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Sexual Attraction from 'And Sarah Laughed' The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, by John H.Otwell

Sexual Attraction

from And Sarah Laughed
The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, pp 20-30.
by John H.Otwell

published by The Westminster Press, 1977


Humanity was created female and male and was commanded to "be fruitful and multiply" (Gen. l:27f.), according to the Priestly writer. This means, among other things, that sexuality, the difference between female and male and the physical attraction of each for the other, was believed to be an essential part of the nature of persons as created by God. Sexuality was not evil, and neither sex could be condemned for being attractive to, or for being attracted by, the other.

We always need to be cautious about drawing far-reaching conclusions on the basis of slight evidence. This is especially true when the conclusion conforms to our standards, expectations, or conduct; for in such circumstances we run the risk of doing nothing more than confirming our preconceptions by a proof text or two. This is the danger we now confront. We live in the midst of a readjustment of sexual mores during which the reticence of a former generation has given way to an often strident, forced sexuality.

Is physical attraction between the sexes actually regarded as normal and right throughout the Old Testament? That is the conclusion we have already stated about the Priestly writer's attitude toward sexuality, but this seems to agree so much with the temper of our age that we need to view it with wariness. The task of this chapter is to test our statements about Gen. l:27f. and to see whether the same conclusion applies to the rest of the Old Testament.


The physical attractiveness of woman for man is frequently expressed throughout the Old Testament. Evidence can be found in the stories used by the Yahwist to create his national epic, in the narrative of the succession to David's throne, and in late wisdom literature.

The skill with which the Yahwist has presented the history of his people from its beginnings to the emergence of the monarchy has always aroused the admiration of students of the Old Testament. The narrative is realistic and vivid, never sanctimonious; and the matter-of-factness with which it states the attraction of woman for man is a part of that strength.

The Yahwist wrote, "When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose" (Gen. 6:If.). If gods found women beautiful, would not mere men also?

In his contribution to the saga of Abram, the ancestor of all Israel, the Yahwist told a story that puts Abram in a curious light. Abram moved into Egypt because of a famine in Palestine, saying to Sarai:

I know that you are a woman beautiful to behold; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, "This is his wife"; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account. (Gen. 12:11-13)

Abram's estimate of the effect of his wife's beauty proved to be correct. Sarai was taken into Pharaoh's harem, and Abram prospered because of her. The trick was discovered when the Lord sent plagues against Pharaoh. The king protested the deception in words which still arouse a sympathetic response: "What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, 'She is my sister,' so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone" (Gen. 12:18f.). No reverence for Abram can conceal Pharaoh's threefold loss. He enriched Abram under false pretenses, his household suffered a plague because of his inadvertent sin, and he lost the beauty whose charms were the cause of the entire caper. Nothing is said about Sarai's reaction to her sudden changes in station in life!

Only once did the Yahwist detail any of the feminine charms of which he clearly was so well aware. He wrote of the sisters whom Jacob married, "Leah's eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful and lovely" (Gen. 29:17). Does this mean that Rachel was lovely because she had strong eyes?

The story of David's family troubles in II Samuel is held by some scholars to be part of one of the oldest examples of true history writing. Three times important parts of this royal history depend upon the attractiveness of a woman. The first is reported in these words: "It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking upon the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful" (II Sam. 11:2). The woman was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a Hittite serving in the field with David's army. David had her brought to the palace and committed adultery with her so that she conceived. The adultery set in motion a train of events which began with the murder of Uriah, a prophet's condemnation of David, and the death of the child born to the illicit union. David and Bathsheba married after the death of Uriah, and their second child was Solomon.-

The second stage of David's family troubles reported the elimination of two of his sons from the succession to the throne through death. The first, Amnon, was killed by his half brother Absalom because Amnon had raped Tamar, Absalom's sister. Absalom in turn was killed during a revolt he launched later against David.

The report of the rape of Tamar opens:

Now Absalom, David's son, had a beautiful sister, whose name was Tamar; and after a time Amnon, David's son, loved her. And Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar; for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. (II Sam. 13:lf.)

Eventually Amnon feigned illness and asked Tamar to wait on him. When she did, he assaulted her. Then he had her driven from his house. David refused to punish the crime, possibly because of his crime against Uriah; and Absalom acted on his sister's behalf, first killing his half brother and then leading a revolt against the king who had refused to execute justice on behalf of Tamar.

The history of David's reign extending from his adultery with Bathsheba to the coronation of Solomon is now called the Succession Document. Its final chapter tells of the rise of Solomon to the throne and of his consolidation of his power. This also opens with an incident in which the beauty of a woman is an essential element:

Now King David was old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm. Therefore his servants said to him, "Let a young maiden be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait upon the king, and be his nurse; let her lie in your bosom, that my lord the king may be warm." So they sought for a beautiful maiden throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The maiden was very beautiful; and she became the king's nurse and ministered to him; but the king knew her not. (I Kings 1:1-4).

The statement is quite matter-of-fact. David proved that he could no longer reign when he was unable to respond to the charms of the latest addition to the harem.

The response of David and Amnon to feminine beauty plays a decisive role throughout the candid narrative of the Succession Document; yet neither David nor Amnon (nor Bathsheba nor Tamar) was condemned because of this. David was condemned for adultery and murder. Amnon was condemned because he raped Tamar and then refused to marry her (II Sam. 13:11-17). But both were condemned for crimes, not for being attracted by the beauty of a woman.

The attraction of woman for man appears in an aside in Ecclesiastes, a late wisdom writing, according to one translation of an obscure text. In his recital of the various ways in which he had tried vainly to find satisfaction in life, the author wrote, "I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, man's delight" (Eccl. 2:8).(16) If this be the correct translation, we can assume that the author felt himself to be alluding to something of universal knowledge and acceptance.


Descriptions of the attractiveness of the female for the male in the Old Testament can be matched by equally forthright statements of the attraction of the male for the female.

We have already discussed one of these, the curse on Eve in Gen. 3:16. Her desire for her husband will be stronger than her fear of the pain (and risk) of childbirth. The history of the reign of David, which made such use of the appeal of woman's beauty for man, also employed the strength of the male's attraction for the female in its description of the conflict between Saul and David. The relationship between the two men is troubled by David's prowess in battle, a threat to a king whose hold on his throne depended upon his superiority in combat. The description of one of Saul's attempts to neutralize David opens:

Now Saul's daughter Michal loved David; and they told Saul, and the thing pleased him. Saul thought, "Let me give her to him, that she may be a snare for him, and that the hand of the Philistines may be against him." (I Sam. 18:20f.)

So Saul offered Michal to David in marriage in return for proof that David had killed one hundred Philistines.

The attraction of the man for the woman is described most fully in verses spoken by the maiden in the rhapsodic dialogue between bride and groom in The Song of Solomon. This marriage song may be very ancient, possibly even Canaanite in origin, but its presence in the canon attests to its acceptance by generations of Israelites. Two songs (chs. l:2f. and 8:1-4) by the girl convey the intensity and beauty of her feeling for her beloved. The first opens with the words:

O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine.

In spite of the recognition of the attraction between the sexes, there are relatively few descriptions in the Old Testament of the physical basis of that appeal. We have already recorded one of them, the comment that Leah had weak eyes but that Rachel was beautiful (Gen. 29:17). Only in The Song of Solomon do we find a catalog of feminine beauty. It is quite explicit. The sensuous passage in ch. 7:1-9 opens:

How graceful are your feet in sandals,
O queenly maiden!
Your rounded thighs are like jewels,
the work of a master hand.
(Ch. 7:1)

It continues with an explicit description of the rest of the girl's physical appeal (see also ch. 4:1-8). The description in ch. 6:4-7 is more restrained.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament the authors contented themselves merely with noting that a woman was beautiful. The strength of the bond of affection between Absalom and the sister whom he avenged may be revealed in the notation, "There were born to Absalom three sons, and one daughter whose name was Tamar; she was a beautiful woman" (II Sam. 14:27), since Tamar also was the name of Absalom's sister. The author of the prose narrative of Job (Job 1:1 to 2:13; 42:7-17) emphasized the degree to which God repaid Job for his faithfulness under suffering by writing: "He had also seven sons and three daughters. . . . And in all the land there were no women so fair as Job's daughters" (ch. 42:13, 15).

One of the most unusual references to a woman's beauty in the whole of the Old Testament appears in Esth. 1:10-12. The king had been feasting and drinking with his nobles for seven days, just as the queen had been feasting and drinking with the wives for seven days. The king, self-restraint impaired, wanted the queen brought out of the harem in order to display her beauty; but the queen refused to be displayed!

