Whores: A Meditation on Gender and the Bible

In a recent post I wrote about my leading a study on the book of Revelation at a local prison. In that post I discussed how one of the themes of Revelation is the contrast between two cities--Babylon and the New Jerusalem--and how the pastoral aim of Revelation is to call the people of God to "come out" from Babylon.

In this post I'd like to think a bit about one of the problems regarding how this contrast is made in Revelation. Specifically, one of the metaphors used to contrast Babylon and New Jerusalem is a Whore/Bride contrast. In Revelation Babylon is cast as a whore:
Revelation 17.1-5
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”

Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

By contrast, New Jerusalem is compared to a virginal bride:
Revelation 21.1-2
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
For those aware of feminist scholarship, you'll quickly see how the writer of Revelation is using the Madonna/Whore typology. This typology expresses the ambivalent nature of male feelings regarding female sexuality. On the one hand, the male sexual fantasy is to have a woman who is sexually uninhibited and insatiable. The female actresses in pornography portray this fantasy, a female who is sexually aggressive and can't get enough sex.This--the Whore--is the sexual fantasy of most if not the vast majority of males.

The ambivalence comes from the fact that while most males fantasize about having sex with the Whore--the sexually uninhibited and insatiable female--they don't want to be married to such a woman. When it comes to marriage men want the Madonna, the virginal and faithful bride.

There is a large literature exploring this Madonna/Whore dynamic and it sits behind many of the mixed and confusing messages the culture sends to women about "what men want." It also explains the switcheroo a lot of Christian women face after they get married. Christian women are to be the Madonna prior to marriage, vigilantly safeguarding their virginal purity. But then, after marriage, Christian women are to make a smooth and quick transition to being the Whore in the bedroom. And if she fails to make this transition adequately she can be blamed for not fulfilling her sexual obligations to her husband.

But again, I don't want to get into all this right now.

What I want to get into is why women are associated with whores when, in point of fact, women aren't very much like whores at all.

Historically, and even today, prostitution isn't about sexual insatiability. Prostitution for women is about economics. Women don't turn to prostitution because they can't get enough sex. Women turn to prostitution, when they aren't forced into it, because they need to eat and pay the bills.

Men, by contrast, do pursue prostitutes for pleasure. That is, whoring is being driven by an insatiable sexual appetite--but it's the appetite of of males, not females.

Generally speaking, women aren't very promiscuous. Males, by contrast, are extraordinarily slutty. And if that's the case, then why are women rather than men called sluts?

A psychological study in this regard. A group of researchers had attractive assistants approach men and women of the opposite sex on a college campus. After a few minutes of chit chat the assistant would sexually proposition the student. The question was, what percent of women would agree to have sex with an attractive man after a few minutes of conversation? And what percent of men would agree to have sex with an attractive woman after a few minutes of conversation?

Seventy-five percent of the males agreed to have sex. The women?

Zero percent.

Generally speaking, women are choosy and discriminating when it comes to sex. Men not so much.

In short, from an empirical standpoint men are the whores.

And if that's the case, why are women always cast as whores, even in the bible, as the sexually insatiable ones?

It is a product of Freudian projection. Throughout history, religiously conservative males have had to confront one of the greatest sources of their moral failure: the male libido. The male libido--the fact that men are sluts--is a sore spot of any male community wanting to pursue purity and holiness. And what has happened, by and large, is that rather than admit that males struggle mightily in the sexual realm, males have externalized the blame and projected their libido onto women. Rather than blaming themselves for sexual sin males have, throughout history, blamed women for being temptresses. The Whore was created to be the scapegoat to preserve male self-righteousness. Rather than turning inward, in personal and collective repentance, men could blame women, blame the whores, for their sexual and moral failures. It's not our fault, the men say, it's the whore's fault.

Examples of this sort of projection are too numerous to list. Christian campuses and youth group talks are full of this sort of stuff.

But let me bring this back to whores and brides in Revelation. Given the problematic nature of this metaphor, how are we to approach these images in the bible?

I'll tell you what I do. For me, I don't read the Whore as a woman. I read it as the Freudian projection it is. The Whore is the male libido projected onto women.

More simply, when I see the Whore in Revelation I don't see a woman.

I see a man.

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65 thoughts on “Whores: A Meditation on Gender and the Bible”

  1. I recently read your series on theology and evolutionary psychology, so I can't help but wonder after exploring a little further into ep if sexism is a product of a mismatch of an adaptation that served a role in overcoming reproductive problems of our ancestors at some point.  Now that does not at all excuse the projection (of which I am guilty of often as I at times find myself in church scoffing at provocatively dressed females), but I wonder if it is part of psychological makeup, a part that is in fact outdated.  Just as I have to fight the instinct to treat strangers as strange, I have to fight the instinct to see women as I do, to see them not as a sexual mate (infrahumanization?), but as a fellow human that deserves to be treated and loved as such. Your thoughts? 

  2. I do think there is a lot about modern sexuality that fits the mismatch theory. Pornography is a perfect example. The male arousal system is visually oriented. In the ancestral environment this didn't pose too much of a problem. But with the advent of photography and then the start of the Internet that visual system has been overwhelmed. In this regard, I have extraordinary sympathy for modern males. They are facing temptations unprecedented in human history.

  3. Richard, well said. There definitely needs to be more dialogue about gender typing in wider circles.

    If you don't mind, a friend of mine is the new director for Restore NYC which supports women coming out of the sex trade. He was interviewed recently here: http://www.worldmag.com/articles/19421

  4. Now that's a culturally relevant view of Revelation!  I'm imagining the reaction of the men in your Prison Bible Fellowship...

    Preach it, Brother Beck.

    Lady Gaga said it well:  "As long as I'm your hooker..."  I think she had a double meaning -- as a woman in our culture seeking the approval of male admirers, and also as a performer hocking her wares.  Because her lyrics often use religious lingo, I have to also wonder if she's been burned by religion.  When I listen to that song and hear that line, I always think about church, and how often it can degenerate into an experience of economics on so many levels.

    A true story relating to this madonna/whore projection, superimposed on conservative religious community:  An acquaintance complained that a woman (new believer) had begun attending their small group of married couples.  The woman's attire had been a distraction to the husbands.  Acquaintance publicly posed the question of what to do about it.  Several people suggested various ways of confronting the woman.  The general consensus was to take her aside and instruct her of proper modest attire.  I suggested that maybe the men should confess to the small group that they had been struggling with the temptation of lust, and ask for prayer.  No need to name names, really, but I posited that maybe the woman would feel sympathetic and begin to think about how she could help the situation.  The others were really against this idea, because she felt the woman would then have an "edge" in knowing that the men had a weakness.  It made me wonder whether a burqa would have been enough to eliminate the temptation for the men?

    You know who else I'm thinking about in relation to this post...  Celebrity pastor, author, and manly-man extraordinaire.  Talk about ego and "me first" issues!

  5. I am wondering if Whore can't be read in more of a wider way as well. Not really male or female, but more of a break down of society? Where women need to put themselves out there like that in order to survive, and men have the income, and the unrestrained desires to pursue that?

  6. Good point. I'm really curious, however--has anyone ever thought otherwise? All the biblical language about the temptations of women seem to just assume that the real problem is that males are unfaithful. In the church, all the talk I've ever heard about women needing to be modest just assumed that it was mainly a male problem that our sisters could, perhaps, help us out with.

    Meanwhile, the "prostitute" texts in scripture all seem to be focusing on how shocking/ strange (unlike the real world) it would be for a woman to actually go after lovers even without the economic incentive. In some ways, to picture Israel as a straying man would not have enough shock value, so Israel is pictured as a really terribly wanton woman.

  7. Good thoughts as always, Dr. Beck.  I have been thinking about something along these lines lately when people discuss what our reaction should be to certain kinds of sinners (usually of the sexual variety).  Those who are strident in their criticism of sexual sinners, when confronted with a Jesus who shared meals with prostitutes, will respond with: "Yes, Jesus loved them, but he certainly also called them to repent, right?"  I wonder, however, whether this is actually the case.

    For one thing, we rarely read of Jesus calling individuals to repentance.  In the case of prostitutes, I wonder if he recognized that these women were not choosing to be prostitutes because they were sex-starved but because they were forced into it for economic reasons (probably because they were unsuitable for marriage for one reason or another) and thus were in need of love and care more than they were in need of repentance.

  8. Thank you for this post. This brought a perspective to me that I hadn't thought of yet, but I often struggle with the portrayal of women in the Bible as the whore/temptress/etc.  This was a very redeeming idea.

  9. I think one problem with evolutionary psychology is perhaps the greater weight being given to nature, as opposed to nurture. But how do we know that women have not just been socialized to suppress their urges under a male dominated system of rivalry? I can't speak for all women, but I can be aroused very visually, as well as through scent, taste and sound. I can't separate the sexual from other forms of pleasure sensations. The smell of coffee, a beautiful man or woman, a child nursing, a mountain, a tree, the deep notes of a pipe organ. (ever notice how little boys hold themselves when they laugh?) But just because I feel pleasure in many places at once, doesn't mean I'm tempted to cross over all boundaries and hump everything till I get a climax. Just like if I'm shopping in the grocery aisle, I'm not going to rip open bags of coffee to satisfy my tastebuds. That's because of healthy boundaries. Loving my neighbor as myself.

    Arousal is not sinful, and I don't see why it can't be enjoyed without being tempted to offend our neighbor. I think churches make a mistake when trying to suppress natural sexual urges by fighting against pleasure. Then it just gets pushed out of the open, like harmless bacteria gone anaerobic, and becomes poison. All pleasure is from God, and worship of God can be incredibly satisfying to every sensation in our bodies. Marriage is the place to mutually share and complete our arousals, the rest of our experience of the world is just foreplay. But for married and single alike, the redemption of our bodies, the beatific vision of Jesus, that is the climax of climaxes. And I think we will orgasmed off our feet.

  10. I am not into evolutionary psychology. I find that  men and women certainly approach sex differently, but to deny that women seek sex for pleasure commonly denies the culture around us. It denies the culture the Bible was written in.  In a society that values marriage, modesty of women protects them from other men, but it also lends itself to a psychological end. That end is if you dress in a way to show off your body, then you are leaning towards having that body noticed, and thus eventually you will want more attention.  The best example of dressing for success in something is schools. Private schools and a number of inner city schools have found that having a uniform or dress code that encouraged students to look for lack of a better term studious tended to produce better students. Dressing modestly also tends to encourage modest behavior.   I have heard a lot of sermons about men's sexual sins or desires, and the pitfalls of these. I rarely hear these about women. The problem I have is, the only men I have seen in the church that have needed to hear this message, were often the preachers giving them and other powerful men in the church. Most of the men I know with marital troubles even divorce, were cheated on by their wives.  These were not acts of economics, they may not have been pure physical desire, but it was the wanton dismissal of the vows they took.  Too often the church blames these men for not taking care of their marriage. Not meeting their wives needs, etc. The cheating wife gets off, and the husband gets the blame. The young male in the singles or youth group is blamed for being a predator, while the female is the victim. Unless there was rape involved this is not the case. In the modern world, where women make these choices on their own, and almost always have the power to stop things, they share the blame.  

    I understand that you are trying to point out the parallels of  how a man and woman meet the conditions of the text, but too often I see the church take a stand that somehow women are more pure than men, more chaste than men, and thus somehow the consequences for their actions are regrettable as they were the victim.  Whether it is an actual whore or a woman sleeping around, it is generally for power or security.  Women use the male libido as a weakness to get what they desire from the men. In the modern world this can sometimes simply be increasing their status through proxy.  When I read the whore of Babylon, I see how women's sexuality is used increasingly to change society in other ways. 

  11. I think what I am appreciating is your examination of Scripture from a psychological hermeneutic. As students of the Word, many have been dedicated to examine Scripture from a lexical-syntactical analysis, historical/cultural analysis, contextual analysis, theological analysis, and special literary analysis, but we have not utilized modern science, sociology, or psychology as much as we could have to bring greater insight and understanding. Your post made me wonder how many other passages in Scripture could perhaps contain new meaning if explored from this perspective.

