In my previous post I introduced the many suggestions offered by scholars to understand the intriguing Hebrew expression “him that pisseth against the wall.” I also discussed Duane Smith’s article in which he presented a novel interpretation that this Hebrew phrase means “a person who hopes for progeny.”
Duane’s interpretation is unique. His interpretation is based on a study of the Assyrian urination omina and dream interpretation found in the Assyrian Dream Book. Duane concluded that since the Hebrew phrase is used in contexts that speak of the elimination of progeny, then, in light of the urine omina, “him that pisseth against the wall” is a “person who hopes for progeny” (p. 714).
Although Duane’s conclusion is based on solid research, I believe that his view that “him that pisseth against the wall” is a “person who hopes for progeny” does not fully clarify the true intention of the Hebrew expression. Let me explain.
Take, for instance, the case of David and Nabal. As a way of introduction, I will present a short summary of the events narrated in 1 Samuel 25. While David was living in Hebron, he and his men served as protectors of some of the landowners who lived in the area. One day when David and his army were in need of some food, he sent ten men to Nabal’s house asking the rich landowner to give him some of his flock so he could feed his soldiers.
Nabal refused David’s request and offended David by calling him a runaway slave (1 Samuel 25:10). David was irate, and in his anger made a solemn vow: “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” (1 Samuel 25:22 KJV).
There are two things in David’s vow that militates against Duane’s view. First, when David made his vow, his intention was to eliminate Nabal’s house. David did not expect to kill men who hoped for progeny. He promised to kill every man in Nabal’s house, young and old, thus eliminating from society the name of Nabal forever.
Second, from the context it is clear that Nabal had no idea that David had made a vow to eliminate the men in his house. The idea that the men in Nabal’s house were hoping for progeny does not find support in the text. The same applies to the promises of judgment against the houses of Jeroboam, Baasha, and Ahab.
It is possible to say, as Duane wrote on p. 716, that the Deuteronomistic redactors were familiar with the Akkadian urine omina, but it is doubtful that the redactors used the expression “him that pisseth against the wall” to refer to a person hoping for children in the future. One who reads the story of David and Nabal, either from David’s perspective or from Nabal’s perspective, will never conclude that “him that pisseth against the wall” means “a person who hopes for progeny.”
The proper interpretation of the expression “him that pisseth against the wall” requires several clarifications of ideas implied in the text and a brief understanding of the cultural practices of Israel.
First, it is clear that the Hebrew expression “him that pisseth against the wall” contains a reference to dogs. This is how the Talmud understood this expression: “The meaning of the verse is this: ‘Even a creature whose way is to piss against a wall I will not leave him. And what is this? A dog’” (Baba Bathra 19b). Even Duane himself recognizes the allusion to dogs in this phrase. He wrote: “Modern interpreters who follow this suggestion combine the empirical fact that male dogs do urinate against walls” (p. 703).
Second, this Hebrew expression is used pejoratively to describe men. This is the reason most English translations use a euphemism to translate the Hebrew expression. English translations use the word “male” to avoid using the expression “him that pisseth against the wall.” The pejorative here conveys the idea “that some man is no better than a dog that urinates against a wall” (p. 700).
Third, in all the passages where the expression “him that pisseth against the wall” appears, the word “dog” also appears.
For instance, in the case of Nabal, his behavior is compared to a dog. Hans W. Hertzberg, in his commentary I & II Samuel (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976) translates 1 Samuel 25:3 as follows: “Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was of good understanding and beautiful, but the man was churlish and ill-behaved–a real Calebbite dog.” Nabal was from the house of Caleb, and Caleb in Hebrew means “dog.”
Dogs also appear in the words of judgment against Jeroboam:
“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. Him that dieth of Jeroboam in the city shall the dogs eat” (1 Kings 14:10-11 KJV).
“Him that pisseth against the wall” and dogs also appear in the words of judgment against Baasha (1 Kings 16:4; 16:11) and in the words of judgment against the house of Ahab (1 Kings 21:21; 21:24; 2 Kings 9:8; 9:10; 9:36).
It is my firm conviction that the Hebrew expression “him that pisseth against the wall” must be understood in relation to how the people of Israel felt toward dogs. In Israel dogs were listed among the unclean animals because they ate the flesh of unclean animals (Exodus 22:31).
In some societies of the Ancient Near East, the word “dog” was used as a term of abuse. In the Old Testament, the word “dog” is used as a term of opprobrium. When the word is used to refer to a person, the use of the word represents a personal insult: “Then Abishai son of Zeruiah said to the king, ‘Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and take off his head’” (2 Samuel 16:9). In Deuteronomy 23:19, the “wages of a dog” refer to the wages of a male prostitute.
The contempt expressed by the word “dog” is also applied to individuals. When the observable behavior of dogs was used to describe a person, that was considered the ultimate insult. For instance, the book of Proverbs says that the fool is like the dog that returns to his vomit (Proverbs 26:11).
This, then, brings us back to the Hebrew expression that has been the focus of our study. Ralph Klein, in his commentary on 1 Samuel (Waco: Word Books, 1983), p. 23, called the expression “him that pisseth against the wall” “vulgar language.”
John Gray, in his commentary on I & II Kings (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1970), p. 337, said that this Hebrew expression “is a typical example of the direct, graphic, uninhibited speech of the Israelite peasant, particularly of the prophets.”
P. Kyle McCarter, in his commentary on 1 Samuel (New York: Doubleday, 1980), p. 398, said that this Hebrew expression is “a vulgarism that is appropriate on David’s lips in his presumed state of mind.”
G. J. Botterweck, writing in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 7:153 said that “in the Hebrew Bible, portions of the canine anatomy are used to insult people.”
I believe that the expression “him that pisseth against the wall” is using the action of a dog and applying it as an insult to refer to males. All the occurrences of the expression appear in contexts where people are angry or where one person threatens another person with extinction. When people are angry they use obscenity.
This Hebrew expression is an obscenity used to insult people. The common definition of obscenity is an expression that is used as an invective. In our society, the expression “him that pisseth against the wall” would be the equivalent to SOB.
There are at least three obscene expressions in the Hebrew Bible; “him that pisseth against the wall” is one of them.
Some people may object that the people of the Bible did not use obscenity, but the use of vulgar language is found in every culture, even in the culture of the people who constituted ancient Israel.
Others may object that this obscenity appears in the mouth of kings and prophets. Since vulgar language is not commonly used in public, it is customary to use euphemisms to sanitize the language.
John Milton, in his An Apology for Smectymnuus, was very critical of those who sanitize the rough language of the Bible. On the attempt to sanitize “him that pisseth against the wall,” Milton wrote:
Turn then to the First of Kings, where God himself uses the phrase, “I will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall; which had it been an unseemly speech in the heat of an earnest expression, then we must conclude that Jonathan or Onkelos the targumists were of cleaner language than he that made the tongue; for they render it as briefly, “I will cut off all who are at years of discretion,” that is to say, so much discretion as to hide nakedness. Whereas God, who is the author both of purity and eloquence, chose this phrase as fittest in that vehement character wherein he spake. Otherwise that plain word might have easily been forborne: which the mazoreths and rabbinical scholiasts, not well attending, have often used to blur the margin with Keri instead of Ketiv, and gave us this insulse rule out of their Talmud, “That all words which in the law are written obscenely, must be changed to more civil words:” fools, who would teach men to read more decently than God thought good to write. And thus I take it to be manifest, that indignation against men and their actions notoriously bad hath leave and authority ofttimes to utter such words and phrases, as in common talk were not so mannerly to use.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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