There are approximately as many descriptions of male as of female beauty in the Old Testament. Some of them are given without mentioning feminine interest, as when it is said of the boy David that "he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome" (I Sam. 16:12). In The Song of Solomon, however, where we find the most detailed descriptions of feminine beauty, we also find extended descriptions of the groom. "My beloved is all radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand" (S. of Sol. 5:10), sings the bride; and she proceeds to extol various parts of his body (vs. 11-16; see also chs. 2:8f.; 3:6-11).


The timeless theme of the strength of the attraction of each sex for the other emerges not only in The Song of Solomon (where we would expect it) but also in the lament of David for the death of Saul and Jonathan and in post-exilic wisdom literature.

The passion of the bride for the groom is pictured in S. of Sol. 3:1-5 in a song that opens:

Upon my bed at night
I sought him whom my soul loves.
(See also ch. 5:2-8)

The groom's passion for the bride is stated all the more forcefully for being phrased so obliquely:

Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hammon;
he let out the vineyard to keepers;
each one was to bring for its fruit a thousand
pieces of silver.
My vineyard, my very own, is for myself;
you, O Solomon, may have the thousand,
and the keepers of the fruit two hundred.
(S. of Sol. 8:1If.)

For the groom, the bride is worth more than the huge rent paid the king for his vineyard.

The power of the love of a woman for a man, or of a man for a woman, is expressed outside The Song of Solomon in interesting ways. Several examples of it in its most enduring form will be cited in the description of the love that sustained married couples. Here, only three other passages need be mentioned. In his lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, David described his friendship with Jonathan as "wonderful, passing the love of women" (II Sam. 1:26). Since we have abundant evidence of David's heterosexuality, this verse has to be taken as the attempt to convey the intensity of a friendship by a comparison with the most widely shared form of strong interpersonal ties.

The wisdom literature provides us with the well-known series of comparisons:

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a maiden.
(Prov. 30:18f.)

William McKane has written of these: "The key lies in the recognition that the first three are parables of the mystery of man's desire for a woman or perhaps rather for the irresistible and inexplicable attraction which draws together the man and the woman."(17) Observation and common sense tend to dominate the book of The Proverbs. Here, however, the sage comments on something he has observed but cannot reduce to common sense.

The strangest testimony in the Old Testament to the power of sexual attraction comes in the proclamation of Job's righteousness:

I have made a covenant with my eyes;
how then could I look upon a virgin?
Job 31:1)

This anticipates Jesus' teaching on adultery as reported in Matt. 5:27f.: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." In The Book of Job the issue is not so much adultery as conduct which protects Job from being attracted by the charms of any woman other than his wife.


Three conclusions stated earlier are confirmed by the evidence presented in this chapter.

The attraction of each sex for the other is normal, and The Song of Solomon celebrates this attraction explicitly and lyrically. The presence of this writing in the canon is often explained on the basis of the allegorical interpretation of the Lord as husband of Israel. In the light of materials gathered for this study of the status of woman in the Old Testament, however, it seems more likely that The Song of Solomon was included in the canon for a quite different reason. If usage by the community of faith was the decisive factor in canonization, we should seek a usage for The Song of Solomon appropriate both to its contents and to basic religious convictions of the community of faith. Evidence presented here demonstrate that sexuality, together with its consequences, and family built upon it was seen in ancient Israel as a primary area for divine activity. Thus The Song of Solomon prob ably was used for its evident value, as a means for the joyful celebration of sexuality and marriage; and this cor-responds to the attitude toward the creation of male and female stated in Gen. l:27f.

The second conclusion is that the sexes are given vir-tual parity in the description of the explicitness and strength of sexual attraction.

The third conclusion is that woman is not condemned because of her attraction for man. The conduct of David and Amnon is condemned, but neither Bathsheba nor Tamar is criticized. A promiscuous woman is condemned in Prov. 5:20-23, yet this injunction against adultery opens with praise of sexual relations in marriage (vs. 15-19). This is in contrast to the tendency in later Juda-ism and Christianity to hold woman to be evil because of her attractiveness to man. That the Old Testament places limits on the expression of human sexuality, how-ever, will be made clear later.


16. The phrase "and many concubines" is lacking in NEB, which carries the notation that the Hebrew here preserves two unintelligible words. The Jerusalem Bible, ed. by Alexander Jones (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966), translates "and every human luxury, chest on chest of it," giving the obscure word its post-Biblical meaning.

17. William McKane, Proverbs, A New Approach, The Old Testament Library (The Westminster Press, 1970), p. 658. Cited hereafter as Proverbs.

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