It might seem weird for a faith based, Biblically grounded website to write about how offensive the Bible can be, but hang with me for a minute.
Most of us that grew up going to church or have only experienced the Bible through Sunday mornings and group Bible studies are missing out on a lot of its shock value. The point of pointing out vulgarities in the Bible is not meant to put it in a poor light, but to help us appreciate it even more. The Bible is an endless fountain of wisdom and revelation, and having a deep love and respect for it means we examine in it full, offensive words and all.
Knowing the Bible isn’t the clean and sanitary book I grew up with has helped my faith with God become more genuine and made God feel more approachable to me. Hopefully it does something similar for you, too!
Here are five Bible passages that you probably wouldn’t want to read out loud in public, and we won’t even mention the stories about prophets making bears maul children or teens falling to their death because they couldn’t stay awake for Paul’s sermon.
1. 1 Samuel 20:30
Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said to him, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman, do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? (ESV)
What it actually says: The translators of this verse made it a little more palatable to our modern sensibilities by calling Jonathon the “son of a perverse, rebellious woman,” but I think it’s pretty clear what he meant in his language if we could somehow read it through fresh eyes.
In ancient Hebrew, Saul used a colloquialism ben ‘avah marduwth. In modern English, we’d say, “You son of a b&*%$.” I understand why the translators made the choice to transliterate this phrase instead of translate it, but it would make quite the impression if the pastor read it with its intended vulgarity next Sunday!
Why it’s there: King Saul’s story is really an examination of what happens when we ignore God’s faithfulness and provision. The people of Israel rejected God’s plan for them and demanded a king. Then, with the help of the prophet Samuel, they chose Saul as their king because he was tall. Things started off okay, but Saul’s insecurities and lack of faith quickly got the better of him.
He called his son, Jonathan, ben ‘avah marduwth because Jonathan was protecting his friend David from Saul’s wrath. The vulgarity of Saul’s language helps us understand the depth his heart had sunk to. He called his son this name, insulting both Jonathan and his mother, then threw his spear at Jonathan trying to kill him. Our English Bibles lose some of that story when we sanitzied Saul’s words for his son.
2. Song of Solomon 5:14
His arms are rods of gold
set with topaz.
His body is like polished ivory
decorated with lapis lazuli. (NLT)
What it actually says: This one seems safe, right? Nothing too weird about it. That is until you learn the word translated as “body” is a euphemism for sexual organs, too. As Strong’s puts it: “the uterus (or of men, the seat of generation).” Our modern translations make it seem like she’s admiring his six-pack, but the poem’s first readers knew she was admiring his 🍆.
Why it’s there: In short, because sex is a gift from God when it is enjoyed within the bounds of marriage. Song of Solomon gives us a great example of how sex should be free from shame, is something to be enjoyed, and is a gift from God. We modern Americans have perverted sex so much that we rarely understand the holy practice is was meant to be. Instead of treating sex as an act we should shy away from or as a hunger we are supposed to easily satisfy as our culture teaches us, this book helps us find a healthy view of sex.
3. Ezekiel 23:20-21
There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. So you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when in Egypt your bosom was caressed and your young breasts fondled. (NIV)
What it actually says: Ummm…not really sure what to say about this one? Genitals, semen, and breasts being fondled all in two verses? Are you sure this is in the Bible?
I think it’s pretty safe to say God was upset the Israel kept worshipping other gods even after promising not to over and over and over again. Jesus had some harsh words for the pharisees and rulers of his day, but I think this is probably God’s most epic burn.
Why it’s there: Ezekiel was prophet that wrote to Israelites in Babylonian captivity. Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Jerusalem in 597 BC and carted off about 10,000 of its citizens. Many of the Israelites were hoping to be let out of their exile sooner rather than later, but Ezekiel was tasked with telling them that wasn’t going to happen.
This passage comes from Ezekiel’s recounting of Israel’s long history of disobeying God and being unfaithful to him. Though it is very descriptive and more obscene than we usually think of the Bible, this description of sin is necessary for us to understand the depths to which it hurts God and harms us. Ezekiel could have just written, “You worshipped other gods and allied with other countries,” but instead his descriptive language gives us a better understanding of sin.
4. Isaiah 36:12
But the commander replied, “Was it only to your master and you that my master sent me to say these things, and not to the people sitting on the wall—who, like you, will have to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine?” (NIV)
What it actually says: The words for “excrement” and “urine” were so offensive to early copiers of the Bible that they refused to read them out loud. The Masoretes, who transmitted the Hebrew text in the form in we have it, would write less offensive words in their copies of the Bible so they would not need to offend their readers. In modern English, a more faithful translation might include words that start with “sh” and rhyme with “fit” or have a “p” at the beginning and “iss” at the end.
Why it’s there: It’s a much better insult the real way. An emissary of Assyria spoke those words to King Hezekiah as a threat, hoping to scare him into submission. After the confrontation, in which the emissary had many more insults for him and blasphemies against God, Hezekiah almost took the bait. He wanted to fight in order to defend God’s honor. However, Hezekiah waited on the LORD’s response instead of doing what he wanted, and in that waiting, he and his people were delivered.
The words the emissary used, the offensive words, were used as bait, but Hezekiah refused it. Just like Hezekiah, we should be slow to pursue our own revenge and wait on the Lord, no matter the effectiveness of the insult.
5. Philippians 3:8
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… (ESV)
What it actually says: Once again, our translators have taken a lot of the punch and shock value out Paul’s statement. The Greek word translated as rubbish is skybalon, and this is the only time it’s used in the Bible. You know who did love to use it 2,000 years ago? Graffiti writers and vandals. I’m sure they used to giggle as they scratched this vulgar word into the wall, imagining their mom seeing it and blushing with anger and offense.
Why it’s there: It becomes more obvious why Paul used skybalon once we know what it means. Essentially, Paul was saying, “everything that isn’t Jesus is like a burning pile of 💩.” Paul was esteemed amongst his peers, he was smart, he was about to make a lot of money and live in extravagant luxury. Then Jesus got ahold of him and took all of those things away. After his conversion, Paul looked at all of that money, power, stature, and reputation as if it were as valuable as big pile of 💩.
Paul’s word choice begs us to ask the same question: “What am I clinging to or pursuing in this life that is really a big pile of 💩?”
These are only my five favorite examples of vulgarities in the Bible. There are more like Zechariah 14, 2 Kings 18, and basically the whole books of Song of Solomon and Ezekiel. Which verses do you think I missed?
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