Biblical Language: Vulgar, Ordinary, and Sublime

Some of you may not know that I have documented Jesus’ acceptance of gays and lesbians, and that for him, the acceptability of gays and lesbians had nothing to do with whether they were sexually active or not. This is the primary lesson of the Q Apocalypse in Luke 17.  Verse 34 and 35 of that passage read:

          I tell you, in that night,
          there shall be two men in one bed;
                the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.
          Two women shall be grinding together;
                the one shall be taken, and the other left.
           (Luke 17:34-35, KJV)
If you want to read posts on this topic, click here.

Some readers have been offended, a handful enraged, by the idea that Jesus would talk about sexual intercourse in terms that, today, seem to them so vulgar.  These responses are quite understandable. When I discovered that the “grind” language was used for sex in Greek in the time of Christ (click here), and that Jesus was using this language, I was appalled.  I’ve never stood around in a locker room talking with the guys about sex.  Even though I was researching the idea that the two couples in Luke 17:34-35 might be gays and lesbians, the evidence still upset me.  It was hard to imagine my Lord and Savior using what sounds to some of us today like gutter language.

We sometimes forget that Jesus was a Jew living in first century Palestine.  At the wedding in Cana in Galilee he ate the same food as other people.  On the hillsides of Galilee he squat down and eliminated that food like other people.  He slept in the same kinds of beds as other people.  If he was a woodworker like his dad, used the same wood-working tools as other people.  And he spoke the same language as other people.  The phrase “grinding together” was as acceptable in Jesus’ day and the phrase “making love” is in ours.

To read more about the sexual use of “grinding” in Jesus’ day, click here.

Jesus didn’t make up new words when he spoke, the way Paul might have done. Whether Jesus was speaking in Aramaic or Greek, the words he used were the same words everyone else used.  And like all languages, every word had a semantic range, several different acceptable meanings.  Every word had multiple meanings and usages.  Jesus’ words were often filled with unique spiritual significance, but the words themselves were just ordinary words.

Semantic Range of “Dogs” and “Grinding Together”

For example, Matthew 15:21-28 contains the story of a Canaanite mother who came to him, pleading with him to help her daughter who had a demon.  Although Jesus eventually helped her daughter, his first response was, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  In addition to literal canines, “dogs” also signified gentiles.  Both meanings are included in actual words Jesus used, literal dogs and figurative dogs.

Likewise, we know that Jesus’ statement, “Two women shall be grinding together,” has two literal meanings in the words themselves, the literal grinding of two stones and the equally literal grinding of two bodies.  Just as we know in Matthew that the word “dog” referred to gentiles (because of the preceding five verses), so too we know that “two women grinding together” in Luke referred to lesbian love-making (because of the preceding seven verses).

The Earthiness of Language in Scripture

Jesus, Paul, Solomon, Moses–they all used everyday language.  It should come as no surprise that this is quite typical.  Both testaments use everyday language.  One similarity between New Testament language and Old Testament language is especially important in this regard: both languages are much earthier than modern church people realize.  Christian academics know this.  Average church members don’t know about the earthiness of Biblical language because their translations hide it from them.

Philippians 3:8: σκυβαλα = shit

Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ.

For example, in Philippians 3:8, where Paul denigrates everything he once took pride in, he says those old things are skybala (σκυβαλα), what we would call “shit.” [N.T. Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, InterVarsity Press, 2009, (p 149); and Michael R. Cosby’s Apostle on the Edge: An Inductive Approach to Paul, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009 (p 192)]  For commercial reasons translation committees are reluctant to translate σκυβαλα literally.  One translation reads, “I consider them rubbish.”  Elsewhere σκυβαλα is rendered: garbage, filth, refuse, useless rubbish, and dung. In 1382 John Wycliffe rendered the word σκυβαλα as “turds.”

2 Kings 18:27 — שְׁתֹּ֛ות = piss

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?

The King James Version, universally hailed for its majestic language and cadences, renders the word שְׁתֹּ֛ות (shini ’em)  “piss.” (See also Isaiah 36:12)

I Kings 14:10 — מַשְׁתִּ֥ין = pisseth

Therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone.

The Hebrew word מַשְׁתִּ֥ין (mashthin) is rendered “pisseth,” “pisses,” or “urinates.”  The phrase “pisseth against the wall” is a euphemism for “man,” and is used some six times in the Hebrew historical books (I Samuel 25:22; 25:34; I Kings 14:10; 16:11; 21:21; II Kings 9:8).  It seems always used in a context of people slated for destruction by opposing forces.

Ruth 3:7 — מַ רְגְּלֹתָ֖יו = foot: euphemism for male & female genitalia

When Boaz had eaten and drunk and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain; and she came secretly, and uncovered his feet and lay down.

Ruth Uncovers the Feet of Boaz

I’m going to cite the section on “foot, feet” from the 1995 edition of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Foot, Feet,  (“foot, feet”) [מַרְגְּלֹתָ֖יו (mrglthi ‘u)] is a common euphemism for the penis.  Urine is called “foot water” (2 K. 18:27 and Isa. 36:12;). Pubic hair is called “hair of the feet” (Isa 7:20; cf. also Ezk. 16:7)….  Ruth’s action of “uncovering [Boaz’s] feet” (Ruth 3:7) // was a marriage proposal….  Each of the seraphim in Isaiah’s temple vision had siz wints: two to cover the face, two to fly, and two to cover the feet (Isaiah 6:2); ….  “Feet” can also refer to female genitalia, as in Dt. 28:57: “her afterbirth that comes out from between her feet.”  Ezekiel’s vivid pictures of Israel’s harlotry contains the phrase “you opened wide your feet” (RSV “offering yourself to any passer-by,” 16:25).   (pp 432-3)

Isaiah 64:6 — בֶ֥גֶד עִדִּ֖ים = stained rags (stained with menstrual blood or semen)

The phrase is translated “filthy rags,” “polluted garment,” or “grease-stained rags,” which doesn’t carry the same impact as what is conveyed in the original Hebrew.  To read more, click here.

Ezekiel 23 — Bible Porn

The book of Ezekiel contains a chapter-long denunciation of Samaria and Jerusalem which Hebrew scholars and casual readers alike consider pornographic.  Ezekiel 23 denounces “Oholah, and her sister Oholibah” in an extended metaphor of prostitution and harlotry as spiritual unfaithfulness and apostasy.  The prophetic denunciation is fever-hot in verses 19 and 20.

Yet she became more and more promiscuous as she recalled the days of her youth, when she was a prostitute in Egypt. There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.  

Song of Solomon — Erotic Love Poetry

This piece of Wisdom Literature goes by several names, Canticles, Song of Songs, and the Song of Solomon. It is quite well-known as the Bible’s example of a tender love poem, and it is also quite erotic.  I personally recommend that couples read it together.  You can read it in numerous translations at http://www.biblegateway.com, as well as in the Revised Standard Version here.

New Life Community Church, in Stafford, VA, has published an online description of the poetic language.  Click here: Sexual Allusions and Symbols in the Song of Songs.

Conclusion

None of this is rocket science.  For many of you, it’s old hat.  For others, some is familiar and some is new.  There are a few points I’d like to draw from it.

First, regarding the task of translation, it explains that among the political and theological biases that enter into translation, the issue of commercial marketability further muddies the translation waters.  For example, no translation I know of has ever translated Philippians 3:8 literally or Ruth 3:7 intelligibly. (If you know of one, please let me know!)

Second, in the United States, if a “Biblical World View” is going to be truly Biblical, it must not only acknowledge that American church culture is far too genteel by Biblical standards, but must advocate a return to Biblical standards of politeness and propriety.  If talk of shit (Paul), semen-soaked clothing (Isaiah and Jude 23), donkey genitalia and horse sperm (Ezekiel), pissing against walls, veiled references to penises (Ruth, Isaiah, Moses, Ezekiel, et al) and erotic language of all kinds (Solomon) is acceptable in the Bible, then we must begin to be a little less embarrassed about it in our own culture.  Many of you may already be unembarrassed; my comments may concern myself and people like me.  This language, far from being a sign of the corruption of society, actually represents a return to Biblical standards of speech and propriety.

Paul did say that it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.  Since this must be considered, it needs to be understood in the context of what Biblical authors themselves wrote, and what Jesus himself said.  If “language” was appropriate for Paul, Ezekiel, Moses, Solomon, and Paul, then it was certainly acceptable for Christ.

Finally, and specifically, when we read the words of Christ in Luke 17:34-35, we must not be shocked at his polite way of referring to sexual activity between gays and lesbians.  His words for love-making are quite delicate when compared to other sexual language in the Bible, and his words “grinding together” no  more offensive than the phrase “making love” is today.

[I’ve written a lot on the lesbians in Luke 17 already.  If you wish to know more, please find an appropriate thread here.]

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About Ron Goetz

Author, Widower, Grandpa, Son.
This entry was posted in Bible, Homosexuality and the Bible, Lesbians, Translation, Two Women Grinding Together and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Biblical Language: Vulgar, Ordinary, and Sublime

  1. Pingback: Biblical Language: Vulgar, Ordinary, and Sublime « Serenitylodge’s Weblog

  2. Marklewood at Serenity Lodge says:

    Interesting. Perhaps controversial. But thoughtful.

    Like

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