By Z.S. Roe
The Christian Bible is likely the most misread and misunderstood book being sold today. From the outside looking in, it seems that many ardent readers of the Good Book either read it cross-eyed or with both eyes completely closed. Consequently, the opinions they form are not based on what they’ve actually read, but on the grand biblical narrative they’ve grown up with – a Reader’s Digest version, if you will, that gets passed on and changed as that particular Christian community sees fit. For proof of this, look no further than Christianity’s stance on sex and marriage.
As popular belief would have it, the Bible is quite clear on these issues: marriage is between one man and one woman, and sex is something that should only be had within the confines of that marriage. And so sex before marriage is a no-no, unless you’re gay, in which case sex is completely out of the question (and you gays can just forget about marriage). These are the “biblical standards” that we’ve come to know, right?
The problem, however, is that the Bible does not offer any consistent message about sexual morality. Instead, what we’re left with is a mostly contradictory and often troubling set of rules and personal examples. This, however, shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the Bible was written over a span of two thousand years by numerous writers who were writing in wildly different historical and cultural contexts.
Frequent readers of this blog know that I am in the midst of researching my first novel, which is about sex and religion. I’ve been sharing my findings, book by book, here on this blog. What follows is a brief, simplified, and buffet-style sampling of what resonated most with me while reading Jennifer Wright Knust’s Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire. And, wouldn’t you know it, it turns out that the Bible has a lot more to say about sex than most of us likely knew.
50 Shades of Solomon: Some readers may be surprised to learn that the Bible contains an erotic love poem … as in a steamy poem about sex. Other readers will tell you that, well, it’s not actually about sex, but I’m here to tell you that, yes, it is. Sometimes referred to as the Song of Songs, The Song of Solomon is a peculiar book, in that it never mentions God and isn’t concerned with laws, prophecy, or religion. Instead, the book explores sexual desire, and is structured in the form of an erotic dialogue between a woman and her male lover (and, no, the couple are not married). Traditionally, both Christians and Jews prefer to read the book as an allegory for God’s love of his people. But this seems like a bit of a stretch (and an uncomfortable one at that) given the racy content of the poem. Sure, at no point does it explicitly state that the woman put the man’s penis in her mouth, but there are only so many ways you can interpret the line “With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (1:3).
Sex with Angels: These days the hot button topic in church is gay marriage. Back in the days of the early Christian church, however, the hot button topic was sex with angels. We get our first glimpse of this angelic sexual union in the peculiar and often sidestepped story found in Genesis 6, wherein renegade angels come to earth and marry and have children with human women. These events precede and set up the story of the great flood and Noah’s Ark. Note that it was because of this specific comingling of divine and human flesh that God decides to flood the earth and destroy all life; it wasn’t merely humanity’s general sinfulness, as children are often taught today. In fact, among later Jews and Christians, Genesis 6 became the central explanation for the introduction of wickedness in the world. This strange story was later elaborated and expanded upon in other, non-biblical writings, most notably in the Book of Watchers (whose authorship is attributed to the biblical patriarch Enoch). Interestingly, early Christians worried that Jesus’s time on earth made the boundary between heaven and earth far more permeable, and, as such, women were advised to protect themselves from the eyes of lusting angels. Some biblical scholars suggest that it is for this very reason that the apostle Paul, in a letter to the Corinthians, states that women must wear a veil on their head “because of the angels” (11:10). After all, the angels are watching and they apparently like what they see.
Sodom & Gomorrah: The Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah, wherein God obliterates two sinful cities in a rain of sulfur and fire, is a popular one, especially among those who argue that homosexuality is morally wrong. Told today, the story is often understood as a clear indication of God’s condemnation of homosexuals. After all, we get our word sodomy from the name of the city of Sodom, whose male residents were allegedly super gay. Clearly, then, God hates gay butt sex. But the idea that the Sodom and Gomorrah story has anything to do with gay sex at all is a recent development. For most biblical writers, the story served as a prime example of the punishment awaiting those who are inhospitable, selfish, or just generally disobedient. In fact, only in the New Testament books Jude and 2 Peter is the wickedness of Sodom understood as being sexual in nature, and in both cases the sexual depravity has to do with the men of Sodom wanting to rape angels, not other men. If you remember, the story tells us that God sent two angels to warn Lot and his family of the coming destruction. During the angels’ visit, however, all the men in Sodom surround Lot’s house and demand the he bring out his angelic guests so that they might “know them.” God, as we’ve learned from Genesis 6, is not a fan of any angel-human kinkiness. And so God does what He does best, and kills everybody … except for Lot and his family. Personally, though, I think Lot should have roasted, too. After all, when the unruly mob demands that he bring out the angels, he kindly declines, but offers up his two virgin daughters as a kind of consolation prize, suggesting that the crowd “do to them as [they] please” (19:8). Of course, his two daughters later get him drunk and have sex with him, so … well, maybe it’s better if we just leave the whole Sodom and Gomorrah story alone.
