1 Samuel 24:3: ‘cover his feet’
By Spencer D Gear PhD
I met a person online who wanted to compare his first grade understanding of reading with Bible translations, especially with challenging the translation of one OT verse in the NIV.
This was his language:
When I was in the first grade, I learned with HORROR that the bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. I didn’t like reading much to begin with, but this was just too much for me to withstand. Even at that young age, I saw no reason to believe the interpretations of someone else. I’m glad I stuck to that suspicion because I’ve found so many places where translators simply toss out the inspiration of the original authors in favor of their own dull translations.
Then he gave an example of one of the translators’ ‘own dull translations’ in the New International Version (NIV) of the Old Testament:
Here’s a prime example. In the scene where David is hiding in a cave that Saul coincidently decides to use to relieve himself, the translators of the NIV present the situation devoid of anything one could view as inspired. Yet when we look at the originals, it is nothing less than divine. The NIV simply states that Saul “relieved himself”, but the original manuscripts depict Saul “covering his feet”. The wonderful thing about this euphemism is that it can still be employed today! It is criminal to take an author’s figurative language and discard it in favor of making the meaning more clear for the sake of the dullards among us. They could just as easily footnoted the passage and explained it in the footnote.
He is so incompetent in the statement of his views that he didn’t bother to inform the readers of the exact verse to which he referred. It is 1 Samuel 24:3 (NIV).
1. Study the meaning
I replied: I do wish you would do your study to determine the meaning of this phrase, ‘cover his feet’. It doesn’t bring a meaning for this ‘dullard’ that you infer.
The NIV translates 1 Samuel 24:3 as ‘he came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were far back in the cave’.
The Easy-to-Read Version (1 Sam 24:3) translates as: ‘Saul came to some sheep pens beside the road. There was a cave near there, so Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were deep inside that same cave’.
This phrase is used also in Judges 3:24.
The more literal ESV translates 1 Sam 24:3 as: ‘And he came to the sheepfolds by the way, where there was a cave, and Saul went in to relieve himself.a]”>[a] Now David and his men were sitting in the innermost parts of the cave’.
As you suggested, the ESV uses the footnote for ‘relieve himself’ as ‘cover his feet’.
The NASB gives an identical translation and footnote to the ESV: ‘He came to the sheepfolds on the way, where there was a cave; and Saul went in to [a]relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the inner recesses of the cave’ (1 Sam 24:3).
- The point is: What does ‘cover his feet’ mean in the Hebrew context? Leading OT commentators, Keil & Delitzsch, made this comment on ‘cover his feet’: It ‘is a euphemism, according to most of the ancient versions, as in Judg 3:24, for performing the necessities of nature, as it is a custom in the East to cover the feet’ (Commentary on the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 24).
2. Poo and Pee
The NIV, ESV, NASB and ERV provide perfectly legitimate translations for ‘cover his feet’ and its meaning for contemporary English.
Or, would you prefer, ‘Saul went into that place, removed his cloak to around his feet so he could do a poo and a pee’?
That’s what the phrase means and the NIV has given us a jolly good dynamic equivalence (meaning for meaning) translation of the phrase, ‘to relieve himself’.
3. Support from other commentaries
- Ellicott’s Commentary explains ‘cover his feet’: ‘It is an Eastern euphemism taken from spreading out the garments while relieving the needs of nature’.
- Matthew Poole’s Commentary (Judg 3:24), ‘It is commonly understood in both places, of easing nature; because the men not then wearing breeches, as we do, but long coats, they did in that act cover their feet, as women do: but a late judicious interpreter expounds it of composing himself to take a little sleep or rest, as was very usual to do in the day-time in those hot countries;
- Gill’s Exposition (Judg 3:24), ‘he covereth his feet in his summer chamber; that is, was easing nature; and, as the eastern people wore long and loose garments, when they sat down on such an occasion, their feet were covered with them; or they purposely gathered them about their feet to cover them, and so this became a modest expression for this work of nature’.
So the NIV translators did not ‘simply toss out the inspiration of the original authors in favor of their own dull translations’. Instead, they accurately translated the meaning of ‘covered his feet’ with ‘relieved himself’.
The fact is that the NIV got it right and you got it wrong.
 Christianity Board 2019. The Hebrew New Testament (online), shnarkle#26, 23 August. Available at: https://www.christianityboard.com/threads/the-hebrew-new-testament.29973/page-2 (Accessed 23 August 2019).
 I responded as OzSpen#28.
Copyright © 2019 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 23 August 2019.