OF NOTE: This article is the third chapter of K. J. Aaron 's Sexuality and the Bible which has been posted because it is EXCELLENT and that it has value to help people understand the Bible. A special thank you is due to Keith Hunt for his recognition of such rare Biblical study material and for granting permission to re-post it here at this website. The reader is strongly encouraged to start with the 1st chapter...see the links (below) for these pages/chapters:
Nude and Lewd: The Bare Facts
K. J. Aaron
It was not uncommon for unfaithful wives to be stripped of all clothing and publicly exposed. Hosea threatened to strip his wife in this manner - as naked as when she was born and "discover [expose, reveal] her lewdness in the sight of her lovers" (Hosea 2:3,10) - the word "lewdness" here meaning pudenda (Strong's Concordance, 5054).
Jeremiah described this custom in these words: "For the greatness of thine iniquity are thy skins discovered [stripped off] ... therefore will I discover [strip off] thy skirts upon thy face [not just the back of the woman, but her front], that thy shame may appear" (Jeremiah 13:22,26). Ezekiel phrased it this way: "I will even gather them around about ... and will discover [expose, reveal] thy nakedness unto them, that they may see all thy nakedness" (Ezekiel 16:37). Quite a strip show - not just topless or bottomless - but all nakedness would be exposed!
In the book of Revelation, those lovers of "the great whore ... shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire" (Revelation 17:16). To what extent the expression "eat her flesh" may have represented some actual custom is difficult to say. One thing is certain: those who ate her flesh must have been fed up with her! According to the prophecy, her purple and scarlet garments were to be ripped from her body and her nakedness exposed.
Nahum, likening Nineveh to a "well-favored harlot" - one with an impressive shape - represents Gad (Yahweh) as publicly stripping her naked so all could see her: "1 will discover [expose] thy skirts upon thy face, and I will show the nations thy nakedness, and the kingdoms thy shame. And I will cast abominable filth upon thee, and make thee vile, and will sit thee as a gazing-stock" (Nahum 3:4-6).
In his commentary, Adam Clarke explains: It was an ancient, though not a laudable custom, to strip prostitutes naked or throw their clothes over their heads, and expose them to public view .... This verse alludes to such a custom. Children and others threw mud, dirt, and filth of all kinds at them." Urine and excrement, from humans and animals, were no doubt included in the "abominable filth" mentioned. Imagine the utter degradation of the scene - a woman publicly exposed naked, put in stocks, and covered with all kinds of filth!
Among the ancient Germans, relates Tacitus, the disgruntled husband would shave off the woman's hair, strip her naked in the presence of her relatives, and drive her from his house. In some countries, both the man and woman that committed adultery were paraded stark naked through the city, the woman leading the man with a cord, the end of which was attached to his penis.
It may be that the woman accused of adultery and brought before Jesus (John 8:3), had been stripped of her clothing. In this case, certain witnesses said they caught her in the very act. But in cases when there were no witnesses - only suspicion of adultery - Mosaic law provided a trial by ordeal:
If any man's wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, and the man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband ... and there is no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner [no pregnancy occurs]...and he be jealous of his wife .... Then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah [about one gallon] of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it (Numbers 5:11-31).
Pouring oil upon an object was an established fertility rite, as when Jacob poured oil upon the top of a pillar (Genesis 28:22). But here was the reverse - no oil was poured out. Since adultery was in question, the symbolism of outpoured oil was probably considered inappropriate.
With the accused woman now before the priest, he uncovers her head and places the barley offering in her hands. He makes her drink the bitter water mixed with dust from the floor of the tabernacle. If she is guilty, as charged, this will cause her bowels, belly, and "thigh" to rot. He then takes the offering from her hand, waves it before Yahweh, and offers it upon the altar. It is all spelled out in Numbers 5.
Such laws, many feel, were one-sided. A man could accuse his wife of adultery and force her to undergo this humiliating "test," but there was no test for the man! The woman brought to Jesus was threatened with stoning, but the man with whom she committed adultery was not even mentioned (John 8:5). A man could claim his wife was not a virgin on their wedding night and have her killed (Deuteronomy 22:21), but there was no such requirement for the man.
(But let's remember, though such a law was on "the books" so to speak, in Israel, it didn't mean it HAD to be applied. The woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus, had MERCY applied. The religious leader told Jesus that the law of Moses said she should be stoned to death for adultery. Jesus applied mercy. There were "judges" in Israel, and they had the right to determine the particulars of every situation. This is often forgotten when looking at all the laws that were "on the books" in the society of ancient Israel - Keith Hunt).
