Is Washing Feet in the Bible a Euphemism?

Washing feet: A Biblical fetish?

In the movie The Big Chill, during a weekend of reminiscing about their college days in the ’60s, the once-aspiring journalist who is now a reporter for a gossip magazine says, “I hate to think that all we stood for back then is just a fad!” Well, of course it was. If they had spent more time reading in history and sociology and less time demonstrating on campus, they might have come to that “chill-ing” insight sooner.

This doesn’t mean that all they stood for was unimportant. Quite the contrary. It was important but transitory — a kind of cultural bias that catches people up into itself to bring about needed change. However, for many of us, life is longer than we expected it to be. Rarely is anyone’s burning issue of life able to give lasting meaning to the whole.

I remember two encounters I had with the chill of negative cultural bias when I caught a glimpse of its otherwise hidden operation in the area of religion.

Seeking innuendo in the Bible

The first occurred in my adolescent Sunday school class. The boy’s class teacher was well-meaning but dull, so I decided to put the class time to better use. While he taught, I undertook to look up every sexual word I could think of in the concordance of my Bible. At times, it was stimulating to the point of embarrassment.

It didn’t take long for me to see that there was a conspiracy going on to hide the seamier parts of the Bible. However, I found that with dedicated persistence this cultural bias against sex could be penetrated. Alas, most modern believers don’t seem to want to bother. It’s easier to take the word of some aspiring demagogue as gospel.

This first encounter with cultural bias was accompanied by guilt and humor. Near the end of the year, the teacher shocked us all by stopping his lesson in mid-sentence. He then proceeded to tell us how gratifying it was for him to have one of his students so busy reading his Bible every Sunday as he taught. Somehow I got the feeling that he would not have felt so gratified if he had known the subject that absorbed my interest. Discretion being the better part of valor, I decided that his need for self-fulfillment outweighed mine for truthfulness.

Problems with Bible translation

My second encounter with cultural bias and religion came in my second-year Greek class. We had been studying New Testament Greek when my professor casually dropped a bomb. In discussing the meaning of an ambiguous word, he remarked that the earliest dictionary of the Greek language was of limited help. It was written a thousand years after the Bible and was for Byzantine Greek — an infinitely more complex and sophisticated form of Greek than the biblical one. In a long discussion after class, only a few of us found out that they have no grammars or dictionaries of biblical Greek.

All that now exist are products of extrapolation made in the last 300 years. Although scholars use many sound principles of deducing the use and meaning of the words, many are still guesses. As such, they are hopelessly subject to cultural bias. Many people don’t know this. All too often, in discussions of what the Bible says, dogmatic certainty is inversely proportional to the degree of awareness of cultural bias.

Nowhere is cultural bias more evident than in the area of sex. Harvard’s John Boswell very adequately exposes the insidiousness of cultural bias in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. He documents that informed scholars of the past deliberately changed selected passages of classical Greek and Roman works to conform to Western sensibilities. Before we can gain an accurate picture of ancient world, the original texts will have to be retranslated with more honesty.

The problem of intellectual honesty also affects translators of the Bible as they seek to take words and concepts of an alien culture and put them into modern forms. This problem is aggravated by the existence of euphemisms. Eastern cultures are renowned for their indirectness — of not “calling a spade a spade.” Western language, on the other hand, has a facility for being blunt.

It is far more acceptable with those who oppose all forms of profanity to translate the apostle Paul’s pronouncement on the unrepentant in its polite Eastern form (“Let them be anathema!”) rather than its blunt Western equivalent of telling someone exactly where they can go.

Feet in biblical translation

For our purposes, let’s look at the biblical word translated as “feet.” In Middle Eastern culture, not only is it what we stand on, it is also a euphemism for a man’s sex organs. Why this is so, I have no idea. But military friends acquainted with the Middle East assure me that it still is. To kick someone or to put your foot on them is a particularly nasty insult. You don’t cross your legs in public for it is an insult to the person who sees it. And if someone comes up to you in the shadows and asks if you want your feet massaged, the chances of their being an itinerant podiatrist are pretty slim.

