MAKING THE BIBLE SEXY – TOP 10 BIBLICAL BAD GIRLS
Making the Bible sexy? Don’t get me wrong – I like the Bible. I just don’t believe it (um, because I’ve read it). However, most people probably don’t think of the Bible as sexy, whereas I do. Firstly, part of that’s just me – I’ve always disbelieved the urban legend that the average male thinks of sex once every seven seconds because I’ve always wondered what those other guys are thinking about in the other six seconds. Secondly, Rule 34!
Thirdly, there actually is a lot of sex in the Bible. After all, you don’t get all those begats without a bit of begetting, if you know what I mean. And we’re not just talking softcore New Testament, we’re talking hardcore Old Testament here – including at scenes that would make Game of Thrones look like a church picnic. Indeed, with a few quick fixes, the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) could readily outdo Game of Thrones for backstabbing intrigue, psychotic characters, gore-splattered violence and genital-flashing sex (but that’s the subject for another list).
Finally, there’s the Biblical ‘bad girls’. For a generally patriarchal and often outright misogynistic book, it is striking how many vivid female characters are in it. Of course, typically in keeping with the rest of the Bible, the more vivid female characters are portrayed as wanton or wicked temptresses – hence ‘bad girls’. However, I find them far more compelling or interesting (or deserving of their own Biblical spin-offs, yet again a potential subject for another list) than the general boring god-bothering patriarchs and prophets (except for Jesus of course – he was way cool), or for that matter, the more conventional Biblical ‘good girls’ – but then, I’ve always had a soft spot for so-called bad girls. So here’s my top ten Biblical ‘bad girls’ – or Biblical girls gone wild…
(10) POTIPHAR’S WIFE
My tenth place entry here doesn’t even have her own name. Actually, that’s not unusual at all – there are many Biblical characters without names (the subject for yet another list), typically women, particularly in the Old Testament. (Indeed, there are two or technically three others of my top ten Biblical bad girls without proper names). However, Potiphar’s wife is perhaps more of a bit player than the others – but what a bit she plays! In Genesis (my second favorite book of the Bible), Potiphar was the captain of the palace guard in ancient Egypt, who bought Joseph as a household slave after Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because of inflated sibling rivalry – that’s the first famous Joseph, the one with the technicolored dreamcoat, not the second famous Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father.
Now you know things are going to get sexy, because quite frankly, Egypt was the sexiest ancient civilization – admittedly perhaps not for its population’s vast majority of peasants who farmed the Nile or worked on those useless tombstones known as pyramids, but certainly for its elite, who pretty much invented style. (You know it’s true – just compare the dowdy Venus de Milo, who admittedly is not helped by her missing arms, to the figures of Egyptian art, who would not look out of place on the modern catwalk).
Sure enough, Potiphar’s wife meant trouble – she eyed off Joseph and decided that she wouldn’t mind a piece of that. He virtuously (and probably wisely, given that she was obviously a hot slice of crazy) resisted her attempts at seduction – and without batting her undoubtedly long lush eyelids, she immediately switched it up to accuse him of attempting to rape her. Potiphar had Joseph thrown into prison (itself something of a refreshing change from the more usual attitudes to rape as well as capital punishment in the Bible).
Fortunately, Joseph of course had God on his side, and through his prophetic interpretation of dreams, rose to become the Pharoah’s vizier or overlord of Egypt. Interestingly, Potiphar and his wife are not mentioned again, which suggests that she got away scot free – which, even more interestingly, is something of a recurring theme for our Biblical bad girls. Even if Joseph did look them up offstage from the Bible, the man forgave his own brothers, which bodes well for Potiphar and his wife. I particularly remember Potiphar’s wife because in the illustrated Bible stories of my childhood, she looked pretty damn hot – with her classic Egyptian style in her slinky tight dress. (And a muscular Joseph looked pretty buff in his loincloth as she lunged at him). I mean this was a collection of Bible stories – for children! What were they thinking? Anyway, Potiphar’s wife would not be out of place in her own Biblical spinoff, the Real Housewives of Ancient Egypt – I would totally watch that!
