WHY DOES THE KING JAMES BIBLE SAY, “PISSETH AGAINST THE WALL?”
by Shawn Brasseaux
Any reader of the Authorized Version has encountered this phrase several times in the “Old Testament.” It is an object of criticism in the lips and pens of King James Bible critics. Some genuine Bible-believing Christians, including myself, have stumbled over it for years. It is quite embarrassing to some. Is not “piss” slang and vulgar? How can God’s Word use it over and over again? Were the 1611 translators wrong for employing the term? And, how is “against a wall” related to all of this? Prepare for a Bible lesson, cultural insight, and some studies in etymology!
The phrase “pisseth against the (/a) wall” appears six times in the King James Bible. Notice:
- 1 Samuel 25:22: “So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.”
- 1 Samuel 25:34: “For in very deed, as the LORD God of Israel liveth, which hath kept me back from hurting thee, except thou hadst hasted and come to meet me, surely there had not been left unto Nabal by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.”
- 1 Kings 14:10: “Therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone.”
- 1 Kings 16:11: “And it came to pass, when he began to reign, as soon as he sat on his throne, that he slew all the house of Baasha: he left him not one that pisseth against a wall, neither of his kinsfolks, nor of his friends.”
- 1 Kings 21:21: “Behold, I will bring evil upon thee, and will take away thy posterity, and will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel,….”
- 2 Kings 9:8: “For the whole house of Ahab shall perish: and I will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel:….”
A LESSON IN TRANSLATION
Strong’s Hebrew and Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament has the following as entry #H8366: “שָׁתַן shâthan, shaw-than’; a primitive root; (causatively) to make water, i.e. urinate:—piss.” In other words, “piss” is a valid translation of the underlying Hebrew text of the King James Bible Old Testament. We will get to all the various aspects of the matter. For now, just notice that “piss” is no “mis-translation” on the part of the 1611 translators. They knew exactly what they were doing.
A LESSON IN EASTERN CULTURE
Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon has the following entry for “שָׁתַן shâthan:”
“….MAKING WATER…. It occurs in this one phrase, [placeholder for Hebrew characters] ‘one making water against the wall,’ which is generally a contemptuous designation for a little boy, especially when mention is made of extirpating a whole race or family, 1 Ki. 16:11, ‘he slew all the house of Baasha, and left him none, mingens ad parietem (not even a boy), relations and friends;’ 1 Ki. 14:10; 21:21; 1 Sa. 25:22, 34; 2 Ki. 9:8; compare the same phrase in Syriac, e. g. Assem. Bibl. Orient. ii. p. 260, ‘an diœcesis sacra Gumæ (me teneat) in qua non remansit qui mingat ad parietem?’ i.e. quæ tota devastata est. The phrase seems to be used contemptuously to denote a boy, because adults in the East regard decency in doing this sitting down [covered with their garments], nor would they do it in the sight of others (Herod. ii. 35; Cyrop. i. 2, §16; Ammian. Marcell. xxiii. 6). Some have understood a slave, and a person of the lowest rank (Jahn, Arch. i. 2, p. 77; Hermeneut. Sacræ, p. 31), and some have understood a dog (Ephr. Syr. Opp. i. 542; Abulwalid, Judah ben Karish MSS., Kimchi, Jarchi); but both of these are unsuitable to the context of the passages. See Lud. de Dieu, on 1 Sam. 25:34; Boch. Hieroz. i. p. 675.” (Bold emphasis mine.)
In light of the above facts, modern English versions (NIV, NASB, ESV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, et cetera) are incorrect when they substitute the King James’ “him/any that pisseth against the (/a) wall” with “single male” or “every male.” The original Hebrew phrase did not mean any and every male, but rather indicative of male children. It singles out little boys, signifying that they will die before reaching adulthood. The King James Bible text is specific—boys rather than adult men. This narrowing-down allows us to see that these individuals will not even be allowed to reproduce. Their dying as (childless) juveniles is much more devastating to a family than dying adults who have already reproduced. The youngest generations are vital to the perpetuation of the family.
A LESSON IN FIRST WORD APPEARANCES
According to Merriam-Webster’s website, the first known use of the word “urinate” was in 1599. “Piss,” however, is much older—Merriam-Webster dates it back to the 14th century (1300s). Dictionary.com estimates “piss” originated 1250–1300, while “urinate” appeared approximately 1590–1600. We see that “piss” was the original word. This information greatly helps us in understanding the Bible issue at hand. When the King James Bible was translated (1604–1610) and published (1611), “urinate” was still a new word (as best as we can tell, at most 20 years old). Hence, the King James Bible and its English predecessors would have used the more familiar, the more common, “piss.”
A LESSON IN ETYMOLOGY
Our English word “piss” came from the Middle English pissen, from the Old French pissier, itself derived from the Vulgar Latin *pisiāre “(imitative).” The word is an example of onomatopoeia—that is, the term imitates the sound. The term “piss” was not originally meant to be offensive; it was simply conveying the noise of urination (the dictionary calls it “imitative,” please note). While sinful man has degenerated the word “piss” to now be a vulgar and slang term, it was not viewed offensive in early English. Are we beginning to gain valuable insight here? I hope so!
When we consider the fact that the 1611 Authorized Version translators were God-fearing, Jesus-Christ-trusting, very scholarly (educated), and morally upright men; we give them the benefit of the doubt that they would have used proper, eloquent English when handling God’s precious words. There are many times in the Bible text where our 1611 scholars actually rendered words mildly that could have been translated quite bluntly (various horrific acts and statements of Bible characters, intense or intimate situations, awkward conditions, et cetera—for examples, see our related studies linked at the end of this article). “Piss” in no way was disrespectful when they used it. They did not use the term as “street-talkers” use it today. It was the common term at the time, so it was acceptable. Since the King James Bible’s English is a dead language, its meaning has not changed in the Bible text. It still has a pure meaning. Friend, there is no need to be uncomfortable.
A LESSON IN TEACHING
As English-speaking people in the 21st century, we would do well to remember the current and usual meaning of the word “piss.” It is often used negatively, vulgarly, disrespectfully. What should we do when we come across this phrase when publicly reading the King James Bible? Should we remove “pisseth against the wall?” Certainly not. “Every word” in the King James Bible is important because “every word of God” is important (Matthew 4:4). We should take nothing from the Bible. It is not the job of the Bible preacher or teacher to attack or correct the textbook. The Bible preacher or teacher is to read the Bible text as it is, without making changes, and then explain any difficulties. If there is an archaic word, define it for your audience rather than toss it out! If there is encountered a technical term, an unfamiliar cultural reference, an enigmatic geographic location, et cetera; be the Bible teacher and teach it! Do not deprive your audience of the education the King James Bible affords.
Before your audience, read the “pisseth against the wall” verses as they are (it is no different than the Authorized Version’s “ass” verses that refer to a “donkey”). Then be every careful to clarify and say…. “Let me stop a few moments to explain this special phrase. ‘Urinate’ was a new word at the time of the Authorized Version’s production (1611); it had not come into common English usage yet. ‘Piss’ was the older and more familiar term. It was purer then than it is now: it was not vulgar then as it is today. Now, to the ‘against the wall’ part. At the time of this Bible verse, in the East, it was common for an adult man to sit down and urinate, thus giving him privacy. [Notice how you switch the term here, as you are no longer directly quoting the Authorized Version.] A boy was less indecent, exposing himself, while urinating. The term ‘he that pisseth against the wall’ refers strictly to a boy rather than an adult man.”
The above handling of the King James Bible allows three things.
Firstly, you are not criticizing the Bible text. You are showing people how they can believe it, trust it, embrace it. You do not say, “This Bible verse or word is wrong. It should be translated as….” (If you do, then they will wonder, “If this is wrong, what other mistakes are there in Scripture?” They will ask, “What else can I not believe in the Bible?” Then you become the authority, making the Bible say something so that it agrees with your understanding. Ultimately, you also look foolish, having undermined the book you claim to “believe” and “defend!”) There is no “wrong translation.” The only person who complains “wrong translation” or “disrespectful interpretation” is one too ignorant on the subject to provide authoritative, meaningful commentary. (Friend, I hope there was nothing hard to understand in that last sentence! I meant it wholeheartedly.)
Secondly, you as the Bible teacher or preacher are doing your job. You are explaining something that requires study (which is what you should have already done to prepare your sermon). By you adequately preparing to minister to them, you can greatly help them in their spiritual journey. Your audience can expand their English vocabulary, can appreciate their language better, can glimpse into Old Testament Eastern history, and so on. Best of all, there is an opportunity to become more familiar with the Bible text! We need not fear unfamiliar items in Scripture.
Lastly, you are silencing the King James Bible critics. You are equipping people with the knowledge they need to answer those who want them to disbelieve the Bible. For any in your audience who are unsaved people (Bible haters, Bible critics), they have occasion to see the Bible as it is to be properly understood. Perhaps your “unheard-of statements” will grab their attention and cause them to research the Bible themselves. Maybe they will not be so careless next time when complaining about the Scriptures. There is nothing dirty or evil about the phrase “pisseth against the wall” as it sits in the Bible text. Our 1611 translators in no way would defile God’s Holy Word. We give them the benefit of the doubt, even more so after researching the matter.