Adam’s Family Jewels
“And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and He took the bone of Adam’s penis and made him a woman.”
Er, wait, wasn’t it from one of Adam’s ribs that Eve was created?
Not according to Ziony Zevit. A professor of Semitic languages at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles Zevit posits that the Hebrew word tsela (literally “side,” but traditionally translated as “rib”) employed in Genesis refers in fact to Adam’s member.
Zevit, author of the forthcoming What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?, argues that, etiologically, “rib” doesn’t make much sense in a story pregnant with sexual innuendo; nor is there precedent in ancient Near Eastern mythology for it to feature as an instrument of creation. Instead,tsela was likely a euphemism for the baculum, or “penis bone,” found in the males of most mammals. The Bible uses various euphemisms for male genitalia but never a specific word: two of them, “bone” and “flesh,” in the pertinent verse may be double entendres when Adam welcomes Eve as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23).
Despite macho boasts of having a “boner,” there’s of course no bone in the human male’s reproductive organ. According to John Kaltner, Steven L. McKenzie and Joel Kilpatrick’s recently published compendium of titillating biblical tidbits, The Uncensored Bible, where Zevit’s suggestion receives prominent treatment, the authors of Genesis believed that the human male lacked this specific part of his anatomy precisely because the first man’s had been removed to create Eve.
We already know that the authors of the Bible are hardly trustworthy in matters of biology. Leviticus, after all, attributes only four, not six, legs to insects and appears to classify bats as birds. But Zevit’s interpretation also indicates that scripture isn’t nearly as chaste as we’re normally led to believe.
Books like The Harlot by the Side of the Road (1997) by Jonathan Kirsch and The X-Rated Bible (1999) by Ben Edward Akerley have done much to shed light on scriptural ribaldry. The Uncensored Bible, written by a pair of Bible scholars at Memphis’ Rhodes College and a satirist, now furthers the cause with additional examples of sexual escapades unearthed by scholars from beneath the ambiguous expressions and euphemisms of biblical Hebrew. The new hypotheses come with varying degrees of plausibility (Was Joseph a drag queen with his “coat of many colors”? Did Ishmael molest Isaac?), yet on the whole they ensure the Bible is more risqué than ever. Notwithstanding Bible-thumping puritans who claim scriptural authority for their censorious prudery, the Good Book is replete with lewd metaphors, sexual innuendo, and outright obscenities, often starring some of the Bible’s most famous characters.
To win the hand of Michal, King Saul’s daughter, the young David must prove his manliness by performing posthumous circumcision on a hundred slain Philistines. The episode recalls the ancient Egyptian practice of keeping dead enemies’ manly appendages as trophies of war. In a memorable putdown elsewhere, the Prophet Ezekiel derides Egyptians as priapic fornicators whose “emissions are like those of horses” (Ezk. 23:20).
In court we swear to tell the truth with a hand placed on the Bible. But in the book itself, Jacob, nearing death in Egypt, asks Joseph to swear an oath not to bury him there by “put[ting] your hand under my thigh” (Gen. 47:29). Earlier in Genesis, Jacob wrestles with God, who touches “the hollow of his [Jacob’s] thigh” (32:25). “Thigh” happens to be a biblical euphemism for male genitalia; it’s from Jacob’s “thigh” or “loins” that his numerous offspring sprang. The practice of swearing an oath while touching one’s or someone else’s testicles was common in the ancient Near East (Abraham also orders a servant to do just that in Genesis 24:2). Its linguistic memory survives in our word “testify”—testis being the Latin both for “witness” and the male generative gland.
Far from being embarrassing anachronisms in a timeless tale, the naughty bits do much to enrich biblical stories by affording us insight into the beliefs and ideas of ancient Israel. As literary depositories of antiquity’s customs and beliefs, the biblical texts are fascinating documents. It’s when antiquated religious prescriptions and practices are treated as an enduring moral authority that trouble starts. Taken together, the Bible advocates a rather curious set of “family values.”
