it was a bad word, and when my mother pointed that out, I was surprised. But I learned it from the Bible! I escaped punishment because I was able to describe the Biblical passage and how I then looked it up in a dictionary and so on. My mother was consistent and fair in that regard, and I praise her for it. And apparently, “bastard” is an allowed word, based on verses like Deuteronomy 23:2: “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD.”

Sometimes the question isn’t a word, but a concept. Do we really want to talk about how exactly to handle messy poop? Because Deuteronomy 23:13 tells us: “And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee”

The same chapter also talks about whores, again, and sodomites. In Deuteronomy 23:17-18: “There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel. Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the LORD thy God for any vow: for even both these are abomination unto the LORD thy God.”

I’m going to start skipping around a bit, as it turns out that there’s almost no end of filth in the Bible, and this could take a long time.

1 Samuel 5:6-12 describes how God curses people with “emerods” (hemorrhoids?) on their “secret parts.” Nice use of euphemism there, but still impolite for dinner conversation, I think.

In 1 Samuel 25:22 and 1 Samuel 25:34, David says, well, I’ll quote him: “So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.” and “For in very deed, as the LORD God of Israel liveth, which hath kept me back from hurting thee, except thou hadst hasted and come to meet me, surely there had not been left unto Nabal by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.” That whole story is fascinating, actually, and worth reading in detail.

That phrase, “any that pisseth against the wall,” refers to men, of course. Why David or God didn’t just say “men” isn’t clear to me. The same phrase is also used in 1 Kings 16:12 and 1 Kings 21:21 and 2 Kings 9:8 for the same inscrutable reason.

In 2 Kings 9:37, an odd turn of phrase is found: “And the carcase of Jezebel shall be as dung upon the face of the field in the portion of Jezreel; so that they shall not say, This is Jezebel.” The context is that Jehu has just trampled Jezebel with his horse after she was thrown out a window, and such was the trampling (and ensuing scavenging by wild dogs, though it isn’t explicitly described in this passage) that all they can find of her body is the skull, hands, and feet. All of that is fine and dandy for coffee hour at church, but why the use of the word “dung”? It’s a word that has no precise modern equivalent, as it describes animal feces, not including human feces. In fact, it seems a somewhat graphic term, when you understand it. It would have been easy enough to substitute “mud” or “dirt” or some other word which didn’t have such a detailed pedigree, but apparently God wanted to produce in His readers a mental image that could only be connoted with the more-explicit “dung.”

Within the context of military trash-talking, 2 Kings 18:27 provides some interesting imagery: “But Rabshakeh said unto them, Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?” (Essentially the same phrase appears in Isaiah 36:12 as well) Given that “dung” refers only to animal feces, the insult is clear, and one must assume that the crudity of the terms demonstrates that “cussing like a sailor” is merely the latest expression of a long tradition of “using rude language like a soldier.” I remember the beginning of Waterworld, when Kevin Costner engaged in just the second half of that suggestion, and with a filtration system to boot, and it was still quite offensive.

Proverbs 26:11 talks about a dog returning to his vomit, which is a pleasant thought. Vomit is actually a recurring theme throughout Isaiah as well.

Jeremiah often refers to people as “whores” and “harlots,” even using odd descriptive terms, such as in Jeremiah 3:3 when he describes how someone has “a whore’s forehead.” I hesitate to even contemplate what that might mean, but sounds nasty! Jeremiah is one of a series of prophets who delivers a message of judgment on Jerusalem, and he delivers God’s message as “I have seen thine adulteries, and thy neighings, the lewdness of thy whoredom, and thine abominations on the hills in the fields. Woe unto thee, O Jerusalem!”

Ezekiel takes it up a level, I think, saying in Ezekiel 16:15: “But thou didst trust in thine own beauty, and playedst the harlot because of thy renown, and pouredst out thy fornications on every one that passed by; his it was.” Every one that passed by! It’s a common theme throughout the chapter, and later, in Ezekiel 15:32-33, he ups the ante, saying: “But as a wife that committeth adultery, which taketh strangers instead of her husband! They give gifts to all whores: but thou givest thy gifts to all thy lovers, and hirest them, that they may come unto thee on every side for thy whoredom.” He’s saying that most cheating women are given gifts by the men with whom they have sex, but Jerusalem is actually giving gifts to men in order to have sex with them! What a mental image!

I’m going to stop here just long enough to point out that, while we all tend to excuse our own behavior as “not that bad,” God views things in very stark and dramatic imagery. When we spend time pursuing anything other than God’s grace freely given in Jesus Christ, are we also thirsting for adulterous sex, as God said Jerusalem was? Perhaps the outrageous imagery is needed to shock us, to make us consider what in our lives we chase after?

Ezekiel isn’t done with that, as shocking as that is. In Ezekiel 23 he recounts the story of two women who represent Samaria and Jerusalem. He talks about how: “they committed whoredoms in their youth: there were their breasts pressed, and there they bruised the teats of their virginity.” While Samaria is slaughtered, Jerusalems spirals into an ever-increasing magnitude of whoredoms, “For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses.” Of course, the use of “asses” here refers to jackasses, but it still seems odd to me that the Bible refers to the quantity of ejaculate of anyone, even metaphorical Babylonians. God’s judgment on her is that she is stripped (v26) and has her nose and ears cut off (v25), and she then tears off her own breasts (v34).

*In The End*

There is much more to be found that might surprise some people, but I think this is enough to demonstrate that God is not afraid of using whatever language and imagery is most effective in making a point. I don’t think we should shy away from communicating effectively, either. The point isn’t the words we use or the concepts we invoke, and never has been. The point is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Always.


  1. Malachi 2:3 amazes me at the depth of God’s rage at the priests who profaned His Name.
    Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and you shall be taken away with it.

  2. Wow. I’ve been often told I was tactless, although correct on issues. I think I need to just print this out and carry it with me! I don’t swear, I just use plain language and that bothers people at tiems… wow. Great read.

  3. Hear! Hear!

  4. I didn’t know iMonk was going to post this over here, or I might have stuck in a bit more explanation and context. 🙂

    I certainly am not advocating the use of filthy speech, especially not for shock value. I see this essay as a corrective reminder to those who adopt arbitrary standards of vocabulary and then treat them as if they are God-ordained. Word are generally just words; it is the ideas we communicate that are most important. Jim Herriot can use “the S-word” matter-of-factly in his delightful books about his life as a vet without offending any reasonable person, while most people would be very offended if I said “You’re full of poop!” to them.

    The Bible, as it happens, has a little of both. 🙂

  5. I like Paul’s comment in Galatians that if the legalists think it’s important as a demonstration of faith to be circumsized, why don’t they simply cut off their entire johnson (I’m paraphrasing, of course).

  6. I’m not sure it makes much sense to judge an ancient document by modern standards of civility. One of the things I like about the Bible is that is tells it like it is, and the human heroes have flaws.

  7. Berean, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t make sense to judge modern documents by sub-cultural standards of civility either!

    The Bible offends everybody — that’s the wonderful thing about it! To the strong it says, you’re weak. To the proud it say, what you’re most proud of is worthless. To the self-righteous it says that only Jesus is righteous. To the vain it says that beauty passes. To those that claim that we please God by doing “more” it says that we please God only by doing less. And so on.

    In this case, it offends those who feel good by attacking the word choices of others. The Bible tells it like it is, all right, and that offends some American Evangelicals who want their Bible to be a tame rulebook.

    Thanks for the comment!