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The Bible and Sexuality

Posted: 11/13/11 08:01 AM ET

The culture wars over family values have yet to reach détente and will not until the messiah comes (or returns, depending on the reader's affiliation). Battles continue over women's equality vs. a wife's graceful submission, no-fault divorce vs. attempts to strengthen marital bonds, the ordaining of gays and lesbians and the legalization of "gay marriage" vs. exhortations to "love the sinner but hate the sin," birth control and abortion, private sexual expression vs. public interest....

People who read the Bible often find themselves on the opposite sides of many of these issues. This does not mean that they are necessarily reading their texts incorrectly. Indeed, before we even ask, "What does the Bible say?" we need to ask, "Whose Bible?" Canons - and so, cannons - differ among various Christian churches as well as between Jews and Christians, as do translations. Moreover, the Bible is open to multiple interpretations: we need to determine what is metaphor and what is to be taken literally, what is case specific and what is timeless, what is a matter of personal choice and what should be legislated.

How then do we read in a manner that is grounded and thoughtful rather than uninformed or soporific? Here are five general guidelines.

One approach is to begin with the broad picture of what the Bible says about physical intimacy. Before addressing the various "Thou shalt nots," it is often salutary to look at the "Thou shalts" and the "Thou might want tos." For example, although traditionally read as a love song between God and Israel, or Christ and the Church, the Song of Solomon/Song of Songs celebrates physical intimacy between a man and a woman. Even Sarah, Abraham's menopausal wife, speaks of the pleasure she will have with her husband (Genesis 18:12, a verse easily remembered given the cannons in Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture). Ancient Hebrew women were not expected to lie back and think of Torah.

A second is to acknowledge that the Bible is often less a book of answers than a book that helps us ask the right questions. From the narratives of rape, we learn to listen for the voice of the victim; we find that sexual abuse happens in the best of families, including that of King David; we realize that revenge taken on the perpetrator of sexual abuse leads to more abuse, to war, to death; we discover that this crime, like that of adultery, impacts more than just the people directly involved: it impacts their extended families, and society as a whole. And it means knowing that the perpetrators as well as their families are also human beings, also in the image and likeness of the divine.

Third, we must read carefully. This means not simply looking at what the text says: it requires seeking accurate translation, knowing to the best of our ability why the text was written and what it meant to its original audience, determining how it has been interpreted over time and what other passages say concerning the same subject.

For example, the first interpreter of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the prophet Ezekiel, condemns Sodom not for homosexuality but for "pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease" and for failing to "aid the poor and needy" (Ezekiel 16:49). Nor does the story suggest that homosexuality is the problem. The Hebrew of Genesis 19 tells us that all the people of Sodom sought to "know" the two visitors: the people would have included the women, and they, like the men, died in the conflagration that destroyed their city. The problem is sexual violence, not homosexuality; attempted rape, not love.

As for the Levitical commandments typically cited as prohibiting homosexuality, the Hebrew is not as clear as some claim, and the historicizing rationales typically proposed for the injunctions - e.g., keeping up the birth rate, avoiding Canaanite practices -- lack foundation. Some readers even find the Levitical codes trumped by earlier pronouncements: given that Genesis 2:18 states that it is not good for the human being to be alone, they cannot support condemning gay people to lives of singleness and solitude.

Fourth, we do well to recognize that biblical standards are not always our standards, and nor should they be. The Bible makes adultery a capital crime; if that legislation were put into practice, we'd knock out a third of our population. King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines; we become apoplectic over bigamy.

Fifth, we should continually reassess our views. If we ignore tradition, experience, science, and the personal testimony of our neighbors and look only to Scripture, we become bibliolators: we turn the Bible into an idol. And if we listen to those with whom we disagree rather than dismiss them as benighted literalists or atheistic relativists, then at the very least we might be able to avoid the demonization that usually comes with the culture wars.