Weird OT: Euphemisms (‘Uncovering the Feet’)

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?



  1. Er, sounds like sex to me. Can’t wait for the Ruth lesson in SS now!

  2. So, putting together what we’ve learned the last few days, what does the phrase “feet of the mountains” mean??

  3. Oh yeah, Ruth and Boaz’ feet. My mother had to teach that lesson in RS about two years ago. She asked me general questions about the story, so I filled her in on some details…and about the “feet.” It quite ruined her day.

  4. Aaron Brown says:

    I will never again think of “foot fetishes” in the same way.

    Maybe references to “Brokeback Mountain” in Sacrament Meeting would be more appropriate if the plot were described as “a tale of two men in the woods, and their feet.”

    Kevin, it’s good to have you on board. I didn’t know you were scheduled to be a guest-blogger. Since I thought I was King of the Hill around here, this comes as something of a surprise. (Note to self: Chastize Dave and J.Stapley for not keeping me in the “know” at all times). As I’ve said elsewhere, I have fond memories of reading your Dialogue articles over the years. (Or was it just your Documentary Hypothesis article? I can’t remember).

    Aaron B

  5. For what it is worth, I have heard the Ruth incident described in terms of a prostrate position assumed in entreaty, particularly where one grabs the hem of the garment of the superior who is being addressed.

    One’s mind need not travel to the gutter.

  6. Hehe. Now there’s a way to spice up an otherwise boring Sunday school lesson. Thanks Kevin.

  7. Nah, John, Boaz is lying down, and “touch the hem of his garment” is not the same as “uncover his feet.”

    “Gutter”! This is serious stuff, man!

  8. I didn’t say that I bought the argument, but I felt I had to bring it up for the children. WILL NO-ONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!?

  9. Hmmm. Does this apply to these BoM verses? (the first two are from Isaiah)

    2 Ne. 16: 2 Above it stood the seraphim; each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.

    2 Ne. 17: 20 In the same day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired, by them beyond the river, by the king of Assyria, the head, and the hair of the feet; and it shall also consume the beard.

    Mosiah 15: 15 “And O how beautiful upon the mountains were their feet!”

  10. In seminary and other church venues, I was taught that David cut a piece off of Saul’s robe while Saul was sleeping. Apparently Saul was actually doing something else.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Aaron, I’ve published three articles in Dialogue: one on the JST in 1986, one on Joseph Smith’s emendation of Hebrew Genesis 1:1 (30/4 1997), and the Documentary Hypothesis one (33/1 2000).

  12. The danger with euphemisms like “feet” is reading things when the context doesnt suggest or support it. I don’t see the Isa. 6 ref to feet covering the wings to be a euphemism at all, as there is nothing in the context to suggest as much. Why would an angel have to be modest? The very notion of angels in the presence of God is that they are holy, why use a euphemism to convey modesty when it isnt necessary and doesnt really fit.

    The Ruth and Boaz thing is a possible euphemism, but it seems unlikely given the peshat of Ruth 3:8. But, hey, that assumes you favor the peshat.

    Similarly, there are plenty of plain washing of the feet which are literal feet being literally washed, take Gen. 18:4 for example. Does this mean there are no euphemisms? Of course not, but unless the context clearly suggests it, a prurient reading is unwarranted.

    One of the most egregious examples in print of reading things in that simply are not there is _Harlot by the Side of the Road_ by Jonathan Kirsch who deliberately writes as salacious a text as possible, as that is the entire purpose of the text. As such, it serves as a good end marker for wacky over-reaching.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    I agree that context is all-important in determining whether something like “feet” should be taken literally or euphemistically in a given passage, and sometimes it can be hard to decide. I personally take the “feet” in the Isaiah seraphim passage as euphemistic, as I think it makes much more sense to have wings cover the private parts than to have wings cover the feet (what would that even mean?).

    In Jewish tradition, angels were considered as being circumcised, which suggests that they had the need for modesty referenced by Isaiah.

  14. I remember suggesting to someone that David’s attack on Saul while he was in a cave “covering his feet” seemed to be a reference to David catching him with his pants down. The euphemism is a great improvement over explicitness in that case.

    I’m reminded too of the Lord’s promise to Joseph Smith that the trip to Salem would not result in his enemies’ “discover[ing] their secret parts”. The image is clear–uncovering or disclosing in public one’s secret parts is embarrassing, and the Lord was promising them that that would not occur.

