What the Bible Really Says about Sex

By Miller, Lisa | Newsweek, February 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

What the Bible Really Says about Sex


Miller, Lisa, Newsweek


Byline: Lisa Miller

New scholarship on the Good Book's naughty bits and how it deals with adultery, divorce, and same-sex love.

The poem describes two young lovers aching with desire. The obsession is mutual, carnal, complete. The man lingers over his lover's eyes and hair, on her teeth, lips, temples, neck, and breasts, until he arrives at "the mount of myrrh." He rhapsodizes. "All of you is beautiful, my love," he says. "There is no flaw in you."

The girl returns his lust with lust. "My lover thrust his hand through the hole," she says, "and my insides groaned because of him."

This ode to sexual consummation can be found in--of all places--the Bible. It is the Song of Solomon, a poem whose origins likely reach back to the pagan love songs of Egypt more than 1,200 years before the birth of Jesus. Biblical interpreters have endeavored through the millennia to temper its heat by arguing that it means more than it appears to mean. It's about God's love for Israel, they have said; or, it's about Jesus' love for the church. But whatever other layers it may contain, the Song is on its face an ancient piece of erotica, a celebration of the fulfillment of sexual desire.

What does the Bible really say about sex? Two new books written by university scholars for a popular audience try to answer this question. Infuriated by the dominance in the public sphere of conservative Christians who insist that the Bible incontrovertibly supports sex within the constraints of "traditional marriage," these authors attempt to prove otherwise. Jennifer Wright Knust and Michael Coogan mine the Bible for its earthiest and most inexplicable tales about sex--Jephthah, who sacrifices his virgin daughter to God; Naomi and Ruth, who vow to love one another until death--to show that the Bible's teachings on sex are not as coherent as the religious right would have people believe. In Knust's reading, the Song of Solomon is a paean to unmarried sex, outside the conventions of family and community. "I'm tired," writes Knust in Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire, "of watching those who are supposed to care about the Bible reduce its stories and teachings to slogans." Her book comes out this month. Coogan's book God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says was released last fall.

Conservative critics say that coherence is precisely what the Bible offers on sex. Reading it in the context of the Christian tradition, and with an awareness that the text is "divinely inspired"--that is, given to people directly by God--a believer can come to only one conclusion on questions of sex and marriage. "Sexual intimacy outside of a public, lifelong commitment between a man and woman is not in accordance with God's creating or redeeming purposes," explains Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. Liberals may wish the Bible were more permissive on sex, conservative religious scholars say, but it's not.

These battles over the "right" interpretation are, of course, as old as the Bible itself. In today's culture wars, the Bible--specifically a "one man, one woman" argument from the Book of Genesis--is employed by the Christian right to oppose gay marriage. This fight, as well as those over the efficacy of abstinence-education schools and intra-denominational squabbles over the proper role of women in church-leadership roles, have led many Americans (two thirds of whom rarely read the Bible) to believe that the Good Book doesn't speak for them. Knust, a religion professor at Boston University, is also an ordained minister in the American Baptist denomination. Coogan, director of publications at Harvard University's Semitic Museum, once trained as a Jesuit priest. With their books, they hope to steal the conversation about sex and the Bible back from the religious right. "The Bible doesn't have to be an invader, conquering bodies and wills with its pronouncements and demands," Knust writes. …

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