She’s Not a Whore: Pejorative Language and Translation Bias in Ezekiel 16

by Christine Woolgar | September 05, 2021

When I was eight years old, one of my teachers was named Mrs. Moorehouse. After school one day, I was talking to my mum and accidentally referred to her as Mrs. “Hoorehouse.” While I was merely surprised at the slip, my mum was shocked. But then, she thought I’d said “whorehouse.”

Growing up with gospel stories read from the 1984 NIV English translation, it’s possible that I had a growing awareness of the word “prostitute.” But the word “whore” was, evidently, unknown to me. Neither it nor any of its derivatives are used once in the NIV. They are, however, used ninety-one times in the ESV.

I discovered this as I was studying Ezekiel 16.

Ezekiel 16: A Difficult Passage to Say the Least

Likely written around the time of the southern kingdom’s exile to Babylon, the chapter describes the history of the people of Judah’s relationship with God using an extended metaphor. Judah, or more specifically Jerusalem, is depicted as a foundling who grows up to become a sexually unfaithful wife to God. The whole story is saturated with graphic descriptions of nakedness, sex, and violence.

Very broadly, responses to the text lie somewhere between two extremes. A full embrace of this passage sees God acting in unmerited compassion and generosity, only to be grossly betrayed; he responds to Jerusalem’s unfaithfulness in righteous anger and just punishment, culminating in a merciful promise of restoration.1 On the other hand, full resistance to the text frames God as an absentee benefactor who abandons Jerusalem until she’s old enough for him to make her his arm candy. When she acts out, this view would say God behaves like a textbook abuser,2 giving Jerusalem no voice whatsoever, at any time.3

Clearly, there are serious questions about the purpose of Ezekiel’s rhetoric and how much this passage is intended to reveal the character of God. It is also no small task to consider how the text should be presented and discussed within the church, bearing in mind that many readers will be women and/or survivors of domestic and sexual abuse.

What I want to explore is how this conversation is likely to be influenced by translation choices, particularly in the case of the ESV and its use of the word “whore.”

“Whore” in the ESV

The Cambridge Dictionary offers two definitions for whore. One is archaic and refers to a female prostitute. The other more modern usage is offensive and refers to “a woman whose behaviour in her sexual relationships is considered immoral.”4

At a glance, the ESV seems to use “whore” mainly in its archaic sense. Phrases like “you lavished your whorings” from Ezekiel 16:15 certainly look old-fashioned (and show up in a spell check). But there’s more going on here.

Officially, the use of “whore” reflects reliance on the KJV tradition.5 But if the translators thought “whore” was still preferable over a modern term, then why just this term? For example, in 1 Samuel 25:22, David swears that he won’t leave a single male person alive from Naboth’s household. The ESV uses the word “male” even though the KJV says “any that pisseth against a wall.” Why use “whore” but not “piss”? Given that both are now offensive terms, I can’t help but think this is an example of translation bias.

Meanwhile, whether intended or not, it’s hard for a modern reader to read “whore” without its negative connotations. And in the context of Ezekiel 16, that matters. We’re led to believe that either:

  • pejorative use is justifiable and righteous, or
  • pejorative use is not justifiable and the text is deliberately (and provocatively) depicting God as unrighteous.

Given the troubling narrative as a whole, we shouldn’t immediately rule out the second option. However, it’s very unlikely the ESV translators believed the text was presenting an unreliable portrait of God. Even if they did, that doesn’t explain all the uses of “whore” in the ESV outside of the book of Ezekiel.

It seems more likely that the translators were willing to ignore, or even embrace, the misogynistic overtones the word “whore” now has.

But there’s more.           

Metaphor Upon Metaphor

Modern readers might not realize it, but there are two levels of metaphor at work in this chapter. The more obvious one is the wider depiction of the spiritual unfaithfulness of the inhabitants of Jerusalem through the image of the woman’s sexual immorality.

But metaphor also operates within individual phrases that use the Hebrew root znh. In Old Testament culture, married and betrothed women were expected to have sex with one man only, for as long as he was alive. If this norm was violated, a married woman might be described as “prostituting” herself, but the intended meaning was not that she worked as a prostitute. It was that she was being sexually immoral.6

In other words, most of the phrases in Ezekiel 16 about the woman’s “prostitution” are metaphorical. We misread the text if we think the author is telling us this woman’s behaviour is that of a sex worker; the narrative even labors how the woman was unlike a prostitute (verses 31 and 34).

Once we realize this, we can see that translators have a choice about what they do with each individual phrase. They can preserve the original image used in the Hebrew or state the intended underlying meaning without using a metaphor.7

The ESV and NIV tend to take the first option, but the CEB, an ecumenical translation that aims to be comfortably readable for most English readers, takes varied approaches depending on context.

For example, if we look at the Hebrew root znh (meaning to act as a prostitute), it occurs eighteen times in verses 15–34, fifteen of which are metaphorical.8 The ESV translates it with derivatives of “whore” all fifteen times. The NIV recognizes when the Hebrew is using particular turns of phrase, so it uses “prostitute” eight times, “promiscuity” three times, “favors” three times, and leaves it untranslated once. Meanwhile, the CEB uses “prostitute” only five times, leaves it untranslated once, and uses other phrases including “traded,” “seduce,” “promiscuity,” and “favors.”

We can see this trend in the rest of the Old Testament too.

To be clear, directly translating the original Hebrew metaphor is a valid translation choice. But metaphors carry different overtones and emotive effects depending on the reader’s context. If a translation chooses to preserve a particular image, we need to ask whether that’s down to a more literal translation style or actually reflects a convenience for the translator’s ideology.