  15. No, one’s mind doesn’t have to travel to the gutter, John C., and I didn’t see anybody’s going that way.

    Kevin’s post does shed some light on what has always been a bit puzzling about the Ruth/Boaz story. What was the big deal about her sleeping at Boaz’s feet? I mean, my yellow labrador sleeps at my feet all the time.

  16. David cut off the hem of Saul’s cloak while Saul was “covering his feet” in a cave. (1 Sam. 24)

    As for the two Isaiah passages, I’ve seen translations and commentaries that suggest “genitals” for both of them (the WBC and NET respectively).

  17. In the African languages I know, there is no special word for foot or feet, it is all one body part from the hip to the toenails. So having afterbirth come out from between someone’s feet doesn’t seem that off.

  18. I have one comment.

    I will never read the OT the same again. Holy Cow.

  19. what would that even mean?

    That the seraphs had six wings as opposed to the normal two is probably a means of conveying a superlative, these seraphs were the most holy seraphs, hence a triple set of wings, being triply exalted. Holy, holy, holy, i.e., most holy.

    The wings over their face would hide their presence, the wings over the feet (the JPS translates it to “legs”) would cover his tracks, and with the others he flew. In other words, you cannot see the seraph with your natural eyes because he can hide his presence from you, you cannot discern the seraph’s actions because they are spiritual so there are no telltale tracks as a mortal man, and he can fly between the earth and the presence of the Lord as a messenger.

  20. Besides the well appreciated leavity of the post, I just wanted to thank you for the cultural insight. I am no bible scholar and consequently feel a bit overwhelmed by what I no I am not “getting.” This is great.

  21. “Does this apply to these BoM verses? (the first two are from Isaiah)”

    We cannot entirely divorce the content of biblical quotations and verbage from our interpretation of BOM passages. Even the Pauline phrases in the BOM require us to reference the New Testament.

    2 Ne. 17: 20 In the same day shall the Lord shave with a razor . . . the head, and the hair of the feet; and it shall also consume the beard.

    This clearly does NOT mean “head-to-toe.”

    Mosiah 15: 15 “And O how beautiful upon the mountains were their feet!”

    Also from Isaiah, refers to the feet of the messengers. The context implies that the messengers employ footwork to deliver the glad tidings. How beautiful.

  22. Ben, I like BRM’s take on 1 Sam 24 chapter heading — “David finds Saul asleep in a cave.” Yeah right! Nice try, [Elder McConkie, sir].

    Oh, and Zimmerli’s take on Ezek. 8:17 is a crack-up. It’s briefly mentioned in the K-B in case you don’t have his commentary handy…

  23. What do you want, David J? “David finds Saul relieving himself in a cave”? (Or, is “relieving” too much euphemism for you?)

    The other reference to “cover his feet” is in Judges 3, which has another great euphemism (for what, I’m not sure). When Ehud stabbed Eglon, King of Moab, who was “a very fat man,” his knife, which was one cubit long, sank in so deep that the flesh closed upon the blade and he could not pull it out “and the dirt came out.” Go figure.

    Then the servants, standing outside his “summer parlour” (what’s that?) said “Surely he covereth his feet” in there. (Did they smell the “dirt” that had come out?) And they waited until they “were ashamed”–why? because nobody spends that long in the john, or did they worry that the long time in there would cause him to go blind?

    Whatever, sometimes you just have to accept that the stories in there are earthy, and not try to sanitize it all for Sunday School.

    Besides, you can keep the 13-year-old boys listening with a few “true” stories from time to time.

  24. His summer parlour was the cooler upper room of his palace.

    Harvey Minkoff, “Coarse Language in the Bible? It’s Culture Shocking!” Bible Review 5:02 (April 1989) has some great examples of similar language where modern English speakers would be euphemist and the Biblical writers would not, ie. “any that pisseth against the wall.”

    This again goes to show that the Bible in its original languages is not lofty, elevated majestic prose. It’s most often the common earthy normative language, but the KJV obscures that for us.

  25. I thought we didn’t believe in seraphim with actual wings. So all this 6 wings covering this and that (genitals, feet, whaddevah)– aren’t the wings just symbolic of something else? We don’t believe in winged-angels, do we??

  26. harpingheather says:

    >>What was the big deal about her sleeping at Boaz’s feet? I mean, my yellow labrador sleeps at my feet all the time.

    It was explained to me as a cultural custom, indicating to him that she was part of his family and that he owed her the care and duties given to family.