The exact procedure for the trial by ordeal varied in different centuries. At one time, a woman claiming innocence was brought to the eastern gate of the temple and dressed in black. While one priest prepared the bitter water, another tore her clothes as low as her bosom and fastened her torn clothes below her breasts. In some cases she was stripped naked.
(Again - the basic law was applied WHEN and HOW the judges determined in any particular situation, mercy being applied at any point of the law. Jesus applied mercy (the woman caught in adultery and brought to him) all the way - Keith Hunt).
People who were condemned to death, whether by hanging, stoning, or crucifixion, were commonly stripped of all clothing and publicly exposed. There can be little doubt that Jesus was crucified nude. His clothes had been removed and soldiers cast lots for them (John 19:23,24; Mark 15:24). According to the noted commentator Barnes, it was customary to crucify a person naked. Billy Graham, pointing out the "shame" of the cross, has repeatedly mentioned this in his crusades over the years. The Catholic Encyclopedia makes the same point.
When Jesus was crucified, "many women were there beholding afar off" (Matthew 27:55). Why did they stand afar off? Clarke explains: "As all malefactors were crucified naked, perhaps this may account for the distance at which these modest women stood."
On the night Jesus was arrested, Mark mentions a young man, dressed only with a linen cloth "about his naked body," who continued to follow Jesus even when the disciples fled. Finally the mob grabbed him also, but he escaped - "left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked" (Mark 14:51,52).
The first Christian martyr, Stephen, was probably stripped of his clothing when unbelieving Jews "cast him out of the city, and stoned him" (Acts 7:57,58). According to Lightfoot, there was a place for stoning outside the city of Jerusalem to which the accused was brought. When he was ten cubits away, he was exhorted to confess; when four cubits away, his clothes were stripped from him.
Before Paul and Silas were jailed at Philippi, they were publicly humiliated by being stripped and beaten. This is plainly stated: "They caught Paul and Silas, and drew them into the market place ... and the multitude rose up together against them: and the magistrates rent off their clothes and commanded to beat them" (Acts 16:19,22). They were given no courtesy. No one read them any rights. The whole scene was belittling and crude. As strange as it may seem, when Paul and Silas later called out to the desperate jailer those words, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:31), both preachers may have been standing there nude!
It was an ancient custom when taking war captives, to strip them naked. The very word translated "captive" means to denude (Strong's Concordance, 1540) - 2 Kings 15:29; 16:9; 17:6; 24:14, etc. On one occasion, 200,000 women, boys, and girls were stripped "naked" clear down to their shoes (2 Chronicles 28:8-19). Assyro-Babylonian bas-reliefs have not failed to record this custom, some vividly showing the naked Israelites as war captives. We know, also, that after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., enslaved Jews were mocked as they were paraded nude through the streets of Rome.
Clarke's Commentary says: "It was the barbarous custom of the conquerors of those times to strip their captives naked, and to make them travel in that condition, exposed to the weather ... and the heat of the sun. To the women this was the height of indignity."
When Isaiah sought to make a point - that the Egyptians and Ethiopians would be taken captive - he stripped off all his clothing, including that which covered his "loins," and walked about "naked and barefoot" for three years. "And the Lord said, Like as my servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot three years for a sign and wonder ... so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians prisoners, and the Ethiopians captives, young and old, naked and barefoot even with their buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt" (Isaiah 20:1-4).
Some who are shocked to think that Isaiah actually went naked have suggested it was only partial nakedness. But this hardly seems to be the case. The word translated "nakedness" here is the same Hebrew word used of the nakedness of Adam and Eve. The word translated "shame" in this passage means, as the margin has it, nakedness. It was clearly nakedness like that which would befall captives - stripped of clothing so that even their butts, would be exposed.
But Isaiah was not the only prophet who went about naked - there were others, as seen in the following incident: Saul went to Naioth and "stripped off his clothes also, and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down NAKED all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say, Is Saul also among the prophets?" (1 Samuel 19:24).
Micah, who was contemporary with Isaiah (Isaiah 1:1; Micah 1:1), also took some drastic actions: "Therefore I will wail and howl, I will go stripped and naked; I will make a wailing like the dragons, and mourning as the owls"! (Micah 1:8). This was far more exuberant than those actions of a revivalist preacher who merely throws off his coat when he really "gets to preaching"!
During the sixteenth century, in Amsterdam, a religious group known as the Adamites went without clothes. On one occasion they ran through the streets crying, "Woe! Woe! Woe! The wrath of God! The wrath of God!" When brought before the magistrates they refused to dress, claiming they were "the naked truth." In more recent times, in Canada, the Doukhobors have repeatedly protested government actions by stripping off their clothes in court rooms and streets.
In another set of circumstances, we have the case of Lady Godiva, who went nude to make a point. Her husband, the ruler of Coventry, had imposed a heavy tax on his subjects. Lady Godiva sided with the people. He insisted there would be no tax relief unless she rode through the city on a white horse - totally nude. When she called his bluff, and went in the buff - riding bareback (her front was bare also!) - her husband decreed that everyone had to stay indoors and keep their shutters firmly closed. In the legend, however, a man named Tom "peeped" through a window. It is from this incident we get the expression "peeping Tom."
In the Bible there is a reverse of the Lady Godiva story - a king who wanted people to see his wife naked! During a large celebration, king Ahasuerus ordered his servants "to bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to show the people and the princes her beauty: for she was fair to look on" (Esther 1:11). This means she was to make a public appearance with the royal crown on - AND NOTHING ELSE! As the Targum says, she was to appear naked. The same point is made by Josephus and a Midrashic passage (Megillah 12b). But Vashti refused and, consequently, was replaced - by Esther.
What Ahasuerus sought to force on Vashti would be repulsive to any modest woman. But nude is not always LEWD. The right or wrong of nudity - like a sexual relationship that can be a token of love or RAPE - depends on the CIRCUMSTANCES. Within the intimate and loving setting of the Song of Solomon, nudity is praised as BEAUTIFUL. In one portion, using the Eastern erotic style, the man describes the woman's body in detail (Song of Solomon 4:1-5):
Thou hast doves' EYES within thy locks, Thy HAIR is as a flock of goats, Thy TEETH are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn ... Thy LIPS are like a thread of scarlet, Thy TEMPLES are like a piece of a pomegranate. Thy NECK is like the tower of David, Thy two BREASTS are like two young roes that are twins....
In the next scene, the woman poetically describes the man's body - uncovered by clothing - beginning with his head (Song of Solomon 5:11-15):
His HEAD is as the most fine gold, His LOCKS are bushy, and black as a raven. His EYES are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters... His cheeks are as a bed of spices, His LIPS like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh. His HANDS are as gold rings set with the beryl: His BELLY is as bright ivory overlaid with sapphires. His LEGS are as pillars of marble.
In this head to foot description, the man's "belly" is com- pared to ivory. The word that is so translated here can mean, euphemistically, the seat of generation (strong;s Concordance, 4578). One translator expresses it: "His 'rod' is arrogant ivory." This may be more specific than the original would warrant, but considering the overall erotic nature of the book, it is not impossible. In another scene (Song of solomon 7:1-6), a Shulamite girl is wearing shoes, but this is apparently all she is wearing. As the description of her body moves for her feet upward, between her thighs and belly, the "navel" is mentioned. THE INTERPRETER'S BIBLE suggests her VULVA is meant, the original being similar to an arabic word meaning "secret" or "pudenda."
How beautiful are thy FEET with shoes...
The joints [curves] of thy THIGHS are like jewels...
Thy NAVEL is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor:
Thy BELLY is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.
Thy two BREASTS are like two young roes that are twins.
Thy NECK is as a tower of ivory;
Thine EYES like the fishpools in Heshbon...
Thy NOSE is as the tower of Lebanon...
Thine HEAD upon thee is like Camel ...
The HAIR of thine head like purple... How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights.
The Shulamite girl described here is performing a dance. The people cry out for her to turn that they may look upon her. The bridegroom is pleased with the favorable reception and, in Eastern fashion, asks why they gaze upon the girl who dances with a sword in her hand. The King James margin here (Song of Solomon 6:13) has the word "Mahanaim," which was possibly the name of this particular dance or one in which the inhabitants of Mahanaim excelled. Goodspeed translates it: "the Mahanaim dance," Moffatt uses the term "sword-dance," and Rotherham: "the dance of a double camp."