  12. "Generally speaking, women aren't very promiscuous. Males, by contrast, are extraordinarily slutty."

    Yes -- humans have evolved the same reproductive mechanisms as most other animals, including the birds.  The males pursue and woo while the females play hard-to-get.  It is the females who experience the long-term physical and emotional after effects of sex (i.e., pregnancy), and therefore have evolved to be much more discriminating.  A male's goal is simply to spread his seed as effectively as possible.  In some animals females do mate multiple times with different partners, and then can eject the sperm at will from all but one of the males.  This saves wear and tear on both sexes, and leads to more harmonious and less aggressive coupling.

    Human females have libidos as well, and organs whose only purpose is sexual pleasure.  Since the majority of all human societies have been patriarchies, the double standards are a purely man-made convention for scapegoating and control, whether they come from Biblical imagery or modern psychiatry.

  13. Susan, I like your solution. Certainly beginning from the stance of confession is the most Christian thing to do. And in many cases--maybe most--this works O.K., and women remember that guys have trouble with the lust of the eyes (duh!), and they sympathetically try to help us out.

    At the same time, I wonder if you're aware how vulnerable this makes males. In our culture, just as women are exploited by the multi-billion dollar lust industry, so are men exploited by the multi-billion dollar lust industry. A woman who has been spending thousands of dollars (clothing/ surgery/ perfume/ who knows what) on sexually arousing us can respond to our struggles in some pretty devastating ways. She can act offended, as though the very possibility of us having a problem with her clothing is an act of sexism; or as though we are wicked beasts for ever thinking about sexual attraction. Or, even more troubling, she can feel flattered by the attention she's getting and turn up the heat, insinuating that "it's not my fault if I'm so sensual and beautiful . . . ." 

    Believe it or not, I've seen all three. And all three leave the men wretchedly trying to crawl into a hole and determined to never, ever be honest about their struggles with this issue again. . . .

  14. Good thoughts as always, Richard. What piqued my interest along different lines in the Revelation narrative however was the following statement you made: "Historically, and even today, prostitution isn't about sexual insatiability. Prostitution for women is about economics. Women don't turn to prostitution because they can't get enough sex. Women turn to prostitution, when they aren't forced into it, because they need to eat and pay the bills."

    Exactly. The whole Babylon/ Whore system is about economics, not sex. When we are being asked to come out of her, we are being asked (in addition to other things) to abandon the economic system of the world in order to enter into the New Jerusalem/ Kingdom economy. We are beginning to see the collapse of the Babylon system even now...

  15. This powerful instinct in the human male (ever ready to hump anything that's willing or available) is one that so validates evolution.
    It makes no sense to me that God would intentionally create such an imbalance between male and female, knowing how much suffering it would generate in both genders and how little actual intimacy.  

  16. Yep.

    We've been having these "focus talks" at the private, Christian high school where I teach this past week. Some of them have centered around sexuality, so all I can say with regards to this particular post of yours, Sir Richard (that's right, you just got knighted) is: yep.

  17. Thanks, Jlh11a.  A community at its best is based on trust all around.

    Admitting any weakness certainly does leave one vulnerable, exposed to potential exploitation or rejection.  That is why, I suppose, your average Christian has perfected his/her poker face.  There is always a social hierarchy at play in any group or community, which goes beyond the cultural male-female "dance."  A politics of power, if you will.

    As far as judging whether clothing is modest or immodest, and any other image-enhancing beauty treatments (e.g., plastic surgery, tanning, fitness regimen, hair, nails, cosmetics, perfume, etc.), I don't deny that all these are intended to increase attractiveness.  The question I must ask is how much is too much?  Isn't this one of those cases of moral dumbfounding?  What is O:K to one person is morally unacceptable to another -- just depends on your idea of modest and immodest.  (On the other hand, if a thing causes a brother or sister to stumble, don't do that thing.  Do we have a responsibility to be our brother's/sister's keeper in that sense?)  Also, I think that one would have to be trying to assign motives to the woman, right?  That she had an ulterior motive to seduce the married men in the group.

    If it were me, and it were my husband, I'd be a little irritated at both my husband and the scantily-clad woman!  Negotiating these relational "situations" in marriage and in groups is not so neat and tidy, unless we are all going to just keep our poker faces on, or find a way to cause the temptation to go away on its (or her) own...

    We're a little unhealthy about our sexual identities and relationships in a cultural sense -- and most definitely where religion comes into the picture -- wouldn't you agree?  ~Peace, J~

  18. Your psychology here is spot-on.

    One thing I would like to see is the same type of study done on a Christian campus like yours. Would the numbers be much different?


    As far as the Whore of Revelation, I do see a woman, but a sociopathic, militant sort of woman rather than a sexual being. Someone with the body of a female, but lacking any of the virtues. I think of an Ayn Randian kind of woman. Antichrist's (castrating) female counterpart.

    Don't ask me why I think this. It's complicated.

  19. " In the church, all the talk I've ever heard about women needing to be modest just assumed that it was mainly a male problem that our sisters could, perhaps, help us out with."
    I find this somewhat hard to believe. Is this what you think the women were hearing? Or were they hearing, "You know men can't resist, so when you do this sort of thing, it is your responsibility; you know you are tempting men deliberately, and this means that you are insatiable, too."? I think that it might be said overtly as "Men are the insatiable ones," but the effect was (deliberately or, more likely, otherwise,) more projection, more blaming, more shaming. The lust may be male, but the responsibility is still female.

  20. So do you read the Madonna that is Israel as a male projection, too? A projection of the desire for control, exclusivity, submission? Or, I suppose I should ask instead, how do you read the Madonna in light of reading the Whore as a man?

  21. When I was pondering this post on my bike ride to work I kicked around that question. "If the Whore is a man then who is the Bride?" I had two initial thoughts. The Bride could be a woman or the Bride could be a faithful husband. But then I got to work and didn't carry the thoughts any further.

  22. The inability of most church-goers to acknowledge this is one of the main reasons I had to leave the church.  A willful blindness to scientific evidence.

  23. I don't think I'm subverting the clear meaning of the text. I don't think the gender of the one being sexually unfaithful carries a great deal of theological weight. I think the central theme is unfaithfulness, no matter the gender of the one being unfaithful. And, strictly from a data standpoint, men fit the description more than women. If the shoe fits...

    Also, I totally agree that the biblical narrative at many locations rehabilitates prostitutes in surprising and stunning ways.

    Regarding your central thesis, that the female harlot is an apt metaphor because it is shocking given the assumption that women are generally chaste, I don't see the evidence that this was a regulating assumption regarding women. Particularly with the cultural backdrop of Middle Eastern gender relations. Also, for the bible to play the whore card only with women (even if we grant your assumption) and never with men needs some accounting.

  24. Right. I ask because if we take the Whore to be projection of negative male things, that's fine because it's a negative figure. Babylon is what we don't like about ourselves. Cool. Others always are that, but this time the other (capital-O Other, if you're not used to seeing it lower-cased) is actually evil, so it's probably OK. But what happens when the Virgin Bride is a representation of expectations that we men /shouldn't/ have? Because then that seems like a problem: either we might have a workable imagine of Babylon but we have a seriously messed up image of Jerusalem (which wouldn't be a surprise--hell is always easier to describe than heaven), or we still wind up with a messed up image of what a woman should be like, OR we say that Jerusalem is everything we as men hope we could be...and therefore leave women out of the picture still. Or any combination of the three. But I was wondering if you had a way of reading it that /wasn't/ this pessimistic. I really like what you're saying about the Whore imagery, but I'm worried that there are other consequences.

  25. "I think one problem with evolutionary psychology is perhaps the greater weight being given to nature, as opposed to nurture."
    ABSOLUTELY. As a result, it tends to universalize behaviour that is not universal, just very common (or thought to be so) in our culture.There's nothing wrong with evolutionary psychology so long as it sticks to traits that are genetically determined, which tends to be a lot fewer traits that some of the more trigger-happy ev psychologists seem to think. (I'm sure there are ev psych's who are more reasonable, though.)

  26. "image", not "imagine." Sorry. I've been writing papers for weeks now. My typing is getting sloppier than normal.

  27. An excellent read. It is very much a fact of life, that Men have stronger sexual urges than Women, and are also far more likely to be criminal offenders of a sexual nature. Psychology can add great insight into biblical studies.

    I remember the verses where Jesus is accused of consorting with prostitutes.

    I go further. Harlots, Whores, Sluts, are just names to call a class of women who do not or can not conform to sets of norms laid down by men who project, and women who are offended.

    Prostitution is as old as the Caveman who traded food for sex. It has been with with humanity for almost countless millenia. Sex for trade, between adults, is none of anybody else's business. If they protect themselves, stay healthy, it harms no one.

    Sex workers, as I refer to them, deserve the same respect as pastors, accountants or fire fighters. Their job is necessary, someone will always have to do it. Best that Sex Workers are respected, are safe and healthy. Legalization of Sex Work removes to a great extent the criminal element. A Sex Worker should be able to go to the police if she feels unsafe or is threatened, without fear of imprisonment.

    I agree that sex is best between married monogamous couples. However, marriage is not possible for every person, to think so is just plain ignorance.

    Disabled Men especially, find that marriage is almost impossible to achieve, and often spend many years without erotic and sensual touch of a Woman. Seeing a Sex Worker should be an option without shame.

    Stuart Mawbey

  28. Except that it's a silly and sadistic societal construct. Men are as hurt as women by being forced into the fantastical lust-and-bloodthirst role.

  29. I don't think John Revelator had a "sexual fantasy [for] a woman who is sexually uninhibited and insatiable." Speaking of projection.

  30. Alastair, your comments are as long as my posts. I admire that! As well as your biblical erudition, that I also greatly admire.

    Regarding the Whore and Bride as theological archetypes that's sort of my point. Why are the male writers of Scripture, when they want to use sexual immorality as a metaphor, using women rather than men? Your argument, if I have this right, is that female sexual immorality is worse than male unfaithfulness. Right? But isn't that my point?

    And even if I grant you that there is a time and a place to use a woman as the archetype for sexual immorality (because we are all sinners, men and women), my question becomes: where in the bible is male sexual immorality--which we know greatly outstrips female sexual immorality--elevated to a similar theological archetype? I can't find it, not with the pervasiveness of the whore metaphor. And that asymmetry goes to the point I'm making. In your opinion, is that an example of patriarchy or not? In your comment you seem to find the male version of this archetype with homosexuality, but this also makes my case (let alone the fact that this isn't an archetype). Making the homosexual the archetype of male sexual immorality continues to sweep under the rug the same sin the whore metaphor was hiding: heterosexual male activity.

    In short, don't you think it extraordinarily strange that the empirically best example of sexual immorality--the activity of heterosexual males--is largely ignored in the bible to focus on women and gays? And isn't this hypocrisy continuing to plague the contemporay Christian church?

  31. It also strikes me that the women aren't literal, they are depictions of two cities, and the whore is certainly the actual city of Jerusalem, which was run by a pack of men. So in one sense, the bible is recognizing the proffered dynamic. The sins of that pack of men are projected as a insatiable whore.

    One would also have to pull in the comment in Ezekiel that Jerusalem-as-whore is rather unique: unlike regular old economic prostitutes who do it for money, Jerusalem is a buffoonish whore who pays her johns, because she *is* into it for the lust (symbolically: lust for horses and chariots: the weapons of warfare)

  32. To summarize, you're saying that the image of the whore in Revelation is used because the image of the woman in this instance goes against what was assumed to be the baseline of female behavior (i.e., chastity and fidelity). Thus, it's the contrast--the picture of his high-handed whore against the backdrop of typically moderate female sexual behavior--that gives the image in Revelation its particular prophetic punch. That is, it's extrondinaritly shocking to see a women act this way given what we know women to be like.

    Two thoughts.

    First, to make this work you'd have to demonstrate that Middle Eastern males during the time of the biblical writers held the background assumption of women that you posit. That is, historically speaking, did the males of that time and place see women as essentially chaste and sexually reserved? Or did they see them as locations of lust and licentiousness? I don't know the answer to that question, but everything I've read on the subject hints that they didn't operate with the working assumption you posit. But I could be wrong. Are you or any readers aware of the prevailing male views of female sexuality during the times of the bible's composition?

    Second, I still don't buy the idea that homosexual rape is the equivalent archetype for men in the bible. I do agree that hetero- and homosexual rape is condemned. But we never see it used in a symbolic fashion for Israel and the church, though I could be misremembering. If so, point me to an example. Even so, it's not a dominant and pervasive symbol. Which brings me back to the asymmetry of using the worst female sexual sin as the metaphor for unfaithfulness.

    This asymmetry is particularly acute given the rage that a sexually unfaithful wife generates in traditional societies. Women are still killed for suspected infidelity. Sexual jealousy is one of the leading causes of domestic violence. So, yes, I get how powerful and rage-filled the harlot metaphor is in Revelation. My concern is how that metaphor activates this male rage and paranoid but never activates an equivalent rage over the man cheating on his wife. Which, empirically speaking, happens more often than the other way around. Maybe that's not a high water mark in you eyes, but then again, maybe we should ask the women about that.

  33. No, you are misrepresenting my position here. The main
    reason why the image of female sexual sin is employed here
    is because, in terms of the prophetic symbolism, both the city and the nation
    of Israel in marital relationship to God are symbolically female. The image of
    the whore is not just a generic and free-floating metaphor for sexual
    promiscuity, but a carefully crafted symbol, related to a broader network of


    If we really want to know why the image of the whore was
    chosen rather than an image of male sexual promiscuity or infidelity, we need
    to ask deeper questions such as why God's relationship with his people is
    spoken of in terms of a relationship between husband and wife, or why God is
    the husband and the people are the wife. That is where our answers will lie.


    The problem with your first point is that it does not take
    seriously enough the specific character of the sin of the whore figures of
    Scripture, treating them as if they were just generic nymphomaniacs. However,
    the whore figures of Scripture are far more complexly drawn characters. While
    they can be characterized by pure nymphomania in some contexts, it is their high-handed
    and wilful infidelity that is highlighted. In other contexts, such as
    Revelation 17-18, they are primarily characterized by economic and political
    motivations, rather than sexual ones. Whatever ANE males may have believed
    about the levels and intensity of female desire in general, the figure of the
    woman who spurned her loving husband and wilfully whored herself out to other
    men was an extreme and monstrous one. Apart from an extreme prophetic image,
    this figure is difficult to find in the biblical text.


    Can the prophets use imagery of male infidelity to make
    similar points? Yes, they can, but the resulting symbolic grammar is much more
    convoluted and complicated. For instance, in Malachi 2:10-16 you have Judah as YHWH’s
    son going after the daughter of a foreign god, betraying the divinely witnessed
    marriage to the wife of his youth. The resulting picture is rather difficult to
    figure out in comparison to the straightforward imagery of Israel as in a
    marriage covenant with God commonly applied.


    The sin of homosexual rape is not used in the same manner as
    a prophetic archetype. However, it is presented as the paradigmatic male sexual
    sin in scriptural narrative. Sodom and Gibeah are the great abominations that
    represent the high-water mark of a city’s wickedness, and Romans 1 takes
    rapacious homosexuality as the paradigm case of the breaking down of the
    created order.


    The Scripture takes the cheating and unfaithfulness of men
    incredibly seriously, Malachi 2 being an obvious example of this sin being
    addressed directly. As I have argued, the fact that the cheating male seldom
    appears as a prophetic symbol has a fairly logical explanation, if we step back
    and think about it. The symbols are gendered, as Israel is symbolically
    gendered, but the targets of those symbols are principally men (e.g. Hosea
    5:1-5). The cheating male is not the counterpart of the
    whore, because the whore is not just about cheating or even sexual promiscuity (the
    homosexual cult prostitute is the nearest thing to a male counterpart to the
    whore figure). The cheating male is also not the high-water mark male sin, as
    there are more shocking sins such as rape, and especially homosexual rape.

  34. Sorry about any misrepresentation. I am trying to be honest in understanding you correctly, that's important to me, though I think we'll part ways in the end.

    To attempt another summary: The image of female sexual immorality is the default not because women were being stigmatized by patriarchal assumptions (and the Freudian projection I speak of in the post) but becasue the root metaphor for the relationship between Israel and YHWH was marriage, with Israel as the wife and YHWH as the husband. So, of course the infidelity is on the female side as YHWH, being the husband/man, is never unfaithful.


    I can't object to that. Though, and I bet you can see this coming, it poses a bit of a backup problem. Specifically, if females are generally the faithful ones, sexually speaking, why did the root metaphor get aligned the way it did in the first place? Why is the generally faithfuless one in reality (the man) cast as the faithful one in the imagery? Such questions, obviously, take us deep into all sorts of feminist scholarship and the reactions against that scholarship. My sense is that you wouldn't hold a lot of those feminist readings in high esteem. So, we both knew we'd part ways at some point. Perhaps at this location.

    Regarding the parallelism of symbols, I have no disagreement that the bible condemns male sexual immorality. We agree on that. And while you do admit that an exact parallelism of symbols doesn't exist on the male side, I think we can trace that back to how the root metaphor is structured. Which brings us full circle.


  35. I'd add a couple of things.

    First, the Bible is inherently androcentric, as my (female) professor likes to put it, whether or not it is sexist. The meaning of any given metaphor receives particular weight in terms of how that looks to men.

    Second, the traditional "whoring" language of the prophets was actually most often directed at Israelite men as the "whores" who ran after false gods.

    Third, the picture of corporate Israel as a female was too good to pass up, and conformed pretty well with a mostly-male image of God. At that point, it became more easy to talk about Israel corporately (meaning, of course, the men) as an unfaithful wife.

    Fourth, I think the Bible does largely see the man as the more likely aggressor/ sexually immoral person, and the woman as a symbol of that which is guarded, pure, kept safe. Men wandering around naked aren't that big a deal (Isaiah did it for a few years to make a point); men finding a sexual partner aren't that surprising (all the major characters do it a lot). Women exposed, or reduced to blatant sexual symbols, are more shocking. I don't think this is just our modern culture.

