What the Bible Really Says About Sex

Photos: A History of Multiple-Partner Relationships ©SuperStock

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. “It can also be a partner in the complicated dance of figuring out what it means to live in bodies that are filled with longing.” Here, in summary, are the arguments:

The Bible is an ancient text, inapplicable in its particulars to the modern world.

In the Bible, “traditional marriage” doesn’t exist. Abraham fathers children with Sarah and his servant Hagar. Jacob marries Rachel and her sister Leah, as well as their servants Bilhah and Zilpah. Jesus was celibate, as was Paul.

Husbands, in essence, owned their wives, and fathers owned their daughters, too. A girl’s virginity was her father’s to protect—and to relinquish at any whim. Thus Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the angry mob that surrounds his house in Sodom. Deuteronomy proposes death for female adulterers, and Paul suggests “women should be silent in churches” (a rationale among some conservative denominations for barring women from the pulpit).

The Bible contains a “pervasive patriarchal bias,” Coogan writes. Better to elide the specifics and read the Bible for its teachings on love, compassion, and forgiveness. Taken as a whole, “the Bible can be understood as the record of the beginning of a continuous movement toward the goal of full freedom and equality for all persons.”

Sex in the Bible is sometimes hidden.

Those who follow the gay-marriage debate are likely familiar with certain bits of Scripture. Two verses, from Leviticus, describe sex between men as “an abomination” (in the King James translation). Another, from Romans, condemns men who are “inflamed with lust for one another.” But as Coogan quips, “there is sex in the Bible on every page, if you just know where to look.” A full understanding of biblical teachings on sex requires a trained eye.

When biblical authors wanted to talk about genitals, they sometimes talked about “hands,” as in the Song of Solomon, and sometimes about “feet.” Coogan cites one passage in which a baby is born “between a mother’s feet”; and another, in which the prophet Isaiah promises that a punitive God will shave the hair from the Israelites’ heads, chins, and “feet.” When, in the Old Testament, Ruth anoints herself and lies down after dark next to Boaz—the man she hopes to make her husband—she “uncovers his feet.” A startled Boaz awakes. “Who are you?” he asks. Ruth identifies herself and spends the night “at his feet.”

From this, Coogan makes a rather sensationalistic exegetical move. When he is teaching to college students, he writes, someone inevitably asks about the scene in Luke, in which a woman kisses and washes Jesus’ feet—and then dries them with her hair. Is that author speaking about “feet”? Or feet? “As both modern and ancient elaborations suggest,” Coogan writes, “sexual innuendo may be present.” Scholars agree that in this case, a foot was probably just a foot.

That which is forbidden is also allowed.

The Bible is stern and judgmental on sex. It forbids prostitution, adultery, premarital sex for women, and homosexuality. But exceptions exist in every case, Knust points out. Tamar, a widow without children, poses as a whore and solicits her own father-in-law—so that he could “come into” her. Her desire to ameliorate her childlessness trumps the prohibition against prostitution. Knust also argues—provocatively—that King David “enjoyed sexual satisfaction” with his soulmate, Jonathan. “Your love to me was wonderful,” laments David at Jonathan’s death, “passing the love of women.”

Divorce is permitted in the Old Testament—but it’s forbidden in the Gospels. Jesus didn’t like it: that much is clear. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery,” he says in the Gospel of Mark. But in Matthew’s telling, Jesus softens his position slightly and leaves a loophole for the husbands of unfaithful wives. “When it comes to sex, the Bible is often divided against itself,” writes Knust.

Accepted interpretations are sometimes wrong.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is, as everyone knows, a story of God’s judgment against homosexuality, promiscuity, and other kinds of illicit sex. Except, Knust argues, it’s not. It’s a story about the danger of having sex with angels. In the biblical world, people believed in angels, and they feared them, for sex with angels led inevitably to death and destruction. In the Noah story, God sends the flood to exterminate the offspring of “the daughters of man” (human women) and “the sons of God” (angels, in some interpretations). Non-canonical Jewish texts tell of angels, called Watchers, who descend to earth and impregnate human women, who produce monstrous children—thus inciting God’s terrible vengeance. God razes Sodom not because its male inhabitants are having sex with each other, as so many contemporary ministers preach, Knust argues, but in part because the men of the town intended to rape angels of God who were sheltered in Lot’s house. And when the Apostle Paul tells women to keep their heads covered in church, he’s issuing a warning against inciting angelic lust: “The angels might be watching,” Knust writes.

Coogan and Knust are hardly the first scholars to offer alternative readings of the Bible’s teachings on sex. What sets them apart is their populism. With provocative titles and mainstream publishing houses, they obviously hope to sell books. But their greater cause is a fight against “official” interpretations. Knust, who was raised in a conservative Christian home, recalls with intensity reading the Bible on the couch with her mother, and—with a mixture of faith and skepticism—talking aloud about what it might mean. With her book, she encourages readers to do the same.

A person alone on her couch with Scripture can also come to some dangerous conclusions: the Bible has, at certain times in history, been read to support slavery, wife-beating, kidnapping, child abuse, racism, and polygamy. That’s why Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that citadel of Christian conservatism, concludes that one’s Bible reading must be overseen by the proper authorities. Just because everyone should read the Bible “doesn’t mean that everyone’s equally qualified to read it, and it doesn’t mean that the text is just to be used as a mirror for ourselves,” he says. “All kinds of heresies come from people who read the Bible and recklessly believe that they’ve understood it correctly.” As the word of God, he adds, the Bible isn’t open to the same level of interpretation as The Odyssey or The Iliad.

Yet in a democracy, even those who speak “heresies” are allowed a voice. And whether readers accept Coogan’s and Knust’s interpretations, the authors are justified in their insistence that a population so divided over questions of sex and sexual morality cannot—should not—cede the field without exploring first what the Bible actually says. The eminent Bible historian Elaine Pagels agrees. To read the Bible and reflect on it “is to realize that we have not a series of answers, but a lot of questions.”

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