Reading the Bible, sex and all
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 sex...like 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
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
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
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.