Christians tend to shy away from it and informed Bible skeptics tend to emphasize it, but there’s no doubt about it: sex and violence are present in the Bible. Some references may be obscured by idiom and cultural differences between now and when they were first written; others may be startlingly clear and uncomfortable to read aloud.
Bible Gateway interviewed Joseph W. Smith III about his book, Sex and Violence in the Bible: A Survey of Explicit Content in the Holy Book (P & R Publishing, 2014).
Joseph W. Smith III: Ever hear a sermon on the smelly murder in Judges 3? Or the wife’s gorgeous body in Song of Songs 7? Or the gang-rape in Judges 19? No? Didn’t think so! These are all amazing passages; but we never talk about them! I wanted to do that: to understand exactly what they say—and in the process, to examine how Bible writers deal with graphic content.
Why do you think Christians shouldn’t “be terribly squeamish about explicit content” as you state in your introduction?
Joseph W. Smith III: We shouldn’t be squeamish—because the Bible isn’t! Numerous passages discuss such subjects as nocturnal emission (Lev. 15:16-17; Deut. 23:10-11); menstruation (Lev. 15:19-24); women’s breasts (Prov. 5:18-19; Song 4:5); and coitus interruptus (Gen. 38:9), in the frankest, plainest language—with none of the blushing awkwardness that plagues us nowadays. Why should we freak out about this stuff when the Bible doesn’t?
What do you mean when you write, “Perhaps the Bible is useful as an aesthetic guide not only in what it does say and show, but also in what it doesn’t”?
Joseph W. Smith III: Modern culture is obsessed with sex and violence; the Bible is much more reserved. There’s frankness, yes (as I said above) but no lascivious intention of staring at the explicit material merely to fuel lust or fascination. Unlike so much that passes for “art” nowadays, the Bible knows when to look away.
How much sex and violence is in the Bible?
Joseph W. Smith III: I quote around 700 verses in my book, with passing reference to another 900 or so. Out of the approximately 31,000 verses in Scripture, that’s a pretty small percentage—compared, for example, to a Stephen King novel or a Tarantino film.
Why do you think the Bible contains so much such content?
Joseph W. Smith III: The Bible is a guidebook for life—all of life, not just worship and service. As such, it is going to deal with the messier, seamier aspects of life—especially as it desires to regulate our conduct in these areas! To quote from a recent review of my book, “If your religion doesn’t have a category for these things, you aren’t doing it right.”
What’s an example of an aphrodisiac mentioned in the Bible?
Joseph W. Smith III: Most famously, the mandrakes in Gen. 34:14-17—which the still-barren Rachel mooched off Leah, with the obvious intention of conceiving children with Jacob.
What forms of violence are there in the Bible?
Joseph W. Smith III: You name it: murder, torture, assault, rape, blood, decapitation, dismemberment, disembowelment, death by fire, cannibalism, assassination, hanging, stoning, crucifixion, and (perhaps the worst) barbaric pagan sacrifice of children.
What have you identified as the most explicit passage in the Bible?
Joseph W. Smith III: In my opinion, Ezek. 23:20, where the unfaithful nation of Israel “lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses” (NIV). Yuck.
How challenging was it for you to write your book with a balance of explicitness and euphemistic modesty?
Joseph W. Smith III: It was difficult only when I sought to unpack language that was being indirect, figurative, or, as you say, euphemistic. Here I wanted to show what was actually happening so we could see what the writers decided not to discuss in detail. For this reason, I did sometimes go into more specifics than the passage itself—a somewhat unnerving venture, through which I steered by avoiding slang, crudity, and sensationalism.
What has the church lost in the way of scriptural and godly understanding by ignoring, skimming over, or softening the expressions of sexual and violent passages in the Bible?
Joseph W. Smith III: If we don’t deal with vital matters like sex and violence, we cede this massive portion of life to the unbelieving culture around us. By contrast, when we apply a firm, frank biblical ethic in these areas, we reclaim them for Christ. As an example: If we could start stressing that marital sexuality is really as exciting as Solomon suggests, perhaps we can help pull the world back from the brink of romantic self-annihilation.
Are you recommending that pastors not neglect explicit Bible passages in their preaching; that preaching should turn from being G-rated to R-rated?
Joseph W. Smith III: I recommend that no part of Scripture be lengthily and systematically side-stepped, as so much of this has been. Why on earth did God put it in his Word if we never talk about it? On the other hand, I don’t by any means recommend a steady diet of R-rated sermons! Explicit material in the Bible, as I suggested earlier, is a very small percentage. But “small” is not “zero.”
How can the Bible, on the one hand, admonish readers to think about “whatever is honorable” (Phil. 4:8), and on the other include fairly raw content?
Joseph W. Smith III: Let’s start by observing that this oft-quoted verse doesn’t flat-out command us never to think of anything else; it simply indicates where our focus must be. And: In addition to what’s “lovely, pure, excellent,” etc., we’re likewise commanded to think about what’s true; in God’s Word, “dishonorable” subjects are portrayed truthfully—as destructive and wicked! This “truth”—the badness of sin—then becomes something honorable, pure, and excellent, something we should think about, and not shy away from. When God’s word deals with such matters truthfully, we can too. I suppose that’s why I wrote this book.
[Also see Credo Magazine‘s interview with Joseph Smith]
Bio: Joseph W. Smith III (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a teacher, journalist, author, and discussion leader in Central Pennsylvania. He holds a BA from Syracuse and a master’s from NYU.
After working as a copy editor for Simon & Schuster in the 1980s, he moved into public education, and has taught high school English for nearly 25 years. He’s a film critic and feature writer for the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. In addition to Sex and Violence in the Bible, Smith also wrote a book-length study of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, published by McFarland in 2009.
For the past 20 years, he’s served as elder, clerk, and adult Sunday school teacher at New Life Presbyterian Church in Montoursville, Pa. He’s been married since 1986 to Dr. Mona P. Chang, a family physician, and they have two children.
In addition to the Bible and church work, Joe’s interests include reading, seventies prog-rock, the Buffalo Bills, smooth jazz, and James Bond.