By Deirdre Good
Despite all attempts to make it so, the Bible really has very little interest in sexuality.
At the end of October, I went to a conference at The Jewish Theological Seminary to honor the work of Professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “For There Is Hope: Gender and the Hebrew Bible.” One of her legacies is the books she wrote. In her 1992 book, In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth, she argues that since Israel’s God incorporated all the character and functions of the female goddesses, gender disappears from biblical monotheism. Consequently, in the recitation of Genesis’ creation narrative for example, humans need not be concerned about creation or continuity of fertility in the earth. Epitomized in the creative word, God has power over fertility, creation and reproduction. Israel’s heroes, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson and Samuel are all born after divine action opens wombs that were closed. Stories of their birth convey the message that God alone can cause conception. As for gender, she argues that the Bible does not see men and women as being different in essence. They are socially unequal, and women are subordinate, “but they are not inferior in any intellectual or spiritual way.” She sees the Bible’s positive evaluation of women as one of the beneficial effects of Biblical monotheism, but she also notes negative effects of the Bible’s removal of gender from the divine, particularly the fact that the Bible, and Judaism and Christianity in general, have so little to say about such important things as human sexuality and reproduction. “The Bible never really incorporates sexuality into its vision of humanity or its relationship with the divine,” she writes.
Similarly, the New Testament says little about human sexuality. A Christian doctrine of marriage developed well after the time of the New Testament, namely, in the patristic and early medieval periods. Attempts to ground Christian definitions of the sacrament of marriage in Paul’s counsel that marriage was safer than unconsidered celibacy (in I Cor 7), in the metaphor of the marriage of Christ and the Church in Ephesians 5 and in Jesus’ prohibition of divorce (Mark 10:2-9; Matt 19:3-9 & 5:31-32; Luke 16:18) are made well after the time of the New Testament. These texts do not together or separately comprise a coherent statement on marriage nor were they intended to. Attempts to use, for example, Jesus’ statements to uphold the sanctity of heterosexual marriage must heed one thing: Jesus’ statements link marriage and divorce. Jesus never considers marriage apart from divorce. Even if Jesus’ prohibition of divorce views it as a concession to human failure to live out marriage, divorce/marriage is a given in all three gospels.
Exhortations to practice acts of charity are far more prevalent in the Bible than injunctions to be fruitful and multiply.
If sexuality is marginal in biblical tradition and the Bible has no vision to help integrate human sexuality, and if a Christian theology of the sacrament of marriage is patristic and medieval, what might be the consequences for our contemporary debates about sexuality in the church and elsewhere? One is that since sexuality seems to be of no great concern to either God or Jesus according to the biblical record, we need to recognize this gap before we rush to fill it. Minding this gap helps us understand that while the Bible recognizes the power of the erotic (think of the biblical laws regulating sexual behavior and the statement in the Song of Songs “for love is stronger than death”), it is in fact the ideations, imaginations and fantasies of scholars and religious people that have created modern discourses about sexuality in ancient Israel or in the New Testament. Rather than promoting discourses that regulate and restrict human sexual behavior, we could affirm that a gap is a space into which we must put different discourses, and we can be intentional about what we are doing. Minding the gap helps us understand that we have no biblical mandate to argue on the basis of sexual practice for the exclusion of anyone from Christian communities or for the exclusion of ourselves from community with others. Precisely because of this gap we can afford inclusion to differently constituted families and households.
Deirdre Good is the author of Jesus’ Family Values (2006) and a professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary in New York City. Her blog is On Not Being a Sausage.