Sex (in the Bible)

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The Apostle Paul and the evangelists, Mark and Matthew, referred to God's creative will in responding to issues regarding human sexual conduct during the second half of the first century a.d. The creation stories to which they alluded appear at the beginning of the Bible in Gn 12. Although these stories are the first in the Torah, they were written after Israel's legal tradition had begun to take its form. These etiological narratives include theological reflection on the reality and purpose of human sexuality. At the outset they affirm that the existence of humanity in two genders results from God's creative activity. Jewish monotheism precluded any suggestion that human sexuality was a means by which men or women could enter into communion with the gods. Israel did not abide any form of ritual prostitution nor did it allow the practice of fertility rites.

Traditions lying behind the creation story in Gn 2 appear to be older than those in Gn 1. Gn 2:1825 is a simple etiological narrative that seeks to "explain" human sexuality. Its modestly metaphorical language speaks of sexual intercourse and sexual desire. It proclaims that human sexuality is an integral element of the human condition intended to alleviate loneliness and provide an impetus for lasting companionship. The focus of this early tradition is on the male-female relationship.

The narrative in Gn 1 places the relationship between man and woman in a cosmic perspective. In the widest possible view of things, humans are the crown of God's work of creation. He has created them "male and female" (Gn 1:27). In God's cosmic plan of creation, humanity exists in male and female genders. Human fertility results from the divine initiative. Created by God, the two human genders are blessed so that humanity itself may "be fruitful and multiply" (Gn 1:27).

The inspired texts of Gn 12 provide a vision of gender, procreation, sexual attraction, sexual intercourse, and companionship which offered Paul and the evangelists a perspective on the basis of which to develop responses to particular questions of sexual ethics.

New Testament. Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest Christian text that speaks about human sexuality. In the context of an exhortation on holiness (1 Thes 4:38), Paul encouraged the Christians of Thessalonica to shun sexual immorality (porneia ). He offers further specifics as to what this means reminding them not to act lustfully as Gentiles were wont to do. This negative comparison with the sexual conduct of Gentiles reflects a traditional Jewish bias with regard to the sexual mores of those who did not acknowledge the God of Abraham. The Jewish character of Paul's exhortation on sexuality is also apparent in that he addresses the responsibilities of men. He urges them to be married and to refrain from adultery. The metaphorical and imprecise way in which Paul's exhortation in 1 Thes 4:46 has, however, led some interpreters to translate his words as meaning self-control with regard to sex and propriety in business affairs.

The NT's only extended consideration of human sexuality is provided in 1 Cor 57. The matter to which Paul initially responds is a concern that some member of the community is having a sexual relationship with his father's wife, i. e., a second wife. Paul expresses his outrage that the community had tolerated this aberration and reminds them that although they cannot avoid some association with non-Christians whose sexual mores are not acceptable, they should shun members of the community who are engaged in sexual misconduct, idolatry, drunkenness, and robbery (1 Cor 5:713).

After a digression on Christians' taking other Christians to secular courts, Paul examines a slogan that seems to have bene invoked by some members of the Corinthian community, "all things are lawful for me" (1 Cor 6:12). Affirming that not everything which is lawful is beneficial and that the Christian should not be enslaved to anything, Paul offers an anthropological reflection that provides the ground for a Christian understanding of human sexuality. He views the Christian person as one who, in his embodied existence, is a member of the body of Christ in which the Spirit of God dwells. His citation of Gn 2:24 (1 Cor 6:16) indicates that the biblical [Jewish] view of human sexuality is very much part of his reflection. Paul offers the case of a Christian man having sex with a prostitute. His introduction of this topic should not be construed as an indication that Christians' visits to prostitutes were a particular concern. The case is rather that sex with a prostitute was the typical example by Hellenistic moralists reflecting on sexual ethics. Paul's reflections on human sexuality would have been inadequate had he not treated this subject.