(9) WITCH OF ENDOR
Although she is as fleeting a figure as Potiphar’s wife, she is even more fascinating (and equally as nameless) – a deliciously pagan and apparently genuine sorceress in the kingdom of Israel. It is a recurring theme how stubbornly pagan the Old Testament Israelites could be, embracing or clinging to other gods (and being punished for it) – and amply demonstrating the characterization of the Old Testament God as omnipotent but very insecure. One can’t help but feel that despite all the miracles God put out, the other gods – or goddesses – were just more fun. (I’ve always imagined Exodus as a scene with God as a voice screaming for genocide from the Ark, while one Israelite turns to another in the crowd and mutters “I preferred the calf”).
The witch of Endor makes her mysterious appearance in the first book of Samuel, which is after the Israelites have bloodily conquered their promised land and have a kingdom under their first king Saul, anointed by the prophet Samuel. Sadly, Saul’s kingship had fallen on hard times. I’ve always felt some sympathy for Saul (indeed, most Biblical ‘bad guys’) – poor manic-depressive Saul, brave but not as bloodthirsty as Samuel (because he literally didn’t kill everything after battle) and so fell from favor for God’s golden boy, David (who had allied himself with Israel’s enemies, the Philistines). So Saul desperately seeks out one last resort before leading his army into battle against the Philistines – having driven all magicians and necromancers out of the kingdom (because they infringed on God’s monopoly laws), Saul now seeks out the remaining witch of Endor (the Canaanite town, not the moon with Ewoks).
He attends her in disguise to ask her to call up the ghost of the dead Samuel. The Bible seems to suggest that she was deceived by his disguise, although I prefer to read between the lines that she saw through it, pointedly stating that King Saul had made witchcraft a capital offence and seeking to avoid entrapment. Saul gives her immunity and her magic totally works! However, death hadn’t changed Samuel or his bloodthirsty ways, as after complaining about being disturbed, he direly predicts defeat and death for Saul. (“So, no change then?” Saul should have asked). The witch even showed more basic compassion than most (and excellent service), letting Saul rest on her bed and giving him a hearty meal. Saul headed off to bravely lead his army to their and his doom, while for all we know, the witch continued to ply her trade in Endor, yet another Biblical bad girl to get away with it.
What I like best about the witch of Endor are the tricky questions she raises (heh) for the Bible. Above all, is she actually doing magic? Fully functional magic not licensed or powered by God? What is its source and how does it work? (I prefer to see her as serving some pagan goddess). Why is it powerful enough to pluck God’s own prophet back from beyond death? How does that work? Is it actually Samuel (and if not, what is it)? It certainly does a damn good impression of Samuel. Of course, there is more than a suggestion of smoke and mirrors or stage magic about it – and it surely wouldn’t be too hard to predict Saul’s impending defeat. Even so, it’s still pretty impressive that she can pull it off in Endor, ripping off the rubes. How has she endured in Endor, despite widespread word of mouth for her presence extending to Saul’s very servants? (Maybe she’s just that good). Whatever the case, she totally deserves her own Biblical spinoff…
Like all classic works of art, what’s the Bible without a shower scene? That is how our next Biblical bad girl, Bathsheba, is introduced – as King David spied her bathing from the roof of his palace. (It’s good to be the king). It was also how I was introduced to her in my childhood collection of illustrated Bible stories – again, what were they thinking? (Whatever it was, I thank them). As we saw before, David was God’s golden boy who succeeded Saul as king of Israel and basically became the model of the Messiah, despite his flaws – women wanted him and men wanted to be him (or wanted him – it’s not quite clear with Saul’s son, Jonathan).
Since David was incredibly bad at keeping it in his pants, naturally he hooked up with her and since he was also incredibly manly, impregnated her. The problem was that she was the wife of one of his elite soldiers, Uriah the Hittite – which was of course a much bigger affair back then, given that it broke the Seventh of the Ten Commandments and had the penalty of stoning. So David settled on arranging divorce with extreme prejudice, ordering his general to send Uriah into the thick of battle and then – ahem – abandon Uriah there. David even had Uriah deliver his own death warrant order.
Dick move, David – and for once so dickish that even God called him on it, through the prophet Nathan. Typically, God didn’t punish David, at least not immediately or directly (because God can hold his grudges – eternity is a long time to burn), or even Bathsheba, but their innocent newborn child, who died from illness shortly after birth. Even so, David took Bathsheba as his wife (or more precisely one of his many wives and concubines). And once again, Bathsheba proved to be another Biblical bad girl (by Biblical definition of adultery) who prospered (apart from the death of her first child), proving remarkably adept as a social climber to maneuver David into nominating their son Solomon his heir as king…
(7) QUEEN OF SHEBA
The Biblical kingdom of Israel rose to its golden age under King Solomon, with his legendary wealth and wisdom, but leaving little, if anything, by way of actual historical record. As for his wisdom, Kurt Vonnegut observed that the most famous example of it in the Bible is somewhat unimpressive – cutting a baby in half. His most famous visitor is far more intriguing (and with more than a hint of pagan goddess about her) – the queen of Sheba, nameless but for her royal title, yet standing out from his Biblical 700 wives and 300 concubines, arriving with her cargo of spices, gold and precious stones from her fabulously wealthy homeland. The book of Kings portrays the queen of Sheba as something of a wisdom groupie, although it still somehow sounds salacious – “she came to test him with hard questions” while “he gave her all she desired and asked for”.
The queen of Sheba earns her place as bad girl not so much from her actual Biblical references, but tradition which has identified her as the greatest Biblical prn star – the dark-skinned Shulamite or female protagonist of the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon). This book is without any reference to the law or wisdom or even God and is just pure prn gold in the middle of the Old Testament – a male and female lover waxing lyrical to get it on in increasingly lurid imagery, as she invites him into her garden to taste her choice fruits…
And so we come to Jezebel, the archetypal evil queen of the Bible. After Solomon , the kingdom of Israel split into two, with the southern kingdom of Judah breaking away from the northern kingdom of Israel. Jezebel was a Phoenican princess, who married King Ahab of Israel. She brought her native religion with her, the worship of the god Baal and goddess Asherah, and as the Bible tells it, incited Ahab and the kingdom to join in the pagan fun (which again in that recurring Biblical theme, proved ridiculously easy). As usual this incurred the wrath of God’s squad, in this case the prophet Elijah and his disciple Elisha. However, their wrath was pretty useless, until Ahab died in battle and was succeeded by his sons, with Jezebel as queen mother (and probably high priestess of Astarte).
Elijah had been taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire (like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark except less face-melting and more chariot), but his successor Elisha effectively led a military coup by anointing the general Jehu as king. Jezebel is one of the few Biblical bad girls that the Bible actually smacks down, but when the Bible does smack someone down, it does it hard. As Jehu entered the palace, Jezebel “painted her face” (a pointed detail the Bible sneeringly includes, to mark her as a harlot or W-H-O-R-E!) and confronted him. He had her servants (eunuchs!) defenestrate her (a word you don’t often get to use, as it means throwing someone out a window) – she fell to her death and her body was literally eaten by dogs. Thereafter, her name was associated with false prophets (although she was true to her own gods) and even more so with fallen or promiscuous women (in characteristic Biblical slut-shaming) – she “did evil in the sight of the Lord”. But then – who doesn’t? That guy’s on edge…
Except…some readers beg to differ from the traditional interpretation. The actual historical and archaeological record suggests that the legendary wealth of Solomon should be more correctly attributed to the northern kingdom of Israel under Ahab and his father Omri – and Ahab’s marriage to the daughter of the Phoenician empire (effectively an association of wealthy trading cities) shows the power and prestige of his kingdom (as well as brilliant international diplomacy). The Biblical books of Kings were written much later, by a writer or writers with an axe to grind against the northern kingdom of Israel – and anything other than a monopolistic cult of God. Jezebel was more a cosmopolitan and sophisticated woman of the ancient world, promoting her own religion (as everyone else did, including the Biblical authors) and coming up against the rednecks of Israel (and a rebel military commander). As for Elisha, he was not exactly balanced – this was a man who, when taunted by boys or youths about his baldness, cursed them in God’s name to be eaten by bears. Bears!
And as for Jezebel “painting her face”, one might compare it to putting on her ‘war paint’ – deploying the only weapon at her disposal against a military coup by invoking her full appearance as queen mother and head of the royal household. Jezebel went down swinging, with a deliberate symbolic act assuming her dignity and determination to die like a queen.
For our next Biblical bad girl, we go back to the book of Judges, one of the more brutal and Tarantinoesque books of the Bible. This was after the Israelites had, ah, exodused out of Egypt and bloodily conquered their promised land, but before the kingdom of Israel under Saul, David and Solomon. “In those days, there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes”. So in other words, it was like the Wild West of the Old Testament, with the ‘judges’ as lawmen – except that Israel in the Book of Judges made the Wild West look like Sunday school. One of the greatest judges was Samson, known for his legendary supernatural strength given to him by God. Amongst other feats, he tore a lion apart with his bare hands and killed an army of 1,000 Philistines, those perennial enemies of Israel, with only the jawbone of an ass. In short, he was the Israelite Superman, but like Superman he had his kryptonite, which was…a haircut?!
Although a haircut was his incredibly lame weakness (not to mention God’s ridiculous limitation on supernatural strength), his real weakness was that he was a sucker for pillow talk. Enter Delilah – the Biblical femme fatale he picked up at the Brook of Sorek. The Philistines showed how Batman beats Superman by bling over brawn – paying Delilah silver to betray Samson’s secret of strength to them. She wasn’t terribly sophisticated about it either, just a combination of pillow talk and nagging. He initially fobbed her off with false weaknesses – being bound by different things, like some sort of party game. She then nagged him to the effect that if he truly loved her, he would tell her his true weakness – so he did, even though she had consistently tried to use the other weaknesses against him.
So he had barely fallen asleep with his head in her lap when she had him shorn. The Philistines subdued and blinded him, before enslaving him grinding grain on a millstone. However, the Philistines lapsed into their own idiocy, when they forgot to give him another haircut and brought him to their temple. His hair grown luxuriously long again, he prayed to God for one last burst of strength and pushed on the central pillars, bringing the temple down on himself as well as the Philistines and dying as much an idiot as he had lived. Intriguingly, Delilah is not mentioned again after she got paid, so one can only presume she was yet another Biblical bad girl to get away with it – enjoying a luxurious retirement with her silver, sipping cocktails by the Mediterranean…
So far we haven’t seen any Biblical bad girls from the New Testament, because the Old Testament is more hardcore. For one thing, the New Testament is shorter, but it also doesn’t help that almost half of it is correspondence from or attributed to everyone’s favorite hitman turned evangelist, Paul, who really didn’t like sex and begrudged marriage. (“It is better to marry than to burn with passion” – burn, baby, burn!). So Salome is even more striking for her appearance in the New Testament, dancing her way to the heart of a king and the head of a prophet. Technically, she is yet another nameless Biblical figure, identified in the Gospels only as the daughter of Herodias, although fortunately she was named by Jewish historian Josephus (one of my favorite rogues of history, who survived the suicidal Jewish war with Rome by changing sides to the Romans). She was the stepdaughter of King Herod Antipas of Galilee, who had imprisoned the prophet John the Baptist, the New Testament’s “voice crying in the wilderness”, for crying a little too loud about Herod’s marriage to his brother’s widow, Herodias.
Salome danced for Herod on his birthday – subsequently eroticized by Oscar Wilde as the Dance of the Seven Veils – and Herod was so, ah, enthused that he offered her any gift she asked for, “even unto the half of my kingdom”. Salome asked her mother and Herodias was not one to miss an opportunity for payback – she prompted Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist (as in on a platter, not his shoulders). Herod had tipper’s remorse, but could not go back on his word. Sex versus religion, bad girl versus mad prophet, dance of the seven veils versus a voice crying in the wilderness? No contest – John the Baptist lost his head. And once again, the Biblical bad girl won out in the end. Josephus recorded that Salome married well to rise to queen (fortunately away from Galilee) and have three children…
(3) MYSTERY BABYLON
Few books in the Bible or elsewhere loom so large in their visual imagery as the Book of Apocalypse or Revelations (my favorite book of the Bible, an acid-tripping wild ride in which the New Testament gets fully hardcore). Mystery Babylon (the Scarlet Woman or her full nastier title, the Whore of Babylon) is the ultimate Biblical bad girl, or at least the one with the most lurid portrayal:
“I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations…And upon her forehead was written MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH”.
Babylon is obviously a symbol for Rome, although of course others have since seen her as a symbol for other things, such as the Roman Catholic Church (as in some Protestant belief), or even the modern world (as in Rastafarian belief). Indeed the Book of Revelations is a favorite source of symbols for role-playing games by fundamentalists, essentially playing Dungeons & Dragons with the Bible. As one Biblical scholar has quipped, “Revelations either finds a man mad, or leaves him so”. And unlike other Biblical bad girls, Babylon is just too lurid not to come to a sticky end – angels trumpet her fall, while all the corrupt kings and merchants of the earth lament her…
Of course, other readers of Apocalypse might suspect a heavy dose of sexual repression in its author, who protests a little too much. D. H. Lawrence (who was fascinated by the Book of Apocalyse) pointed out that Babylon is a titillating figure, perhaps intentionally so:
“How they envy Babylon her splendor, envy, envy! The harlot sits magnificently with her golden cup of the wine of sensual pleasure in her hand. How the apocalyptists would have loved to drink out of her cup! And since they couldn’t, how they loved smashing it!”
