Joseph W. Smith. Sex and Violence in the Bible: A Survey of Explicit Content in the Holy Book. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014. 256 pp. $16.99.
Sex and Violence in the Bible goes where the prudish, squeamish, and sheltered fear to tread. The subtitle, A Survey of Explicit Content in the Holy Book, delivers on its description. These are the topics that make parishioners blush and pastors perspire.
I knew I wouldn’t study Scripture’s passages on sex and violence deeply enough unless I had to read a book about it. Reading verses about sex make me feel like a little kid asking his parents, “Where do babies come from?” And reading verses about graphic or massive bloodletting have me alternating between a thirst for adventure and baffled disgust. Sometimes the Bible is hard to understand. Add to that the fact sex and violence aren’t typical dinnertable topics, and you have a critical need for this book.
Stack of Library Books
Joseph W. Smith III writes for both the preacher and the layperson. An average churchgoer can read this extensively researched volume without being troubled by complicated jargon or convoluted Hebrew and Greek word studies. At the same time, a minister of the Word can find rich and nuanced commentary to aid in preparation.
Sex and Violence in the Bible is thorough. Smith, a newspaper columnist and high school English teacher for more than 20 years, surveys Scripture for all he can find on a particular topic, helpfully sifting through not only each word or phrase but also various commentaries. So you’re reading the equivalent of a stack of library books to study a single word or passage. Instead of fumbling through multiple tomes and hundreds of pages, now you can pick up a single book and get a broad sense of the scholarship on the subject.
Sex: Discuss Among Yourselves
Aside from the technical research, Smith’s book makes an important contribution to the “Christian aesthetic,” as the back cover puts it. Victorian prudence toward impolite topics like sex and bloodshed lingers in the church like a grandma’s cloying perfume long after she’s left. If the Bible talks about rape (Deut. 22:24) and “mountains flowing with rivers of blood” (Isa. 34:3), then Christians should be able to talk about them in their appropriate context, too.
Sex and Violence in the Bible actually provides a productive framework for Christians to talk about socially untouchable subjects. Sex, always one of the most hand-wringing topics for good church folks, is celebrated in the Song of Songs. But the Bible also talks about sex as a sign of unfaithfulness, immorality, and idolatry. Smith’s book reminds us that we shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about both the joy of sex as it was originally intended and also the devastating abuses of this gift because of sin.
Violence: Blood, Guts, and War
In a similar way, reading Sex and Violence in the Bible helps Christians wade into the rivers of blood gushing throughout Scripture and not be swept away. Tens of thousands of people sometimes die in a single verse of the Old Testament. How does a Christian reconcile this account with the New Testament where Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword (John 18:11)? Many believers know Christ fulfilled the law and that violence no longer has to be used to conquer a physical land or protect an ethnic-national group from pagan influences. But those passages don’t go away. They have to be preached, they have to be pondered, they have to be explained to a modern world horrified by such massacre. Even we Christians don’t always know what to do with violence in the Bible. We’re often just as flabbergasted as our unbelieving neighbors.
Easy answers to the violence in the Bible are an illusion. But Smith gives us a helpful first step by explaining the exact nature and scope of the brutality. No clarification of violence in Scripture can be made if Christians don’t first have a clear view of what actually happened in those passages. These are moments in our collective religious history with which we must contend. Most of us either content ourselves with a shallow answer or ignore the difficulties completely. Smith forces us to keep our eyes locked on the sometimes savage scenes of a fallen world and to believe in God’s benevolence at the same time.
Any Unclean Thing: Yuck
The final section of the book catches whatever sensitive material is left over from the sex and violence chapters: feces, vomit, and leprosy fall under this heading. Cleanness, both spiritually and physically, was a significant topic in ancient Israel. “The ceremonial regulations throughout Leviticus locate uncleanness in proximity with anything that smacks of death,” Smith explains. So these bodily fluids and diseases are reminders of the effects of sin on all people.
Smith shows how God makes extensive provisions for separating unclean people from the camp of Israel and then details rites of purification for their return.
All Scripture Is God-Breathed
Sex and Violence in the Bible is a necessary book because it forces you to squarely face the reality of sin. Every Christian has favorite verses, few of which are explored in this book. But “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16), not just some of it. Even the parts that talk about breasts, semen, infanticide, and leprosy are inspired.
If nothing else, readers will become more acquainted with the euphemisms, idioms, and explicit subject matter of Scripture after reading this book. Getting more comfortable with the uncomfortable will enrich your understanding of the Bible and your appreciation of its ability to address every aspect of life. As Smith concludes, “The Bible is, in fact, refreshingly matter-of-fact in its approach, freely acknowledging what we all know: these things are an important part of life and by no means to be ignored or overlooked.”