Friday, May 31, 2024

Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire by Jennifer Wright Knust

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


Without question, the most dangerous thing my parents ever did was encourage me to read the Bible for myself. I read it the whole way through in Jr. High if I recall, again, in High School, and since then, have re-read every part of it at least once. 


The problem is, once you start reading it, even in translations which have (to put it mildly) a strong political and theological agenda, it is impossible to escape the conclusion:


For the most part, what Evangelicals say about the Bible, and what they say it says, is a bunch of made-up bullshit. 


The Bible doesn’t say what they claim it says.


The Bible isn’t what they say it is. 


Period. Full. Stop. 


I came to this conclusion before I started looking into actual scholarship about the Bible. This conclusion was solely from actually reading the book


As I said, really, really dangerous. 


The number one issue that the Bible presents is this: it is filled with theological contradictions. 


I know that those who purport to reconcile “Bible difficulties” - and believe me, it is a whole industry - tend to focus on factual contradictions. And, of course, this is true, from the opening chapters of the book onward. There are two contradictory creation stories, incompatible genealogies in both testaments, two inconsistent accounts of Israel’s history, different and contradictory accounts of the birth of Christ, his life, and his death and resurrection. 


This is to be expected when you have different people writing about the same thing - something every lawyer knows about testimony. All of the witnesses can be telling the truth as they saw it, and the accounts will be quite different. So, ultimately, for me, the only thing the factual contradictions mean is that the idea that God wrote the Bible is ludicrous - it was written by humans, with their human frailties and limited points of view. That doesn’t mean the Bible wasn’t “inspired” - after all, humans have the breath of God in them too - we are “inspired” in the same true sense. 


The theological contradictions, though, are far more of a problem, because they get at the very heart of what the Bible IS, and therefore what we are to do with it. 


Because there is such strong and irreconcilable difference in the theology of the different writers, the Bible feels like more of an argument than anything else. It certainly is NOT a book of systematic theology. And it certainly is NOT “God’s Little Instruction Book™.”


Furthermore, every single argument, every single idea in the Bible is firmly rooted in the cultural situation and concerns of the time in which it was written. The questions addressed are those of that time - which is often a different time from the events recounted - and the answers and discussion more often than not are creative, rather than literal. 


Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire addresses what is perhaps the most problematic issue to be found in the Bible: Sex. 


In our own time, particularly in the Evangelical subculture I was raised in, sex is without question the issue that Christians care about the most. In fact, for them, evil is literally spelled S-E-X, something I have written about before. 


The problem isn’t just that this has really messed up any chance of a healthy relationship with our own bodies, it has also been a distraction from the true moral issues of our time (and all time). In fact, part of this distraction has been making stories in the Bible that are fundamentally about justice into stories about sex


So, basically, rather than spending our efforts on the things Christ taught about: loving our neighbor, caring for the vulnerable, welcoming the stranger, freeing the prisoners, healing the sick, addressing our heart issues rather than the surface - we obsess instead about what people do with their genitals. 


While this book isn’t about that problem, it does take a scholarly and in-depth look at what the Bible actually says about sex. Which turns out, as I realized as a teen, to not be much of anything like we were taught it says. 


A bit of background on Knust. She is professor at Boston University, with a translator-level ability in ancient Greek. She is also an ordained pastor in the American Baptist denomination. (That’s the progressive one, not to be confused with the White Nationalist Southern Baptist Convention.) Because of this background, she is able not only to analyze the original texts, but to translate the Greek ones herself - and she does. 


Knust therefore brings a lot more to the discussion than the average pastor, who, in my experience, combines a quasi-literalist approach to the text with the baggage of Victorian interpretative traditions, to perpetuate a particular interpretation and rule for living. 


This rule, as any Evangelical can tell you (even if they can’t explain any other theological position) is that sex is only for a male and a female within a lifetime marriage. The part not said out loud is that for many, although not most, sex is also not to be done for pleasure, but for procreation. 


The problem is…..that’s not actually in the Bible. 


Rather, there are a whole host of different approaches to sexuality and desire that are often contradictory, come from completely different views of the body, gender, and other issues, and are all too often grounded in a view of gender and class hierarchies that we now tend to see as morally abhorrent. 


Let’s just start with this one, which I have never heard from a pulpit, but which is blindingly obvious if you have even a cursory knowledge of history:


Slaves could not marry.


Slaves could not marry.


Slaves could not marry.


Do I need to shout that once more for those in the back?