Take incest. Adam and Eve’s sons and daughters couldn’t have perpetuated the human race without it. And while early Israelites prized virginity, they also considered it a mark of hospitality to offer their wives and daughters to male guests for complimentary sexual services, just as it was a father’s right to sell his daughter to be a “maid servant” (Ex. 21:7).
In the famous story of Sodom, Lot, the nephew of Abraham, volunteers his virgin daughters to placate randy Sodomites seeking to “know” his male guests—two angels in disguise, as it happens. Later, while he’s in a drunken stupor sheltering in a cave after God’s destruction of Sodom, Lot is raped by these same daughters to “preserve the seed of our father” (Gen. 19:32).
Deuteronomy, meanwhile, prescribes the amputation of a woman’s hand for grabbing a man’s family jewels, or “secrets”—even those of an attacker as she comes to the rescue of her husband (Deut. 25:11-12). A biblical scholar, Jerome T. Walsh, has argued that the text in fact stipulates another punishment: the shaving of the offending woman’s pubic hair to shame her. Either way, incapacitating an attacker in a tried-and-tested method would seem preferable to letting your husband perish lest you overstep the bounds of propriety. Not by the lights of the Bible, though.
Not even the most devout can afford to interpret the Bible too literally—selective reading is inevitable. Yet many people still think that without the Bible (and religion in general), we’d all be morally adrift in a sea of licentious barbarism. Judging from many a biblical passage, the reverse is true: sexual civility requires ignoring scripture.
The biblical books were products of their times. Across the barren lands of the ancient Near East, fertility cults proliferated and erotically-charged fecundity was a mainstay of creation myths. In a Sumerian epic of the third millennium BCE, the water god Enki fertilizes the land with his ejaculate. Not to be outdone, the Egyptians’ hermaphroditic sun god Atem generated lesser deities through masturbation.
In Genesis too, fertility is a divine gift, and infertility a curse. The Creator’s first words to Adam and Eve are the instruction to “be fruitful and multiply” (1:28). Soon, God also promises Abraham to make him “exceedingly fruitful” (17:6) and orders him to seal their covenant with circumcision—in other words, to tamper with his reproductive organ.
One of my favorite scholarly theories is that the prototype for the idolatrous Israelites’ Golden Calf may have been Apis the Bull. Often represented with an enormous wiener in line with the phallic-centrist norms of the time, the Egyptian idol was the centerpiece, so to speak, of a popular cult that incorporated a 40-day festival, during which female worshippers would expose themselves before his statue in hopes of divinely-assisted conception—a kind of frenzy which, I guess, would help explain the intensity of Moses’ rage at Mount Sinai.
And let’s not forget Onan. An enduring byword for masturbatory tendencies, this son of Judah is condemned to death for “wast[ing] his seed.” But he wasn’t masturbating, an act that is never directly addressed in the Bible; he was engaging in coitus interruptus, which “was displeasing to the Lord” (Gen. 38:9-10), with his dead brother’s widow out of fraternal obligation. In the end, it’s elderly Judah himself who unwittingly impregnates his daughter-in-law when she tricks him into taking her for a prostitute, thereby siring the grand dynasty that leads to David (and thereon to Jesus). Some family values.
It’s time to face up to it: Just as the unadulterated originals of popular folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm were often sadistic, scatological and pornographic (no, Prince Charming didn’t wake up Sleeping Beauty with just a kiss), so too the Bible is no innocent bedtime story. It isn’t a fount of moral clarity, either.
Currently based in Bangkok, Tibor Krausz has written about a variety of subjects for The Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Report, The Washington Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, The South China Morning Post, The Guardian Weekly, and other publications. The mysteries of life puzzle him, not least how he’s ended up in Southeast Asia. He doesn't tweet or toot, but he does have a websitewww.tiborkrausz.com.