The Old Testament Family: The belief that the Bible champions the traditional nuclear family (i.e. one husband and one wife, with obedient children) is a persistent one in contemporary culture. That belief, however, is somewhat misplaced. What the Bible does champion depends entirely on what part of the Bible you happen to be reading. Let’s consider the Old Testament. On the one hand, you have the famous patriarchs who frequently take more than one wife and sometimes throw in a few concubines for good measure, such as Jacob who fathers twelve sons and several daughters with his four wives and lady lovers. On the other hand, you have families such as the one depicted in the book of Ruth, wherein a daughter and mother-in-law (Ruth and Naomi) rear a baby that is conceived at their own initiative (a family made up of two moms, can you imagine?). And do we even need to talk about King David and his possibly homosexual relationship with King Saul’s son (scholars disagree), or about his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, or about how that adulterous union led to the birth of King Solomon, who in turn enjoyed seven-hundred princesses and three-hundred concubines? Nah, I didn’t think so. Suffice it to say, the nuclear family is not idealized in the Old Testament. But what does the New Testament have to say? See below:
Jesus “Hates” Family: Despite what you might assume, Jesus isn’t really a family man, and neither is the apostle Paul. Consistently throughout the Gospels, Jesus seeks to strengthen the ties between his followers, but consequently undermines their ties to their respective families. As he says in Luke, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (14:26). Yes, Jesus is likely being a little melodramatic here, as public speakers are wont to do. Even so, one can’t help but also recall the story in Matthew, Mark, and Luke where Jesus, while speaking to a crowd, is visited by his mother and brothers. And what does Jesus do? He simply dismisses them: “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers’” (Matt. 12:46). If he were a family man, that would be quite a dick move. As for Paul, Jesus’s post-resurrection wing man, this anti-family message remains intact, though Paul’s reasoning is a little more understandable … to a point. You see, a defining characteristic of the early Christian movement was its sense of Christ’s imminent return. For Paul, then, everyday matters like getting married and starting a family were irrelevant. When Paul does recommend marriage, he’s recommending it as a means to an end: celibacy is always preferable, unless you’re overcome by sexual desire and tempted to sin, in which case you then should get married. As he famously says in 1 Corinthians, “It is better to marry than to burn” (7:9). But it’s celibacy that is Paul’s real mission statement; family, as you and I see it, is merely a worldly distraction. Later, after Paul’s death, when Christians began to realize that Christ’s return hadn’t been imminent after all, Paul’s disciples penned a series of letters written in his name in which marriage becomes the preferred option for believers (these pseudepigraphical letters include: Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Hebrews).
Androgynous Adam: To make one last point, let’s consider our supposed origins. The Bible begins with a creation story … and then it tells a second, different creation story – for those keeping count, that’s two stories for the price of one. For the sake of simplicity, many Christians and Jews merge the two stories together into a single narrative, and understandably so. After all, how can you interpret the Bible literally if the Bible can’t even agree with itself? Among the many differences between the two stories is the arrival of humans. As children are often told, God creates Adam, and then later on, when he realizes that Adam needs a helper, he creates Eve. But this is the case only in the second story, which begins in Genesis 2:4. In the first creation story, God creates humankind all at once. The disparity between the two narratives has resulted in some rather creative interpretations by biblical literalists hoping to make sense of things. One of the earliest solutions for the two-story dilemma suggested that the first human being God created was actually androgynous. As such, when it says in chapter 1 that, “male and female [God] created them,” early readers interpreted this to mean that this androgynous being was a hermaphrodite, possessing the genitalia of both sexes. In chapter two, then, when God creates Eve from Adam, He’s actually cutting this androgynous being in two. In other words, the creation of humankind was a two-step process. For many supporters of this reading, sex becomes a means for overcoming the division of the original human form. You might be interested to learn that Paul and many of his Jewish contemporaries believed in this androgynous first human. In fact, Paul expected to return to this primal androgyny after he died and went to heaven. For him, however, sex was still to be avoided. From his perspective, androgyny was the natural form, and so sex of any kind was therefore unnatural, which is partly why he was so gung-ho for celibacy. Paul was funny that way, I guess.
In light of all this – the calls for celibacy, the cries for hot angel sex, the incest, the multiple wives and concubines, the complete dismissal of family – what exactly is a good Christian to do? The answer is simple: relax. And if you’re going to read your Bible, then read it, and read it carefully. Remember, the Bible isn’t one single book, but an anthology of wildly different genres of writing that expresses wildly different points of view. Even if, as some claim, the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts were divinely inspired and inerrant, it’s important to remember that we do not have the original manuscripts. What we do have are copies of copies of copies of copies, and all of them are filled with numerous discrepancies, mistakes, and deliberate changes. And that’s okay.
I know that the Bible is a very important book for many millions of people, and is often important in a very personal way. For many of its readers, the Good Book offers hope, happiness, and salvation, and while I’d suggest that those readers are reading it rather selectively (the Bible is full of misery, suffering, and damnation, too), I think it’s more important to move the focus toward how our reading of the Bible affects other people. The teachings we leave with our children and they with their children in turn have long lasting effects on those around us. Is gay marriage morally wrong? What about sex before marriage? How about masturbation? What is a family actually supposed to look like? Our answers to these questions and many others will affect those around us. And it’s important that our justifications for those answers are actually sound, and not based on partial readings of a book we only mostly understand. Otherwise, we’ll all just end up looking like fools … that is, if we haven’t done so already.
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