A second concern to which Paul responds is a troubling slogan about which some Corinthians had written, "It is well for a man not to touch a woman" (1 Cor 7:1). Earlier generations of scholars considered that this slogan was advice that Paul was offering to the Corinthians; subsequent scholarship has concluded that the slogan sums up the problem to which Paul must respond. Paul offers his reaction in a series of five responses. For the married, the normal state for adult Christians, he encourages an active sexual life with mutual responsibility and authority on the part of husband and wife. To the widowed, he proclaims, as did some contemporary moralists, the virtue of remaining faithful to one's deceased spouse but he counsels that the sexual drive must be taken seriously. To those contemplating divorce, whether on the wife's or the husband's initiative, he recalls the forbidding "word of the Lord." To those married to non-Christians he urges fidelity to their spouse for the sake of their own happiness, the holiness of the spouse, and the sake of their children.

Finally, Paul addresses those not yet married (1 Cor 7:2538). Having reflected that Christians ought not to change their social status, Paul's words addressed to the unmarried reflect his expectation of an imminent Parousia. From this perspective, Paul urges that they remain in their unmarried condition but, he says, if their sexual drive is strong "let them marry" (1 Cor 7:36). First Corinthians' extensive consideration of human sexuality is rich in its practicality, its Christian anthropology, its reflection of the Jewish tradition, and the kind of ethical appeal similar to that found in Hellenistic moralists contemporary with Paul.

With these moralists Paul shares the hortatory use of catalogues of vices (1 Cor 5:10, 11; 1 Cor 6:910). In the context of First Corinthians, Paul's lists contain several sexual vices, the generic vice of sexual immorality (porneia ), adultery (moicheia ), and two terms that are rendered "male prostitutes and sodomites" (1 Cor 6:9). The latter term appears to be a term invented by Paul, and not used elsewhere in his correspondence (cf. 1 Tm 1:10), to refer to a practice prohibited by Lv 18:22. The meaning of the Greek word translated "male prostitutes" is unclear. The term may refer to people who have a soft life and disdain manual labor.

Paul's only extensive treatment of homosexuality is in Rom 1:2432. The passage appears in Paul's carefully crafted appeal to Christian Jews in Rome intended to convince them that Gentiles and Jews alike are sinners who need justification by Christ. He appeals to the Jewish bias about the sexual mores of Gentiles by reminding them of their conviction that voluntary homosexual activity (Rom 1:2627) was an abomination. He shared with his readers the Jewish conviction that homosexuality and other forms of sexual immorality were a consequence of idolatry (cf. 1 Cor 6:9). With this his audience would agree, convinced as they were that the Gentiles were sexually reprobate. Having appealed to this Jewish prejudice to proclaim that Gentiles were sinners, Paul went on to list an additional 21 vices of which Gentiles were "guilty" (Rom 1:2931). Then came his punch line, "you [Jewish Christians], the judge, are doing the very same things" (Rom 2:1).

Paul's treatment of homosexuality derives from his Jewish convictions. He and his contemporaries would have known nothing about what is currently called "sexual orientation." With his ancestors, he shared the view that incest, sex with a menstruant, child sacrifice, homosexual activity, and bestiality were symptomatic of Egyptian and Canaanite culture, the mores of people who did not know God (Lv 18:25). Ancient peoples were very attentive to distinctions of race, class, and gender. The Bible's penalty of death for homosexual activity (Lv 20:13), its prohibition of cross-dressing (Dt 22:5), and the ban on bestiality (Lv 18:23) are an indication of a desire imbedded in their cultures to maintain categories intact.

The biblical sanction of homosexual activity by death was a departure from the practices of contemporary Near Eastern soldiers. Later, the Greco-Roman world in which Paul lived tolerated and sometimes even encouraged male homosexual activity, particularly between an older man and an adolescent. Paul's rhetoric opposed the sexual toleration of the world in which he lived. His biblical tradition nurtured his attitude on voluntary male homosexual activity but did not directly address homosexual activity among females (cf. Lv 18:2223; 20:1516). Paul held that men and women were similarly responsible for their sexual activity (cf. 1 Cor 7). Thus, the diatribal rhetoric of Rom 1 includes a mention of voluntary sexual activity between females (Rom 1:26). With this inclusion, Paul seems to have been the first Hellenistic moralist to censure same-sex sexual activity among women whose nature would normally lead them to sexual activity with males.

