God and Sex

What the Bible Really Says


By Michael Coogan

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An examination of sex and the Bible by one of the leading biblical scholars in the United States.

For several decades, Michael Coogan's introductory course on the Old Testament has been a perennial favorite among students at Harvard University. In God and Sex, Coogan examines one of the most controversial aspects of the Hebrew Scripture: What the Old Testament really says about sex, and how contemporary understanding of those writings is frequently misunderstood or misrepresented. In the engaging and witty voice generations of students have appreciated, Coogan explores the language and social world of the Bible, showing how much innuendo and euphemism is at play, and illuminating the sexuality of biblical figures as well as God. By doing so, Coogan reveals the immense gap between popular use of Scripture and its original context. God and Sex is certain to provoke, entertain, and enlighten readers.


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page


The Bible is constantly in the news. Pastors and popes, politicians and pundits regularly cite it as an unchallengeable authority on all sorts of issues, to undergird widely divergent points of view. In the United States especially, where more than ninety percent of homes have a Bible,1 that very old book is regularly cited in the culture wars about "family values," most of which have to do with issues of sex and gender.

At its biennial assembly in August 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America debated and ultimately approved a resolution allowing its clergy to have "lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."2 In doing so it joined other liberal Jewish and Christian groups in giving religious sanction to same-sex marriages, now legal in five states and seven countries, and, more broadly, to same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships, recognized in dozens of jurisdictions worldwide. Reaction from conservative Lutherans and others was swift and unequivocal: the decision was heretical, even pagan, because it was contrary to God's word as revealed in the Bible. Yet proponents of the decision, as of similar actions by other religious groups, also claimed that their views were consistent with biblical teaching. News reports about the Lutherans' meeting spoke of "dueling Bible verses."3

As a resident of Massachusetts, I have had a front-row seat for the controversy concerning same-sex marriage. In 2003, that state's highest court ruled that prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying violated the Massachusetts Constitution.4 In the subsequent and ongoing national debate, as a biblical scholar I was both amused and troubled by the use of the Bible in arguments against such marriage. As one catchy slogan put it, in the Garden of Eden there were Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. And, from the beginning,5 it was claimed, marriage has been between one man and one woman; in fact, not until late in the biblical period was monogamy the norm. But despite their exaggerations, opponents of same-sex marriage, and of homosexuality in general, much like the advocates of slavery in the nineteenth century, have biblical authority on their side, to a point. Yet the other sides in these debates also have appealed to the Bible in support of their views, and they too are right, also to a point.

But what is the Bible? Although the very word "bible" means "book," the Bible was not delivered to humanity as a complete book, written by God and shrink-wrapped in a shipment from Amazon or available for download on a Kindle or an iPad. Rather, the Bible is an anthology, a selection of texts from ancient Israel, early Judaism, and, for Christians, from the first hundred years or so of Christianity. Those texts are called books, and like other books, they have human authors, many of whom are identified as such in the books themselves: Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Paul, for example. Sometimes the books also describe the process of how they were written down. So, the prophet Jeremiah twice dictates his words to his scribe Baruch,6 and Paul, having dictated the body of one of several letters he wrote to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, added a postscript in his own handwriting.7 These books were written over the course of many centuries, and, like all other books, they reflect the presuppositions and prejudices, the ideas and ideals of their authors (almost entirely men) and of the societies in and for which they were written.

Similar to other anthologies, the Bible is selective—it is not a complete collection. Biblical writers often refer to other books that they used as sources. My personal favorite is the Book of the Wars of the LORD, mentioned as the source of an ancient poem quoted in the book of Numbers.8 The Book of the Wars of the LORD is not preserved in the Bible, nor has it yet been found by archaeologists or treasure hunters, but how I would love to be able to read it. Similarly, Paul refers to several letters he wrote to the Corinthians, but only two of them are preserved in the New Testament.9 So, it turns out, the Bible has sources, only some of which were incorporated into its books. Likewise, only some of the sacred writings of ancient Israel, early Judaism, and early Christianity were included in what became the Bible, the canonical scriptures deemed to have a special authority. We can make educated guesses about why some writings were omitted. Some were probably considered heretical by religious leaders as they formed their canons, and others may not have had a proper pedigree. Many of these noncanonical writings have survived, however, and they shed important light on the background of the books of the Bible.

