Tuesday, March 21, 2023

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (25)

Earlier this month Josh Butler wrote a post called “Sex Won’t Save You” for the Gospel Coalition site that stirred up something of a ruckus. The link above is to an archived version; yes, the ruckus was sufficient to get it deleted, to cause Butler to resign from his position as a fellow with the Keller Center, and to cancel his appearance at an upcoming Gospel Coalition event. Such are the times in which we live.

The status of Butler’s forthcoming Multnomah book Beautiful Union, from which the article was an excerpt, should probably be regarded as “formerly forthcoming”, at least from its original publisher.

Much Ado About … Not Much

Oh well. I didn’t think the post was that big a deal, personally, but then I have just spent three weeks I will never get back wading through this horrific mish-mash of scripture and Sigmund Freud, so my offense-o-meter is pretty much burned out at the moment. But if the subject of married sexuality as a metaphor for the church’s relationship with Christ absolutely must be discussed with this degree of granularity, I will concede I vastly prefer Butler to Freud. In any case, Butler’s main point seems uncontroversial to me: “Sex wasn’t designed to be your salvation,” he writes, “but to point you to the One who is.” Quite so.

If the responses I’ve seen to Butler’s piece are representative of the general reaction, those who objected were less offended by his comparison of loving sexual relations to the Lord’s dealings with his people than by its non-egalitarian implications for the Christian wife’s relationship to her husband and federal head. (Of course they were.) Rick Pidcock opined that Butler had “used the gospel to sacralize male sexual hierarchy over women”. Dennae Pierre said the Gospel Coalition needs to repent of “the ways they tolerate and promote harmful perspectives of women”, the “harmful perspective” in this case being that in good Christian sex, the wife is sexually “hospitable”.

Sounds to me like the furor amounted to little more than the usual suspects from the woker branches of Christian liberalism flapping about the evils of male headship again, to which I can only offer a resounding “meh”. I suspect Josh Butler’s summary deletion came not because he’s particularly profane or heretical, but because he had the misfortune to blunder into the Christian feminist’s version of the Holy of Holies and was stricken with a case of leprosy (or at least the modern equivalent) on par with that of poor old Uzziah. Hopefully he’ll find his way back inside the camp one of these days.

I will avoid weighing in on the rest of Butler’s thesis; nobody needs me poking around this bee’s nest. Rick Pidcock already made the tactical error of dragging Doug Wilson into it; Doug has a knack for saying everything that needs saying and then some.

Explicit Language in Genesis?

But one very simple point did occur to me while reading the piece, and that is that the Hebrew expression Butler calls “graphic language” [wayyabo eleha] may well be nothing of the sort. I have always read it as no more than a gentle euphemism, which impression is confirmed by a quick trip to my concordance. Here’s Butler on the subject:

“Obviously, a man and woman both give to each other and receive from each other in the sexual act. Sex is mutual self-giving. Yet, on closer inspection, there’s a distinction between the male and female sides of the equation.

The Bible makes this distinction explicit. The most frequent Hebrew phrase for sex is, literally, ‘he went into her’ (wayyabo eleha). Translations often soften this for modern ears, saying he ‘made love to her’ or they ‘slept together.’ But the Bible is less prudish than we are, using more graphic language to describe what happens in the honeymoon tent.

One Sunday morning, I learned how graphic this language can be. My friend Karen was publicly reading Scripture for our church service, and we’d recently switched to a more literal Bible translation. We were in Genesis 29, where Jacob marries Leah and Rachel, and the phrase wayyabo eleha shows up (we discovered) a lot! Karen has, you might say, a ‘Rated-G’ personality: very prim, proper, and polite. We all saw her cheeks turn bright red, with a lot of awkward pauses, as she had to continually read the phrase ‘and Jacob went into her’ over and over again. After that Sunday, we went back to a less wooden translation and laughed a lot with poor Karen.”

The passage may have seemed endless to Karen, but the phrase in question really only shows up three times in Genesis 29. Moreover, I don’t think it means what she and her friends assumed it does. Explicit this ain’t. The poor girl could probably have relaxed a little if she had happened to have a Strong’s handy instead of friends with too literal a mindset reinforcing her embarrassment.

Less Prudish Than We Are

The expression to which Butler refers is a phrase made up of a pair of exceedingly common Hebrew words, the first of which appears over two and a half thousand times in the Old Testament. It is most frequently translated “come to”, “come into” or even “bring”. The vast majority of the time its meaning is not sexual at all, let alone graphically sexual, unless you can find something racy about Noah and his family “coming into” the ark, four allied kings “coming to” En-mishpat to fight the Amalekites, or the foreigners “admitted to” the sanctuary in Ezekiel 44.

When Jacob “went in” to Leah, it is highly unlikely the author intended anything more literal or graphic than when he used exactly the same Hebrew expression earlier in the very same verse to describe Laban “bringing” Leah to Jacob. (Butler seems to have overlooked that one.) Unlike our modern day marital arrangements where couples share a queen mattress at night (at least when they are getting along), in the Old Testament a woman often had her own sleeping space. This was especially the case when, like Leah, she was in her father’s home or, like Leah later on, one of several wives to the same man. The phrase wayyabo eleha in this context simply means Jacob went to be with Leah where she was. What followed we may reasonably infer, but the expression itself is not overtly graphic; that part is all between Butler’s ears.

To be fair to him, Butler is not wrong that the Bible is “less prudish” than some Christians. We do tend to be a tad Victorian, though the alternative is not always an improvement. But without looking too hard, you can find some pretty graphic sexual imagery in Ezekiel, several pretty ripe metaphors in the Song of Songs, and one Hebrew verb in Jeremiah used to describe the Lord’s relationship with him that makes me cringe to read it.

This, however, is not that, so let’s not cite it as evidence of anything.

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