I am wondering about the use of "know" in the sexual sense in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., "[Cain] knew his wife" in Gen. 4:17). Is this an euphemism by the first translators into English, or was this euphemism taken over from the original text?

Do we know more precisely what the word meant in the original? Was it restricted to procreation, or was it just the general "know" that we have in modern English (etc etc, any info appreciated).

(I have not done any research, as I cannot read Hebrew.)

  • 1
    Thanks for the clarification on this subject. My girl and I was discussing this subject.
    – Ian
    Apr 2, 2022 at 14:05
  • @LevanGigineishvili you could put that in an Answer, especially if you were doing a Biblical word search within Genesis or how the euphemism is used consistently elsewhere that sheds light on this meaning. Just remember that the Question is asking about whether it is commonly an English euphemism with a literal meaning in Hebrew or a Hebrew euphemism translated with an English euphemism.
    – Jesse
    Apr 2, 2022 at 23:04
  • @LevanGigineishvili No, this site is supposed to have Answers that turn up in such Google results. And, you are perfectly qualified to write such an Answer and get rep points from it. If not, then none of us need to even be here. Please, I'd like to vote on your Answer.
    – Jesse
    Apr 3, 2022 at 3:59
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    @JesseSteele I will abstain from commenting on this post because I have checked and there is another verb, not "know", in Septuagint, but συγγινομαι, which is "to associate with". I will check more and then perhaps will add to this discussion. Thanks. Apr 3, 2022 at 4:52
  • @LevanGigineishvili really looking forward to anything your brilliant mind can come up with because I have been curious about the ambiguity this "polite" euphemism creates in our own understanding.
    – Jesse
    Apr 3, 2022 at 7:57

3 Answers 3


This euphemism is original to the Hebrew text; it was not introduced by later translators. More modern translations may drop the euphemism and express things more directly. (Such a translation is then freer in some sense, which you may consider a bad thing, but on the other hand they may reflect the original message of the text better, which you may consider a good thing.)

The Hebrew root is ידע yāda`, which covers a semantic field similar to that of English to know. It is often slightly more ingressive (get to know; perceive), as in Isaiah 6:9 ("keep on seeing, but do not perceive"), even to understand ("Then Manoah knew that he was the angel of the LORD", Jdg. 13:21). Mordecai walks nearby the palace to know how Esther is doing (Esther 2:11). In Aramaic, when servants report to the king, they can be said to "make X known unto the king" (Dan. 4:6 etc.). With people it can be simple acquintance (Gen. 29:5) as well as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, both from the man's point of view (Gen. 4:17; 1 Sam. 1:19; ...) and from the woman's point of view (Gen. 19:8; Jdg. 11:39; ...).

To use a verb like to know as a euphemism for sexual intercourse is somewhat common cross-linguistically and must therefore not surprise us; it occurs in other languages related to Hebrew (Arabic, Syriac, Ethiopian) but also in Greek and French (although this may be a result of literal bible translations introducing the idiom into the language).

If you are interested in further analysis, the theological dictionaries (Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament; New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis) would be the place to go to. The entries there will list many more occurrences and place the root in a larger framework, and are generally accessible for people who do not read Hebrew.


The expression "to know" is found in the King James Version at Genesis 4:1:

And Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and bare Cain

The New International Version translates the Hebrew text this way:

Adam lay with his wife and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain

Clearly, in this instance, "to know" refers to sexual relations between a man and a woman resulting in procreation.

There is another instance (in Genesis 19:5) where the King James Version uses the expression "know". It's when the men of Sodom wanted Lot to bring out the two men (angels of the Lord) who were staying with him:

Bring them out to us, that we may know them

The NIV is more specific:

Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word "yadha" is translated as "to know" in the King James Bible in Genesis 4:1, and within the context of that verse it is a euphemism for having sexual relations.

The Hebrew word in Genesis 19:5 may have been "shakhabh" which is a reference to homosexual sex. The King James Version may have deliberately chosen to use a more "delicate" English word (know) in order not to offend the sensibilities of the 17th century readers.

In the New Testament, there are Greek words which can be translated as "know" but in the intellectual, and not physical, sense. I hope that helps.

  • The angels took on the physical form of men when they came to the city of Sodom. The men of Sodom wanted to have sexual relations with them, so it had nothing to do with procreation in this instance.
    – Lesley
    Dec 23, 2018 at 9:35
  • Yes, the Hebrew word "yadha" means "know" in English. In the context of Genesis is refers to knowing someone sexually. The KJV does not come out and say that, of course, whereas modern translations are more accurate and specific.
    – Lesley
    Dec 23, 2018 at 9:37
  • No, the Hebrew language is complex and that is why different Hebrew words convey different meanings. It is how the words are translated into English that causes some confusion. "Know" does not always mean head knowledge (as we understand that English word) but can also refer to having physical knowledge of a person. The KJV may be literally accurate in its translation, but the meaning of "know" in the 17th century also included people having sexual relations. English today has moved on a great deal since 1611.
    – Lesley
    Dec 23, 2018 at 9:44
  • I do not see what you are saying about Gen. 19:5, where the word is yāda` 'know', not šākab 'lie'. "The Hebrew word in Genesis 19:5 may have been shkhabh which is a reference to homosexual sex." What do you mean, "may have been"? It is also not true that šākab would be specific to homosexual sex; see Gen. 19:32–35 (Lot and his daughters); 26:10 (Sarah and foreigners); etc. Šākab is simply a less delicate euphemism for the same activity.
    – user2672
    Dec 29, 2018 at 9:38

Only the High Priest could (know ידע) what it was like to go in to the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. Those on the outside could read about what was in there but weren’t to (know ידע) or see personally. The High Priest was (m’kodesh מקודש) made holy/set apart to go in there. In the Lord’s eyes only the husband should (know ידע) his wife sexually. Only the husband in set apart/made holy (m’kodesh מקודש) to know her. This is why the Lord hates both physical and spiritual adultery, both have not been made holy!

  • 2
    Could you cite the verse about the high priest? Leviticus 16:17 doesn't use the verb ידע
    – b a
    Dec 31, 2018 at 12:36

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