I do not read a lot of books that make me nauseous—full out sick to my stomach. But this one did. I’ll have to grant that I have an unusually weak stomach (something that often delights my wife as we watch movies together and I have to turn away from the screen while anything medical takes place), but still, this book is disgusting. Yet in saying this, I do not mean to suggest it is a bad book. Far from it.
Sex & Violence in the Bible is a survey of explicit content in God’s Word. It is just over 200 pages of examining those parts of the Bible that we so often pass over and so rarely hear from the pulpit. While such a book could so easily prove base and puerile, Joseph W. Smith wrote this one for noble purposes and with a deep desire honor God. What caught my eye and convinced me to read it was Carl Trueman’s little blurb on the cover in which he describes the work as “A needed antidote to the crudity of the schoolboy culture.” Indeed.
The book is divided into three parts. In the first part Smith examines what the Bible says about sex and sexuality, from the good and beautiful to the dark and ugly. He looks at the laws and regulations that guarded sexuality, he looks at the many euphemisms used to describe sex and sexual body parts, and he looks at biblical stories where sexuality was badly misused in adultery, prostitution, voyeurism, homosexuality, and the like. The very fact that the Old Testament contains prohibitions against sex with animals shows that there is no point too low in depraved man’s descent into base and animalistic behavior. This whole section proves it again and again.
In the second part Smith turns to violence. I read most of this part in a single extended reading and it was here that my stomach began to turn. The biblical descriptions of violence are blessedly spread out through the Bible, but here they are compacted into only 80 or 90 pages. It makes for a grueling glimpse into human depravity as the Bible describes beatings and attacks, disemboweling and beheading, cannibalism and rape (which Smith includes in the section on violence rather than sexuality). There is no sin, no violence, that is beyond the capacity of human beings who have turned their backs on their Creator.
The final section, much shorter than the others, turns to “any unclean thing”—other blunt and unsavory material. Here Smith examines specifically the discharges, illnesses and diseases that could render a person unclean in that Old Testament context.
All-in-all, it makes for a reading experience that is both awful and fascinating. Smith closes his book with a call to ponder the fact that all Scripture—not just some, but all—is profitable for teaching, as Paul insists in 2 Timothy 3:16. At the same time we are to fill our minds with whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, and so on. The call here is to fill our minds with God’s Word. The blunt reality is that all of this sex, gore and otherwise unsavory material is right there in the Word of God. So aren’t these, too, things worth pondering? If these, too, are God’s words, then why do we so often pass over them, almost as if they ended up in the Bible by mistake?
As Smith makes clear, the Bible’s “approach to indecent matters is not that of a twenty-first-century schoolboy, nor is it that of a nineteenth-century Victorian housewife.” It deals bluntly with real people in the real world. It is surprisingly discreet and sweet in many of its descriptions of God’s design for sex and sexuality, and then so harsh in its descriptions of what happens outside of God’s design. “The Bible … wants to make sin seem as bad—as repulsive, disgusting, and abhorrent—as it really is. Sadly, there is often no other way to do this than by using repulsive, disgusting, and abhorrent language.” Sin’s badness is discussed frankly and, at times, graphically, because this is how God means to bring home its pure depravity.
As Christians living in a world marred by human sin and depravity, by sexual sin and violence and even sexual violence, we have in Scripture descriptions of all of these. God has given us these accounts to equip us for real life in the real world. We overlook or ignore them at our own peril. Leland Ryken’s endorsement says it well: “This book serves the very useful purpose of showing us exactly how much sex and violence there is in the Bible, as well as the precise nature of the references to the human body. If the concentration of examples makes for uncomfortable reading, it is nonetheless important that we confront the subject. We need to know what kind of book the Bible is, and additionally we can assume that the references to sex and violence in the Bible tell us something that God wants us to know.”