A few decades ago, discussions about biblical perspectives on sexuality were few and far between—at least as far as popular books are concerned. Mark and Grace Driscoll authored a New York Times best seller, Real Marriage, which contains frank discussions about sex from a conservative American Evangelical perspective. A 7 March 2014 report by Christianity Today, describes its rise to become a best seller as controversial. Religious scholars (e.g., Michael Coogan, Jennifer Knust, Teresa Hornsby) have also produced recent works offering alternatives to conservative perspectives on the Bible’s sex texts. In this post I look at some of the biblical euphemisms for sex and note some reasons why people reach different conclusions about the Bible and sex.
Some Christians take pride in doing personal Bible study and trusting God to guide them into truth. Insights are often shared in study groups. But which translation do they use when contemplating the meaning of an ancient law or story? And why do different groups of translators use different words or phrases for a text? A look at modern translations gives us a hint about the difficulties faced by any group of translators who seek to offer us clues about the difficulties they face.
Some footnotes explain differences due to missing words or phrases.
Some footnotes explain that different historical documents contain different words or phrases.
Some footnotes include alternate English words or phrases that might be used for the words or phrases in the biblical language.
And if we compare different translations of the same biblical text we find that different groups of translators settled upon different words or phrases than did other groups.
These few notes only scratch the surface of the problems translators face when trying to offer a plausible modern language equivalent of an ancient text. The fact is, scholars often disagree on the best way to translate different texts.
Every translation is influenced by the knowledge and culture of the people performing the translation. Translations reflect the beliefs of translators about what current words and phrases capture the meaning of an ancient text. And those beliefs matter.
WHY CARE WHAT CHRISTIANS BELIEVE ABOUT SEX?
The Christian religion is the largest religion on earth with more than two billion adherents. A belief that the bible teaches against birth control can influence the population of the world and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Christian beliefs about sexual relations influence laws about marriage and divorce. Christian beliefs about nakedness influence what counts as art and what counts as pornography. Christian beliefs about sex can influence billions of people directly or indirectly.
WHAT CAUSES PROBLEMS IN UNDERSTANDING?
Why do people reach different conclusions when considering the same or similar Bible translations? Explaining the meaning of texts does not end with the problem of translation. Read any translation and you are still left with the problem of understanding what the author meant. Christians who want to apply lessons from ancient stories or laws face an even larger challenge. So it is no surprise that Bible scholars and ordinary Christians reach different conclusions about biblical views of sex.
Humility. Suppose people are willing to be humble when it comes to reading biblical texts. By humble I mean they are willing to consider that their personal understanding might be wrong or at least the ideas of another group might be worth considering. That’s probably too optimistic. People cling to the teachings of childhood as if they were gospel. Yet surely the variety of translations, newly discovered texts, and improved knowledge about the biblical world suggests that a humble stance is more appropriate than an arrogant stance when it comes to understanding what was written.
Knowledge. Knowledge about ancient cultures has increased as a result of new discoveries of ancient texts and cultural objects. Today’s Bible scholars know more about the languages of the Bible and the customs of ancient Israel. They also know more about the culture of the Roman world, which provided the context for the collection of writings by the apostle Paul. In addition, scientists have contributed to a better understanding of human nature. And relevant to this post, scientists know more about human sexuality. Knowledge influences how ancient words and phrases are translated and interpreted.
Biases. People of good will (and of ill will) offer varied guidance about contraception, abortion, premarital sex, masturbation, pornography, same-sex marriage, and a plethora of other hot button sex matters based on their ideas about the plain meaning of biblical texts. It should be no surprise that those who translate and interpret biblical texts have organizational and personal biases. Scholars and general readers come to the texts from different Christian traditions. Most have a history of learning what the Bible teaches about sex and morality since childhood. And people who are employed by a church or Christian organization that states an official position about a specific issue—sex-related or otherwise—is not exactly in the best position to disagree with the organization’s official teaching. People lose their jobs when they express views that are too different from those of their employer. This problem is especially true in matters of sex.
And there are the customers too. Suppose a translator wants to use a new word or phrase that departs from tradition and suppose her colleagues agree that the change ought to be made. But who would buy the controversial translation? What publisher is willing to print a translation that is so different that the sales of the Bible would be dead on arrival?
Sensitivities. Despite the relative openness about sex in contemporary Western cultures, many people remain sensitive when it comes to words and phrases describing sex. Ironically, the Bible contains some pretty graphic stories when it comes to sexual activity. Yet even with the explicit language in the Bible, the texts contain words and phrases that are difficult to translate—it seems even in ancient cultures, people used oblique references to genitals and sexual activity. The problem of clarity is quite complex!
Biblical authors used cultural references to sex that are indirect- euphemisms.
Translators and publishers choose words –sometimes modern euphemisms--that express the meaning of ancient texts using words that will not offend contemporary conservative American readers.
As an example of sensitivity to sex, Michael Coogan reported that the Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs) had been cut out of the Bibles where he studied at a Catholic seminary. The Song of Solomon contains graphic references to sexual activity using local imagery of flowers, trees, fruits and so forth.
Purity bias. Conservative Christians have focused on purity when it comes to sexual behavior. For a long time sex was linked to dirtiness. Pictures of naked people were considered dirty pictures-- something to be crossed out, removed, rated with an X. A friend of mine who taught at a Christian college told me that the teachers at his school could not use a textbook for a course in human sexuality for many years because of the pictures. The idea that the Holy Bible would contain stories about sex in a favorable manner does not make sense for people who view sex with disdain. Times are changing but what counts as purity when it comes to sex is still an issue. I suspect the purity-dirty associations with sex interfere with how people translate, read, interpret, and think about sex and the Bible. I hypothesize that a high purity bias will limit a reader's ability to perceive and understand the Bible's references to sex.
