Is the Bible Anti-sex?

Albert Joseph Moore, The Shunamite relating the Glories of King Solomon to her Maidens, 1894.

Christianity (as an “organised religion”) has often been against sex. Celibacy has been seen (following especially some hints in Paul’s letters) as better than marriage, which has been seen as a way to make sex all right because, and insofar as, it is aimed at producing children. Does this devaluing of sex reflect the full witness of Scripture, or is it yet another issue where by overstressing a few (often difficult to understand, or at best complex) passages the Bible is misrepresented?

Is the Bible as a whole anti-sex? Hardly. One whole book is full of erotic love poems. The Song of Songs may well represent – though only by analogy – the loving relationship of the soul and God, or Christ and the Church. Generations of celibate priests and religious were not wrong to read it this way, but this analogy is built on the frankly expressed love and desire of king and Shulammite.

To illustrate this it is worth quoting a short portion, 5:2-5, from the KJV:

I sleep, but my heart waketh: 
  the voice of my beloved that knocketh, 
Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: 
  for my head is filled with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.
I have put off my coat; 
  how shall I put it on? 
I have washed my feet; 
  how shall I defile them? 
My beloved put in his hand by the hole, 
  and my bowels were moved for him. 
I rose up to open to my beloved; 
  and my hands dropped myrrh, 
  and my fingers sweet smelling myrrh, 
    upon the handles of the lock.

A library containing such a book hardly rejects the creator’s design of humans as sexual creatures.

Camouflage Equivalence: another example

Back in April I somehow missed Bryan Bibb’s interesting post Camouflage Equivalence1 it focuses on places where translators:

…seek to obscure rather than reveal the meaning of the original. He [Robinson] defines the term as “rearranging the semantic elements of the original… in a plausible way that disguises their dynamic meaning” (p. 6).

The idea, like the term used to describe it is really helpful. It neatly describes those places where translators soften the offense inherent in Scripture. The NIV regularly does this when a more “literal” translation leads to theological difficulties. One example is the rendering of ha’almah in Is 7:14 as “virgin”. Whether ‘almah can carry this meaning is at least debatable. As far as I can see the logic of Isaiah’s speech however demands a present focus and a translation like “young woman”. NIV has exercised camouflage equivalence.

I am less convinced by Bryan’s example. He claims that the ambiguous language (full of sexual double entendres) in Ruth 3 contains at least one such camouflage equivalence translation in almost all English Bibles. “Uncover his feet” in Ruth 3:4 is (Bryan thinks evidently, I’d say possibly) a euphemism. While most translations diminish the sexual tension in Ruth 3, where there are a string of words and phrases like this one that might carry sexual connotations, sometimes a foot is just a foot! The whole point (I think) of using that concatenation of ambiguous, possibly sexual, terms in Ruth 3 is surely to remain ambiguous. To uncover what the text deliberately leaves veiled but suggested is as “bad” as to cover what the text reveals…. So, “uncover his feet” (NIV, NAS, NRSV) gets it right neither camouflage, nor sex for the sake of shocking the horses, but a good serviceable translation.

On the other hand in Psalm 90:2 common translations are split, some opt for camouflage equivalence:

NET Psalm 90:2 Even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were the eternal God.
NRS Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

While others dare to reveal the clear implication of the Hebrew:

NAS Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were born, Or Thou didst give birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.
NIV Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

For both verbs yalad and hul speak of procreation and birthing, and though yalad might refer to the father’s role hul cannot, but clearly refers to birthing.

  1. I had also missed Douglas Robinson’s book, Translation and the Problem of Sway, from which he apparently got the fine phrase. []

Subverting heroism and gender: Part four of Jacob Wright’s course

This week’s episodes of Jacob Wright’s “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future” were particularly fun for me, for a start his topic (the way the Hebrew Bible subverts gender roles and notions of heroism) appeals, and then as he began, introducing Esther and the subversive topic, he made links to Jane Austen. For someone who wrote a piece entitled “Becoming Esther: Bending Gender Reading Esther” (even if it did become the rather less interesting “A Masculine Reading of the Book of Esther”)1 there are a host of interesting overlaps, ideas and possibilities.

The interview with Tamara Cohn Eskenazi was again a highlight. I am more and more convinced SBL should sponsor and host an archive of short videos of people talking about their research, either interviewed by a friend/colleague or simply chatting to a camera. It would be a great resource for teaching!

