“God forbid” that we should say “God forbid,” according to some of the more virulent critics of the King James Version of the Bible. I’m shocked (shocked, I say) at how far some take this. An NIV-promoting KJV-hating debater recently told me that “God forbid” is swearing, taking the Lord’s name in vain. It is not clear how much of this was sincere and how much is agitation, defamation, and deflection. Mostly the latter, I think.
For all practical purposes, the King James Version is the Bible smeared with the accusation of “odious expression” and “inaccurate translation” – even though other English Bibles from the 14th century to the 21st century use “God forbid.” Most all (if not all) pre-1611 Bibles, including Wycliffe, Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew, Taverner, the Great Bible, Bishops, and Geneva, contain the expression.[i] The English Revised Version (1881/1885) and the American Standard Version (1901) continued the practice.
Modern Bibles include it. The Common English Bible (2011) uses “God forbid” five times. The International Standard Version (2014), NET Bible (1996/2017), New International Version 2011, New Revised Standard Version (1989), and Revised Standard Version (1946/1971) use it twice.[ii] The Lexham English Bible (2012), New American Standard Bible (1960/1995), New King James Version (1982), and New Living Translation (1996/2015) use it once.[iii] Apparently, translators have not gotten the memo to stop cursing!
Notice again – English Bibles from the 14th century to the 21st century use this expression. This is a precedent set by Wycliffe and continued to the present. None of this matters when the game is to use “God forbid” as a “trashing tool” against the King James Bible.
First, I will only briefly consider the idea that “God forbid” is swearing. Bible translators do not view it that way. I found little to indicate hardly anyone views it that way.[iv] Even KJV critic Doug Kutilek does not mention it in “God Forbid!” A Study in Bible Translation Methodology. This seems to be mostly a contrived objection used as cannon fodder against the King James Bible.
The second consideration is the equivalency of “God forbid” to the Greek words me genoito (μὴ γένοιτο, a negated “to be” verb) and the Hebrew chalilyah (חָלִילָה, far be it). The phrase “God forbid” occurs 24 times in the King James Bible – nine times in the Old Testament,[v] and fifteen times in the New Testament.[vi]
The Greek μὴ γένοιτο (me genoito, not be) is translated “God forbid” in these passages:
Luke 20:16; Romans 3:4; Romans 3:6; Romans 3:31; Romans 6:2; Romans 6:15; Romans 7:7; Romans 7:13; Romans 9:14; Romans 11:1; Romans 11:11; 1 Corinthians 6:15; Galatians 2:17; Galatians 3:21; Galatians 6:14.
The Hebrew חָלִילָה (chalilyah, far be it) is translated “God forbid” in these passages:
Genesis 44:7; Genesis 44:17; Joshua 22:29; Joshua 24:16;[vii] 1 Samuel 12:23; 1 Samuel 14:45; 1 Samuel 20:2; 1 Chronicles 11:19; Job 27:5.
The more controversial and most discussed passages seem to be those with the exclamatory use of me genoito by Paul in his writings. Perhaps the closest “literal” rendering of me genoito is “not be” or “not become,” expressed in English as “may it not be.” Here is a hint as to why translators, beginning with Wycliffe, preferred “God forbid.” “May it not be” is quite weak negation in English. Paul uses me genoito as a strong full stop negation. Translators looked for and found a stronger parallel for a strong expression – applying what some today would call “optimal equivalence,” translating a strong Greek negation with a strong parallel English negation rather than a more exacting word-to-word translation.[viii] With me genoito, Paul vehemently negates any possibility of the proposed question, and prohibits anyone inferring a wrong conclusion from his previous argument.[ix] In Is “God forbid” a “poor translation” in the King James Bible? Shawn Brasseaux explains, “When we pair the words ‘God” and ‘forbid,’ we form the strongest negation possible in the English language.”
Dictionaries indicate that “God forbid” is an English idiom expressing a desire that something not happen,“may it not happen,” “perish the thought,” and so forth. It carries the same idea as me genoito. It can be found in use back in the 1200s. In a sense, it is an interjectory prayer that God prevent a happening. Considered as a prayer, God is the one whom a Christian would address.
The debate over “God forbid” exposes wide streams of hypocrisy. Those who advocate consistent dynamic equivalence translation find “God forbid” in the King James Bible and vociferously complain – not because they oppose dynamic equivalence, but because they oppose the King James Version of the Bible. Radical KJO-ists advocate consistent word-for-word translation to support the King James over modern Bibles – then turn tail and run to embrace dynamic equivalence when they find the words “God” and “forbid” are not found in the underlying text. Translating is more complicated than often explained and understood. Exact word-for-word translation, as some people falsely conceive it, is not found in any Bible translation. If it were exact, it would be no translation at all! However, formal equivalence approaches each word seriously to take what God said in the source language and express it in the receptor language.[x] Overall, the formal equivalence approach used by the translators of the King James Bible does just that. To charge these translators with not taking me genoito and “God forbid” seriously is beyond the pale, designed for heat and not truth.[xi]
[i] It is also found in the Catholic Douay-Rheims English translation.
[ii] The NRSV in 1 Chronicles 11:19 and Luke 20:16, but the RSV in Matthew 16:22 and Luke 20:16.
[iii] The New Matthew Bible (2016) uses “God forbid” additionally in Acts 10:14 and 11:8, where the King James Version has “not so.” The Greek there is medamos, which the Septuagint sometimes uses to translate the Hebrew chalilyah (for example, 1 Samuel 20:2).
[iv] A few probably sincerely do so. Nevertheless, it is mainly a debate tactic to most who bring it up.
[vi] All but one of the New Testament occurrences (Luke 20:16) are found in the writings of Paul.
[vii] The Greek Septuagint (Old Testament) uses me genoito to translate chaliylah in Genesis 44:7, Genesis 44:17, Joshua 22:29, and Joshua 24:16.
[ix] In all cases except Galatians 6:14, Paul’s me genoito is associated with a question or questions.
[x] Formal equivalence translation seeks to give the meaning of the source language while reproducing as much as possible the formal structure of the original in the receptor language – sentence structure, verb tense, conjunctions, and so on.
[xi] As well as the translators of the Wycliffe, Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew, Taverner, Great Bible, Bishops, Geneva, English Revised Version, and the American Standard Version.