Friday, March 16, 2018

Does the Bible Dissemble?

I begin with two definitions:

Euphemism: “The substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend.”

Dissemble: “To put on a false appearance: conceal facts, intentions, or feelings under some pretense.”

Thus a euphemism is an attempt to disguise the true nature of a concept by using an expression that might give less offense—sugarcoating it as it were. On the other hand when one dissembles one does not address a thing forthrightly, but attempts to conceal or mask the true character of a thing or situation. Speaking euphemistically and dissembling are essentially attempts to mislead and deceive for whatever reason.

Judging by these two definitions some biblical writers do just that—they dissemble by using euphemisms. The best known instance of this practice is the use of the word “Heaven” as a circumlocution for “God” by the writer we dub Matthew. Matthew uses this euphemism likely for reasons of personal piety (Matt 8:11=Luke 13:29; Matt 10:7=Luke 9:2; Matt 11:11=Luke 7:28; Matt 11:12=Luke 16:16; Matt 13:11=Luke 8:11=Mark 4:11).

Another well know instance of dissembling is the use by certain writers of the word “feet” as a euphemism for genitalia and activities involving the genitals probably for reasons related to modesty (compare Paul’s declining to name the less presentable parts of the human body, 1 Cor 12:22-24). Some of these euphemisms are so clear that Bible translators apparently feel comfortable simply de-euphemizing the euphemism and unmasking the “real” meaning in their translations, albeit it modestly. The King James (KJV) translation of 1611 regularly translates “feet” literally as “feet,” while more modern translations (the Revised Standard Version, RSV) de-euphemize certain passages in which the word feet appears.

Judges 3:24:
KJV: “surely he covers his feet in the summer chamber”
RSV: “He is only relieving himself in the closet of the cool chamber”
1 Samuel 24:3:
KJV: “where was a cave, and Saul went in to cover his feet
RSV: “there was a cave; and Saul went in to relieve himself.”
Ezek 16:25:
KJV: “you have opened your feet to everyone that passed by and multiplied your whoredoms”
RSV: “offering yourself to any passer-by and multiplied your harlotry

In other instances modern translators are apparently uncomfortable de-euphemizing the euphemism (if that is what it is). The RSV translates David’s order to Uriah “Go down to your house and wash your feet” (2 Sam 11:8), which Uriah understands as a directive to enjoy the privileges of being a husband and “lying with his wife” (2 Sam 11:11). Here are several others where the RSV hesitates: Isa 7:20 (shaving the hair of the feet; likely meaning pubic hair); Exod 4:25 (Zipporah cuts the foreskin of her son “and touched Moses’ feet with it”).

What should we now think about Ruth 3:4 where Naomi tells her daughter-in-law, Ruth, to observe where Boaz lies down “then, go and uncover his feet and lie down and he will tell you what to do.” Ruth does as she was instructed “Then she came softly, and uncovered his feet and lay down” (Ruth 3:7).

            Of course an ancient Hebrew would likely have known when “feet” was used euphemistically. But sometimes a foot is just a foot and not a euphemism for something else (for example, John 11:2; 12:1-2; Luke 7:38-39); and even we moderns in our own culture sometimes stumble over euphemisms—so perhaps they may not have known in every case after all. So perhaps some of the other uses of “feet” should be considered a euphemism. Recognizing “feet” as a sometimes euphemism for genitalia does leave me wondering just exactly what was the nature of the disease that King Asa of Judah developed in his old age (1 Kgs 15:23 and 2 Chron 16:12).

More importantly euphemisms in the Bible raise the broader issue of hermeneutics—the methodological principles of interpreting the Bible. The uncertainties of our knowledge of the ancient past should caution us to respect the tentative nature of our knowledge in how we craft historical reconstructions of the ancient past. The better practice is let the text say what it will and put explanations in notes appended to the text.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

It seems to me that we can identify when what might be considered euphemism or dissembling is actually part of a complex way of defining a complex subject, without intent to cover-up anything, but to reveal something?

(1) You have noted that Matthew a number of times uses the phrase 'kingdom of heaven,' when Luke or Mark, for example, might use 'kingdom of God.' But Matthew is not consistent, so dissembling seems inappropriate as a definition: for example, 6:33 - strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. 9:8 - they were filled with awe and glorified God, 12:28 - the kingdom of God has come to you. 15:4-6 -"God" is used three times when reflecting on 'Honor your father and mother.' 21:31 - tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you (synagogue leaders), and so forth.

(2) Far more than any other NT author Matthew uses the word "Father" for God. Did Matthew, or Jesus, who Matthew constantly quotes, use 'Father' euphemistically (let alone in a dissembling manner)? Here are the examples:

Yes, Father – 11:26
The Father – 11:27 (2), 24:36, 28:19
Our Father – 6:9
Their Father – 13:43
His Father – 16:27
Your Father – 6:4,6,8,15,18(2); 10:20,29; 18:14
My Father – 7:21; 10:32-33; 12:50; 16:17; 18:10,19; 20:27; 25:34; 26:39,42,57
My Father's kingdom - 26:29
Your heavenly Father – 5:48; 6:14,26,32
My heavenly Father – 15:13; 18:35
Your Father who is in heaven – 5:16,45; 6:1, 7:11
You Father, Lord of heaven and earth – 11:25
One is your Father, He who is in heaven – 23:9

It seems likely that Matthew accepted "Father" as a straight forward definition of God because he thought that is what Jesus had done.

I certainly agree with your final comment: "...when crafting historical reconstructions...let the text say what it will and put explanations in notes appended to the text."

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good afternoon Gene,
Sorry I have been gone for a week without my computer.
On your introductory statement you mention "intent": Someone's intent is something to which one is never privy. Even when people tell you what they intended, you only know what they told you their intent was. You never ever actually know their intent at the time.
On your (1): I was describing changes that Matt makes to Mark's text. For this essay I did not cover every instance of Mark's use of "God," but as I recall from having covered all instances in the past that Matt only a few times retains Mark's use of "God." In your examples, Matt 6:33--the Greek text does not use the word "God"; Matt 9:8--both Matt and Mark use "God"; Matt 12:28 is not in Mark; Matt 15:4-6 is not in Mark; Matt 21;31 is not in Mark.