The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Bible

By Yoder, Christine Roy | Interpretation, July 2005 | Go to article overview

The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Bible


Yoder, Christine Roy, Interpretation


The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Bible by David M. Can Oxford University Press, New York, 2003. 212 pp. $32.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-19-515652-8.

READERS WILL LIKELY PAUSE OVER the title of this book. Given Christianity's long history of using the Bible to bifurcate the body and spirit, and heated ongoing debates in the churches over particular expressions of human sexuality, few of us readily associate our spirituality with our sexuality. But David M. Carr, Professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary, New York, argues that we should. Carr's premise is that sexuality and spirituality "are intricately interwoven, that when one is impoverished the other is warped, and that there is some kind of crucially important connection between the journey toward God and the journey toward coming to terms with our own sexual embodiment" (p. 10).He aims to demonstrate how the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, affirms this and summons us to a life of erotic passion (i.e., "core longing") for God, others, and the earth (p. 3).

Stressing that there are multiple biblical perspectives on sexuality, Carr structures his analysis around three garden texts that correspond to the primary divisions of the Old Testament: Eden (Torah), Isaiah's vineyard (Prophets), and the Song of Songs (Writings). He argues that the first garden story (Genesis 1-3) "evokes both the potential and the tragedy of erotic relationships" (p. 43). On the one hand, it describes humans as embodied creatures, physically connected to God (i.e., made in the divine image and enlivened by the divine breath), the earth (i.e., adam from adamah, made to till and keep it), and each other (i.e., "bone of my bone," Gen 2:23). As such, our bodies are reflections of God, not spiritual obstacles to be overcome. On the other hand, Genesis 3 speaks to our struggle to live up to that potential. Having eaten of the tree of knowledge, humans are no longer "naked and unashamed." Instead, we struggle with uncertainty and suffering, alienated from our bodies, God, and each other.

Carr next surveys the "rules" of biblical morality, including gender roles and laws concerning adultery, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and prostitution. He concludes that the sexual rules of the Old Testament (and the New Testament) "revolve around sets of values that are alien to most people in modern, industrialized societies" (p. 54). This, of course, renders contemporary appeals for a return to "biblical family values" quite problematic.

Carr contends that many of these rules are evident in the prophetic marriage metaphor which depicts God as a passionate, jealous, vengeful husband and Israel as God's frequently battered wife. Beginning with Isaiah's vineyard (5:1-7) and referring briefly to selected texts from Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and second Isaiah, Carr points out how the divine-human marriage metaphor superimposes divinity, power, maleness, and love: "God is the most manly man of all, while all men and women of Israel played the part of 'woman' in relation to him" (p. 77). Given the "gender terror" such a metaphor perpetuates, Carr asks if any good may be gleaned from it. He suggests that the metaphor (a) reminds us that our depictions of God are infected with patriarchy after Eden, (b) counters our tendency to romanticize eros, and (c) testifies to the destructiveness of idolatry, or love gone wrong. …

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