  1. When published in Global Perspectives on the Old Testament, edited by Mark Roncace and Joseph Weaver. Pearson Education, 2013. []

Fascinating work on the book of psalms

Bob linked to a presentation he’s prepared: New presentation available on Seeing the Psalter If like me you have been too preoccupied over recent years to really follow his project, or if you have not heard of it, this half hour (or less if the technical stuff at the end does not interest you) makes it all clear.

I’ve now bought the book, despite being “retired” and having no allowance for such things any more, and expect to draw interesting and useful ideas from it over months to come. If you are interested in patterns and structures of repetition in biblical texts this seems like a must read… but see the presentation for your self :)

The heresy of exhortation

Photo from Spacemakers

Marking a lot of assignments where students examine different Bible passages, in an institution that seeks to prepare people in Applied Theology, and so expects exegesis to find its natural outworking in application, submits me to a great deal of exhortation.

The vast majority of students reach the application stage of the process, and promptly start telling me how I should try harder. If the passage is Psalm 113 then I should praise God more often, if it is Luke 9:1-6 then I should evangelise more…

Isn’t it strange. Neither passage seems to me to be primarily an exhortation to try harder.

The gospel passage tells how, having himself gone from place to place telling and showing people that the reign of God was breaking into this tired old world, Jesus sent his disciples to do the same with power and authority – there’s nothing about trying harder, and little that sounds like “evangelism”.

It’s true the psalm starts and ends with imperatives: Praise Yah! but the content between is focused on God and on the claim that we have so many reasons to praise God, not least that raising the needy from the ash heap is what God does all the time…

The exhortation to try harder is the preacher’s curse. Not gospel, not even good theology, yet the almost invariable default response to a Bible passage. If “Jesus” is the expected answer to questions asked by Sunday School teachers,1 then “try harder” is the gospel preachers find in every Bible passage.


  1. Teacher: “What is fury, and hops along with a fluffy white tail.” Students: Silence, till one brave lad says, “Well, I know the answer is Jesus, but I’m sorry I can’t work out how!” []

Review copies

If you would like a review copy of the print version of my new book:

Tim Bulkeley, Not Only a Father: Talk of God as Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition (Signs) Auckland: Archer Press, 2011 ISBN: 978-1468091373

Please contact me, please say both where you expect to publish the review (blogs are quite acceptable though a full review rather than a short note would be good) and when you are expect to write it. There are no conditions and you should be as critical as you normally would.

Psalm for a new year

Psalm 90 makes a fine reading for a new year. Through the psalm, time (and especially the haunting disparity between short brutish human time and the timeless divine reality) is a strong theme. The psalm is peppered with time words:

  • dor generation in v.1 (x2)
  • b’terem before in v.2
  • shanah year in vv.4, 5, 9, 10 (x3), 15
  • yom day in vv.4, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15
  • ashmorah night watch in v.4
  • boqer morning in v.5, 6, 14
  • ereb evening in v.6
  • chish quickly in v.10

The psalm opens in the distant past with a heading associating it with Moses the great leader from Israel’s pre-monarchic origins.1

The rest of the first verse forefronts the two key ideas of the psalm, time and our relationship with God. The wording of the opening stresses the persons involved. Very literally it would read: “Lord, a dwelling, you, you have been for us from generation to generation.

This attention to time carries on through the psalm, and is straightaway extended in the next verse from a human timescale from “generation to generation” to extend from before the birth of the world into the “age”2  to come:

Before the mountains were born
or ever you had given birth to the earth and the world,
from age to age you are God.

From verse 3 to 11 the focus on time stresses time and again that the human and the divine timescales are incommensurable, and that humans suffer the divine wrath. This is not a psalm for the faint hearted, or for people living the comfortable smooth lives our TVs and magazines tell us should be ours. This psalm is not compatible with the Western dream.

But it “works” in a world full of natural disaster: earthquakes (still going on in Christchurch after over a year), floods (and even the minor ones in the Bay of Plenty yesterday cause pain and disruption), and all of man’s inhumanity to man (although 2011 was a year with more glimpses of hope for Burma that anyone expected as 2012 begins the Army is still attacking ethnic villages and destroying their crops, the political prisoners kept in inhuman conditions in the jails can still be counted as over a thousand).

Ps 90:10 is often quoted in something approximating to the fairly literal KJV: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years” this with its mention of strength suggests (or in the last few generations reminds us) that we might even live longer. However, in the psalm the effect is quite different, to quote the whole verse:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
yet is their strength labour and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

The whole point of the verse is that even if our life is long it is marked (sooner or later) by toil and trouble, and in any case (by any measure but our own pitifully brief one) are so short. Anyone who has reached “a certain age”3 will recognise how the years begin to fly away faster and faster.