So, anything you read about marriage in the Bible applies ONLY to freemen. Or, one might say, to the wealthier people in society. 


That right there leads to unsolvable problems in developing a “Biblical” view of sex. What do we do about the enslaved? 


Well, in the cultures the Bible was written in, the answer was pretty obvious: Masters could fuck their slaves at will, male or female, and slaves had to submit to it as unto God. Slaves could be forced to bear their masters’ children. Slaves could not marry each other, of course, because their bodies literally belonged to their masters.


So, when reading passages that are both about husbands and wives and masters and slaves, just keep in mind who is getting fucked by whom. 


Just saying.


The Bible never forbids raping your slave. It doesn’t. Full. Stop. So any idea that the Bible is a useful source for sexual rules probably should die with that realization. 


And it doesn’t get better from there. Most of what the Bible says about sex is not clear - and in fact is contradictory. And the few things that seem clearest are morally appalling. So, as I concluded at a relatively young age, trying to discover a workable sexual ethic from the Bible was never going to end well. 


Again, reading the Bible myself - even in translation - was the most dangerous thing I could possibly have done. 


With that in mind, let’s dive into this fascinating book. 


Knust starts with a scene that probably every female has experienced: getting slut-shamed at 12 years old for just being different. It was a traumatic experience for the author, and one that has stuck with her. Ever since then, she has asked herself a question. 


Still, every time I hear people accuse one another of sexual misdeeds, I have to wonder: what is really going on here? My experience at twelve taught me that, when it comes to sex, people never simply report what others are doing or even what they themselves are doing. Those girls called me “slut” not because I was one - whatever that might mean - but because they were afraid of being labeled the slut themselves or, worse, of being asked to become one too. Sex, I have since discovered, can be used as a public weapon. 


She then looks at a popular (at the time) Christian magazine for teen girls, which promoted an egregious double standard, placing burdens on women for male sin. 


Grounding an impossible double standard in the New Testament, Revolve pretends that the Bible speaks with one voice about what God wants from teenage girls. But as an adult and a Bible scholar, I can say that clearly Revolve is wrong. The Bible fails to offer girls - or anyone -a consistent message regarding sexual morals and God’s priorities. 


Instead, something else is going on. Regarding a brief filed by a parachurch organization in a court case, she notes the following. 


When the ERLC brief cites the Bible in this way, the point is not to represent the contents of the Bible adequately, but to grant a veneer of certainty and righteousness to the positions it puts forward, just as Revolve seeks to convince “good Christian girls” that sluts get what they deserve. 


Like me and my siblings, the author’s mother spent many hours reading Bible stories to her, and creating a love and fascination for the book. Like my mother, hers encouraged questions at that age. (Although mine stopped allowing questioning when she got into Bill Gothard.) Like the author, this inspired me to learn more later - that dangerous pursuit of knowledge. 


Inspired, in part, by my mom and those mornings on the big gold couch, I am now a Bible scholar, an ordained American Baptist pastor, and a professor of religion. I have the good fortune of contemplating these and other questions full-time. With this in mind, I’m tired of watching those who are supposed to care about the Bible reduce its stories and its teachings to slogans. The only way that the Bible can be regarded as straightforward and simple is if no one bothers to read it. 


This is so true. My friends who have deconstructed the hardest have tended - like me - to be the ones who were the most committed, the most knowledgeable, the most fascinated with the Bible. But the endless sloganeering drove us away. Knust continues. 


Pasting a plastic smile on what are sometimes death-dealing commandments and disturbing stories will not lessen their potential for harm. Ignoring the passages we don’t like and holding on to the passages we love will not make what we hate go away. Similarly, selectively citing what is uplifting and wonderful, however well meaning our intentions, will not teach us what the Bible truly means or what the Bible must truly say. The Bible is complicated enough, ancient enough, and flexible enough to support an almost endless set of interpretive agendas. That’s why abolitionists could find inspiration in the Bible’s pages despite centuries of biblically sanctioned argumentation in favor of the enslavement of fellow human beings. Even today, progressives can cite scripture to celebrate the consecration of gay marriage just as effortlessly as conservatives can argue that God refuses to accept anything other than marriage between one man and one woman. It wasn’t the Bible that brought emancipation, and it won’t be the Bible that determines our sexual ethics. Rather, we ourselves must decide what kind of people we will become, what kinds of weddings should be celebrated, and how best to love one another. 


Exactly. I recommend The Civil War as a Theological Crisis for a deep dive on slavery and abolition as they relate to theology. Likewise, just as slavery wasn’t resolved by the Bible, any sexual ethic that claims to be “from the Bible” is really just a preconceived belief that has been proof-texted. 


After this introduction, Knust starts off by examining the question of sexual desire. After all, the Bible is quite contradictory on this point. Is sexual desire good or evil? In what circumstances? I will note (and return to later) the problems posed by Song of Songs - where an unmarried young woman defies her male guardians to have sex with her shepherd lover. I mean, unmarried sex, a sexually aggressive woman, and defiance of authority? 


Or, to give another example, the apparently sanctioned relationship between David and Jonathan. As the author points out, the use of language in the original strongly suggests that their relationship was sexual, and that David was the penetrator. And also that one of David’s legitimate claims to the throne was that Jonathan – the king’s son – was his “wife.”


Or how about Ruth? Well, she seduces Boaz (the original language is quite clear about that), and is called righteous. (Also, anyone besides the author and me find the claim that Naomi nursed Obed at her own breast to raise questions? Did she get knocked up too? By whom?) 


I don’t have any pithy quotes, but the chapter is excellent at pointing out the constant contradictions in the Bible regarding sexual desire. 


Next up is the question of what marriage looks like in the Bible. It’s….complicated. And, of course, remember, slaves can not get married. So why are we so certain we know what “biblical” marriage looks like? Well, Knust starts by talking about history. 


Lately it seems that no serious political discussion can begin without the question, “Are you for or against gay marriage?” as if the answer given to this single question sums up one’s politics, religion, and very identity. But surely marriage is more complicated than this. Certain groups have always been designated as ineligible for marriage, denied its privileges and its benefits. Indeed, it isn’t only gay couples who cannot obtain the social, cultural, and economic advantages that accrue to heterosexual couples with access to recognized, state-issued marriage certificates. Common-law marriages and marriages between citizens and noncitizens are also recognized differently in different states, and, not too long ago, marriages between men and women of different races were patently illegal. 


And…she goes there. (As she should!)


Forty years ago, the pressing political question was, “Are you for or against miscegenation?” not “Are you for or against gay marriage?”


The words may change, but the melody remains the same. 


Whatever politicians and pastors might argue, then, state-sponsored marriage is not a matter of morality and piety but of privileges meted out to some and denied to others. Marriage certificates distribute goods and bodies in such a way that certain resources are kept “in the family” or “among the citizens”; they do not define which human ties are recognized by God. The promotion of heterosexual marriage over and against gay marriage is just the latest in a series of exclusionary marriage regulations that attempt to define what a “real” marriage is supposed to look like over and against the inadmissible couplings of other intimate partners. Again and again, the Bible is inserted into these discussions, just as it was in miscegenation controversies several decades ago, as if biblical teachings can solve the problem of which marriages the state should or should not recognize. This strategy needs to stop, not only because the separation of church and state is a central democratic value, but also because the Bible offers on viable solution to our marriage dilemmas. There is no such thing as a single, biblically based view of legitimate marriage. 


Since fundamentalists tend to cite Genesis, Knust goes back there, and looks at what is actually said. First of all, the word “adam” - which is a description, not a name, by the way - means “humankind.” The “adam” - the first human, was just that, a human. It can be either male or female - or both. The first human was actually (according to the Bible as originally written) not a male. And not a female. But an earth-creature without gender, until God separates it into male and female. 


This is not some new, controversial view, but one held by many ancient Christians. The primal human was androgynous. And indeed, in Christ, as the author of Galatians put it, there is no male and female. 


This discussion - which includes a whole range of historical views on the meaning of the creation story - is fascinating, and reveals that to use the story as a proof-text for heterosexual marriage is a huge stretch. (And, like so many of our cherished doctrines, a modern affectation.) 


So, what about Adultery? Can we at least agree on that? Well, that too is complicated. 


There are many excellent lessons to draw from the story of David and Bathsheba. Knust does not examine the modern realization that this looks like a rape story, because that is not her purpose. Rather, she looks at how the story would have been understood in its time. 


So, did you know that David did not commit adultery with Bathsheba? 


He didn’t. Because Bathsheba and her husband were foreigners, David was free to have sex with her even if she was married. Which is why Nathan focused, not on the sexual sin, but on the property rights violation. David stole the property of another man - the sex was incidental. 


Knust also notes that, although the first child dies, Bathsheba’s second child would become Israel’s most powerful king - Solomon the Great. So, in a sense, Bathsheba is rewarded for having forbidden sex. (Again, leaving out the question of consent, which was beside the point for ancient writers.) She is again praised in Hebrews for her righteousness. 


So, maybe even adultery is…complicated? 


And then there is the problem of Jesus, who wasn’t pro marriage. At all. He deliberately went after the entire concept, from his statements that in the afterlife there will be no marriage, to his statement that whoever fails to “hate” his family is unworthy of him. For a truly “christ-like” view, one could say that marriage is worthless compared to a different kind of relationship. 


In the Gospels, then, one becomes a true parent, a child, a sister, or a brother not through marriage and childbirth but through joining forces with those who follow and obey Jesus’ teachings. 


What about divorce and remarriage? What a freaking mess! The writers of the Gospels can’t even agree on what Jesus said. (Something I noticed as a child…) 


The contradictions among these sayings - Is separation allowed or not? Is remarriage permitted or not? Are Jesus’s teachings different from those of Moses or not? In what ways? - have left a confusing record, made even more complicated by surviving manuscripts, which preserve multiple versions of these same verses. Jesus’s teachings on divorce are among the most variable passages in the entire New Testament, with scribes altering and editing the traditions they had received, sometimes in an effort to harmonize what was found in one gospel with what was found in another. Contemporary readers are therefore not the first audience to notice that Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels do not agree. The difficulty of these sayings and the differences among them point to the continuing development of Jesus’s teachings over time. 


The book has a hand three pages of charts showing how the Gospels differ, and how the different manuscripts differ. It’s eye opening. Despite there being no definitive version of what Jesus may (or not) have said, the fundie subculture has spent decades persecuting divorced and remarried women over this issue. 


Next up is another eye-opening chapter. For background on this, it helps to understand that Saint Paul did NOT write most of what is attributed to him. The authentic Pauline letters were written before even the Gospels (which were written at least a decade after Paul’s death), and are notable for some interesting - and disturbing - ideas about sex and marriage. 


For purposes of this discussion, about marriage and sex, the ones in question would be Romans, I Corinthians, I Thessalonians, and Galatians. These books argue for a very anti-marriage stance. The best way to be a Christian is to avoid sex and marriage altogether. 


This is rooted in part in the belief that Christ would return and end the world in a few years anyway, so why marry and have children?


You can also find in here strong beliefs - in accordance with Roman thinking - that sex was about who penetrated whom, and what that meant for social status. Any discussion of homosexuality needs to start with this, because the same reasons for prohibition of male homosexuality are the reason why, in Roman culture, a man giving a woman oral sex was frowned upon as even worse than giving it to a man


This section also extensively examines the common practice of sex with slaves in Roman culture - and notes that even Paul at his most anti-sex never forbids sex with your slave. But he doesn’t recommend sex for the Christian at all. 


Later, interpreters of Paul (as the author calls them), wrote additional books “in the style of Paul” a couple decades after his death, with conflicting theology. The first batch includes Colossians and Ephesians, which contain re-mixes of the Greco-Roman domestic codes - where a freeman is to rule over his wife, children, and slaves. (Reading Aristotle’s Politics was a real eye-opener - you see the same thing and realize that Scripture pushes back by making the duties reciprocal - freemen have serious obligations to their wives, children, and slaves that are not in the original…or the law.) 


Finally, there are the Pastoral Epistles, which came much later, and are clearly forgeries as we would understand the term. These now forbid women in leadership, refer to 2nd Century church governance, and not only approve of marriage, but demand that younger women marry and have children. 


I highly recommend reading this entire chapter, as it puts all of this in cultural perspective. And, it also reveals that these passages in the New Testament exist for reasons we will recognize today. 


The biblical writings we have been considering in this chapter coincided with a Roman imperial family-values campaign in which free men were required to master not only their desires, but also the sexual lives of their wives, children, and slaves. If they failed to do so, they could be subject to the disciplinary intervention of the Roman government. Failing to marry, they could be fined. Failing to produce three or more legitimate Roman children, they could be passed over for important government appointments. 


As with today, the matter of sex is inseparable from anxiety about imperial decline - and in our own context, racial decline. The Reverend Young cited by the author is no different from those who came before in his use of sex to further existing hierarchies. 


Shaping their sexual morals so that they could fit within their particularly cultural contexts, Pauline Christians and Reverend Young promote sexual codes that are familiar to their audiences. They also endorse an exclusive and discriminatory version of sexual morality available to some, but not others. 


This is why you cannot separate a book from its context. But we can also see a parallel to today: The Roman Empire wanted freemen (well, free women…) to make more Romans - have at least three kids. Today’s sexual police, the Religious Right, wants certain people to have more babies. More white babies, if you look closely. Nothing really has changed, sexual rules are still all about maintaining social hierarchies. 


The chapter on sexual politics is really eye-opening, and is the chapter that will make you want to hate the Bible - or at least certain sections. 


It starts off by quoting notorious white supremacist Jerry Falwell Sr., which is never good. He gives the usual screed that attacks on 9/11 were caused by the usual suspects: LGBTQ people, atheists, abortionists, and feminists. Because of course. 


But then, another explanation was offered: that Muslims were demon possessed pedophiles. Yep, the usual suspects again. 


Knust then explores what this is. The demonization of other people groups by accusing them of sexual deviance is nothing new. In fact, the Bible does it. A LOT. 


Anyone who has read the Bible knows this is true. Paul accuses the Romans of all kinds of sexual misconduct, of course. And the Canaanites are accused likewise of all kinds of deviance. 


But is this true?


Actually, no it isn’t.


The favorite accusation in both testaments is that of “Sacred Prostitution” - the idea that there were pagan religious rituals where sex was involved, and money passed for the privilege. 


Except there is no evidence this actually happened. 


It is a gross slander, intended to stir up hatred against other people. And just because it is in the Bible doesn’t make it right. 


There is, however, no material evidence to support the view that Canaanites, the Babylonians, or any other ancient Mesopotamian nation engaged in prostitution to any greater degree than those who worshiped Yhwh, let alone that sacred prostitutes dwelt in their temples. Prostitutes were marginalized members of society, which is why the charge that the idolaters “prostitute themselves to their gods” stung, but they were not identified as priestesses or sacred functionaries in nonbiblical texts. Juxtaposed with wives and honorable daughters or sons in biblical and other Mesopotamian writings, prostitutes were universally degraded and maligned, not represented as “sacred.”


Likewise, Herodotus’ famous description of sacred prostitutes in past eras (hundreds of years prior) were tall tales - Herodotus himself admitted that his sources were unreliable, and Cicero and other serious scholars of Roman times dismissed these reports as exactly that - tall tales. The commonality in all of these stories is that they were always about other people and predated the writing by hundreds of years. Yeah, not the most reliable source of information. 


So, be very suspicious whenever anyone starts telling fantastic stories about the degraded sexual practices of another group. For every true story of a Warren Jeffs (easily verifiable by the testimony of his victims), there are a thousand slanders of socially marginalized groups, from LGBTQ people to whatever the unpopular religion of the day is. 


Also in this chapter is the inconvenient truth about the Canaanites. 


Over the last century, archaeologists and Bible scholars have been surprised to discover that Canaanites and Israelites cannot easily be distinguished, despite the Bible’s stories. The cultural melting pot of Canaan during the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE included Canaanites, Israelites, and others living in a small piece of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian desert (called the “Levant” by scholars), and, for all practical purposes, they were neighbors, not different nations. 


And their cultures - and religions - were more alike than different. If you want to get into the references in the Bible to Yhwh and his Asherah, it’s interesting. There is a lot more that archaeology has discovered. In practice, Israelite religion was fairly polytheistic - which may be why the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures spent so much time trying to enforce the worship of Yhwh alone. 


So, the accusations of sexual deviancy in the Bible are all too often used (as they are today) as political weapons to justify the persecution or extermination of other groups. 


The chapter next gets into some really weird territory. Knust tells about her grandparents, and some of their sexual shenanigans, and notes that they definitely broke some OT laws. But what would have been the consequences? 


Yet family and sexual laws are irregularly enforced and subject to constant revision, both in America and the Bible. 


For more on the inconsistent enforcement of rules throughout history, I recommend Geoffrey Stone’s excellent work, Sex and the Constitution. Just because something is a law doesn’t mean it is rigorously enforced. (Note drug laws in our own country, for one example.) 


And, this leads to a few really fascinating observations on things I had missed in prior readings of the Torah. 


One thing that is found throughout the Torah is a general prohibition on incest. This is carefully defined, and in the long lists, it is easy to fail to note what is not considered incest. Go re-read Leviticus 18, then Leviticus 20.


Can you see what incestuous relationship is missing?


It’s the one that the Orange Felon fantasizes about committing


That’s right, in the Bible, you are free to fuck your daughter. 


This is all the more striking because other Ancient Near East legal codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi (at least 500 years older than the Torah) expressly forbid father-daughter sex. So why was it omitted from the Torah? It certainly is a strong implication that it was intentional, and one wonders how common that form of incest was in Israelite culture. 


The omission of a direct prohibition against father-daughter incest in Leviticus has troubled many commentators. Was father-daughter incest tolerated in ancient Israel? Or, worse, was it accepted as moral behavior? 


Next up is another uncomfortable question. Knust looks at the most infamous passage in Leviticus, the prohibition on penetrating another man with your penis. There is so much here, I defer to the discussion in the book. To give a few, generally other literature condemns a man “lowering himself” by being penetrated by a woman, so the Torah is a bit of a reversal, condemning the penetrator instead. 


There is also the fact that this is found in a list of prohibitions, all of which involve putting precious semen in places where it can’t lead to a baby: inside a male, inside an animal, and inside a menstruating woman. 


Ah yes, so much interesting stuff about menstruation - that’s a whole discussion in itself, and it doesn’t make ancient Near Eastern people look particularly progressive about gender, that’s for sure. 


But back to the discussion, it is interesting that only penetration is forbidden. Other male-male sexual acts are not even mentioned. 


Knust also raises an interesting question. We tend to think of the Torah as pre-dating the monarchy, but it didn’t. The form we have now - and indeed the likely first time the Torah was reduced to writing - actually took place after the return from exile - hundreds of years after King David. 


Thus, reading the Torah in context, one can see that it is, to a degree, an argument with the monarchy. Knust notes that the Leviticus holiness code in some ways appears to be an explicit critique of King David and the monarchy. After all, the one man in the Bible who appears to have penetrated another male is…King David. He and his family also broke multiple other rules: sex between siblings (both David and Abigail, and later Tamar and Amnon), sex with a father’s concubine, adultery (with the caveat above), and so on. 


Very interesting in this context, if you want to explore more, is Joel Baden’s discussion with Peter Enns and Jared Byas about King David, and the totally partisan “apology” that the books of Samuel and Kings are - trying to rehabilitate a controversial figure who, on the surface, sure seems like a pretty evil guy. 


In contrast to this rehabilitation attempt, Leviticus seems in part to be a rebuttal: the monarchy has turned Israel into the sexually depraved and idolatrous Canaan. 


In the next chapter, the book gets even weirder with the discussion of the meaning of “strange flesh.” Again, we return to homosexuality and why the story of Sodom is about pretty much everything except that. It wasn’t until after Christ that the story was made about homosexuality. 


[T]he idea that the Sodom story is exclusively about a certain form of sex is a recent development, no matter how often the word “sodomy” appears today…Though the Bible knows nothing of this later identification, the story was cited for other reasons, the prophets of Israel, for example, regarded Sodom’s misdeeds as economic, not sexual: from their perspective, God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because the people had become selfish and corrupt, not because they were sexually depraved.


Those of us who read and love the Prophets know that this is a constant refrain. The rulers of Israel are “worse than Sodom” because of their oppression of the poor, the widow and orphan, and the immigrant. Much like certain religious leaders today. 


And then, things get even weirder later - in the time between the testaments. The book of Enoch is quoted in Jude - that’s the “strange flesh” line - and is concerned with sex with angels. 


I am not making that up. The book takes a deep dive, but basically, there was a widespread belief that humans and angels fucked quite a lot back in the day. This was one of the reasons for the Flood - to destroy those human/angel hybrids which were the monsters of legend. 


So, in the sense Jude meant “sodomy,” it wasn’t about same-sex fucking - but about humans fucking angels. 


This is one of those things that really doesn’t resonate today. All except for the most fringe Christians these days do not literally believe they could have sex with angels. And there certainly is zero evidence either now or in history that this ever happened or even could happen. Even presupposing you believe in literal angels. 


Also in this chapter are the other uncomfortable passages that were used to justify laws against miscegenation - Ezra for example. Unfortunately, many people today still believe interracial marriage is evil. Fewer than there used to be, but still. 


Another observation in this chapter was also interesting. We easily forget that immortality isn’t universally found in the Bible. For much of Israelite history, the belief was not in a bodily resurrection, but in a sort of soul-survival in “Sheol,” a counterpart to Hades in later Greek mythology, where the dead exist unhappily as shades. 


