God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says
by Michael Coogan
(New York, Hachette Book Group, 2010)
Similar to other anthologies, the Bible is selective - it is not a complete collection. Biblical writers often refer to other books that they used as sources. My personal favorite is the Book of the Wars of the Lord, mentioned as the source of an ancient poem quoted in the book of Numbers. The Bok of the Wars of the Lord is not preserved in the Bible, nor has it yet been found by archaeologists or treasure hunters, but how I would love to be able to read it. Similarly, Paul refers to several letters he wrote to the Corinthians, but only two of them are preserved in the New Testament. So, it turns out, the Bible has sources, only some of which were incorporated into hits books. Likewise, only some of the sacred writings of ancient Israel, early Judaism, and early Christianity were included in what became the Bible, the canonical scriptures deemed to have a special authority. We can make educated guesses about why some writings were omitted. Some were probably considered heretical by religious leaders as they formed their canons, and others may not have had a proper pedigree. Many of these noncanonical writings have survived, however, and they shed important light on the background of the books of the Bible.
Posited multiple sources within the Bible itself to explain its repetitions and inconsistencies.
In the Hebrew Bible, virginity is an attribute only of women. We find frequent references to women who have not known a man, but never to a man who has not known a woman. In all the laws concerning marriage and rape, a man’s previous sexual history is never an issue, only a woman’s.
In his personal life Jesus was no ascetic, at least when it came to parties; the Gospels report that he was criticized for enjoying food and drink.
In Matthew, the only Gospel in which he appears as a character, Joseph, like his namesake the son of Jacob in Genesis, receives revelations through dreams.
Paul, the earliest Christian author, speaks of Jesus as “born from David’s seed according to the flesh,” meaning that he was a descendant of David through his father.
The delivery of the child did not compromise her virginity - according to several early Christian writers, Jesus was born without rupturing his mother’s hymen, like sunlight through a pane of glass as some theologians put it, and Mary remained a consecrated virgin throughout her life. This emphasis on Mary’s perpetual virginity further illustrates the negative attitude toward sex that has characterized much of Christian teaching for two millennia.
In the Bible the most famous medium is the unnamed woman of Endor, to whom postbiblical tradition pejoratively ties the title “witch,” although that is not how she is characterized.
Some prophets were professionals, trained as apprentices under a master prophet; a few were amateurs. Some were closely attached to royal courts, others operated more independently. Many were men, and many were women.
Even though Jesus did include women among his followers, and apparently associated with them more freely than was the social norm of his day, there still were no women among the Twelve, his inner circle, nor are any mentioned as present at the Last Supper.
Paul’s words, “in Christ Jesus … no male and female,” have more recently been interpreted not as a ringing affirmation of gender equality but as a slogan restating his deep opposition to both sex and marriage.
Because biblical views on marriage originated in societies whose mores were in many ways different from ours, biblical models do not necessarily inform either our practice or our theory of marriage.
In our culture, marriage is closely connected with the idea of romance. Two persons “fall in love” and after some explorations of their compatibility, decide to we. This was not the pattern in ancient times, notably in the biblical world.
The primary function of marriage was to produce offspring - especially, as in most patriarchal societies, male offspring.
Abortion as a means of birth control is not mentioned anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, or in the New Testament.
Marriage was a contract - the Hebrew word is berît, used mostly for the contract or covenant between god and Israel - between a man and the father of the bride-to-be, and also between husband and wife. The marriage contract had two states. The first was the engagement of betrothal, in which a woman - usually a young girl just past puberty - was legally transferred from her father to her husband-to-be. After this, even before the actual wedding, the woman was her fiancé’s property, and a man who raped her was guilty of adultery. Then, after an interval that varied, the wedding took place and the marriage was consummated.
Ann important f actor in the choice of the bride was that she belong to the same ethnic (and therefore religious) group. Known as endogamy, this ensured both that the group and its traditions would survive and also that property would stay within the group.
An illustration of how marriage outside the group, or exogamy, could compromise a group’s religious traditions is the infamous Jezebel.
Mixed marriage was opposed, then, because it would, and still does, result in dilution of a group’s identity, both ethnic and religious.
The son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, making her son Isaac laugh. … What was Ishmael doing? The intent of the narrator is to suggest something awful: Ishmael was “playing with” Isaac: that - as well as not wanting Isaac’s inheritance not be diminished - is why Sarah had Abraham send Ishmael and Hagar away. There is a hint of homosexual incest here, an example of scurrilous attribution of unacceptable sexual behaviour to others - in the Bible, non-Israelites.
Genesis never reports a marriage ceremony. Not long after Eden, however, the biblical writers tell us, men began to have more than one wife, beginning with Cain’s descendant Lamech, who had two wives, Adah and Zillah.
Polygyny had a payoff: it increased the number of offspring, who were valuable in their own right as sources of labor. It also was a status symbol, showing that a man or his family had the assets to come up with bride-prices for and to support several wives.
Wives of the same husband had a different status.
David had eight or more wives, in addition to “concubines,” and Solomon reportedly had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, making him the greatest lover of all.
Having a harem also demonstrated king’s power, prestige and wealth.
A successor or usurper to the throne of a ruling monarch showed his own power and correspondingly his predecessor’s lack of it by taking possession of the predecessor’s harem. After Saul’s death Abner, his general, slept with one of Saul’s wives, perhaps in a move to gain power for himself. Other wives of Saul became part of the harem of David, his successor. Then, during the short-lived revolt of David’s son Absalom against his father, he publicly took possession of - “went into” - his father’s harem, demonstrating that he had replaced David as ruler.
In both ancient and present-day societies where arranged marriages have been the norm, profound love has often been as much a part of those relationships as it has been in the West with its insistence on the romantic ideal.
Divorce was practiced in biblical times, although it was frowned upon.
Like a widow and a rape victim, a divorced woman was used goods, beneath the holiness required of the priesthood.
Endogamy was more important than paternal custody or family stability.
In antiquity, liberal borrowing from another author’s work was commonplace. Modern notions of copyright did not exist, and such borrowing, found often in the Bible, was not considered plagiarism.
The result is that we cannot know exactly what Jesus said about anything, let alone what he may have thought: every word of Jesus is refracted through the lenses of the Gospel writers.
In general, then, biblical writers did not think that divorce was a good thing. But for many of them, divorce was allowable, probably because they thought it better than an unhappy marriage.
There are two situations, however, in which divorce is permissible for Roman Catholics. One, called the Petrine privilege because it can only be given the pope, allows a Catholic to divorce form an unbaptized partner if he or she wishes to marry someone who is baptized. … The other called the Pauline privilege, is based on words of Paul in 1 Corinthians: fi one partner in a marriage converts to Catholicism and the non-Catholic partner takes offense, a divorce may take place.
For both marriage and divorce, then, scripture is an inadequate guide. … Yet scripture also empowers individual sand communities who accept it as authoritative to move beyond it. Jesus rejects the teaching of Moses and the Torah, Paul goes beyond the teaching of Jesus, and likewise believers through the ages and especially in modern times have selectively adopted, adapted, and even rejected what the Bible says about marriage and divorce.
The Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, is the most important legal code in the Bible, and it has continued to be so for Jews and especially for Christians.
Just one of the Ten Commandments deals specifically with sex: the seventh, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” It forbids Israelite men to have sexual relationships with other Israelites’ wives. Because marriage was a contractual transaction in which a woman, as property, was transferred from her father to her husband, in exchange for a bride-price, adultery was in effect expropriation of property.
The commandment’s prohibition is thus narrow one. Because it is addressed to men, it does not explicitly prohibit women from having sex with married men, or, for that matter, prohibit married men from having sex with unmarried women, including prostitutes.
Although Onan gives his name to “onanism,” usually a synonym for masturbation, Onan was not masturbating put practicing coitus interruptus. /this displeased Yahweh, so he put Onan to death as well.
