"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Bible: Explicit Content

Over the past three years, I have studied Scripture in a way that I only pretended to before. Such a project has yielded quite a few surprises. Prophecy does not work the way I thought it would. The narrative has a finer point, and a more singular theme, than I assumed. And the content is not as family friendly as expected.

It is a cliché today that if the Bible was made into a movie, it would at least be rated R. We say that mostly because of episodes of violence such as most of the book of Joshua. We may even mean hints of sexual immorality in characters like Judah and David. It is well known that some graphic episodes are recorded.

This is not what I am talking about. What I mean is the words of men, speaking on behalf of God, saying things that would get them an "explicit content" warning if they put it on a CD, or a “banned” status in a church library. Not that you have noticed these things, because the English translators tend to protect our tender ears. Three passages have stood out to me, that when I have studied them more closely have shocked me at their actual content, none of which comes across in modern English translations, like say, in the ESV or NIV.

The legitimate question arises: to what degree does a Christian have the right to shock with their language and in what way? What may be helpful is to see how the Bible does so, assuming of course that the Bible is not to be condemned for its language. The point is to see what the Bible does in its language as a pattern for our own limits of speech, not to look at “naughty” parts in the Bible for shock or “giggle” effect.

We'll start off tame.

First is a familiar verse.

Phillipians 3:8:

Php 3:8 ESV - "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ."

THE IMAGE: The word translated as “rubbish” is much more specific. The word “σκύβαλον” or skubalon refers to, according to the NET note, “a vulgar term for fecal matter.” Wycliffe chose the word “turds” for his medieval English translation. A closer translation would be, (as privately explained by a Greek expert) a harsher term than crap, closer to “sh*t.” Martin Luther used an equivalent in his German translation of the Bible. (and Daniel Wallace concurs in a word study on σκύβαλον)

THE PURPOSE: Paul is using sh*t as an image of what is produced apart from Christ. It has no worth or value. It is considered to be as worthy of honor as feces. Paul does not use this image as a teenager might for the “naughty” or “giggle” factor, but to shock his audience that may be tempted to honor their works. He wants them to know their works are not just worth a little less, but worthless. As worthy as of a place in their trophy case as their excrement.


Isaiah 64:6 ESV - We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

THE IMAGE: The word translated “polluted garment” or in other versions “filthy rags” also is much more specific. The NET, again, is more literal: “all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your sight.” BDB confirms the word translated “filthy” is purposefully mistranslated, instead means “menstrual.” The image is one of a soiled rag used during female menstration. In our modern speech, it would be more understood as “a used tampon.”

THE PURPOSE: Paul learns his explicit language from Isaiah who is using his language in the same way. Isaiah is comparing the best, the “righteousness acts,” of the people of God to something that is valueless. They have the market value of “used tampons.” Not a positive value, but a negative value. Isaiah uses this imagery to shock Israel into a re-evaluation of their own goodness.


Eze 23:19-20 ESV - Yet she increased her whoring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt and lusted after her paramours there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses.

THE IMAGE: The ESV extremely sanitizes the image of Ez 23:20 to the point that the translation no longer communicates the message. The translators of the ESV might as well have left the verse in the original Hebrew. Multiple words are archaicly translated or mistranslated to hide the meaning. “paramours” are concubines, prostitutes or as the ESV translates it in other places: whores. “Members” is the word that can be translated "flesh" or here meaning “penis.” And the word “issue” is so opaque as to hide the true definition: “semen discharge.” One can see why the ESV (and most other modern) translators wished to keep it vague. If your child had a book that read, “she lusted after whores, whose penises were like those of donkeys, and whose semen discharge was like that of horses” you probably would freak out a little.

THE PURPOSE: Ezekiel is a strange book to me. Revelation has nothing on it in my mind. This is one image I truly read and wonder what was the purpose. It seems nearly to be shock for the sake of shock. Yet the image does have a striking and powerful point. The point is that Israel had committed idolatry, and an image so disgusting had to be painted in order to show just how offended God was by their behavior. This was not a small matter, a small offense, something God was just supposed to shrug off. The image is of an act of adultery so shocking and vial as to make one completely sure that it was unforgiveable. The grace of God is only shocking, and loved and something to shead tears over in pursuing, and obtaining, when the weight of our own sin is personally felt, disgusting to us, and mourned.


