In Defense of Clean Speech in Christian Fiction, Part 10

Clean Speech InitativeSee Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8, and Part 9.

Note: This installment deals with some specific crude words found in the King James Version of the Bible.

Secondary Considerations: But Doesn’t God Use Vulgarities in the Bible?

Some Christian authors who defend the use of mild cussing and/or vulgar words in Christian novels point to the Bible as their defense. Unbelievable as this may seem, they claim vulgar language appears in the Old Testament. And if God used vulgar language in His Word, they say, they have every right to use it in their novels.

Here are just a couple of the Bible verses they cite: 2 Kings 18:27; and Malachi 2:1-3. Here I list the verses in question (quoted in the King James Version [KJV], the translation at the heart of the debate):

But Rabshakeh said unto them, Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you? (2 Kings 18:27, emphasis added)

And now, O ye priests, this commandment is for you. If ye will not hear, and if ye will not lay it to heart, to give glory unto my name, saith the Lord of hosts, I will even send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings: yea, I have cursed them already, because ye do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your solemn feasts; and one shall take you away with it. (Mal. 2:1-3, emphasis added)

So the question is, is their claim valid? Does vulgar language indeed appear in the Bible? It is true that the KJV contains some words that would raise a few eyebrows today. Words would include whore, piss, bastard, dung, and so forth.

Yes, these are words most of us would not use in casual conversation. Are these strong words? Yes. Are these crude words by today’s standards? Yes.

But were these words considered crude when the Bible was translated into the KJV? Were the Hebrew words used in the original manuscripts, from which we received the Old Testament, considered crude?

The words that appear in the original Bible text God preserved for us couldn’t possibly be vulgar in the way those words are considered vulgar today. There are two reasons this couldn’t possibly be so.

1. God doesn’t contradict Himself.

Because of God’s character (he is perfect, holy, and faultless), it’s impossible for Him to contradict Himself in His Word. If He says in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths,” His Word, as originally given to man, cannot possibly contain corrupt language. That would go against His character.

If God forbids vulgar, crass language—and He does—His Word cannot possibly promote it. Otherwise we must believe that God is capable of error.

2. Words considered vulgar in today’s culture and in the KJV are not the same words (with the same connotations) the original Old Testament writers used.  

So what about the questionable words I cited? Based on our culture today, it is true that many would consider those words to be inappropriate, even vulgar. But did you notice the two important words I just said? “Culture today.”

It’s very difficult for us even to consider specific words without being tainted by our popular culture. Yet that’s what’s required here: a need to look at language with very old eyes.

Remember, the Bible was written thousands of years ago. The writers of Scripture used certain words a long time ago, and the original Hebrew those words come from did not possess the same cultural associations those words have today.

How do I know this? Consider two sources.

Eric Pement says in his excellent article,

Words can change their meaning or connotation over time, and this is one of those instances. In the nearly four hundred years since the publication of the KJV, some words used then have become vulgar in our time and thus should be avoided. Here, the connotation has changes. For example, bastard and illegitimate both denote one born out of wedlock. While the denotation is the same, we need to recognize that the former term is more crass than the second. . . . No doubt, Christians should have the candor to call a spade a spade, but they should not choose terms which also convey intolerance, bigotry, or reactionary hatred—which is why “whore” is unacceptable today, regardless of its usage in the A.D. 1611 version of the King James Bible. (emphasis mine)

Consider another authority. Robert. V. McCabe is professor of the Old Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. McCabe, a friend of a friend, was kind enough to field my questions. This is what he had to say:

With my translation I want to accurately represent whatever is in the Hebrew text with a level of dignity. For example, the Hebrew word shayin was translated in the KJV as “piss” (2 Kings 18:27), which may not have seemed vulgar in the days of the KJV translators. The word piss is a crude term. My parents did not allow me to use this term. It was also considered profanity where I went to high school. However, the leading English translations today render this word as “urine.” And, this is the translation suggested in most lexicons. However, this word is commonly used in our current culture. Even though our culture uses the term, I would not translate this word in line with our contemporary culture. I would translate it as “urine” in order to avoid vulgar connotations. The Ephesians 5 [vv. 3-12.) passage should not only guide us in translation but also in contemporary writing.

So there you have it. While the King James Version uses words that may seem inappropriate, even crude, by today’s cultural standards, those words would not have been crude to the KJV translators, and the original Hebrew word choices the Old Testament writers made would not have been considered vulgar either.

So let’s get back to those who claim we Christians can use vulgar language because the Bible does. Is that really a valid justification?

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