When one thinks of biblical teachings and expressions, the last thing that comes to mind is sexuality. In fact, disparaging views on the subject come to mind more often than not. But sex is as old as creation itself, and the Old Testament does not fail to mention it. Not only is sexuality mentioned, but it is expanded upon thoroughly, with regard to many sub categories of sexuality—including but certainly not limited to—desire, sexual destructiveness, sexual law, and homosexuality. These discussions of intimacy portray human sexuality not only as a fundamental and celebrated part of life but also as a driving factor in the structures and laws of early Israelite society. Contrary to popular belief, the Old Testament promotes desire without fecundity and recognizes sex as part of human nature; depicting a society that, not unlike our own, culturally glorifies and legislatively condemns sexual activity at the same time
The priestly account of creation in Genesis introduces humans as innately sexual. Humanity is stressed as being created as male and female in Genesis 1:27, and considered to be very good. Additionally, the first words spoken to humankind are “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth,” (Genesis 1:28). This sets the tone of sexual union as a necessity for reproduction, while the second creation narrative expands on the human nature of sexual longing. The essential problem in the second narrative is Adam’s loneliness. God tries to provide man with companionship, but is not able to adequately do so in the forms of animals or birds. Rather it is only the company of a woman that can satisfy Adam’s need for a partner. The sexual aspect of this is depicted in Genesis 2:24-25—”Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” The introduction of woman in this creation story is concurrent with the introduction of sex, as Adam and Eve “become one flesh,” and stand naked together in a glorified and “unified” state.
After the introduction of the first humans as sexual beings, the importance of sexual intercourse and desire make many subsequent appearances in Genesis. When God reprimands Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit, his specific punishment to Eve is of importance. “In pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband,” (Genesis 3:16). This passage is almost cruel; God is making it so that women are plagued with desire for their husbands, even in lieu of the excruciating pains of childbirth. But God did not take away woman’s desire for sex. For example, Sarah laughs when God tells her that she will bear children at a very old age. “Shall I have pleasure?” (Gen 18:12) she says, referring to sexual intercourse not only as a means for reproduction but as something enjoyable. Furthermore, Potiphar’s wife wants desperately to sleep with Joseph, not for fecund purposes but because she desired him sexually– “his master’s wife looked with desire at Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me.” (Gen 39:7)
Women, however, are not the only ones plagued with desire for intimacy. Men are often depicted in Genesis as inherently sexual and unable to control their desire. In Genesis 26:6-8, despite telling Abimelech that his wife Rebekah was his sister, Isaac “fondled” her in public. Isaac was apparently so fond of Rebekah’s attractiveness that he could not resist touching her sexually, despite the risk that it meant he was taking. Additionally, in Genesis 6:1-2, men take women they perceive as beautiful to be their wives. This implies physical attraction, which no doubt is a key factor in human sexuality. There are numerous accounts in Genesis of men “knowing” their wives, and numerous accounts of men looking fondly upon women’s appearance. For example, when Jacob saw Rachel for the first time, he couldn’t help but kiss her (Gen 29:11). Jacob underwent a seven year commitment to work for her father, Laban, in order to win her hand in marriage. He did this because of how physically attracted he was to Rachel – “Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful. 18 Jacob was in love with Rachel.” (Gen 29:17-18) Just as well, Jacob did not love Leah as much as Rachel, because she was not as physically attractive.
Genesis certainly provides for a good introduction of sexuality and its indisputable place in human nature. But no where in the bible is sexual desire more blatant and glorified than in the “Song of Solomon.” Erotic and nearly pornographic, the poem celebrates not only the live-giving power of sexuality but also its ability to give pleasure and to enrich the lives of those partaking. Genesis clearly describes “knowing” as the necessary act for child-bearing, but it rarely goes it to such wordy detail of love as a driving force as it does here—
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned. (Song 8:6-7)
This passage is undeniably full of praise for sexual union. “Passion fierce as the grave” and “raging flames” evokes visions of powerful intimacy. At the same time, the idea of wealth in return for this passion is unacceptable and even offensive. It seems that the bible is saying that there is nothing that can replace sex, not even all the wealth in the world. This is a definitive statement of the bible’s view on the value of love. It is priceless, and free from hierarchy. It is also not always for the purpose of reproduction. This passage, along with all the other passages in Song of Solomon, makes no references to fecundity. They are simply statements of praise for unquenchable romantic love.
Surprisingly, “Song of Solomon” also serves as an explicit description of specific sexual acts, including oral sex. Song 4:16 is a good example of this: “Blow upon my garden that its fragrance may be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.” Oral sex is also depicted in Song 2:3: “As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.”. It is the word “fruit,” in both of these passages, that evokes images of genitalia—both male and female. Allegorically, the word “fruit” can be sexual, or symbolizing something “forbidden,” such as is the common perception of genitalia. This is shown in the story of temptation in Genesis, where Adam and Eve eat the “forbidden fruit.” Adam and Eve, who were naked and without shame, realized the sexual (and shameful) nature of their nakedness upon eating the “fruit,” and subsequently covered themselves. Here is it clear that eating the “forbidden fruit” coincides with the realization of the sexual nature of genitalia. Additionally, the use of the word “garden” in Song 4:16 undoubtedly relates to this scene in the “Garden of Eden.” These words not only depict gardens and fruit in a sexual nature, but also emphasize the relationship between sex and nature, arguably expressing that the beauty of intimacy is proportionate to the beauty of the natural world.
But sexuality in the Old Testament is not all flowers and fruit trees. The destructiveness of certain aspects of sexuality is also mentioned, given as warnings for what not to do when plagued with desire. Consent is very important when praising sex. If consent is not given, the consequences will be dire. The rape of Dinah is a good example of this. Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, was raped by a young Hivite nobleman named Sachem. Afterwards, Sachem wanted to marry Dinah, and he and his father Hamor, went to see Jacob to ask for permission. The conditions for marriage were horrifying—Sachem, along with all the males of his tribe, would have to be circumcised. But that was not the only consequence of this rape. While Sachem and his men were weak with pain, Dinah’s brothers proceeded to murder him along with all the men of the city. Additionally, the city was plundered for all of its wealth. It shows that an act such as the one that Sachem committed is unforgivable—looked down upon by God—and merits bloody revenge. The murders faced no punishment for their acts, because they were defending the honor of their sister.
Violent rape is an even worse sexual crime. When the men of Sodom surrounded Lot’s house, they demanded to “know” the men inside. When Lot tried to negotiate with them, they responded with violence and anger, and even tried to rape Lot (“they pressed hard against the man Lot” (Genesis 19:9))! These acts of sexual violence made way for even more devastating consequences than just murder. The men of Sodom were first blinded, and then their city was rained on with sulfur and fire until every person and every building was destroyed. It was not only because of their sexual prowess but because of their lack of morality and hospitality, and their desire to have sex for sex’s sake. There is no implication of these men being physically attracted to Lot or the men inside of his house, much less because of infatuation. Their sin was violence, and promiscuity for no reason but to fulfill their unprecedented lust.
But the bible does not necessarily contain the negative sexual messages that most people assume. The story of Sodom is frequently used to address the issue of homosexuality as something that God does not like. This is not true; rather their sin is inhospitality and violent gang rape. Also, many perceive the story of Onan to be about the sin of masturbation, rather “It is about his ignoring the Levite Law to procreate with his dead brother’s wife.” (Haffner 4) Onan was not masturbating, rather he “spilled his semen on the ground” whenever he had sex with Tamar.
Whether viewed by God or the public as good or bad, sexuality was undeniably a frequent part of ancient Israelite society. So it was natural that when Mosaic Law was formed, there would be restrictions that applied to sex, just as there are in American society. These laws attempted to “channel and order sexuality for the welfare and purity of the community, as well as for the perceived good of the individuals involved.” (Menn 40) The laws on sexuality were designed for ancient Israelite society, but a lot of them address the same issues that we address in our laws today—such as adultery, incest, rape, and homosexuality. However, the differences in modern sexuality and ancient law draw the biggest perpendicularities that we have seen so far.
For example, the laws concerning adultery disclose the contrast between Israelite society and our own. In Leviticus 20:10, it says “If a man commits adultery with the wife of a neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” This shows that adultery laws in the bible are there to protect the family of the individual wronged, while our own laws are designed to protect the individual themselves. Also by contrast to our own societal norms, married men in ancient Israelite society are allowed to have sexual intercourse with a woman if she is not married, while women are restricted to their own husbands. This notes the difference in the hierarchal social structure of the ancient Israelite society to ours. The man is at the top, taking women as property with little regards to her sexual equality. Though adultery is looked down in our society, we certainly do not take the drastic measure of death penalty, nor do we generally allow men to have different restrictions on who they are allowed to sleep with. But we do consider adultery to be a legitimate claim for filing divorce, which can subsequently result in the division of property amongst couples.
Another stark difference between Mosaic sexual law and our own sexual norms is the punishment for the rape of a virgin woman. “If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife.” (Duet 22:28) This would definitely be considered strange in modern society, as here, the potential survivor of rape is not consulted at all. In fact, her father receives payment and she then has to marry her own rapist. “This law offends our understanding of the independent legal agency of a woman to make her own decisions about sexuality and marriage after attaining a certain age.” (Menn 39)
In terms of homosexuality, the Old Testament contains two laws. “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Lev 18:22), and “if a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.” (Lev 20:13) In both cases, these references to homosexuality are negative and are placed in context of the laws of sexual immorality—along with incest, beastiality, and sex during menstruation. It makes no mention of woman to woman sex. This issue remains controversial in America to this day, because God is obvious and blatant about disliking homosexuality. But part of our culture accepts and to a degree glorifies homosexuality. American law does not outright condemn homosexuality, but most states do not allow same-sex marriage. This notes a similarity between the two cultures, though Israel’s does seem to be a little more drastic.
It is interesting to think about the differences and similarities between these moral and civil laws, the Genesis references and Song of Solomon, in comparison with our own modern views of sexuality. We can better relate to the celebration of love and sex depicted in Genesis and even more so in Song of Solomon, yet we cringe at the moral and civil laws in the bible; the ones that condemn homosexuality, and demote a woman’s sexual freedom as opposed to a man’s. Though the bible seemed to have loved sex and much as American society does today, they were stricter on who was allowed to enjoy it—basically, a married man and his wife.
In all, it is clear that the Old Testament recognizes the importance of human sexuality, even though the topic remains obsessively sheltered by many churches and temples. But our own human nature tells us that if God created us, he also created sex and sexuality—two things that in no way seem like a plague. In fact, sexuality is a gift that God bestowed to humans, recognizing it as a part of the beauty of nature, and a driving force in our societal structure. “It is not so much our fundamental differences with our biblical ancestors that strike us, but rather our common flesh, our common capacity for love with a physical dimension, and our common desire to know and be known by another.” (Menn 45) Though our laws may be different, it is clear that the Old Testament and the new world can share an overall positive recognition of human sexuality.
Coogan, Michael, ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford University
Haffner, Debra W. “The Really Good News: What the Bible Says about Sex.” SIECUS Report
26 (1997): 3-8.
Menn, Esther M. “Sexuality in the Old Testament: Strong as Death, Unquenchable as Fire.”
CURRENTS IN THEOLOGY AND MISSION 30 (2003): 37-45.