Kevin Barney studied classics at BYU, where he worked as a teaching assistant to S. Kent Brown. He has published a couple of dozen articles on Mormon scripture, and is currently working on a book to be entitled _Footnotes to the New Testament for Latter-day Saints_, which is scheduled to be published by Covenant later this year. He practices tax-exempt finance law in Chicago.
When Ronan introduced this series at BCC, he mentioned euphemisms as a possible topic, so I would like to follow that lead.
There are some topics that inherently have the potential to offend the squeamish: genitalia, nakedness, sexual intercourse, homosexual acts, excretory functions, death, possible affronts to God, and so forth. There are several possible strategies to soften these types of topics. One could simply avoid them altogether; one could dance around them with some sort of circumlocution; or one could euphemise them. That is, one could use a mild, delicate or indirect subsititute for the offensive word or concept. (Of course, in the case of one’s enemies, one could go the other direction and employ a dysphemism, which is the opposite of a euphemism, such as Beelzebub “lord of the flies” for Beelzebul “Baal the prince.”)
Sometimes euphemisms are superimposed on the text by scribes or translators. The distinction between that which is written (*kethib*) and that which is to be read (*qere*) would be an example of this. A prominent illustration is the use of Adonai for Yahweh, as described in a previous post in this BCC series. When I was first learning Hebrew, the professor gave us our choice as to how to read the divine tetragrammaton, and we chose to honor the Jewish practice; I still pronounce Adonai when I come upon that word, even though it is not a sensitivity I personally share.
Often, however, a euphemism is embedded within the original text.
A good example of this is the use of the word “feet” (often in the dual, *raglayim*), to stand for the genitals of either sex. (“Cover the feet” is also a euphemism for relievimg oneself, but in this case the feet are literal feet used as part of a euphemistic expression.)
When I published my Dialogue article on the Documentary Hypothesis, I wrote a little bit about the very strange episode in Exo. 4:25, where Zipporah circumcised their son and then touched Moses’ “feet” with the foreskin. I suppose that could be his literal feet, but the best guess as to the location is the area of the body from which foreskins come. Anyway, I recall an editor responding in shocked disbelief that the word “feet” could stand for the genitalia, so I had to dig up some scholarly references to buttress the point to this editor’s satisfaction.
So, “water of the feet” means urine; “hair of the feet” (Isa. 7:20) means “pubic hair.” Dt. 28:57 speaks of a formerly pampered woman as being reduced by famine to eating the afterbith that comes out from between her “feet.” Ezek. 16:25 personifies Jerusalem as a wanton nymphomaniac, who spreads her “feet” to every passerby. In Isa. 6 the six wings of the seraphim come in three pairs: one to fly with, one to cover the face (for reverence) and one to cover the “feet” (for modesty). David urges Uriah the Hittite, called home on furlough, to go and wash his “feet”; Uriah replies that while his comrades are at arms he would not go home to eat and drink and “lie with his wife.” (2 Sam. 11:8) According to 1 Chr. 16:12, Asa, at the end of his long reign, got sick in his “feet” (possibly gout, I suppose; more likely urinary tract problems, which are very common in old men). Based on an Ugaritic parallel, Pope understands Proverbs 19:2 as
Without knowledge, “soul” [libido] is not good.
One fast with his “feet” sins.
With that introduction, consider Naomi’s counsel to Ruth vis-a-vis Boaz in KJV Ruth 3:3-4:
Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the floor: but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking. And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do.
The headnote in the LDS 1979 edition reads “By Naomi’s instruction, Ruth lies at feet of Boaz.” So what do you think? Are these literal feet? (And if so, why would Ruth uncover them?) Or is this a euphemistic usage? And if the latter, how should modern LDS deal with it?