The only survivors of God’s destruction of Sodom (for reasons to which we will soon turn) were Lot and his two unmarried daughters. The women thought that no one else on earth was alive, so to ensure that they would have children, on successive nights they got their father drunk and slept with him. From these unions were born, we are told, the ancestors of Israel’s neighbors to the east, the Ammonites and the Moabites. This is one of several narratives about the legendary ancestors of non-Israelite groups in Genesis that attribute to them sexual practices the Israelites considered reprehensible. It recalls an earlier, and similarly motivated, narrative, in which one of Noah’s sons, Ham, looked at his drunken father’s nakedness; for this offense, Ham’s son Canaan was cursed. On its face, this brief tale about Noah has to do with exposure of his genitals, but it has overtones of homosexual and incestuous rape.
Reuben was guilty of violating the prohibition against intercourse with one’s father’s wife, and he was punished by being demoted from his status of firstborn son and principal heir.
This legend is what scholars call an etiology, an explanation of the origin of a custom, social reality, geographical feature, or the like: in this case, it explains why the tribe of Reuben, once so powerful, had diminished in importance. It is also another illustration of the tendency to attribute unacceptable sexual behavior to outsiders, for Reuben’s territory was east of the Jordan River and thus beyond the conventional borders of the Promised Land.
The primal taboo about reproductive emissions of both men and women is found frequently in the Bible. Ejaculation makes a man ritually impure for a day - for this reason, men were prohibited from having sex while engaged in holy war. If ejaculation occurs during sex with a woman, she too is impure for the rest of the day. In females, other normal vaginal emissions, including not just menstruation but discharges associated with childbirth, also make them impure.
Bestiality is prohibited because it entails a mixing of natural categories as the ancients understood them. Similarly, if a man was penetrated, he was feminized - his natural category was changed, so both he and the penetrator were guilty of “category confusion.” The same principle of keeping categories distinct underlies other prohibitions, including some dietary laws and laws against crossbreeding animals, plowing with two different species of animals, planting different crops in the same field, wearing clothing woven from different kinds of yarn, and cross-dressing.
Homosexuality is a modern notion - the word is first used in the late nineteenth century.
We should more properly speak of “homoeroticism,” in the sense of same-sex sexual relationships, rather than impose our contemporary understanding on ancient tests.
One purpose of narratives about David’s early career is to explain how it was that David, rather than one of Saul’s sons, succeeded him.
Was the relationship between David and Jonathan homoerotic? Erotic language is culturally specific, and what we may consider erotic may not have seemed so to ancient audiences. Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss: in biblical times, as in many cultures other than our own, kissing between males is a simple expression of affection, not necessarily sexual. In societies in which women and men were segregated until marriage, and in which women were thought inferior to men, male bonding was commonplace.
Like Hiram and David, Jonathan and David were covenant partners, “brothers” who loved each other, but despite the claims of some gay activists, they were not sexual partners.
The story of Sodom’s destruction is another example of etiology, a narrative explanation of the origin of a custom, social reality, or, as here, a geographical feature.
As far as Lot was aware, then, the men of Sodom were not homosexuals, to use modern terminology: they would have been just as happy with Lot’s virgin daughters as with his male guests.
The implication, then, is that Lot had demonstrated is righteousness by his proper treatment of his visitors; offering his daughters to the mob was morally acceptable in such circumstances.
For this ancient writer, one sin of the citizens of Sodom was an appalling violation of a fundamental social principle of antiquity, hospitality: they wanted to rape strangers in town. Now rape, as feminists have convincingly argued, is a crime of violence rather than one of sex; that is, rape is a violent form of dominance that uses sex, not an inappropriately violent expression of libido. So, the attempt to rape Lot’s visitors is an example of Sodom’s immorality, because they wanted to violate hospitality with violence against strangers in town.
Like the citizens of Sodom, those of Gibeah are rapists, willing to rape women as well as men, with brutal disregard for the principle of hospitality.
That principle was a central component of Israelites’ covenantal obligations to each other - to love the neigh bore, the fellow Israelite. The men of Gibeah had violated that core principle, which explains the Levite’s reaction.
The attempted rape of Lot’s visitors is an example of what displeased Yahweh about Sodom. But mistreating strangers was not the only sin of Sodom. According to the early sixth-century BCE prophet Ezekiel, addressing Jerusalem: “This was the sin of Sodom, your sister: pride!”
Justice was most owed to those on the margins of society - the poor, widows, and orphans, and strangers. Sodom had failed, in other words, to provide for these least powerful persons. This was the reason for the “outcry,” a word that elsewhere in the Bible refers to pleas for divine help from those treated unjustly.
We can now define the “grave sin” of Sodom; it was social injustice - mistreatment of the powerless. … Homoeroticism is only secondarily relevant.
The letter of Jude does not necessarily refer to the sin of Sodom as sodomy.
“Sodomy” … “sodomites” … no such exact term derived from the name of the city of Sodom exists in either biblical Hebrew or biblical Greek. Rather, translators have used the term “sodomite” for several Hebrew and Greek words.
Since antiquity, sacred prostitution has been claimed to exist, but, significantly, only by outsiders when speaking of other cultures. The fifth-century BCE Greek historian Herodotus reports that it was practiced in Babylon, Roman historians attributed it to their enemies the Carthaginians, and early Christian writers attributed it to pagans. Modern scholars have continued this “Orientalism,” repeatedly finding in the Bible evidence for ritual prostitution among the Canaanites (and translating accordingly), just as biblical writers attributed sexual aberrations to their own neighbors. But because no Babylonian, Canaanite, Carthaginian, or other sources coming from the cultures where sacred prostitution is alleged mention it, there is a growing consensus among scholars that it never took place.
The prohibition against male-on-male intercourse is not found in the laws of Deuteronomy, despite broad overlap between its laws and those found earlier in Exodus and Leviticus. Finally, the Hebrew Bible is silent about lesbian relationships, probably because they did not relate to patriarchy - or for that matter, to paternity.
Other translators interpret the word that I have translated literally as “soft men” to mean “male prostitutes,” “boy prostitutes,” and “the effeminate.” Likewise, the word that I have translated “males who bed males” is translated variously as “practicing homosexuals,” “sexual perverts,” and “sodomites.” Again, these translations tell us more about the translators’ own views of same-sex relationships than what the original Greek words mean.
Were some early Christian writers opposed to homoerotic relationships between males? Yes. Was their opposition due to a horror at such practices in their Greco-Roman milieu, or by their prohibition Leviticus, or both? We do not know.
God gave them over to dishonorable passions …. They state that homoeroticism among both men and women was a divinely imposed condition: men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women do so because God made them do it.
He seems to have been more concerned with interpersonal dynamics and with human’s relationship with God than with sexual mores.
Biblical writers were aware of same-ssex relationships, and a few explicitly opposed them, or at least some of them. But the writers’ understanding of such relationships, like their understanding of gender and slavery, was that of their own times. Contemporary moralists who argue that the Bible is opposed to homosexuality (or, better, homoeroticism) are correct, but when they appeal to the Bible’s authority as a timeless and absolute moral code, they ignore the cultural contexts in which the Bible was written. Moreover, such moralists are selective in their use of biblical authority. Few who argue that homosexuality is wrong - to say nothing about incest, adultery, and bestiality - because the Bible says so, would enforce the death penalty for these offenses as the Bible also commands.
The English word “rape” has no exact equivalent in either ancient Hebrew or ancient Greek. In the Hebrew Bible, the vocabulary includes words that mean “take,” “subdue,” and “force,” often used in combination to mean rape. Rape is not mentioned in the New Testament.
The damage is to the woman’s father rather than to her.
A man had the right to expect his fiancée to be a virgin - in fact, presumably he had paid the bride-price for a virgin. Her loss of virginity was the equivalent of adultery. Again, how that occurred - whether by consensual sex, seduction, or rape - is not relevant.
The main issues, then, are tribal custom and family honor, nt what happened to Dinah, whose own feelings are not described and who never speaks.
As often in Genesis, underlying the personalized narrative is a larger political issue - in this cse, how the Israelites, descended from Jacob’s sons, gained control over the important northern city of Shechem. Later in Genesis, Simeon and Levi are condemned for their fierce anger, which explains why they lost power in Israel: all the stories of the sons of Jacob ultimately explain tribal history.
What is at issue is the usurpation of a father’s rights by his son, and when the father refuses to act, another son enforces the punishment.
For biblical writers, then, rape was like adultery: it violated the rights of the men under shoe control the victims were - their fathers, brothers, fiancés, or husbands.
Hosea’s wife Gomer, whom he married at divine instruction. She was promiscuous but probably not a prostitute, despite the misleading translation “wife of whoredom.”
In many cultures prostitutes wore distinctive clothing and perhaps head coverings as well. They could offer their services either in houses, whether their own or brothels, or at places where people gathered, such as the city gates and temples. For their services, prostitutes would receive a “gift” - another euphemism - usually translated “wages” or “hire.”
The earnings of both male and female prostitutes were prohibited from use for sacred purposes, which suggests that prostitution was incompatible with ritual purity.
Paul agrees that the dietary restrictions of the Torah do not apply to Gentile Christians, but he insists that sexual immorality is not permissible. He goes on to say that having sex with a prostitute is wrong because Christians collectively form the body of Christ, and as parts of that body they should not corrupt it by fornication, such as becoming “one flesh” with a prostitute. His argument is essentially the same as that of Israelite law: prostitution is incompatible with the holy character of God’s people.
Prostitution here is the lesser vice - adultery, because it is a capital crime, is a much more serious offense. And in both cases the advice is given to men; no parallel warning is given to the women who might be prostituting themselves.
Rahab is the first professional prostitute mentioned in the Bible. Why did the spies go to her “house”? Because it was an establishment where strangers in town would likely not be noticed? How did they know that she was a prostitute? Did she have a sign in front, or some other indication of the services to be bought there? Did they go to her house for the usual reasons? That is what the king of Jericho seemed to think, when he asked Rahab about the “men who went into you.”
Daughters, like those of Laban and Saul, were fungible commodities.
Although Jesus is commonly thought to have associated with prostitutes, the text never says as much. “Tax collectors” and “sinners” were part of his following, and he shared meals with them, to the shock of some of his society, to whom such persons were socially unacceptable. According to Matthew, prostitutes were part of the following of John the Baptist, and Jesus is quoted as saying that they had a better chance of entering God’s kingdom than the members of the religious establishment of his day.
The frequent depiction in Christian art and literature of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute has no basis in the New Testament.
In biblical times, prostitution was part of social reality. T was disapproved f but not explicitly because of its intrinsic immorality, and certainly not because it exploited women. For married men, having sex with prostitutes was not considered adultery, but it was discouraged in the book of Proverbs as wasteful.
Most women who were prostitutes were apparently independent of direct male control.
Unlike in adultery and rape, there was no damage to a husband or father.
Even though prostitutes, like widows, were marginalized, they could also act heroically, as did Tamar and Rahab, quintessential prostitutes with hearts of gold.
In Ezekiel’s vision, Yahweh apparently has loins. Does this mean that he was a sexual being?
All language about the divine is metaphor, explaining an ineffable reality in familiar terms.
The Bible gives an incomplete account of what the ancient Israelites and early Christians believed; important additional information comes from nonbiblical texts and archaeological discoveries.
Teman is one of the names for Yahweh’s ancient home in northern Arabia, the likely location of Mount Sinai, where he first revealed his name to Moses in the burning bush, and from which he set out to lead his people to the Promised Land.
The view that there is only one God developed relatively late in ancient Israel.
The existence of other gods was presumed, although the Israelites were supposed to worship only one, their god Yahweh. But of course they did not : their worship of other gods and goddesses is well documented int eh pages of the Bible.
Even Yahweh himself was not a monotheist - before the tenth plague that preceded the Exodus from Egypt, he boasted: “On all the gods of Egypt will execute judgement.”
Both nonbiblical and biblical sources thus testify to Israelite worship of a goddess, who, as in the rest of the Near East, was coupled with the national god.
For most of ancient Israel’s history, such strict monotheism was not the norm. Worship of other gods and goddesses is repeatedly attested, and polytheism pervades biblical language.
The Hebrew word elohim is plural in form (like cherubim” and “seraphim”), and is often used in the Bible with a plural meaning, “gods,” as in the commandment “You shall have no other gods.”
An alternative is to understand elohim in the second line in its plural sense: humans are male and female in the image of the gods - because the gods are male and female, humans are as well. Which male and female deities are the model? Although the entire pantheon is a possibility, the divine couple, Yahweh and his goddess consort, are more likely.
Yahweh is envisioned as a sexual being.
As time went on and monotheism became the norm, the mythology of a divine couple was reinterpreted, softened, even suppressed, although in both Judaism and Christianity it continued, and continues, to exist. One example is the Christian formula for the parentage of Jesus: son of God, born of a virgin. In the Hellenistic world in which Christianity took root, myths of gods and humans having children were widespread.
“Covenant” is a legal term originally meaning contract, and it is used in the Bible to refer to several types of contracts in ordinary life.
The use of marriage as a metaphor to describe the relationship between Yahweh and Israel is further evidence for the notion that Yahweh had a wife.
The metaphor of the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel as a marriage, especially in its elaboration in Ezekiel’s allegories, informs our understanding of the mythical depiction of Yahweh as having one or more goddesses as wives. Was Yahweh a sexual being? Clearly so in the imagination of biblical writers, so also in ancient Israel broadly and in later Judaism and Christianity, both in myth and in metaphor. The assertion that “God in not sexed” is a tendentious overstatement.
The description of God as Israel’s husband is metaphorical - but so are all descriptions of God; in fact, all theology is metaphor.
We must begin by reading the Bible on its own terms - what it meant to its original writers and audiences. … We should not use it just as an anthology of proof texts to be cherry-picked for scriptural support for preconceived conclusions.
Fro readers who are believers, the Bible continues to be considered an authoritative guide. Yet, while upholding it as such, individuals and communities of faith today, as through the ages, have of necessity been selective - not just adopting, but adapting, modifying, and even rejecting some of its teachings. Such selectivity raises profound questions about the Bible’s authority.
Social change often precedes the reinterpretation of the foundational texts. The text itself is not the principal catalyst for change, but once a change is under way, the tet is invoked … to support that change.
A dynamic rather than a static relationship between a community and its foundational text.
Through the processes of expansion, modification, interpretation reinterpretation, adaptation, selection, and even selective rejection, the community in a very real way shapes the text as well. The text is not, except perhaps in the abstract, intrinsically authoritative: it derives its authority from the community. And that community - or in the case of the Bible, those communities - have a continuous and interrelated history that cumulatively rovies authority both to the tet and to the process of change.
The essence of the scripture, then, is fair and equitable treatment of others; the actual words are not necessarily binding.
One can thus trace a kind of trajectory from biblical times to the present and into the future. The trajectory moves toward the goal of freedom for all, in an inclusive community. This goal, this inspired ideal, is the underlying principle of the Bible - its subtext, as it were. Any specific biblical text is an incomplete formulation of the ideal because it is historically conditioned, and so it should not be taken as absolute in any sense.
Taken as a whole, however, the Bible can be understood as the record of the beginning of a continuous movement toward the goal of full freedom and equality for all persons, regardless of social status, gender, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation.
Love does no wrong to neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. … This principle can and should continue to inform a society that aspires to “liberty and justice for all.”