“I will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look
on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame.”
Nahum 3:5, NRSV
The Bible is full of sex. This is sometimes masked by English translations of the text, but it is most certainly there. For example, in Genesis 26 the Philistine king Abimelech, entranced by Isaac’s wife Rebekah, is led to believe that she is Isaac’s sister and therefore eligible to be taken as a bride. But his expectations are dashed when, in v. 8, we are told that he saw out his window Isaac mĕṣaḥēq Rebekah. The participle, from ṣĕḥaq (and related to “Isaac”), is translated formally in the English Standard Version as “laughing.” While this is technically accurate, it is surely not the best translation of the word since it doesn’t exactly fit with the narrative. Why would Abimelech come to the conclusion in v. 9 that Isaac and Rebekah are actually married because he witnessed Isaac “laughing” with Rebekah? Closer to the meaning is how mĕṣaḥēq is rendered in the NRSV: Abimelech “saw him fondling his wife Rebekah.” The verb is loaded with inuendo.
Other texts in the Hebrew Bible try to mask sexual inuendo with not-so-subtle metaphors. The clearest example of this is the Song of Solomon, a poem about a young couple and their obsession with one another. James Kugel notes that this short text is viewed by many scholars “as part of the great ancient Near Eastern tradition of love poetry, with its conventional descriptions of the lovers’ physical beauty and its frank exaltation of eroticism. Indeed, if we read through its light veil of metaphor, the Song is sometimes shockingly graphic in its description of the couple’s embraces.” For example, the female protagonist speaks of the sweet taste of her lover’s “fruit” as she sits in his shadow (2:4) and how her love “thrust his hand into the opening and my inmost being yearned for him” (5:4). Marc Zvi Brettler notes that the image of the vineyard found throughout is perhaps a “symbol [that] plays on the visual similarity between a cluster of dark grapes and the pubic triangle.” Despite this sexual imagery, some interpreters both of the Jewish and Christian traditions all but neutered the text in a bid to downplay the inuendo.
If the aforementioned examples fall into the category of voluntary sexual acts, there are others that do not. In some cases, this is quite obvious, despite the fact that biblical Hebrew lacks a word for “rape.” For example, in the book of Genesis we read about the rape of Dinah at the hands of Shechem (Genesis 34:1-2). Similarly, in 2 Samuel 13 David’s daughter Tamar is raped by Amnon, her half-brother (2 Samuel 13:14). In other places, the sexual violence is strongly implied. For example, in Numbers 31 Moses orders the Israelite military which was exclusively male “to kill every male among the little ones [of the Midianites], and kill every woman who has known a woman by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves” (Numbers 31:17-18). That is, for sexual use. This is sexual slavery in all but name. Another example of sexual violence that is implied can be found in the story of David’s tryst with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11. As monarch, David is able to request Bathsheba to be brought to him and he has the unilateral ability to have sex with her. But this imbalance of power calls into question whether this encounter could have been consensual. Wilda Gafney writes,
When David sends for Bathsheba, she does not have the option to refuse his invitation; nor do his men have the option to refuse to bring her. The description of her going with the messengers may suggest to some readers that she complies or participates willingly. However, the absolute power of an ancient Near Eastern monarch combined with the absence of her husband’s protection greatly reduce Bathsheba’s ability to consent to the sexual encounter.
Attributing to David the aura of a rapist may sit uncomfortably with many in conservative Christian circles (though they have no issue whatsoever with the notion that he is a murderer) but if this reading of the Bathsheba pericope is correct it certainly makes David out to be something of a sexual predator, complicating the claim of the Deuteronomistic Historian that he was “a man after [Yahweh’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).
Or does it? In a recent post by Non-Alchemist, we see various passages in the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible wherein Yahweh uses the imagery of sexual violence to compare the punishment due to humans for their sins. For example, in Isaiah 3:16-17 Yahweh declares that he would “lay bare” the “secret parts” of “the daughters of Zion” on account of their haughtiness. What the NRSV renders as “secret parts” is a euphemism for genitalia. In other words, Yahweh would sexually shame the daughters of Zion for their purported wickedness. But if sexual violence is inherently evil and God abhors it, then whence this comparison? How could a God who thinks rape and sexual abuse are wicked use that imagery as a metaphor for his punishment of his people (or others)? To state the problem more acutely, if sexual violence is horrendous and immoral then how is it that God can dole out punishment that is seemingly as horrendous and immoral? It is reminiscent of honor killings wherein a male relative perceives that his honor and/or the honor of his family have been diminished by the actions of a female relative, for which the only recourse is murder.
Perhaps David truly was a man after Yahweh’s own heart after all.
 James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), 515.
 Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 264.
 See Stephen L. Harris and Robert L. Platzner, The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, second edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008), 345; Brettler, How to Read the Bible, 262-263.
 Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 322.
 Interestingly, when Dinah’s brothers get revenge for what was done to her, her father Jacob is more upset at how tarnished his reputation will be on account of their activity and the possible effect that will have (v. 30). The brothers respond to their father with a rhetorical question: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (v. 31)
 Like Jacob in Gen 34, David does nothing about the violation of his daughter.
 Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction of the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 150.
 Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 214.
Featured image: Corona Monroe (Wikimedia Commons)