“And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother” (Genesis 38.9). During the conference last week the Routledge booth stood across from that of an evangelical publisher. One of the realities of conference life from the point-of-view of an exhibitor is over-exposure to what is fresh, clever, or cute upon first blush. Harper One’s continuous loop video, however, demonstrated that N. T. Wright, Desmond Tutu, and Bart Ehrman can sound repetitive, and even Colbert loses his punch when you hear the jokes for the twelfth time. The evangelical publisher across the way, however, had a large cartoon drawing that mapped out the believer’s life, book-by-book through the Bible. As probably anticipated, I can’t get that silly cartoon out of my head. After four days of exposure, I finally succumbed to asking for a flier. It was the usual evangelical fare, and the warning against adultery on back used the traditional term “seed” for “semen.” I found myself pondering the implications.

Since the King James Version shares the pre-scientific worldview of the ancients, the term “seed” has been preserved in the literalist mind. Even Alice Cooper uses it in his lyrics (his father was, after all, a preacher). Well, since the Bible is Holy Writ, it seems that semen has been transubstantiated into seed. The seed, as biologists tell us, contains all the genetic material to grow a new plant. Just add water, warmth, and a little light. Presto! Life sprouts. Since evangelicals tend to be fluent in biblicalese, even today men—the default, fully equipped model of humanity—come complete with abundant seeds. Agway should be so lucky. It feels, however, as if half of the equation is missing. If the Bible-writers had raised chickens, perhaps men would be full of eggs.

Thinking life cannot exist without metaphors. Metaphors are very dangerous in the hands of religion where they get taken literally. Too easily imagery slips into facticity. The male seed demonstrates a diabolical gospel truth: men alone provide the next generation. Women, as usual, are largely superfluous. The biblical male dominates the biblical female. The man owns the wife and must be enticed to share his precious seed. If conception fails, it is inevitably her fault. The metaphor has become a thumb-sized rod. Let us speak plainly here. The Bible has betrayed womankind. Judas Immaculate. In ancient times this was accepted fact. The microscope and biology should have buried this seedy metaphor centuries ago. But once again, the unthinking promulgation of a biblical trope survives at the expense of women. I have no seeds. No man since Adam has.

An obscene photograph?

5 thoughts on “Seedless

  1. And I thought this post was going to be about Hosea 9:10, God finding Israel like (seedless) grapes in the wilderness. I guess I will have to go to Safeway for a detailed hermeneutical metaphor. Alas.


  2. You’re right about the weakness of the image. However this is more than a case of the King James Version perpetuating the pre-scientific explanation of where babies come from.

    To insist that we know better than to think of it as literally ‘seed’ and call it ‘semen’ instead, is to miss the point. It’s just substituting the Latin word for the English and hoping no one will notice. Likewise with the Greek ‘sperm’.

    What we need, perhaps, is a new English word that leaves all denotations of seediness behind. Once the scientific community start using it consistently, then we can use it in Bible translations. In the mean time, I suggest substituting your favourite piece of gutter slang as a temporary replacement for reading such passages publicly in Church. 🙂


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