  36. Of course agree with all of the above. I'm very sorry if I seemed to be assigning motives. I certainly don't want to say that women who spend this money are trying to be immodest or to seduce. I am saying that most of the clothing, perfume, and other enhancements are designed in a calculated manner in order to play on the male libido--and that not acknowledging this is rather naive of many women who (on one level) simply want to "look nice" but (at another level) want to play our culture's game of "how can I attract attention."

    I know that you already knew that admitting weaknesses makes one vulnerable. I am not sure, however, whether you (or any other woman I know) understands the EXTENT to which this particular weakness (visual stimulation) plagues men, and the EXTENT to which we are caught in a double-bind (confronted by images designed to arouse our lust and then blamed for having our lust aroused), and the EXTENT to which admitting this weakness plays into gender-stereotypes (all men are just filthy-minded dogs!). I'd much, much rather be admitting that I have a weakness for sacrificing to dark spirits by the light of the moon.

  37. I simply disagree. You can always assign hidden messages and motives to Christian men/ churches everywhere, and there is no way to prove you wrong. And of course I have no knowledge of, nor control over, how women may or may not have heard what was said.

    But I think the responsibility has always been on males for their actions in all of the circles in which I move. And 95% this has been rightly so. And the godly women have always stepped up to take their 5% of the responsibility--if for no other reason than to keep themselves and their sisters and daughters safe. And the ungodly had an easy time shirking their 5% of the responsibility, because it was so easy to do, because the message was always (and 95% of the time should have been) that these things were the fault of the male.

    So I don't disagree a bit with what Richard says, but it falls under the category, "In other news, water is wet."

  38. At the risk of having not read the many responses to this blog, I yet will speak. You have struck a nerve! Not only has my biblicist DNA forbidden taking on the question of the implications and usage of a scriptural metaphor in, of all things. The book of Revelation, but your analysis makes such sense that I think the contemporary translators of the NT ought to seriously consider changing the gender of the beast rider, at least put in some heavy asterisks in the text to clarify and update the passage. And I'm only half kidding!

  39. Yes, that new summary of my position is correct.

    In answer to your question, the root metaphor was not formed in terms of relative levels of sexual faithfulness. Besides, the whore imagery is used in a manner that suggests that the harlotry of Israel was extreme, monstrous, and atypical even of other harlots, e.g. Ezekiel 16:33-34. Far from representing underlying negative assumptions about female sexuality in general, in its use of whore imagery, the text makes a point of characterizing Israel’s sin as distinct and incomparable even to the sins of women usually spoken of as whores.

    Sexual faithfulness only comes into view at a secondary level. The most fundamental rationale for the gendered ordering of the root metaphor lies in the fact that God is consistently identified as ‘grammatically’ masculine in his relationship with the world. We may speculate on the reasons for this, but the identification is both clear and fixed (despite the occasional feminine metaphor) and bears significant symbolic and theological weight throughout the biblical text. The primary purpose of the root metaphor is to present an incredibly close blessed and loving covenantal relationship between God and his people. The whore imagery operates as an appalling distortion of this underlying and fundamentally positive marital imagery.

    I think that part of our difficulty here is that you seem to be thinking in terms of fairly shallow and occasional ‘metaphors’, while I am thinking in terms of deep frameworks of symbolism, which have established grammatical norms and logic to them and where each image is closely bound up with an entire network of other imagery. While we may be fairly free to employ a wide range of different metaphors in a given situation, within a network of symbolism, appropriate and inappropriate symbols are far more carefully and closely defined.

    And, yes, this does take us deep in the questions of feminist scholarship, as feminist scholarship, when not condemning the text for its misogyny and androcentricity, commonly reappropriates the deep embedded symbolic matrices of Scripture as loose collections of arbitrary, reversible, or shallow metaphors, networks that permit elements to be disrupted or transformed without doing violence to the whole.

  40. I think that it would create a dangerously unhealthy dynamic for men and women to start to confess sexual sins to each other in mixed groups. In my experience, however, Christian men frequently do confess to the sin of lust to other men and prayer is made for each other.

    Jlh11a is right to highlight the double-bind character of this situation as men experience it. Christian men today probably face a battle with the sin of lust far greater than in any previous society. I think that Christian men feel dishonoured by women who purposefully provoke such lust in the way that they act or dress.

    On the other hand, men are not the only ones facing a double-bind here. Our culture constantly tells women that they should dress to be validated by men, and then they find themselves being held responsible and accused for the lust that is provoked.

    I don't think that any unilateral solution addressing one sex alone will solve this problem. The modesty approach of the church is often profoundly misguided and unable to address the deeper problems here. For instance, we need to raise daughters to be confident and secure enough in their identity not to need to get validation from men through wearing revealing clothes. Only people who are really secure in their identity can be modest and avoid flaunting the wealth, looks, power, influence, or intelligent that they have. We also need to re-establish sex as a topic of conversation with clear boundaries of decency, appropriateness, and discretion. As all contexts and behaviours become increasingly sexualized, should it be any surprise that even people who seek to be modest should continually find their actions interpreted otherwise?

  41. Hi Dr. Beck, thanks for all of your efforts to look at the biblical narrative apart from the way it's always been interpreted *for* and *at* us.  The total depravity thing seems to be doubly damning for women, going all the way back to Eve--that evil temptress, the downfall of mankind...  I am no biblical scholar or theologian, but had a few thoughts.  Recently, I read Peter Enns' 'The Evolution of Adam' and learned that the most current historical and archaeological evidence points to the OT having been written post-Babylonian exile.  Who knew?!  It seems to me that the Israelites' attitudes about their identity in the context of the Babylonian culture would have conceivably turned against females, given the Babylonian worship of female deities (e.g., Ishtar).  Babylon = evil; therefore, females who are apparently revered and deified in Babylonian culture = evil.

    I also thought of Ruth and Boaz.  Ruth, being a model of faithfulness (to Naomi), and Boaz representing the kinsman-redeemer/type of Christ.  I love that story, because Ruth is the initiator (!!), and Boaz breaks the rules in order to be MORE generous than required by law toward Ruth.

