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Some­time ago, I came across some people who were arguing on the sig­ni­fic­ance of the woes pro­nounced by Jesus in the Gos­pels. While some argued that Jesus cursed those people or cit­ies he pro­nounced the woes on, oth­ers dis­agreed on such inter­pret­a­tion. It was then that I decided to make a little reflec­tion on the sig­ni­fic­ance of the Greek term usu­ally rendered as woe in the Eng­lish trans­la­tions of the Bible. Did Jesus for instance curse the Phar­isees and the law­yers when he said: woe to you Pharisees…woe to you leg­al experts (jur­ists, lawyers)?

The Greek term ouai (pro­nounced oo-ah-ee), gen­er­ally trans­lated as ‘woe’ or ‘alas’ is among the numer­ous wrongly inter­preted bib­lic­al vocab­u­lary. Gram­mat­ic­ally, ouai can func­tion as a noun, and/or as an inter­jec­tion (exclam­a­tion). As a noun, it means:

  1. Woe; dis­aster; calam­ity; hor­ror: an unfor­tu­nate hap­pen­ing. That is, a ser­i­ous afflic­tion or mis­for­tune (cf. Rev 9:12; 11:14; 12:12);
  2. Grief, that is, dis­tress res­ult­ing from a ser­i­ous afflic­tion or misfortune.

Then, as an inter­jec­tion or exclam­a­tion, it is applied in express­ing grief, dis­tress, sor­row or pity, in which case it becomes woe!, or alas! Fur­ther­more, as an inter­jec­tion, ouai is also an expres­sion of extreme dis­pleas­ure and a call for retributive pain on someone or some­thing. There­fore, the Greek term ouai rendered in Eng­lish as woe or alas, is an inter­jec­tion, an expres­sion or an exclam­a­tion of grief, a denun­ci­ation or sor­row, grief or evil. In some instances, it could be a pas­sion­ate cry of grief or des­pair by an individual.

Woes in the Jewish Bible (Old Testament)

The Hebrew equi­val­ent of the Greek ouai is ՚ôy (pro­nounced o‑ee) and hôy (pro­nounced hoh-ee). While ՚ôy is strictly trans­lated as woe and alas, hôy is rendered dif­fer­ently as ah!; ha!; oh!; o!; ho!; and even as dis­aster (cf. the New Jer­u­s­alem Bible). How­ever, trans­lat­ors are not rigid about this dis­tinc­tion. Both terms are trans­lated as woe!; alas!; ah!; ha!; oh!; ho! The Sep­tuagint – LXX (the Greek trans­la­tion of the Old Test­a­ment) trans­lates both terms as ouai – woe.

In their mes­sages, the proph­ets often, adopt these words (՚ôy and hôy) in their warn­ings against the people’s unfaith­ful­ness, dis­obedi­ence, ungodly and inhu­man beha­viours. We find for instance, such expres­sions (warn­ings) as:

  1. Woe to the sin­ful nation! A people whose guilt is great, a brood of evil­do­ers, chil­dren giv­en to cor­rup­tion! They have for­saken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him” in Isai­ah 1:4. In this pas­sage, Isai­ah denounces the sin and the iniquity of the Israel­ites, which accord­ing to the proph­et, con­sists in their abandon­ing the Lord, in des­pising the Holy One of Israel and in turn­ing against their God;
  2. Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him, for the reward of his hands shall be giv­en him” (Isa 3:11);
  3. Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put dark­ness for light, and light for dark­ness; Who put bit­ter for sweet, and sweet for bit­ter!” (Isa 5:20);
  4. Woe to them, for they have fled from me! Destruc­tion to them, because they have trans­gressed against me! Though I redeemed them, yet they have spoken lies against me” (Hosea 7:13). The motive for this warn­ing is found in Hosea 7:14;
  5. Even if they bring up chil­dren, I will bereave them until no one is left. Woe to them indeed when I depart from them!” (Hosea 9:12. Cf. also Isa 5:; and Amos 5:18; 6:1).

