Holy nudity?

Nakedness and the Bible.

Let’s get the Jesus question out of the way first. Jesus is depicted implicitly as naked five times in scripture. The first is his birth, we are all born naked, the second at his circumcision, then his baptism, crucifixion and his resurrection. The resurrection is explicit, we are told the grave cloths were left behind in the tomb, and that Mary Magdelene when she saw him she thought he was the gardener. People doing physical work in those days would seldom have been able to afford more than one set of clothes, so would work naked. An Egyptian mosaic from that period shows fishermen on the Nile, those facing forwards the camera have loin cloths for dignity but the man bottom left is shown to be fishing naked. An even older line drawing shows naked men preparing fish for salting.

Free image from Wikimedia Commons.

The only explicit mention of a naked person in the New Testament is the young man who evades capture at the arrest of Jesus by shedding his garment and running away naked, thought to have been included by Mark in his account as a ‘look, I was there.’

The Old Testament has lots of nudity, from the prophet Isaiah being told by God to be naked and barefoot for three years. This was a sign of shame, the reason being, “This is a sign of what will happen to Egypt and Ethiopia. The emperor of Assyria will lead away naked the prisoners he captures from those two countries. Young and old, they will walk barefoot and naked, with their buttocks exposed, bringing shame on Egypt.” (Isaiah 20:3-4). There is no mention of what they thought of this in the palace, Isaiah was the king’s prophet. The cutting off of garments as a sign of shame to expose the buttocks and, presumably, the genitalia, also happened to ambassadors of David to Hanun, king of the Ammonites, who were sent back with half their beards shaved off and their tunics cut off at the navel. Exposed genitals were seen as a sign of shame. What a change from Eden, where Adam and Eve are said to have been naked and unashamed before the fall.

Where does this shame come from? God never says that nudity is shameful, in making better coverings for Adam and Eve than the fig leaves they had sewn together, God is reacting to sin in the way God usually reacts to sin, by saying, “OK, have it your way.”

Back to David: When the ark of the Lord was taken to Jerusalem we are told that David, wearing an ephod, danced before the Lord with all his might. The ephod was a tunic that was about knee length with a belt around the waist, David’s dancing caused his genitals to be exposed, and his wife Michal was ashamed of him and rebuked him, “How the king of Israel honoured himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” she said. Yet David was approved by God and Michal was cursed with having no children. It looks like God was not ashamed of David exposing himself.

The ephod was also the priestly garment. The instructions for the priestly garments in Exodus 28 include wearing linen shorts because when the priest goes up the steps to present a sacrifice to God that he will not be exposed, there is no instruction for priests to wear underwear at other times. According to the Talmud the shorts, hidden garments, atone for hidden sins of the priests, such as sexual sin.

The high priest’s clothing is supposed to point to Christ. Christ is both the sacrifice and high priest but while the high priest had elaborate vestments, Jesus Christ, God’s sacrifice hung naked on the cross. The high priest’s ephod had 12 stones representing the tribes of Israel before God – Jesus represents us directly to God and prays for us. We have direct access to him.

Uncovering nakedness is a phrase used in the Old Testament and I have read commentaries taking this literal, but is it? The restrictions of undercovering nakedness are to close family, for instance you must not uncover the nakedness of any of your father’s wives (it was a polygamous age). On the other hand, other commentators take this as a warning against incest. When Noak came off the ark he planted a vineyard, harvested the grapes and made wine, which he drank, became drunk and fell asleep. Ham. his son saw him naked and was cursed. But seeing someone naked, like Isaiah or David is not condemned, so why should Ham be unless “uncovering nakedness” is euphemistic for something else. Covering and uncovering, like when Saul enters a cave to cover his feet. Most modern translation has this phrase meaning relieve himself, we can safely say that this is a euphemism as is when Ruth uncovered the feet of Boaz (note she is not having sex with him). Whatever these euphemisms mean it is not simply nudity.

I am not advocating a mass Christian streak, we should be careful not to give offence, so that means being clothed in public, at least under most circumstances.

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