The Curses of the Prophets (Isaiah 13)
I was always taught not to curse. Besides the occasional slipup, cursing was never part of my family atmosphere. I cursed a lot in Junior High, but when I gave my life to Christ before my Freshman year of High School, cursing was one of those sins that seemed to simply vanish away from me without much struggle.
That’s why I was in for quite a shock when I read a bad word in the Bible during my sermon preparation this week.
The verse was Isaiah 13:16, which reads (in ESV), “Their infants will be dashed in pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished.”
Did you catch the curse?
That’s because our English translations doll it up to make it readable. Nobody is going to buy a Bible with the F-word in it. But that’s probably the closest thing to the word Isaiah uses in the original Hebrew.
Most English translations translate the last word of that verse “ravished” (NASB; ESV; KJV), “raped” (NET; NLT) or even “violated” (NIV). To understand why this word might be even stronger than that in its original usage, let me tell you about the Masoretes.
The Masoretes were a group of scribes who meticulously copied the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, they were so meticulous that they even invented a vowel system in order to better preserve the pronunciation of the text (the original text was written with only consonants). The Hebrew vowels go inside, above and below the consonants so as not to disturb the original letters.
Along with their invented vowels, they used a system that scholars call Kethiv-Qere, which means “That which is written, that which is said.” Sometimes, they would put the vowels of another word inside the written word, with the consonants of that other word written in the margin. If they thought a word was perhaps copied wrongly in their manuscript, or sometimes to avoid pronouncing a certain word, they might make a note in the text to show that one word was written, but when reading the manuscript out loud, please pronounce this other word over here. It was a neat little system that safeguarded any error on their part. If their guess was incorrect that the “wrong” word was in the text, then they still preserved whatever the original manuscript had in their copy.
In Isaiah 13:16, there is a Kethiv-Qere on the last word (the word the ESV translates “ravished”). The original text has the word shagel. The Masoretes made a note to read aloud the word shacav, which is a word meaning “to lay,” used euphemistically for sex. It’s the more common word in the Bible.
Why would the Masoretes want to replace the original word with a more common, euphemistic word? Why wouldn’t they pronounce aloud the word that Isaiah originally wrote?
The answer is simple: it was a bad word. Isaiah was using what we might consider a curse word, a word so offensive that good Hebrew boys and girls shouldn’t even hear it spoken out loud.
Why would a prophet use such a word?
In short, shock value. The very offense of the word shocks the readers and heightens the offense of the Babylonian invasion. It’s one thing to say, “The Babylonians will sleep with your wives.” (That’s what the Masoretes read aloud.) It’s another thing to say, “The Babylonians will [f-word] your wives.” (That’s much more close to what Isaiah wrote.)
This doesn’t give us a license to spout out curses. This was a prophet of God, inspired to use the strongest language possible to shock readers with the horror of God’s coming judgment. Isaiah’s message was designed to wake the Israelites up from their spiritual slumber and recognize the danger of their vile ways.
If the Israelites were more offended at the language Isaiah used to make his point, then they missed his point altogether. The well-placed curse word offends and shocks and horrifies the readers to recognize the end result of their lifestyle of sin.