Thus, to understand many of the sexual regulations and concerns in the Torah, it helps to see immortality as coming through children. One lived on in one’s descendants, so having lots of children (perhaps through many wives and concubines) was the path to immortality. Descendants as the sands of the sea or the stars in the sky, as Abraham was promised. 


Sex without reproduction, therefore, was considered illegal and wrong. 


As belief in a literal bodily resurrection gained popularity, there was a corresponding shift in priorities. Hence, one can see Christ’s and Paul’s emphasis on spiritual descendants rather than genetic offspring, and sex itself became marginalized as unnecessary or even suspect. 


Whenever it comes to sex, culture and theology regarding other issues turns out to be inseparable, doesn’t it? As culture and theology changed throughout the Bible, so did the sexual regulations. 


One final thing from this chapter really struck me: our translations are so sanitized and bowdlerized, it is ridiculous. In both Ezekiel and Ezra, the land is described as “unclean.” But that misses the real word used, which is “menstruous.” In Ezra, this was used as an argument against racial mixing - the other races are “unclean/menstruous” at all times. For Ezekiel, the issue is idolatry, which is at least less nasty as a concept. 


The next to last chapter expands on this, going through the various ways that bodily fluids made one unclean, and the related questions of body parts and their cleanness or lack thereof. I didn’t write down any quotes, but this is fascinating and enlightening in general. So much of Leviticus makes little sense in our own culture, but Knust makes it more understandable, even if it still seems rather odd and inapplicable to today’s scientific knowledge. 


The conclusion - a chapter in itself - ties all this together, and argues for a different way of interpreting the Bible. The story of the Samaritan woman at the well - one with so many possible interpretations, and so many throughout history - forms the basis of the argument. If the Bible is to truly be a source of living water that never runs dry, forcing it into a tiny bucket of rules is never going to work. 


The story of the Samaritan woman, like so many of the stories encountered in this book, proves once again that the meaning of the Bible cannot easily be controlled. The story has no single meaning. Therefore, the issue for readers of the Gospel is not whether a particular interpretation is valid but whether it is valuable, and why. 


This truly is the hard work of interpreting and living one’s faith. Arguments over “validity” are so often both pointless and cruel. The better question is whether an interpretation is valuable for living our faith, and why. 


Knust talks about the teachings and discussions she has led in churches, and explains her approach. I think this is brilliant. 


Whatever I am teaching, however, I usually begin by asking participants what they wish the Bible said about the topic at hand. Do we wish that the Bible would reject war as a political strategy? Or perhaps we believe that the Bible should support defensive if not offensive wars. Do we wish that the Bible would confirm gay marriage, instead of rejecting it as so many Christians insist? Or perhaps our concern has to do with the role of women. Perhaps we wish that Paul had not told women to be silent and learn from their husbands at home, especially since talkative and independent women can be found throughout the Bible just as often as silent, obedient women. Whatever we wish for, I point out, probably can be found somewhere in the Bible, which is why it is so important to admit that we have wishes, whatever they may be. We are not passive recipients of what the Bible says, but active interpreters who make decisions about what we will believe and what we will affirm. Admitting that we have wishes, and that our wishes matter, is therefore the first step to developing and honest and faithful interpretation. 


That is an incredible passage, and one that I wish I had understood from childhood on. And it is something I wish my Evangelical friends and family understood as well. We are all interpreters, and how we interpret the Bible actually says a hell of a lot more about who WE are than what the Bible is. 


This is actually in line with both how the Bible itself reimagines prior passages, and with how early Christians interpreted scripture. The Jewish tradition is known as “Midrash,” and Christ was a master of it. Rather than making scripture a static display in a museum, it was a living document, with new insights in every new generation. The role of the faithful community of believers wasn’t to preserve the old interpretations, but to bring the message into every new time and place in the form that is valuable then and there. 


Our wishes therefore do matter - they matter a lot - and the path to being faithful interpreters of the message is to admit to what we bring to the process of interpretation. 


It is time for us to admit that we, too, are interpreters who hope to find our convictions reflected in biblical texts, and have been all along. Looking to the Bible for straightforward answers about anything, including sex, can only lead to disappointment. When read as a whole, the Bible provides neither clear nor consistent advice about sex and bodies, as the material presented in this book demonstrates. If one set of biblical books interprets polygamy as a sign of God’s blessing, another set argues that celibacy is the best option for the faithful. If one biblical writer condemns those who engage in sex before marriage, others present premarital seduction as central to God’s plan. Just about every biblical commandment is broken, and not only by biblical villains. Biblical heroes like Abraham, Moses, and David also violate the commandments of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, and Jes is represented radically reinterpreting earlier scriptural teachings, including commandments regarding divorce. When it comes to sex, the Bible is often divided against itself. 


