Aaron, not yet aware that God on the mountain has appointed him head of the Israelite priesthood, is all too eager to oblige them. He collects their golden earrings and, using a graving tool, fashions a molten calf, a young bull being a symbol of fertility in ancient Near Eastern cults. Building an altar for the golden calf, Aaron proclaims a feast, at which the Hebrew people eat and drink and then rise up "to play" (Hebrew sahaq, the same word used for Isaac's sexual "sporting" with Rebekah in Gen. 26:8).
Moses, arriving with two tablets inscribed by the finger of God, is so incensed by the orgiastic scene that he throws down the tablets and breaks them.
"What did this people do to you," Moses asks Aaron, "that you have brought upon them so great a sin?"
"You know the people," says Aaron, "they are set on evil." Aaron allows that he accepted their gold, which he threw into the fire, "and there came out this calf."
Moses punishes all guilty parties through a trial by ordeal: he burns the calf, grinds it to powder, puts the powder in water, and makes everyone drink it. God then sends a plague for good measure. It will not be the last time, though, that the children of Israel turn to idols. (See BAALIM AND ASHTAROTH and HARLOTRY: "A-WHORING AFTER OTHER GODS.") (Ex. 32) (On to COZBI AND ZIMRI)
Nicolas Poussin, The Adoration of the Golden Calf / The National Gallery, London
Her words please David, who tells Abigail, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, which sent thee this day to meet me," for had Abigail not interceded, there would not be a single man--"any that pisseth against the wall," as David puts it--left alive at Nabal's place.
When Abigail's fool of a husband soon dies anyway, David, saying "Blessed be the Lord," can't wait to send the widow a marriage proposal, and Abigail can't wait to accept: we are told that she "hasted, and arose, and rode upon an ass . . . and became (David's) wife." Abigail bears David a son, who is named either Chileab (2 Sam. 3:3) or Daniel (1 Chr. 3:1).
David also has a sister named Abigail, whose husband is named either Ithra the Israelite (2 Sam. 17:25) or Jether the Ishmaelite (1 Chr. 2:17). To appreciate how we know of this marriage, one must first understand that there are no words in biblical Hebrew specifically for husband and wife (see MARRIAGE). That a man and a woman are married must therefore be determined by context. (Abigail the widow becomes David's "woman" [ishah], in context meaning wife.) 2 Sam. 17:25 employs a unique way of providing context: Ithra (aka Jether), we are simply told, is the man who "went in to Abigail." (The Hebrew verb bo is translated "went in to"; see LOVEMAKING: TO KNOW IN THE BIBLICAL SENSE.) (1 Sam. 25:5-42) (On to DAVID AND MICHAL)
Peter Paul Rubens, The Meeting of David and Abigail / National Gallery of Art (D.C.)
When David dies, his son Solomon, succeeding to the throne, inherits Abishag as part of the royal harem. Solomon's brother Adonijah (described as "a very handsome man"), having tried to set himself up as king while the impotent David still lived, won't leave well enough alone. Adonijah sends the queen mother Bathsheba to Solomon to ask that the king give him Abishag the Shunammite in marriage.
One might think that Solomon could easily spare Abishag, special though she may be, as she is but one of his seven hundred concubines. But Solomon views Adonijah's request as nothing short of treason, for taking another man's concubine is openly to challenge his authority. (See CONCUBINES: "MANY STRANGE WOMEN.") "Ask for him the kingdom also," Solomon wisecracks to Bathsheba, and has Adonijah put to death. (1 Kings 1-2:25) (On to SOLOMON AND HIS "OUTLANDISH WOMEN")
David and Abishag / Bibliotheque nationale de France
When the Pharoah's men lay eyes on her, Sarai is "taken into Pharoah's house"--that is, added to the royal harem--while Abram prospers, given livestock and servants by Pharoah. However, Yahweh sends plagues upon Pharoah, who, learning the truth about Sarai, tells Abram, "Behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way." Abram takes her, along with all that the Pharoah has given him.
Later Abram and Sarai, whom God renames Abraham and Sarah, reprise this sister act in the town of Gerar, with Sarah, still beautiful at age ninety, taken into the harem of King Abimelech. The problem of adultery, implicit in the Pharoah episode, is averted this time: Yahweh tells Abimelech the truth about Sarah in a dream before the king makes any advances ("Abimelech had not come near her"). Still, God punishes the king, afflicting all his house with infertility because Sarah is there, till Abraham intercedes--after receiving more livestock and servants--and takes her off the king's hands.