    In feminist theology, isn't the root issue more about men's fear of women's power to bear children?  Which is ironic, since motherhood has the potential, even in this day and age, to make a woman very vulnerable in so many ways, not least of which is economically.  In ancient times, barrenness was the worst curse, right?  If you did not bear children for a husband, there was absolutely no marital, social, or economic guarantee of security.  That's all I have time to process right now.  ~Peace~

  42. Jlh11a, I agree with your point that largely felt like, to me at least, an assumed male problem that our sisters could help us out with. 

    I'm open to the concept that there is some responsibility to be had on the female end (though I won't presume to be as precise as a 95-5% issue). Bringing numbers into it usually isn't helpful and you tend to avoid small quibbles with more ambiguous language such as "there is a shared responsibility between males and females in regards to how they affect and interact sexually." I think people just tend to agree more with those sorts of statements. 

    Anyway, I do like the different interpretation Richard brings, to check our prejudices and assumptions and help us understand a seemingly unrelated dynamic taking place. I mean there do seem to be circles that scapegoat the male sex-drive upon their feminine counterparts, to deny this, I think you'd be missing a good chunk of the puzzle. But again, I think we are all getting too caught up in "who's to blame" when talking about a culture that is hugely diverse and therefore hard to conceptualize and pin down. Obviously women have a sex-drive, obviously men have one. Obviously, as a whole, men's seems to be more consistent and leads to action/affair more consistently. Responsibility is always going to be shared and "to what degree" is speculative and varies depending upon who you talk to. Men and women are both responsible for how provocatively they dress, men and women are both responsible for their sexual exploits as well. To fail sexually and then blame it on someone else crying, "But they made me do it!" or at least "They influenced me negatively," is as childish as it sounds. 

  43. "The lust may be male, but the responsibility is still female."

    Let's clarify somethings here. The responsibility for what is still female? If it is for the lust of the male, I would most ardently disagree. My lust is my own regardless of how many external influences there are. THAT sounds like shirking responsibility. If the responsibility that females have is to how they present themselves, well then absolutely. We all have that responsibility. Just be careful that you don't conflate the two and presume that the responsibility for your sins is someone else's. 

    Though I may be dumb and that was never your point. There's always that.

  44. Fine, I agree with all of that. By the way I use the "95%" language rather than the "shared responsibility" language often, in my interpersonal relationship, to emphasize that I want to take on the lion's share of the responsibility without taking on the totality of the responsibility. It's a sort of short-hand for me. After all, 86.7% of statistics are made up on the spot.

  45. Hi Jlh, I take your word for it that visual imagery is a powerful temptation for men.  In our culture, I can understand how that is a problem which is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid.  I don't know your situation, J.  I can only speak from my perspective, as a married woman, old enough to be the mother of teenagers!  As a woman, I would not want to be seen as first and foremost a sex object.  As a married woman, I hope (at least) that if my husband sees an attractive woman, he will remember our vows and resist the urge to act on the desire.  As a mother of both a son and a daughter, I am mindful of the cultural influences to which they are exposed.  I hope that they will make wise choices concerning their bodies, taking into consideration the impact of those choices on others (and themselves, for that matter.)

    As I was reflecting on this discussion, it occurred to me that the issue presented in the example I shared involves purity and hospitality.  Can a small dose of impurity (the visually-distracting woman) contaminate the purity of the group, and how do we follow the example of Christ in welcoming outsiders?  I got to thinking about Jesus and his close encounters with various women...  His humanness didn't seem to get in the way.  I wonder how the apostles did in imitating Jesus' example?  His is a tough act to follow, no doubt about it.

    I don't think there's any shame in admitting our own limitations, first of all to ourselves, but then at least to someone whom we can trust to tell us the truth and give good advice.  :-)  We also trust that we don't have to stay stuck in the same spot.  We have hope, through Christ, right?  Thanks for your honesty.  I appreciate this thoughtful dialogue with you.  ~Peace~

  46. Richard: can i give one more bit on this? I think the Great Whore imagery was one more thing: it was offering a "true view" of Rome. It was turning Roman symbols into commentary on the true nature of things. The Great Mother of all Prostitute Sitting by many waters, sitting on seven hills.   I have heard folks suggest that this was a direct play on the imagery around the Goddess Roma, the Godess of Rome, which imargery common at the time had this goddess sitting on seven hills, with her feet by the waters of the Tigris river.  This imagery is seen in the Dea Roma Coin minted in A.D. 71 in Asia Minor. http://www.icollector.com/Roman-Empire-Vespasian-69-79-Sestertius-71-28-39g_i9258028  It shows Roma sitting on Seven Hills, with the River God TIgris at her feet.   So this does play into the view of Whore/Bride as you say, but it also i think has a deeper political vibe too relating to the Godess of Rome.  It would be like us seeing at Chapter Seven imagery that was clearly a mockery of Uncle Sam and an Eagle. 

  47. Alastair, I hear your concern. But this inability to talk about sex/gender in mixed company can be terribly damaging to people who have been sexually violated. There is no church that feels as cold as one where you're dealing with abuse issues and people can't even talk about Abraham and Sarah having sex to have Isaac in mixed company without apologizing. It's so chilling to any hope of healing or redemption. So I hear where you're coming from on a grand scale, but it has harmful implications on the small. 

  48. There's a very significant difference between not confessing sexual sins in mixed groups, and not ever speaking about sex (or gender!?) in mixed groups. I think that an open conversation about sexual norms may be extremely healthy in certain mixed groups, provided that careful boundaries of conversation are established and maintained. One of these boundaries would be a resistance to confession of sexual sins in such a mixed group (and, frankly, it is seldom that such private sins are best confessed in such a group setting).

