Language is the basic means of communicating thoughts and ideas. Some languages are rather complex in their structure (e.g. Koine Greek) while others seem to be focused more on poetical expression (e.g. Ancient Hebrew). Language, however, isn’t limited to words constructed of letters, but can also be rendered in pictorial form where the pictures tell the story. (e.g. Hieroglyphics). At the end of the day, there may be nuances to appreciate in the method thoughts are transmitted but the methods are secondary to the thoughts themselves (so much as the method isn’t vital to express the full ramifications of said thoughts).
There is much in the world of Christianity that varies as it relates to what is considered “Christian language” and “acceptable Christian expressions.” For example, some have no problem with swearing while others clam up when hearing it as if it were nails on the chalkboard. Society influences a language’s use and evolution and Christians have often taken society’s cues on what language is considered “good” vs “bad” (at least in the 200+ years of the United States anyway). However, as Christians are still human, there is a need to express feelings of regret or surprise, and in the Christian world, it has become common place to Christianize the language. This is predominantly true when it comes to profanity. Many have turned to “Christian cuss words” to stand in the place of “regular cuss words” (i.e. ‘dang’ instead of ‘damn’ or “freaking” instead of something else not so nice). However, as stated above, words are used to express the actual thoughts–intentions of the heart. Scripture records that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34) The particular words you select to use are the expression of the heart. They are symptoms of the heart’s motivations. Words are a means by which we can interact with the heart’s motives but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that regardless of our word choice, the heart is the root of the matter. Saying ‘dang’ instead of its alternative doesn’t make the context of your heart any different–it is no different than saying the “real word”, regardless of how much we sanitize it to meet a religious tolerance threshold. This isn’t designed to suggest that our language doesn’t matter, but it is designed to suggest that the motives of our heart matter more. How we therefore choose to express those motives is certainly important and for the believer, should be a matter of careful consideration – not because expressing one’s heart is inherently sinful, but because of the impact of your expression could have on others (i.e. causing another believer to stumble).
But, it isn’t just our daily speech that often goes through the sanitation machine, we even find instances where the translators chose to translate a word or phrase in terms that would be more acceptable to the Christian reader. There may also be instances where language has evolved enough that a common phrase today didn’t exist (in English) at the time of translation. It is interesting to me that there are times in scripture where the common English phrase (today) actually represents what was intended when written/said in the native language. The example I want to look at is a Hebrew idiom that has very much an English equivalent, albeit not considered acceptable in the realm of more conservative Christian language.
In 1Samuel 20, for example, David is worried that Saul is ready to kill him. David speaks with Saul’s son, Jonathan, and devises a plan to know for sure if Saul has desires to kill David or not. Jonathan doesn’t believe Saul will do this, yet, David’s gut says otherwise. The plan they devised is that David would hide himself for 3 days. The feast of the new moon was upon them and as custom was, David would have taken a seat at the king’s table. However, had David done this, David feared that it would remind king Saul and Saul would take occasion to slay him. So, David is going to wait in the field and Jonathan, after three days, would shoot three arrows and what happens with those arrows would determine if Saul was going to be friendly towards David or if Saul would kill him.
However, it would have been uncustomary for David to simply not be at the table during this feast so part of this plan is that Jonathan would tell Saul that David besought him to take leave for 3 days to go to Bethlehem (David’s city). Everything was set. The first day of the feast comes and David’s seat is empty, yet Saul really doesn’t even much of a notice and presumes David is sick. The second day with an empty seat and Saul is now more than casually concerned. He calls Jonathan and Jonathan tells Saul exactly what he and David worked out – about David taking leave to Bethlehem. Saul is ticked and absolutely wants to kill David now that he has missed the feast for such a trivial matter. Jonathan is very angry with his dad and runs out to shoot the arrows that would indicate bad news.
What I want to hone in on in this account is what Saul calls Jonathan. I mentioned Saul is ticked off at this news – not only that David left, but that Jonathan gave him permission to do so.
