Steven James, writing a post for CNN Belief Blog, urged Christians to stop sugarcoating the Bible. In his post he said that “Christians are uncomfortable with how earthly the Bible really is. They feel the need to tidy up God.”
In order to show how Christians sugarcoat the Bible, James provides several examples taken from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. After presenting two examples of how Christians mistranlate the biblical texts, James wrote:
“God’s message was not meant to be run through some arbitrary, holier-than-thou politeness filter. He intended the Bible to speak to people where they’re at, caught up in the stark reality of life on a fractured planet.”
In this post I will deal with two passages from the Old Testament that James discussed in his post. After discussing these passages, I will offer my evaluation of James’ criticism.
The first text James discussed was Isaiah 64:6. James wrote:
For example, look in any modern translation of Isaiah 64:6, and you’ll find that, to a holy God, even our most righteous acts are like “filthy rags.” The original language doesn’t say “filthy rags”; it says “menstrual rags.” But that sounds a little too crass, so let’s just call them filthy instead.
James is right in his translation of Isaiah 64:6. The Hebrew expression בֶ֥גֶד עִדִּ֖ים literally means “garments of menstruation.” James is correct in saying that English translations of the text do not convey the meaning of the original language.
For instance, the ESV translates the Hebrew expression as “polluted garment.” The KJV uses “filthy rags” and the NRSV as “filthy cloth.”
What James does not say is that several translations of the Bible are faithful to the original text. For instance, the Complete Jewish Bible uses “menstrual rags,” the Douay-Rheims translation uses “the rag of a menstruos woman,” and the NET Bible uses “a menstrual rag.”
The question that must be asked is why do the versions differ in translating Isaiah 64:6? At issue here is the concept of holiness and the preoccupation with uncleanness in ancient Israel. Ancient Israelites believed that bodily discharges, including menstrual flow, produced uncleanness.
In Israel, a woman’s menstrual discharge was a source of uncleanness: “When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening” (Lev. 15:19).
Since menstrual flow was a potent source of uncleanness, Isaiah compares human sin as something unclean and the righteousness that comes from an unforgiven sinner with the dirty garment that is stained with the menstrual flow.
Since most readers of the Bible do not understand how seriously people in ancient Israel viewed the uncleanness caused by bodily discharges, they would not understand the concept of a menstrual rag. Thus, translators try to use an expression that conveys the idea of something repulsive, such as a “filthy rag.”
The other example that James used in his post is the expression “pisseth against the wall,” an expression that appears six times in the King James Version, but none in most modern versions of the Bible.
James erred in his evaluation of the sentence by saying that “the Jewish writers referred to Gentile men as those who ‘pisseth against the wall.’” The fact is that those who use this expression are Israelites referring to Israelites.
I will not go into detail explaining the expression “him that pisseth against the wall.” I have written two posts on this expressive Hebrew phrase (read Part 1 here; Part 2 here). I concluded by saying that the expression is a vulgarism designed to convey a mild obscenity.
The problem with the expression is that it does not convey much to a modern reader. If one would ask ten people the meaning of the expression “him that pisseth against the wall,” it is possible that one would have twelve different explanations for the meaning of these words.
Take the English expression “he gets my goat.” In his poem “He Gets My Goat,” Stevie Mccabe wrote:
This old man he really gets my goat
Something in the way he does his thing
Whenever he’s around i’m in misery
can’t put a foot wrong without feeling cheated.
How would one explain the English expression “he gets my goat” to a Spanish speaking person? There is a translation of this expression, “Me pega el chivo,” but both the English and the Spanish translation are referring to herding goats which is not the intent of the English expression.
Thus, in order to convey the expression in the language of the reader, it becomes necessary to use an expression that conveys the real meaning of the original sentence. Thus, “him that pisseth against the wall” in Hebrew becomes “every male” in one’s household in English.
This process of translating the message of the Bible into the language of the reader is a complicated process because the goal is not to offer a literal translation of the original, but one that can be understood by the reader while preserving the real intent of the original writer. This is not sugarcoating the Bible. It is an attempt at offering an intelligible translation that conveys the real message of the Bible.
This problem is not original with the translators of the Bible. The biblical writers themselves and the scribes who copied and transmitted the biblical text used euphemisms to sugarcoat embarrassing situations and offensive statements about God.
For instance, instead of using the words for human sexual organs, out of modesty the biblical writers used the word “feet.” Thus, the biblical writer can speak of “the hair of the feet” (Isa. 7:20). Now, this is sugarcoating the Bible since the writer deliberately refused to use a word that should not be mentioned in public.
Even the scribes were reluctant to use statements that, in their eyes, diminished the character of God. Thus they emended the text and used words that removed the offensive expressions. In the Hebrew Bible there are eighteen of these Tiqqune Sopherim, the emendations of the scribes. I have discussed the emendation on Habakkuk 1:12 here. This also could be considered sugarcoating the Bible. Thus, if Christians sugarcoat the Bible, they are following a tradition that is thousands of years old.
In conclusion, let me say that I agree with the point James is making in his post. Most Christians believe that the Bible was written by human beings, under the inspiration of God, in order to present a written witness of their experience with the divine. In the process of writing about their encounter with God, they used language that reflects their culture and even social mores.
However, in the process of communicating their message to the present generation of readers, it becomes imperative that the message be communicated in a language that people can understand. This is the reason the King James Bible is not used as much as it was just half-a-century ago. The king’s English has become unintelligible to most readers today.
In addition, we cannot blame Christians for sugarcoating the Bible. We must blame the translators of the Bible who think that most readers will be offended by some of the raw language we find in some of the books of the Bible.
In previous posts I have argued for translating the biblical text as literally as possible and as readable as necessary. I rather prefer that the reader struggle with the text as it is than to offer a reading that is more of an interpretation than a translation of the text.
I agree with James: stop sugarcoating the Bible.
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Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary.