Eli and his sons Hophni and Phinehas are priests in the sanctuary of the Lord at Shiloh. Eli, old and virtually blind, is a righteous man, but Hophni and Phinehas are real "sons of Belial" (the biblical equivalent of s.o.b.'s). The two rascals take sacrificial meat for themselves, and have sex with the women who minister at the sanctuary door.

Eli, who can't see these goings-on for himself, is told all about them by the people. "Why do ye such things?" Eli asks the boys, "for it is no good report that I hear."

As Eli is unable to restrain them, the Lord himself takes action against Hophni and Phinehas for their "evil dealings." (This Phinehas is not to be confused, of course, with the earlier priest Phinehas who takes a dim view of sex around sanctuaries [see COZBI AND ZIMRI].) Both Hophni and Phinehas, says Yahweh, "shall die the same day." As indeed they do: the two sons of Belial (the Hebrew word belial means "worthlessness") are slain in battle on a day when the Philistines, in addition to inflicting a "great slaughter" on the Israelites, capture the ark of the covenant.

When Eli gets word that his sons are dead, we are not told his reaction. When he hears that the ark is lost, he falls off his seat, breaking his neck, and dies. When Phinehas's pregnant wife hears of all this--the ark is lost, Eli is dead, and the last report on Phinehas is in--she goes into labor. Dying in childbirth, she names the child Ichabod ("no glory"), saying, "The glory is departed from Israel." (1 Sam. 1:1-17; 2:12-17,22-34; 3:2; 4:11-21) (On to ABIGAIL AND DAVID)

Gerard Hoet, Eli's Sons / Bible illustration


In the days of King Herod of Judea, an angel appears to the priest Zechariah. "Your prayer is heard," says the angel, "your wife Elizabeth shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name John."

Zechariah, according to the angel, is supposed to "have joy and gladness." But Zechariah is skeptical. "How shall I know this?" he asks, pointing out to the angel that he and Elizabeth, who's been barren, are old. The angel testily replies, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God." And for expressing doubt at the "good news" delivered, Zechariah, declares Gabriel, shall be unable to speak until all is accomplished.

After this vision Zechariah presumably has sex with Elizabeth, during which he has nothing to say. Elizabeth conceives, and six months later she is visited by her cousin Mary, a betrothed virgin who has just heard from Gabriel too. At the sound of Mary's greeting, Elizabeth feels the baby leap in her womb.

Mary goes home after staying three months, and Elizabeth gives birth to a son. At the eighth-day circumcision there is an argument: Elizabeth wants to name the child John, while friends and relatives want to name him after his father. Zechariah contributes nothing to the conversation until asked. He gets a writing tablet and has the last word: "His name," writes Zechariah, "is John."

Zechariah with that regains his power of speech. Filled with the Holy Ghost, he prophesies that his son John will be a prophet of the Lord, "to guide our feet to the way of peace." But John the Baptist, alas, is destined also to have trouble one day over sex and the power of speech. (See HEROD AND THE DANCE OF SALOME.) (Luke 1:5-25,57-64) (On to VIRGIN BIRTH)

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Zacharias Writes Down the Name of His Son / Cappella Tornabuoni, Florence



EPHRAIM: "Her Rulers with Shame Do Love"

Following the Hebrew invasion of Canaan, Joseph's son Ephraim and his tribe settle in the central highlands. The Chronicler recounts an episode in which two of Ephraim's many sons are killed by the Canaanite men of Gath, who object to Ephraim's boys rustling their livestock. This plunges Ephraim into prolonged mourning, after which, we are told, he "went in to his wife." She conceives and bears a son whom Ephraim names Beriah ("misery"), "because it went evil with (Ephraim's) house."

This evil is temporary, however, as Ephraim eventually becomes a preeminent tribe of Israel. Under the Israelite monarchy the tribe's importance is such that the prophet Hosea often refers to Israel itself as Ephraim in describing its unfaithfulness to the Hebrew God Yahweh. Ephraim, says Hosea, has committed "whoredom continually," being "joined to idols," and it's not just the Ephraimite riffraff, for "her rulers with shame do love." For such conduct Hosea asks God to make Ephraim unable to bear or nurse children. Through Hosea the Lord pronounces judgment, foreshadowing the Israelite kingdom's destruction: Ephraim "shall bear no fruit: yea, though they bring forth, yet will I slay even the beloved fruit of their womb." (1 Chr. 7:20-23; Hos. 4:17-9:16)

ESTHER: "The Maiden Who Pleases the King"

In the book of Esther, King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I) of Persia, his heart "merry with wine" at a palace feast, orders that Queen Vashti, who is holding a separate feast for the women, come and present herself. The king wants to show her off, for she is "beautiful to look at." But Vashti refuses to appear, infuriating Ahasuerus, who asks his wise men what action to take.

Vashti must go, they say, lest women everywhere follow her example and start disobeying their husbands. "Let fair young virgins be sought for the king," the wise men advise; let them be brought to the eunuch Hegai, in charge of the royal harem, and be given their cosmetics; and "let the maiden who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti."

Ahasuerus so decrees. Of the many virgins brought to the palace and placed in Hegai's care, one is a "fair and beautiful" Jew (a person from Judah or, in the Greek-Latin form, Judea, under Persia following the Babylonian exile). She is Esther, the adopted daughter of her cousin Mordecai. The eunuch Hegai is so pleased with Esther--who, we are told, does not disclose she's a Jew, though no reason for this is stated--that he gives her the best living quarters in the harem and assigns seven maidens to serve her.

Esther and the other virgins undergo twelve months of beautification. Each virgin is then taken to spend a night with the king. Each is afterwards placed in the custody of the eunuch Shaasgaz, keeper of the king's concubines. Each will not be called in again unless Ahasuerus has "delighted in her."

When Esther's turn comes to spend the night with the king, Hegai gives her some advice, presumably about the king's sexual preferences. She is taken in to Ahasuerus, and the king delights in her indeed, loving Esther above all the others. Ahasuerus thus crowns Esther queen, replacing Vashti.

Queen Esther later learns of a plot by Haman, the king's top official, to destroy all the Jews because Mordecai won't bow down to him. Inviting the king and Haman to a feast, Esther informs Ahasuerus of the plot (and of the fact that she herself is a Jew) in Haman's presence. Beside himself with rage, Ahasuerus goes out into the palace garden. Haman, fearfully pleading for his life, falls down beside Esther on the couch--an act that the king misinterprets as he returns to the room: "Will he even rape the queen, right in front of me here in my house?"

Ahasuerus has Haman "hanged" (perhaps meaning impaled), on the same "gallows" (stake?) on which Haman had meant to execute Mordecai.

Esther's deliverance of her people is annually commemorated by the Jewish festival of Purim. As for the vanquished Vashti, her reasons for disobeying the king are not actually stated in the story. The king's desire that she be displayed before his male guests "with the crown royal" suggests that she is expected to have nothing else on. Vashti is in any case seen by modern feminists as an admirable and tragic figure--a woman who, in Gary David Comstock's words, "gets trashed for being strong." (Esther) (On to EZRA)

Esther and Ahasuerus / The Judaica Museum

EUNUCHS: "Let Him Accept It Who Can"

Castrated men held positions of trust, particularly with respect to harems, in courts of the ancient Near East. Even if a eunuch were tempted to fool around with a royal concubine in his charge, he could not impregnate her. He could do little more than look at her, embrace her, and groan (Sirach 30:20).

Several eunuchs appear in the Bible. In the book of Esther, there is a division of labor: Hegai is in charge of the Persian king's incoming virgins, who upon their deflowering are looked after by Shaasgaz. In the book of Daniel, the young Daniel is shown "favour and tender love" by Ashpenaz, "the prince of the eunuchs" of Babylon's King Nebuchadnezzar (1:9). The eunuch Bagoas finds his master missing a body part in the book of Judith (14:14-15). In Israel royal eunuchs throw Jezebel from a window to her death (2 Kings 9:35), and the Ethiopian eunuch Ebedmelech helps hoist Jeremiah out of a dungeon (Jer. 38:7-13). Another castrated Ethiopian is baptized by Philip in Acts 8:27-39.

Among the Hebrews being a eunuch was not a coveted position. Thus the prophet Isaiah warns King Hezekiah that his sons "shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon" (2 Kings 20:18). Being physically blemished, eunuchs could not serve in the Israelite priesthood (Lev. 21:20; Deut. 23:1). Still, the eunuch should not consider himself "a dry tree," says Isaiah, for God will give righteous eunuchs "an everlasting name," one "that shall not be cut off" (56:3,5). Castration is even held out to have its spiritual rewards. Thus Jesus speaks of "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake," adding "Let him accept it who can" (Matt. 19:12).

Presumably Jesus' saying, which historically is one justification for celibacy in the Catholic priesthood, is meant to encourage sexual abstinence, not literal castration. The early Christians did not have some organized equivalent of the galli, priests in Rome who in religious frenzy emasculated themselves in worship of Attis, the dying and reviving consort of the mother goddess Cybele (see Frazer's The New Golden Bough). As noted by Tom Horner, however, there were early Christians who indeed castrated themselves--the church father Origen among them--in taking literally Christ's words. The Apostle Paul, incidentally, in his letter to the Galatians (5:12), wishes that those who preach that circumcision is necessary for salvation would "cut themselves off." By that Paul could mean either castration or penile amputation--not a charitable wish either way.

Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch / Rijksmuseum Het Catharijneconvent, Utrecht

EVE: "She Shall Be Called Woman"


EZEKIEL: Talking Lewd Women

Chapters 16 and 23 of the book of Ezekiel contain perhaps the most striking sexual imagery--symbolizing Israelite idolatry as well as alliances with foreign powers--to be found anywhere in ancient literature.

In chapter 16 the Hebrew God Yahweh speaks to the city of Jerusalem, portraying her as a Canaanite baby abandoned at birth, who grows up--"thy breasts are fashioned, and thine (pubic) hair is grown"--to marry Yahweh, but who becomes an insatiable adulteress. "When I passed by thee, and looked upon thee," says Yahweh, "thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, . . . and entered into a covenant with thee, . . . and thou becamest mine." But then "thou playedst the harlot," Yahweh accuses, "and hast opened thy feet to every one that passed by." She "committed fornication with the Egyptians," and "played the whore also with the Assyrians," even extended her fornication "unto Chaldea"--and not as a prostitute, who is hired for her services, for instead it's her lovers who are hired by Jerusalem. "Wherefore, O harlot," says the Lord, "I will gather thy lovers . . . and will (uncover) thy nakedness" before them, and "they shall stone thee with stones."

But Ezekiel--a priest and prophet ministering to the Babylonian exiles in the sixth century B.C.E.--is just warming up, as in chapter 23 he tells the allegorical story of two sisters named Oholah and Oholibah. The older of these "lewd women" was Oholah ("she of the tent"), symbolizing Samaria (the capital city of Israel), and the younger was Oholibah ("my tent is in her"), representing Jerusalem, capital of the kingdom of Judah. They both were wives of Yahweh and bore children, then became adulteresses on an international scale.

In her youth Oholah had lain with Egyptians, who "bruised the breasts of her virginity, and poured their whoredom upon her." Now she was Yahweh's, but "played the harlot" with the Assyrians, "all of them desirable young men," upon whom she doted, defiling herself with their idols. For this flagrant adultery Yahweh "delivered her into the hands of her lovers" the Assyrians, who "slew her with the sword." (Samaria fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E.)

