What does nakedness mean?
That by itself might be a worthwhile question for discussion, but it would likely be very difficult to nail down. Doctors would respond very differently than pornographers. Indigenous jungle tribes would respond very differently than Western Christians. However, this post is not about that topic. I’ll restate the question above this way:
What does the term “nakedness” mean in the Old Testament?
Most of the passages speaking to nakedness of any sort are found in the Old Testament, and it is within its pages that most Bible teachers today draw their conclusions about what God thinks about nakedness.
If we really want to know what God’s perspective is towards nudity, it stands to reason that we must correctly understand the words He chose to use when He inspired the biblical authors to write the Scriptural texts.
OT Words Describing Nakedness
Here’s a very brief overview of the three primary terms referencing nakedness in the Old Testament:
- arowm [H6174] (ex. Gen. 2:25, 1 Sam 19:24, Job 1:21) — This term refers to the condition of simple and innocent nakedness.
- eyrom [H5903] (ex. Gen. 3:7 & 10, Deut. 28:48, Eze. 18:7) — This term seems to indicate nakedness with a sense of being exposed to harm.
- ervah [H6172] (ex. Gen. 9:22, Exo. 28:42, Lev. 18:6) — This term seems to indicate a sinful, shameful, and/or sexual nakedness.
Those that know more than tell me that all three of these words have their basis in the same root Hebrew Word, but their biblical usage seems to indicate slightly different shades of meaning.
Without going into an exhaustive demonstration of their usage, I can state very definitively that the first two terms are never described by God as shameful. For personal examination of these words, you can see a listing of everywhere these words appear in the Hebrew text by clicking the links after each word above.
Essentially every passage where nakedness is considered “shameful” by God in the OT text, the Hebrew word used is ervah. Consequently, this is the word we most need to ensure that is correctly understood; if we hold a faulty definition of this word, then interpretations drawn from passages containing the word will very likely be faulty as well. And since we need to correctly understand God’s view of nakedness, it is of central importance that we understand the biblical definition of ervah.
A Full Word Study on ervah — A Summary of My Findings
There is not room in this blog post to present such a study, but I have researched it and prepared a full document of the word study that I will link you to at the conclusion of this post. Here, I will only summarize my findings. If anyone disagrees with my conclusions, I would strongly urge you to carefully examine the full document to discern if and where I may have erred. If you find something, I welcome discussion and/or correction.
Part 1 - The Natural Meaning
The natural etymological meaning of ervah is exactly that to which it is generally translated in English—“nakedness”—which simply is the state of being unclothed. Therefore, my starting point for my study was to assume this definition.
The word ervah appears 54 times in the OT. I examined every instance to see if the natural meaning of the word made sense in every case. My assumption was that if the natural meaning made sense, there would be no need to look any further for a clearer definition.
In some instances, the natural meaning did make sense in the passage. For example:
“Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness [ervah] of his father, and told his two brothers outside.” (Gen. 9:22)
In this and a few other verses, the word “nakedness” communicates a very understandable and straightforward meaning.
However, the majority passages seemed a little unclear with the natural meaning. The words themselves made enough sense, but God’s intended meaning leaves us puzzled. For example:
“Then Saul’s anger burned against Jonathan and he said to him, ‘You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you are choosing the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of your mother's nakedness [ervah]?’” (1 Sam. 20:30)
The words make sense, but what could Jonathan’s kindness towards David possibly have to do with the nakedness of his mother?
Finally, some passages using ervah made little or no sense at all when using the natural meaning of the word. In several such cases, the translators didn’t even bother using “nakedness” to translate ervah; instead, they used a different word that made more sense in the context. This by itself is evidence that the natural meaning of the Hebrew word was not what the original author had in mind. Here’s an example (using “nakedness” where ervah appears rather than the word “indecency” which the NASB translators used):
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some nakedness [ervah] in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce… (Deut. 24:1)
When a man marries a woman, it is to be expected that he would see her naked thereafter. Yet this law deals with a case when a man finds “nakedness” in his new wife and decides to divorce her as a result. Clearly, in this passage, the natural meaning of ervah cannot be an accurate definition of the word. There must be something else that he’s finding there.
Conclusion to Part 1
The purpose of Part 1 was to examine the natural meaning of the word ervah to discern if it adequately satisfies the various passages where the word is used. In my opinion, the natural meaning of ervah (meaning “nakedness” or simply being “without clothes”) does not sufficiently satisfy the usage of the word in many of the passages where it appears in the Hebrew text.
Therefore the word must have connotations beyond the natural meaning, or else it must have two or more distinct definitions.
In my next blog post, Part 2 – the Connotations, I will examine the possibility that there are consistent connotations in the Scriptural usage of ervah in order to craft a more clear and biblical definition of the word. If such connotations can be discerned, then it can and should inform our interpretation of any Scripture where it appears.
To reiterate… until we know for sure what ervah means, we cannot be confident that we know God’s perspective on nakedness.
— Matthew Neal
This blog post is a summary of part 1 of the full word study on ervah. The complete document may be downloaded here.