Vulgarity and Plain Words in Scripture and Life, Part 2

A painting by Del Parson showing a group of people mocking and pointing their fingers at Lehi, who is prophesying while standing near a palm tree.

By Scott S. Mitchell

I ended Part 1 by quoting a statement from the Old Testament book of Malachi, Chapter 2, verse 3, in which the speaker promises to spread dung (excrement) on the face of those to whom he’s speaking.  The quoted words are those of Jehovah himself, and he’s talking to his priests.  He’s unhappy that they have failed to administer the law of Moses impartially among his people and have caused much heartache.  In verse 9 he commits himself to making his priests “contemptible and base before all the people,” which smearing human waste on a priest’s face will definitely do.  Presumably, this vivid warning  was as sobering to the priests of Malachi’s time as it would be shocking to us to hear a prophet quote these “vulgar” words to us today. It’s very hard to imagine these words being spoken by any LDS church leader in 2019, and that’s probably why the reader is so unfamiliar with this scripture in Malachi.  But, as described below, the Lord had a purpose in phrasing his displeasure in this surprising way.

The Relatively New Concept of “Vulgarity”

Before we discuss scriptural vulgarity any further, we should realize that the concept of vulgarity signifying something indecent, obscene, lewd, crude, coarse or unrefined is only a development of the recent English language past.  Archaically the word “vulgar” was a noun referring to “the common people.”  From 1350 to 1400 it signified “the general public.”  The most relevant former (but now obsolete) meaning it had, for the purposes of this essay, was “the vernacular”–the language commonly spoken by people of a certain region.  What this means is that when the Bible and Book of Mormon scriptures were translated into English during the era of Early Modern English,1 vulgarity wasn’t something which we would now classify as “vulgar.”  In fact, the Roman Catholic Church’s version of the Bible is written in Latin and is called the Vulgate edition.  “Vulgate” is simply the anglicized version of the Latin term vulgata, which is derived from the same cognate as “vulgar” and merely means “commonly used or accepted.”

Therefore, a few centuries ago vulgarity was simply common speech and wasn’t frowned on the way it is among religiously devout people today.  But somehow, Christianity appears to have created a whole new way to offend with words by making vulgarity synonymous with indecency, obscenity, crudity, coarseness and so forth, instead of it being merely the common terms people use.  Perhaps other religions do the same thing outside the Christian tradition.    Nevertheless, we still need to examine why some ancient biblical speakers and writers resorted to language describing excretory functions, or the product of those functions, when proclaiming warnings to groups of people.

We should begin by recognizing that today we react differently to words associated with excretory functions than we do other subjects.  I hypothesize that the ancients not only noticed and understood this human tendency, but exploited it by using what  we might call “bathroom language” to drive home their points more forcefully.

We should also note in passing that dung played a very important part in the agrarian lives of Israelites and Jews anciently.  Dung was always collected and hauled off to a central gathering place from which it could then be re-used as fertilizer.  The Nephites perpetuated this practice of using dung in the New World as well (see Jacob 5: 47,64 and 76 and Mormon 2:15).  It’s therefore not surprising that the word “dung” appears 24 times in the Old Testament, and twice in the New Testament, and almost every reference to it relates to its being gathered up, hauled off and stored, or to its being later used as fertilizer.  Many woe prophecies contain a reference to a destroyed people’s dead bodies fertilizing the fields as if they were dung.  But when a prophecy referred to the Lord spreading dung on people’s faces as in the Malachi 2:3 passage, or when someone threatened to make his victims eat their own dung as illustrated later below, that peculiar language caught the people’s attention almost as much as it would if said from the pulpit today.

The Remarkable Effect on Us of Bathroom Humor

Having already designated myself this essay’s confessional guinea pig, I confess that of the many funny jokes I’ve forgotten over the years, none of them were dirty.  The somewhat “off color” ones I remember well, for some reason.  Word for word, in fact.  Looking deep inside myself the best I can, I think this happens because off color jokes, poems or ditties are not only a departure from the norm, but are daring and rebellious in some way and thus more entertaining, or at least likely to stick.  I’m not bragging; I’m confessing.  But generally, the further the phrases depart from the norm, the greater the chance we’ll remember them.

In a recent Facebook post dated August 23, 2019, I wrote of a stake president friend of mine who worked with me in the district attorney’s office.  This man’s deportment was always so appropriate to his church calling that I dubbed him the King of Propriety.  I described the tremendous physical effort he expended one day trying to suppress his loud laughter (which orthodox Mormons are taught is evil) when I demonstrated, through pantomime and the spoken word, the particular kind of medical examination I would give to a heartless, unfeeling law professor, who taught at the same law school my friend and I both attended, if said professor ever  came begging for a plea bargain for his own client.  I think my friend found my pantomime and words outrageously funny because they were so far afield of what he was used to, so uninhibited, so closely related to an excretory organ and so inappropriate for someone aspiring to outward piety like he did.  And I bet he remembers very well, and perhaps with secret pleasure, exactly what I said and acted out that day.  Again, that’s what this thing we call vulgarity accomplishes–a surprisingly accurate memory of unusual ideas.

Most of my siblings and I remember the day we all discovered together how any spoken references to the world of excretory functions could make boring activities and conversations more entertaining.  Our family of eight (my youngest brother hadn’t been born yet) was crammed into a station wagon and we were crossing the widest part of Nevada on Highway I-80 during summertime.   The landscape on that part of the trip from California to Utah epitomizes the “lone and dreary world”–mostly featureless desert where God probably didn’t intend man to dwell, at least not happily.  We’d been on the road for hours, and we’d worn out every kind of word or guess-what-I’m thinking game you can play on such trips.  Finally one of us made some reference to some bodily function that, under optimum circumstances, takes place only in bathrooms or when one believes they’re alone.  This drew a laugh from the rest of us, who were hungry for any kind of monotony-breaking thoughts.  My mother then observed that bathroom humor always successfully brought a laugh, at least to her oldest sons, at which point we all decided to test her theory.  We then broke out with every bathroom-related term we could think of (e.g., faucet, shower curtain, handle [of a toilet, presumably], lid, drain, and the imitation of the sound created by a flushing toilet), no matter how related or unrelated to excretory functions it might be.  And yes, Mom was right; it was all funny, just because of its connection to the bathroom.2   

The Famous Israelite Pissers

Maybe my family was normal, and maybe we merely inherited our tolerance for bathroom talk from ancient progenitors.  The book of 1 Kings in the Old Testament demonstrates the frequent use of mild vulgarity that I’m describing.  The Lord, his prophets and the writer of 1 Kings all seem to like the phrase “him that pisseth against the wall.”   This phrase means, generally, “every last ill-mannered peon” as in “I will wipe out everybody, from the king himself to those drunken men who expose themselves and urinate against the wall on their way home from drinking.” We first encounter it in 1 Kings 14, where the Lord, speaking through the prophet Ahijah, rebukes Jeroboam for leading Israel to sin.  Note the use of other excretory and morbid references as well:

10 Therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone.

11 Him that dieth of Jeroboam in the city shall the dogs eat; and him that dieth in the field shall the fowls of the air eat: for the Lord hath spoken it.

(Emphasis added.)  In the above verses, not only does the Lord mention piss and dung, but as in the Malachi 2 scripture quoted in Part 1, he states the bad actors will be ignominiously hauled off like excrement is removed from places where humans have gathered.  Furthermore, dead bodies won’t be buried, but will eaten by dogs and birds in the streets and fields.  Jeroboam’s people are thus portrayed as one heck of a stinking, rotten, disgraced people.

We next read, in chapter 16, how King Baasha and his son and the entire family were killed by Zimri, who was carrying out the Lord’s woe pronounced upon the house of Baasha by the Lord through his prophet Jehu.  Note the words which I’ve placed in italics:

10 And Zimri went in and smote him, and killed him, in the twenty and seventh year of Asa king of Judah, and reigned in his stead.

11 And it came to pass, when he began to reign, as soon as he sat on his throne, that he slew all the house of Baasha: he left him not one that pisseth against a wall, neither of his kinsfolks, nor of his friends.

12 Thus did Zimri destroy all the house of Baasha, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake against Baasha by Jehu the prophet,

13 For all the sins of Baasha, and the sins of Elah his son, by which they sinned, and by which they made Israel to sin, in provoking the Lord God of Israel to anger with their vanities.

 

 

We then read in 1 Kings 21 what the Lord said regarding Ahab through his prophet Elijah:

19 And thou shalt speak unto him, saying, Thus saith the Lord, Hast thou killed, and also taken possession? And thou shalt speak unto him, saying, Thus saith the Lord, In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine.

