As a biblical scholar and pastor, I’ve witnessed the recent reduction of the biblical witness to a set of sexual sound bites with increasing dismay. It is simply not the case that the Bible speaks with one voice about anything, let alone sex, and to say that it does is disingenuous at best. By writing Unprotected Texts, I am seeking to move the current conversation toward a more comprehensive engagement with what the Bible does say about having bodies, experiencing desire, and loving God. I am also hoping to encourage those who hold the Bible sacred to embrace their own role as active interpreters who make decisions about what God wants, what they want, and why. As I have discovered, the Bible is a treasure trove of fascinating stories and teachings about sexuality and desire. It is not, however, a moral guidebook. A few noteworthy examples can make the point:
1. God’s ideal human body is androgynous.
The book of Genesis includes two creation stories, one in which God creates the world in seven days, including the human person, and a second in which God creates first a man and then a woman, whom God forms from the man’s rib. Contemporary biblical scholars explain this contradiction by arguing that there are two different stories, told by two different sets of writers and then brought together into one book later on. Some ancient rabbis had a different solution: they taught that the first human person had “two faces,” that is, two sets of genitals. This dually sexed but singular body was then divided into two separate people when God removed Adam’s rib (interpreted as one of his “sides”) in order to make humanity male and female. The first human person was therefore androgynous. Interestingly, the apostle Paul shared this point of view, as he indicates when he writes to Jesus’s followers in Galatia. Thanks to Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. At the resurrection, ethnic identity and status are overcome but gender identity is retained, and in such a way that all become male and female at once.
2. Sometimes the Bible praises pre-marital and extra-marital sex.
For many Biblical authors, extra-marital sex is not necessarily forbidden. In fact, a number of passages endorse it, particularly if this sex can lead to the birth of a child and the continuation of the family line. So, for example, when Tamar, daughter-in-law of the patriarch Judah, seduced her father-in-law and became pregnant with twin sons, she was regarded as more righteous than Judah. Similarly, when Ruth conspired with her mother-in-law Naomi to seduce Boaz, she was rewarded with a son. The Song of Songs, regarded by many rabbis and early Christians as the most holy biblical book, celebrates the overwhelming passion of an unmarried couple for one another, hinting that their desires were fully consummated.
3. From the perspective of many New Testament writers, celibacy is best.
With talk of “biblical marriage” bandied about so often these days, one might think that the first Christians loved marriage and children. In fact, the opposite is true. Paul urged the members of his churches to remain unmarried virgins, the author of the Book of Revelation envisioned 144,000 male virgins surrounding God’s throne in heaven, and the evangelist Matthew recommended that Jesus’s followers become “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.” Repeating a widespread ancient point of view, these Christians understood sexual desire to be problem that needed to be solved through strict self-control. Celibacy was therefore a proof of the exceptional self-mastery made possible by Christ.
4. No biblical author recommends marriage between one man and one woman for the purposes of procreation.
Laws in the Hebrew Bible assume that polygamy, slavery, and concubinage were the norm, advising free men about which women they might marry or own and under what conditions they might sell or give away one of the men, women, or children in their care. In the New Testament, if marriage is endorsed at all, it is imagined as the foundation of a hierarchical household in which a free man rules over a wife, slaves, and children. In this context, marriage is designed to display a man’s fitness to serve as a church leader. A man “loves” his wife, slaves, and children because he has decided to be generous in imitation of Christ, not because he is romantically attached to a beloved partner. Women, slaves, and children, however, simply obey him.
5. As far as the first Christians were concerned, sex with angels was the most dangerous sex of all.
According to Genesis, just before God destroyed the world with a flood, “sons of God” who lusted after the “daughters of men” descended to earth, fathering frightening giants. Creation had to be wiped out to address this terrible breach of the divine-human order. During the time of Jesus, this story was greatly expanded and retold in books many Jews and Christians held as sacred. According to these books, disobedient angels (the “sons of God”) introduced every kind of evil into the world, were then captured by righteous angels, and are now imprisoned in torment until the end of time. Some New Testament writers conflated this story with the story of Sodom, interpreting the sin of the notoriously wicked city as a matter of attempted angel-human rape. If the men of Sodom had not tried to have sex with angels, these writers suggest, then perhaps God would not have chosen to destroy them. Sex that mixes angelic with human flesh necessarily invites God’s terrifying wrath.
As this list demonstrates, the Bible’s teachings about sex are often unexpected, especially given misleading assertions about divinely mandated sexual morals. But this is not so surprising: composed more than 2,000 years ago by writers at a significant cultural and historical distance from us, the Bible cannot speak to current circumstances in a straightforward way. Pretending that it does cheapens the Bible and undermines faith, especially if believers are given the false impression that they must either obey particular biblical teachings or abandon God altogether. Still, the Bible can speak. By acknowledging that our own deepest longings inform the interpretations we promote, we are invited to treat both the Bible and one another affectionately, with care.