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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 "Biblical Rules for Dating" at once.

Ellens also devotes a chapter to the Song of Songs, that "uproariously successful erotic celebration of robust sexual play" between partners who are never identified as a monogamous husband and wife (another assumption we tend to bring to the text today). Ellens pokes fun at the celibate theologians over the centuries who flattened the Song into an allegory of Christ and the Church, or Christ and the celibate soul, sublimating sexuality into spirituality to the point of neurosis. Does the poem have an allegorical dimension? Yes—but that doesn't warrant a reading that treats the plain sense of the text as nothing but an elaborate code. By exorcizing earthly eroticism from the Christian life, Ellens believes, these commentators unwittingly drove people to seek sexual pleasure in harmful ways. "The church owes the world of humans an enormous apology for the centuries-long lie it perpetrated in this regard, and for the psychological and social pathology it produced."

Does such an argument have any resonance today, in the era of Sex and the City and internet porn and Girls Gone Wild? Having sat through enough skewed presentations on sexual purity to earn a free pass out of Purgatory, I can testify that even today the church too often focuses on the bad to the neglect of the good. I remember one high-school youth group presentation in particular, a video in which James Dobson interviewed a serial rapist and killer about the lure of pornography. The implication—inadvertent, perhaps, but unmistakable—was that any boy attracted to images of nudity and sex was likely to go on a rampage someday.

Ellens argues that the Bible treats sex as a normal and important part of life that connects us both to other humans and to God. Of course, it can go wrong, as in promiscuity, abuse, adultery, incest, bestiality, and rape, all of which make appearances in the Bible. But the problem is not with sex itself.

And yet, more deeply than many other "normal and important" parts of life, sex is interwoven with personhood—hence the seriousness with which the church has traditionally regarded sexual sin. That this emphasis has often clouded our appreciation of the essential goodness of sex is undeniable, just as a distorted emphasis on the reality of our fallenness has obscured the essential goodness of creation. But until the dawning of a new heaven and a new earth, our sexuality will always be a tangled affair.

The Bible reminds us of the enigmatic character of fallen sexuality again and again, in passages that can't readily be made to fit any agenda. Ellens focuses on three such stories from Genesis—one well-known and two obscure: the seduction of Eve by the serpent (Gen. 3:1-24), the sons of God mating with the daughters of men (Gen. 6:1-8), and God's slaying of Onan (Gen. 38:7-10).

Ellens reads the story of Eve, Adam, and the serpent as an allegory of human maturation—a story which, unfortunately, implies that sexual awakening unleashed evil into the world. The serpent, he notes, was a common phallic symbol in the ancient Near East, and the fruit a corresponding fertility symbol. While the point of the story is not that sex is bad, Ellens says, still it casts a negative light on the exploration required to transition from childhood to maturity. "Should we look at adolescent alienation, pain, and anxiety as difficult but inevitable stages in the evolution of persons," he asks, "or as an unfortunate aberration of a sinful or destructive behavior that makes God exceedingly disturbed?"

Here, Ellens can't help but adding what he wishes the Bible had said:

What if our loving and lovemaking, our sex and sensuality, had been cast from the beginning as the positive and beautiful thing that it is? That would have been the truth, and would have provided our sexual experimentation, exploration, achievement, and union a positive and celebrative aura, marking lovemaking as the supreme expression of the unique nature of human spirituality.

While I sympathize with Ellens, the biblical story reflects a tension that is true to human experience. Genesis holds two things in balance: there is the divine celebration of fruitfulness and multiplying, the consummate delight promised in the story of Eve's creation ("the two shall become one flesh"); and there is also the Fall. Neither aspect of sexuality can be ignored.

I grew up in a literalist church where a talking snake was a talking snake, and a forbidden fruit was a forbidden fruit. We were taught to take every biblical story at face value—which is probably why I never heard a sermon about Genesis 6, where the "sons of God" swoop down and mate with human women, giving rise to a race of supermen. (This gives new meaning to Touched by an Angel.)

According to Ellens, this troublesome tale actually runs parallel to that of Eve and the serpent, as an alternate account of the origin of evil. Here, sin enters the world through the sexual desire of angels, not human beings. Wickedness abounds among the ungodly offspring of the angels, leading directly to God's judgment with the Flood.

Nor do I recall any sermons about poor Onan, who refused to produce a child with his sister-in-law Tamar. Knowing well that his offspring would simply provide an heir for his deceased brother, Onan spills his seed on the ground before sleeping with Tamar. Angered, God himself swoops down and slays Onan on the spot. In Ellens' view, this is a ridiculous story that presents God in a most ungodly light. (God's response can be inferred from his conversation with Job.)

Despite its weirdness and obscurity, the story of Onan has had a profound influence on church history. "First of all," Ellens writes, "for centuries Jews and Christians used this scripture as an argument to turn the very natural experience of masturbation into an evil behavior, even a terrifying sin against God." More than this, early Christian commentators like Augustine and Jerome used the Onan story to condemn coitus interruptus and, by extension, all other methods of birth control.

These early theologians believed that "semen is a sacred fluid" and that to deliberately waste or misuse it is a grave sin worthy of damnation. But, Ellens argues, they misread the text. Onan was not punished for separating sex from procreation or for spilling his sacred semen: "His error was that he refused to perpetuate the memory, name, and lineage of his brother."

The consequences of this confusion, in Ellens' view, have been tragic. "Had it not been for this strange story of Onan, misinterpreted by the church's theologians for centuries … the Roman Catholic Church could have led the world into a wise and wholesome course of action that would have approved and encouraged preconception birth control and forbidden abortion."

I can't summarize Ellens' entire book, which includes chapters on polygamy, the status of women under Old Testament law, and homosexuality—timely subjects indeed. We're awash these days in "Bible-based" arguments both for and against homosexuality, patriarchy, the celibate priesthood, dating, premarital sex, divorce and remarriage, and a host of other sex-related issues. About the only sexual issue in the Bible not being hotly debated right now is the morality of cavorting with angels.

It seems there are at least two ways to respond: by becoming more entrenched in our respective interpretive traditions, or by returning to the biblical texts, in cultural and literary context, with humility in the face of ambiguity. For those inclined to the former approach, Sex in the Bible will be unsettling and subversive. For those inclined to the latter, Ellens is a welcome guide, worth reading and learning from and arguing with and reading again.

Sam Torode is coeditor of Aflame: Ancient Wisdom on Marriage (Eerdmans, 2005).

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