Though we may not know the exact significance of this dance, as THE INTERPRETER'S BIBLE commentary says: "It was some special dance, apparently performed in the nude." THE PULPIT COMMENTARY says the dancing girl may have worn clothing of a light texture through which the outline of her body and breasts were seen, according to the mode of dancing in the East. Such garments were mentioned by Isaiah as "veils" (Isaiah 3:23), meaning, according to Clarke, "transparent garments." whether the dancing girl was nude or wearing see-through clothing, her breasts were visible and described as "two young roes that are twins." One breast was not larger than the other - they were identical. As she danced, they bounced exotically up and down, like two young roes skipping and jumping across vale and hill.
Apparently the writer of the Song of Solomon liked a woman with a big bust, a zaftig. Notice how his girlfriend described her shape and the response it brought from him: "I am a wall, and my breasts like towers: THEN was I in his eyes as one that found favor" (Song of Solomon 8:10). It was when he saw she had breasts like towers that she obtained his favor!
I am not aware that any modern poets compare women's breasts to towers, but in Utah there are mountain formations known by such names as Fern's Nipple and Mollie's Nipple. In Mexico two adjoining mountains are called "The Two Tits of Miss JoAnne." Mountain peaks east of Yosemite Park are called "Two Tits," though commonly softened up on maps as "Two Teats." The name of the famous mountains south of Yellowstone Park, The Grand Tetons, translates roughly as "Big Tits."
The biggest bosom in the Bible is not that of a woman, however, but a man: "Abraham's bosom," mentioned in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:23).
The writer of the Song of Solomon expressed concern about the bust size of his undeveloped sister: "We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts: what shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for?" (Song of Solomon 8:8). Plastic surgery was not available then, and "falsies" were simply not the real thing.
This ancient concern finds modern expression in numerous ads in women's magazines that offer methods of breast enlargement. Of questionable or limited benefit are gadgets employing suction cups or spring devices to press between the palms to build up chest muscles. A preacher once told me about a young lady in his church who sent five dollars for a bust developer. After waiting several weeks, her order finally arrived. She was quite disappointed when she opened the package to find only a photo of a man's hands!
Using padding to enlarge the appearance of hips or breasts was bitterly opposed by St.Clement. Occasionally, even today, some have opposed shoulder or bust pads, quoting Ezekiel 13:18-21: "Woe to the women that sew pillows to all arm holes, and make kerchiefs upon the head of every stature to hunt souls!" But the commentators argue, and with good reasons, that this passage refers to a now-obscure form of superstitious worship.
Over the centuries, clothing designers have sought to emphasize certain parts of the body at times, and minimize them at others. Sometimes this led to practices that actually deformed the body. In order to make a woman's feet tiny (which was considered erotically stimulating), the Chinese practiced footbinding which deformed and crippled.
At one period American women, seeking a narrow female waist, wore corsets so tight that some suffered internal deformity. The bustle, which was fashionable for twenty years, exaggerated the female posterior. A woman's journal of the 1870s spoke enthusiastically of "that contour which is universally considered a great beauty in the female form."
I recall hearing a preacher once argue against the "literal" method of interpreting the book of Revelation. "If the woman of Revelation 17 who sits on seven mountains is a literal woman," he exclaimed, "she must have a bigger rump than any woman I have ever seen!" It sounds almost unbelievable, but in 1750, in Paris, it was considered good style to appear with a large belly! "Paddies" for this purpose were manufactured and sold briskly for a period.
But probably the best example of style changes involved women's breasts. "Through the centuries, a woman's breasts really never rested," says Brasch. "Something was being done to them all the time: to disguise, hide, display, contain, minimize or expand them." A bra manufacturer once advertised the three types of bras his company offered in these terms: "The Dictator" (who suppresses the masses), "The Salvation Army" (who lifts them up), and "The Yellow Press" (who makes mountains out of molehills). More recently, a sign in the window of a store featuring a line of bras read: "This is the real decoy." Another sign read: "We fix flats."
Some form of bra has been worn for thousands of years, one form even being mentioned in the Bible. The word translated "tablets," used only in two references (Exodus 35:22; Numbers 31:50), is, according to Clarke, "supposed to be a girdle to support the breasts." But it was not until this century that anyone took out a patent for a bra: Mary Phelps Jacob, a descendant of steamboat inventor Robert Fulton. Her patent for a bra - actually called a brassiere at the time - was sold to a corset company for $15,000. The word bra, from a French word meaning "bracer," has been in use since 1937.
There is a book titled "Bust Up: The Uplifting Talke of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra" which caused the People's Almanac to credit Titzling with the invention of the bra. But the book was apparently written as a hoax!