Divorce and Adultery. Paul (cf. 1 Cor 6:16; 11:89, 1112) was not alone among early Christian writers in appealing to the biblical stories of creation as warrants for proper sexual relationships. In his reflection on the church, the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians cites the encomium of Gn 2:24 (Eph 5:31) to metaphorically speak of the relationship between Christ and his church. In Matthew and Mk's story of Jesus teaching about divorce, use is made of both the Yahwistic (Gn 2) and Priestly (Gn 1) narratives of creation. Mark's version (Mk 10:112), the earlier of the two, offers the story of a group of Pharisees coming to Jesus and asking about the legitimacy of a man divorcing his wife. Rather than respond to their legal question, Jesus answers with a vision of the relationship between man and woman based on Gn 1:27; 2:24. He dismisses the allowance of divorce provided by Dt 24:1 as a result of men's hardheartedness. Jesus' response concludes with a prophetic challenge, "what God has joined together, let no one separate" (Mk 10:9).

In Mark's version of this story, Jesus did not respond to the question of law but offered a vision of the man-woman relationship. Hence, the disciples queried him further about the legal matter (Mk 10:1012). In his version of Jesus' response, Mark has reprised the traditional saying of Jesus on divorce (Mt 5:32; 19:9; Lk 16:18; 1 Cor 7:1011) with two significant emendations. He presents a man's divorce as an act of adultery against the aggrieved wife and adds that the situation of a woman who divorces her husband is likewise an act of adultery.

Mark's references to women show that his gospel was written for a Hellenistic readership. In the Greco-Roman world it was possible for a woman to divorce her husband, something that was virtually impossible in the Jewish world. Mark's reflection on the creation narratives indicates that an issue regarding the relationship between man and woman must be considered primarily not from a legal perspective but from the perspective of the creative will of God who created them "male and female."

Matthew rewrote the Markan story for a Jewish audience. His version of the story (Mt 19:112) is tailored for that audience. The question posed by the Pharisees raises the issue not of the legitimacy of divorce in itself, but of the situation that warrants a divorce. Matthew concludes the story of the repartee between Jesus and the Pharisees on a legal note, "whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity (porneia, a word whose specific meaning in this context is a matter of debate among scholars) and marries another commits adultery" (Mt 19:9). In Matthew, the disciples are taken aback by the severity of Jesus' response and suggest that it is better not to marry. Not so: only those to whom God gives the gift of celibacy are called not to marry.

Matthew's consideration of human sexuality from the perspective of Jewish law similarly appears in the Sermon on the Mount. In his exposition of precepts of the Decalogue, Matthew teaches that the commandment "you shall not commit adultery" requires that the disciples of Christ should shun lusting after a woman, masturbation, and divorce (Mt 5:2732). The way that Matthew deals with the commandment is similar to the way that rabbis extrapolated halakah, instructions on conduct, from biblical texts. The wording of his teaching on lust and masturbation is similar to a tradition of Jesus' words found in Mk 9:4248 which speak of the serious moral evil of the sexual abuse of children, masturbation, adultery, and lust.

In the biblical era, the prohibition of adultery (Ex 20:14; Dt 5:18) was sanctioned by death (Lv 20:10; Dt 22:2324), but it is more likely that adultery was more often punished by divorce and the woman being stripped of the clothing provided by her husband. Adultery was understood to be sexual intercourse between a married woman and a man who was not her husband. The man's own marital status was not an issue. The issues were paternity, inheritance of property, and family ties. The rights of the male Israelite were of paramount importance. The right of an Israelite male to marry and to enjoy sexual intercourse with his wife is expressed in the Deuteronomic stipulation that young husbands be exempt from military service for a year after their marriage (Dt 20:7; 24:5).

An aggrieved husband generally had the right to impose the penalty for adultery on his wife in the Ancient Near East. He was required to mete out the same penalty to her paramour. It was his rights that had been violated by adultery. Israel, however, gradually came to the conviction that sexual practices were not only a private matter; they were also a matter of public concern. The presence of the prohibition of adultery in the Decalogue, a covenantal text, was a sign of public concern and control. Another indication of Israel's developing realization that sexual mores were a matter of public concern is the way in which Ex 22:1416 and Dt 22:2829 respectively regulate the seduction of an unmarried virgin. The earlier law required that the seducer offer the bride price (māhõr ) to the young woman's father. Deuteronomy mandates that the seducer who has paid the bride price and married the woman is forever forbidden to divorce her. The seducer had not followed the proper arrangements in acquiring his wife.

As the biblical tradition on sexuality developed, it was the ethos of Israel that was ultimately at stake in the way in which men and women expressed their sexual identities. Hence, Paul's strong condemnation of a Christian community which tolerated incest (1 Cor 5). A prohibition of incest is found in all cultures although there are varying definitions of what actually constitutes incest. Is, for example, marriage to one's half sister a case of incest? In the Holiness Code, the Book of Leviticus spells out a list of the forbidden sexual relationships in Israel (Lv 18; cf. Lv 20; Dt 27). Surprisingly, none of the biblical lists specifically prohibits a man from having a sexual relationship with his own daughter. Nonetheless, the expectation that a young woman be a virgin at the time of her marriage implies that Israel's ethos precluded a man having sexual intercourse with his daughter. The death penalty was prescribed for the crimes of incest with one's father's wife or one's own mother-in-law or daughter-in-law (Lv 20:11, 12, 14), as it was for homosexual activity among men (Lv 20:13) and copulation with an animal, whether by man or woman (Lv 20:15; cf. Lv 18:23). Rape of a betrothed woman was punishable by death of the perpetrator, "because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor," but the violated woman was considered innocent (Dt 22:2527). If, however, a woman was raped in the city and did not cry out for help it was presumed that she consented to the adulterous liaison.

Sexual Mores. Concerns for ritual purity entered into Israel's sexual mores. Men were enjoined from sex with a menstruating woman. They could not enter the temple until a day after sexual intercourse or wet dream, perhaps even after three days (cf. Ex 19:15; Lv 22:46; 1 Sm 21:45). The earnings of a prostitute were not acceptable as a temple offering. Priests were not allowed to marry a prostitute or a divorced woman (Lv 21:7).

In its injunction that a young married man have a year to spend and be happy with his wife before leaving for a military campaign (Dt 24:5), Israel's legal tradition shows its awareness of the role of healthy sexual relationships within marriage. Such awareness would be echoed in later rabbinic pronouncements that spoke of a husband's obligation to pleasure his wife and of her right to have pleasure with her husband. Israel's wisdom tradition treats human sexuality in a matter-of-fact way and in all its practicality. Thus it speaks of the roles of men and woman in a household (e. g., Prv 31:1031). It speaks of the seductive attraction of the whore (Prv 5:34; 7:627; Sir 19:2) and warns against a man wasting his money on prostitutes (Prv 29:3; Sir 9:6). Israel's sapiential literature speaks glowingly of the importance of erotic love. The Book of Proverbs describes the intoxication of erotic love (Prv 5:1520; cf. Sir 36:27). The Song of Songs is an erotic love song whose place in the biblical canon attests to the significance of the physical and emotional aspects of human sexuality in God's creative will and salvific plan. This is true notwithstanding the tendency of some later commentators to see in the eroticism of the canticle merely an allegory of the love between God and Israel or Christ and the church.

Inspired, and normative for the faith of the church, the biblical texts constitute a legacy on the basis of which the church and its members continue to respond to issues in sexual ethics.

Bibliography: w. a. m. beuken, "The Human Person in the Vision of Gn 12" (LS 24 [1999] 320). r. f. collins, "The Bible and Sexuality," Biblical Theology Bulletin 7 (Rome 1977) 14967; 8 (1978) 318; Divorce in the New Testament (GNS 38; Collegeville: 1992); "'Male and Female He Created Them,"' Chicago Studies 32 (1993) 918; Sexual Ethics and the New Testament: Behavior and Belief (Companions to the New Testament; New York 2000). w. deming, Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: The Hellenistic Background of 1 Cor 7 (SNTSMS 83; Cambridge 1995). t. frymer-kensky, "Law and Philosophy: The Case of Sex in the Bible," Semeia 45 (1989) 89102. m. satlow, Tasting the Dish: Rabbinic Rhetorics of Sexuality (BJS 303; Atlanta 1995).

[r. f. collins]