In seeing three examples (and there are more in that barely-cracked OT section of your Bible), we see Paul, Isaiah, and Ezekiel using images that are hard to read, and definitely not comforting. They were not meant to be. Which pushes us to a few natural questions:

1)Why do translators protect us from Isaiah, Ezekiel and Paul's offensive language?

Is it to sanitize the Bible so as to make it “family friendly” or to purposeful hide the message? The former is almost certainly so. Modern translators are not conspiring to hide God's truth. They probably wish not to be offense to the reader. But sanitizing the Bible also has another effect. In the American church, sin is not mourned, and when it is, it is rather hated in easily identifyable and foreign terms. It is identified as the acts of those outside the church (read: homosexuality, drug use, etc.) and not as Paul, Isaiah and Ezekiel identify it: as acts of those in the church. The church could use some shocking language of their own sin.

2)To what degree should such explicit language be used by Christians communicating the kerygma?

This is a harder question. Perhaps the most famous of “shock quotes” comes from Tony Campolo who said in a few speeches:

"I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a sh*t. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said 'sh*t' than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

One of my favorite artists, Derek Webb, used a similar line (“give a sh*t”) in a new song of his. The question is: are Derek Webb and Tony Campolo being like Paul, Isaiah and Ezekiel?

Not exactly. I think the use is more crude with Campolo. Paul uses the word with a direct comparison. Skubala = what you value that came before Christ. For Campolo, the word is merely an explative. Phrases such as “give a sh*t” or “what the f*&$” are merely vulgar without a shocking comparison. The words do not fill in or compare to something that we are offended are being compared to it. The purpose is shock for the sake of shock and showing a comparison of your shock at one offense at another. It is comparing two sins, my vulgarity and your apathy, rather than comparing your sin to something. Perhaps a good rhetorical device, but not exactly on the level of Paul or Isaiah. I don't necessarily condemn it though, as a use in art (Webb's new song) or as a speech to a certain audience (Campolo). However it is a different question than:

Should a preacher use such language? Here, I think my answer must be yes/no. The Campolo use (shock for the sake of shock) is not the job of a preacher. Paul did not say “you don't give a sh*t about the gospel!” or “what the f*%k are you Galatians doing abandoning the gospel?!” Rather, Paul used the word to shock his readers in a comparison of values. What you value is worthless. Worse than worthless, it is feces. So too, with Isaiah. Ezekiel uses his image to show not that he can shock with language, but how shocking the sin of the people of God is, as shocking as an explicit image of adultery. When used this way, when following the text, the preacher should use explicit language to expose the hidden idolatry and shocking sin of his congregation. The Bible does so and the Bible is the text of the preacher's proclamation.

The lesson from looking at this text is not to be shocking for its own sake, at least in the pulpit. Rather, it is to be selectively shocking. The preacher must be careful not to desensitize the audience to explicit and shocking images, but to indeed expound them when presented in Scripture to the end that Scripture demands. Scripture demands we be shocked about our idolatry, sin and misguided affections. Scripture does not merely give us warrant to be shocking from the pulpit for the shear effect. So while I like Derek Webb's music, and he is free to do things in his music a preacher would not do, I would not quote it in the pulpit. Now Isaiah is an entirely different matter...


A said...

Good post, a question though: isn't St. Paul talking about the Judaizers in Philippians 3, because the list of works he has done are all Mosaic law "circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless."

None of those are acts seen as "good works" in the sense of Jesus' sermon on the mount or 1 Corinthians.

So wasn't St. Paul saying that the Jewish Law was "rubbish"/shit, and isn't claiming that this condemnation of the law is equivalent to condemnation of good works incorrect?

James would sound strange indeed if it read "therefore a man is justified by menstrual rags and not by faith alone"

And of course in chapter 2 of Philippians St. Paul writes: "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." - so is Paul saying God views the good works of Christians as shit and that God takes "good pleasure" in shit?

