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Sam Torode


The Joy of Texts

Sex in the Bible.

Whenever someone starts talking about "God's way of X" or "what the Bible says about X," I'm tempted to turn and run. Especially when X involves food or sex. It's very hard not to read our own opinions back into the Bible, picking and choosing verses to defend whatever it is we're defending—I know because I've been guilty of it. But here's one book on Sex in the Bible that does a better job than most at prodding us to encounter the biblical texts in all their strangeness.

"The most interesting thing about sex in Bible," J. Harold Ellens insists, "is the fact that the Bible does not moralize sex." Now this may sound like an all-too familiar prelude to some special pleading. Taken at face value, it's obviously misleading. (Start with that injunction against adultery, for instance, and other inconvenient counter-examples readily spring to mind.) But there's a good deal more to Ellens' case than this pronouncement suggests.

The Bible resists our attempts to distill it into a universal rulebook because it's mainly a collection of stories and poems crafted over a span of centuries by many different authors, often with conflicting implications. When it comes to sexual mores, the Bible is actually full of "situational ethics." For example, Ellens notes, polygamy is the most common model of marriage in the Bible, and one can still make a strong biblical argument for polygamy in societies where women greatly outnumber men (such as in areas ravaged by war).

Driving home this point, Ellens cites the Old Testament stories where women, most notably Ruth and Esther, employ their feminine charms to seduce men for the furtherance of God's aims (and their own). Far from being condemned, these women earn nothing but praise from the biblical authors. It's ironic that Ruth is upheld as a role model for conservative Christian girls today. Instead of "waiting on God" for a husband, she spotted a good man, followed him home from a party, and jumped into bed with him—violating three ...

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