I went to a Jewish Sunday school, first at a Conservative synagogue, then Reform. I learned to read Hebrew. I also learned “Bible stories” at Sunday school, though I’m not entirely sure we read from the text itself. At some point, maybe sixth grade, we received our own personal Hebrew-English Bibles. The cover was smooth black faux leather with my name embossed in gold. Through middle and high school, this book sat on the bookshelf in my room. Between Jane Austen novels and tabloids, I sometimes read from this Bible—in English translation, mind you.
My favorite book to read (and, OK, let’s be honest, reread) was Genesis, especially the stories featuring female protagonists. I was sharp, and it didn’t take me long to realize those stories were the raciest ones. Like in Genesis 38, when Tamar, disguising herself as a prostitute, tricks her father-in-law into having sex with her by the side of the road. I couldn’t recall this making the curriculum in Sunday school. It seemed decidedly not “the Bible.”
It wasn’t until much later in life, when I started reading the Hebrew text in earnest, that I realized it wasn’t just that so many of these stories were conspicuously omitted from my Bible education. The English translations themselves were buttoned-up—Victorian, even. Look at these translations of Ezekiel 16. This is a passage where God calls out Israel for stepping out on him, betraying him with all those other gods. It gets pretty explicit, though you wouldn’t know it from the translation. I’ll begin with the 1611 King James version, a classic:
Thou hast built thy high place at every head of the way, and hast made thy beauty to be abhorred, and hast opened thy feet to every one that passed by, and multiplied thy whoredoms. Thou hast also committed fornication with the Egyptians thy neighbors, great of flesh; and hast increased thy whoredoms, to provoke me to anger.
Two of the most frequently consulted English translations of the Bible, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the New International Version (NIV), take out the Shakespearean English, only to remove the punch of the insult entirely from the prose. Case in point: Where the King James translates “hast opened thy feet to every one that passed by,” the NRSV translates “offering yourself to every passer-by,” and the NIV translates “offering your body… to anyone who passed by.”
You don’t need to know Hebrew to guess at what the King James translation is expressing here, but it helps. The King James translation is the most literal: Foot in Hebrew (regel) is also leg, and the verb translated as “you opened” (wattəpaśśqî) is more accurately translated “you parted wide.” It’s the same verb used to describe a chatterbox: to part one’s lips widely (Proverbs 13:3). God’s insult to Israel here in Ezekiel 16 is: “You opened your legs wide for all who passed by.”
King James’s “Thou hast also committed fornication with the Egyptians thy neighbors” really takes the anger out. The modern English translations, the NRSV and NIV, don’t fare much better. The NRSV gives “you played the whore with the Egyptians”—sounds like naughty dress-up time. And the NIV translation, “you engaged in prostitution with the Egyptians,” sounds like someone is formally pressing charges.
There are no one-size-fits-all solutions in translation. Different contexts and different genres demand different ways of translating. Finding the exact word with just the right tone is part of the art of reading, an exercise in capturing meaning without imposing our own ideas of what we think “the Bible says.” We would not say, “Thou hast also committed fornication.” We would say, “You were a slut.”
This translation might strike you as jarring—possibly offensive—but “to be a slut” beautifully captures the Hebrew (wattiznî) in a way that the other translations cannot. The speech in Ezekiel takes the form of a harsh, direct response to Israel’s betrayal—the language should offend the sensibilities to achieve maximum effect. “Thou hast also committed fornication” may have been a searing insult in 1611, but it certainly doesn’t do the job in today’s English.
Further, the biblical term for a prostitute (zônâ) refers to a woman who allows men to have sex with her without purchasing the exclusive rights from her father or brother. In other words, she’s just a single lady, living without a patriarchal figure controlling access to her. There’s some evidence from ancient Mesopotamian texts that this might be the sense of the concept we translate as prostitute. But the biblical prostitute isn’t always paid, and it’s not clear whether she’s always seeking payment.
This conception of prostitution is weakly captured by the verb to fornicate. The word itself is a Latin architectural term for a vaulted chamber (fornix), one that housed a brothel. Fornicate also sounded conveniently similar to the Greek Bible’s translation of the Hebrew word for prostitute, porné. So, for readers familiar with the Latin Vulgate and the Greek Septuagint, there’s a certain level of inside information being conveyed by choosing “thou has also committed fornication.” But today’s reading public likely won’t get the inside joke. In fact, fornicate is a word we might categorize as “Biblical English,” since—Californication aside—the word is almost exclusively used in Bible translation or biblical allusion. But using this word doesn’t actually tell us what the biblical text says; it just creates an aesthetic experience for us, something that sounds very “Holy Bible.”
On the other hand, the term slut richly fits the context of the Ezekiel passage. The Oxford English Dictionary gives “a woman of a low or loose character,” quite the circumlocution, but we get the sense. She is loose. The Oxford English Dictionary also reminds us that a slut refers to “a woman of dirty, slovenly…appearance,” too. Perfect for Ezekiel 16:25! Israel is both ugly and “loose.”
More to the point, slut carries with it the sensibilities of rape culture. That is, to insult a woman by calling her a slut reflects the attitude that women are responsible for sexual violence committed against them. Both the Hebrew verb and the English noun slut assume the need to control sexual access to women.
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In the spirit of a racier Sunday school lesson, let’s return to that Hebrew-English Bible I received in 1995, the New Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation, which shows how the buttoned-up aesthetic of the Holy Bible persists. In Genesis 19, Lot, a resident of Sodom (yes, that Sodom) welcomes two messengers (angels) into his house. The narrator tells us that mobs of men surrounded his house and yelled to Lot, demanding he bring out the two messengers so that they could (biblically) know them. We can be sure that the sense of the Hebrew here is one of sex and not acquaintance: In the story, Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the mob instead of the guests, saying that the crowd can do whatever they want to them.
The King James gives more or less a word-for-word translation of what the Sodomites demand: “Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them.” The Jewish Publication Society translation offers something a bit more idiomatic: “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them.”
Intimacy does not seem to be the context of the mob’s demand. Yes, intimacy, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, is a euphemism for sexual intercourse—specifically, consensual intercourse, mutually desired closeness. Intimacy evokes images of fireside cuddles and candlelit dinners. Consent, in other words.
How then should we translate the mob’s demand? Sodomy would be pretty circular, since the word itself comes from this narrative. Moreover, this passage is not about a specific sexual act, hetero- or homosexual. Rather, it is about a mob’s violent expression of power over others. It is about oppression, depriving a person of their physical autonomy. I would translate it: “Bring them out to us, so we can screw them.”
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Our translation decisions shape how the Bible can be used to support certain social and political positions—arguments we have a stake in. When we translate these passages in a way that we can actually understand, in our own idioms, we see the Bible in a new light—an ancient, foreign culture that does not transparently impart moral lessons for our own lives.
If you’re offended by these suggestions, you’re not alone. Centuries before the Authorized Version—that is, the King James translation—there were many unauthorized versions of the Bible in English. Many of them were banned and burned—along with their named patrons. John Wycliffe’s vernacular translations, for example, aimed to speak plainly to its readers in their own language. This was considered so heretical that, in 1428, by order of Pope Martin V, not only were the books hunted down and burned, but also Wycliffe’s buried corpse was exhumed and then burned.
But if “you were a slut” or “so we can screw them” sound too vulgar or inappropriate for a biblical passage, perhaps we need to examine why we think the Bible should sound a certain way.