The proph­ets curse neither the wicked nations, those who exchange evil for good and good for evil, and those who have fled from the Lord. The proph­ets only pity them. They express their dis­pleas­ure as regards their atti­tude and pity them for the calam­ity they will cause them­selves for being wicked, abandon­ing the Lord, and call­ing evil good and vice versa. Hence, when God says through proph­et Hosea, woe to them indeed, when I depart from them, God simply means I pity them when I will turn my face away from them, they will suf­fer greatly unless they repent.

Woes the Christian Bible (New Testament)

Just like the Jew­ish proph­ets, Jesus pro­nounced series of woes on vari­ous groups, indi­vidu­als and cit­ies in the Gos­pels. We men­tion for instance the woes pro­nounced by Jesus against the cit­ies of Chorazin, Beth­saida and Caper­naum (Matt 11:20–24. Cf. also Luke 10:13–15); the sev­en woes on the teach­ers of the law and the Phar­isees (Matt 23:13–32); the four woes con­trast­ing the four bless­ings in Luke 6:24–26; and the six woes against the Phar­isees and the Scribes (Luke 11:42–52). For oth­er woes in the Gos­pels, see Mark 13:17 (//Luke 21:23); 14:21 (//Luke 22:22); Matt 18:7; and Luke 17:1. See also 1Cor 9:16 and Jude 1:11.   


From the above reflec­tion, a declar­a­tion of ‘woe’ on a per­son, nation, com­munity or group of people is fre­quently found in the Scrip­tures. It is espe­cially pro­nounced on those who have had priv­ileges but abused them by not mak­ing respons­ible use of such priv­ileges. As indic­ated above, in the Proph­ets there are many woes against Israel and Judah, and against the nations, which had to do with Israel. On the oth­er hand, dur­ing his earthly mis­sion, Jesus pro­nounced woes upon those who should have been the ser­vants and lead­ers of the people, and who should have shown good example, but did not. They are warn­ings and the call­ing of atten­tion to the pos­sible danger a nation, city, com­munity, per­son or group of per­sons could encounter for refus­ing to adhere to object­ive instruc­tions, to behave cor­rectly and accord­ing to the will of God.

The traffic light is the best image to explain Jesus’ woes (the yel­low card used by ref­er­ees dur­ing foot­ball matches is anoth­er good example). Usu­ally, the traffic light has three dif­fer­ent col­ours: green, yel­low, and red. These col­ours altern­ate between the green, yel­low and then red. The green col­our means motor­ists who have it are free to pass; the yel­low light is a warn­ing for motor­ists who had the green light to hasten up before the red col­our that rep­res­ents danger appears. Once motor­ists see the red light, they must stop to avoid acci­dent. The Greek word ouai (woe) pro­nounced by Jesus is like the yel­low col­our of the traffic light. It is a warn­ing against immin­ent danger due to obstin­acy. There­fore, the woes pro­nounced by Jesus are not curses. They are warn­ings and the feel­ing of sor­row for the self-inflic­ted harm on those on whom those woes were pro­nounced. There­fore, when Jesus says “woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Beth­saida!”, he nev­er meant to curse those cit­ies. He only pit­ied them for the harm they have caused them­selves due to their unre­pent­ant heart. In fact, in Matt 11:20, Jesus gave his reas­on for pro­noun­cing those woes on them. In Matt 11:21, he pro­nounced the woes. Then, in Matt 11:22, he explained to them the reas­on and mean­ing of the woe (why he pit­ied them). The same situ­ation is also applic­able to the city of Caper­naum (Matt 11:23–24). In Rev­el­a­tion 9:12; 11:14; 12:12, the woes are nouns (calam­it­ies, dis­aster). But in the Gos­pels, they are exclam­a­tions. That is, warn­ings and pity for the danger ahead.

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