So far, if I have presented it as I think it should be read, Psalm 90 is as far from contemporary cheery upbeat “worship songs” as it is possible to be ;)

Yet, it was my grandmother’s favourite psalm. Perhaps because the hymn based on it “Our God, our help in ages past…” used to be sung every “Remembrance Sunday”, and she had cause to remember. Her groom, my father’s father, was killed in the first world war leaving his new wife and toddler. Psalm 90 is a good new year reading in such circumstances. For as well as human mortality it reminds us of the divine author and finisher of our lives. “…our hope for years to come!

There are two more reasons why this psalm is a favourite of mine. It is one of the few passages in Scripture to deal seriously and in any depth with human aging. And it contains one of the Bible’s few descriptions of creation as birthing:

Before the mountains were born
or ever you had given birth to the earth and the world,
from age to age you are God. (Ps 90:2)

As a result it gets a brief appearance in my new book Not Only a Father,4 and will deserve much fuller treatment in the one on human aging, if I ever write it ;)

  1. Although there is considerable evidence that the headings may have been added to psalms after they were first written and used, there is no textual evidence for them being absent from the psalms that have them in most modern translations. Rather the reverse the early Greek  translation and the Qumran psalms scrolls seem to have more of these headings, suggesting that they were later additions. []
  2. Whatever exactly ‘olam means. []
  3. 50, 40, 30…? []
  4. I will add a link to the print version soon, for now the text is already available online in discussable format. []

Biblical sense and sensibility

Open Bible has a fascinating on post Applying Sentiment Analysis to the Bible.

Sentiment analysis involves algorithmically determining if a piece of text is positive (“I like cheese”) or negative (“I hate cheese”). Think of it as Kurt Vonnegut’s story shapes backed by quantitative data.

The post started with a plot of the data for the whole Bible, which for anyone interested in the “big picture” of the Bible’s story is fascinating. But the data, calculated using available software on an English translation based on the calculated probability of a verse being positive or negative in sentiment, allows a closer look, and running a five verse running average gives really striking and thought provoking “pictures” of each Bible book.

While Jonah goes from bad to worse ;)

Ruth moves from negative to positive

Which both seem intuitively “right”. However, Esther needs some thought:

Esther: is the beginning really the happiest part?

I’m currently teaching the Song of Songs, and last week was Ecclesiastes, so these are interesting:

They both fit common preconceptions pretty well...

…but is it as simple as that? ;)

Proverbs: Everyday spirituality

Many teachers argue Proverbs is not merely a collection of ethical or moral rules. We stress the role of this teaching in forming the person. We notice how often the real wisdom consists not in knowing the words but in recognising when they are applicable.

Thus, “contradictory” proverbs may both be true, and both collected, remembered and used by the same person:

4 Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.
5 Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.

That the book opens with a collection of “instructions” and “wisdom poems” strongly supports this view of its aims and goal.

Instructions, with the form of some commands followed by a motive, suggest such character formation. The form itself is rather like the priestly torah with instructions for ritual observance followed by a theological grounding:

1 My child, if you accept my words
and treasure up my commandments within you,
2 making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
3 if you indeed cry out for insight,
and raise your voice for understanding;
4 if you seek it like silver,
and search for it as for hidden treasures–
5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD
 and find the knowledge of God.
 (Proverbs 2:1-5)

Yet the address to a “child”, and thus the casting of the speaker as a parent, suggest already a formational goal. When we notice the prevalence of words that describe who or what a person is, rather than what they do, this becomes even clearer.

Old Babylonian Queen of the Night (Ishtar?) Photo by seriykotik1970

However it is in the “wisdom poems” that this becomes most explicit. For example:

13 Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
14 for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
15 She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
18 A tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.
(Proverbs 3:13-18)

While it begins with language that seems “merely” to describe the benefits of a “good upbringing” gradually but progressively it seems to be describing a way of living. This language already in Proverbs begins to personify Wisdom, both as a quasi-independent attribute of God (in the long poem in 8:1ff. see especially vv.22ff.) but also as a companion for life:

1 My child, keep my words
and store up my commandments with you;
2 keep my commandments and live,
keep my teachings as the apple of your eye;
3 bind them on your fingers,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call insight your intimate friend…
(Proverbs 7:1-4)

So, it begins with education, but ends with a life companion. This relational aspect of the imagery becomes clearer and quite explicit in the contrasting figure of the adulteress or loose woman in vv.5ff.. While taken on its own this might merely be a parental warning against sexual infidelity the contrast with Wisdom suggests otherwise. So also do the hints that associate this other woman with pagan goddesses.
This contrast of Wisdom to the adulteress and to Dame Folly and their possible connections to goddess figures leads directly to a consideration of both what Proverbs says about women and its gendered character and to a consideration of later developments of the figure of divine Wisdom in Scripture.

