Certain problematic passages in the Bible have been given an enormous amount of attention…just look at everything that’s been written about topics like biblical genocide and slavery! But as I’ve done before, I want to continue to put pressure on some strangely under-appreciated moral dilemmas in these texts – only this time I’ll be discussing some of the rapey language attributed to Yahweh throughout the prophets. Apparently¹, he has no problem describing his wrath in terms of sexual violence to get his point across. The ethical dilemma here should be rather obvious to most people, at least I hope.
Read for yourself: “Since Zion’s daughters are haughty, and they walk with necks thrust forth and with wanton eyes, walking with mincing steps and jingling with their feet, the Master shall blight the pates of Zion’s daughters and expose their private parts” (Isaiah 3:16-17)². It’s important for Yahweh to point out that “…it is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up…I myself will lift up your skirts over your face, and your shame will be seen (Jeremiah 13:22:26)³. Always remember that what’s happening to you is your fault!
Of course we aren’t finished though: “…behold, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated. I will gather them against you from every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness” (Ezekiel 16:37)⁴. And again: “Take the millstones and grind flour, put off your veil, strip off your robe, uncover your legs, pass through the rivers. Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your disgrace shall be seen” (Isaiah 47:2-3)⁵. Wouldn’t you know, there’s still more!
“Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will make nations look at your nakedness and kingdoms at your shame. I will throw filth at you, and treat you with contempt, and make you a spectacle (Nahum 3:5-6)⁶. All of this is overtly language of sexual violation, and to deny it as such smacks of the desperation apparent in many conservative defenses of the biblical texts. Christians can either try to justify this language morally, or take the more amiable route of adjusting their doctrine of inspiration. I hope they choose the latter.
- I’m speaking of Yahweh as he is depicted in the text. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are taken from the ESV
- Robert Alter (2018), The Hebrew Bible: A Translation With Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company, p. 1735-1736 (Kindle). This is renowned Biblical scholar Robert Alter’s translation of the text, and if you don’t severely limit your sources of information you’ll see that this is not a surprising take at all. Alter writes: “Though some modern translations understand the rare Hebrew word pot as ‘head’, a word close to it occurs elsewhere in the sense of ‘aperture’ or ‘socket’, and here indicates an orifice, as the King James Version understood (‘secret parts’), in keeping with traditional Hebrew commentators. The verb used is a term for the exposing of nakedness. Pot is the word for ‘vagina’ in modern Hebrew.”
- John Barton & John Muddiman (2001), The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford University Press, p. 501. The commentary notes: “This poem addresses personified Jerusalem and returns to the theme of the cosmic battle, here imagined in terms of rape…YHWH quotes speech he imagines she [Jerusalem] might say. If she asks herself why these things have happened to her, he tells her it is because of her own sin that she is raped (v. 22)…Then in one of the most horrible lines in the book, YHWH tells her, ‘I myself will lift up your skirts over your face’ (v. 26). Her rape is punishment in kind for her animal-like adulteries (v. 27)…Zion learns how truly without compassion and pity YHWH can be.”
- Daniel I. Block (1997), The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1-24 (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament), Eerdmans Publishing, p. 467. Block writes: “…Yahweh will put Jerusalem on display before her lovers and her enemies…The significance of her nudity has now been transformed. No longer is this the pathetic nakedness of her infancy, nor the culpable flaunting of her body in her maturity, but an intentional shaming action.”
- Harold W. Attridge (2017), The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated, HarperOne, p. 2919 (Kindle). According to the notes, “The former princess is stripped of her finery (3.16-24), forced to do common labor, and subjected to sexual humiliation.”
- Susanne Scholz (2017), Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible: Feminism, Gender Justice, and the Study of the Old Testament (2nd Ed), T&T Clark, p. 105 (Kindle). Scholz writes: “This Assyrian city appears in Nahum 3:5-7 as a woman who receives threats of sexual violence…Familiar imagery dominates in this poem. God is said to act as a sexually violent force.”