1Samuel 20:30 Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said unto him, Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou has chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother’s nakedness?
Saul knows where Jonathan’s allegiance lies and it is with the son of Jesse – David. But, did you notice what Saul calls Jonathan? He calls him a “son of a perverse rebellious woman.” This may seem rather odd – why is Saul berating Jonathan by attack his mother? That’s not it at all. Saul is absolutely enraged at Jonathan for his alliance with David and Saul expresses his emotionally-charged heart. The essence of the Hebrew phrase here is essentially calling Jonathan a “stupid son of a b****!” It is not often translated this way because of public decorum in what is considered acceptable language for the Bible and knowing that the Bible is often read in public, many translators have taken the approach of translating this Hebrew phrase more delicately. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the scriptures are not a prescription of religious do’s/don’t’s that just fell from the sky. The scriptures are a record of God’s working with man and often the quotes of man are recorded as man uttered them. This quote from Saul is part of the grand narrative of the scriptures and its recording of it is certainly a matter of inspiration. It reflected the motives of Saul’s heart at the time.
(Just because I feel it should be said)–I’m not suggesting that the translators translated this incorrectly – that’s not the point. The point is, we should understand that the scriptures are not as sanitized as the [subjective] Christian rules of our time often demand. There are things in the scriptures that are quite harsh to our ears because of the way we’ve establish what sanitary Christian language sounds like. Saul’s name calling is just one example. Here’s another–There are 6 instances where the phrase “pisseth against the wall” is used and it is used to distinguish males from females. (Those who go to the bathroom standing up vs sitting down). Seems an odd way to distinguish males from females, but it is nonetheless used. And the record of it by the Hebrew authors certainly (by inspiration no less) felt no qualms with using that language.
None of what I’ve written above is to condone using certain language or tones, nor is it to deny using said language or tones, but is simply a recognition that if we are zealous with our sanitation efforts, then we are liable to have to turn a deaf ear to some of the scriptures–or, at least miss the essence of what is often being said.
At this juncture, it might also be good to point out that respecting the age and maturity of a reader (and therefore, what they are exposed to) is not the same thing as this sanitation I’m speaking of. We often toss around that children should be reading the Bible because it is “God’s word” without giving much thought as to what is in it. Should children be reading Song of Solomon? I would venture that most Christian parents wouldn’t knowingly give their child some steamy romance novel, yet, the Song of Solomon is steamy Hebrew poetry between lovers. Since it is “God’s word”, does that mean that the material in Song of Solomon gets a pass and young eyes and ears should partake? Should children be reading the accounts at the end of the book of Judges? Should children be reading about Sodom and Gomorrah? Should children read about David and Bathsheba? Should children read the book of Hosea with all of its whorish language? Should children read portions of the Law of Moses that speak of fornication, adultery, etc.?
Being wise with what you expose your children to, in this example, is prudent for every parent. There is a reason Paul tells the Corinthians that he speaks to them as babes – because they aren’t mature enough in their faith to understand things beyond a base level knowledge of what being one in Christ is all about. This is not zealous sanitation, but wise exposure to information. This also doesn’t make that information bad or wrong, nor does it cast doubt on the statements it makes. All scripture is profitable, Paul says, for doctrine, yet even when something is holistically good, if it is used in an unwise context, it can become harmful. Each child is different and therefore parents should know and understand their children to know when their ability to handle certain information is sound.
But, for those who are able and ready to consume this information in scripture, we should allow the scriptures to be what they are. They are not sanitized for a reason and we shouldn’t feel obligated to make them so. Allow them to relay the information they record, in the manner in which it was recorded, and pay attention to how God is working, despite if what is being read is more or less ‘uncomfortable’ based on our modern, Christian language limits. At the same time, be mindful of the scope of the information as it relates to the potential hearers/readers.
Don’t sanitize scripture, but harness wisdom in how you handle it.