The authors of those books were in essence interpreting their experience of God and its implications for their lives. For the ancient Israelites, that God was Yahweh, conventionally rendered "the LORD" and worshipped continually ever since by Jews, Christians, and Muslims under different names and titles. As Yahweh, he is reported to have revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and others. But these putative revelations are often inconsistent. For example, in the Ten Commandments, Yahweh declares that he punishes sons for the sins of their fathers to the third and fourth generation.10 But centuries later, speaking to the prophet Ezekiel, he seems to have changed his mind:

A son shall not suffer for a father's iniquity, nor shall a father suffer for a son's iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.11

Clearly, different writers had different views. Inconsistencies like these require first that readers of the Bible who consider it authoritative read all of it, not blithely picking only passages that coincide with their own views. Second, such inconsistencies invite, even demand interpretation: if scripture itself reflects developing or at least differing views, then its readers must scrutinize them carefully, critically. This is especially true given the profound influence the Bible enjoys.

Unraveling the complicated history of the formation of the Bible has been the substance of the work of biblical scholars since the Enlightenment. They—or rather, we—have been able to trace the development of biblical religion and its various schools of thought, and have posited multiple sources within the Bible itself to explain its repetitions and inconsistencies. A majority of biblical scholars agree on both methods and results. But unhappily we have not succeeded in changing the way most nonspecialists and even many in the clergy think about the Bible. People still maintain that the Bible is God's word, plain and simple: that God is the author of scripture. Even nonscholars can see problems with this. If God wrote the Bible, he is a forgetful writer. Did he give Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai or Mount Horeb? Did David kill Goliath or did Elhanan? Was the Last Supper a Passover meal or not? For each of these questions and innumerable others, the Bible gives more than one answer. If God wrote the Bible, he is also a terrible writer—over and over, the same story is told and retold, with many changes and in wildly divergent styles. These inconsistencies and repetitions can only be explained by multiple human authors. It is their writings that were collected into the mini-library that eventually became the Bible, and their writings that need to be interpreted.

I have written this book because of a conviction that biblical scholars have a responsibility to explore the significance of their findings for a larger audience. Scholars' timidity, I think, frequently inhibits them from presenting what they think about the relevance of the Bible for contemporary issues. Too often the field is left to amateurs, the hyperpious, and crazies—and when the Bible is the subject, there are plenty of every type. My specific focus is on sex in the Bible, both human and divine, and on the related category of gender. What did the many biblical writers think about sexual morality and about the roles of men and women? How were their views informed by their own cultural presuppositions? Are they consistent? Are they still relevant?

So, this is a book about how to read and use the Bible, with a focus on "family values." A wise colleague once observed that there is sex on every page of the Bible if you just know where to look. In the chapters that follow, we will find sex in places where people do not usually see it. We will explore the mysteries of "love as strong as death."12 We will examine the views of biblical writers, often different from our own, and often problematic. We will look at how biblical teachings have been appropriated, adapted, and sometimes rejected through history. And we will consider how the Bible may have enduring significance.



Speaking of Sex

Gustav Klimt, Adam and Eve, 1917–1918 (unfinished).

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Those are the opening words of L. P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between,1 in which a middle-aged man discovers a diary he had written when he was twelve. The past in his case is his own past. But it is an epigram that historians often quote, with good reason: in studying the past, we have to learn how they did things there, being careful not to project our own values and social constructs onto other cultures, and recognizing that words can have different meanings and nuances.

In looking at the Bible, we need to realize that we are entering a foreign country. Its languages, cultures, and values, although in some ways apparently familiar because of the status of the Bible in Judaism and Christianity, differ in many ways from our own. Even the treatment of a universal human experience such as sex is culturally specific in the biblical world. Here is an example, from the Song of Solomon, a series of exotic and erotic love poems. In it, two lovers describe each other's bodies. First, the man describes his beloved, moving downward from the head.

How beautiful you are, my love,

how very beautiful!

Your eyes are doves

behind your veil.

Your hair is like a flock of goats,

streaming down from Mount Gilead.

Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes

that have come up from the washing;

all of them have twins:

and none of them has lost a lamb.

Your lips are like a crimson thread,

and your mouth is lovely.

Your temples are like halves of a pomegranate

behind your veil.

Your neck is like David's tower,

built in courses;

on it hang a thousand shields,

all of them warriors' armor.

Your two breasts are like two fawns,

twins of a gazelle,

grazing among the lilies.

Until the day breathes

and the shadows flee,

I will make my way to the mount of myrrh

and to the hill of frankincense.

All of you is beautiful, my love;

there is no flaw in you.2

Later, he continues, moving upward from the feet.

How beautiful are your feet in sandals,

O daughter of a prince!

Your curved hips are like jewelry,

the work of an artisan's hands.

Your hollow3 is a rounded bowl

that does not lack mixed wine.

Your belly is a heap of wheat,

encircled by lilies.

Your two breasts are like two fawns,

twins of a gazelle.

Your neck is like an ivory tower.

Your eyes are pools in Heshbon,

by the gate of Bath-rabbim.

Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon,

overlooking Damascus.

Your head—upon you like Carmel,

and the locks of your head like purple;

a king is held captive in the tresses.4

But this is not just male voyeurism; the woman also describes her lover, although with somewhat less anatomical detail.

My beloved is radiant and ruddy,

prominent among ten thousand.

His head is gold, pure gold;

his locks are palm shoots

black as a raven.

His eyes are like doves

beside streams of water,

bathing in milk,

sitting by a pool.

His cheeks are like beds of balsam,

wafting fragrant aromas.

His lips are lilies,

dripping with liquid myrrh.

His arms are rods of gold,

studded with gems from Tarshish.

His loins are ivory plaques,

overlaid with lapis lazuli.

His thighs are alabaster columns,

set upon bases of gold.

His appearance is like Lebanon,

choice as the cedars.

His mouth is most sweet:

all of him is desirable.

This is my beloved and this is my love,

O daughters of Jerusalem.5

These descriptions of bodies are universal expressions of sexual attraction: every detail of the beloved's body captivates the lover. Yet they also give us a window into a world very different from ours, one with exotic flora and fauna, a dramatic topography, and distinct views of beauty as well: would any man today dare to compare his beloved's nose to a mountain tower or her hair to a flock of goats?

In the biblical past, as in foreign countries, not only did they do things differently, they also spoke different languages, languages with distinct idioms, including those used for sex. One familiar biblical idiom for having sexual intercourse is "knowing"—"to know in the biblical sense," as the phrase has it, means to have sex with. The Hebrew verb translated as "know" can, and usually does, refer to what we would call intellectual knowledge, but more than a dozen times in the Bible it has the sense of the intimate knowledge that occurs during sexual intercourse—"carnal knowledge." So, after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the man (soon to be called Adam) "knew his wife Eve, and she became pregnant, and gave birth to Cain."6 Similarly, in the rules for warfare, the Israelites reportedly killed enemy populations: all the men, of every age, and all the women except virgins, "those who had not known a man by sleeping with a male."7

Some modern translations of the Bible render the verb that literally means "know" dynamically in these contexts—"lie with," or "have relations with," or "have sexual intercourse with." These are accurate paraphrases, but they prevent readers from recognizing sexual nuance when the verb "know" is used elsewhere. For example, speaking in the name of the LORD, the prophet Amos tells the Israelites, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth."8 For Amos, God and Israel had a unique relationship that metaphorically had an intimate dimension: Israel was God's bride and he was her lover, her husband, who "knew" her.

The sexual connotation of "knowing" sheds light on one level of meaning in the story of the Garden of Eden, where the man and the woman eat from the "tree of knowledge of good and evil." What was the forbidden fruit in Eden? We get a clue in an episode in King David's life. During his son Absalom's revolt against him, David was forced to flee his capital, Jerusalem, and stayed in exile in Transjordan with a loyal and wealthy subject named Barzillai. After Absalom had been defeated, David returned to Jerusalem to reclaim his throne. He was accompanied by Barzillai as far as the Jordan River, where David said to Barzillai:

"Cross over with me, and I will provide for you with me in Jerusalem." But Barzillai said to the king, "How many are the days of the years of my life that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? Today is my eightieth birthday; can I know between good and evil? Can your servant taste what he eats and what he drinks? Can I still hear the sounds of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king?"9

As a reward for Barzillai's faithful service, the king was offering him the pleasures of the court: royal feasts, royal musicians, and "good and evil," which I interpret as the royal harem—in other words, wine, women, and song. But Barzillai, at an advanced age for that time, claimed to be too old to enjoy any of these pleasures.

So, in the Garden of Eden the man and the woman ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There is another circumlocution here, for eating is a widespread euphemism for sex, as a biblical proverb shows.

This is the way of a woman committing adultery:

she eats, and wipes her mouth,

and says: "I have done nothing wrong."10

Obviously the proverb concerns far more than table etiquette. When the man and the woman ate the forbidden fruit, they immediately recognized that they were naked. There was no sex education in the Garden—it was only "Adam and maiden," in Dylan Thomas's phrasing. Their first sexual experience was a revelation: they now "knew" what they had not known before, including their sexual nature, so they covered themselves with what would become the proverbial fig leaves. To be sure, to understand eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil as sexual intercourse is only one possible interpretation. It does not exclude others: in the Bible as in literature generally, multiple levels of meaning, including sexual innuendo, are frequently present, often deliberately so.