(Not trying to be a jerk, just wondering how you get around that)

Jared Nelson said...

hey Andrew. I wasn't doing an indepth look at Ph 3:8. I was speaking broadly. Specifically, Paul would be talking relatively. These two things set next to each other would make one have a worthless value compared to Christ. Paul does seem to be talking specifically of works that came apart from Christ and before Christ. I think Paul is saying that you do not place Christ on your shelf next to things you have taken pride in before. He is of a wholly different category. You do not put the God-man next to crap.

After Christ's merit has been applied to the believer, then God looks favorably on the works of a believer for a variety of reasons:

1) Though nowhere near the value of Christ's work, God looks on His children's work as a Father, accepting poor works as a sign of growing affection, not as an earning.

2) His Spirit is doing the works through the believer. In the decay of our old self, God sees Himself beginning to come through. Sanctification becomes the slow mending and cleaning of the shattered eikon/image of God we had originally.

So yes, There is something different about works done in light of justification. Works done after grace are different, and so Isaiah and Paul would not be talking about those works unless they were set up as a personal private righteousness preceding from man by himself. Apart from God in Christ, our best works attempting to earn God's favor are "menstral rags" and "shit."

This really is a big problem I have with Catholicism. It really does seem to ignore Paul's question: "Gal 3:3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?"

A said...

That's exactly in line with Roman teaching though, because the Church believes works done after grace only have value because they are works done 'in Christ', constantly the Church has taught that nothing can merit the grace of justification and that works of the law or works done in self-righteousness apart from Christ are worthless. "our merits are God's gifts" as St. Augustine says. I know you understand all this theology better than I do anyway, so can you explain specifically what problem you have with the notion that good works done by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the justified believer have merit in God's sight.

Because it seems like we agree, (but I'm sure that's too good to be true, and if you explain it properly I'm sure both our Churches will have carefully laid out roadblocks for us to be sure we won't agree anytime soon)

Thanks for the response, I know you're a busy man.

Nate said...

I'm sorry I took so long to read this. It's a ****ing good post!


In all seriousness, your final ethical reflections on preachers' language are spot on. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

Dear Jared,

A friend passed this blog link along to me. I'm a novice student of Hebrew, and I was curious about your interpretation of Ezekiel 23:20. I think it is a little misguided, and I'd like to challenge a few of the statements you've made. (Of course, I am happy to accept correction.)

1. On "paramours": the root word in Hebrew pilegesh, which is usually translated as "concubines." You're right that the ESV translates it other places as something else, like "prostitutes" or "whores." (As a side note, the NASB consistently translates it as "concubines," except in this passage, where it's also "paramours." The NIV translates it as "lovers.")

Perhaps a reason to do so is tradition: when a difficult-to-translate word arises, there's a tradition of carrying down a similar term from earlier translations. (Joseph's coat of "many colors" comes to mind.) The KJV translates it as "paramours," and most ensuing translations do the same (as it translates "issue" and "members"). This makes it somewhat easier down the line: we have centuries of tradition of numerous scholars using the same word for a difficult word to translate.

But, importantly, just because a word is translated one way in one passage emphatically does *not* mean it can, much less *should*, be translated the same way in another passage. Context matters. And in this case, the context makes "concubines," "prostitutes," and "whores" completely wrong.

You note that the following terms described an individual with a penis and seminal discharge. That would *expressly preclude* a definition of "whore" or "concubine" or "prostitute," because those are all *women.* Men have penises and seminal discharge. Therefore, pilegesh must be translated to a male equivalent. The Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) suggests either "paramour" or "concubinage," an awkward term to be sure. Perhaps "lover" is appropriate, but it does not inherently connote the adulterous relationship occurring, which "paramour," obscure as it may be to some readers, does.

2. On "members": the root word in Hebrew is basar, which is usually translated as "flesh." There is a definition, as BDB notes, in which it is a euphemism for "the male organ of generation." Note that: a *euphemism.* Euphemisms are deliberately obscure. It's not a word for "penis"; it's a *euphemism* for "penis." So when you later write, "It seems nearly to be shock for the sake of shock," that's entirely wrong in this context. Instead of using an explicit, or "shocking," word, the Bible uses a euphemism. "Member" is, I think, an adequate translation to preserve the euphemism. (The NIV uses "genitals.")

