When the Bible Makes You Blush
Have you ever run across a passage of Scripture that you wouldn’t read in polite company? That might be an odd or even offensive question. After all, our attitude toward Scripture ought to be like Paul’s: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel….” But, when it comes down to it, most of us would not make a cross-stitch of Psalm 137.7-9 or Psalm 38.7 (read it in the KJV or ASV; the ESV has cleaned it up). Nor have I seen any of my Brothers and Sisters decorate their walls with framed quotations from the Song of Songs.
Today’s reading for the sermon includes parts of the sayings of Agur, son of Jakeh, which are found in Proverbs 30. I say that the sermon text includes parts of these sayings because I intend to focus on the sayings near the beginning of the chapter—and to omit some of the racier bits that might distract us from the sermon text. But I don’t intend to give those texts the “passover.” Instead, I want us to consider them here in writing and see what we make of them.
These are not the kinds of passages we would put on bumper stickers, t-shirts, or fridge magnets. They are the kinds of passages that make us blush.
When you read through Pro 30, the first thing to strike you is the vividness of Agur’s poetry. His wisdom is vibrant and alive. His verse includes lions and eagles, slaves and kings, fires and high seas and Sheol itself. Unsurprisingly, some of Agur’s sayings—his subject matter and what he has to say about it—are provocative.
Some of Agur’s sayings speak vividly about relations between men and women. In verses, Agur writes, “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 virgin.” It is one thing to read about sex in Scripture; it is another thing to read the Scriptures refer to it as “the motion of the ocean,” among other things. Yet, there it is, and Agur is quite taken with its mystery.
Then, almost as an afterthought, Agur writes, “This is the way of an adulteress: / she eats and wipes her mouth / and says, ‘I have done nothing wrong.’” It is an unexpectedly striking metaphor, not least for its being a double entendre. It is also vulgar and cold. The adulteress strips marital love of its transcendental nature, embodying the modern, liberal notion that sex should be “as common as a glass of water.”
Some of Agur’s sayings may shock us with their brutality. He writes, “The eye that mocks a father / and scorns to obey a mother / will be picked out by the ravens of the valley / and eaten by the vultures,” an explicitly violent warning against misbehavior. The threat of the final proverb in verses 32-33 is implied: “If you have been foolish, exalting yourself, / or if you have been devising evil, / put your hand on your mouth. / For pressing milk produces curds, / pressing the nose produces blood, and pressing anger produces strife” (emphases mine), which is Agur’s way of saying, “Shut up, or someone’s going to punch your stupid face.”
Others of Agur’s sayings may strike us as morbid. He writes, “The leech has two daughters: / Give and Give. / Three things are never satisfied; / four never say, ‘Enough’: / Sheol, the barren womb, the land never satisfied with water, and the fire that never says, ‘Enough.’” It is hard to discern a lesson in this saying, because there is nothing that can be done about any of the four things that Agur lists.
As we said at the beginning, it’s not just the sayings of Agur that make us uncomfortable. Sexually uncomfortable material abounds in Scripture: Lot’s daughters (Gen 19), the humiliation of Dinah (Gen 34), Judah and Tamar (Gen 38), the sexual laws (Lev 18; 20.10-21), the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19), Amnon and Tamar (2 Sam 13; it seems one ought not name a daughter Tamar)—and that’s only to mention a handful of the explicit encounters in Scripture. There are many, many more, and many that are less explicit, such as Ham seeing Noah’s nakedness or the spies turning aside to Rahab. For morbidity, we need turn no further than Ecclesiastes. And for violence, where in the Old Testament can we not turn?
What do we make of all of this? What should we think of the fact that the Bible often speaks of things that we don’t want to speak about and that it speaks too bluntly for our tastes?
To put it bluntly, it is our sensibilities that are backwards, and not the Bible. Yet how easily we trust our own experiences and feelings and question the Word of God!
We must not hide the Scriptures away or be embarrassed by them. The greatest strength of Scripture is that it was written by the God who created the universe and knows just how awry it has gone. The genealogy of Jesus, like all the Word, is full of the squalid realities of human life. He did not come to hide any of those things—He came to fix them! Let us not be ashamed of the Gospel, the power of God.