The Bible is great literature, and some of the joy I get out of studying it is just appreciating a poetic turn of phrase or mapping the rhetoric of an argument. I read the Bible devotionally, too, but I believe appreciating it aesthetically helps me grow spiritually.
You don’t need to read ancient Greek or Hebrew to appreciate some of the insults. This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some of my favorites:
“You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” (1 Samuel 20:30). This is what King Saul shouts at his son Jonathan when he realizes Jonathan is loyal to David. “Son of a…” is a construction we still use today, as in “Son of a motherless goat!” Eugene Peterson translates this as “Son of a slut,” although I think I would probably go for the more common “Son of a bitch!”
The second part of the insult is about Jonathan’s mother’s genitals (“nakedness”). Some translators try to censor the obscenity from this phrase by translating it as though Saul is simply asserting that Jonathan is disgracing his mother, shaming the woman who bore him. While you can translate it this way, it effectively leaves out the obscene nature of the statement. I don’t think “shame of your mother’s nakedness” is meant to be read any more literally than “son of a perverse and rebellious woman.” How could Jonathan shame his mother if it were already established that she is perverse and rebellious? I think the reference to Jonathan’s mother’s nakedness is more like the equivalent of our colorful “motherf****er.” It’s not a propositional truth-claim, that someone has a particular incestuous relationship; it’s just an insult, an expression of contempt, and it’s made more insulting by making it about your mama.
“My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins” (1 Kings 12:10). The Israelites of the Northern kingdoms want Rehoboam to cut their taxes. So he goes to his father’s advisors, old guys with gray hair, who tell him it’s a good idea. Notice that that these guys were Solomon’s cabinet. They are the guys who give wise king Solomon advice. But Rehoboam rejects their advice and turns to his buddies from college, who respond with stereotypical immaturity: “Tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins.'”
This is another great example of how translators can take the scandal out of a passage with their translating choices. The NIV says, “My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist.” I asked a class of college students what they thought this meant, and they said, “His father was skinny?”
Even “loins” is euphemistic. The phrase “little finger” is actually “little thing.” Rehoboam’s buddies want him to say to the Israelite delegation, “My penis is bigger than my father’s.” This is the kind of crude, childish comment you’d expect from boys who have no place in serious economic negotiations.
Sometimes a modern politician forgets his or her microphone is on and lets an obscenity slip. It makes headlines. This is that kind of scandal. By obscuring the obscenity, translating “loins” as “waist,” and leaving the “little finger” euphemism intact, the translators remove the offense. A casual reader of the Bible will sail right past without ever understanding what’s going on.
The fact is, we often suspect that politicians have childish motivations. Again, by censoring this one out of the BIble, we lose that point of connection with the ancient audience.
“Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the people sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and drink their own urine?” (Isaiah 36:12) Less an insult than a threat, this verse paints a picture of the terror of siege warfare. Invading armies didn’t have to knock down a city wall. They just had to camp out and prevent supplies from coming into the city. Actually, eating dung and drinking urine is better than the worst terror of siege warfare: cannibalism. Isaiah 49:26 refers to people eating their own flesh, but the chapter-long curse in Deuteronomy 28:53-57 describes fathers eating their own children, and women eating their own placentas. Nasty stuff.
The speaker, the Rabshekah of Assyria, is trying to turn the inhabitants of the city against their leaders, so he speaks this threat in the hearing of the people to the delegation who has come out to negotiate with him. It’s a great speech, and you can hear echoes of it today in conflict between nations.
“You blind fools!” (Matthew 23:17) The Greek word for fool (moros) is where we get the word “moron.” The word “fool” for us isn’t particularly insulting, but in the ancient world it implied not just lack of intelligence, but lack of character and piety. “Fool” just doesn’t carry the same level of contempt for us that the word “moron” does.
The verb form of the word means “to become dull,” as when a blade loses its edge. It’s also the word Jesus uses to talk about salt losing its flavor. The salt becomes dull, or it is moron-ized. It loses its edge. When salt becomes dull, it’s worse than worthless. It’s not even fit for the manure pile (Luke 14:35).
Interestingly, Jesus also says in the Sermon on the Mount that if you call someone a fool, you are liable to judgement (Matthew 5:22). But it’s okay when Jesus calls people fools, because he’s Jesus, right?
Seriously, I think it’s interesting that Matthew’s Jesus uses this level of polemic against the religious leaders of his day. Jesus calling someone a fool is a big deal, and we Christians tend to ignore it because we figure the Pharisees deserve it. Imagine how bent out of shape church-goers would be if they heard Jesus calling someone a dumbass. (See? In order to understand, we have to ratchet up the offensiveness). It’s one reason that I think it’s such a big deal for religious leaders today to “lock people out of the kingdom of heaven,” and to “tie up burdens for others” that they do not have to bear (these are part of the chapter 23 rant as well). The only people Jesus ever calls fools are religious leaders—not pagans, not prostitutes, not gamblers or drunks. If Jesus uses the word “fool,” these offenses must be serious kopria. Speaking of which…
“Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it.” (Luke 13:8) (Luke seems to like using the word kopria for shock value. He uses it twice.)
This is another indirect insult, and it requires some explanation. First. the barren tree was a metaphor the prophets often used about Israel’s failure to be faithful. So Jesus is telling a parable about faithless Israel, or faithless people in general. But rather than cut the tree down immediately, Jesus asserts that God wants to “put manure (kopria) on it” in the hopes that it will become productive.
People tend to take one of two interpretations for this parable: either Jesus is saying God is ridiculously patient, or that judgment is coming. Regardless, the gardener saying, “let me but some more kopria on it” is played up for its vulgarity. “What this unfruitful people really need,” the gardener Jesus says, “is more sh*t.”
This is why religious people wanted to crucify him.
Anyway, as I said, this is not an exhaustive list. Just some of my favorites. I think they are important for a couple of reasons. First, they reveal how our modern English translations censor the Bible. Second, they show that the authors of the Bible were real human beings who used rhetoric that is often familiar to us, thousands of years later.
Be sure to use “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman!” next time someone cuts you off in traffic.