“Goad” : Word Exploration

Paul on Road to Damascus

Saul on Road to Damascus

When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.”
Acts 26:14 (NRSV)

This Bible passage is where Paul tells King Agrippa about his alleged heavenly vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus.  How many of you have read right over the phrase “to kick against the goads” (or heard it)  and ignored the fact that you did not know the actual meaning of the word “goad”?  (*Sabio raises his hand)

So, I looked it up.  And as often happens, one piece of info took me to another and then another … — so I share my word romp with you below:

What is a goad and why would you kick against it?  Well, a goad is a stick with a pointed piece of iron fastened to the end of it.  A goad is used to prod the oxen, horses and other beasts of burden when they won’t move.  If the animal resists the goading, they often get hurt by the iron.   So when the animal kicks against the goad, the really get torn up by the sharp, pricky piece of metal. Below are pictures of an ancient Saxon plowman using a cattle goad and in Spanish a goad is called a “garrocha”.  Garrochas are used in cattle herding and famously used in the cruel ‘sport’ of bull fighting where the bull is fatally injured while kicking against the goad.  The word “garrochas” is also the word for the pole in pole vaulting.

Interestingly, a goad is also used in handling and training elephants in Asia.  In Sanskrit (an ancient language from India) a “goad” is called an “ankus”.  Below are some common examples and a very ornate example of Ankuses.

Many religions envision their gods goading us through life, much like Paul was goaded by Yahweh.   Hinduism shares this imagery with Christianity in their elephant-headed god, Ganesh.  Ganesh’s iconography shows him with a goad — an elephant goad.  In the pictures of Ganesh below, you can see him holding an Ankusa in his right hand.  You see, Ganesh is known as the remover of obstacles or the remover difficulties from one’s path.  And if one does not learn by the gentle persuasion of Ganesh, Ganesh will uses his goad for more persuasive guidance on the believer.

The goading superpower them can also be seen in the TV series “LOST” see how Jacob goads the lives of the islanders.  OK, I have side-tracked to bullfights, Hinduism, popular Television and the question of free will.  But now back to the Bible.

Though Luke (the author of the book of Acts) states that Jesus spoke to Paul in Aramaic, he records Jesus’ words in Greek.  To the right is Acts 26:14 photographed from one of our oldest New Testament documents, the  Codex Sinaiticus.  I put the text in small letters for easier reading to the left.

Acts 26:14 (Codex Sinaiticus)

παντων τε καταπε
ϲοντων ημων
ειϲ την γην ηκου
ϲα φωνην λεγου
ϲαν προϲ με τη ε
βραϊδι διαλεκτω ·
ϲαουλʼ ϲαουλ τι με
διωκειϲ ϲκληρο
ϲοι προϲ κεντρα

In both pictures, I have highlighted the word translated “goad” in red — kentra (κέντρα) from kentron which has two main meanings:

1. sting -s : a prick, a point; hence, generally, a sting, a thing of venom or poison.

2. prick [noun] -s : a point, a prick; hence, a sting

We see the translation of “prick” instead of “goad” in the King James Version:

And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
–Acts 26:14 (KJV)

One can see why this translation has fallen out of favor in the last century and “goad” has taken its place.  But no matter how you translate the phrase, translators realize that it was a common proverb in Greek well before Luke wrote Acts.  The Greeks and Romans used the phrase “kicking against the goad” as a saying to imply ruinous resistance.  And Luke, speaking Greek, was familiar with the proverb.  But according to the passage, Jesus supposedly spoke to Paul in Hebrew (Aramaic being his dialect).  So did Jesus use an Aramaic proverb that was identical to the Greek proverb or did Luke do a loose translation?  Hmmmmm….?

The book of Acts was written in the 1st century ADE,  but the Greek saying of “kicking against the pricks” had been around for a long time.  For example, this quote is  from Euripides’ Greek tragedy “Bacchae” written around 450 BCE.

