Heavenly Insults

Nathan Richardson

In a previous post (Dynamic and Active Being), Jeff explained a fundamental difference between two ancient worldviews. For Greek philosophers, “The central, basic … properties of an object constituted its ‘essence,’ which was unchanging by definition, since if the essence of an object changed it was no longer the object but something else.”1 Greeks saw things as being defined by an unchanging, static essence, while Hebrews saw things as being defined by dynamic actions and choices. Rather than me re-explaining the differences, I suggest you review Jeff’s article. There are a lot of subtleties involved, but to put it simply, Greeks defined things by what they are; Hebrews defined things by what they do.

Childish insults. When we mortals call each other “stupid,” we’re trying to say something hurtful about each other’s innate essence. When Heavenly Father calls us “thou fool,” he’s saying something helpful about our present actions.

The Greek worldview is the more prevalent one today. However, large portions of the scriptures were written from the Hebrew worldview, so understanding this lesser-known perspective can help us interpret them better. I’m returning to this topic because I thought of another practical application: insults in the scriptures.

Name-calling: An Early Skill

As soon as I learned to speak to my siblings, an unfortunately high percentage of our speech involved calling each other names. “Dummy,” “butthead,” and “jerk” came just as often as “Milk, please.” Like any good mom, ours told us it wasn’t nice to insult people, and I usually managed to feel bad about it. So you can imagine my surprise the first time I read verses like these:

But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? (Luke 12:20)

Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible. Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews? (2 Ne. 29:6)

His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant. (Matt. 25:26)

I thought to myself, “Why would the Lord insult people? He is the definition of goodness and kindness, but it’s not nice to call people ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy,’ as the Lord does here.”

The answer probably seems obvious to you, given that you’re more mature than I was at seven years old. Being “nice” is not always the best thing to do for someone you truly love. Sometimes we have to wake them up with sharpness before they will listen, such as when the Savior called the pharisees “vipers” (Matt. 23:33).

Of course, that doesn’t mean it was OK for my siblings and I to call each other “stupid” and “lazy.” But what makes the difference? One obvious answer is intent—we meant only to hurt each other. I think, however, that there is another subtle difference, and it’s found in this distinction between the Greek and Hebrew worldviews.

Criticism versus Critique

Semantically, when I said to my brother, “You’re stupid,” I was trying to label an inherent trait in his personal make-up. I was saying, “You are intrinsically stupid. That is why you do stupid things.” Implicit in this assertion is the idea that he can’t change. “You’re innately stupid, so you’ll always do stupid things. That’s just the way you are.”

No wonder we react so defensively to insults like that. We think subconsciously, “If that’s true, then I’m a hopeless piece of work. I’m destined to be stupid all my days, and there’s nothing I can do about it. What a horrible prospect!” Perhaps that is because we think like modern-day Greeks; in the Greek language, labels are descriptive of what we are, and what we are cannot change.

However, when the Lord says to his children, “Thou fool,” he is labeling our actions, not our inherent traits. He is saying, “What you’re doing is foolish.” Implicit in this assertion is the idea that you can do otherwise and stop being a fool. “You’re being foolish. Cut it out. Stop being a fool.”

We react defensively to statements like that when we read it from the Greek perspective. “If that’s true, that I just am a fool, then I’m a hopeless creation. I’m destined to be a fool all my days.” But when we read it from a Hebrew perspective, we think, “I’m being a fool. The Lord wouldn’t point that out just to make conversation; he expects me to do something about it. I can choose to not be a fool.” That is because the Hebrews do not describe people or things in terms of their unchangeable attributes, but in terms of their actions.


This change in perspective turns criticisms into critiques. The Lord is not saying we are foolish or lazy, only that we are currently being foolish or lazy. His harsh-sounding observations are actually hope-filled, because they imply that while we are being one way, we can be another way. And all we have to do is choose otherwise and start doing something else, even if it’s at the inscrutable level of our hearts.

If we hear the Lord’s descriptions of us this way, it is much easier to take chastisement. We find “Thou fool” no more offensive than if the person next to us in line at a potluck were to say, “Hey, that fork you picked up is dirty.” We wouldn’t cry or yell in a wounded tone, “How can you attack me like that? You’re destroying my self-esteem!” We would simply say, “Oh, thanks for letting me know,” and pick up a different fork.

This is what we should and can do when we read such statements in the scriptures. When he says, “Thou fool,” we can reply, “I’m being a fool? Oh, thanks for letting me know. I guess I need to exercise my agency and repent.” In this way, understanding the difference between the Greek and the Hebrew worldviews and their respective languages helps us respond to scriptural chastisements in the way we were intended to—by changing for the better.


1. Richard E. Nisbett, “The Geography of Thought: Essence or Evanescence?,” eNotAlone.com. This is a fascinating and brief series on the differences between Greek and Chinese thought. I highly recommend it.


  1. Haven’t visited for awhile; and I love the new layout of the blog. Funny thing we came across while reading Ether the other night. My boys and I thought it might be funny to call people “son of Ethem” when we were frustrated with them (See Ether 1). Okay, that’s probably not righteous name-calling . . .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *