It’s not what you think…To correctly understand what the Bible really means when it associates shame with nakedness, we need to first take off the cultural glasses we’ve been wearing… and read the biblical text with a clearer understanding of the ancient context from which the scriptures sprung. To do that, we must first recognize—and reject—a false “marriage” of concepts that was foreign to the writers of the Scriptures.
The False “Marriage” of Nudity and SexWhenever a society is trained to interpret the sight of the unclothed body as a sexual event, it produces a “pornographic view of the body.” This sex-focused perception targets the nude body for sexploitation. Pornography thrives on this wedding of sexual stimulation to nakedness. When churches blindly “tie the knot”—teaching that God ordained this conceptual marriage—they unwittingly foster a “pornified” culture. Such blindness is self-perpetuating, for it keeps Christians from seeing that most occasions of nudity in Scripture are nonsexual. My term porno-prudery effectively describes the widespread religious thinking that sanctions this unholy matrimony of sex and nudity. Prudery and pornography are fraternal twins, born from the same false, Creator-dishonoring concept of the body. Porno-prudery promotes endless debates between those who see “modesty” as hiding skin and those who see its correct biblical meaning: dressing up with internal virtues rather than external adornments. Porno-prudery, by its very nature, sabotages an accurate understanding of the biblical shame of nakedness. By supposing that visible nakedness always has a sexual meaning, it treats the public sight of nudity as always shameful. Scripture does not support such an assumption.
Correcting Culturally Colored VisionWe moderns need to remove our culture-colored eyeglasses and stop reading back into Bible times the existence of swimsuits and private bathrooms. Archaeology helps us with this by showing how ordinary the sight of nonsexual nudity was in ancient civilizations. Not only were there public latrines and baths designed for group use, but in the Roman Empire, during the time of Christ, separate constructions to segregate males and females were deemed unnecessary. It is clear that our biblical ancestors did not share our present-day preoccupation with body shame. In all ancient cultures, patterns of outdoor bathing and excretory hygiene reflected this same healthy body acceptance. The many examples of manual laborers working without the encumbrance of clothing also speak of a healthier attitude toward bare human anatomy than we now have. So, neither in Bible lands nor elsewhere was a condition of visible nudity exclusively interpreted as sexual or shameful in nature. In view of this ancient way of perceiving nudity, we can begin to comprehend what the biblical shame of nakedness actually meant. But a full appreciation of that shame also depends on understanding the significance of clothing.
The Nakedness of the PoorIn the first place, the purpose of clothing in Scripture was not to hide the body, but to protect it from the elements and to adorn it either officially or aesthetically. Second, clothing was handmade and expensive. A single garment might be all that a working-class person owned. For the poor, literal nakedness and the coldness it brought were realistic possibilities that called for practical compassion. An outfit’s combined financial and practical value often made it the logical possession to take as a pledge to insure debt repayment, leaving its owner naked during the day while working off what he owed. Again, this is not new information, but missed information, which becomes misinformation in the mouths of teachers who read porno-prudish assumptions from the present back into the past. Once we realize the extreme value of clothing—not for hiding anatomy, but for protecting the body—we can begin to understand the Bible’s most frequent references to shame in relationship to nakedness. Naked shame is almost always related to clothing being lost or taken away in the contexts of coercion, military defeat, or poverty (both physical and spiritual). Less frequently it’s associated with sexual violations or with personal and religious disrespect. Exploring these biblical examples of the shame about nakedness would require another article. But in contrast to these, the sight of the body’s exposure in work (John 21:7 [lit.]), in a prophetic role (Isaiah 20:2‑4; Micah 1:8; 1 Samuel 19:23‑24), or in outdoor bathing (Exodus 2:5‑7; 2 Samuel 12:1‑9) are never depicted by the writers of Scripture as shameful. Yet all these very public activities made the naked body commonly visible to friends, family, and neighbors.