It's not the only place basar is used (standing alone) in Scripture to connote "penis." Leviticus 15:2-3 translates it as "body" (in the ESV); Ezekiel 16:26 translates it as "lustful"; Ezekiel 44:7, 9 discusses the uncircumcised "flesh." Each time there's some euphemism, which, given the context, seems appropriate.

Anonymous said...

3. On "issue": the root word in Hebrew is zirmah. (The NIV uses "emission.") This particular derivation of the words is only used in this verse. But the more common sister word is zara', a root for "seed." Now, seed is frequently used as a euphemism for "semen." "Issue" is, perhaps, used because of the close relationship to zerem, flood, which means it's something like a seed-flood and more directly related to semen than just the "seed," which can be used to connote semen or family offspring. But, again, this is the *only* time this particular word is used here; the KJV translated it as "issue"; and perhaps there's some virtue in preserving the same euphemism used several hundred years ago.


Really, the greater problem in this entire passage is that it's a figure of speech in somewhat poetic language. This is not a "shock" text. It's a text that deliberately uses some euphemisms, and euphemisms tend to soften the idea that we need "an image so disgusting . . . to be painted." Translating euphemisms as English euphemisms is not "sanitizing" the text; it's seeking to maintain fidelity to the connotations that the Holy Spirit was providing in the original Hebrew. It's not "an explicit image of adultery." It's Hebrew euphemisms for adultery.

I appreciate the sentiment of your post (and your contrary examples of Campolo and Webb). But I'm concerned that you may be a bit too eager to advice that one should not "desensitize the audience to explicit and shocking images." Ezekiel 23:20, in translation, adopts some euphemisms, similar to euphemisms (or difficult-to-translate words) in Hebrew. It's not "desensitizing" to use euphemisms. Instead, it might be just the converse: if we were to use explicit words like "penis" or "semen" or "whores," we might be making explicit a passage that the Holy Spirit has composed as something less explicit and shocking than we may imagine.

I look forward to your thoughts.


Jared Nelson said...

Thanks for the input. I was aware of most of that. It is helpful to go more indepth in word studies that wasn't my focus, but I was skipping to the actual meaning that the NET uses without being vague. [Eze 23:20-21 NET - She lusted after their genitals — as large as those of donkeys, and their seminal emission was as strong as that of stallions.] My translation is more "Street-speak" though.

On "whore," I am using the term broadly. Perhaps if I just put "male whore" it would be clear.

I see your point on euphemisms, but they are very thinly veiled in Ezekiel are just one of my examples. My point was not word study, but to show that the Bible is not as sanitized as many translations make it, and to see what lesson that has for preachers in regards to the use of language. Isaiah and Paul's language is explicit. I'm not suggesting that preachers cuss up a storm, or even say these things clearly before children. Just that preachers need to not be afraid to exegete such passages faithfully, even if it offends for the right reasons.

Desley said...

Isaiah 64:6 -
None the ancient translations include the "yuck" factor in this passage. It was modern man who interpolated the "filthy" in it (as you have mentioned). As you clarified, the actual term used was "menstrual garments."

Where I fear you went wrong was with your interpretion.

This is importnant because it was actually referring to Leviticus 15:19-25, which explains how in the Torah a woman's menses (as well as a man's seminal emissions) were ritually impure and "polluted" anything it touched.
The point of the Isaiah passage? Certainly not that God thinks a woman's menstrual flow is disgusting, and not that man should think it disgusting (God did create it, after all); but it's just as the picture about the menstrual garments in the Torah demonstrates - that we ourselves are unclean and therefore whatever a defiled man does, it too becomes defiled.

Apparently the actual meaning of the text in Isaiah 64:6 has escaped us today and we instead use it as an opportinuty for woman-bashing. They way we use the term today is highly offensive and derogatory to women.
No woman should be stigmatized for her natural reproductive cycle.