Isaiah 64:6 – Menstrual Cloth

I was planning to leave my comparisons with just Isaiah 63, as I believe that continued comparison charts will largely show the same thing. I’m still reading the translations side by side, and if something seems different I will bring it up.

But today in reading Isaiah 64 in several translations I came across Isaiah 64:6 (5 in Hebrew) in which the phrase “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (KJV) occurs. Now having just read this in Hebrew I was reminded that the literal translation of this is “menstrual cloths” or something similar. These cloths would be unclean, as was the woman in her menstrual period. One extended discussion of the issue of uncleanness can be found in Leviticus 15:19-33.

In the passage, there is clearly meaning in the fact that these are not merely dirty pieces of cloth. For example, had someone washed their hands and dried them on these cloths after digging ditches all day, by modern standards we might call them dirty. If I repair the car and then wipe the grease on a rag, we would escalate that to filthy rag. But the menstrual cloth implied ritual impurity, however odd that might seem to us today.

So having read the TNIV translation:

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away. — Isaiah 64:6 (TNIV)

Now this doesn’t disturb me much. In the course of the verse they have gotten in the words “unclean” and “filthy” and I would assume that the TNIV translators, along with all the modern versions I checked (quite a number), simply don’t think that “menstrual cloth” is going to be meaningful to modern translators.

But when I turn to a translation that prides itself on word for word renderings, that “seeks as far as possible to catpure the precise wording of the original text” (ESV Preface), I thought perhaps things would be different. But here the desire for literal translation escaped the ESV translators:

We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. — Isaiah 64:6 (ESV)

Now I definitely think “polluted” is better than “filthy” in the context. But we have still replaced one metaphor in Hebrew with a completely different English expression. The Message carries this the furthest, using “grease-stained rags,” which does not reflect the basic idea all that well, but has the advantage of conjuring an immediate image in English.

Though I found only one modern version, the Complete Jewish Bible, that uses any word referring to menstrual cloths (menstrual rags), I did find that ancient translators used that. The LXX, Vulgate, and the Peshitta, all translate with something that includes the original literal meaning in its semantic range. Interestingly enough, the Isaiah Targum, according to the text I have available, uses an even better euphemism than any of the English versions, “cast off garment” or I might prefer the translation “garment thrown far away” (Stenning, The Targum of Isaiah, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949).

So is there an element of meaning in the actual Biblical wording here or not? Is it possible to convey that meaning accurately in a literal translation? Such a literal translation does not appear common in modern translations.

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  1. Henry, I think that English versions should translate with “menstrual rags” here in Is. 64:6. I don’t think that other translations adequately communicate the Jewish feelings toward such ritually unclean rags.

  2. I suspect that the reason why modern translators have avoided a more literal rendering is not so much that they “don’t think that “menstrual cloth” is going to be meaningful to modern translators” as that they consider this to be too explicit for use in a Bible translation, so they substitute some kind of euphemism, just as at 1 Samuel 24:3. Even in Leviticus 15 there are elements of euphemism in translations, but this is perhaps considered less important because Leviticus is not often read publicly. But Isaiah 64:6 is a passage commonly read out. How do you think an average traditional church congregation would react to hearing “menstrual rags” read out in church? Of course you might well argue that that is exactly the reaction that the author was intending to elicit. But it can be little things like this which stop a translation being accepted.

  3. Wayne, I continue to have questions such as Peter brings up. My initial reaction was yours, which still shows in the post. Thinking post-post :-), I have to ask why the translation is so near universal. It may well be that the issue is much like what Peter brings up.

    Peter, I think that there are many passages in the Bible that would shock a congregation should they be read in almost any translation. But you are right that this particular passage is likely to be read quite commonly, and so that consideration arises.

    Which leaves us with the question of just how important getting those nuances of meaning actually is.

    For example, the Colorado Springs guidelines are concerned with chances such as singular and plural, and “male representation.” Are those elements more or less clear in the text than “menstrual rags” in Isaiah 64:6? In other words, is the ESV, not to mention its more vocal advocates, being consistent here?