Here’s a few biblical euphemisms that might affect how you read biblical texts.
Eating and words about appetite sometimes refer to sexual activity in the Bible. See Proverbs 30:20 for one example about the ways of a female adulterer. And see references to oral sex in the Song of Songs (2:3).
Feet- a substitute for genitals as in "uncovering feet" —especially the penis. Ruth uncovered the feet of Boaz (3:7). "Covering his feet"- a tough to translate phrase- see Judges 3:24. "Between the feet" Genesis 49:10. Zipporah’s act of circumcising her son and touching Moses’ feet. Exodus 4: 24-26.
Flesh- a substitute for genitals when referring to discharges from a woman’s or man’s flesh. See Genesis 17:14 flesh substituted for penis (NIV); Leviticus 15:1-3.
Fruit and seeds- After the creation of Adam and Eve, God tells them to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). Agricultural metaphors abound in the Bible. Fruitful people have a lot of sex and a lot of children. Men plant their seeds in women. Women who do not become pregnant are like barren lands (Deuteronomy 7:14; Psalm 113:9). If God does not answer a woman's prayers for children, something is wrong with her. Many men were very fruitful as they had several wives and numerous children. The Song of Songs is full of references to fruit as substitute words for male and female sex organs.
Garden- the woman’s body is often depicted as a garden—a place where children grow. The woman’s genitals are clearly in view in Song of Songs (e.g., 4:12 – 5:1). It does not take much imagination to think of round fruits as breasts and a tree as a penis.
Know, to know – to have sex. Lot speaking about his virgin daughters (Genesis 19:8). David did not know Abishag 1 Kings 1:1-4
lie with- to have sex with- close to the contemporary euphemism, to sleep with. For example Genesis 19:32; 30:15.
Nakedness- a general term referring to male and female genitals. Genesis 9: 22-23. Leviticus 18: 5-7
Loins, thighs, heels- lower body parts, depending on the context, these can be references to genitals. Male genitals were highly valued for the seed-- hence a place for swearing an oath as in Genesis 24:2-3; 47:29.
Spread cloak or skirt over – "covering nakedness"- a euphemism for sexual activity. For example Ruth 3:9; Ezekiel 16:8.
Went into- had sexual intercourse. For example Genesis 16:4; 38:8
MIS / INTERPRETATIONS
Hidden Sex and the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is unusual among the biblical books. It does not require much imagination to see the frank use of imagery to celebrate the joy of sexual love between a man and a woman. The erotic sex language is only hidden to those who do not allow themselves to consider the sexual imagery portrayed by the poetic words and phrases. How should the text be interpreted? Some see the text as an expression of love between God and his people Israel. In the Hebrew Bible, God is often portrayed as a lover who woos his bride—the nation of Israel. Christians have taken the text to reflect Jesus’ love for his bride—the church. More recently, Christians have seen it as a celebration of sex and an example that God does not condemn sex within the context of a marriage. But scholars like Hornsby observe that God is not present in the text and the text does not indicate the couple is married. Can you interpret a text to have two or more meanings? Do you see the imagery about naked bodies and sexual activity or is this all about fruits and plants?
Killed for Masturbating. Onanism and Christian teaching about masturbation has become a prime example of how Christians misinterpreted an old Israelite story (Genesis 38) about a man named Onan who spilled his semen on the ground. God killed him as punishment. For years Christians warned young men about the sin of masturbation, which was called onanism. Nowadays even conservative Christians view the story as a violation of an ancient cultural norm. Before the laws of Moses, inheritance was passed down through the children. If a woman’s husband died before they had children, it was the responsibility of the husband’s next of kin to have sex with her so their family wealth was preserved. Onan refused to have sex with his brother’s wife and paid the death penalty.
Naked and enslaved forever. Well there is more. Much more. Here's one more challenge. Were Canaan and all his descendants cursed to be slaves forever because his dad (Ham) just saw his grandfather (Noah) naked? Explore the meaning of nakedness in Genesis 9: 21-25. What do you think this curse is about?
Sometimes a banana is just a banana.
Perhaps you know more words and phrases that would be helpful? If so, share your ideas in a comment so we can benefit from your knowledge. Please include references so I and other readers can track your sources.
Coogan, M. (2010). God & sex: What the Bible really says. New York: Hachette Book Group [Michael Coogan includes a section on biblical euphemisms in chapter one. A question and answer article appears in TIME online.]
Hornsby, T.J. (2007). Sex texts from the Bible: Selections annotated & explained. Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing [Teresa Hornsby is a Professor of Religion at Drury University. She covers many topics related to sex by presenting the biblical text and commenting on the verses. She covers euphemisms beginning on page 3 and elsewhere.]
Knust, J.W. (2011). Unprotected texts: The Bible’s surprising contradictions about sex and desire. New York: HarperCollins e-books [Jennifer Wright Knust is a New Testament Professor at Boston University. She covers the meaning of words and phrases as she covers many topics about sex in the Bible.]
I do not consider myself a biblical scholar or a linguist. I am dependent on the scholarly works of others when presenting information about translations of ancient texts. Although I have some knowledge of the problems of translating works from other languages, I am not an expert. I could be biased from my years growing up in fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches. My views are undoubtedly influenced by psychological science and clinical experience.