This is an article I just read about sex and the Bible. Isn’t it amazing that the SAME EXACT questions are being raised about the Bible as reformists (and this blog) have been raising about the Qur’an? It’s crazy how the issues are exactly the same!
The poem describes two young lovers aching with desire. The obsession is mutual, carnal, complete. The man lingers over his lover’s eyes and hair, on her teeth, lips, temples, neck, and breasts, until he arrives at “the mount of myrrh.” He rhapsodizes. “All of you is beautiful, my love,” he says. “There is no flaw in you.”
The girl returns his lust with lust. “My lover thrust his hand through the hole,” she says, “and my insides groaned because of him.”
This ode to sexual consummation can be found in-of all places-the Bible. It is the Song of Solomon, a poem whose origins likely reach back to the pagan love songs of Egypt more than 1,200 years before the birth of Jesus. Biblical interpreters have endeavored through the millennia to temper its heat by arguing that it means more than it appears to mean. It’s about God’s love for Israel, they have said; or, it’s about Jesus’ love for the church. But whatever other layers it may contain, the Song is on its face an ancient piece of erotica, a celebration of the fulfillment of sexual desire.
These battles over the “right” interpretation are, of course, as old as the Bible itself. In the Bible, “traditional marriage” doesn’t exist. Abraham fathers children with Sarah and his servant Hagar. Jacob marries Rachel and her sister Leah, as well as their servants Bilhah and Zilpah. Jesus was celibate, as was Paul.
Husbands, in essence, owned their wives, and fathers owned their daughters, too. A girl’s virginity was her father’s to protect-and to relinquish at any whim. Thus Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the angry mob that surrounds his house in Sodom. Deuteronomy proposes death for female adulterers, and Paul suggests “women should be silent in churches” (a rationale among some conservative denominations for barring women from the pulpit).
The Bible contains a “pervasive patriarchal bias,” Coogan writes. Better to elide the specifics and read the Bible for its teachings on love, compassion, and forgiveness. Taken as a whole, “the Bible can be understood as the record of the beginning of a continuous movement toward the goal of full freedom and equality for all persons.”
A person alone on her couch with Scripture can also come to some dangerous conclusions: the Bible has, at certain times in history, been read to support slavery, wife-beating, kidnapping, child abuse, racism, and polygamy. That’s why Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that citadel of Christian conservatism, concludes that one’s Bible reading must be overseen by the proper authorities. Just because everyone should read the Bible “doesn’t mean that everyone’s equally qualified to read it, and it doesn’t mean that the text is just to be used as a mirror for ourselves,” he says. “All kinds of heresies come from people who read the Bible and recklessly believe that they’ve understood it correctly.” As the word of God, he adds, the Bible isn’t open to the same level of interpretation as The Odyssey or The Iliad.
Yet in a democracy, even those who speak “heresies” are allowed a voice. And whether readers accept Coogan’s and Knust’s interpretations, the authors are justified in their insistence that a population so divided over questions of sex and sexual morality cannot-should not-cede the field without exploring first what the Bible actually says. The eminent Bible historian Elaine Pagels agrees. To read the Bible and reflect on it “is to realize that we have not a series of answers, but a lot of questions.”