Reading the Bible, sex and all

March 24, 2011

Since starting seminary I've had the opportunity to read through the Old Testament with a thoroughness I haven't used since my evangelical youth group days. While building biblical literacy is something evangelicals do very well, reading the Old Testament now reminds me how my context shaped how I read the Bible. And it all had to do with sex.

The Old Testament is a pretty racy text. From rapes and seductions to concubines and harlots, it's hard to avoid the presence of physical bodies and sex, often illicit.

Unless you're an evangelical teenager. One of my strongest memories of that time is how hard our youth leaders worked to convince us that the sex passages actually have nothing to do with when the most beautiful virgin in the land is selected to lie with an elderly King David to keep him "warm." We were told the story has nothing to do with her trying to get him to respond sexually (even though in the ancient Near East a king's power was tied to his virility). Instead, she literally is chosen to raise his body temperature, since elderly people often get cold.

Or when Rehoboam tries to assert his prowess in comparison to his father Solomon, saying that his little finger is bigger than his father's sexual organ. According to my youth group leaders, the Bible would never include something so base--so Rehoboam is actually talking about his father's waist or thigh.

When we heard the story of the Israelite spies' visit to Rahab, the leaders made sure we understood that the spies only visit a prostitute because it's a good place to gather information. Ruth getting under the covers with Boaz and lying at his "feet" has no sexual connotations whatsoever--she just wants to get him to listen to her. Other leaders even tried to tell us that Esther's one night with the king was just a beauty contest.

Although we were told that we had to read the Bible literally, my church's attitude toward sex forced us to read those passages as meaning the opposite of what they seem to. We were told to consider sexual purity the highest virtue--and any sexual deviancy was condemned in publicly humiliating ways.

There was no way biblical heroes could ever be seen as dallying in inappropriate sexual behavior. Granted, it was hard to avoid the most obvious stories, but these usually are directly connected to some dire consequence (as with David and Bathsheba). As Christian teenagers our primary spiritual command was to be pure, and so our study of the Bible had to be just as pure.

Returning to the text now, I find it freeing to encounter stories full of people with passions and flaws. Instead of idealizing hollow heroes, I see that real people wrestled with how to follow God. This is far more helpful as I struggle to do the same.


Your point??

Are you suggesting that a 13 year old should be told that the spies had gone without too long and needed a little roll in the sack?? Actually, we don't know what happened, so that would be speculative as well. Do you believe that there may have been some prudence in the way the text was presented to you an an evangelical teen, or do you think evangelicals are simply all washed up and that you have advanced beyond them? Seems to me you are demonstrating a little imbalance here. Not all evangelicals are literalists, and our youngsters are already hyper-sexualized. Perhaps a little modesty is in order.

Lets not be to honest

"Perhaps a little modesty is in order". Yeah, because lying to young people about what the text means or trying to hide it has worked out so well. Youths love it when adults hide things from them particularly on matters that are important to them and the issues they are facing. This is why I recommend the KJV, it is so much easier to hide the true meaning of scripture with archaic language like for instance Ez. 23:20 "For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh [is as] the flesh of asses, and whose issue [is like] the issue of horses."


Modesty does not imply lying.


Oh yeah, teaching them how to put a condom on a banana before they've learned algebra has also "worked out so well." (Check stats on STD's, abortions, broken families, etc. etc. since the 60's)

Do you think you are wiser

Do you think you are wiser than God? Many of the stories in the Bible are of people who heard God's plan and said, "That's crazy! I can't do that. So I'll come up with my own plan instead."

How about instead of you coming up with your own plan of what to teach children, you instead trust in the Lord your God (Prov. 3:5)

Personally, I grew up as an atheist. I find it astonishing that Bible schools really did that. But on the other hand, many of translations, including "conservative" ones like KJV and "liberal" ones like NIV soften the sexual connotations even to the point of changing the plain meaning of the text, I guess it's not too surprising.

"... and all."

An interesting reminder that three or four years of seminary does not necessarily supply the level of biblical literacy that is needed for a lifetime of Christian ministry, discipleship and daily obedience. And if the seminary-trained pastor doesn't have it at graduation, how will the broadest base of listeners (to sermons), whether old or young, acquire it, unless pastor and congregant alike commit themselves to studying the whole Bible, everything from Ezekiel to Ephesians 5:3-5.

For a biblical literacy expanding strategy, perhaps your readers will be interested in The Year D Project:

Timothy M. Slemmons
Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Worship
University of Dubuque Theological Seminary

advertisements in the comments

I am wondering if it is possible for the Christian Century to delete the comments that I have seen appearing that amount to advertisements for products. They probably are spam, as i have seen the same ads/comments in different stories. They have nothing to do with the article in question. They make the Christian Century look foolish for allowing them to remain.
Hopefully the IT and web management people can take care of this.
Love the stories. Keep up the good work.

Hi Anon, I'm responsible for

Hi Anon,

I'm responsible for web site management, and I'm on the road this week and thus slower to spot and delete spam comments. Normally I do this hourly or so; this week it's been more like daily. But often more or less identical comments keep showing up on a particular post. We're looking into more permanent solutions.

Steve Thorngate
web editor

web site management

Thanks for the reply. It's easy to forget, when reading blogs and articles with comments, that there is a person behind the management of them.

I agree with author's points

I agree with Ms. Clawson. There is a lot of sex and sexual innuendo in the Hebrew Bible, much of it obfuscated with euphemisms. Of course we should be age appropriate when discussing the Bible with children; however, many of these passages are airbrushed long after a frank discussion of these elements in the Bible becomes fitting.

Often the sexual nature of these stories is irrelevant but sometimes it may be. When appropriate, let's admit and deal with the sex-related portions of the Bible.

If someone is uncomfortable with the large number of wives the Bible ascribes to Solomon and how many women in the Good Book are either prostitutes or rape victims, I can understand that. But those elements are there and other people are going to discuss them and I think that's often very valuable. I don't think Ms. Clawson is saying let's become fixated on the racy bits, but I don't see how we honor the Bible by promoting ignorance of the Bible.

I love reading the Old

I love reading the Old Testament,it's so today with the failings of its leaders and God.s chosen people.And so full of our Gods mercy, and correction,
when we respond to chastisement we are the better for it. The sad truth is no church exists where their isn't a dark underside of hiden hidden failings some, maybe a lot of them sexual. We as christains have yet to Walk in the light as he is in the light, but Oh for that day-How wonderous-Oh for a man-Oh for a woman -Oh for a child- to say like Sammuel" Speak Lord thy Servant heareth"

My Experience Was Different.... the small-town Texas Baptist church where I grew up. Lot's daughters' twisted seduction of their own father, David's sin with Bathsheba (and Bathsheba's very equivocal silence), Samson's erotic relationship with Delilah, and other sexual content, were handled as examples of how human beings can mishandle the powerful and primal drive that is sex, when they choose to live outside of God's will for their lives. The men and women of the Bible are not fictional heroes but real people who made both good and bad choices throughout their lives. Our teachers and pastors valued the Bible deeply and refused to sugar-coat its narrative.
I am in my fifties; I don't have any children of my own, but I do have five stepchildren. These kids (and their mothers) were not brought up in evangelical churches. They have suffered from the effects of premarital sex, infidelity, divorce, STD's, and illegitimacy, I wish they had had Sunday School teachers and youth leaders like I did, who leveled with them about the Bible and life.

I think it's not as obvious as you assume...

I think whenever the Bible is silent on something, we can be a little agnostic about it. We have no idea if anything went on with Rahab and the spies she hid. She is commended for helping them, they are not commended necessarily for their sound judgment in visiting her. Whatever you think Ruth was doing with Boaz, there was a larger principle to the story that should be focused on, not a "Ha-ha we know what was really going on here" but the point of the Kinsman-Redeemer. David was an old man and so there's not much chance of him jumping Abishag's bones, and the TEXT SAYS (and you linked to it) "the king did not know her sexually." So I don't think your Youth Pastor was too far off there. The end of the chapter you linked to for Esther implies she was still a virgin. But again - what is the larger point of the story?

Yes, Churches can sometimes do their flock a disfavor by not being honest about things. Let's not commit a double-standard by approaching this in a Juvenile manner but strive to look at the bigger picture. There are reasons for a certain amount of morality. Neither David (with Bathsheba) nor Solomon (with wives who led him into other religions) were shining examples of the glories of Sex on Demand with whomever you want. So I'm inclined to think the leaders of Evangelical Youth Groups have at least the best intentions in mind,

Sex and Music

I think it is hilarious that the only two postings that received comments (at least as the front page appears on the web) were on sex and hymns. My mind has toyed with a connection...both sex and singing have the potential to lift us out of ourselves in moments of awe and rapture. Sung any good hymns lately? Me, I sang in a concert of Karl Jenkins, "Mass for the Armed Man" yesterday. I can't say it was as good as sex, but it was transporting and even, dare I say, healing.
Just musing!

Not always so racy

1) In the case of Rehoboam , the hebrew cannot possibly be translated as the male sexual organ, moten means thigh
קָטָנִּי עָבָה מִמָּתְנֵי אָבִי.
2) As for David and Avishag, it is the king's advisors who propose bringing the girl, David is totally passive. This is the point of the story, David is on his death, totally passive and Adoniyahu takes advantage of his Dad's condition. Avishag's ambiguous position (is she the king's mistress) leads to the interesting conflict between Batsheva and Solomon when Adoniyahu asks to marry her. There is much more politics than sex here. As it says: "but the king knew her not. "
3) The prostitute is where the soldiors hang out, of course spies head there. But , they were on a mission, they had no time for fooling around.
4) Ruth and Boaz, racy. But Boaz controls himself and arranges things properly the next day.
5) The court of Persia -- the whole story is telling us how degenerate it was.
The Bible doesn't condemn sex. It prohibits sex with forbidden partners (Leviticus 20) but very much approves of sex with an appropriate partner (Genesis 2, 24) .
Sex is part of life, so it's part of the Bible. Of course, you wouldn't teach a first grader the same as a college student.

1. Hebrew uses euphemisms,

1. Hebrew uses euphemisms, just like English. Both 'thigh' and 'feet' are common euphemisms for male sexual organ. The difficulty is that sometimes thigh means thigh and sometimes feet means feet...except when it doesn't. Leading to...

4. Re-read the story, inserting 'male sexual organ' for feet. Especially interesting is Naomi saying that Boaz "will tell you what to do."

As others have said, this doesn't prove anything. Where the text leaves us is without certainty one way or the other--did Ruth lay at his feet, or did Ruth lay at his feet. We know, from the text, that the event happened after a night of celebration and drinking and that Boaz was propelled into action the next day. We know that he far exceeded the commands of Levirate marriage outlined in Deut 25.5-10 . This doesn't mean they had sex, but it doesn't mean we can't speculate or that it is immature or beyond the text to do so. Something inspired a change with Boaz from the man in the beginning who organized scraps for Ruth to the man who cleverly works the law to his advantage. 

Missed Ezekiel 23:20

You missed mentioning one of the passages I was never told about as a young Evangelical!

"There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses." Ezekiel 23:20