Put another way, when metaphorical use of the root znh is translated into English terms associated with prostitution, does that reflect a willingness on the part of the translator to stigmatise sex workers and/or women who exercise sexual agency?

If so, we have a problem.

Why All of This Matters for Readers

My point here is not to put forward a defence of sex work. However, given the many complex reasons why women (and men) can take up prostitution, it’s important to resist using this Hebrew metaphor without appropriate justification. And we definitely shouldn’t be adding to it in a chapter as rhetorically loaded as Ezekiel 16.

This is where the ESV translation choices become even more strange. As I mentioned, the ESV preserves the metaphorical use of the root znh all fifteen times in verses 15–34; this is consistent with the ESV’s more literal translation style. However, in the three times the Hebrew refers to a sex worker (verses 30, 31, and 33), the ESV uses “prostitute,” not “whore.” In other words, “whore” isn’t just being used because it’s archaic.

The effect of this shouldn’t be underappreciated in such a highly complex and emotive passage. The strange mix of the archaic and modern puts a veneer of authority and respectability over the pejorative intent behind “whore.” It discourages modern readers from resisting the text and collapses the complexities of Ezekiel’s rhetoric and prophetic purpose. It encourages us to believe, as feminist scholar Peggy Day so bluntly puts it, “the bitch had it coming to her.”

Leaving aside how this dangerously steers toward victim blaming, such an interpretation is also deeply flawed. As Day argues, the text is not about sex, but apostasy, about abandoning God. If we read it as about sex and marital relationships, then it doesn’t portray a measured judicial process for infidelity, but a vicious and absurd sexual revenge fantasy; after all, the male adulterous lovers do not share the woman’s punishment but participate in inflicting it.9  

In contrast, if we read the chapter as inescapably about apostasy, then the text becomes a deliberately distressing description of the foreign conquests of Jerusalem. It may even be inviting us to identify with Jerusalem.10             

Concluding Thoughts

There is much, much more that could be explored on this topic, particularly in the books of Hosea, Nahum, and Proverbs. And there are definitely questions to be asked of other translations, including the NIV and CEB—the latter uses “whore” four times in the Old Testament, three of which are in a single verse (Nahum 3:4).

But we should question what purpose is served by the sheer volume of times “whore” is used in the ESV, not just in Ezekiel 16 but throughout the Old Testament. Because this didn’t happen by accident. It reflects deliberate translation choices—firstly, to preserve the metaphorical use of the root word znh (both in its own right and within turns of phrase), and secondly, to use an English word which, when we hear it today, almost always carries derogatory intent.

As for Ezekiel 16, we need to remember that it’s not about sex, but apostasy. It stacks up as a description of Jerusalem’s failed alliances with foreign nations, but it breaks down if read as a picture of marital relations.

Ultimately, we will each have to decide for ourselves how much we resist or embrace the rhetoric force of this highly complex passage of Scripture. I first read it when I was eighteen, as I was working my way through the book of Ezekiel. I won’t lie, even with the graphic content of this chapter (and chapter 23), the book enlivened my faith in a way that surprised and inspired me, and I’m never going to forget that. However, I was thirty-seven before I heard anyone in my church community acknowledge the violence of this particular passage. If I’m honest, that left me angry.

It is my hope that if we can talk about Ezekiel 16 better, then we will, in time, translate it better too. That won’t stop readers from being unsettled by it, but it will give them more space to ask critical questions of the text and wrestle to find their own answers.

This article appears in “Gendered Language and the Church,” the Autumn 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here. 
 

Notes

1. Peggy Day gives a review of scholars who explicitly or implicitly interpret the chapter this way. See Peggy L. Day, “The Bitch Had It Coming to Her: Rhetoric and Interpretation in Ezekiel 16,” Biblical Interpretation 8, no. 3 (2000): 231–54.

2. The passage follows the “three-stage cycle of abuse”: tension-building, acute violence, followed by kindness and contrite behaviour. Linda Day, “Rhetoric and Domestic Violence in Ezekiel 16,” Biblical Interpretation 8 (2000): 205–30, quoted in Bryan D. Bibb, “There’s No Sex in Your Violence: Patriarchal Translation in Ezekiel 16 and 23,” Review & Expositor 111, no. 4 (December 2014): 339.

3. See in particular Carol J. Dempsey, “The ‘Whore’ of Ezekiel 16: The Impact and Ramifications of Gender-Specific Metaphors in Light of Biblical Law and Divine Judgment,” in Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, edited by Victor H. Matthews et al. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1998), 57–78; and Aaron Koller “Pornography or Theology?: The Legal Background, Psychological Realism, and Theological Import of Ezekiel 16,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 79, no. 3 (July 2017): 402–21.

4. Cambridge Dictionary.

5. Bibb, “There’s No Sex in Your Violence,” 342.

6. See Day, “The Bitch Had It Coming To Her,” 236. In Peggy Day’s discussions about the structure and impact of metaphors, she cites Julie Galambush’s argument around the metaphorical use of znh. Julie Galambush, “Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh's Wife,” SBLDS, 130 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), 25–88.

7. A third translation choice would be to use a different image to convey a similar emotive effect to today’s readers. For example, the US phrase “kick the can down the road” could be translated in the UK as “kick the ball into the long grass.” However, this kind of translation would be difficult to achieve in a complex and layered passage like Ezekiel 16, and I don’t know of an English translation that attempts to do so with this passage.

8. As Carol Dempsey observes, the root znh occurs in verse 15 (twice), 16, 17, 20, 22, 25, 26, 31, 33 (twice), and 34 (twice). See Dempsey, “The ‘Whore’ of Ezekiel 16,” 68.

9. See Day, “The Bitch Had It Coming To Her,” 231–54.

10. See Koller, “Pornography or Theology?” 412–414.