Reviewed by Phillip Taylor
Sex & Violence in the Bible investigates a great many scriptural passages containing subject matter that would likely not be discussed in polite society. Through this work, Joseph Smith has created a lens that helps Christians see explicit content for what it is: graphic and unsavory, but real. Smith handles the Scriptural content of this book well. He does not apologize for Scripture, nor does he “rejoice in unrighteousness” (1 Cor. 13:6). Rather, Smith keeps the focus academic and the goal geared towards shaping perspectives. This book reminds us that we cannot censor the world, and we certainly should not try to censor the Bible.
Sex & Violence is sectioned into three parts with the headings: “Uncovering Nakedness,” “The Blood Gushed Out,” and “Any Unclean Thing.” Uncovering nakedness examines texts containing sexual themes, the blood gushed out covers violence, and any unclean thing investigates the remaining material containing a grotesque or offsetting subject matter. Following the three parts is Joseph Smith’s conclusion – where the heart of his argument can be found.
Part 1 (“Uncovering Nakedness”) is divided into nine chapters. Of these nine chapters, three majors themes can be identified: Chapter 1 deals with aphrodisiacs, chapters 2-4 deal with the exposure of human body, and chapters 5-9 cover sex, in its various forms.
The first chapter is titled “‘Please Give Me Some:’ A Few Aphrodisiacs,” and, as the title suggests, is about aphrodisiacs. This short chapter is by far the mildest content in the book and is likely intended to ease the reader into the more unsavory themes.
The following two chapters test the reader’s comfort levels by exposing them to passages that may or may not deal with sexual organs. The majority of the passages referred to do leave some room for doubt as to whether or not the author of the selected biblical text is referring to a male or female body part. Smith does a good job at acknowledging this and points the reader to a number of sources with differing opinions. Chapter 4 surveys nudity in the Bible. As Smith notes, “naked” or “nakedness” occur around 100 times throughout the Bible. Because this is not an exhaustive work, Smith only covers a handful of the more memorable events, like 2 Samuel 6, where David exposes himself while “leaping and dancing.”
The last five chapters of Part 1 cover sexual intercourse. The first of these five chapters, and the first chapter covering actual intercourse, deals with premarital sex. Smith starts by addressing the issue as it is governed by God’s law as well as its prevalence in the New Testament. Smith then discusses some of the Old Testament passages. He spends most of his time discussing the contents of Ruth and the unmentioned ethical dilemma so obvious in the book. Chapter 4 covers passages of Scripture that pertain to intercourse within the confines of marriage. Smith uses this chapter to show that the Bible has positive things to say about sex as opposed to sex being something “shameful that we are not to mention or enjoy” (46).
The following three chapters address sexual intercourse when it is in opposition to what the Law of God commands. The subheadings for the three chapters are: “Adultery,” “Prostitution,” and “Bestiality, Voyeurism, Incest, and Homosexuality.” The structure of the following chapters is frequently repeated throughout the course of this book. Smith has a tendency to begin each chapter by establishing what the Law has to say about the issue. Following this, Smith cites the New Testament in order to substantiate the continuation and unity the Bible makes regarding the issue. Lastly, Smith presents cases from the Bible where the issue is seen in practice. Smith concludes Part 1 of his book by addressing homosexuality. He takes what might be considered an unfavorable position. Spending the last seven pages positing the sinfulness of the act as clearly represented in the Old and New Testaments, Smith refreshingly handles the subject matter respectfully without adding to or taking away from Scripture.
“The Blood Gushed Out”
While Part 1 of Sex and Violence in the Bible may have been uncomfortable for many that do not think sex is an acceptable topic for dinner conversation, Part 2 (“‘The Blood Gushed Out’ – Violence”) would leave many without an appetite. Even one familiar with the texts of the Old and New Testaments may find it surprising how graphic the Scriptures can be, and how often these violent scenes take place.
In the same way Part 1 was broken into three themes among the span of the chapters, Part 2 will be broken into major themes. There seem to be three identifiable themes: blood and gore, as it is the subheading of Chapter 10; violence that may or may not be lethal; and violence that is always lethal.
Chapter 10, with the subheading of “Blood and Gore,” as stated above, primarily covers the bloody passages of the sacrificial system. In addition to this, references vary from “pressing one’s nose” in Proverbs, the plague of blood in Exodus, and even Christ on the cross.
The next two chapters explore forms of violence that do not always result in the taking of one’s life, but the possibility is usually there. Chapter 11 carries the subheading “Beatings, Attacks, and Tortures.” Like many chapters before it, Smith begins this chapter by citing the Law and its restriction and punishment for unjust assaults. Smith then selects a variety of passages that contain some form or other of violence for survey. The twelfth chapter is an unsettling one for most, as many today have had, or know someone who has had, firsthand experience with this form of violence: rape. Smith begins by addressing his decision to categorize it as a matter of violence as opposed to sex and qualifies this by stating that “the FBI website still lists rape as a violent crime” (113). After examining a few instances of rape in the Bible, Smith concludes that rape is “one of the most vigorously condemned sins in all of Scripture” (122). This may surprise many Westerners who scoff at the command made in Exodus 22 that states, “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her.” Thinking it is outrageous that the man should take her as his wife, one might fail to realize that within the Hebrew culture if would be a greater tragedy for the woman to have been violated and remain unwed. Smith adequately covers all this in significant detail.
The last section of Part 2 is not for the faint-hearted. These five chapters range through grotesque dismemberment, human burnings, cannibalism, the murdering of children, and genocides. Though Smith’s book is not an exhaustive work, it certainly feels like it through this stretch. If one does not already feel as though they have read a countless number of murders and killings, chapter 17 will literally expose the reader to countless numbers of murders and killings. In the first paragraph, Smith states that the number of reported deaths would equate to about two million, not including passages that refer to masses of people dying without giving any numerical reference. Also, in chapter 17, Smith deals with issues like ethical cleansing and contradicting death counts in certain passages.
“Any Unclean Thing”
Thankfully, Part 3 (“‘Any Unclean Thing’ – Other Blunt or Unsavory Material”) of Smith’s work is significantly shorter than the other two. This is not because Smith does not handle the content well, but because the content being handled is at times extremely revolting. The four chapters will all be treated together as the section heading is more than fitting: Other Blunt or Unsavory Material.
The content of the last four passages encompasses a variety of substances that most are familiar with but few, if any, enjoy discussing. These chapters consist of, but are not limited to: menstrual bleeding, illness, rotting corpses, and even human excrement. Though this section can be nauseating, it carries with it the ability to satisfy one’s curiosity concerning normal human functions and uncleanliness. Chapter 18 covers some normal, as well as some abnormal, discharges a man or woman may face in their lifetime. Chapter 19 discusses a variety of illnesses and even clears up some misconceptions one might have concerning leprosy. The majority of the content in chapter 20 revolves around decaying corpses and the plagues in Exodus, while 21 is all about the natural but unpleasant subject of defecation.
After completing Smith’s taxing survey of explicit content found in the Bible, one’s reward can be claimed in the conclusion. Smith’s conclusion is the heart of his work. The long survey is an important journey, preparing the reader for the purpose of this work and should not be considered insignificant, but it all means little compiled in this manner without Smith’s conclusion.
Smith begins by addressing the fact that Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for man. He then asks three questions concerning the unsavory content covered in this book, “what profit, what teaching, what conclusions are to be gained from a study like the one we have just completed?” (215). Smith figures that only “three or four percent” of Scripture contains unsavory material. Comparing Scripture and popular culture adequately emphasizes Smith’s point that Scripture does not obsess over such material. Furthermore, Scripture is not as explicit as our culture. “The Bible is … refreshingly matter-of-fact in its approach” (216) towards disreputable content. Smith also contends that the graphic scenes of violence found in the Bible further demonstrate the sinfulness of man and the need for a just and gracious God.
Two types of Christians need to read this book, and Smith intended it for both. Those who obsess, dwell, and rejoice in unsavory material, thinking it makes them more approachable to the world; and those who shy away from anything graphic or unpleasant, thinking the mere mention of it makes them participants in sin. Both lies contain just enough truth to trap many for life. Thanks to Smith’s survey of the explicit content in the Bible, there is yet another tool to point Christians to the truth, helping them find a middle ground that keeps both sides in proper perspective.
Phillip Taylor is a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and a graduate of Sterling College in Sterling, KS.