  27. I found these in the OT years ago. What do you think they mean?

    Hosea 13:12-13
    “The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up; his sin is hid. The sorrows of a travailing woman shall come upon him: he is an unwise son; for he should not stay long in the place of the breaking forth of children.”

    and this:

    Exodus 19:14-15
    “And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their clothes. And he said unto the people, Be ready against the third day: come not at your wives.”

  28. 2 Ne. 17: 20 (Isa. 7:20) In the same day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired, by them beyond the river, by the king of Assyria, the head, and the hair of the feet; and it shall also consume the beard.

    The “razor” is the king of Assyria, and the shaving off of the hair is symbolic of both the humiliation (cf. Mic. 1:6, Jer. 7:29, Jer. 48:37) and purification (cf. Num. 6:9, Num. 8:7, cp. Isa. 4:2-6, Isa. 61:6) of Judah.

    Mosiah 15: 15 (Isa. 52:7) And O how beautiful upon the mountains were their feet!

    “How welcome on the mountain/Are the footsteps of the herald”, the NAS, WB, AB all render the phrase following the KJV “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings”. A similar statement is made in Nahum 1:15, but the welcome/beautiful language is omitted. The WB states, “Beautiful means something different in Hebrew thought than it does for us.
    The beautiful is something that comes about…the messenger’s feet are not objectively beautiful. Their beauty consists in their intimation of the beauty of the coming of the tidings; and this is beautiful because it awakens jubilations.” Thus, the JPS rendering is a paraphrase intended to accurately convey the intended meaning.

    Following either the JPS or the KJV reading one would develop an interpretation of the messenger delivering the good news of Zion’s establishment and the redemption of Israel and so forth. Considering this herald would be shortly after the downfall of Babylon and the destruction of wicked, the people left over would be happy about the message of the Lord’s arrival at Mt. Zion. That the messenger is upon the mountains represents his being established upon the heights, or being set above his enemies, cf. 2 Sam. 22:34, Hab. 3:19; also cp. Ps. 125 (see also 58:14. and Deut. 32:13 for additional refs. to man being placed on the heights; Amos 4:13 and Micah 1:3 for the Lord standing upon the heights). The 1 Ne. 21:13 addition (on 49:13) of “For the feet of those who are in the east are established” supports this general reading, as does D&C 59:3 who accounts those whose feet are established in Zion as blessed (also cp. D&C 78:16).

    Following the KJV reading and assuming a more Western concept of beauty (as it is possible that Isaiah was referring to the objective beauty of the feet), we wonder what the symbolism of the feet and their being beautiful would mean. In the Hebrew tradition the feet were the lowest part of the body, both figuratively and literally (cf. 1:5-6, also cp. 10:14-15). None but a slave was allowed to bathe another’s feet because of the lowly nature of the task, and rabbi’s were expressly forbidden from having/allowing their disciples wash their feet because it was too demeaning (cf. John 1:27). When considering the climate and lifestyle of these people, we recall that they largely wore sandals and walked whenever they traveled. The typical custom of hospitality upon welcoming people into your house was to offer them water so they could wash their feet (hence the “dusting off the feet as a testimony” as the people rejected them rudely, cf. Matt. 10:14). From these cultural practices we may assume that the feet were generally regarded as pretty filthy. For Isaiah here to call them “beautiful”, then seems rather odd. However, in Ezekiel 1:7 the four cherubim are described as having feet like burnished bronzed and a similar statement is made describing the Son in Rev. 2:18. In both of these cases the persons being described are obviously exalted. In this case the beauty of their feet may be a reference contrasting the exalted condition of the resurrected and glorified body where even the feet are magnificently lustrous. Thus, Isaiah’s reference to the feet of the herald of Zion may be a prediction of the exalted position they are due to inherit.

    As for who the herald/messenger is, Abinidai presents any believer who evangelizes as being one of them, cf. Mosiah 15:10-18. Alma also characterizes Jesus Christ as heralding salvation to his people in Alma 39:15.

    Hosea 13:12-13 “The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up; his sin is hid. The sorrows of a travailing woman shall come upon him: he is an unwise son; for he should not stay long in the place of the breaking forth of children.”

    Difficult verses. It seems to be saying that Israel
    will be afflicted with the pains of childbearing, even though it is a “he” (v. 13). These pains are apparently associated with his sinful nature (v. 12).

    The latter half of v. 13 is very obscure, here are three different translations to compare:

    for he should not stay long in the place of the
    breaking forth of children. (KJV)

    For this is no time to survive
    At the birthstool of babes. (JPS)

    For it is not the time that he should delay at the
    opening of the womb. (NAS)

    None of these are particularly helpful.