Yet her sister Oholibah, on seeing this, was even more corrupt than Oholah. She not only "doted upon the Assyrians," but was so taken by wall paintings of Babylonian men that she sent off for some. They obligingly "came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their whoredom." Like her sister Oholah she had also "played the harlot in the land of Egypt," where her lovers had organs that were mulelike in size, with issue "like the issue of horses." Now she entertained drunken groups from the desert, all manner of "men of the common sort" who "went in unto" Oholah and Oholibah.

"I will raise up thy lovers against thee," the Lord tells Oholibah, and "they shall deal with thee hatefully." They will cut off her nose and ears, stone her, slay her children, and burn down her house. "Thus will I cause lewdness to cease out of the land," says Yahweh, "that all women may be taught not to do after your lewdness." Stern judgment indeed, and Ezekiel's lewd women would in any case be a tough act to follow. (Ezekiel 16, 23) (On to SUSANNA AND THE ELDERS)

Michelangelo, Ezekiel (Sistine Chapel) / Christus Rex

EZRA: "Ye Have Taken Strange Wives"

The Jewish priest Ezra, armed with "the wisdom of (the Hebrew) God" in the form of a new codification of Mosaic law, journeys from Babylon to Judea in 398 B.C.E. ("the seventh year" of King Artaxerxes II of Persia). Ezra and his fellow travelers have been preceded by many Jews, allowed by the Persians, conquerors of Babylon in 538 B.C.E., to return to their homeland from exile. As Ezra arrives at Jerusalem, the temple is already rebuilt, and Nehemiah, the Persian-appointed governor of Judea, has rebuilt Jerusalem's walls.

But Ezra finds something that appalls him. The returned exiles have been marrying foreign women, daughters of Gentiles living in Palestine. Did not Moses say, "Neither shalt thou make marriages with (the inhabitants of the land)" (Deut. 7:3)? Yet here are Jews--even priests and other leaders of God's chosen people--marrying and having children, mingling the "holy seed" (Ezra 9:2), with the non-Jewish population. This so upsets Ezra that he literally tears out his hair (Ezra 9:3). "O my God, I am ashamed and blush," Ezra prays, "to lift up my face to thee" (9:6). The governor Nehemiah is also upset, but he tears out other people's hair instead of his own (Neh. 13:25). Nehemiah curses and beats them, angrily asking them, "Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things?" (See SOLOMON AND HIS "OUTLANDISH WOMEN.") Now half the children running around town, Nehemiah complains, can't even speak Hebrew (13:24).

A group of repentant Jews comes to Ezra while he is weeping and "casting himself down" in front of the temple. "We have trespassed against our God," group spokesman Shechaniah tells Ezra, "and have taken strange wives of the people of the land." But still "there is hope in Israel," says Shechaniah: "let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them." He tells Ezra to get up and take charge of the matter: "be of good courage, and do it."

Ezra gets up, and a proclamation goes out for all Jewish men to gather at Jerusalem. All the men come and sit in the street by the temple, where they tremble "because of this matter," and because it is pouring down rain where they sit.

"Ye have transgressed, and have taken strange wives," Ezra tells them, "to increase the trespass of Israel." He tells them to separate themselves "from the people of the land, and from the strange wives," and in one voice the congregation replies, "As thou hast said, so must we do." The men ask, however, that they not have to stand in line to get their divorces, "for we are many that have transgressed in this thing," and "it is a time of much rain."

Ezra obligingly selects some heads of families to handle the procedure, by which the men get their divorces by appointment, with a ram from each man as a guilt offering. As for the governor, Nehemiah congratulates himself for all this: "Thus cleansed I them of all strangers," he writes in his memoir, ending with, "Remember me, O my God, for good." (See also MARRIAGE: "THEY SHALL BE ONE FLESH.") (Ezra 7:1-28; 9:1-10:44; Neh. 13:23-30) (On to JUDITH AND HOLOFERNES)

Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld
Esther Made Queen
Woodcut from Das Buch der Bücher in Bilden

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