What Does the Bible Say About Sexuality?
The Washington Post, February 9, 2011
Part II: Biblical Sexuality
In the Bible, sexuality is a matter of roles, property rights, and male dominance, not fixed biological predispositions. Heterosexuality, homosexuality and sexual orientation – the buzzwords of current debates – are never mentioned at all. Instead readers are invited to seek a return to primal androgyny, to conform to particular sexual roles, and to augment their fertility with circumcision.
Those looking to define biblical sexuality often turn to the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis for their pronouncements, but even these stories disagree. In the first, God creates the human person all at once on the sixth day, both male and female. In the second, Adam is created, then the animals, and then the female, who is formed from his rib. But if God created humankind at once, male and female, then why was there a need to create the female a second time in the garden? Ancient interpreters offered a novel solution to this discrepancy: the first human person was androgynous, possessing the genitals of both sexes, but then God cut this person in two while s/he was dwelling in Eden. The original divine plan for the human person was therefore two sexes in one body, not two sexes. Genesis links the sexual impulse to the loss of this complete, two-sexed body: "Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his woman, and they become one flesh." Longing to reunite with what he has lost, the man clings to the woman. Female sexual desire, however, comes later, and is described as a punishment. After the first couple is expelled from the garden, God tells the woman that she will desire her man and bring forth children for him in pain. In a world where childbirth was dangerous, perhaps the biblical writers were acknowledging what they had in fact observed: female desire was a source of risk, not blessing. Read this way, the Genesis creation stories portray sexual intercourse as a stopgap measure until such time as androgyny and paradise are restored.
Adopting a different perspective, biblical laws view sexuality as a matter of male property rights. According to the Sinai covenant, Israelite men should be careful to penetrate only certain bodies and thereby avoid wasting their semen on an unproductive union. More specific instructions in Leviticus command men to avoid sex with menstruating women, the wives of other Israelites and certain female relatives. After all, none of these women are capable of bearing legitimate children. Leviticus also identifies penetration of an Israelite man as a problem, since making a "woman" of a free Israelite violates this man's body. The writers of 1 and 2 Samuel disagree, however, presenting a sexual relationship between men positively, as productive of God's will. Telling the story of the rise of the Davidic monarchy, these writers imply that Jonathan was beloved by David as a "wife." Since David was "man" to Jonathan's "woman," it was wholly appropriate for the shepherd to become king in place of his friend, despite the fact that Jonathan was heir to the throne.
New Testament writers also define sexuality as a matter of who penetrates whom, and under what circumstances. To Paul, "natural" sex involves the penetration of a female body by a man, a principle that he applies throughout his letters. Warning men that they must not place their "members" within prostitutes, other men's wives, or female relatives, he describes same-sex desire as a symptom of idolatry, which is an "unnatural" form of worship that inevitably leads to "unnatural" sex. The author of the Gospel of Matthew also focuses his sexual ethics on male genitalia, recalling a surprising teaching of Jesus. When asked a question about marriage and divorce, Jesus replies by instructing his disciples to consider voluntary castration: "There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (19:11-12). Interpreted as an endorsement of celibacy by most early Christians, some nevertheless took this saying literally, to the point that the canons of the Council of Nicaea sought to stamp out self-castration among the clergy.
If Matthew recommends castration, other biblical books insist on circumcision, interpreted as a form of fertility enhancement. Thus, immediately after removing his foreskin, the ninety-nine year old Abraham is able to father Isaac with barren Sarah. Preparing to enter the land of Canaan, the entire Hebrew army is re-circumcised, presumably so that God would take their side in battle and then enable them to repopulate the land with their descendants. Leviticus compares the pruning of fruit trees to the pruning of Israelite penises, both of which are made more productive in the process. Pruning trees and waiting for fruit to mature, like pruning away foreskins, increases fertility in the land by bringing forth fruitful fruit trees and fruitful men.
Clearly the Bible offers a number of fascinating teachings about human sexuality. Still, no biblical passage describes sexual impulses as a matter of orientation. Working within a very different set of assumptions about the significance of sex, the Bible says nothing about sexuality as currently conceived.
Jennifer Wright Knust is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Boston University and has received fellowships and awards from the American Association of University Women, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. An ordained American Baptist pastor, she holds a doctorate in Religion from Columbia University and a Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York. She is the author of Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire.