Obscene gestures in the Bible

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QUESTION: Does the Bible discuss obscene gestures people make to others?

ANSWER: Gestures are one of the nonverbal ways humans communicate with the world around them. They include movements of the fingers, hands, arms, face or other parts of the body meant to transmit a message, opinion or emotion to another. They run the gamut from those generally considered harmless (such as waving a hand to signal hello or goodbye) to those some may consider obscene.

The Bible has quite a bit to say about various gestures people made in antiquity. While some of them were used for unacceptable (obscene or sinful) purposes, others were not only good but also encouraged. Job, in defense of his integrity and righteousness before his friends, lists several things he did not do because of his fear of the Eternal.

14. What then shall I do when God rises up? And when He calls me to account, what shall I answer Him? . . . 27. And my heart has been secretly enticed, or my mouth has kissed my hand (one of many pagan gestures). 28. This also would be an iniquity for the judges to punish . . . (Job 31:14, 27 - 28, HBFV throughout)

The phrase "my mouth has kissed my hand" refers to a gesture made in homage to false gods such as those representing the sun, moon and stars (John Gill's Exposition of the Bible).

King Solomon, the wisest person who has ever lived, points out various gestures used by those who not only accuse others but also wish to carry out their perverse plans.

12. A worthless person, a wicked man, walks with a perverse (obscene) mouth, 13. Winking with his eyes (a sign sometimes used in gambling), speaking with his feet, pointing with his fingers; 14. Perversity is in his heart; he is always planning mischief; he causes discord (Proverbs 6:12 - 14)

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God, just a few years before the Babylonians would destroy Jerusalem, revealed to Ezekiel the idolatrous practices of those who served in His temple. These religious leaders of the nation not only secretly worshipped the rising sun, they also "put the branch to their nose." Although Biblical commentaries vary regarding the exact meaning of this phrase, it was certainly a gesture of contempt and one which the Eternal thought was "obscene" and worthy of his wrath.

16. And He (God) brought me (Ezekiel, by way of a vision) into the inner court of the Lord's house, and behold, at the opening of the temple of the Lord . . . were about twenty-five men with their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east; and they worshiped the sun toward the east. 17. And He said to me, " . . . (they) have turned to provoke Me to anger still more. And lo, they put the branch to their nose" (Ezekiel 8:16 - 17)

Scripture also denounces, through the prophet Isaiah, one of several common gestures known as the "pointing of the finger." This action was used to condemn and despise others, and as a way of signifying someone that should be scorned.

9. Then you shall call, and the LORD shall answer; you shall cry, and He shall say, 'Here I am.' If you take the yoke away from among you, the pointing of the finger . . . (Isaiah 58:9)

Psalm 22, written by King David, is a prophecy regarding the verbal abuse and deriding (obscene) gestures Christ would experience as he suffered and died for our sins.

7. All who see Me mock Me; they shoot out the lip (verbally condemn); they shake the head (a gesture of scorn and contempt), saying, 8. "He trusted on the LORD; let Him deliver Him; let Him rescue Him, since He delights in Him!" (Psalm 22:7 - 8, see also Matthew 27:39 - 43)

Winston Churchill giving Victory Sign
Winston Churchill giving his famous
Victory gesture during World War II

While some gestures are merely referenced (and not condemned) in the Word, others are encouraged. For example, striking or joining hands was an ancient form of entering into an agreement or a treaty (Proverbs 6:1, 11:21). Shaking a hand above one's head was a beckoning sign to gather people together (Isaiah 13:2). Ancient Israel's priests were commanded to wave, before the Lord, a sheaf of newly harvested grain during the Days of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:9 - 11).

Lifting up hands while worshipping and praying to God was commonly practiced in the Old Testament (1Kings 8:22, Psalms 28:2, 63:4, 68:31, 141:2, Isaiah 1:15, etc.). This practice continued in the New Testament. The apostle Paul stated he desired believers to beseech our Creator with raised hands that are free from anger and contention.

8. Therefore, I desire that men everywhere pray, lifting up holy hands without anger and evil opinions (1Timothy 2:8)

Conclusion of the matter

The meaning of a particular gesture can vary depending on a variety of factors (e.g. social or cultural setting, time period, location, etc.). What is considered benign in one country can be viewed as obscene or unacceptable in another.

For example, the "V" sign, if made with the back of the hand FACING another person (as opposed to the palm facing others in the picture above), will likely be considered designating the number two (or the letter "V") in places such as America. Other cultures however, such as those in Ireland and the United Kingdom, consider such a sign insulting (Wikipedia article "V Sign"). Any gestures meant to insult or convey an attitude of rejection (hatred, contempt, etc.) toward another person, according to the Bible, are not acceptable in the life of a Christian (or anyone else).

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Obscene gestures in the Bible

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