And the man knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (Genesis 4:1).
On account of the private nature of sexuality, euphemisms for sexual behavior have been developed throughout time in many cultures. One such euphemism in Hebrew is the use of the verb normally meaning “to know” to describe sexual intercourse, used from the very beginning of time to describe the copulation of the first couple, Adam and Eve (Genesis 4:1). This euphemism is used frequently in the Old Testament, for licit sexual relations (Genesis 4:17, 25, 1 Samuel 1:19), and illicit (Genesis 19:5, Judges 19:22, 25), and even to describe the lack of such behavior (Genesis 38:26, Judges 11:39, 1 Kings 1:4).
Some association between knowledge and sexuality therefore exists in Hebrew, although there are other euphemisms for sexual behavior, particularly the general “lay with,” as in Genesis 30:16, 34:2, and the rather brute “come into” of Genesis 30:16, 38:16. Therefore, it remains entirely possible that the euphemism “to know” for “to have sexual intercourse” just happens to exist in Hebrew as a particular idiom in the language without a whole lot of meaning behind it. Nevertheless, since Paul in Ephesians 5:22-33 lays the groundwork for understanding the (legitimate) sexual relationship as the physical shadow of the spiritual reality of the intimacy which should exist between Christ and His people, and since Hebrew is the language in which God communicated with His people, we also must be open to the strong possibility that there is something behind this particular euphemism.
If nothing else, the euphemism of knowledge to describe sexual behavior does well at reminding us that “knowledge,” in the Bible, tends to involve far deeper matters than the way we generally use the term in our language today. Modern ideas of “knowledge” derive from science and philosophy: knowledge is the set of facts comprising human understanding of reality, past and present. Knowledge, therefore, is primarily a matter of mental cognition: to “know” something is to mentally understand and master it. We “know” that 2+2=4; yes, this information does matter materially, but it first and foremost remains something we mentally recognize and accept. If we “know computers,” for instance, we know how to use a computer: we have cognitive mastery over its functions, nature, and processes. Whatever experience would be involved in this knowledge must flow from mental understanding and mastery.
Yet the euphemism of “to know” for “to have sexual intercourse” demands a much more expansive view of “knowledge,” one that involves at least the physical body and its experience, and ideally, the emotions as well (as per Genesis 2:24). It is not as if the mind is uninvolved in such “knowledge,” but this knowledge certainly goes beyond just what the mind can conceive, understand, and master: it is a knowledge to be felt, experienced, and in its proper sphere, enjoyed. We intuitively understand this when it comes to our relationships: one can mentally recognize as true a set of facts about a given person, but that does not automatically mean that you really know that person. To truly know a person, we must experience the presence of that person. Hence the euphemism of “to know” for “to have sexual intercourse” proves rather appropriate, since sexual intercourse is an extremely intimate experience with another person. People who have had such a relationship “know” each other in ways that they can not (and should not!) “know” of others.
This is important to keep in mind in terms of passages like John 8:32. We are called to know the truth in Christ, but this knowledge is not merely what passes for “knowledge” today. One can mentally understand and even master the sum of all facts regarding the Person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, and yet not be changed or transformed by it (cf. Matthew 7:21-23); such a one may “know” Jesus cognitively, but mere cognition of Jesus cannot save (James 2:19). To “know” the truth in Jesus demands more than mere cognition; this truth must be experienced. It is through constant practice of the faith that we grow to maturity (Hebrews 5:14); the imperative of knowing Christ is never just about learning the facts about Christ but always aimed toward following after Him thus being transformed into His image (Romans 8:29, 1 John 2:6). This knowledge cannot remain merely in the mind if it will save; if it is only mental, it will at best only remain until persecution or tribulation, and at worst, it leads to arrogance and hypocrisy (Matthew 13:20-21, 1 Corinthians 8:1). To know Jesus is to come to grips with the reality that He is the Lord and Christ, and therefore we must follow after Him, subjecting not only the mind but also the emotions and the body to His will (Galatians 2:20, 5:17-24). This “deep” knowledge is the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ!
It can never be enough to just know about Jesus. We must know Jesus, to develop the intimate spiritual relationship with Him which leads to the spiritual oneness which He seeks according to John 17:20-23. Let us therefore recognize that mere mental cognition is not true knowledge; true knowledge must go deeper, demanding the experience and subjection of mind, body, emotion, and soul. Let us truly know the Lord Jesus Christ so as to be saved by Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry