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 31:1179:4Jer 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 2:28Psa 119:31Prov 13:18Isa 54:4Jer 17:18 ).
  2. qll—Refers to a diminution or lessening. The word means smalllight, or insignificant (Gen 16:4Job 40:4). Qll is the opposite of kavod, meaning heavysignificant, or glorious (2 Sam 2:30, “lightly esteemed” in NAS).
  3. qlh—A form of qll, referring to someone contemptible or despicable (Deut 27:16Prov 12:9). The piel form of this verb is to declare something as too lightweight and is often translated as “cursed” (see Gen 12:3Exo 21:17Eccl 7:22Prov 30:10Prov 20:20).
  4. hrp—One of several terms for verbal degradation, like taunt, reproach, mock, scorn, or insult (Psa 42:11Psa 119:42Prov 17:42 Sam 21:21). Other Hebrew verbs for verbal shaming include qlsl’glysh, 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 3:71 Kings 22:24) or lifting the skirt (Nah 3:5Jer 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 3:316:5).

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 19:913-14)

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