The Verse in Context
The passage, with some context, is this (Isa 57:7-10; NKJV):
7 “On a lofty and high mountain you have set your bed; even there you went up to offer sacrifice. 8 Also behind the doors and their posts you have set up your remembrance; for you have uncovered yourself to those other than Me, and have gone up to them; you have enlarged your bed and made a covenant with them; you have loved their bed, where you saw their nudity (יָד; yad). 9 You went to the king with ointment, and increased your perfumes; you sent your messengers far off, and even descended to Sheol. 10 You are wearied in the length of your way; yet you did not say, ‘There is no hope.’ You have found the life of your hand; therefore you were not grieved.
The Hebrew of v.8 specifically is (BHS):
וְאַחַ֤ר הַדֶּ֙לֶת֙ וְהַמְּזוּזָ֔ה שַׂ֖מְתְּ זִכְרוֹנֵ֑ךְ כִּ֣י מֵאִתִּ֞י גִּלִּ֣ית וַֽתַּעֲלִ֗י הִרְחַ֤בְתְּ מִשְׁכָּבֵךְ֙ וַתִּכְרָת־לָ֣ךְ מֵהֶ֔ם אָהַ֥בְתְּ מִשְׁכָּבָ֖ם יָ֥ד חָזִֽית׃
Some relevant background points:
- I acknowledge without question that the context is a sexual one, figuratively representing Israel's idolatry (v.5-6) by juxtaposing it to an adulterous affair (v.7-8).
- Major translations handle the word יָד each a bit differently, but generally similarly:
- "it" (KJV)
- "nudity" (NKJV; with note "Lit. hand, a euphemism")
- "nakedness" (ESV [also NIV 1984; NIV 2011 = "naked bodies"]; ESV has note "Or on a monument (see 56:5); Hebrew on a hand")
- "their manhood" (NASB; with note "Lit hand")
- "genitals" (HCSB—with two notes, "Lit hand" and "In Hb, the word hand is probably a euphemism for 'genitals.'"; also NET—with note "Heb '[at] a hand you gaze.' The term יָד (yad, 'hand') probably has the sense of 'power, manhood' here, where it is used, as in Ugaritic, as a euphemism for the genitals. See HALOT 387 s.v. I יָד."
- Any lexicon will indicate that the primary meaning of יָד is that of hand or forearm; and indeed, that word is used at times to figuratively represent ideas of strength, guidance, etc.
That is a good enough sampling to set up the context for the issue and the question itself.
The HALOT entry, noted in the NET notes, actually reads a bit differently still than how NET translated it:
penis Ug. (Gordon Textbook §19:1072; Aistleitner 1139), Arb. wdy: penem exseruit equus; MHeb.2 also אֶצְבַּע and אֵבֶר; Delcor JSS 12:234ff; cf. Weinreich Heilungswunder 20ff; THAT 1:669f; Is 578, with חזה obscene act, 5710 חַיַּת יָדֵךְ “revival of your strength” (Volz; Fohrer); וינקו ידים על האבנים 1QIsg 653, → לְבֵנָה 3 and ינק, or נקה nif; יוציא ידו מתוחת בגדו 1QS 7, 13.
If such a direct euphemism by that particular word is intended as a reference to a sexual body part, then it is the only place in the Hebrew text in which the word is so used, as BDB's entry (4.g) states:
Is 57:8 according to Hi De Che Or Brd Du and most = a phallus thou beholdest; this favoured by context but without support in Heb. usage; Di a (beckoning) hand.
This unique usage, for me, is a bit of an issue, especially when other solutions are proposed that could fit the context:
- Gesenius believes it figuratively refers to a place (Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures), which is testified to in Dt 23:13, Nu 2:17, and he believes as well in Isaiah in 56:5. This makes sense in the context of seeing "their bed," the place where Israel should not have been (i.e., in idolatry).
- As BDB noted, A. Dillmann (the "Di" abbreviation in the entry) believed it referred to "a (beckoning) hand." This makes sense in context as that which drew Israel to have "gone up" to "their [the idolaters'] bed," the beckoning of a hand to come join.
I believe there could be a case for another in context idea as well...
As I noted, the context is clearly a sexual one. BDB noted that context is the primary reason the euphemization proposal finds any favor.
A more direct rendering of the last phrasing from the Hebrew (אָהַ֥בְתְּ מִשְׁכָּבָ֖ם יָ֥ד חָזִֽית) is this:
אָהַ֥בְתְּ you have loved מִשְׁכָּבָ֖ם their bed, יָ֥ד a hand חָזִֽית you have seen
But the final word ("seen"/"looked") is also found at other points to refer to other types of "perception" than seeing, essentially figuratively meaning "experience" (HALOT) or more generally "perceive" (BDB). Examples are most abundant in Job—15:17 (what Eliphaz had experienced, he will tell), 27:12 (experienced the hand of God, v.11), 34:32 (be taught those things that have not been experienced), 36:25 (experienced God's work which is sung about [v.24] from afar). But BDB notes as an example a verse earlier in Isaiah as well, 48:6 (the idea being "perceive all this").
So another in context rendering may be "a hand you have perceived," which could still be a euphemism for sexual acts, as the hand is often involved in intimate sexual encounters. The idea of a hand being perceived in areas where the hand ought not be if a woman were being faithful to her spouse can evoke just as much an image of unfaithfulness in this context.
Such an interpretation takes the words more literally, but still applies a meaning to them that fits the context.
My goal here is not to argue for the potential interpretation I gave above, nor necessarily for that of Gesenius or Dillmann. Rather, the questions are:
- What is the actual evidence from Ugaritic (or other languages) that leads to this speculation about the word יָד itself also being so used here? And how certain is the usage a euphemism in that/those language/s itself/themselves, as it may be speculation there as well? (In answering this, realize I do not read Ugaritic, so do clarify in English.)
- What reasoning have scholars who have taken the word יָד itself as a euphemism rejected solutions that keep the word with its normal meaning?
- Of course, the title question derives from the above evidences, is a euphemism for male sexual organs really the correct understanding of יָד in this verse?