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.
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.”
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
Missouri State University