When confronted with a word that can have several meanings, the context in which it is used determines its translation. If the context is ambiguous then the meaning of the word is up for grabs. When it comes to sex, cultural bias and the Bible, most scholars will opt for the professionally safe translation, no matter how strange it sounds. Many won’t even call your attention to the fact it could be translated another way. They leave you to figure it out on your own.

King Saul’s feet

One of the easier places to see the double meaning for “feet” is in 1 Samuel 24:3. The text says that King Saul, while on military maneuvers, “turned aside and entered a cave to cover his feet.” (When you picture it, turning aside is a very descriptive euphemism for walking away to urinate. It was used by Elijah to taunt the prophets of Baal when he said “What’s the matter with your God that he doesn’t hear your cries? Perhaps he has turned aside!”)

Assuming Saul already had on boots, anyone who has been on field maneuvers will understand exactly what Saul felt when Nature called. There apparently being no bushes or rocks big enough to go behind for privacy, he used a cave, as so many still do today. (Isn’t it amazing what gets recorded for posterity?)

Maybe Saul was just modest, maybe he had bashful kidneys, or maybe he didn’t want his men to think he was scared. Who knows? But one thing is for sure, it does sound very strange for him to hide while he put on his shoes. Why doesn’t the translation just say “to urinate”? If that’s too indelicate, how about “to relieve himself”? That’s a lot less strange than saying he went into a cave to pee to keep his men from seeing how small he was — which is the impression the translation gives.

This modesty concerning urination is also picked up again by the Essenes of the Dead Sea scrolls. Not only were they to keep their private parts covered, they were also to hide the stream of urine. To find out just how successful they were at doing all this under their robes, we would have to ask their laundry man.

The Assyrians and feet

There is another place where the double meaning is easy to see. It is connected to the “and a Virgin shall conceive” prophecy in Isaiah 7:20. The prophet says that Israel will be defeated by the Assyrians. As a consequence, “they will have a razor put to their heads, their beards, and the hair of their feet.” The only people I know with hairy feet are the Hobbits — J.R.R. Tolkien’s imaginary creatures. We have no word from him that they are really Jewish. This form of humiliation was done in public and was rather mild considering what the Assyrians usually did.

As a reminder that things would be different under their new regime, all the males of a captured nation were usually circumcised in a public ceremony. The foreskins were collected in baskets and taken to court scribes for counting. These numbers were then used to calculate tribute and taxes. (It was a rather simple accounting procedure when you think of it, and a very effective object lesson.) Collecting foreskins wasn’t that unusual. Sampson collected a basketful from the Philistines he dispatched to prove he had won the battle.

With Hebrew captives, or with previously conquered nations, circumcision was a redundancy they could hardly afford — it already having been done. That’s probably why their humiliation was to only have their private parts manhandled by the Assyrian barbers out in front of God and everybody.

If a recently conquered nation rebelled and had to be conquered again, the Assyrians were known to systematically sodomize every male — young and old — in a public ceremony. The Assyrians were big on these kinds of ceremonies. This form of debasement was so that everyone would have an intimate awareness of just who won the war and who lost. In the interest of sexual equality, the women usually got theirs during or shortly after the battles.

The Assyrians were fiercely bisexual, and being a soldier had lots of fringe benefits for those so inclined. With such kinds of graphic object lessons, it is little wonder that animosities run high in Middle Eastern politics. So strongly was humiliation coupled with sodomy that it is expecting too much of the biblical writers to see it in any other light.

The sexual mores of the Assyrians make fascinating reading. They are safely hidden away in scholarly volumes, sufficiently buried in academic libraries so that your average biblical dilettante wouldn’t stumble across them and liven up Wednesday night Bible study.

Laying at the feet: Ruth and Naomi

In the book of Ruth, we can again see the sexual overtone of the word for “feet,” which radically alters the traditional story. In two separate places, the text says that Ruth “lay at the feet” of her wealthy kinsman, Boaz. Your understanding of human nature will determine the meaning of the text. If you have a positive view, Naomi is an all-wise matron who counsels her daughter-in-law on how a symbolic gesture of total submission will melt the heart of any man. (It should be noted that it took two gestures performed on successive nights to affect the marriage.)

If you have a negative view of human nature, Naomi is a self-seeking old woman who badgers Ruth into using the oldest trick in the book to lasso a prize meal-ticket. Many scholars tend toward the latter view, but the little old church ladies won’t let them translate it that way.

Moses’ bizarre feet ritual

Next we come to a truly bizarre, little-known passage in Exodus 4:25. In preparing to go back to Egypt, Moses’ wife takes a sharp flint and circumcises her oldest son. She then “touches the foreskin to Moses’ feet,” thereby making him “a bridegroom of blood to me.” The exact reason for this strange carrying-on is not clear.

It is generally assumed that Moses, being Jewish, was already circumcised — but this is probably not so. As a naked little toddler, he was raised as an uncircumcised Egyptian, with no one being the wiser. He was going to Egypt to rescue a people who so believed in circumcision that they forced foreign bridegrooms to undergo the operation before they would allow the marriage to a Jewish girl — hence the meaning of that bridegroom-of-blood routine.

That being so, his wife put the son’s foreskin on her husband and then went through the ritual again, leaving Moses intact. This way he would derive the spiritual benefit of the rite and would have upheld the letter of the law. Touching the foreskin to his big toe makes little sense, while a vicarious circumcision does. It certainly wouldn’t be the first case in the Bible of someone trying to circumvent the law so they could have their cake and eat it too. Who could blame Moses? We’re not talking surgery here with anesthetic — we’re talking chipped rocks.

Washing feet: Mary and Martha

The above instances form the historical context for two widely known stories in the New Testament where cultural bias blinds most people to the sexual overtones. In the Gospels, there are two accounts of women who came in during a private dinner party and began to wash Jesus’ feet with their tears. In both instances, those present were shocked.

It is generally pointed out that this is because of the kinds of women that that they were. However, this ignores the sexual overtone to washing his feet. In these particular passages, the word is translated “feet” and is probably correct. If the women had begun to caress anything else at the banquet, it would have been hard to cover it up.

Washing feet at the Last Supper

This sexual innuendo gives a homosexual overtone to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper. It also throws more light on the extent of confusion in Peter’s mind when he says, “You’re not going to wash my feet!”

It would appear that there is more here to be shocked about than just Jesus’ identification with slavery. On many occasions, he had instructed them concerning humility. Another object lesson on the same theme should not have caused such alarm. However, the homosexual overtone would have. It took a bit of explanation to get Peter’s full consent. Once he understood, he consented with enthusiasm.

From a strictly impartial position, the context doesn’t really help in deciding which meaning the word is to have here. No help can be found in a parallel account, as none exist. Only tradition might help, although it isn’t always conclusive.

The first Christians were scandalized by much that Jesus taught and did. John is the only witness who records the foot-washing episode. This could indicate a reluctance on the part of the others to tell all of the events of that last night. It was a private affair, taking place between consenting adults.

We know that in the early church, foot-washing was never really practiced in preparation for communion. It was scandal enough to be accused of cannibalism because of the words of consecration, and of having group orgies because of rumors about the passing of the kiss of peace. Only when the church moved out of the Middle East, and sufficiently away from the sexual overtones to feet, could some naive church member ask why they don’t wash feet like Jesus did.

As with so many things, your disposition will determine what you see going on in the upper room when Jesus washed… whatever. As such, you either believe the only witness who recounts it, or you do not. Yes, the Middle East is not nearly so hung up as we are about males expressing affection.

The young John — “the disciple whom Jesus loved” — cuddled up to Jesus and ate the whole meal with his head on Jesus’ breast. However, cultural bias makes it impossible for many to concede that something sexual was hinted at — much less that something homosexual might have gone on.

Be all that as it may, one thing can definitely be said: Jesus appears to have been remarkably free of cultural bias. To willfully choose an object lesson with homosexual overtones for use in a predominantly straight culture shows radical freedom. Too bad we can’t say the same for many of his followers today.

Is washing feet in the Bible a euphemism? Is washing feet in the Bible a euphemism? Photo by Samuel Lima on Pexels

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