Friday, December 27, 2013

“Biggest Scriptural Challenge” — The “Shame” of Egypt

In a recent blog post, I requested my readers to submit their Biggest Scriptural Challenge to Naturism to me so that I could address it from my own studies on the topic in the Scriptures.

This Scriptural challenge was sent to me by the editor of the Fig Leaf Forum (FLF) who had reprinted my post in the FLF newsletter. One of the FLF readers wrote to raise this issue:

The scripture is from Isaiah 20:

(NASB)  In the year that the commander came to Ashdod, when Sargon the king of Assyria sent him and he fought against Ashdod and captured it, 2 at that time the Lord spoke through Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go and loosen the sackcloth from your hips and take your shoes off your feet.” And he did so, going naked and barefoot. 3 And the Lord said, “Even as My servant Isaiah has gone naked and barefoot three years as a sign and token against Egypt and Cush, 4 so the king of Assyria will lead away the captives of Egypt and the exiles of Cush, young and old, naked and barefoot with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt. 5 Then they will be dismayed and ashamed because of Cush their hope and Egypt their boast. 6 So the inhabitants of this coastland will say in that day, ‘Behold, such is our hope, where we fled for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria; and we, how shall we escape?"

Verse 4 has always bothered me when it says "naked and barefoot with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt."  suggesting it is shameful to be naked and barefoot with buttocks uncovered.  I know what my response to this would be but  I am curious as to what Mathew says about this.

The “Shame” of Egypt

There are several important observations to make on this passage to help us understand what it is and is not saying about shamefulness and nudity.

  • First of all, God commanded the prophet Isaiah to go completely naked for three full years.
    • There was no shame for Isaiah in his obedience to God’s personal directive to him.
    • And God would never command one of His prophets to sin.

We can all draw more conclusions about God’s perspective on nudity from this observation, but this one is not really the focus of the question that was raised… which referred to the “shame of Egypt” when all their conquered inhabitants were forced to march out of town completely naked.

  • Secondly, the text does not attribute this “shame” to individuals, but to a nation!
    • In the prophetic narrative, Egypt had just been so utterly defeated that all of its citizens lost every last thing they possessed. They literally lost the shirts off their backs… and their own homeland. They marched away without a stitch or a cent to their names.
    • If a nation so utterly fails to protect its people that they are conquered and marched away destitute, that nation has been deeply shamed.
  • Finally—and perhaps most astonishingly—the word here translated “shame” is not the OT word for shame at all!
    • The Hebrew word is ervah (H6172), about which I have written extensively. The word that is most frequently translated “nakedness.”
    • This means that the text should more correctly be translated, “the nakedness of Egypt.”

It is this final point that I believe helps us to best understand this passage of Scripture. So my remaining comments will focus on its implications.

The “Nakedness” of Egypt

At first glance, it seems very odd to describe Assyria’s conquest as being “to the nakedness of Egypt.” Consequently, it’s easy to understand why the translators rejected the natural translation of ervah and replaced it with a word that actually means something different, but seems to help the passage make more sense.

I believe that rather than helping us understand Isaiah’s meaning, this “adjusted” translation actually does two things: 1. It betrays the hint of a bias against nudity that considers it shameful, presuming that “shame” and “naked” have enough in common as to be treated synonymously in this passage. 2. It obscures a much more colorful and descriptive meaning that might be evident if we were forced to struggle for the true meaning of the “nakedness of Egypt.”

I’ll lay the evident bias about nakedness aside for this article (read this series for more) and focus on the interpretation that I believe is best for this passage.

The Meaning of Ervah

I’ve posted a blog entry on this topic, and also written a full blown word study on the Hebrew word ervah that explains what I believe the best biblical definition of the word is. If you wonder how I reached that conclusion, I recommend that you read the word study. But for now, let me summarize the word’s definition and apply it to the passage in question here.

Ervah, as used throughout the Old Testament, does indeed refer to nakedness, that is, the state of being unclothed. But it very consistently also implies the active expression of that nakedness, and almost always, that active expression is sexual. So, we can safely interpret the Scriptures understanding that ervah is not just nakedness, but sexually active nakedness.

So… does that help our understanding of Isaiah 20:4? “… to the [sexually active nakedness] of Egypt.”

Not yet, right? But hang in there… I’m not done yet.

The “Rape” of Egypt

Remember that Egypt was conquered. This ervah, or “sexual nakedness” was not voluntary; it was forced! We have a word in English for forced sexual activity… we call it rape.

This suggests a bolder (albeit somewhat startling) translation of the text: “.. to the rape of Egypt.”

In other words, if my reasoning is correct, Isaiah is prophesying that Assyria would rape Egypt. Clearly, this is figurative language, but since there’s no OT Hebrew word for “rape,” it makes complete sense that if Isaiah wanted to invoke that mental image, he would use the word ervah to communicate it. And I believe it does so quite powerfully… and much more potently than “… to the shame of Egypt.”

This is the conclusion that I presented in my word study on ervah, where Isaiah 20 was one of the more significant passages that I addressed.

To me, this is one of those cases where a more accurate definition of the original language word helps us arrive at a much richer interpretation of the biblical text than if we depend on the English translation alone.

Is Nakedness Shameful?

Given the enriched interpretation that I’ve offered here, was does it mean in reference to the notion that simple non-sexual nakedness (“… naked and barefoot with buttocks uncovered”) is shameful?

To my thinking, this passage says nothing at all to that question. Or perhaps more to the point, this passage cannot be invoked to say that any and all public nakedness is shameful. It starts with a prophet obeying God by going publicly nude for three years. It continues with a figurative prophecy about a nation being so utterly defeated that Isaiah could figuratively declare that the nation would be “raped.”

This is one of many passages that have been put forth by Christians who claim that social nudity is wrong. And like all the others, this passage fails to support that claim when it is carefully and thoroughly studied and interpreted with sound hermeneutics.

— Matthew Neal

1 comment:

jochanaan said...

Hebrew is a rich, poetic language, especially Biblical Hebrew. The ancients were much more comfortable with multiple meanings for a word than we scientific, literal-minded modern folks. (The Book of Job, probably the earliest-written Biblical book, is a great example.) So it follows naturally that *ervah* has many meanings, determined less by the word's intrinsic value than by its context.

So your interpretation of Egypt's *ervah* as its "rape" seems right on target. And perhaps our Bible translators are guilty of "squeamish translation" in many cases involving *ervah*.