7 Problems with Defining “Honor” & “Shame”

What do the words “honor” and “shame” mean? What is their theological meaning? These questions are surprisingly complex, for the several reasons listed here. This post explains 7 challenges with defining “honor” and “shame.”

  1. Honor and shame are invisible. The terms are social constructs, abstract ideas that exist only inside of people (FYI, that does not mean shame is only subjective). Shame and honor are not concrete nouns like “chair” or “girl” that can be observed via the five senses. Though they assume visible forms, honor and shame exist within.
  2. Honor and shame are multivalent. The words have multiple senses of meaning, some of which appear contradictory. For example, shame is sometimes good, yet sometimes bad. Also, the line between honor and pride can be fine. Defining the terms sort of feels like measuring the length of the wind. How can you quantify something so elusive?
  3. Honor and shame are emotions, not ideas. “Honor” and “shame” are not ideas in the brain; they are background emotions pervading the soul. People simply feel shame. So any attempt to cognitively inspect and examine “shame” takes it out of its natural habitat. The meaning of honor is also highly connotative, as every person has their own experience of it. So, honor and shame are more like “love” or “peace,” those elusive realities that all people experience, yet philosophers continue to quibble about.
  4. Honor and shame don’t get defined biblically. People define the terms mostly anthropologically or psychologically, and not biblically. Though there are many good Christian books about honor and shame, few inquire about the biblical definition of honor and shame. When reading the Bible, we often assume a twenty-first-century definition of psychological shame, which creates issues.
  5. Honor and shame are broad concepts with multiple words. Many people know that there are multiple Greek words for “love”—philia, agape, eros, etc. The same is true of “honor” and “shame.” They each have many Greek and Hebrew words. And to further complicate matters, the most common words do not always mean “honor” and “shame.” For example, the primary OT word for “glory” (Heb kavod) literally means “weight.” The main NT word for “honor” (Gr timē) first means “price.” Semantic domains are quite foggy, especially for non-native speakers of the biblical languages.
  6. Honor and shame have many synonyms. The Bible uses many words besides “honor” and “shame” to explain the idea. If you were counting the occurrences of shame, how many would you count from Psalm 44:13–15? Just one, or seven?  

      You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples. All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face.

  1. Honor and shame are symbolic. They are communicated mostly through symbols. For example, a biblical theology of shame and honor would be incomplete apart from examining “feet” and “head,” or “crown” and “dirt.” For those attempting to define the concept biblically, this creates endless research possibilities. For example, how many “occurrences of shame” are in this passage? Just one, or eight?

Behold, I am against you, declares the LORD of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will make nations look at your nakedness and kingdoms at your shame. I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle. And all who look at you will shrink from you. (Nahum 3:5-7)

Defining “honor” and “shame” is more complex than the cumulative results of a word search. A proper lexical understanding of honor of shame must analyze the “concept,” not just the word. Upcoming posts will analyze the language of honor and shame in the Bible. The four posts will introduce: OT honor, OT shame, NT honor, and NT shame. The posts certainly are not exhaustive, but only starting points for deeper analysis.


This is a post in the series “Defining Honor and Shame.” The posts are not exhaustive, but only summary entry points about the biblical language for honor and shame. Logos Bible Software kindly provided me with a free review copy of their software to perform this sort of lexical analysis.

  1. 7 Problems with Defining Honor and Shame
  2. “Honor” in the Old Testament
  3. “Shame” in the Old Testament
  4. “Honor” in the New Testament
  5. “Shame” in the New Testament

 

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2 Comments on “7 Problems with Defining “Honor” & “Shame”

  1. When we say honour and shame are emotions not ideas, is that really correct? At the core, honour and shame are external realities of how other people see us, our reputation and how they treat us because of it. There is an emotional effect in the extent we internalise their attitudes and responses to us and how much it affects our sense of identity, but the core of honour and shame are what others do to us socially and everything else flows from that.

    This is similar to dynamics of guilt. There is a reality of whether one is guilty of wrong, and then there is the extent to which we internalise that guilt, or for that matter when we feel guilt without wrongdoing. It is only when we feel guilty without wrongdoing that it is considered a psychological/emotional problem.

  2. Thanks, a great article.
    Yes, I agree with BruceW that it can’t be simply “emotion”.
    I would suggest that honor and shame are more linked to an individual’s personal and collective identity than emotion – or guilt.
    Perhaps we could use a term like “temporal identity”? Temporal because the identity is not necessarily permanent, and changes based on situations, events, and the passage of time. The shame from a more recent “shameful activity” is usually experienced more strongly than one from many years ago, although Western cultures are probably quicker at “moving on” and diminishing shame. However, in an honor-shame culture (such as the Hebrew culture of the Old Testament) the shame of being born out of wedlock might last a lifetime.
    We can experience a temporal identity of being an honored person, or the temporal identity of being a shamed person. The terms “honor” and “shame” themselves are abstract nouns trying to express the “quantity” that makes a person shamed or honored. Being ashamed or feeling honored would be the emotional responses.
    Guilt can also be a “temporal identity”, but in the West I think we experience it more as a status, linked as it is to the court judgment of a wrongdoer, when a person of “innocent” status is converted to one of “guilty” status before the law. Feelings of guilt or innocence are usually caused by the internal verdict of one’s conscience (Rom 2:14-16).
    In the West we have also the concepts of an “unashamed person”, which usually means someone who rejects the temporal identity of shame which others may try to press on them (such as when falsely accused of something), because they use an objective standard of guilt to assert their own honor. They assert their own individual identity and reject the identity which society around them seeks to impose on them. This is much more difficult to do in an honor-shame culture.
    Similarly, there is the concept of a “shameless person”, who also rejects the temporal identity of shame. The shameless person does so “unjustly” in the view of right-thinking members of society. For example, in the West, a person who steals from their own parents and boasts about it would be shamed by society, and if they continue to reject shame, refuse to express remorse and so on, they are called “shameless”. In an honor-shame culture, this might also apply to a person who refuses their parents’ choice of marriage partner and asserts “I have the right to marry the one I love”. The society around would consider them dishonorable and shameless. Meanwhile a Western visitor might consider them courageous and “unashamed” – “they have nothing to be ashamed of”.

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