“I’d sacrifice to him rather than angrily kick against the pricks, a mortal against a god.”
— Braccae (line 795) (PDF)

The saying can also be found in other Greek writers like Pindar (Pythians 2:94-96).  The Greeks used the proverb to teach the lesson that it is foolish to rebel against a powerful authority. Any attempt to do so would result in much greater difficulties.

I have not been able to discover when the switch from “prick” to “goad” was made, but the linguistic etymology of “goad” is as follows:

Old English gäd “spearhead,” from Proto-Germanic *gaido (cf. Lombardic gaida “javelin”), from Proto-Indo-European *ghai- (as in Gr. khaîos, khaîon shepherd’s staff) (cf. Sanskrit. hetih “missile, projectile,” Old Irish gae “spear”).  And since its use in the Bible, it has become figuratively used is since the 1600s.  So, here we have another example how Bible literacy helps you understand English.

The Goad & Our Alphabet

One last interesting note about the goad is the story of how our letter “L” came from a goad.    The story is like this:

  • The Egyptian Goddess Neith, on the right, is holding a goat goad.   The proto-canaanites used the Egyptian goat goad as a symbol for their “L”.  The Egyptian language itself did not have an “L” but instead pronounced foreign words with “Ls” (like Cleopatra) with an “R” sound — similar to what a Japanese speaking English may sound like.
  • Phoenician Alphabet

    That goad later morphed into the Phoenician Alphabet (1050 BCE).

  • Phoenician alphabet morphed into the Ancient Greek alphabet.  Click on the chart to see the various letters of the Phoencian alphabet and how they morphed into our present alphabet.
  • The Ancient Greek alphabet morphed into the Latin alphabet
  • The Latin Alphabet is what we use in English.


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Filed under Linquistics

13 responses to ““Goad” : Word Exploration

  1. Temaskian

    There doesn’t seem to be a ‘point’ to your post — but I love it! Pics are great, too.

  2. @ Temaskian
    You are right, it is just educational.

  3. I understand that Luke composed quite loosely, based on whatever sources he had, making good stories up. What I would really like to know, is if the Ancients themselves understood that the Greek proverb does not necessarily fit into the story.

    In any case, thanks for introducing the English word “goad”, previously unknown to me.

  4. CRL

    The elephant headed god holds an elephant goad—how ironic! Very educational post. While I knew the word, I was unaware of both the verse and the saying.

  5. @CRL
    Yeah, kind of as if Jesus would wear a crucifix !

    @ Timo
    Why doesn’t the Greek proverb fit into the story? (though I am suspect that Jesus would utter such a proverb in Aramaic)

  6. Interesting, I knew the word “goad” as a verb, but not a noun. Thanks!

  7. Steve Wiggins

    Fun post! I wrote about Paul’s use of that very phrase a couple weeks back. I still use the pictograph to alphabet material in my classes, just to give the students some fun. One could say to goad them on…

  8. Laughing !!

    You know, I was ricocheting around the web and ran into the word “goad” and then started researching it. I then started my post. Three days later, I thought, “Where the heck did I first see that word?” and could not find it.

    It was your post !! Thanks for reminding me.

  9. Steve Wiggins

    I wasn’t fishing for a shout-out. It’s just an interesting concept. My high school mind just couldn’t let go of the phrase “kicking against the pricks” — I never heard that last word outside the boy’s locker room!

  10. Yeah, np, I serious forgot so it was cool to remember !

  11. Yes, I mean that the use of “Hebrew language”, i.e. Aramaic, suspends the disbelief right in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus throws a couple of Aramaic words in (Mark 5:41), whereas the Greek proverb in Acts seems a bit out of place. I mean, how cool would the story have been if the supernatural risen-Christ had actually spoken the ancient words in the story, and Luke had had to produce a translation for his non-Hebrew audience?

  12. Ah, I see what you mean. Thanx

  13. Pingback: A change of pace… | Tall Tails and Short Cakes

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