“Son Of A..!”: Thoughts on Softening the Bible

Earlier this morn, in 1 Samuel 20:30, I came across King Saul calling his son, Jonathan, a “stupid, son of a bitch!” Not your average morning devotional reading, eh?

This got me thinking: How can this kind of language be in the Bible?

The Bible is full of tenderness and toughness and translators have been known to take the tough edges off a bit.

Well, actually it is not. I found it in the notes in my Bible. The translation I have been reading from lately is the NET Bible which has over 60,000 translation notes within it, and they translated Saul’s angry outburst toward his son: “You stupid traitor!” Yet in the notes they make the following admission:

A better English approximation of the sentiments expressed here by the Hebrew phrase would be “You stupid son of a bitch!” However, sensitivity to the various public formats in which the Bible is read aloud has led to a less startling English rendering which focuses on the semantic value of Saul’s utterance (i.e, the behavior of his own son Jonathan, which he viewed as both a personal and a political behavior [= “traitor”]). But this concession should not obscure the fact that Saul is full of bitterness and frustration. That he would address his son Jonathan with such language, not to mention his apparent readiness even to kill his own son over this friendship with David (v. 33), indicates something of the extreme depth of Saul’s jealousy and hatred of David.

So, the translators, of the NET Bible and many others, decided to soften the blow of the Hebrew to make it more sensitive to various listeners even though the Hebrew itself wasn’t nearly as sensitive. Now, I am sure they had good reasons for doing so, but I think it brings up an important point. We love to soften the hard edges of the Bible.

Now in no way am I trying to give everyone who wanted to have an excuse to cuss a biblical reason for doing so. Clearly Saul’s statement was the result of sinful anger. Nevertheless, the Bible is full of tenderness and toughness and translators have been known to take the tough edges off a bit.

Holiness is humble but it is not always nice.

For instance, in Philippians, Paul compares all of his religious accolades to “rubbish” or “dung” in comparison to knowing Christ. Yet in all probability he wasn’t just saying “rubbish” with a British accent over tea; instead, as the NET Bible puts it,

The word here translated “dung” was often used in Greek as a vulgar term for fecal matter. As such it would most likely have had a certain shock value for the readers.

Obviously, “dung” isn’t very shocking or vulgar. I could say that to my (almost) three-year-old and not blush. However, I can think of other words I could say that would be more alarming about fecal matter that I would not say in front of my three-year-old. That is what the Holy Spirit inspired apostle is after here.

I am not pretending to be a Bible translator. I am nothing of the sort and don’t even know the Greek or Hebrew alphabet. But I think there is a desire here by translators to temper the Bible a bit that carries over to the pulpit and to the daily lives of Christians.

We want to be able to read our Bible’s without being provoked with foul language. We want to hear sermons with the offensiveness drained out. We want to be good, nice Christian people that say nice Christian things. The problem is the original languages of our God-breathed book sometimes says “son of a bitch” and calls idolaters whores and even our Savior, Jesus, calls the Pharisees names.

Bible-reading, you can call it devotions, is meant to kick us in the gut sometimes and not just massage our nice-and-neat hyper-spiritual sensibilities. It is meant to awaken us to the reality of sin and the beauty of scandalous grace in Jesus.

This isn’t about cussing. This is about our sinful tendency to soften God’s word to us and his call to us.

I think there are a few things to take away from this:

1) The Bible isn’t a cutesy story full of butterflies and rainbows. It is the story of men and women who were created in God’s image being broken by sin and redeemed by the gracious plan of the Triune God. We should expect scandal and uncouthness in the Bible.

2) Preachers aren’t supposed to preach sermons to make you feel good and Christian books aren’t supposed to be written to entertain you or improve you. They should awaken you.

3) Godly communication is tough and tender. The way you communicate differs depending on who you are talking to, what the circumstances are, and what you are talking to them about. For instance, sarcasm can be a biblical means of communication when used in rebuke.

4) We, like translators, have a propensity to soften God’s word to us in the Bible. We naturally want to weaken the offensiveness of the cross, tone down the exclusivity and sufficiency of the work of Jesus, soften our Bible-translations, only experience encouraging encouragement and avoid encouraging rebuke, have devotions and listen to preaching that massages what we already know and doesn’t call us higher, etc.

This isn’t about cussing. This is about our sinful tendency to soften God’s word to us and his call to us. Jesus laughed and played with little children, wept with Lazarus’ family, and he also made a whip to drive out salesman in his house.

Let’s not soften the Bible and lets not repackage holiness into niceness. Holiness is humble but it is not always nice.

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