    The only sense I can make of these two verses is by comparing it to the imagery employed in Micah 4:9-10 and Micah 5:3. Israel wants delivery from anguish, but instead will not be delivered (Micah 4:9-10) until purged of unrighteousness (Micah 5:3). So, I would assume the meaning is: because of Israel’s wickedness (v. 12), he will be racked with pain rather than delivered from it (v. 13).

    Exodus 19:14-15 “And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their clothes. And he said unto the people, Be ready against the third day: come not at your wives.”

    WIth respect to verses 9-13, the Lord responds by instructing them how to prepare for the third day wherein He would manifest Himself to them. First, the Lord will visibly appear to Israel in a cloud and speak to Moses in the hearing of them all so that they may know for
    certain that the Lord does in fact speak to Moses (v. 9, ct. 16:3-8 where Israel was questioning Moses’ inspiration).

    The Lord then instructs them to keep themselves completely
    physically clean by abstaining from sexual relations and washing their clothes (v. 10, cp. v. 14-15). While the physical cleanliness is obviously intended to be symbolic of spiritual cleanliness, the prohibition on sexual relations is unique being unparalleled in the Scriptures. At no other point are sexual relations between husband and wife prescribed or prohibited. As background, I would point out that having sexual relations rendered the husband and wife “unclean” until sundown (cf. Lev. 15:16-18), a nocturnal emission rendered the man “unclean” until sundown (cf. Deut 23:11-12), and menstruating rendered the woman “unclean” for seven days (cf. Lev. 15:19-24), and all of them required ritually bathing oneself in order to become clean (these regulations were formally instituted after this event, but general practices such as these were observed previous to their being codified in the Law -it is unclear if these rules were novel at their institution or if they pre-existed the Law, as many aspects of the Law clearly pre-existed it). Thus, I would assume that, in part, the prohibition is designed to make the theophany as inclusive as possible, or in other words, since they know that on the third day the Lord will reveal Himself they need to be certain that they will be clean on that day so they may participate in the theophany. In addition to this, there are numerous covenant blessings associated with chastity and progeny.
    This temporary abstinence in obedience to the Lord’s command can be interpreted to be indicative of the blessings of progeny He is willing to bestow upon them as a result of the Sinatic Covenant. It makes matters of chastity and progeny explicit in the Sinaitic covenant.

  29. Anonymous says:

    I’m not convinced that that are the terms referred to in the original post, including the one in Ruth, are used euphemistically. Nevertheless, it is true, as someone has already said, that the King James Version itself masks the intent of a fair number of passages. A classic example is Ezekiel 23:20, which has to be read in a modern translation to be appreciated. Talk about graphic!

  30. I would also like to point out that genitalia appear to have occasionally been featured in covenant making ritual (the prime example being Jacob’s wrestle with a divine being). Of course, euphemism appears to be used there also.

  31. Sometimes solving one problem introduces another. If we read 1 Samuel 24:4 as Saul sleeping (as stated in the chapter heading of our scriptures), it is easy to see how David was able to cut off a part of Saul’s robe secretly or “privily.” If I was relieving myself in a cave, I think I would be aware enough of my surroundings to notice if someone got close enough to me to cut my clothing. Isn’t this a problem with the accepted euphamistic reading?

  32. Jonathan Green says:

    “‘hair of the feet’ (Isa. 7:20) means ‘pubic hair.'”

    I’m just glad to finally have a doctrinal justification for the requirement that men wear socks at BYU.

  33. As long as I can remember, I have been mildly irritated when someone saying a prayer in our meetings expresses gratitude that “we have been able to sit at the feet of . . .”. I have just never liked that phrase.

    Now I know why it bugs me. The ick factor just went off the charts.

  34. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh, Jonathan, that’s a good one!

  35. Please tell me that there is no euphemism implied when Jesus washes the feet of the Twelve.

  36. John Remy: no!


  1. […] Owing to his guest blogging excellence (you will never read “feet” in the OT the same way), Kevin Barney now joins the permanent staff at BCC. We are, in all ways, not worthy. Welcome Kevin!Kevin graduated from BYU in classics in 1982, with law degrees following from the University of Illinois (J.D.) and DePaul University (LL.M.).  He practices public finance law in Chicago.  He has published a couple of dozen articles in Mormon studies (mostly related to LDS scripture) in such venues as the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, FARMS Review, The Ensign, BYU Studies and Sunstone.  He also serves on the Board of FAIR. […]

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