When the childless Sarah is seventy-six, she offers to eighty-six-year-old Abraham her Egyptian handmaid Hagar. "Go into my maid," Sarah says, "that I might have children by her." (On surrogate childbearing, see CONCUBINES.) Abraham does as he's told, and Hagar conceives, bearing Ishmael, "a wild ass of a man." (Conflict ensues between Hagar and Sarah, with Abraham eventually sending away Hagar and Ishmael at Sarah's insistence. Ishmael, who will have twelve sons, is traditionally the progenitor of the Arabs.)
When Abraham is ninety-nine, he receives from Yahweh his new name (meaning "father of many nations") and the order to undergo circumcision, sign of God's everlasting covenant with Abraham and his seed. Yet when God tells Abraham that Sarah will be "a mother of nations," his response is to fall down laughing. Sarah laughs too, albeit more discreetly, when she overhears an angel tell Abraham that she will bear a child. But Yahweh has the last laugh ("Is anything too hard for the Lord?"): on the return from Gerar, Sarah conceives and bears Isaac (whose name means "one who laughs") in her ninetieth year.
After Sarah dies at age one hundred and twenty-seven, Abraham has six more children by a wife named Keturah, plus sons by an unspecified number of concubines, before dying at one hundred and seventy-five, "in a good old age."(Gen. 12:5-20; 16-18; 20; 21:1-5; 25:1-8.) (On to SODOM(Y) AND GOMORRAH)
Adriaen van der Werff , Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham / Staatsgalerie, Schleissheim
After his return, the handsome and cunning Absalom leads a rebellion against his father. Now it's David who gets out of Jerusalem, leaving ten concubines behind in the palace to keep house. Absalom asks Ahithophel, a royal counsellor turned traitor, what to do next. "Go into thy father's concubines," Ahithophel tells him. Such an ostentatious power play will show the people who is now in charge (see CONCUBINES).
When Ahithophel speaks, all listen. A tent is accordingly spread on top of the house, and Absalom has sexual intercourse with David's ten concubines "in the sight of all Israel." (This fulfills a prophecy of Nathan following David's adultery with Bathsheba and the killing of her husband Uriah: a neighbor, God tells David through the prophet, "shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun.")
The rebellion nonetheless fails, with Ahithophel hanging himself and Absalom dying after riding under an oak tree and getting his hairy head caught in the branches. David thus loses another unscrupulous son ("O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!"). As for the ten concubines, David never again has sex with them. The king keeps them shut up, "in widowhood, unto the day of their death." (2 Sam. 12:11, 13:1-20:3) (On to ABISHAG THE SHUNAMMITE)
One can speculate, based on Gen. 1:27, that Adam and Eve were originally one androgynous being--"God created man in his own image, . . . male and female created he them"--meant to reproduce in some asexual way. But again this associates sex with the couple's Fall (their original state being androgyny or asexuality), an un-Hebrew notion that also conflicts with Genesis 2, according to which man and woman were not created simultaneously.
Perhaps Genesis makes no mention of Adam and Eve making love in the Garden of Eden because it is taken for granted. James Barr, in The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, points out that there was no reason, given the acceptance of sexuality as normal in ancient Hebrew culture, for the couple to abstain. In the noncanonical book of Jubilees (3:6), Adam and Eve have sexual relations as soon as God introduces them. It is literally love at first sight. According to rabbinic tradition, Eve is not even Adam's first wife. His first wife is Lilith, who leaves him because during sexual intercourse Adam won't let her be on top. (For more on this failed relationship, see GENDER: "MALE AND FEMALE CREATED HE THEM.")
Sex, in any case, has nothing to do with Adam and Eve's Fall from grace in Genesis. Their sin is one of disobedience, specifically eating fruit from the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil," that is, reaching for godlike knowledge ("ye shall be as gods," the serpent tells Eve, "knowing good and evil" [Gen. 3:5]) (see Gaster). Eve, tempted by the serpent to partake of the fruit, gets blamed by Adam ("she gave me of the tree," Adam tells God, "and I did eat," as if Eve had a choice but poor Adam didn't). (The woman is given all the blame also by the early Christian church; see PAUL.) God punishes them both, with the punishment of Eve being pain in childbirth ("in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children") and unequal status ("thy desire," God tells her, "will be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee"; see GENDER).
The first sex act described in the Bible comes after the departure from Eden: "And Adam knew Eve his wife" ("to know," Hebrew yada, being a euphemism for sexual intercourse), "and she conceived, and bare Cain." As Barr notes, intercourse is here described for the first time because it is the first time that a child is produced. Adam and Eve then have a second son, Abel, and when Adam is one hundred and thirty years old he knows Eve again, fathering Seth.
How many times Adam knows Eve after that, or how many more wives Adam knows, is unknown, but he begets "sons and daughters" for eight hundred more years. (Gen. 1:26-5:5) (On to CAIN)
The Earthly Paradise / Royal Library of Belgium
The penalty for adultery is death for both parties (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). In the case of a betrothed virgin, she is considered guilty of consent, and is therefore to die with the man, if the incident occurred in the city and she did not scream for help (Deut. 22:23-27).
The book of Numbers (5:12-31) provides for a trial by ordeal in cases where a man suspects his wife of adultery but has no proof. The man, being moved by a "spirit of jealousy," shall bring his wife and a "jealousy offering" to the priest, who will mix holy water with dust from the temple floor and make the woman drink it. If she has "lain with" no man but her husband, this "bitter water" will not cause "the curse," but if she is guilty of adultery, "her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot," and she will be "a curse among her people." (The Hebrew in this passage is too obscure to be interpreted with confidence [Sakenfeld, Levine]. It has been variously interpreted as referring, in the case of guilt, to miscarriage [Snaith], a prolapsed uterus [Meeks], inability to become pregnant, and abdominal-type pains [Levine].)
Adultery is often used in the Old Testament as a metaphor for the unfaithfulness toward God of the people of Israel and Judah, who "go a-whoring after other gods" (Judg. 2:17). God speaks in Jer. 3:8 of divorcing Israel for her adultery, then "her treacherous sister Judah . . . played the harlot also." The prophet Hosea deliberately marries an adulteress to dramatize God's dilemma with the backsliding children of Israel.
The adultery metaphor takes its most graphic form in Ezekiel 23, describing in detail the allegorical promiscuity of the sisters Oholah and Oholibah, adulterous wives of Yahweh.
The book of Proverbs extols the wisdom of avoiding adulterous situations. "Can a man take fire in his bosom," it asks, "and his clothes not be burned?" (Adultery "is a fire," says Job [31:12], "that consumeth to destruction.") The commandment against adultery, we are told in Proverbs, helps "keep thee from the evil woman." The book describes "a young man devoid of understanding" who is lured to the house of "a woman with the attire of an harlot." Catching him and kissing him, she says, "I have decked my bed . . . with fine linen of Egypt . . . Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning," for "(my husband) is not at home." But though "stolen waters are sweet," says Proverbs, "he that goeth in to his neighbour's wife . . . lacketh understanding," and the house of the adulteress "is the way to hell" (6:23-32, 7:4-27).
In two biblical cases, resisting adulterous advances leads to false accusations. In Genesis, Joseph is accused by Potiphar's wife, herself the aggressor, of making sexual advances, and is sent to prison (see JOSEPH AND POTIPHAR'S WIFE). In the Apocrypha, Susanna, the wife of Joakim, is falsely accused of adultery by two elders when she resists their attempt to seduce her (see SUSANNA AND THE ELDERS). Joseph prospers despite the injustice, and the young hero Daniel saves the day for Susanna.
Not only is the seventh commandment reaffirmed in the New Testament (Matt. 19:18, Luke 18:20, Rom. 13:9, James 2:11), but adultery is broadened to include even thinking about committing it. "Whoever looks at a woman with lust," says Jesus Christ in Matt. 5:28, "has committed adultery with her already in his heart." Jesus also states that adultery includes remarriage after divorce (Matt. 19:9, Luke 16:18).
Still, one of the Bible's best-known passages speaks of forgiveness for adultery (as for all sin), not punishment. Scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus "a woman taken in adultery, in the very act" (John 8:3-11). They remind him that an adulteress should be stoned, "but what do you say?"
"Let him who is without sin among you," replies Jesus, "cast the first stone." The accusers leave one by one, leaving none to condemn her. "Neither do I condemn you," Jesus tells the adulteress. "Go, and sin no more."
Gustave Doré Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery / Bible illustrations
Ahab's and Jezebel's daughter Athaliah marries King Jehoram of Judah, where Baalism is then also promoted. (Jezebel's Ahab is not to be confused, incidentally, with the book of Jeremiah's Ahab, one of two false prophets who "commit adultery with their neighbor's wives" and are "roasted in the fire" by the king of Babylon.)
King Ahab is killed in battle while disguised as a common soldier. Some harlots wash themselves in his blood. Ahab's and Jezebel's son Joram becomes king after the short reign of an older brother. Jehu, a rebel leader intent on destroying the house of Ahab full of Jezebel's "whoredoms" and "witchcrafts," assassinates Joram (and, while he's at it, Ahab's grandson Ahaziah, king of Judah). Jehu then goes after Jezebel.
On hearing he's coming, the queen mother Jezebel paints her face, adorns her head, and looks out at an upper window. (Thus she is pictured, notes Mary Chilton Calloway, as a whore.) "Is it peace, you Zimri?" she asks Jehu arriving below. (The question is rhetorical, since Zimri, as she immediately notes, "murdered his master"; see 1 Kings 16:8-12.)
"Who is on my side?" Jehu shouts, and "two or three eunuchs" appear at the window. "Throw her down," Jehu commands, and they do. After trampling Jezebel with his chariot, Jehu goes in for a bite to eat. He gives orders too late for "this cursed woman" to be buried, as dogs devour Jezebel's body except for the skull, feet, and palms. (This fulfills, for the most part, a prophecy of Elijah in 1 Kings 21:23.) Now her carcass, Jehu notes, "shall be dung on the face of the field."
Jezebel lives on, though, as a synonym for a wicked woman. The book of Revelation complains of a "Jezebel," calling herself a prophetess, who leads people in the church at Thyatira "to commit fornication." Christ "will cast her into a (sick)bed," says Saint John, "and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent their deeds." (1 Kings 16:29-33; 18:19; 21:25; 22:30-38; 2 Kings 9:16-37; 10:1; Rev. 2:20-22) (On to ATHALIAH AND JEHORAM)
John Liston Byam Shaw, Jezebel / Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum
Tamar dutifully makes some pancakes and brings them into Amnon's chamber. The pancakes are apparently heart-shaped, like Old Testament valentines. (The noun "pancakes" and the verb for making them in Hebrew are both related to lebab, Hebrew "heart" [see Brockington and Hackett]. The verb is used in the Song of Solomon [4:9] as "Thou hast ravished" [literally made pancakes of] "my heart.")
Amnon, who has sent everyone else away, takes hold of Tamar's hand. "Come lie with me, my sister," he tells her, but Tamar says, "Nay, my brother, do not force me." She asks that Amnon instead speak to the king, "for he will not withhold me from thee." (Laws recorded in Lev. 18:9,11, 20:17, and Deut. 27:22, prohibiting marriage between a half-brother and sister, may not yet exist when this story takes place.) But Amnon, "being stronger than she," rapes Tamar.
Immediately after this deed Amnon hates her, and tells Tamar, "Arise, be gone." She says there is no cause, that to send her away is worse than what he has already done. (As scholar Jo Ann Hackett points out, Tamar may here have in mind the law [Ex. 22:16] that a man must marry a virgin whom he has seduced.) Amnon calls his servant and orders him to "put this woman out" and "bolt the door after her."
Tamar goes to live, a "desolate" woman, in the house of her full brother Absalom, who resolves that Amnon will pay. Two years later, while Amnon drinks merrily with his brothers at a sheepshearing festival, he is murdered by Absalom's servants.
Absalom later has a daughter, "a beautiful woman," named after his sister Tamar. (2 Sam. 13:1-29) (On to ABSALOM AND THE TEN CONCUBINES)
Guercino, Amnon and Tamar / National Gallery of Art (D.C.)
The presence of Asherah or her symbol at places where Yahweh, the biblical God of the Hebrews, was worshipped raises the question of whether the Canaanite goddess was considered also to be the consort of Yahweh. We know from references to "the sons of God" (Gen. 6:1-4; Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7), "the host of heaven" (1 Kings 22:19), "angels" (Gen. 19:1; Ps. 103:20), and God's statement "Let us make man in our image" (Gen. 1:26), that Yahweh was not alone in his heaven. We know also that Yahweh supplanted the Canaanite El to the extent that God's other names in the Hebrew Bible include El, El Elyon ("God Most High"), El Shaddai ("God Almighty"), and the (originally) plural form Elohim (as in Gen. 1:1). But did Yahweh take El's woman too?
The answer may well be found, appropriately enough, in some graffiti, inscriptions dating from the eighth century B.C.E., found on walls and storage jars at two sites, Khirbet el-Kom and Kuntillet Ajrud, in Israel. (See Dever's Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research.) The graffiti includes blessings such as "I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his asherah," and "I bless you by Yahweh of Teiman and by his asherah." Does this mean by Yahweh and by his goddess? Or is it saying "by Yahweh and by his sacred pole"?
All we may safely assume at this point has been well put by the French epigrapher Andre Lemaire: "Whatever an asherah is, Yahweh had one!" (See also BAALIM AND ASHTAROTH and YAHWEH: "THY MAKER IS THINE HUSBAND.")
Asherah figurine / Sacred Source
For his evil ways, Elijah says in the letter, King Jehoram will
have "a great sickness" that will make his "bowels fall out."
Few deserve bowel trouble more than Jehoram, who in addition to
his "whoring" has slain his six brothers, as real or imagined
threats to his power. At the age of forty, his bowels fall out as
predicted and Jehoram dies "of sore diseases."
This doesn't faze Athaliah, who proceeds to guide Jehoram's
successor, their son Ahaziah, "in the ways of the house of Ahab."
When Ahaziah is slain by the rebel Jehu, Athaliah has all of her
grandsons slain (so she thinks) and assumes the throne herself. She
is the only woman ever to be the sole royal power in either Israel
But one of Athaliah's grandsons, Joash, has been secretly saved
by his aunt Jehoshabeath. The aunt's husband, Jehoiada the priest,
now leads a revolt. The people crown seven-year-old Joash as king,
and Athaliah is put to the sword. They tear down the temple of her
beloved fertility god Baal, kill Baal's priest Mattan before the
altars, and smash the god's images to pieces.
The priest Jehoiada continues to look after Athaliah's grandson,
King Joash. As soon as the king's old enough, Jehoiada finds him
two wives, by whom the king, we are told, "begat sons and
daughters." When Jehoiada dies, however, the people under King
Joash again go a-whoring, serving "Asherah and idols" (see
ASHERAH and BAALIM AND ASHTAROTH.) (2 Kings 8:16-25; 9:27; 11:1-12:3;
2 Chr. 21-23, 24:3,17-18) (On to HOSEA)
Gustave Doré, Death of Athaliah / Bible illustration Cranach the Elder
Adam and Eve
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
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For his evil ways, Elijah says in the letter, King Jehoram will have "a great sickness" that will make his "bowels fall out."
Few deserve bowel trouble more than Jehoram, who in addition to his "whoring" has slain his six brothers, as real or imagined threats to his power. At the age of forty, his bowels fall out as predicted and Jehoram dies "of sore diseases."
This doesn't faze Athaliah, who proceeds to guide Jehoram's successor, their son Ahaziah, "in the ways of the house of Ahab." When Ahaziah is slain by the rebel Jehu, Athaliah has all of her grandsons slain (so she thinks) and assumes the throne herself. She is the only woman ever to be the sole royal power in either Israel or Judah.
But one of Athaliah's grandsons, Joash, has been secretly saved by his aunt Jehoshabeath. The aunt's husband, Jehoiada the priest, now leads a revolt. The people crown seven-year-old Joash as king, and Athaliah is put to the sword. They tear down the temple of her beloved fertility god Baal, kill Baal's priest Mattan before the altars, and smash the god's images to pieces.
The priest Jehoiada continues to look after Athaliah's grandson, King Joash. As soon as the king's old enough, Jehoiada finds him two wives, by whom the king, we are told, "begat sons and daughters." When Jehoiada dies, however, the people under King Joash again go a-whoring, serving "Asherah and idols" (see ASHERAH and BAALIM AND ASHTAROTH.) (2 Kings 8:16-25; 9:27; 11:1-12:3; 2 Chr. 21-23, 24:3,17-18) (On to HOSEA)
Gustave Doré, Death of Athaliah / Bible illustration
Cranach the Elder