Hmm, golden women and cups of pleasure…is anyone else as turned on right now by the apocalypse as I am? Other than Christians waiting for their rapture of course.
(2) MARY MAGDALENE
Mary Magdalene is the most definitive female figure in the New Testament (with the exception of that other Mary, mother of Jesus) and Biblical bad girl turned good. She is the foremost female disciple of Jesus – and the focus of those seeking to sex up the New Testament, going well beyond her actual role in the gospels. In the gospels, she is introduced as a female follower of Jesus, from whom he had cast out seven demons, and any sexuality is limited to the suggestive nature of that. However, she has also been identified with the repentant sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair as well as “the woman taken in adultery” that he saves from stoning by a lynch mob.
This has allowed some to wax lyrical about her as repentant sinner or even prostitute (so becoming the patron saint of wayward woman). Pope Gregory the Great equated the seven demons cast out of her with the seven deadly sins (which to me conjures all sorts of heated images of her writhing in their grasp) – and identifying her as the woman anointing Jesus’ feet, declared “it is clear that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts”.
Beyond the gospels, she has even been seen as the lover or literal bride of Christ, as well as mother of his secret children or bloodline.
Of course, in the gospels, she is beautifully loyal to Jesus, even when he is betrayed, denied and doubted by his male disciples. She is one of the last there at his crucifixion and the first at his resurrection – such that she has been hailed as apostle to the apostles. To be honest, I’ve always had a mythic crush on her – and she particularly appeals to those who prefer to see Jesus as a son of the goddess or the tradition of the three Marys (including the Magdalene) as another manifestation of the triple goddess. And it is hard not to fall in love with her modern incarnations, whether singing “Everything’s Alright” in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” or played by Italian siren Monica Bellucci in “The Passion of the Christ”.
Could there be any other as first woman in our top ten? No other female figure in the Bible is as iconic, as evocative as Eve – the original Biblical bad girl and primal woman. And few have as many faces. She has posed as the definitive femme fatale and temptress of Western art and literature, the Bible’s original sinner and siren of paradise lost. As such, she has been the focus and symbol of much misogyny (conveniently forgetting that without her role in it, there’d be no Bible), but as the iconoclastic Camille Paglia has noted, the Biblical story of Eden at least gave her a male accomplice in the serpent. However, even this has been reversed in Western art (notably during the Renaissance), which has even given the serpent Eve’s face – and breasts! That’s some deep Freudian kind of mixed-up right there. Although there’s something else equally as mixed up (albeit not quite so much in the Freudian sense) that’s easily overlooked which is implicit in the very bible narrative itself – the serpent had legs! (God curses it to crawl on its belly as punishment for its crime). If I came across a walking talking snake, I’d listen to whatever it said too – and quite frankly, the whole Garden of Eden set up smacks of a classic two-man con played by God and the serpent.
She has also posed as sexual temptress, the naked woman for all seasons. Religious tradition saw Eve and Adam as models of physical perfection, befitting those shaped by God’s hand as opposed to those born into this world (or the reality of our ancestral African hominids). And although the Garden of Eden is a tangled jungle of symbolism (that deserves its own list), let’s not forget the steamy sexual symbolism of original sin. There is the temptation itself – Eve is tempted by the phallic serpent and Adam is tempted by the lush fruit offered to him by Eve (in the words of John Milton, “emparadis’d in each other’s arms”). And then there are the consequences – consciousness of their naked state of nature, Eve is punished by the pains of labour, and Adam is punished by the pains of a different labour, working the earth to feed his family. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, it all smells of apple juice…
Finally, she has posed for those who would reclaim her as a figure of female power or even divinity – Promethean heroine plucking the knowledge of humanity from divinely imposed ignorance or goddess of paradise and mother of life. Some have seen the myth of a fall from paradise as an echo of each of our own experience of prenatal bliss (or at least childhood) – we all fall from the womb into the world. All hail Eve, God the Mother! She is the goddess and this is her body.