Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hebrew Words for Gossip: "Nirgan"

We are working towards a biblical definition of gossip, starting with a tour of the Old Testament and the Hebrew words most often translated "gossip." First was rakil, the spy.


Nirgan. The second major Hebrew word translated “gossip” in the Old Testament is the niphal participle of ragan, “murmur, complain”12 and “whisper (maliciously), backbite, slander.”13 This root word is one of the words used to describe the evil grumblings of the people of Israel in their tents (Deut 1:27, Ps 106:25). It connotes complaint and criticism. The niphal participle nirgan is used substantively in its four appearances in the Proverbs so that, again, the action of gossip is localized in a person (16:28, 18:8, 26:22, 26:20). A nirgan is a gossip. Gary Smith explains, “It refers to murmuring about another person behind their back rather than openly complaining about their behavior.”14 The KJV uses the translation “whisperer” for nirgan in Proverbs 16:28 and 26:20 and “talebearer” in Proverbs 18:8 and 26:22.15 BDB offers the translation “backbiter.”16 The ESV uses “whisperer” in all four occurrences. “Whisperer” and “backbiter” emphasize the furtive, clandestine nature of this communication. The one being complained about is not present.


Proverbs 16:28 teaches, “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip [nirgan] separates close friends.” Gossip disrupts community. Waltke helpfully observes,
This synthetic proverb adds two more to the catalogue of malicious speakers: the perverse person and the perfidious slanderer. The former, who turns the moral order on its head, sets the whole community at loggerheads; the latter, who sullies another’s reputation behind his back, alienates his closest friend from himself and from others. Both types distort reality to put others in the worst light (cf. 6:19). The talebearer, however, escalates the social damage in that by sowing suspicion and promoting hostilities he looses the closest ties.17
Grasping the near context for Proverbs 16:28 may be important. The preceding verse says, “A scoundrel plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire” (Prov 16:27). The word for “plot,” (koreh), literally means “to dig.”18 The New American Standard Bible (NASB) translates, “A worthless man digs up evil, / While his words are as a scorching fire” (see also the KJV). The New Living Translation (NLT) renders it, “Scoundrels hunt for scandal; their words are a destructive blaze.” The nirgan may be on the hunt for damaging information to pass along, and when he gets it, the burning of reputations will begin (cf. Jas 3:5-6).

The emphasis in Proverbs 16:27-28 is the damage done to relationships. A nirgan “separates close friends.” Proverbs 17:9 describes the same wrongdoing, “He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.” While the word nirgan does not appear, the harm effected is described in the exact same words. The parallelism suggests that the matter being repeated is an offense committed by a fellow community member. Sinful gossip is about someone’s shameful actions being repeated. Proverbs 17:9 suggests an opposite course of action: covering over an offense in love. Waltke describes this virtuous action, “The disciple restores a community threatened by wrong-doing by drawing a veil over another’s sin to win his friendship and by not repeating his failure to avoid alienation.”19 The Lord hates it when someone “stirs up dissension” among his people (Prov 6:16-19, cf. Prov 10:12, 15:18, 28:25, 29:22 and Ps 133 for a beautiful picture of dissension’s antithesis).

"A Delectable Contagion" Dispenser

Proverbs 18:8 and 26:22 are exactly the same, word for word:20“The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts.” Older translators thought that the word translated “choice morsels” in the NIV was from the Hebrew word halam for “smite, hammer, strike down”;21 thus the KJV has, “The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly.” Though this translation makes sense of the destructive power of gossip, it is more likely that the word in question is the hithpael plural participle of laham: “things swallowed greedily,” “savory morsels,” “choice morsels,” or “delicious morsels.”22

While we are still learning about a person who is a nirgan, these two verses are actually about the words of the gossip. They are very attractive. Waltke summarizes them as “a delectable contagion.”23 Even though they are bad for you, these words are difficult to resist.

Fools eagerly devour the words of a gossip, and they have a deleterious effect on the listener, “they go down to a man’s inmost parts.” Waltke explains, “‘The innermost being’ represents the deepest and most complete stratum of a person’s psyche. Because slander so thoroughly penetrates a person’s thoughts and emotions, it remains indelibly imprinted and effective. Since gossip is so highly contagious because the human heart has no resistance to it, the wise quarantine it by not repeating it.”24 Some rich foods may make us sick to our stomachs, but gossip makes us sick in the heart. It defiles and poisons and corrupts.25

Remove the Nirgan

The nirgan appears, as well, in Proverbs 26:20, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.”26It is not clear from the NIV that the nirgan is a kind of person. The ESV is more literal, “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.” Kidner comments, “It is the whisperer or quarreler himself, not (as he would claim) the truth, that feeds the fires; for his mind refashions facts into fuel.”27

The force of this proverb is communicated by painting a picture of peace. If the gossip is removed, the quarrel dies down like a fire burning out. Waltke says, “Without a person seeking to secure his will by attacking the rights of another, even the most bitter conflicts and old hurts calm down.”28 The key is to remove the gossiper. Charles Bridges urges, “We must remove the whisperer; stop him in his words; compel him to produce his authority; face him, if possible, with the subject of his tales. This decisive course will prevent a mass of slander and put him to shame.”29 Whether we run from the rakil or we remove the nirgan, peace is served when gossip is gone (Prov 22:10).


12 Gary V. Smith, “8087” NIDOTTE, 3:1053.

13 BDB 920.

14 Gary V. Smith, “8087” NIDOTTE, 3:1053.

15 This inconsistency in translation seems to have confused a number of commentators who when writing on Proverbs 18:8 and 26:22 seem to have assumed rakil as the underlying term.

16 BDB 920.

17 Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), 33.

18 Richard S. Hess, “4125” NIDOTTE, 2:713-16.

19 Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), 49-50.

20 This is not unusual in the Proverbs. While teaching the exact same truth, their unique placements flavor their respective contexts in different ways.

21 BDB 240.

22 Robert H. O’Connell, “4269” NIDOTTE, 2:766-67; P.J.J.S. Els, “4260” NIDOTTE, 2:760; Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), 74; Derek Kidner, Proverbs, TOTC 15 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1971), 128. It must be noted, however, that the translators of the Septuagint assumed that it was “wounds,” as well.

23 Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), 73.

24 Ibid., 74.

25 For an enlightening (if not encouraging) survey of the sinfulness of sin and its nefarious effects, see Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995).

26 Proverbs 26:20 and 26:22 both include nirgan. The second half of chapter 26 contains many proverbs that pertain to speech.

27 Derek Kidner, Proverbs, TOTC 15 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1971), 164.

28 Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), 360.

29 Charles Bridges and George F. Santa, A Modern Study in the Book of Proverbs: Charles Bridges’ Classic Revised for Today’s Reader (Millford: Mott Media, 1978), 587.

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