What the Bleep Does the Bible Say About Profanity?

Political correctness, vulgarity and the scandalous nature of God's Word.

One of my favorite and most uncomfortable memories as a Bible professor was when I had Old Testament scholar, Tremper Longman, give a guest lecture on the Song of Songs. Tremper specializes in ancient near Eastern love poetry. No, he’s not some creepy old guy who gets off on ancient erotic fiction. He’s an authority on the Song of Songs, and he interprets the biblical Song in light of other ancient love poems—as it should be.

I’ll never forget feeling the tension in the classroom as he went into detail about the real meaning of the poem. “His body is polished ivory,” says the ESV, but according to Tremper, the Hebrew word for body refers to the man’s midsection and the image of ivory is intended to invoke the original form of ivory: an elephant’s tusk. Yes, that’s right. The wife in Song of Songs 5:14 is admiring her well-hung husband.

The reaction among the students was classic. Blushes, giggles, eye-brows raised to the ceiling. Apparently their Sunday school teachers never explained the connection between ivory tusks and penises. My own palms started to sweat as I thought about the slew of phone calls I was bound to get from angry parents demanding to know why their kids were discussing well-endowed men. But my nervousness turned to excitement as my students boiled with fundamentalist zeal: “If that’s what the Bible says, then why don’t our translations say what the Bible says?”

Cleaning up God’s word is like editing a love letter and sending it back for a re-write. But religious people have been covering up obscene language in the Bible for years

“Well,” Tremper searched as he looked to the ground. “Translations are filtered through a bit of political correctness.” We could tell Tremper didn’t agree with this. Still, silence and outrage hung in the air. As a professor, I spend a good deal of classroom time instilling in my students a passion to interpret and believe what the Bible actually says. Not what we want it to say, but what it really says in all its grit and occasional offensiveness. Cleaning up God’s word is like editing a love letter and sending it back for a re-write.

Editing the Bible

But religious people have been covering up obscene language in the Bible for years. Jewish scribes in the middle ages, who copied the Hebrew Old Testament used as the base for all English translations, edited out some vulgar words and replaced them with nicer ones. For instance, God originally prophesied through Zechariah that women in Israel would be raped by wicked, invading armies. The word God inspired is shagel, and according to Hebrew linguists, shagel is an obscene word that describes a sexual act. (No, it’s not where we get the British word “shag.”) But whenever God said shagel (e.g. Deuteronomy 28:30; Isaiah 13:16), the Masorites replaced it with the more tame shakev—“to lie with.” And all of our “literal” English translations agree that the word from the middle ages is better than the one spoken by our Creator.

The Bible is full of obscene language. Ezekiel would have been grounded for several months if he was raised in my house. He talks about huge penises, female genital fluid produced at sexual arousal, and large quantities of semen being “poured out” on Israel—God’s wayward whore (Ezekiel 16:26, 36, 37; 23:20-21). Instead of grounding the prophet, modern translators edit out the vulgarity so that Ezekiel can be read in church. The apostle Paul was so enrapture by the scandalous grace of God that he came dangerously close to cussing: “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as skubala, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). The Greek word skubala is more vulgar than crap, but not quite as harsh as s**t. Either way, most translations dim it down by using words like “rubbish,” which means trash, not excrement, or “dung” which is more accurate but far less offensive.

Offensive Language?

In some ways, it’s understandable that we don’t want to be using this type of language in church. But, on the other hand, the Gospel is offensive. Grace is scandalous. And that’s the real point. The biblical prophets sometimes use offensive language, but not to produce shock for its own sake. Edginess was never the goal, and neither was some vague notion of Christian “freedom.” God’s messengers used vulgar images to shock their religious audience out of complacency. Because sometimes the goodness of God becomes lost in the fog of Christianese rhetoric and religious routine, and the only way to wake us up is to use provocative language.

Sometimes the goodness of God becomes lost in the fog of Christianese rhetoric and religious routine, and the only way to wake us up is to use provocative language.

So how do we reconcile Ezekiel’s filthy tongue with Ephesians 4:29? “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Does this outlaw all forms of vulgarity? Not exactly. The word for “corrupting” (sapros) literally means “rotten, decaying, unwholesome.” The whole point is not to forbid certain words that are labeled “cuss words” by its culture, but all speech that does not “build up.”

Reflecting on Motives

Paul’s warning here does include using obscene or vulgar language that tears someone down, reflects worldly motives, or in any other way that’s unfit for a redeemed way of life. But “corrupting” primarily refers to slander, gossip or any other speech that tears someone down. Paul refers to the dangerous power of words, all words, when used to dehumanize another human being. Gossiping about a fellow church member, dropping a belittling comment on a blog or Facebook post or holding up a hateful sign at a gay-pride parade are all good examples of “corrupting” talk.

So, in other words, if modern day preachers and Christians cuss or use vulgar terms only to get a rise out of conservatives, they aren’t prophetic, they’re simply immature. Similarly, if you call someone a piece of skubula or blurt out shagel! after stubbing your toe, you’re not being prophetic or biblical, just immature and undisciplined.

But if your Gospel presentation is putting your moralistic crowd to sleep, or if a pharisaic friend is more concerned about proper speech than an addiction to grace, then you may need to tell him that his Christ-less church attendance is nothing more than a bloody tampon until he clings to the Cross, as Isaiah did (Isaiah 64:6).

Top Comments

Jeff Bjorck

6

Jeff Bjorck commented…

This is a bit long. Feel no obligation to read it.  

The author raises valid points regarding the sanitizing of language simply as cultural preference, which can obscure the true meaning of various scriptures. The read on Ephesians 4:29 is also helpful.
However, the author fails to directly address Ephesians 5:3,4

3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

I think it is useful to distinguish between profanity and obscenity. Obscenity is a subset of profanity, together with words that treat God's name irreverently or words that take His holy actions lightly. Thus, for example, only God has the right to damn someone to Hell, so damning someone or something, or telling someone to go to Hell, or using the word Hell as though it's not a reality, all fail to treat God with reverence. To my knowledge, no Biblical author does this, certainly not in a casual way that really have nothing to do with condemnation or Hell. Increasingly, however, Christians are beginning to do so (e.g., by saying something is a "helluva" good thing, or by saying "OMG" merely to express surprise or strong emotion).

On the other hand, Biblical authors do use sexual words in a variety of contexts. I would argue, however, that they do not use these words as obscenities, especially because sexuality is sacred. For a wife to tell her husband that he has beautiful sexual anatomy is not obscene, but to call someone the equivalent of a penis or to say "F--- you" are examples of what I believe Paul is describing in Ephesians 5.

As a psychologist, I would also note that obscene language and other profane language typically use words out of their original context. For example, the word "F---" is very rarely used to describe copulation and is very commonly used as a term of aggression that has nothing to do with sex. Similarly, using God's name out of context as an oath is frequently done as an act of anger, and it always is done with no respect for God. The same is certainly true of Jesus' name.

Therefore, I would observe that--very often--these various words are used as attempts (albeit not conscious) to help us acquire or regain a sense of power or control (albeit illusory). If I break a shoelace on my way to an important meeting, this failure points to my inability to control the world as I wish, but at least I can curse my shoelace or call my shoelace "s--t." I would submit that acts of verbal aggression, like physical aggression, are often manifestations of the human desire to perceive self as sufficient, even though only God is self-sufficient.

Thus, the next time one feels like using such language, perhaps it might be a time to whisper a quick prayer, "Thanks, God, for reminding me that I am NOT God, and I cannot control things as I would like. Grant me the patience to trust you in the midst of my insufficiency." Then, perhaps, we might then hear a still small Voice respond, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness."

Lance Thomas

1

Lance Thomas commented…

You see time and time again Jesus going after what matter most in his disciples and the pharisees: the actions of the heart. "...for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks." This may rock some folks but I think you can definitely build up someone with by telling them with a loving and caring heart that I f***ing love you. You can also be in sin just as much if you stump your toe and say "snap" rather than "sh*t" if in saying "snap" there's anger or rage in your heart. The words out of our mouths matter SOOOOOOOOOO much less than the heart intention behind the words. However, let us also not "...become a stumbling block to the weak."

52 Comments

Jeff Bjorck

6

Jeff Bjorck commented…

This is a bit long. Feel no obligation to read it.  

The author raises valid points regarding the sanitizing of language simply as cultural preference, which can obscure the true meaning of various scriptures. The read on Ephesians 4:29 is also helpful.
However, the author fails to directly address Ephesians 5:3,4

3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

I think it is useful to distinguish between profanity and obscenity. Obscenity is a subset of profanity, together with words that treat God's name irreverently or words that take His holy actions lightly. Thus, for example, only God has the right to damn someone to Hell, so damning someone or something, or telling someone to go to Hell, or using the word Hell as though it's not a reality, all fail to treat God with reverence. To my knowledge, no Biblical author does this, certainly not in a casual way that really have nothing to do with condemnation or Hell. Increasingly, however, Christians are beginning to do so (e.g., by saying something is a "helluva" good thing, or by saying "OMG" merely to express surprise or strong emotion).

On the other hand, Biblical authors do use sexual words in a variety of contexts. I would argue, however, that they do not use these words as obscenities, especially because sexuality is sacred. For a wife to tell her husband that he has beautiful sexual anatomy is not obscene, but to call someone the equivalent of a penis or to say "F--- you" are examples of what I believe Paul is describing in Ephesians 5.

As a psychologist, I would also note that obscene language and other profane language typically use words out of their original context. For example, the word "F---" is very rarely used to describe copulation and is very commonly used as a term of aggression that has nothing to do with sex. Similarly, using God's name out of context as an oath is frequently done as an act of anger, and it always is done with no respect for God. The same is certainly true of Jesus' name.

Therefore, I would observe that--very often--these various words are used as attempts (albeit not conscious) to help us acquire or regain a sense of power or control (albeit illusory). If I break a shoelace on my way to an important meeting, this failure points to my inability to control the world as I wish, but at least I can curse my shoelace or call my shoelace "s--t." I would submit that acts of verbal aggression, like physical aggression, are often manifestations of the human desire to perceive self as sufficient, even though only God is self-sufficient.

Thus, the next time one feels like using such language, perhaps it might be a time to whisper a quick prayer, "Thanks, God, for reminding me that I am NOT God, and I cannot control things as I would like. Grant me the patience to trust you in the midst of my insufficiency." Then, perhaps, we might then hear a still small Voice respond, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness."

Gonzia Green

1

Gonzia Green commented…

~I own several Bibles(Dake, Scofield, Nelson); none of which are 'edited.' I also own commentaries from the 1700-1860's that aren't 'edited.' Another good reason to have lexicons, Hebrew & Greek Bible dictionary aids, & to READ THE HOLY BIBLE FOR YOUR OWN UNDERSTANDING.
~INSIDE STRONG CHRISTIAN MINISTRIES.
"THEMADPREACHER!"
(Acts 26:24-25)

LeLe G

1

LeLe G commented…

The passages in Ezekiel that he mentioned are misunderstood. Ezekiel was speaking of the punishment that Israel (the adulterous wife) would receive as the result of turning from God (the husband). He was not condoning the actions that were taking place. Look at Ezekiel 23:20. He describes the actions as "gross and bestial"!
I would like to see these passages translated as he claims they were originally. I know people who have read original documents and they informed me that what this writer claims is not true.
James 3:6-9
Ephesians 4:29
2 Timothy 2:16
Philippians 4:8

Jeremy Jones

48

Jeremy Jones commented…

The bible says nothing about "cuss words" according to whatever culture you are part of. It does say to be sure to watch the context of your words.

So is cussing wrong? No. Of course not.
It's entirely up to the context of the sentence.

Mylina Renee

1

Mylina Renee commented…

One thing I've noticed is that as I get older conversations about sex are nothing vulgar. I find myself in convos with my friends and family and we don't sensor the word penis, sex, vagina, masturbation... It's life and sex is beautiful to God. Then sometimes you talk about it for health reasons etc... So I'm convinced just as we mature its no biggie, it wasnt vulgar in the Bible days either at least when in convos with the mature. Now you mention Paul using a word that wasn't profane but not in everyday language either. I don't take that as being a cuss word. Probably the equivalent today of like saying crap or something. Some Christians probably use that word others don't but nothing exactly culturally or literally profane. I don't have a problem with the word persay. But I don't think your point to make profane words okay with Christians at times was proved, nor is that perspective biblical.

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