Some people spend their holidays talking about safe, non-political, non-religious things. I spend my holidays talking about sex and religion. Those are kind of my “things” – the two topics I love to talk about the most. And so it was that, on the Sunday and Monday following Christmas, I found myself in two separate conversations talking about religion and sex – mainly, the development of Christian ideas around sexual practices. This article and a second one (coming soon!) are summaries of those two conversations.
First, it’s important to point out that the Bible doesn’t have a coherent narrative about sex. Biblical scholars agree that the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch (or “Five Books”), were written by four different authors and that, quite some time later, the four versions were smashed together. It would be the same if someone came along today and combined the Gospels of the Christian Scriptures together to iron out four different versions of the same story. Yes, it would help the reader, but it would also bring out some really interesting differences. In the same way, these four authors or schools of thought treat the origins and laws of the Jewish people in different ways. As someone who is not Jewish, but reads a lot of Jewish commentary, the differences are like gold mines for me. I can get lost for hours on end, chasing what the differences are and why they exist. And we’re not talking about complicated differences. More or less, we’re talking about some pretty basic human experiences that these four schools of thought or “views” try to weigh in on. When the average person talks about how the Bible disagrees with itself or contradicts itself, I want to laugh and say, “Of course! Don’t you think hundreds of people over thousands of years would see things differently?”
One of those differences is the way the Bible talks about sex. Now, I’m still talking about the Hebrew Scriptures here, the “Old Testament”, not the Christian books including the stories about Jesus or the letters of Paul. When the Bible starts out, it seems like God is really, really on board with people having sex. Adam tells God at one point that yes, the world is great. The animals are really neat. Very colorful. And it’s great having God as a friend. But Adam says he feels like he is still missing out on something. And God gets the picture right away, so almost immediately Eve shows up and they get down to having sex. And, again, God seems to really encourage this. But then the stories, because of the different viewpoints, begin to diverge. One of the threads that stands out to me – and I want to say up front, this is not the only way to interpret the stories in the Bible – is the way that scripture begins to put an emphasis on pleasing women. That is, leaping forward to the story of Abram and Sarai (the “father and mother” of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim belief and peoples), we see a problem in their ability to have sex. Abram is impotent and Sarai is too old (see Gen. 11:30). One day, three strangers visit the couple and tell Sarai she would “have pleasure” within the year and, ultimately, have a child. Sarai finds this ridiculous – even laughs at the notion! “I’m worn out, and my husband is old. And you say I’ll have pleasure again? Ha!” But, the story goes on to say that Sarai experiences that very thing. The couple has sex, she experiences “pleasure”, and then has a child. These, according to the rabbis, are three separate events. The “pleasure” is not having a son, it’s not Abram’s ability to have sex. It is that she is “pleased” with having sex, that she experiences “pleasure” again. Now, this seems like a throwaway event. So what? An old couple keeps trying until they finally have a good time. So what? Well, the story makes sense when you begin to align other pieces of world history.
Historians believe that the Kama Sutra was composed between 400 and 200 BCE, finally reaching the form we know it today around the 2nd Century, CE. While Judaism and Hinduism were distinct because of geography as much as ideology, we often see “jumps” in world development that defy explanation. German philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers writes about the Axial Age (roughly the 8th through 3rd Centuries, BCE) as a period of unprecedented change that took place all over the world. Even in the Americas, Jaspers writes, we can see that Native Americans, Mayans, and Aztecs all express ideas and concerns similar to those expressed by Jews, Romans, Europeans, Africans, and Asians on the other side of the world.
Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, scepticism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance from Elijah by way of Isaiah and Jeremiahto Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers – Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato, – of the tragedians, of Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India and the West.
— Karl Jaspers, Origin and Goal of History, p. 2
While Jaspers tends to focus on the construction of an afterlife by the religions of the world and a few other key elements of religion, historians remain interested in the “leaps” that took place during the Axial Age because there seems to be no explanation for how and why cultures, divided by space and time, would all begin discussing the same issues. It is my belief, and scholarship supports this, that these “leaps” were not just religious in nature. We begin seeing the first steps toward empire (not just kingdoms), the permanence of writing and the use of writing as a marker of identity, and the construction of “family.” Also, as the Kama Sutra makes note of, the “pleasure” of a woman.
The Kama Sutra seems fixated at times on pleasing a woman. While many people go to bookstores and laugh at the imagery or descriptions of the text, the Kama Sutra is truly a testament to how and why men (the literate) should “please” a woman. At times, the text describes women as tigers. At others, as snakes. At still others, as women. At others, as lovers, friends, mothers, and queens. Men were to love, honor, protect, nurture, and above all, worship the women in their lives. Knowing that this idea was being brought into popular culture at the same time that the stories of the Hebrews are beginning to be canonized – and that the Jews do not erase, dismiss, or even diminish the importance of sexuality. In fact, though the early stories see sexual relations as an activity for enjoyment, comfort, stability, and dignity, they also see sex as an eventuality. The question wasn’t whether people would have sex – it was with whom and when. Jews tried to set down some basic rules for society – don’t have sex with animals. Don’t have sex with a woman when she’s on her period. Don’t have sex with a woman and her daughter, or family members for that matter. And while we might look back at some of these laws and laugh for various reasons, I believe they are really good “laws” for society. After all, we now know that sex within families produces genetic lines more susceptible to disease and genetic abnormalities. Sex with animals might be pleasurable, sure, but it carries a high degree of social stigma in virtually every culture across time. Which is to say, we might laugh at the laws in scripture that concern themselves with sexual expression, but when they are put in context they either make sense or remain a social prohibition to this day. Considering their age, we might say the commandments given in the Hebrew scriptures are a really good starting point. They were never meant to be a stopping point. That is, anyone who says they believe in the commands given in the Torah must also believe that those commands are alive. If this same person says God gave the commands, then then must also say that those commands are not only alive but are breathing in accordance with the nature of God as YHWH (the tetragrammaton sounding very much like the sound of breath and aligning with the depiction of God’s essence that “breathes life”, see Gen 2:7 and John 20:22). Accordingly, rabbis commenting on these passages in subsequent centuries have a lot to say, even add. New laws with attached to or expanded on the original commands at Sinai, and while this will be an event that Jesus (or “the West”) will later challenge, Jesus never entirely does away with those laws – original or subsequent. Rather, Jesus is very clear that he has no intention of abolishing the laws, even the sexual ones. Which makes it so confusing with Paul, who based his entire career on the teachings of Jesus, would make a case for celibacy.
At the time Paul began to navigate the Mediterranean on his missionary journeys, a staple of Jewish society was the fulfillment of God’s tripartite command to them at Eden: “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth” (see Gen. 1:28) Rabbis after the fall of the temple in 586 BCE set about building synagogues and instituting household worship through personal piety. While personal piety can mean many things, the one thing it would not have meant is celibacy. There had been too many massacres of the Jewish people to shrug their shoulder, give up, and accept the termination of their people. Rather, whatever else this piety meant, what remained was stability of the home and fulfillment of the Genesis 1:28 command to have as much sex as possible and have children. Notable at this time is that the Talmud – the commentary on scripture I mentioned previously – firmly declares many of the things prohibited on Sabbath while having sex with your spouse is one of the activities not only encouraged, but mandated. Sex with your spouse is an act of worship, celebrating God’s creation and in some ways participating in co-creation with God on the holiest of days in fulfillment of God’s activities on Earth. Nothing was holier than having sex. Which, to emphasize this point again, makes it so strange that Paul would tell Christians (many of whom were converting or had already converted from Judaism) that he wished everyone could practice the same level of self-control he had and refuse marriage and all sexual relations. While I believe myself to be a Christian, I cannot hold to Paul’s instruction here. Especially since he seems unconvinced when he gives the “concession.” Paul is very explicit here, “I say this as a concession, not as a commandment” (see 1 Cor. 7:6). The rest of the letter where he addresses sex is directed towards “immorality” and the breaking of marriage vows. That is, Paul is very concerned with incest and adultery but only minimally concerned with the sexual activity of the unmarried. And, more, where is does concern himself with the sexual activity of the unmarried, he “concedes” a lot of ground, and ultimately says it is not a big deal – and certainly not a commandment.
Now, many Christians (such as myself) tend to see Paul’s phrasing as grounds for doing whatever they want sexually. I hear it all the time, “God told me it was okay,” or “God understands” or “Well, technically, what Paul was trying to say was…” But I go a step further. I don’t see Paul as canonical. Like scholar Daniel J. Kirk, I respect Paul’s writing as informative of the early Christian community, still in its infancy at the time of his letters and thus, undeveloped or at best underdeveloped. I might afford Paul the same space as popular ministers today. Yes, he is certainly informative. Yes, he is certainly informed. But – since I hold a Master’s degree in theology and have spent more than a decade working with churches in spiritual formation – I am inclined to say, “So am I.” Paul’s letters are greatly esteemed by me, but I do not consider them canonical or privilege them in the same way might with the Gospels, prophetic literature, or especially the Torah. When I say this to my Evangelical friends, they recoil as though this statement is anathema to them. Yet, the fact remains, it is not only sex where Paul’s theology is a bit touch-and-go, underdeveloped, or simply incorrect. Belief in God, belief in a living command, necessitates that I do what Paul did: I believe the directions of God are still breathing, active, and should inform my life. Accordingly, I feel liberty to agree, nuance, or dismiss Paul. Especially where it regards sex, since he maintains that he was unmarried (and, implicitly, celibate).
In parallel, I would refer to the story of my parents attending pre-marriage counseling. My father had promised his family that he would be married in a Catholic Church and so, when it came time for he and my mom to marry, they applied for the ceremony. In that church at that time, everyone who wanted to have a “Catholic” wedding had to attend premarital counseling with a priest. They sat down, answered a few preliminary questions, and the priest tried to broach the topic of sex. My father stopped him and said, “Father, I respect you. But what the hell is a priest going to tell me about sex? I’ve been having sex for a decade, have been to Vietnam and back, and am living with this woman. Last I checked, priests don’t have sex. I think we’ve got this covered.” In the same way, I might agree with Paul’s doctrinal statements, I might even agree with some of his social teaching. But when it comes to sex, he’s not an expert and should not be held up as such – especially since he violates the cardinal teaching of Jewish identity to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth.” In a very profound way, this was one of the reasons Paul could not make headway with the Jewish leaders and people during his missionary excursions. He wasn’t “fulfilling the law” like his contemporaries, he wasn’t “upholding” the law like Jesus, he was telling people to stop being Jews and to stop making more Christians. As any scientist can tell you, a foreign entity cannot survive very long if it destroys the host and prevents cell growth. What is more, it seems like Paul’s message of celibacy was not accepted by the first, second, even third generation of Christians. His popularity came some time after and this particular teaching was set to the side for centuries. Rather, Christians were known for excessive love and public displays of affection, protection and care for the poor, elderly, and “deformed”, and civil obedience.
But Paul is an outlier. The majority of both Hebrew and Christian scripture holds out the idea that sex was something so conventional, so understood as a norm, that you should begin with prohibitions. It would be like saying, “Don’t eat too many cookies.” The statement, on its face, accepts that you will, in fact, eat cookies – possibly too many. There is no discussion of what kind of cookie it is, what constitutes “too many”, or whether it contains gluten. The statement indicates people will eat the cookie. In like manner, we might note than the prohibitions illuminate a great many things and where positive statements are made, they should be seen with a great amount of emphasis. For example, saying, “These cookies are delicious!” would be understood to contain emphasis. This explanation might seem tedious, but I use it to illustrate that scripture was not anti-sex. It was very pro-sex, as evidence by the prohibitions as well as certain stories that were included, kept, and celebrated. The poem, Song of Songs, involves two lovers speaking quite candidly about each other’s bodies. He enjoys her breasts, which are high and bouncy, she enjoys the solid “column” of his body. It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand that the young couple are not yet married, but have already had sex with each other multiples times. Her primary regret is that she can’t shower him with kisses and adore him publicly even though everyone already knows what they are up to in private. In the poem, her brothers approach her to tell him to calm down.
None of this is off topic. Rather, what I am trying to do is walk back and forth across the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the stories and narratives that these religious communities hold on to and celebrate as authoritative. I want to challenge how we assume “the Bible is against sex.” Not at all! And I’ve not even brought up the way that Ruth encourages her daughter-in-law to have sex with a man as a way of convincing him to marry her. Or the way that Esther is a concubine who has sex before marriage to a king – and who stands out from the rest of the harem. Because of her chastity? No! That’s a really hard idea to sell. Women routinely use sex as a means to get what they want from men, and men do the same thing with women. And (except for rape) there’s not a whole lot to discourage this. That is, when the “heroes” and “heroines” in the Bible have premarital sex and those activities are celebrated or always work out… it’s kinda hard to say, “No. The Bible is against this.” Rather, we might say there are different opinions based on different visions for the community of faith. Some schools of thought are for a practice, some are against it, and the only thing that is non-negotiable is that God loves and forgives, looks out for those who mean well, and sees the entire person, not random events where they make a mistake. What’s more, we see this same attitude in other religions. In Hinduism, sex and sexuality are key pieces of humanity. The same is true of Islam. The same is true of every religion. In fact, in Eskimo culture, it’s seen as an act of generosity for women to have sex with elderly men or for married women to have sex with guests – if she chooses to do so.
Granted, these are selective readings of the Hebrew and Christian narratives but I offer them to counterpoise the prevailing narrative that God wants everyone to wait until marriage, and even then to not enjoy sex. The story begins with god supporting humans having sex, encouraging them to have sex, set down laws and practices that encourage safe and consensual sex, laws and practices that encourage couples to obtain “pleasure” in their relationship and at all times to see sex not as a weapon but as a fan recreational activity between committed partners. The Torah talks about sex as though it is, itself, the “marriage” of two people. That is, the laws of Sinai speaks to men and tells them that having sex with a woman comes with a price – a man must be responsible for the woman he has sex with. That is not the same as saying to not have sex. Rather, it indicates sex is something to be enjoyed responsibly. Today, we have more laws around alcohol consumption than the Jews had laws around sex. But neither one is inherently “illegal” in their respective contexts. Again, this is why I believe Christian communities are so confused when it comes to sex and, as this next piece will show, why Christians more than any other religious group, need to re-examine their teachings about sex.
Cont. in pt. II (coming soon!)