Morality Ch. 23: Crude Language

The Bible has many phrases we can’t translate literally because they’d cause offense or giggling. Some authors, such as Paul, use offensive language we’d consider too strong today, though they don’t use gratuitous violent or sexual terms merely to shock, as is common today.

The Bible contains a surprising amount of crude and offensive language, and our translations sometimes have to modify this. Imagine a respectable elderly lady in her cashmere cardigan reading from the pulpit Bible in church: “She lusted for lovers who had the penis of an ass and ejaculated like a horse” (a literal translation of Ezek 23:20). Friends of the brash new king Rehoboam advised him to emphasize that he was tougher than his father Solomon by telling the people: “My little finger is thicker than his penis” (1 Kgs 12:10, my translation). Translators have a tough time with that one!

I sit on an international Bible translation committee, and we often have to deal with issues like this. Sometimes a word is perfectly respectable in one society but not in another. One American translation that was going to be sold in England described the coast of Tyre as “a place to spread fishnets” (Ezek 26:5). My daughter (who was helping to proof it) said her jaw dropped open when she read that verse. In the US, “fishnets” catch fish, but in the UK they are sexually provocative stockings. I remember one afternoon when the committee went through every instance of “booty” in the Bible, changing it to “plunder” or “looting” – and no one around the table would explain to me why we were doing it! The meaning of the word changed in North America and reached England later, so it was obvious to the American scholars. I had to ask one of the rougher kids in church back home to explain it.

Many aspects of language change with time. The King James Bible was able to translate literally the recurring Hebrew phrase “any that pisseth against the wall,” but most modern translations modify this to “any male” (e.g., 1 Sam 25:22, 34). In the gentle days of my youth, church leaders were concerned to protect us from verses in the KJV that used “bloody” (e.g., Ezek 22:2) or “shut up” (e.g., Lev 13:4). In those innocent days we didn’t even notice the potential problems in Luke 17:34-35: “there shall be two men in one bed … two women shall be grinding together.”

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“It was all crap”

The Bible occasionally contains deliberately offensive language. Paul directs some crude and angry words at his opponents who demand that Christian converts be circumcised. He tells them to go all the way and castrate themselves (Gal 1:12). And when he wants to contrast his old religiosity with the new life he’s found in Christ, he says (in modern equivalent language): “It was all crap compared to Christ” (Phil 3:8). The word he chose (skubalon) wasn’t a polite word like “feces” but a crude word that is found in ancient graffiti. He wanted to shock people out of their comfortable religion.

Jesus uses offensive language when criticizing the religious establishment. He calls them hypocrites, children of hell, blind fools, and snakes – to their faces! (Matt 23:13-17, 33). By this stage in his ministry there had been many opportunities for them to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, sent by God, but they were too set in their ways. In exasperation he publicly insults them, trying to shock them into recognizing their faults, then goes on to lament over the stubbornness of Jerusalem in not turning back to God (vv. 37-38).

There is even some blush-worthy language attributed to God. In Isaiah he says even our righteous acts are as filthy as used menstrual pads – usually translated coyly as “filthy rags” (Isa 64:6). This is deliberately meant to shock. Then at other times euphemisms are used, such as the shaming of the Assyrians by metaphorically being shaved by God, who will cut off the hair from their head, from their beard, and from their “feet” (Isa 7:20). To understand this euphemism you have to know that urine is called “foot water” (2 Kgs 18:27 = Isa 36:12).

Euphemisms have their place, making it possible to talk in a nonthreatening manner about matters that might cause embarrassment. However, we have gone to silly extremes. In polite society we even create euphemisms for “toilet” or “lavatory,” such as “restroom” or “ladies’ room.” And yet the originals are already euphemisms – lavare is Latin for “washing,” and a toilet is an old French word for a “cloth,” indicating a dressing room.

Martin Luther’s Table Talk is a fascinating record of Christian mealtime conversations in an earlier century. However, it is often cringe inducing to read, because no modern-day clergy would let themselves go into print with such crude and forthright language. Similarly, King James, when speaking to a conference of clergy to promote his new Bible, said to a group of Puritans: “I give but a turd for your argument.”

Of course, you can be just as offensive using perfectly “good” language – politicians do it all the time. In many parliamentary chambers, politicians are constrained by a list of “unparliamentary language” that includes calling anyone a “liar,” a “hypocrite,” or “drunk.” But these restrictions merely result in creative uses of language such as “he was as tired as a newt.”1 British politics was much livelier in the past, especially when Winston Churchill argued with Lady Astor, a former American citizen who became the first woman to serve in the UK Parliament. She once said to Churchill: “If you were my husband, I would feed you poison,” to which he retorted, “If you were my wife, madam, I would take it!”2

Arnold Schwarzenegger was much loved as governor of California because he used phrases such as “economic girlie-man,” and Donald Trump has a similar talent for offending people without using any officially banned language. A sadly neglected principle of politics is “attack the policy, not the person.” Adversarial debates are sterile because no one is seeking to understand the opposite side. They want to win the debate rather than learn from it or come to a consensus.

At the other end of society, crude and violent words pepper conversations until they become mere punctuation. One of the worst examples is in a movie I love, Midnight Run, which pokes fun at this habit with a memorable line: “I have just two words for you: Shut the f*** up.” This type of crude language, intended to offend or insult, is not helpful. If you use swear words in everyday speech, what is left when you wish to demonstrate anger or disgust?

Suppose you see drug pushers trying to sell to kids outside your children’s school. Do you ask them politely to move along or tell them roundly what you think of them and their trade?

Salty, not gritty

Strong language does have a valuable function and is effective if it accurately communicates emotion or urgency, but this can only happen if it is used sparingly. Paul says: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Col 4:6). Paul was probably making a reference to the way that offerings in the temple were seasoned with salt (Lev 2:13). This is completely opposite to what we mean by salty language, which normally refers to the colorfully rough language of sailors.

However, the ancient realities about salt actually make it an apt way of describing strong language. The salt of the ancient world also illustrates the danger of language that intends nothing but offense. Salt was one of the strongest sources of flavor, but unlike modern salt, it could also lose its flavor, as Jesus warns (Matt 5:13 = Mark 9:50 = Luke 14:34).

Salt was mostly mined and wasn’t purified by washing, dissolving, and evaporation, as it is now. So if salt was left in a damp bag, the flavor gradually leached out, leaving nothing but the sandy impurities. If you then used this flavorless salt, it merely added grit to a meal. This is like using gratuitously offensive language instead of appropriately strong phrases. Instead of adding a little spice to enhance your reply to someone, you end up adding nothing but grit that makes their teeth grind. Those words will produce harm without adding anything interesting or wholesome.

Paul wasn’t commending uniformly bland and inoffensive speech, but he invited us to think before we speak. In the Bible, crude language is used to make a forceful point or create a memorable analogy. Sometimes we need to genuinely demonstrate our anger or disgust. At those times, we should ask ourselves: Will my words inform and motivate the recipient, or will they act like grit, resulting in nothing but increased friction and bitterness?

1^ “Debates of the Legislative Assembly for the Australian Capital Territory: Hansard,” December 14, 1995 ( on p. 3049).
2^ “Winston Churchill’s Finest Quotes (3/11)” (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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