  49.  Alastair: "The thing that troubles me most about the post above is the readiness
    with which a reading that subverts the clear meaning of the text in
    order to rein it in to contemporary convictions is adopted"...

    always suspicious of any appeal to the 'clear meaning' of the text :-) Do you also claim this for, say, 1 Cor 11:2-16, 1 Cor 14:34-5 and 1 Tim 2:11-15? ;-)

  50. While definitely not uncomplicated and containing certain incredibly unclear elements, the meaning of most of those texts you mention really isn't quite as opaque as some might like them to be. While I certainly wouldn't claim that they are simple or straightforward texts, most especially as regards their contemporary application, the notion that they are particularly complicated owes rather a lot to the way that they clash with prevailing cultural beliefs. While I would not dispute that the claim of 'clear meaning' can often be used to forestall necessary exegetical discussion or conversation concerning application, the presumption of inclarity of meaning is no less problematic on this front. Inclarity of meaning is all too often employed as a means of dodging the challenge that texts present to our prejudices and not doing serious business with them. Besides, in my experience, the very same people who deem texts such as those you mention profoundly unclear believe that other texts such as, say, Romans 16:7 are incredibly clear both in their exegesis and in their implications for contemporary church practice. My position is that we need to engage with all parts of Scripture, and especially with those parts that make us feel uncomfortable, holding our nerve, and not touching up or emptying the text of its scandal or challenge.
    On the whore of Revelation, she is clearly and frequently referred to as a female figure. It seems to me that we need to do business with the text that we are given, and not airbrush it. Even if we believe that the text should have referred to the whore as a male figure, we must wrestle with the fact that, for the text she is a female figure. What it means that she is a female figure, and why she is portrayed as she is is definitely debatable, but I really dislike any attempt to paper over such a detail because it makes us feel uncomfortable or feels inappropriate to us. We stand to learn the most from Scripture at those very points where it makes us feel uncomfortable or violates our sensibilities. Without denying or wanting to avoid the many complex questions that surround the identity of the whore of Revelation, I want us to remain clear on those points that the text is clear upon.

  51.  I don't like the assumption that men are horny and women aren't.  That further perpetuates the virgin-whore dichotomy that women have to deal with in every day life.  You assert that the whore is a myth because men blame women for their horniness, but for real women today, the words slut and whore are weapons used on women to punish them for having any sort of sexual agency. 

  52. I agree, though for probably different reasons.  Not that yours are not on point, but the flip side of the coin is that all sexual discourse is the responsibility of the male. In modern society that is not the case. 

  53. I would like to mention that some of the comments made in this article about
    differences in the sex drives of men and women--while not necessarily
    wrong, per se--fail to take into account the degree to which culturally
    constructed gender norms inform people's sexual choices and sexual
    behaviors along gendered lines. For example, women are not necessarily
    less inclined than men toward sexual activity for natural reasons, but
    rather are influenced a great deal by the cultural expectations put on
    them. In the case of the study that this article sites, women may have
    been less likely to accept a sexual offer not because they are choosier
    than men, but because they are expected not to by a society that will
    brand them as "sluts" if they do.

    It is important to keep in mind that while women are put under
    pressure to be nearly asexual before marriage, men are put under equal
    and opposite pressure to be hypersexual all the time. These social
    expectations put both men and women in corresponding, equal but opposite
    binds. In terms of our sexual desires, men and women probably aren't,
    on average, enormously different from one another, so it would be unfair to say that men
    are simply projecting their naturally overactive libido onto women. I think it would be
    more accurate to say that men project the social pressure they feel to
    be sexually successful--which is defined for men by society as having
    frequent sexual encounters with multiple partners--onto women, or that
    men read women as the source of this pressure, when in fact, it is a
    cultural construction that both men and women participate in to varying
    degrees and in different ways.

  54. I'm absolutely loving your blog- especially the insights on faith and psychology- and... psychologically aware hermanutics?? Is that the phrase? Anyway... funnily enough, (out of interest) when I reread the passage there- as you quoted it... my first instinct was to see the Church! More specifically, the institutions of "Church" (from the Cathedrals guilded with the penances of the poor seen across Europe, to the use of pseudo-religious philosophies to gain support for politicians or "send us your money now" TV preachers) throughout history, particularly in the connection of religion and the accumulation of power and wealth (which is certainly not something that died completely with the Reformation, and is still alive today). Whether is is relevant or not, that historically, and still for the most part today, the institutions of the Church have been run and dictated largely by men, I'm not sure. Perhaps with such a reading it might be relevant, as one could argue that the projection is not simply one relating to struggles over the libido, but also over maintaining integrity when people take up positions of power.

  55. Man you are totally wrong.
    Wrong not about men sexuality and libido.

    But about the image of the Babylon Whore in Revelation.
    In ancient Rome there was a popular statue with woman that sits on the lion. That was a symbol of the Rome's statehood.
    John take this image to show the whore as a state.
    And the prototype of the woman was Messalina - real historical person http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valeria_Messalina

  56. Quite a fascinating insight I must admit. The article was very helpful in my research. However, my worry is how the male panelists will behave when I shall be preseting the proposal.

  57. http://edition.cnn.com/video/?/video/world/2012/12/31/darlington-brazil-virginity-for-sale.cnn 
    a support for your view


  59. Possibility of male being the whore is thought provoking. I always thought it was a literal person, even though I was taught otherwise. Jesus called the women to repentance because of the jezebel spirit, it is a spirit of pride and control. It's not that the women is sexually uncontrollable it's that a women knows they can take advantage of a man in his weaknesses. For example a drug dealer, most dealers don't get high themselves, they sell a product to weak addicts and play up the lifestyle of being an addict. Even though they themselves don't use they make it seem like a fantasy life. They take advantage of the addict, which is also a jezebel spirit in itself. I can do many illegal things to make money one is not better than the other in the eyes of God. What about Sampson he was tricked by his lust's to cut his hair again weakness used against him. To me it is all greed either way you like at it. (unless the women is forced into a life of whoredom). What I am asking is how can a non-tangible thing be thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation talks about after the thousand year reign of Christ that Satan will thrown into the lake of fire where already two are "the false prophet and the harlot". So how can America, Israel or the church be the harlot. It has to be a person whether male or female I do not know but you can't burn or throw something that is not made of some sort of matter. I will further my study and repost my findings, again very thought provoking.

  60. Wow, that was just simply, purely, fantastic! It fits really well considering Rome/Bablylon/Athens were all run by men; women weren't considered able enough to participate in politics. The biblical contrast is, IMO, a contrast between God's rule and the man's rule; humans prostitute themselves before the god of Money quite frequently. God rules justly, we rule according to our desires. Anyways, well done.

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