20 And Ahab said to Elijah, Hast thou found me, O mine enemy? And he answered, I have found thee: because thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the Lord.

21 Behold, I will bring evil upon thee, and will take away thy posterity, and will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel,

22 And will make thine house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah, for the provocation wherewith thou hast provoked me to anger, and made Israel to sin.

(Emphasis added.)

In 2 Kings 9:8 we read an account almost identical to the one in 1 Kings 21, except that in addition to the “him that pisseth against the wall” and the dogs licking up Ahab’s blood where he lies dead, this earthy and morbid description of the death of Ahab’s evil queen Jezebel is also found:

30 And when Jehu was come to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it; and she painted her face, and tired her head, and looked out at a window.

31 And as Jehu entered in at the gate, she said, Had Zimri peace, who slew his master?

32 And he lifted up his face to the window, and said, Who is on my side? who? And there looked out to him two or three eunuchs.

33 And he said, Throw her down. So they threw her down: and some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall, and on the horses: and he trode her under foot.

34 And when he was come in, he did eat and drink, and said, Go, see now this cursed woman, and bury her: for she is a king’s daughter.

35 And they went to bury her: but they found no more of her than the skull, and the feet, and the palms of her hands.

36 Wherefore they came again, and told him. And he said, This is the word of the Lord, which he spake by his servant Elijah the Tishbite, saying, In the portion of Jezreel shall dogs eat the flesh of Jezebel:

37 And the carcase of Jezebel shall be as dung upon the face of the field in the portion of Jezreel; so that they shall not say, This is Jezebel.

(Emphasis added.)  The death of Jezebel, unlike the other scriptures I”ve quoted hereinabove, is actually famous because of the vivid ignominy painted by the words describing it.  Not only was she quickly eaten by dogs after being thrown out of her tower by her own servants, but Jehu trampled her body with his horse, and when there was only a small bit of carcase left, the carcase was pointedly left to become like excrement and thus fertilize the ground.

There can be no doubt the pisser was famous in Israel.  Hundreds of years before “him that pisseth against the wall” was mentioned in the above accounts, David had twice spoken of such pissers when he vowed to avenge Nabal’s ill treatment of him and his men.  We read in 1 Samuel 25:

21 Now David had said, Surely in vain have I kept all that this fellow hath in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that pertained unto him: and he hath requited me evil for good.

22 So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.

. . .

34 For in very deed, as the Lord God of Israel liveth, which hath kept me back from hurting thee, except thou hadst hasted and come to meet me, surely there had not been left unto Nabal by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.

The Dung Eaters and Piss Drinkers

My personal favorite instance of picturesque vulgarity in scripture is the account of what the Assyrian captain Rabshakeh shouted to the Jews in Jerusalem right before he attempted to lay siege to the city.  He had just been requested by Jewish King Hezekiah’s emissaries to not speak such scary threats and demands within the hearing of the many Jews sitting on top of the city wall watching the proceedings.  This account is recorded using almost identical language in 2 Kings 18:27 and Isaiah 36:12.  I will quote the Isaiah version for two reasons.  First, Isaiah is an unassailably reliable source of what of was said.3   The Lord himself quoted Isaiah extensively, as we read in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon.  Second, though the quoted words are coming from an Assyrian heathen and therefore don’t carry the Lord’s endorsement, the point is that the great prophet Isaiah had no problem repeating word-for-word the vulgar language for everyone to read down through the ages.  But LDS Church leaders today wouldn’t be caught dead repeating these kind of words in any speeches they might deliver or in any books they might write.  Nor would they ever quote this scripture word for word; it’s too nasty for their sensibilities (and probably for all of ours, too).  Still, judge for yourselves how much would be missing from this story if I were to omit what the Assyrian captain said: “But Rabshakeh said, Hath my master sent me to thy master and to thee to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?”

Do any of you readers think you’ll forget Rabshakeh’s words, now that you’ve read them?  Neither will I.  And I think that’s exactly why Isaiah wrote them in his famous book.  He wanted the reader to understand the nature of Jerusalem’s enemy before describing how the Lord wiped them out.

The Stripping of the Daughters of Zion

Up to this point I have saved what is probably the most politically incorrect of all the “vulgar” scriptures, at least by today’s standards, for the end.  In graphically describing the destruction coming to Jerusalem because of its wickedness, the Lord said through his prophet Isaiah that, in addition to the horrible things he would allow to happen to the men, the haughty women would be stripped so that their secret parts would be uncovered.  Nephi, able to foresee his own people’s struggles with materialism and pride in the wearing of costly apparel, saw the need to repeat Isaiah’s words in his own writings.  (See 2 Nephi 13: 17-24.)  This scripture is quite famous, but is never quoted by church leaders in their talks; again, it’s deemed too indecent for proper LDS people, even if it is the Lord speaking through his highly-esteemed prophet.  In fact, in the caption preceding the verses, the LDS Church version of the Bible only summarizes the following verses thusly:  “The daughters of Zion are cursed and tormented for their worldliness.” Nothing is said about the specifics of what the Lord prophesies. Here are the famous-but-never-quoted words from Isaiah 3:

17 Therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will discover their secret parts.

. . .

24 And it shall come to pass, that instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; and instead of a girdle a rent; and instead of well set hair baldness; and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth; and burning instead of beauty.

If the Lord’s warning that he’ll strip naked Jerusalem’s haughty women is sobering or frightening, it’s because it’s meant to be that way.  The Lord wants his warning to be shocking enough to be remembered so it will inspire correction of bad behavior.  This can’t be accomplished by warning the people that they’ll be mildly scolded for continued godlessness.  The Lord speaks more plainly than we do today, and I would argue he gets better results that way.  If a modern church leader says “I’m concerned that some of our fine sisters are succumbing to the materialistic values of the fashion world and are being persuaded to overvalue the wearing of fine apparel.  These actions often place undue strain on family budgets and divert money away from worthier uses.  More importantly, they tend to create unnecessary and sometimes harmful class distinctions among our people,” we’re not likely to leave the meeting with the warning burning in our ears.  But if we’re told our haughty materialism will drive the Lord to strip us naked for all to see, cause us to stink, make us bald and leave us with only torn rags for clothes, we’ll better grasp the seriousness of our problem and the need for immediate repentance.

Shockingly Plain Words in the Book of Mormon

With the exception of the passage from Isaiah quoted immediately above, biblical vulgarity didn’t find its way into the Book of Mormon text.  But shockingly plain language did.  The Lord is amazingly direct in the Book of Mormon.  So much so, in fact, that reading how he feels, as revealed by the prophet Jacob, refutes popular notions that God loves all people unconditionally.  In 2 Nephi 9, Jacob straightforwardly described it this way:

41 O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name.

42 And whoso knocketh, to him will he open; and the wise, and the learned, and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they whom he despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them.

(Emphasis added.)

When have you ever heard, reader, whether in the LDS Church or outside it, that the Lord despises unrepentant people who consider themselves superior because of their learning and wealth?  What you’ve heard instead, from church pulpits and Sunday School classes everywhere, ad nauseum, is the non sequiter that the Lord “hates the sin, but loves the sinner” (or “loves the sinner, but hates the sin”).   For this nostrum to be true, we would have to remain undefined by our intentional actions, making us always immune from judgement.  God’s wrath would then have no referent, since sins would be committing themselves without human involvement.  The preaching of sermons, and the scriptures themselves, would also have no reason for existence.5  Here, though, the Lord’s antipathy toward arrogant people who won’t repent is declared without mitigation.  The reading of frank, ungarnished words, inconvenient as they might be, can spare us from many a false notion.

We later read in Alma 11:23 that Amulek was confronted by the evil lawyer Zeezrom, who sought through his questioning to impeach the new prophet in front of the citizens of the city of Ammonihah.  Amulek responded to Zeezrom’s attempt to bribe him into denying the existence of a Supreme Being in this way: “O thou child of hell, why tempt ye me? Knowest thou that the righteous yieldeth to no such temptations?”  Amulek’s words put Zeezrom on notice that his efforts could decide whether his eternal consequences were heaven or hell, and that Amulek himself came  preaching in righteousness.

Mormon similarly spoke to the leader of the Lamanite enemy army this way: “But behold, it supposeth me that I talk to you concerning these things in vain; or it supposeth me that thou art a child of hell. . .”  (See Alma 53:11.) In today’s diplomatic circles, declarations like this, even when dealing with true children of hell, would never be communicated.  It might upset the child of hell, after all.  So what is the purpose of speaking this way to him or her?

