When 'Foot' Means Something Else: Euphemisms in the Bible

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In this column, Ben Witherington answers questions about the Bible and:



Euphemisms in the story of Noah
The phrase "a reproach to my enemies"
Cremation
Gender-neutral translations
Salvation for those who never knew the gospels
40 days
"Hedges of thorns"
Feminism


In Genesis 9:18-25, Noah is drunk, and uncovered in his tent. Ham sees him and sends in his two brothers to cover him up. Then Noah awakes and curses Ham's son Canaan. Why does Noah curse Canaan, who wasn't involved in any of the previous doings? --keltik1

When some sexual matter is a subject of conversation in the Old Testament, a euphemism or a figure of speech is often used to refer to the matter. Thus, for example, the term foot/feet is sometimes used to refer to the male genitals (for example, when the Old Testament refers to Saul going into a cave and uncovering his foot). The phrase 'uncover or look on the nakedness' of someone usually indicates some kind of sexual assault. This would explain why Noah was so angry about "what Ham had done to him." Ham had shamed him by a homosexual act when he was drunk. If we compare this to Gen. 6.1-4, we can see how severe the judgments could be for sexual aberrations. It was not uncommon in antiquity to judge someone by placing a curse on their descendents, not least because it was believed that the only way one lived on beyond death was in one's children. All these factors are in play in this text.

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I have often wondered what the expression in the Bible, "a reproach to my enemies" or in Psalms, a reproach to others means. Robert Cook

The dictionary definition of reproach refers to making an accusation so as to make someone feel ashamed; or it can mean to bring shame upon someone and so discredit them. The Bible was written to those who lived in 'honor and shame' cultures where public shaming was in many cases far worse than death. If someone was a reproach to their enemies then they had shamed them or discredited them.

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