(See my next post.)

Humour and hurt: Proverbs 26:1-9

Billy Connolly. Taken by Jemma Lambert on April 13, 2005. The image links to a video clip that illustrates some of the points made here, but which uses excessive bad language.

Humour and hurtfulness often go hand in hand. Comedians can hardly be squeamish about offending. Indeed one of the liberating possibilities humour opens for us is to make fun of the powerful. But often in everyday life the people humorists make fun of are not powerful, still less powerful and oppressive. Rather they are often weaker with less access to resources than the comedian. (If you doubt this just search on YouTube for really funny clips, and note how often the “fun” is hurtful.)

Thinking about humour in biblical books, for my series seeking signs of humour in each book of the (Hebrew) Bible, I looked at Proverbs 26:1-9.1 Humour is used widely in proverbs, and so in Proverbs, because it is memorable, and proverbs aim to teach.

Here is the beginning of Proverbs 26 with some comments on how each couplet is either funny or hurtful, or not:

1 Like snow in summer or rain in harvest,
so honor is not fitting for a fool.

Hershey saw this one as funny, but I can’t see the joke myself.

2 Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying,
an undeserved curse goes nowhere.

Having a variety of birds around to watch, here in the bush clad hills between Tauranga and Rotorua, I found this picture of an undeserved curse flitting here and there, never settling, like a sparrow, or like a swallow swooping, swerving and always returning, most amusing.

3 A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey,
and a rod for the back of fools.

Expresses clearly the biblical idea of discipline, beat someone soundly and you may knock some sense into them, but it is not funny. Unless perhaps you see yourself as wise, and have a cruel streak.

But the next pair are brilliant. The more quoted is quite good:

4 Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.

Just picture the last conversation you had with someone intent on “proving” that the world would end sometime back in May, or perhaps next October, or of “demonstrating” their particular form of church rules is found in this and that “verse” of Scripture. Remember how, if you opened your mouth, you were dragged into a morass of stupidity from which you were lucky to return ;)

But then read on…

5 Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.

Every time someone descends into the slough of verse bashing the fools whose forté it is are confirmed and built up in their folly. Now that is funny and hurtful at the same time. And a delightfully amusing complement to the previous couplet.

6 It is like cutting off one’s foot and drinking down violence,
to send a message by a fool.

The image is sufficiently incongruous, if not really funny, to be memorable, and since you are to cut off your own foot it hardly mocks the disadvantaged. Except those who make a bad choice or “messenger”.

7 The legs of a disabled person hang limp;
so does a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

However, this one is both very funny, and very hurtful, as well as memorable and effective. What do we do with it? To remove the offense would remove the point. Yet to make fun of the affliction which makes someone else less able to enjoy life than one is oneself seems deeply wrong.

8 It is like binding a stone in a sling to give honor to a fool.

Seems safe enough, though if we look at the translations and commentaries it seems the image may be a bit obscure…

9 Like a thorn in the hand of a drunkard
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

I have translated this one more literally than the NRSV and have preferred “thorn” to the NIV’s “thornbush” (agreeing pretty much with the NET). For the image seems to me clear, just as someone really drunk will hardly notice the prick of a thorn, so someone who is incurably stupid can learn proverbs, but their point will not prick, and no change will result.

So, what change should result from this reading of Proverbs 26:1-9?

Well for me, I resolve:

  • to try to cease answering fools according to their folly – students and others who quote “verses” at me had better expect an unsympathetic response
  • to try to answer fools according to their folly, and avoid honouring them, by pointing out that such verse bashing is daft


  1. The passage was suggested by an article: Hershey H. Friedman, “Humor in the Bible” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 13:3, 2000, 258-285. Although Friedman was Bernard H. Stern Professor of Humor and the journal sounds respectable the material is of varied quality and some of his examples did not tickle my funny bone, but it did suggest Pr 26 was worth consideration. []