I think the answer lies in referring back to what happened with Zeezrom.  When he saw the divine power and persuasiveness of Amulek’s and Alma’s words, and that they could not be impeached, he began to recognize the eternal peril that awaited him personally if he didn’t immediately change his ways.  He recognized the very plain words of the Holy Spirit identifying correctly his own evil and that of his people.  And he changed, and changed quickly.  He became a repentant, righteous preacher himself.  Softer words from Amulek probably wouldn’t have accomplished this.

Conclusion

The Lord values plainness.  The word “plainness” is employed thirteen times in the Book of Mormon to describe the way the Lord spoke to his people through his prophets.  His purpose is not to coddle when repentance is needed, but to make a deep impression with strong and memorable words.  If we avoid those words to protect our current sensibilities from phrases we’re not used to, we might also fail to realize how strongly the Lord feels about what he’s saying.

FOOTNOTES

1. The language period from which the Book of Mormon’s original, unedited text was taken was roughly 1470 to 1740 C.E., whereas the King James translation of the Bible was completed in 1611.

2. I should note here the amusing tendency of some hyper-squeamish people to refrain from using the word “bathroom” when outside of their own home.  Perhaps to avoid any allusion to the fact that people might actually bathe in bathrooms, and do so naked, these folks use the word “restroom” when they’re in someone else’s home and need to know if they can use the host’s toilet, sink or mirror.  I think this tendency suggests people are controlling their own language to the point that they’re sort of, well, out of control.  I’m half inclined to say to anyone in my home who asks if they can use the restroom, “Yes, but because it’s a restroom, we only permit you to rest in there.”  On the other hand, because I’ve been acculturated to the same norms as everyone else, I would think them much more weird if they asked to use the defecation and urination room.  And I’d think them downright crude if they used the most common words in our own vernacular and called it the poop and pee room.

3. If it’s not already apparent, I don’t accept the modern theory of a number of Christian scholars that the book of Isaiah actually had at least two authors, and that Isaiah couldn’t have written the latter (post Chapter 39) part of it.  I’ve devoted some study to this question and concluded the evidence is lacking and the logic flawed in support of the two-Isaiah theory.  Believe it or not, that theory relies heavily on the assumption that Isaiah couldn’t have foretold the advent of King Cyrus many years before the latter’s birth, because that would require a prophet to foresee the future!

4. The word “discover” is the Early Modern English era translation for a term in Hebrew that means expose, uncover or lay bare.  During that era, discover meant “uncover” in English as well.

5. Please understand that I don’t purport to define what God’s punishment consists of, or how strict his judgment ultimately is.  All people will be judged individually according to the exclusive contexts of their own lives.  I do strongly believe that God’s judgement is considerably less harsh than what Christianity usually teaches.  I also believe the word “despise” carries a harsher connotation now than it did during the Early Modern English era during which it was chosen as the right English word to use.  In that era, it had more of a connotation of rejecting, or finding something or someone not good enough, rather than a deep hatred of something or someone.

 

2 thoughts on “Vulgarity and Plain Words in Scripture and Life, Part 2

  1. For another great example of prophets using crude language, check out Ezekiel 23:18-21 in a modern translation like the NIV:
    When she carried on her prostitution openly and exposed her naked body, I turned away from her in disgust, just as I had turned away from her sister. Yet she became more and more promiscuous as she recalled the days of her youth, when she was a prostitute in Egypt. There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. So you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when in Egypt your bosom was caressed and your young breasts fondled.

    Once you’ve read that in the NIV, and then you go read it in the KJV, you realize it’s saying the same thing, only the KJV is trying to clean up the language a bit to avoid offending delicate modern sensitivities.

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    • Thanks for the input, MD. I didn’t include this Ezekiel scripture for two reasons: First of all, I didn’t remember it. Second, even if I’d remembered it, I wouldn’t have remembered the NIV version of it, because my reading in the NIV has been 90% restricted to NT passages. But this scripture, when added to many others, shows how unabashedly sexualized Israelite/Jewish men were. This one might have made Solomon blush. Though probably not. Borderline pornographic, by today’s Christian standards. Tonight I’ll make a Facebook post alerting readers to your mention of this scripture, both to give credit where it’s due, and also to spare myself any inference by others that my scriptural interests tend toward the prurient. 😉

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