Book Review: Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament

Richard Davidson, Hendrickson (2007), 880 pages, 5 of 5 stars

Screen Shot 2015-10-03 at 4.39.16 PMAmbrose Bierce once criticized a book by saying the covers were too far apart. This book isn’t one of them. Davidson’s 844 pages (140 of them bibliography) were so good, I read it through twice.

With that glowing statement, let me start by giving a few negatives of Davidson’s thorough treatment of every imaginable sexual matter in the Old Testament.

First, the top three cited sources in his massive bibliography are feminists. Second, as you have guessed, he is friendly to egalitarians. He argues there is no inherent hierarchy between the sexes. He does in the end begrudgingly admit hierarchy exists between husband and wife, but only because of the fall. It doesn’t carry over to the church. Davidson uses heavily watered down language and wants to lead us back to the days with no hierarchy (76).

Third, he argues in his brief NT section that “mutual submission” in Eph. 5:21 speaks of equal and joint compliance between a husband and wife. He is correct that Christians should be “submitting to one another”, but Paul explains in the next paragraphs that this means everyone should be submitting to the one above them, not everyone submitting to everyone else in the same way.

But this work is a tour de force. He thoroughly exegetes every OT passage dealing with sexuality. Allow me to condense Davidson’s massive work into 1,800 words of summary on his most lucid conclusions. I’ll sprinkle some thoughts in between.

 Davidson on Homosexuality

First, he distinguishes between homosexual practice and orientation (propensity, inclination, disposition), the former a sin and the latter not discussed since “no Scripture passage addresses this point” (133). He says Scripture contains “no culpability for homosexual orientation per se”, just as it does not for tendencies toward heterosexual lust.

But if Romans 1 is correct and homosexuality is an unnatural sin and heterosexual lust a natural sin, how does a homosexual arrive at unnatural temptations? Accidentally? The passage says it is through a series of previous sinful actions. Furthermore, homosexual practice alone cannot be sin only, for Scripture says to lust in the mind is also transgression (Mt. 5:28).

Second, Ham’s sin in Genesis 9 was not homosexuality but irreverently failing to cover up the nakedness of his drunken father.

Third, Sodom’s sin was homosexual lust and not inhospitality or homosexual rape because (1) Scripture already characterizes Sodom’s men as “wicked, great sinners” (13:13), (2) “Know” should be translated the same way in v. 5 and v. 8. Therefore, “know” (yādâ) in v. 5 could not possibly be non-sexual or homosexual rape because it does not fit into v. 8.

Davidson, however, is sheepish in his answer, calling the inhospitality interpretation “plausible” and Sodom’s sin “likely” more than “merely” inhospitality (148). He makes a comeback, though, in rightly developing the nature of homosexuality as an abomination. “The basic meaning of [the Hebrew word for ‘abomination’] is an abominable, detestable, offensive thing. The word is mentioned only regarding homosexual intercourse [which] gives an indication of the degree of revulsion associated with homosexual activity. Indeed, in the entire Pentateuch, the only forbidden sexual act to which the word [abomination] is specifically attached is homosexual intercourse” (151).

Fifth, he argues persuasively in a number of ways that legislation against homosexuality in Leviticus crosses all cultures and all of time because (1) they are applied to “native and stranger” and not just Israel (18:26), (2) homosexuality is grouped with other sins that transcend culture like incest, adultery and bestiality, (3) its severity is shown by the punishment of death, (4) it is supported by the NT.

Sixth, the absurd suggestion by some that David and Jonathan’s relationship was homosexual is debunked because (1) the “love” Jonathan has for David (1 Sam. 18:1) is the same word used to describe Israel’s love for David a few verses later (v.16). (2) Kissing other men was common in Jewish culture and was not sexual, as Samuel kissed David (1Sm. 10:1), David kissed Absalom (2Sm. 14:33), Absalom kissed his visitors (2Sm. 15:5) and David kissed his eighty-year-old friend (2Sm. 19:40). 

Davidson on Polygamy

First, polygamy is condemned throughout the OT both for the people and kings and the few alleged exceptions, upon closer inspection, only serve to bolster this assertion. Though the OT gives no explicit verbal condemnation to polygamous marriages, the authors present a “theology of disapproval” by describing the discord, rivalry, heartache, rebellion, and disastrous consequences that always flow from such relationships.

Second, God never refers to Hagar as Abram’s wife, but does so emphatically with Sarah. “God never recognized Abraham’s divorce because in the divine perspective, he had never been married to [Hagar]” (185). When Sarah died, he legitimately took another wife Keturah, called a “concubine” simply because she was not his original wife.

Third, “God’s disapproval is shouting at us” regarding Jacob’s polygamous relationship with Leah, for the narrator details the disastrous consequences that resulted. Scripture never explicitly condemns his polygamy any more than the NT explicitly condemns the prodigal son. Simply look at the consequences. After Jacob’s wrestling at Jabbok, only Rachel gives birth to a child and the genealogy only refers to Rachel as Jacob’s wife (Gn. 46:25).

Fourth, Exodus 21:7-11 isn’t even dealing with polygamy because (1) “another wife” in v. 10 does not mean “in addition to” but “instead of”, (2) “marital rights” (v. 10) is hapax legomenon and most likely means dwelling place, meaning the master is still bound to provide his slave basic necessities; (3) it is a case law, meaning it does not condone the activity, only gives guidelines on what should be done (e.g. “If you get your girlfriend pregnant” or “When someone steals an ox or a sheep”, Ex. 21:37). Deuteronomy 21:15-17 is another polygamy passage dealing with polygamy.

