Sterilizing the Bible

Charles Halton reads Melissa Mohr’s Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing and questions modern Bible translations

Holy Sh*t, Holy Shit
Melissa Mohr, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Oxford University Press, 2013, 336 pp., $24.95

I remember the first time I heard the C-word used to translate the Bible. I almost fell out of my chair.

It was my first semester of graduate school. Like most people, I was conditioned to embrace a sanitized Bible, scrubbed clean of profanity and indecency. To that point I conceived of God as a teetotaling southern gentleman, brash in deed but decorous of speech. Naturally, I was shocked to hear such an abrasive term used to render the Divine Word into the English tongue.

Over the years my picture of Scripture changed and became fuller, I like to think. I came to realize that the disinfectant contemporary translators use washes away the Bible’s aesthetic texture. They approach it like a medieval surgeon, tapping its veins in hopes of siphoning off harmful humors to protect its readers from the sin of profanity. They aren’t the only ones to redact holy writ; biblical censorship began almost as soon as the canon was compiled.

The story of cursing begins as everything does – in the heights of heaven and the humus of earth. For Mohr, the sacred and scatological are deeply connected when it comes to obscenity. They are two rivers that twist and turn, sometimes run in parallel, and occasionally cross paths as they drain into a linguistic cesspool. The words that most deeply offend a society’s conscience vary. Sometimes they are connected to the divine realm, and other times they reflect the most human of activities like elimination. Along with words relating to sex, almost all obscenity is connected to the divine and bodily function.

Swearing started out as just that: swearing. It was a way in which oral cultures ensured that individuals told the truth. People would invoke a deity in the form of an oath. The god or goddess was thought to preside over testimony and punish the liar. As long as people believed in the efficacy of divine swearing, society was stable. Witnesses provided accurate accounts in trials, and businesspersons followed through with their agreements. But workarounds were quick in coming.

Over time people realized that one could navigate around an oath through equivocation, adding a silent mental reservation to the end of a verbalized statement. Such as thinking, “… that I want to tell you about,” after one has said, “I did not see anything suspicious that night …” Not only did this cheapen the power of oaths but it also made authorities suspicious of oath takers. The Protestant Reformation did even more damage.

Before the Reformation, Western Christendom linked oaths with the physicality of God in the Eucharist: one did actual, physical harm to God when an oath was taken improperly. Not only did God punish a wayward swearer but God himself also sustained damage in the process. Jesus was lacerated and broken with every profane flip of the tongue. This is why “by God’s bones” was far more scandalous a statement than all of Chaucer’s ribaldry combined. Any implication or utterance that referred to God in a less than upright way was a violation of the Decalogue and even a physical assault on God’s body.

Some of the traditores of the Hebrew Bible may have had similar thoughts. They were content to let pagans impugn God at will within the pages of Scripture – they would receive punishment for these sins, after all – but scribes could be very sensitive when biblical patriarchs did so. According to some rabbinic sources, the preservers of the Hebrew Bible, the Masoretes, purposefully changed some biblical passages in order to avoid anthropomorphizing Israel’s God or to correct theological mistakes. According to this theory, the Masoretes believed that Moses should not tell God that God had brought evil into his life, so they changed “your evil” to “my evil” in Numbers 11:15. That is, they modified an objective assessment so that it became a subjective perception. Moses no longer charged God with wrong but reflected upon his own emotional state. Whether or not this change actually occurred is impossible to know. The data is lost to us. But some rabbinical commentators believed that the text of Scripture had been modified to insulate readers from thinking that Moses ascribed evil to God.

In our day, using divine epithets hardly causes an eye to blink. Mohr finds the roots of our modern attitude in the Protestant objection to God’s physical presence in the Eucharist. This reduced the psychological severity of improper swearing since God’s body was not around to damage through empty oaths. Furthermore, many started to doubt the efficacy of oaths that relied on the spiritual presence of God instead of his physical manifestation. They wondered how a deity who resided elsewhere could hold an oath taker to account. Equivocation proliferated. Over time, the power of the divine name deflated to the point that OMG is now common parlance, not the damnable violation it once was.

While the Holy is no longer as profane as in times past, words relating to human excretion and copulation are largely taboo. It wasn’t always like this. Chaucer and Shakespeare are properly bawdy, even if the bard occasionally masked it with euphemism and pun. The Romans had countless words for defecation; few were obscene. Names like Gropecuntelane identified a street in the red-light district of thirteenth century London. Reverend Thomas Bastard was a quasi-famous sixteenth century English poet, and Johannes Swetpintel carried his surname with pride in the seventeenth. (Pintel was a term for the male member.)

Similarly, the Old Testament openly discusses what we tend to whisper in private. Edward Ullendorff’s classic essay (which Mohr would have done well to reference), “The Bawdy Bible,” documents the treatments of nakedness, adultery, incest, homosexuality, virginity, bestiality, prostitution, crushed testicles, transvestitism, polygamy, rape, phallic symbols, female pudenda, ejaculations, and bodily functions within the Hebrew Bible. It’s a long article.

One of the few areas in which contemporary culture has become more puritanical, and not less, is in the way we approach these texts. For instance, Isaiah 36:12 records a taunt from an Assyrian military figure as he tries to convince the Israelites to surrender. In the fourteenth century, John Wycliff translated the passage like this:

And Rapsaces seide to hem, Whether mi lord sente me to thi lord, and to thee, that Y schulde speke alle these wordis, and not rathere to the men that sitten on the wal, that thei ete her toordis, and drynke the pisse of her feet with you? (And Rabshakeh said to them, Whether my lord sent me to thy lord, and to thee, that I should speak all these words, and not rather to the men that sit on the wall, that they eat their turds, and drink the piss off their feet, with you?)

Yet, almost every translation made in the last hundred years has softened the language to read, “… that they eat their excrement and drink their urine.” As permissive as our culture is in almost every other area, when it comes to translating the Bible we’ve become stricter than the dark ages. Again, this recoil from the appearance of earthy language in Scripture mimics that of rabbinic traditores. In the margin of the Hebrew text the Masoretes made a note indicating that the words “shit” and “piss” in the body of the text should not be vocalized and instead the more polite euphemisms “excrement” and “water of their feet” should be said in their place when reading this passage in synagogue. Is it realistic to expect an Assyrian solider, many of whom are depicted within Assyria’s own art as flaying captives alive and chopping limbs from their bodies, to use polite circumlocutions when trying to get their enemies to give up during a siege?

Why is it that translators fear to tread where the authors of the Bible confidently strode?

The passage that nearly pushed me from my chair was a line in a song that Deborah, the prophetess, sang after Jael drove a tent peg through Sisera’s skull. Sisera’s violent end caused his army to withdraw from their attack on the Israelites, which is the focal point of rejoicing within Deborah’s poem. In the English Standard Version, Judges 5:30 reads: “Have they not found and divided the spoil? / A womb or two for every man …” If Wycliffe could comment on this rendering, he might say: “A literal translation doth not an accurate one make.”

This phrase was put into the mouth of Sisera’s mother as she waited for the return of her son from battle. She consoles herself upon his delay by remembering that Sisera and his forces were likely late because they were busy collecting the spoils of war. Sisera’s mother says that, along with clothing, every warrior takes for himself “a womb or two.” To her, twice-conquered females were merely things that existed to satisfy her son’s desires. They aren’t human. They aren’t even full bodies. They are merely reproductive organs, genitals. The C-word represents this exactly. That’s probably why it is such an offensive word to us today. It strips half the human race of their personhood and uses an anatomical part that men so often appropriate as their own to represent a woman as a whole. The women of Judges 5:30 don’t have names. They aren’t even people. They’re just booty to be used up until they’re worn out.

I never have been able to get comfortable with the C-word. I can’t even summon the courage to type it. Yet I’m convinced that it is an appropriate – the appropriate – translation of Judges 5:30. After all these years the Bible still makes me uncomfortable and pushes me to the limit of my sensibilities. This is as it should be. In order for literature to sustain an audience over several millennia it must be more than chicken soup for the soul; it has to bend the reader just to the point of breakage and then no further.

We shouldn’t be timid in conveying this sense of the Bible in translation, marketing considerations and pious protestations be damned. Encountering the Bible as it is is drinking from a chalice; reading sterilized Scripture is sipping from a Styrofoam cup.