It is therefore a mistake to pretend that the Bible can define our ethics for us in any kind of straightforward way: such an interpretive strategy will only lead us astray while also preventing us from taking the bible as seriously as we should. Even more tragically, a refusal to acknowledge that we are active interpreters might make it seem as if the only possible choice is between accepting the Bible as literally true or rejecting the Bible altogether. Christians should not and need not be asked to make this choice. Since neither the Bible nor a particular interpretation can limit what particular stories and teachings must mean, it is up to readers to decide what a biblically informed and faithful sexual morality might look like. If the New Testament writers were willing to admit that they were constructing their theological and moral perspective with biblical texts but not because of them, then what is preventing readers today from adopting the same strategy? The Bible provides neither a shortcut to the real work of interpretation nor a simple solution to the important task of figuring out what it means to be human and yet in love with God.


Yes, every single word of that. This is why Evangelicalism hasn’t sat well with me for decades. It is a familiar ritual and tradition for me, but the interpretive strategy is thoroughly unworkable. And it is so clearly not the way that the writers of the Bible approached prior writings. To be faithful to that tradition requires that we take responsibility for our own interpretations - and the moral value that they bring to the discussion. To hide our own bigotry and hate behind “the Bible says” is a moral betrayal of the way scripture was written, and actually works. 


Likewise, the idea that there is only a choice between a pedantic, literalist, and legalistic approach to scripture, and a complete rejection of it, has never worked for me. It has, all too often, been used as a weapon by people against me and my family. When interpretation is divorced from actual humans, this kind of cruelty and weaponization is the inevitable result.


Books and fleshly bodies are human products, born in particular places at particular times and with particular concerns in mind, biblical books included. Left behind with human books and human bodies but without simple solutions in sight, the Bible, with all its contradictions, can seem like an unsatisfactory source of comfort, but it does not have to be so. By admitting that we, too, have longings and commitments, that we, too, are invested not only in God’s body but in the body of biblical texts and the bodies of those whom we love, we acknowledge both our limitations and our desires, opening ourselves up to the divine Word instead of closing our minds and hearts by acting as if we already know what God thinks and wants. 


I have personally suffered greatly at the hands of those who believe so strongly that they - and they alone - know the true mind of God. When in fact it was really the case that they mistook their own desires - and hatreds and baggage - for the mind of God themself. 


Faith is not lived out in the abstract, in the system of rules and the commandments of men, whether found in ancient texts or in modern theological superstructures, but in the literal lives of our fellow humans, and in our relationships with them.


The ending of the book is so good, I will quote it in full. 


Anyone who would use God and the Bible to deny touch, love, and affection to others has failed to present a valuable interpretation, not only of the Bible but also of what it means to be human, whether or not some biblical passage somewhere can be found to support their claims. Those who attempt to belittle or demean a class of people, denying them rights on the basis of an unexamined interpretation of a few biblical passages, are expressing not God’s will but their own limited human perspective, backed up by a shallow and self-serving reading of the biblical text. No one should rejoice when Jezebel is eaten by dogs. Slavery is never acceptable, whatever the Bible says. And it is a tragedy, not a triumph, every time some young person somewhere is crushed by the weight of taunting and shame inspired by cruelty masquerading as righteousness. If the Bible is truly the word of God, as Christians have claimed for centuries, then surely it deserves to be treated better than this. If human bodies matter to God as much as some ancient Israelites, Jewish Sages, and early Christians taught, then surely both deserve protection and high regard, no matter what. The Samaritan woman desired living water capable of quenching thirst forever, not still water trapped in a bucket and available for one thirsty afternoon. When it comes to the Bible, may we imitate her example, seeking abundant life in all the interpretations we offer. 


This really is the bottom line. The Bible contains justifications for the deepest evil and depravity, and also inspiration to the greatest good. It is an argument with itself, lasting nearly 1000 years. 


The question for us is whether our interpretations and our reinterpretations give life, or give death. I spent far too long in a tradition where it seemed that the goal was to seek death, at least for those who were different from us. I have chosen to seek life - to see in scripture that which gives that living water, which refreshes itself for every generation, every place and time, and which never runs dry. 


Don’t settle for the bucket of stale traditions. 

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