Ancient people often carried money in the chest area - called in the Bible the "bosom" (Luke 6:38; Isaiah 65:6). Today some women carry money in their bras. In a revival meeting a preacher was taking up an offering. It was one of those meetings in which people are asked how many will give this amount, how many that. The preacher pointed to one woman and said the Lord wanted her to give a twenty dollar bill. She said she didn't have it to give. He told her she did and he knew where she had it! With this, she reached into her bra and pulled out the bill. How did he know this?
Bras come in various cup sizes. Comedienne Joan Rivers says her cup does not run over, it runneth under! The largest bras - actually made for cows - run up to size 108. Perhaps the most expensive bra sells for $4,000 at Tiffany's - an 18-karat gold mesh bra worn over bare breasts, complemented with a shirt open to the waist. In 1964 the "Monokini" was marketed - a topless bikini. The manufacturer's slogan was: "Less for your money." Women who despised booby traps and liked to get things off their chests - wore these to some beaches, featuring for onlookers a "double attraction.
Of course almost all churches, understandably reject such exposure as inappropriate, if not indecent. But a few churches go further, making ideas about clothing major doctrines. They seek to build their little kingdoms around such things as bow long a woman's skirt must be, why her knees must not be seen, why she must wear only long sleeves so that elbows are always covered. It matters not how hot the weather may be, they must honor their distinctive set of traditions. Yet even the PRIESTS were not required to wear so much clothing it would make them sweat! (Ezekiel 44:18).
Some religions require face coverings. If holiness is really measured by how much of the body is covered, then religions that force women to cover their faces would be more holy and have higher standards!
The strictest portion of the Bible--the law of Moses - was written while the Israelites had just come from Egypt and were living in the desert. They probably wore very little clothing. According to Wall: "In ancient Egypt men of poorer classes wore a kilt and girdle only, or went naked when at manual labor; the [Hebrews] were slaves in Egypt, and therefore poor, and they probably followed the example of the Egyptians as to dress. This made it easy, and almost natural, for a woman coming to the rescue of her husband in a brawl ... to seize a man by his most sensitive and vulnerable parts"---the latter statement referring to Deuteronomy 25:11.
I knew a preacher who held revival meetings some years ago in a mid-western town. One day he went to a river to swim with some of the men in the church. When they changed into their bathing suits, all of them had tops to wear except him. They were horrified to think he would go swimming topless and it almost closed down his revival!
When John baptized people in the Jordan river, the amount of clothing worn was probably minimal. I don't think they waded out into Jordan in business suits! As the Christian church developed, in some places even nude baptism was practiced. Durant wrote: "Total nude immersion was required lest a devil should hide in some clothing or ornament." Rushdoony sums up the custom in these words:
... an interesting custom which survived for some centuries as basic to baptism, namely, baptism, usually by immersion, in the nude .... Men were born naked: hence, they were reborn naked in baptism .... There were two baptistries thus in churches for some generations, since men and women were baptized separately ..... this practice of naked baptism indicates how seriously the Biblical symbolism was taken by the early church .... St.Chrysostom, speaking of baptism, says ... Adam was naked because he had sinned, but in baptism, a man was naked that he might be freed from sin.... St. Ambrose says, Men came as naked to the font, as they came into the world .... Cyril of Jerusalem takes notice of the circumstance ... as soon as ye come into the inner pan of the baptistry, ye put off your clothes, which is an emblem of putting off the old man with his deeds; and being thus divested, ye stood naked, imitating Christ, that was naked upon the cross" (The Institutes of Biblical Law, p.758).
Some religions, instead of thinking of nudity as immoral, actually require it upon entering a temple. Socrates preferred to lecture in the nude. Swedenborg taught that in heaven all will be gloriously naked since clothing was introduced through sin. Interestingly, the founder of the modern-day nudist movement, Hasley Boone, was at one time a Baptist preacher.
Among the Greeks, races and other athletic contests were performed in the nude. Because of his custom, various Greek cities had a "gymnasium," meaning: a place of naked exercise. The word is commonly used today, though many are not aware of its origin. When the writer of the book of Hebrews said all things are "naked" unto the eyes of God, he used the word "gymnos" (Hebrews 4:13). When he spoke of "exercise" (Hebrews 5:14), he used "gymnazo" from "gymos, naked. And when he wrote about the Christian race, the same basic idea carried through. As Moffatt translates it: "We must strip off every handicap, strip off sin with its clinging folds, to run..." (Hebrews 12:1). It is not that the writer of Hebrews recommended nudity - as the Greeks who ran in races - but in a spiritual sense, any clinging fold, must be stripped off so that the believer may run unhampered, "looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith" (verse 2).
There are Christian people with the highest ethical standards - many who would abhor any public display of nudity - who are "backyard nudists." In a secluded place, they may swim or sun bathe nude. There are Christian women who do their housework nude or just relax in this manner within their own homes. They experience a feeling of freedom when the fetish of layers of clothing is broken down and they move out into the sun, air, or water. The Bible even records an incident about Peter fishing in the nude. "Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher's coat unto him, (for he was naked)," and hurried to the shore to meet Jesus (John 21:7). Because the sea of Galilee is below sea level, and this was the spring of the year, the weather was probably very warm.
Though the overall teaching of the Bible does not advocate nudity, neither does it support the HORROR regarding the physical body that existed for centuries. Physicians, being male, were not allowed to deliver babies lest they see a woman's "nakedness." Even in the seventeenth century, when this attitude was beginning to change, prudery forced physicians to work blindly beneath a sheet, as the 1681 drawing included here shows.
Probably the biggest Biblical negative regarding nudity appears in the story of Noah, but the real issue may not have been nudity at all:
Noah ... was drunken and was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren (Genesis 9:20.27).
Are we to assume from this that it is a sin for a son to see his father without clothes? Could this incident be properly used to condemn all nudity in all situations? This hardly seems to be the intended meaning. Josephus implies it was more than mere nudity - that the drunken Noah "lay naked in an unseemly manner."
Because we read that Noah awoke and knew what his son "had done unto him," some believe an act was committed by Ham. If a son had incestuous intercourse with his father's wife, this was called "uncovering his father's nakedness" (Leviticus 18:8), but this does not seem to fit the context here. Others suppose Ham committed a homosexual act. The Jewish commentator Rashi taught that Ham castrated his father. The severity of Noah's curse tends to justify the belief that Ham did something besides merely making a joke about his father's nakedness. Oddly, Noah did not pronounce the curse upon his son Ham, but upon his grandson Cancan. Considering that Noah was drunk, it would appear he was at fault as much as anyone. And even though the Bible records the words of his curse, there is no real reason to believe these words actually doomed an entire race to slavery.
It is true, however, that many of the ancients believed the heads of families had special powers to confer blessings or curses upon their descendants. What seems especially strange is that once these pronouncements were made, they were irreversible - even when obtained by fraud! The classic example is found within the story of the twins - womb mates - Jacob and Esau. Jacob, it will be remembered, pretended to be Esau, put on hairy garments, and deceived his blind father to obtain the blessing. Later, the father, Isaac, apologized to Esau, but it was too late: "Thy brother came with subtilty, and hath taken away thy blessing" (Genesis 27:35).
Patriarchal pronouncements were considered especially powerful when they were given as part of a near death situation. Such was the feeling of Jacob's sons when be called them together for his final words. To his son Reuben he said: "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiled thou it: he went up to my couch" (Genesis 49:4).
If anyone feels this statement is disjointed, he is not wrong. In the Hebrew text, there are two unfinished sentences here. A copyist may have dropped some words that he considered vulgar. The word the translators have given as "unstable" means "pouring out," a word linked with lust (Strong's Concordance, 6349). The incident referred to was when "Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine" (Genesis 35:22). In the dying moments of his old age, Jacob had not forgotten this!
In his pronouncement, Jacob referred to another one of his sons, Issachar, as "a strong ass" (Genesis 49:14). A similar expression was made about Abraham's son, Ishmael, who was "a wild man," meaning (as The Pulpit Commentary says), "a wild ass [of a] man" (Genesis 16:12). At that time, to call a man an ass probably meant he was tough. To call a person an "ass" today has a degraded meaning, as in the following story:
Three young seminary students thought an elderly professor was long overdue for retirement. As the first student met him on the sidewalk, he said: "Good morning, Father Abraham." The next came along and greeted him: "Good morning, Father Isaac." The third said: "Good morning, Father Jacob." The old man looked upon them with scorn and replied: "I am neither Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. I am Saul the son of Kish sent to look for my father's asses; and, behold, I have found three of them!" (cf. 1 Samuel 9:3).
Worley January 21,
2010 Ex-Minister.org All