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One of the great forbidden pleasures of Bible study is coming across that sweet phrase in the footnote: “the meaning of this clause is uncertain.” Uncertain? How could it be uncertain after millenia of study? Surely somebody in that time came up with some sort of satisfactory answer. What would possibly be so confusing that the greatest minds of the Middle Ages were so befuddled?

Well, at EverydayDevotions.com we’re not afraid to throw our hat in the ring. And why not? You’re miles away reading this, so what’s the risk of reprisal? 1-800-Dial-a-Goon is unreliable at best. So what’s our take? Prepare thyself for this awesomeness.

Why the Bible Rules

Unlike most ancient texts, the Bible is not a book of legends; it’s a true, reliable account of what really happened, rather than having the faults and humanity of its heroes whitewashed or ignored. As a consequence, often times in the Bible we read of events or circumstances that make us blush in our cushioned pews. Want a dare? Look up Onan in a Bible dictionary and try and preach a sermon on that passage. And make sure you tape it and send us a copy; we’d love to hear it.

The Problem with Nehemiah

Nehemiah 4:23 is one of these passages. Now, the main point of the passage is clear: Nehemiah, the other leaders, and the workers were all prepared at all times for an attack. They had enemies on many sides, and they needed constant vigilance to be ready. So, in verse 23, we read that none of the leaders “took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water.”

The last phrase, “even when he went for water,” is the tricky one to translate. Literally, it says something like “each man his dart to the waters.” What does that mean? Some translators put forth the idea that it means “we didn’t take off our clothes, except for washing (ritually), ” or “we didn’t take off clothes, not even to wash.” Another suggests it means “the men carried their weapons and their water,” indicating that they were always ready.

A New Revelation.  Sorta

We’d like to present an alternate idea, which is actually not as disturbing as it might seem at first glimpse. We propose “each man had his weapon, even when nature called.” You doubt this is a proper reading? Check out the reasoning:

  • The whole point of the passage is to show preparedness. When would a man be more vulnerable than when he’s “draining the tub”? Nehemiah is saying that they were ready at all times.
  • “waters” is not an uncommon phrase for answering the call of nature. “Making water,” “water the plants,” and other phrases are frequently used even today.
  • The Bible uses other euphemisms when referring to such bodily necessities in other passages. We’ll get to some in the future.

The Point

So you may be asking, “Ok, I accept that’s what it means. What’s the point? Are you just trying to offend the Victorian church values?” The point is this: the Bible is true. It accurately records the past and the people that lived in it. If that is the case, should we be surprised at the humanity that is shown? Rather, it’s an encouragement that God worked through ordinary people then, and he works through ordinary people now. Isn’t that a cause for celebration?

Gotta run. The coffee’s going right through today.

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