I wanted to take a short break from making posts about the Law and its cultural context to talk about how, sometimes, those cultural contexts and knowing something about how language works in ancient texts can help keep us away from bad arguments about our current culture. This post probably won’t be of much interest to most, but it’s something that has come up a few times in my religious tradition and–for lack of a better place to put it together!–I figured I’d post it, here! So, if you’re interested in some of this, feel free to read on!
Despite its relative rarity as a specific topic of concern in the Bible, today’s growing awareness of the dangers of pornography, the #MeToo movement, and other social concerns have understandably emphasized modesty and its accompanying virtues in the Bible. Today, I just want to address a specific sub-section of this conversation that involves language.
If a first-page google search for “nakedness modesty thigh” reveals anything (ha!), it’s that using Exd 28.42 to teach a standard of modesty is very, very, very popular in the American South, particularly among preachers in Churches of Christ. Although there are variations from this argument, the simplified argument generally goes something like this:
- Nakedness is Sinful
- The Bible defines Nakedness to include the thigh (from knee to groin)
- Therefore, it is sinful to show any part of the thigh
The difficulty of this argument lies in the second point, where they try to strictly define exactly what nakedness is. There are no passages that define–with any exactitude or specification–what nakedness is in the New Testament, so folks who take this approach have to turn to the Old Testament. The most popular passage that is used to define what nakedness is (and, thus, what marks the line for sin) is Exodus 28.40–43:
For Aaron’s sons you shall make coats and sashes and caps. You shall make them for glory and beauty. And you shall put them on Aaron your brother, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. They shall reach from the hips to the thighs; and they shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die. This shall be a statute forever for him and for his offspring after him (Exd 28.40–43).
The key part of the argument is verse 42, which notes that “You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. They shall reach from the hips to the thighs.” It is understandable why! You have nakedness defined as not just the genitals, but also including–seemingly–the leg from hip to knee). Thus, the upper leg from hip-joint to knee-joint must be covered. And if it is good enough for God’s priests, it is good enough for us!
There are two primary areas where this argument wears thin, however.
The first has to do with how we read and understand the text. Why must Christians follow a Law that was given solely for Levitical priests? If Christians must follow this law, what about all of the rest of the laws that applied to the priests (even in this same chapter)? Must we also all wear turbans (28.4)? Must we only wear shorts of linen (28.42)? What about other clothing regulations (e.g., Dtr 22.11)? The first question is generally answered by noting that although we are not Levitical priests, all Christians are still priests (1 Pet 2.9), or that God was setting a universal standard for modesty in Exd 28.42, meant to be followed by all, including Christians.
But a larger issue with this argument is why–if this was God’s universal standard–was this specification given only for the priests, and not for all of the Israelites? If God does not want any of his people to be naked (because of its sinful connotation), why is this directive not given to all of the Israelites?
Additionally, if this is meant to be a universal standard for modesty and the definition of nakedness, why do we only have a description of the priests undergarments, considering they were worn under full-length robes? In other words, this doesn’t tell us how much skin would be shown, regardless, because it was underneath other clothes!
The more involved problem with this argument, however, comes with the certainty that Exd 28.42 is talking about the English thigh at all. The entire argument that shorts are sinful is that they will expose the thigh, which would be nakedness. However, that is not necessarily what the text is saying.
There is sometimes a distinction between thigh (yarek = יָרֵךְ) and hips (shoq = שׁוֹק), you can see it most clearly when they\’re juxtaposed (Jgs 15.8). However, that is not always the case. Words frequently mean different things in different contexts or when used by different people at different times. So, before we decide that “thigh” in Exodus must mean “from the hip socket to the knee joint” and bind that on others, we ought to be careful to see what the Bible actually says.
- Genesis uses yarek is both a euphemism for genitals (Gen 24.2,9; or, if you don\’t buy the euphemism here, cf. Gen 46.26 for an even clearer version) AND speaks of a specific part of the “leg” (the hip, Gen 32.22, 31, 32).
- Exodus shows an even broader semantic range. We see the typical euphemistic use (Exd 1.5), but in contexts of non-animate objects, it is best to translate it as “base” or “foundation” or just “leg” (e.g., 25.31). Of course, this can get you into trouble because we see multiple distinctions–sometimes–for the same part of the body, as you’ve probably seen when you get to places like Exd 28.42 and you introduce “hips” (מָתְנַיִם mat’nayim =) into the mix.
- Leviticus has two distinct usages for shoq — in sacrificial contexts, it ALWAYS refers to the shoulder (the equivalent of the “hip” specifically) of an animal, either front or rear. And when referring to inanimate objects it ALWAYS refers to a base / leg / side / foundation.
But, after its frequent use in the Torah, we see hardly any usages of either of these terms in the historical books except for a very few usages in Judges (mostly in the Ehud incident, where it could mean hip, thigh, or leg, all interchangeably except for when it is juxtaposed in the passage noted above) and a smattering of places where it refers to the sacrificial portion of an animal and to the base of cultic stands.
The prophets use these words differently, however.
- Isaiah uses shoq, but it could refer to just about anything: shin, because that is how the LXX translate it (being otherwise consistent to translate it thigh) and because that is the part that would get wet when crossing a river during the milling season, OR it could refer to “leg” or “thigh” or “genitals,” because of its context with the following verses (specifically, 47.2). This isn’t super helpful for us, because its breadth only gives us the most generic translation of “leg.”
- Jeremiah is similarly unhelpful, using it only once (31.19) and using it as part of a bodily motion metaphor… I mean, it is obvious that “striking my leg” is to indicate frustration (we still do this today!), and when we do it today we mean “thigh,” but we (and we!) certainly don’t mean something so specific as “I hit every square inch of my leg from knee to hip.” In other words, we recognize that the usage doesn’t demand something so specific (Ezekiel uses the same metaphor for frustration, Ezk 21.12).
That is not helpful.
But let us use what we’ve learned about these words to return to Exd 28.42: “You should make [the priests] X-clothes out of Y-material to cover their nakedness. These garments should reach from the shoq to the yarek.”
First off, there are lots of other questions we need to ask, like, do we know anything more about what, specifically, the ancients meant by “undergarments”? (We don’t.) But let us try out a few different solutions with what we know from shoq and yarek above:
- 1) Shoq = hip / Yarek = thigh: Make boxers for the priests to wear
- 2) Shoq = hip / Yarek = shin / leg: Make pantaloons for the priests to wear
- 3) Shoq = genitals / Yarek = upper leg: Make briefs for the priests to wear
- 4) Shoq = buttocks / Yarek = genitals: Make briefs for the priests to wear
It is impossible to know if there is a distinction between these terms (although I think the evidence is the best for #4). Neither can we know with much clarity what each of these terms refers to in this or any specific passage.
The short version is this: there is no definitive basis for translating the Hebrew word yarek with the English word “thigh.” It may mean genitals; it may mean thigh; it may mean the entire leg. Any attempts to bind practices on others based on only part of the evidence for the Bible’s language fails to take the Bible or its authority seriously. By all means, wear long shorts or long pants if you want. Teach modesty by other means. But recognize the limitations of the use of this passage in your discussion since–although it is obvious that the priests knew what it meant–its meaning is veiled to us.