What does the Bible say about sex? Less than you probably think

I wouldn’t deny for a moment that the Bible says some messed-up things about sex, including that men who have sex with men should be killed, and that if you even look at a woman the wrong way, it’s as bad as committing adultery. But I think many people would be surprised by what the Bible doesn’t say about sex.

For example, the Bible contains only a single reference to lesbianism (maybe), and it’s in the New Testament. That’s right, that means that the Jewish scriptures don’t actually say that homosexuality is wrong in general, just sex between men. In Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, the dominant position is still that all forms of homosexuality are wrong even if the Bible doesn’t explicitly say so, but in Conservative Judaism, as of 2006 it’s considered acceptable for rabbis to hold that only male-male anal sex is prohibited, and other things are OK. Score one for literalism.

In fact, once you get past the detailed lists of which relatives you’re not supposed to have sex with, the Torah seems mainly concerned with the sexual behavior of women who are either virgins or married. At one point in Judges, the great hero Sampson visits a hooker, and I’m not aware of anything in the Bible that would prohibit such behavior, assuming she was neither a virgin nor married (though both Jeremiah and Ezekiel contain viciously misogynistic passages that regard female promiscuity as the ultimate insult).

This is in part because polygamy is assumed, so if a married man has sex with a woman other than his wife, she has no reason to complain. If the other women is married, her husband can have the first man killed, and if the other woman is a virgin, the first man will owe her father some money, but his wife? She has to accept it. The issue isn’t sex per se, but controlling women. And apparently widows, divorcées, and prostitutes were considered not worth controlling.

Deuteronomy 17:17 is sometimes cited as being against polygamy, but it applies only to the king, and in context it’s not clear it really prohibits polygamy even for him:

One of your own community you may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community. Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the Lord has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.

Unless this passage also meant to say that the king isn’t allowed to have two horses, it sounds like the point might be that the king can have two or three wives, as long as he doesn’t overdo it.

The Gospels say almost nothing about sex (the part about not even looking at other women is an exception). It’s the epistles that have the main hints of a more egalitarian–if even more restrictive–sexual ethic, but even then the details aren’t laid out, nor is there any acknowledgement that this is a change from the Old Testament. For example, Paul says (and the KJV is especially memorable here):

It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband…

For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.

Similarly, 1 Timothy 3:2 (a forgery written in Paul’s name) lists being “the husband of one wife” as among the virtues a bishop ought to have. Since it’s listed alongside things like “temperate, sensible, respectable,” presumably the forger thought other people ought men ought to be the husband of one wife as well, but he didn’t bother to say so. Apparently, attitudes had changed since 600 BC, and by the time the New Testament was written, the change was simply for granted.

Part of the reason I’ve been thinking about this lately is because of discussion here and at Russell Blackford’s blog about how there seems to be a human tendency to want to interfere with other people’s sex lives (among other things) that’s often justified in terms of religion, but seems to cut across religions (indeed, ideological lines).

The imperfect link between what the Bible says and what we think of as the “conservative Christian” (or “conservative Jewish”) stance on sex is a good example of this. I don’t think you can get a liberal attitude towards sex out of the Bible without really torturing the text, but the fact that middle positions, like the one from Conservative Judaism mentioned above, aren’t more popular is a strong clue that something funny is going on.

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