Read It Again… Without the Cultural FilterAgain, a preconceived idea that weds nudity with sexual involvement can bring a blindness to the study of Scripture. This culturally performed wedding veils the eyes of Bible readers, so that modern culture dictates what they see in various passages where publicly visible nudity is either mentioned or implied. Even I—who reread God’s Word with that veil removed—failed for a while to see what was really taking place in the following passage, 2 Chronicles 28:8‑11, 14-15:
The men of Israel took captive 200,000 of their relatives, women, sons, and daughters. They also took much spoil from them and brought the spoil to Samaria. But a prophet of the LORD was there, whose name was Oded, and he went out to meet the army that came to Samaria and said to them, “Behold, because the LORD, the God of your fathers, was angry with Judah, he gave them into your hand, but you have killed them in a rage that has reached up to heaven. And now you intend to subjugate the people of Judah and Jerusalem, male and female, as your slaves. Have you not sins of your own against the LORD your God? Now hear me, and send back the captives from your relatives whom you have taken, for the fierce wrath of the LORD is upon you.” . . . . So the armed men left the captives and the spoil before the princes and all the assembly. And the men who have been mentioned by name rose and took the captives, and with the spoil they clothed all who were naked among them. They clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them, and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys, they brought them to their kinsfolk at Jericho, the city of palm trees. Then they returned to Samaria. (ESV)What about this open nudity of 200,000 women and children prisoners during their long march from Judah to Samaria? It receives no comment of moral shock or reprimand. In those days, stripping clothes as spoil from defeated enemies was too commonly practiced and anticipated to be of special concern. In fact, this nakedness might not have been mentioned at all, if Oded’s prophetic words had gone unheeded. But in that inspired warning, not even God’s prophet drew any attention to the naked state of the captives. Instead, he decried Israel’s intention to enslave these unclad women, girls and boys. Plundering hostages of their garments was a normal demonstration of military success. Because clothing was such a valuable commodity, it was part of the economic spoils seized from the defeated. Yet this was not a perverted stripping to gawk at the kind of nudity these soldiers had grown up seeing all their lives. If it had been, God would surely have spoken against it in the mouth of His prophet. Was it shameful? Yes! Their naked condition displayed the shame of an impoverishing defeat, which always meant losing one of their most expensive possessions: clothing. The prophet Isaiah went nude for three years to preach this same kind naked “shame” that would befall Egypt and Cush. It was no more shameful for Isaiah’s unclad body to be seen by his neighbors than for these naked women and children to be under the gaze of their captors. Their shame consisted of more than just being stripped of clothing. They had lost everything. It was the naked shame of utter poverty. Always remember that Scripture was written in a cultural context. It recorded only information that God deemed worthy of inclusion. What was too ordinary for comment was left out. Yet, in this passage, it’s the very absence of a moral concern about the sight of a naked multitude that makes it noteworthy to us. Its lack of concern shows how, in those days, the commonness of nonsexual, openly visible nudity was not so scandalous or inappropriate that it warranted explanation. We are hard put to imagine the shame felt by this poor crowd of naked captives, because it was not the visibility of their external anatomy. Their concerns were the shame of defeat publicized by their naked poverty and the painful cold of wind and weather to which such nudity exposed them during this long outdoor march.
Attitudes: Gained From… or Imposed Upon… the Scriptures?An allegiance to cultural upbringing is difficult to overcome. However, when the Bible clashes against pet doctrines or inherited hermeneutics, the seriously committed believer will side with the authority of Scripture, no matter how large a mental paradigm shift is demanded. This biblical incident provides one of those opportunities. This passage, and many more like it, confront the popular, widespread idea among many believers that nudity itself is intrinsically sexual in nature and its visibility a source of shame. From the perspective of the human author of 2 Chronicles, the context of captivity and potential slavery made this extremely large multitude of naked females marching before the eyes of male soldiers a culturally understood or even expected situation. It held no apparent sexual significance. God Himself drew no moral attention to the public nudity involved—not even to please a prudish group of future Bible readers. God does not condone nor confirm conceptual “marriages” that humans sanction against His will… such as this one between nudity and sex. Our society and churches are suffering the sexual havoc that springs directly from this pornographic view of the body. By marrying nudity and sex, Christian porno-prudery has made a huge contribution to that perverted, pornographic view. Any successful attack on porn addiction by the Christian church must start with a careful and thoughtful review of Scripture passages like the one just explored. In the process, we might even regain the wholesome body acceptance of our biblical ancestors. — Pastor David Hatton
Endnotes: Missionaries discovered this the hard way by creating fertile ground for pornography through spreading prudery as a part of their Gospel to “naked people” groups. Modern cross-culturally savvy mission agencies warn their interns against this damaging practice of “clothing the naked” to morally cover the body. Wherever nudity is considered normal, an unnatural hiding of the body produces an unwholesome preoccupation with what’s hidden. The Western church is shamefully late in figuring this out.  Obviously, with nothing to wear, the body’s need is warmth, as James 2:15‑16 clearly points out: “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (NKJV). Just so, John the Baptist’s exhortation in Luke 3:11 implies that the compassionate duty of a person owning two outfits is to clothe a naked person with one of them: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” (Luke 3:11, ESV).  “If you ever take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down. For that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What will he sleep in? And it will be that when he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am gracious.” (Exodus 22:26‑27, NKJV).  Isaiah 20:2‑4 (ESV), . . . at that time the LORD spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet,” and he did so, walking naked and barefoot. Then the LORD said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt.”