    Oh, and BTW, I meant “meaningful to modern readers,” not “translators.” I regularly illustrate something I emphasize to my classes–we will often see what we expect to see, even when it isn’t there. Proofreading my own posts is a daily demonstration of this fact!

  4. Isaiah 64:6b came to me this morning as I was praying about my own unrighteousness and since I’d been told somewhere that “filthy rags” referred to menstrual cloths, I searched on line and found your blog. What strikes me is why menstrual cloths are unclean. God created women with bodies that go through montly cycles, and not every cycle of blood can possible produce a child. Menstrual blood is an indication that a woman, though fertile, is not at that time using the life blood to produce another human being. In other words, our righteousness falls short of the incredible potential God has put within us. Is 646c: we’re like shriveled leaves instead of fruit.

  5. Sorry to take so long to reply. I think the reason menstrual rags are used is simply that God speaks into the culture involved. These were viewed as ritually unclean. In scripture this goes back to the Levitical law. There we have times of purification following the birth of a child–surely something to celebrate–and also a time of impurity related to a woman’s period.

    I would culturally translate this. As time has passed, we do see this as a simple fact of life, the way the body works, though I will confess that men are still pretty squeamish about it! Find something that seems really icky to you, and think of that in this verse instead. 🙂

  6. Dear readers,

    Well, I need to translate these words “filthy rags” in Dutch and ended up in this discussion, which made me think.
    It says “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (I guess, the prophet deliberately exaggerates a bit, as part of his job.)

    That’s interesting. Apparently there are at least two kinds of righteous acts: ones you should not clothe yourself in and get rid of (they are not the real thing and may even defile you) and ones you should do clothe yourself in and go on doing (they are the real thing and may even protect you, or whatever)

    When you read the complete story, it is a very sad situation. It is like they are not doing really bad things any more but since they lost all contact with the Lord everything they do is by definition shady and now Isaiah cries out please, please, please Lord stop punishing us for our long-forgotten sins.

    So, what do these “filthy rags” mean in the context of this whole supplication? Isaiah uses these words to emphasize the injustice of the situation that his people are in.

    Lord, even if we try our very best we keep feeling as if we were “untouchables”, whatever we do we keep feeling morally contaminated or unclean

    Now what does this imply for the translation?
    I see the righteous acts as something that we are clothed in
    So let’s keep this image of “rags”, “garment”
    The next question is: how can you give “rags” etc. a “morally offensive smell” and at the same stay within the limits that the register of the supplication and our modern imagination impose on us?

    all our righteous deeds are like a garment of corruption

    I think “corruption” will do.
    Doesn’t it sound biblically?
    Moreover, corruption is very much associated with uncleannes.
    When Joan of Arc’s virginity was tested the woman who had been assigned to do it declared: “There are no signs of corruption, gentleman!”
    But this is just one example. Corruption is just a morally charged word.

    I am going for:

    onze rechtvaardigheid is als een kleed van verderf

    The Dutch Statenvertaling offers:

    als een wegwerpelijk kleed, which means like a garment to be thrown away

    The modern Dutch Nieuwe Bijbelvertaling offers:

    als een het kleed van een menstruerende vrouw, which means like a garment of a menstruous woman (…)

    Kind regards

    Barend van Zadelhoff

  7. The Hebrew reads kebeged ‘iddim, “as an unclean garment.” “ke” means “like,” and “beged” is the ordinary word for garment or piece of clothing, and is used over 200X in the OT. Neither word is remarkable. However, ‘iddim is found only here in the OT, which makes it interesting, but difficult to say exactly what it means.
    The Septuagint (LXX), however translates the Hebrew as hos hrakos apokathemenos, and here’s where it gets interesting. The first two words correspond to kebeged, but apokathemenos is often (always?) used with reference to menstural impurity (Lev 15:33; 20:18; Isa 30:22; Ezek 22:10; 36:17).
    However, the LXX reading is usually considered to be secondary in importance to the Hebrew reading. So does the Hebrew of Is 64:6 refer to menstrual rags? It’s possible, but hard to be certain.

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