Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hebrew Words for Gossip: "Rakil"

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."

The Spy

Rakil and Ragal. The first word is (rakil) which Robert O’Connell defines as “peddler, huckster, hawker, deceiver, slanderer, defamer (?)”1 The origin of this word is uncertain, though it likely comes from a verb form (rakal), which probably means “go about, from one to another (for trade or gossip).”2 Scholars also connect it with the similar word (ragal) “to go about” or “make traveled, explored, spied out, exposed, defamed.”3 Rakil is used six times in the Old Testament, five times in conjunction with the verb (halak) which also has travel connotations. O’Connell says this “may allude to the reputation of the rakil as a deceptive door-to-door peddler/hawker.”4 It seems that this person has something to trade, perhaps secrets. BDB defines rakil as “tale-bearer, informer,” the King James Version (KJV) consistently translates it “talebearer,” and the English Standard Version (ESV) consistently translates it “whoever goes about slandering.”

Revealing Secrets

When the rakil appears in the Proverbs, he is revealing secrets. The first occurrence is Proverbs 11:13, “A gossip [rakil] betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret.” Keeping a confidence is not a matter of indifference. Revealing a secret is not innocent and harmless. Derek Kidner writes of rakil, “Other Old Testament references to the talebearer (apart from the indeterminate 20:19) portray him as malicious rather than indiscreet; he is an informer, out to hurt.”5 Of Proverbs 11:13, Bruce Waltke points out, “The antithesis between the verses is imprecise, suggesting that the slanderer is disloyal and that the loyal do not slander. A person who reveals secrets cannot be trusted.”6


The warning in Proverbs is not novel. God had already forbidden being a rakil. In Leviticus 19, a chapter about harmonious and loving relationships among the people of God, the LORD commands, “Do not go about spreading slander [rakil] among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD” (Lev 19:16). The KJV translates, “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD.”7 R. K. Harrison says, “People who spread malicious gossip come under the condemnation of this legislation, as do those who stand by idly or indifferently, not wishing to become involved when the life . . . of a neighbour is in danger. These straightforward humanitarian provisions were by no means always observed in Near Eastern society, or even among the Israelites.”8

Indeed. In fact, Israel often transgressed this command, and it led (among their other sins) to their judgment and exile. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel use rakil in their denunciations of the thorough wickedness of Israel (Jer 6:28, 9:4, Ezek 22:9). Gossip, in the sense of rakil, is clearly not neutral. It is evil.

A Failure to Love

Conversely, to refuse to live like a rakil is to be commended. In Psalm 15, David asks what kind of person can live with a holy God and answers his question with a series of virtuous qualities to which true worshipers should aspire. In his list, David uses the verb form ragal, “He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellowman” (Ps 15:2-3). The KJV says, “He that backbiteth not with his tongue.” Kidner adds, “The word for slander has a background of ‘going around’, to spy things out or spread them abroad. . . . It seems nearer scandal than slander.”9 The ideal Israelite lives out the Law’s requirement to love his neighbor and will be rewarded. He will live with God in his temple and “never be shaken” (Ps 15:5).

Not so the rakil. He should be avoided at all costs. Proverbs 20:19 teaches, “A gossip [rakil] betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much.” Kidner concisely quips, “The point of the first line is that it may be your secrets next.”10 Proverbs 20:19 is similar to 11:13 in that the rakil is revealing secrets, but where 11:13 exhibited antithetical parallelism so that the gossip is compared to a trustworthy man, 20:19 exhibits synonymous parallelism–the rakil is like a man who talks too much, a chatterer, “one who handles words in a careless, not thoughtful and unguarded way. . . . Although gossiping may be compulsive and careless, not a malicious calumny, idle speech springs from the immoral flaw of unfaithfulness. . . . The gossip lacks wisdom because he lacks love.”11

Next: nirgan.


1 Robert H. O’Connell, “8215,” NIDOTTE, 3:1114-15. The question mark is in the original.

2 BDB 940.

3 Robert H. O’Connell, “8215,” NIDOTTE, 3:1114. See also BDB 920 and 940.

4 Robert H. O’Connell, “8215,” NIDOTTE, 3:1114-15.

5 Derek Kidner, Proverbs, TOTC 15 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1971), 91.

6 Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 494.

7 This subsection of Leviticus ends with “Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD” (Lev 19:18). Refraining from being a rakil is neighbor-love which the Lord Jesus told us is part of the greatest commandment in the Law (Matt 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-33, and Luke 10:25-37).

8 R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC 3 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 198.

9 Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC 14a (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 81.

10 Derek Kidner, Proverbs, TOTC 15 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1971), 139.

11 Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), 148. For more about revealing confidences, see Proverbs 25:9-10, “If you argue your case with a neighbor, do not betray another man’s confidence, or he who hears it may shame you and you will never lose your bad reputation.” It is more important to keep faith with someone than to win your case in court.

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This was very enlightening. Thank you. I look forward to reading more of your blog and potentially your book!