Letter to the Editor:
Okay. The title employed here will attract attention. Be careful, however. The subject is sex “in” the Bible, not sex “and” the Bible. To talk about sex and the Bible is to make claims either for or against what the Bible has to say about sex. To talk about sex in the Bible is to set aside one’s biases and see what is there in the text. The Bible has a lot of sex in it, but it does not necessarily teach anything about sex. This is an important distinction.
Generally, society looks at the Bible as a moral guide. It is the text used, historically in the West, to swear an oath of truth. So, it is surprising to find that the Bible has a lot of stories that involve sex. It is even more surprising to realize that in these stories the Bible doesn’t contain any direct advice about human sexuality. In fact, there is no word for “sexuality” in the Bible. Our modern understanding and expression “human sexuality” only emerged in the late 19th century with the discipline of psychology.
In place of asking what does the Bible teach about human sexuality, we really ought more appropriately to ask how does the Bible regard sex acts? Does it categorically condemn specific acts or is it ambiguous about them? Three questions in particular are of interest to modern people: does the Bible condemn homosexuality? Does the Bible hold a high moral standard in relation to sex? Does the Bible condemn sex outside of marriage? The common assumption is that the answer is yes, but here is another surprise. The Bible is ambiguous on all points.
The assumption that the Bible is against homosexuality is often based on Leviticus 18:22, “A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman: that is an abomination” (NEB). This verse is a very strong statement against a homosexual act. Yet, on second look, the statement is related to what is an abomination and not to what is an acceptable sexual orientation. The Bible has no concept of “sexual orientation,” so we need to compare this statement to other abominations, which include eating shellfish. Meanwhile, if we look to other acts in the Bible that appear to be homosexual, the Bible seems not to have a problem with them.
David and Jonathan are two characters in the Bible both highly honoured and seemingly involved in what we would call a homosexual relationship. The Bible is clear that Jonathan supports David against his own father, King Saul. And more than just supporting, Jonathan also submits to David. He takes off his robes, sword, bow, and belt and gives them to David (I Samuel 18:3). This is an act of submission that recognizes David as his superior. Jonathan also loves David “as he loved his own life” (20:17) and with a love “passing that of a woman” (II Sam. 1:26). King Saul is angered with his son Jonathan because he loves David. Saul accuses Jonathan of bringing shame to his “mother’s nakedness” (I Sam. 20:30). Some historians say that this story does not involve homosexual acts between David and Jonathan because David, who became King, was equally loved by the people and by any nation with which he made a covenant. Hiram, the King of Tyre, for example, is said to have loved David (I Kings 5:1). Jonathan’s actions though are more like those of his sister Michal, who like him conspires against her father Saul to protect David. Since Michal was David’s wife, the imagery suggests that Jonathan had an equally intimate relationship with David. Then, of course, no one had a love for David “surpassing women” except Jonathan. Since the love between Jonathan and David was one between a subordinate and superior and since it is described with exceptional intimacy, it is certainly plausible if not clear that the relationship involved sexual acts. Even though the Bible seems to condemn homosexual acts it also seems to value a homosexual relationship. We can never assume, then, that one verse in the Bible covers all the issues when it come to love between same sex couples.
What about upholding high moral standards? Does the Bible uphold high standards when it comes to sex?
There are stories of incestual acts, many instances of polygamy, and adultery (such as King David with Bathsheba).
Some people who are distressed with these examples point to the holy family (Mary, Jesus, and siblings) as an exception. , but even the holy family is surrounded in ambiguity. For example, Jesus had an “unknown” father, for the earliest gospel Mark (written about the year 70 C.E.) ) refers to Jesus as the “Son of Mary” (not the Son of Joseph) at a time when the Jewish people were still patrilineal.
Beyond this, many are shocked at how casually the Bible treats prostitution. It seems like a part of the normal course of life (at least for males). When Joshua sends out scouts to Jericho in anticipation of the battle there, the scouts spend a night with a prostitute (Joshua 2:1-2). The Bible holds no judgement for or against this scene. In fact, because the prostitute Rahab helped the spies, her life was spared when Joshua conquered Jericho. The same casual regard is expressed when the folk hero Samson enters Gaza. Without even a hint of judgement, the Bible records that Samson “saw a prostitute and went in to spend the night with her” (Judges 16:1). At Genesis 38:16, a man concludes a successful transaction with a prostitute on the roadside. In this story, the man is Judah and the prostitute, unknown to him, ends up being his daughter-in-law, Tamar. The problem in the story is that Judah’s son had died and that Judah failed to fulfil the duty of giving his daughter-in-law to his next surviving son. The problem in the story is not at all the act of prostitution or the behaviour of Tamar. The problem is strictly the neglect of Judah.
The prohibition of sex before marriage is another directive absent from the Bible. John Calvin (1509 -1564) was a Protestant reformer who believed that the Bible upheld this dictum. Yet, as the story goes, Calvin became distressed when he could find no biblical passage to support his view. The reason Calvin could not find such a passage is because none exists. Marriage in the Bible is not the same thing as marriage in the modern world. Marriage was an agreement reached between households and the state did not perform the marriage like today. Once a couple was betrothed, which means once the covenant between households was reached, the couple could be intimate even before the woman lived in the man’s household as his wife. So even here, the Bible disappoints if it is used to establish rules about marriage and sex.
What does this mean for us today? One thing it must mean at least is that the Bible is not a book about morality. It was never written to be such. Even if it was, ancient morality is not automatically a good guideline for modern times and sensibilities. The Bible can be inspiration to seek justice and resist evil, but even here it has no technical guidelines for these high aspirations. Instead, it is up to us to figure out in our time what is morality, what is justice, and what is the best way to live. The Bible can inspire, but it does not guide. It is a witness to the struggle for these same ideals from another time and place. It remains important to our time in this sense both as history and for many as scripture. Still it is not and should not be promoted as the answer to all questions about every subject, especially sex.
*** Dr. David Galston is the Ecumenical Chaplain of Brock University.