Fifth, Leviticus 18:18 overtly condemns all polygamy (“You shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister”), not just among blood relatives, because (1) the phrase “a woman to her sister” is always used in the OT to refer to “one in addition to another” and never to literal sisters; (2) paragraph breaks are not inspired. Verse 18 belongs not with the previous anti-incest laws (6-17) but with the general sexual prohibitions (18-23). (3) If the point of prohibiting inter-familial polygamy was to avoid rivalry and hatred, why limit it only to a literal sister, since this happens if the wives are literal sisters or not.

Sixth, Nathan’s judgment parable in 2 Samuel 12:7-8 does not sanction polygamy because (1) God’s giving of wives to David does not imply divine approval any more than God’s incestuous “giving” in v. 11 of David’s wives to his son Absalom implies his approval; (2) David did not literally have his master’s wives since Ahinoam, Saul’s wife, was his mother-in-law and this would be incest (Lv. 18:17); (3) Far from approving of polygamy, God smiled upon David when, as an act of repentance, he returned to a monogamous life (2Sm. 20:3).


First, when Ezra commanded Israel to “divorce” their wives (Ezra 10), he was specifically commanding an annulment of a union that God did not recognize as legitimate marriage. (1) It was divorce that was “according to the counsel” of the Lord and “according to the Law” (Ez. 10:3). (2) The vocabulary used for divorce in these Ezra passages are used nowhere else in Scripture to describe divorce. Ezra was a scribe of the Law and certainly knew the proper terminology, so he must have purposely used this vocabulary to show these marriages were invalid and illegitimate. (3) This may have been a unique one-time circumstance for Israel whereby the Messianic line was in jeopardy of extinction due to pagan marriages. First Corinthians 7 clearly commands a different route today.

Second, the passage most explicitly showing that marriage is a covenant is Malachi 2:14, “she is your companion and your wife by covenant.” This covenant is between husband and wife, not outside parties.

Third, the bride price (in the ANE, usually 10 months wages) insured that the marriage was not entered into flippantly. The dowry, however, was what the father paid to the daughter as her share of the estate. This was hers alone, even after marriage, and gave security should her husband die.

Fourth, “the OT contains no legislation dealing directly with divorce. Divorce is tolerated, conceded, permitted but never commanded , commended, or approved by divine legislation” (384).

Fifth, regarding Abraham’s “divorce” of Hagar (Gn. 21:9-14), God never recognized his marriage to Hagar in the first place, with the narrator being sure not to use “divorce” for the broken relationship.

Sixth, the purpose of Deut. 24:1-4 is primarily to protect women from being robbed of her personhood and possessions and as mere chattel. This legislation is not placed within the section of Deuteronomy amplifying the seventh commandment, as one might expect, but theft.

Seventh, Leviticus 21 gives two special prohibitions against priests marrying divorced women.

Premarital Sex

First, that virginity was highly prized in OT Israel is seen in (1) Dinah’s brothers savagely avenging her rape (Gn. 34), (2) a high priest’s wife being limited to a virgin (Lv. 21:10-14), (3) Jephthah’s daughter bewailing her virginity for two months (Jdg. 11:37).

Second, one of the most powerful strategies for avoiding lust is embedded in the legislation of Deuteronomy 25:13-15: avoid tempting situations.

Third, the “Trial of Jealousy” in Numbers 5 addresses as situation such that when a society does not have sufficient evidence to prove a woman’s adultery, God will ultimately decide by punishing her if she is guilty. The matter is given totally over to God, much like the casting of lots. The punishment was most likely that her reproductive system was doomed to sterility. This is the only biblical law where the outcome depends on a miracle. This public ordeal was not meant to humiliate the innocent woman but protect and defend her.

Fourth, in the situation of infidelity post-lebola but pre-marriage (Deut. 22:23-27), if both are guilty (i.e. she consents), both die. If only the man is guilty, only he dies. In Jewish culture, a betrothed woman was legally bound to her husband post-bride price, thus making it adultery.

Fifth, in the case of the Slandered Bride (Deut. 22:13-21), if a newly married woman is accused of sexual activity with another before marriage but she is innocent, the husband is to be whipped and fined two times the bride price. If she is guilty, she is to be given the penalty of adultery and stoned by the entire community. Though the punishment for pre-marital sex was less than a capital offense, in this case it became a capital offense because of her deceptive appeal of being chaste before marriage.

Sixth, in the case of premarital sex (Deut. 22:28-29; Ex. 22:16-17), the man is to pay the bride price, though the father does not have to consent, thus showing that sex in itself does not constitute marriage.


First, Onan’s sin in Genesis 38 was pretending to perform his levirate responsibility when in fact he did not, thus depriving Tamar of progeny because he feared losing his brother’s inheritance to her child.

Second, levirate marriage is not incest because (1) sexual relations with your deceased brother’s wife is the last of a list of incestuous sins in Lev. 18 and 20 and thus least severe. (2) Deut. 25:5-10 makes an exception for the case of levirate marriage, in which the curse of childlessness is turn to fertility.

Third, he gives eighteen reasons that Bathsheba was a victim of power rape on the part of David, including (1) Bathsheba was bathing in the evening, (2) David took the wife of his close friends, (3) the accelerated narrative tempo shows how quickly things moved, with no time for speech or courtly etiquette, (4) Bathsheba didn’t try to stay in the palace but instead returned to her status as Uriah’s wife, (5) her heavy wailing at Uriah’s death, (6) David, never Bathsheba, is condemned. “Just as intercourse between an adult and a minor, even a ‘consenting’ minor, is today termed statutory rape, so the intercourse between David and his subject Bathsheba (even if Bathsheba, under the psychological pressure of one in power over her, acquiesced to the intercourse) is understood in biblical law…to be a case of rape.” (528-529).

1 thought on “Book Review: Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament

  1. Pingback: Het die Here poligamie aanbeveel? | Pro Regno

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s