It’s called Unprotected Texts: the Bible’s surprising contradictions about sex and desire by Jennifer Wright Knust. She covers a lot of ground in a relatively short book. I dog-earred many pages of it so I’d remember specific things that were interesting or downright hilarious. I had a lot to choose from, like:
– She notes the conflict in Genesis regarding two creation stories, “two seemingly immutable principles: in sexual intercourse, men and women seek to reunite the flesh they once shared, and, in marriage, women neccessarily accept subordination, which is rooted in their desire for husbands.” (p.49) Desire is a big, big problem all over the bible, apparently and should be avoided whenever possible.
– The adam, the creature made by God may have started life as androgynous as an angel, not male or female but both. God split the being, resulting in two incomplete forms that seek to reunite and even Paul thought we’d get those kinds of proper bodies back in heaven. “Among later Christians, the separation of the two genders was sometimes interpreted as the moment death and sorrow entered the world.”(p.52)
– Genesis is a creation myth that holds a lot in common with the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (they both feature snakes and a trick with some fruit, for one thing) and Atrahasis (where humanity’s created specifically to till the created land, something Adam is told he’ll have to do “by the sweat of his brow”). The writers of Genesis also thought it was important to highlight agriculture and its connection to raising families. People and the land all have to be fertile to make it work, and work it is. (p54) She also notes that the Israelites back then were trying to live on land not ideally suited for agriculture. The mountainous steppes required terracing and and knowledge of water conservation techniques to make the most of it. Not an easy task at all.
– Jesus has conflicting lessons about love and relationships. He bought into the heaven/androgyny theory and appears to be against divorce (in Mark at least) because marriage “anticipates the ressurection to come” so “the additional mixing of one flesh with another could not be tolerated.” (p70-71) You can get a different answer in every gospel, judging by the table she provides a few pages later. (In Matthew, for example, divorce is cool so long as it’s the woman’s fault for why you want one. Remarriage is still a no-no for all parties.)
– Paul believed single people shouldn’t even bother getting married. He believed time was getting short anyway and they all should want relationships with God more and that the desiring of flesh was evidence of “the depravity of the world.” New bodies were soon to be available in heaven, bodies free of all desires of the flesh. (92)
– She notes the cultural similarities that existed between the Canaanites and Israelites. Always thought to be complete enemies of each other based on scripture (i.e. Joshua) and usually with the Canaanites being sexual deviants of some kind, it’s not a theory that bears fruit historically or archeologically. They were all neighbours who mingled lifestyles and belief sets for generations – including the times when it was okay to think Yhwh had a consort named Asherah. She was a goddess native to Israel at the time, and so was Baal. The writers of Judges remarked on the fact that not everyone thought Yhwh was the only one worth worshiping. Of course, they thought it was akin to prostitution, this throwing one’s self at other gods and all. Disgusting. (136-38)
– Chapter 5 is devoted to the sins of angel lust. I didn’t know that the idea of speaking in tongues was to talk like angels, hence the reason women had to cover their heads in church. If they didn’t, then angels might desire them and bring about another reason for God to flood the earth. The “sons of God” that got it on with the “daughters of men” created the Nephilim, the Watchers that supposedly taught evil and wickedness to humanity.
– Chapter 5 also touches on Sodom and the idea that desiring “strange flesh” is the big worry. It’s less about man on man sex and more about wanting to screw foreigners (angels included). It’s about keeping a race pure. If you intermarry, then you’re wasting seed and polluting the blood of your ancestors. You are honour-bound to put travelers up for the night (in the days when hotels were non-existent) but don’t you dare want carnal relationships with them.
– There used to be a Cult of the Holy Foreskin (a whole swath of the book is devoted to the history of circumcision also) where the relic in question came to be in the hands of Charlemagne, along with parts of Christ’s umbilical cord, supposedly delivered to him by the Saviour himself. “Now preserved in at the Abbey of Charroux, as well as in other locations, the foreskin became an object of veneration too precious to deny.” (215) and the reason why later Christians were encouraged to not bother with circumcision had to do with a belief that Christ let himself go through that agony so nobody else would have to anymore. He did you boys a favour, see… But the debates about the need to cut bits off are still there in the bible for anyone who wants to read them.
Last thing, a quote from the very end of the book (p.247):
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.
The bible is a set of stories best enjoyed with an awareness of context. What laws and rules were in place for those people at that time? What was acceptable behaviour and what wasn’t? How did people treat women? How did women handle the punishments and low status they often held? What did people do to get around restrictions and have a bit of fun? It’s important to understand the cultural history that led to these ideas getting written in books in the first place.