Other references to sexual intercourse also use ordinary words with a specifically sexual sense. Among the most frequent is a Hebrew verb that means "to lie with" or "to sleep with," with both primary and sexual meanings parallel to English usage. Another verb means "to go to, to go into, to enter," understood literally. Both verbs can be used independently, and sometimes they are used together, making the meaning transparent. For example, Rachel, Jacob's favorite wife, was childless, while her older sister Leah, the first of his several wives, had already produced four sons for him. One of them, Reuben, had found some mandrakes in the field, a plant thought in many cultures to be an aphrodisiac and to enhance fertility: "Get with child a mandrake root" is how John Donne incredulously put it. Desperate to have a child, Rachel promised Leah a night with their husband in exchange for the mandrakes. She said to her sister, "He may lie with you tonight," and Leah then informed Jacob, "You must come into me."11 Similarly, the spies whom Joshua had sent to reconnoiter the land around Jericho went to the house of a prostitute named Rahab and "lay" there, and when the king of Jericho learned of it, he told her to "bring out the men who went into you."12

Another term for sexual intercourse is "uncovering the nakedness," used repeatedly in a long list of persons with whom intercourse is prohibited: the mother, the sister, the aunt, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, and so on.13 "Nakedness" means both male and female genitals, as do several parts of the lower extremities of the body in their vicinity, such as loins, thigh, heel, and especially feet, another frequent euphemism. For example, in the Bible as in other ancient literature we find vivid descriptions of the horrors of ancient siege warfare. One such description, anticipating the destruction of Jerusalem as divine punishment for the Israelites' disobedience, warns that in those dire days a woman will eat her placenta, "the afterbirth that comes out from between her feet."14 Using the same euphemism, the prophet Isaiah proclaims that Yahweh will punish the Israelites through the king of Assyria, who will shave off all their body hair—"the head, the hair of the feet, and even the beard"15—symbolically reducing them to weak prepubescent boys.

We also find "feet" with the meaning "genitals" in the book of Ruth, whose heroine, a widow, wants to marry a wealthy relative, Boaz. As he was sleeping in his field during the fall harvest, at midnight she "uncovered his feet." Startled—and not because his toes were cold—he said, "Who are you?" She answered, "I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your cloak over your servant, for you are my legal next of kin." He invited her to spend the night, and she "lay at his feet" until before dawn.16

Likewise, one of the heroines of Israel's history in the late second millennium BCE, as recounted in the book of Judges, is Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. According to the prose version of her story in chapter 4, after a battle in which the Israelites had defeated the Canaanites, she invited the fleeing Canaanite commander, Sisera, into her tent and gave him milk to quench his thirst. When he fell asleep, exhausted, she killed him, driving a tent peg through his temple.17 But there is an older, poetic version of this episode in the next chapter, the famous Song of Deborah, and according to it:

Between her feet he knelt down,

he fell, he lay:

where he knelt down, there he fell, wasted.18

The ancient poem implies that Jael seduced Sisera and then killed him as he slept in postcoital fatigue, a sexual innuendo that the later prose writer omitted.

The word "feet" has a similar meaning in a brief story about Moses and his wife Zipporah. Early in his adult life, Moses had fled Egyptian jurisdiction because he had committed a murder. But when God appeared to Moses in the burning bush in the desert, he commanded him to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites from there to the Promised Land. A reluctant prophet, Moses made a series of objections to the divine call, but in the end God persuaded him to agree. As he was en route back to Egypt, at a place where he, Zipporah, and their young son were spending the night, "Yahweh met him and tried to kill him." This mysterious—not to say irrational—deity is here depicted as a malevolent night demon, as elsewhere in the Bible—earlier, he had similarly attacked Jacob at night,19 and he will do the same to the Egyptians on the terrible night of the tenth plague, the killing of all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, "from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the slave woman grinding at the mill and the firstborn of all the animals."20 To ward off this night-stalking deity, the Israelites would smear their door frames with lamb's blood, just as they would later attach to their doors an amulet—the mezuzah—to keep him at bay.

So Yahweh tried to kill Moses, but why? Zipporah apparently knew the reason—because Moses was uncircumcised. And she knew what to do:

She took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched his [Moses's] feet with it, and said, "Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!" So he let him alone. It was then she said, "A bridegroom of blood by circumcision."21


On Sale
Oct 1, 2010
Page Count
256 pages

Michael Coogan

About the Author

Michael Coogan is Director of Publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum and Professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College. For several decades, he has taught an introductory course on the Hebrew Scriptures at Harvard University, as well as at Wellesley College, Boston College, and Stonehill College. One of the leading biblical scholars in the United States, he is the author of The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures and editor of the acclaimed third edition of The New Oxford Annotated Bible.

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