What the Bible Has to Say About Sex

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Editor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible Michael Coogan recently applied his thorough knowledge of Scripture to a universal and eternally relevant topic: sex. In God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says, he discusses everything from marriage and prostitution to "fire" in God's own loins (yeah, you may want to reread the Book of Ezekiel). Coogan puts the Bible, which is often inconsistent on such hot topics, in perspective, and you may find yourself surprised by what the ancient texts have to say.

Your book begins with a discussion of the erotic Song of Solomon. Does its inclusion in the Bible mean there was a positive attitude toward sex back then?
I think there was a positive attitude toward sex in general, because reproduction was essential. Anything that led to reproduction was certainly viewed positively, and the idea of refraining from sex for religious reasons was something that was fairly unusual in Judaism in most periods. In many passages it's a highly erotic text, and it was a text that rabbinic literature tells us used to be sung in taverns. Yet when I was in seminary many decades ago, it was razored out of many of the Bibles that we had.

Is there any word in the Bible that isn't a euphemism for genitals? There's feet, hand, knees, flesh.
The word for testicles is stones. There aren't what we would call precise anatomical terms. As with any literature, passages in the Bible can have more than one level of meaning. And sometimes there may be a kind of sexual innuendo or double entendre there that is implicit.

Even laughing has a sexual connotation.
That's a great one, and you don't see it until you get to the story about Isaac telling the foreign king that his wife Rebecca is his sister, and then the king sees Isaac making Rebecca laugh, and he says, "She's not your sister, she's your wife!" Usually the translation itself is not literal; the translations will say fondling, caressing, or something like that. But the Hebrew word actually means to make laugh. It's the same word that's used in other contexts, as in the story of the golden calf, so there's a hint of an orgy there, which complicates the offense.

How important is it to read the Bible in its original languages?
It's essential for some of us to do it, if for no other reason so that translations can be made that are as accurate as possible. Often translators reflect their own views and their own biases just as much as the biblical writers do. I was interested recently in this case that the Supreme Court had in the Westboro Baptist Church. I looked at their website, and he lists all the passages that he says the Bible talks about sodomy. Well, in most of them sodomy isn't discussed at all. The term sodomy is a translator's term to translate Hebrew words that never mean sodomy in the sense of anal intercourse between males.

Given all the examples of polygamy, where in the Bible is marriage sanctioned as a union only between one man and one woman?
There is no unequivocal statement in the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible, that says that monogamy should be the norm. For the most part, biblical characters we know well, if they could afford it, had many wives. Solomon, the greatest lover of them all — maybe why he's attributed with writing the Song of Songs — had 300 wives. So the fundamentalist Mormons who insist that polygamy is biblical are right, in a sense. If you're going to be a strict literalist, there's nothing wrong with polygamy.

We never know if Adam and Eve are married, right?
That's right. There's no marriage ceremony described. Here's another case where the issue of translation comes up. The same Hebrew word can be translated either as woman or wife. So when it says that the man knew his wife, and she got pregnant — that's another euphemism, to know in the biblical sense — it could also be the man knew his woman and she got pregnant.

You devote a chapter to the status of women. Is the reason there are so many misconceptions about the Bible and sex the fact that we often forget how patriarchal those societies were?
The status of women is important as background, but it's also another example of how we have, for the most part, while accepting the Bible as authoritative, moved beyond it and in some ways rejected some of its main points of view. If we can do that for things like slavery or the subordinate status of women, then we can do it on other issues as well, like same-sex marriage. We have to ask the question, How is it that we'll take some parts of the Bible and say they are absolutely and eternally binding, and other parts can simply be ignored?

As for abortion, the Bible doesn't say much.
It doesn't say anything. That's one of the things I find most interesting, because both sides of the contemporary debate about abortion will quote the Bible in support of their position. They have to quote verses that don't really talk about abortion.

Addressing the sexuality of God, you write, "Yahweh is envisioned as a sexual being," according to certain passages.
He is described as a sexual being, but the language is both mythical and metaphorical.

Those descriptions, in Ezekiel, for example, even if they're allegories, are pretty explicit.
They're very explicit. They've in fact been called pornographic.

Were people in biblical times less prudish than we are today?
I think in some ways they were, even though they used a lot of euphemisms. When they were thinking about their god, they thought of him in ways not that different from the way other people thought about their gods. If you could describe God as a king or a shepherd or a warrior, then you can also describe him as a husband, and doing the sorts of things that husbands do. In the Greco-Roman world in which Christianity arose, the idea that a deity would come down to earth and have sex with a mortal would have been not surprising at all.