Shame in the Old Testament

Shame is a hot topic in the Old Testament! To convey the concept of shame, the OT uses at least ten different words over 300 times. With many different words, shame is the proverbial ice in Eskimo culture. Several verses in the Bible pile up the shame words (Psa 31:11; 79:4; Jer 50:2), but Psalm 44:13-15 takes the prize.

You have made us the taunt (her’pah) of our neighbors, the derision (qeles) and scorn (la’ah) of those around us. You have made us a byword (ma’sol) among the nations, a laughingstock (rosh ma’nod) among the peoples. All day long my disgrace (klimach) is before me, and shame (bosh) has covered my face (Ps. 44:13-15)

The breadth of shame vocabulary in Hebrew conveys the prevalence of shame in Old Testament culture and theology. Here are the main words denoting a diminished status:

  1. bosh—The most common word for “shame.” The various forms appear nearly 200x, mostly in Psalms, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. The word signifies the feeling of being ashamed and/or the social reality of being put to shame (Gen 2:28; Psa 119:31; Prov 13:18; Isa 54:4; Jer 17:18 ).
  2. qll—Refers to a diminution or lessening. The word means small, light, or insignificant (Gen 16:4; Job 40:4). Qll is the opposite of kavod, meaning heavy, significant, or glorious (2 Sam 2:30, “lightly esteemed” in NAS).
  3. qlh—A form of qll, referring to someone contemptible or despicable (Deut 27:16, Prov 12:9). The piel form of this verb is to declare something as too lightweight and is often translated as “cursed” (see Gen 12:3; Exo 21:17; Eccl 7:22; Prov 30:10; Prov 20:20).
  4. hrp—One of several terms for verbal degradation, like taunt, reproach, mock, scorn, or insult (Psa 42:11; Psa 119:42; Prov 17:4; 2 Sam 21:21). Other Hebrew verbs for verbal shaming include qls, l’g, lysh, and their cognates.

Upon reviewing the OT vocabulary for shame and guilt, OT scholar Lyn Bechtel states:

The evidence suggests that there was no inherent sense of ‘guilt’ in the shame vocabulary. Strikingly, the vocabulary for guilt was far less extensive than that of shame. … Linguistically, there was no connection between shame and guilt. Consequently, there is a prima facie case for investigating shame as a separate, distinctive emotional experience and as a separate means of social control, though at times shame may have been associated with guilt. (“Shame as Sanction in Israel,” JSOT 49 [1991], p. 55)

To that summary above, I would add that OT shame was experienced foremost as a public, bodily, social reality. Symbolic actions like slapping the face (Psa 3:7; 1 Kings 22:24) or lifting the skirt (Nah 3:5; Jer 13:26) powerfully communicate shame. Also, the emotion of feeling ashamed is expressed through the body—a person will hang their head (Gen 4:5) or blush (Jer 3:3; 16:5).

The ultimate expression of shame was isolation and rejection. Ultimately, shame is exclusion from relationship, disassociation from people. Job laments the pain of such shame.

[God] has stripped me of my honor and removed the crown from my head….He has alienated my family from me; my acquaintances are completely estranged from me. My relatives have gone away; my closest friends have forgotten me. (Job 19:9, 13-14)

  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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1 Comment on “Shame in the Old Testament

  1. Thanks for this post, it’s really helpful, particularly the insight that shame also had a bodily component to it.

    As for social exclusion and shame: do you think the purity codes in Leviticus that call for the exclusion of unclean persons (whether temporary or potentially permanent) from community life carry an intentional aspect of shame for the person? For instance, a person who touches a dead body is not only rendered unclean but would experience the shame of social exclusion as an intended aspect of being made unclean.

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