Friday, November 12, 2010

The Meaning of “Nakedness” – Part 1

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:

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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you this clears up a lot for me it has given me the information I need to understand the difference between the loin clothe or nudity culture of certain tribes and the scanty clothing that are marketed in our culture for the sole purpose of flaunting or exposing the body in a sexual way if fact they are called dressing sexy.

Jasen said...

Excellent study on "ervah". I did a similar study many years ago when I was working through the biblical perspective of nudity.

One passage that stuck out to me was the story of Noah. As I recall, the Hebrew is close to "Noah uncovered his own nakedness". This is the same phrasing used in Leviticus where incest is forbidden. And Ham did not just "see", but the word used is the same in Leviticus where it says the people are not to uncover a relative's nakedness to gaze/stare - as you point out, a euphemism for sexual relations.

Given the similarity of phrasing with the Leviticus passages, it seems to me that Noah got drunk and masturbated. Ham went in and watched him, then told his brothers.

Can you imagine that as part of a Sunday school lesson!? I think the story of Noah is often used as a foundation for body shame and the forbidding of nudity. We have the story of the flood and God's redemption and the rainbow, then *bam!* there's this weird passage about Noah getting drunk and being naked. How awkward! It doesn't fit into a cute little children's story at all. I believe we gloss over that passage with a quick "you shouldn't be naked and shouldn't look at other people naked. Now how about that rainbow!?"

Unknown said...

I love this study! Thank you Holy Spirit for clarifying. I have been on quite a journey for the past 2+ years with my Heavenly Father. In order to discover what modesty means, I wore a head covering for a year and a half, along with what one might consider orthodox jewish clothing (that is, long and loose skirts to the ankles with high collars and longer sleeves). I stopped shaving and wearing makeup along with other cosmetic products for 2 and a half years as well. All of this experiences were good experiences that the Father brought me through. But since then I have been asking the question: what does nakedness really mean? And in light of this hidden meaning, what should our conduct be like as children of the Most High Elohim? This study has shed some serious light on the subject for me. It proves that once again, the Words of the Father are plain for all to understand, and His commands are not burdensome for us to keep. In fact, most of us keep his commandments on a regular basis without even knowing. Thanks again for this insightful study! Your labor of love over His word has born good fruit in my life and many more I'm sure!!! Shalom (PEACE) from a sister

Anonymous said...

I can't find the follow-up post. Could you please link it? :)

Matthew Neal said...

Hey, Thanks for writing.

As it turns out, I never wrote Part 2 of this post. In the post (and its intended follow-up), I was really only summarizing what I wrote in this document:

Nakedness in the OT

I suggest you download and read that document to get the full content on the topic.

— Matt

Unknown said...

Actually Tasha I agree I'm also a fellow Israelite and I believe the ham has sex with his mother witch was not the mother of japhet or shem hame being the linage of gentiles hax no boundrys or respect for his father or him self