Wednesday, October 6, 2010

God and Sex: What does the Bible really say?

This is a topic that is often front and center in American society. Over the centuries laws have been enacted, debates have raged, and court battles waged on a variety of issues related to sex. At one time it was not only illegal to commit adultery in most states, it was also illegal for married couples to express their sexual love in ways that were not legislated.

The Bible has often been used to support various aspects of the debate. And not just by pastors and their flock. As this current political season will demonstrate, politicians also use the Bible in order to "stake out" their position on the various issues. The current hot topic issue is, of course, homosexuality.

My purpose today is not to weigh-in on the sexuality debate, but to point out that often times those who are quoting what the Bible says about sex have either not read it or did not understand it (of course we could say this about a host of issues). For example, young boys were (still are?) often warned against masturbation since this was the sin of Onan in Genesis 38:8-10 (also called Onanism). The problem, of course, is that in the story Onan is NOT masturbating, but practicing coitus interruptus. In fact, there is nothing in the Bible about masturbation. One could talk about lust, but not masturbation.

In an interesting interview with the Boston Globe, Michael Coogan talks about his new book God and Sex: What the Bible Really says. He is also goes through a series of questions with the interviewer where he points out that some things we think are in the Bible are not and how at other times the focus is not really on sex, but something else.

Here are a few of the things he points out:

  • Monogamy is not mandated in the Bible, in fact polygamy is more the norm.

  • Abortion is not mentioned in Bible

  • Views on divorce depend on which Gospel you read

  • Jesus never mentions homosexuality

The above are oversimplified and I am sure that, given the time, Coogan would explain in more detail what he means. And, to be fair, one cannot accept or dismiss something in the Bible simply because it is not explicitly stated. The task of exegesis and theological refection is much more complicated than using the Bible like a phone book or an answer key to a test. One should not presume that you can simply open the Bible and find the definite answer on a topic. Such an approach shows a patent failure to understand the nature of the Bible.

But whether you agree of disagree with Coogan, he does raise some important issues that should be considered by those who use the Bible. Coogan argues that everyone uses the Bible selectively and he is correct. He also faults biblical scholars for not working hard enough to inform the public debate. I have to agree with him again. Too often we are focused on our work with not much thought on how it informs society as a whole.

So what do you think about Coogan's efforts? I am not looking to debate his stances on various issues of sexuality, that is not the purpose of this blog. But I am curious about his complaint that the Bible is used improperly or ignorantly. Could we do better? If he is right, how then should the Bible inform our views on societal issues?


  1. So you're asking a hermeneutical question, not an ethical one? I like Bill Bellenger's "hermeneutic of curiosity" approach in this regard--use a variety of perspectives and approaches to the Bible, in order to arrive at a reading that is closer to what the texts, taken together, ACTUALLY SAY, rather than what we think they should say. In this regard, I agree with you. Biblical scholarship needs to do more to provide the carefully considered insights that can help everyone interpret scripture.

  2. Spending time in and with the text and wrestling with it is something that is lost on many who read the Bible today.

    We all read into the texts from time to time, but we must allow and remember that these texts were written "for" us not necessarily "to" us.