Review: Joseph W. Smith III’s Sex and Violence in the Bible

I recently wrote about the importance of reading through the whole council of God with your family You cannot disciple your family well if you avoid the dark edges in the Scripture. You might wonder how easily that can be done. Joseph W. Smith III provides a invaluable resource for those wanting to understanding the seemingly unseemly portions of Scripture. But he does so in a way that you will never feel gross or icky. He, as Carl Trueman says in his blurb, provides “a needed adult antidote to the crudity of the schoolboy culture.” Smith says,

Yet as I worked my way through the texts, another equally vital goal emerged. Perhaps there was a reason for so much indirect material, for the Bible’s frequent brevity, vagueness, and lack of detail regarding sex and violence—and for the euphemisms found so often even in the original Greek and Hebrew terminology. In our sex-and-violence-obsessed culture, 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. For this reason, my treatment of various passages here sometimes involves much more explanation and detail than the actual text provides—both so we can understand what is actually happening, and so we can see what the Bible writers are choosing not to describe. (p. xiii)

It’s interesting that although sometimes Scripture does use blunt language. It’s rarer than you might think. Instead God opts for more figurative, symbolic, and literary ways to describe sex, violence, and other unsavory material. Many churches are way too Victorian for God. They blush when reading parts of Scripture. Others explain the figurative with the skill of puberty stricken teenager--with a chuckle and an elbow in the side.

The book is broken up into three sections--“Uncovering Nakedness”--Sex, “The Blood Gushed Out”--Violence, and “Any Unclean Thing”--Other Blunt or Unsavory Material. He doesn’t side step any difficult topics. He hits rape, nudity, Song of Solomon, bestiality, levitical law, murder, mass killing, cannibalism, and the like. Two chapters stand out. First, his handling of the Song of Solomon is deft. He is faithful to the text and reminds us that the poet “prefer[s] to speak with a good deal more delicacy” (p. 23). He points this out while demonstrating that while the imagery of Song of Solomon is sexual, Solomon leaves a measure of vagueness and ambiguity so as not be salacious.

Second, he tackles the problems of interpreting numbers in the Old Testament. He summarizes:

This complicated issue, nicely summarized in the ESV Study Bible’s introduction to the book of Numbers, focuses on the Hebrew word eleph. That key term is translated as “thousand” in a vast array of Old Testament passages; but it can also mean “clan,” “division,” “family,” or “tribe,” as in Micah 5:2, Joshua 22:21, and Numbers 10:4, among others. So it could be a figure simply for a group, or perhaps for an especially large group that does not mean literally or exactly one thousand—as in Ecclesiastes 6:6, where a man could rhetorically live “a thousand years twice over” (see also Mic. 6:7; Deut. 32:30; Job 9:3). To muddy matters further, eleph bears a strong resemblance to the Hebrew alluph, meaning “chief” or “clan,” as used repeatedly in Genesis 36 and in Zechariah 12:5–6, for example.

Knowing this information may enable us, without “redefining the use of ‘thousand,’ for that creates difficulties with many other mathematical figures in the Old Testament” (p. 169), to hold fast to inerrancy and show a measure of humility.

Smith gives us a first-class treatment of tough passages of Scripture. It’s a straightforward resources you could read through or use as an encyclopedia of sorts. It’s a book I would recommend for Christians and pastors alike. It would be helpful for parents to understand these passages before they’re read with children and pastors as an exegetical resource for sermons on these Scriptures.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Mathew Sims is the author of A Household Gospel Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and has written for CBMW Men’s blog, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Borrowed Light, and Servants of Grace. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship. They attend Downtown Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC.