Dr. Jennifer Wright Knust is back with her second installment at the Washington Post, this time on sexuality. She starts this way:
In the Bible, sexuality is a matter of roles, property rights, and male dominance, not fixed biological predispositions. Heterosexuality, homosexuality and sexual orientation–the buzzwords of current debates–are never mentioned at all. Instead readers are invited to seek a return to primal androgyny, to conform to particular sexual roles, and to augment their fertility with circumcision.
Was circumcision really to “augment their fertility”? Who knew? I thought it was a sign of the covenant between Israel and God. Just goes to show what I know. As for all her buzzwords, it’s true they aren’t found in Scripture. Neither is “creation care,” “global warming,” “nuclear weapons,” “human rights,” “immigration reform,” or any of a hundred other “buzzwords” from current political debate. I guess that means we can’t find any biblical guidance worth mentioning regarding those issues, either. As for “primal androgyny,” I genuinely have no idea what she’s talking about, unless it’s the nonsense she gets into in the next paragraph.
Those looking to define biblical sexuality often turn to the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis for their pronouncements, but even these stories disagree. In the first, God creates the human person all at once on the sixth day, both male and female. In the second, Adam is created, then the animals, and then the female, who is formed from his rib. But if God created humankind at once, male and female, then why was there a need to create the female a second time in the garden?
It’s not a second creation, it’s a retelling of the first story from a different perspective. Is that really so hard to understand?
Ancient interpreters offered a novel solution to this discrepancy: the first human person was androgynous, possessing the genitals of both sexes, but then God cut this person in two while s/he was dwelling in Eden. The original divine plan for the human person was therefore two sexes in one body, not two sexes. Genesis links the sexual impulse to the loss of this complete, two-sexed body: “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his woman, and they become one flesh.” Longing to reunite with what he has lost, the man clings to the woman. Female sexual desire, however, comes later, and is described as a punishment. After the first couple is expelled from the garden, God tells the woman that she will desire her man and bring forth children for him in pain. In a world where childbirth was dangerous, perhaps the biblical writers were acknowledging what they had in fact observed: female desire was a source of risk, not blessing. Read this way, the Genesis creation stories portray sexual intercourse as a stopgap measure until such time as androgyny and paradise are restored.
This is truly bizarre. The item to which she links is a description at that well-known scholarly source called Wikipedia of a book known as the Zohar. It is the foundational document for Jewish Kabbalah mysticism, and most likely dates from the 13th century (though it purports to have been written in the 2nd century AD). The Zohar, aside from being a medieval rather than “ancient” work, was condemned by many rabbis for promoting superstition, and shows clear evidence of the influence of Gnosticism, particularly in its view of the universe as a series of “emanations” from the divine being. The long and short of it is that Knust is relying on a late and exceedingly eccentric source for this idea that humanity was originally created hermaphroditically. To use that to in any way claim that the Genesis account of the creation of humanity is not what orthodox interpretation of it has been for 2000 years is simply absurd (it reminds me of anti-Semites using the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion to prove that there is a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world).
Adopting a different perspective, biblical laws view sexuality as a matter of male property rights. According to the Sinai covenant, Israelite men should be careful to penetrate only certain bodies and thereby avoid wasting their semen on an unproductive union. More specific instructions in Leviticus command men to avoid sex with menstruating women, the wives of other Israelites and certain female relatives. After all, none of these women are capable of bearing legitimate children.
Of course, yesterday she said that “not a single biblical book endorses marriage between one man and one woman for the purposes of procreation.” But that was yesterday.
Leviticus also identifies penetration of an Israelite man as a problem, since making a “woman” of a free Israelite violates this man’s body. The writers of 1 and 2 Samuel disagree, however, presenting a sexual relationship between men positively, as productive of God’s will. Telling the story of the rise of the Davidic monarchy, these writers imply that Jonathan was beloved by David as a “wife.” Since David was “man” to Jonathan’s “woman,” it was wholly appropriate for the shepherd to become king in place of his friend, despite the fact that Jonathan was heir to the throne.
I find it amusing that at the same time that Dr. Knust points out that modern ideas of sexual orientation aren’t found in Scripture, she throws in with those who have read modern ideas regarding homosexual behavior back into the David-Jonathan relationship. The notion that Jonathan was “beloved by David as a ‘wife'” is not “implied” in 1-2 Samuel; rather, it is read into the story by those looking for something that can be made to comport with their ethical preferences, even if they can only make it do so by reading modern attitudes into ancient documents.
New Testament writers also define sexuality as a matter of who penetrates whom, and under what circumstances. To Paul, “natural” sex involves the penetration of a female body by a man, a principle that he applies throughout his letters. Warning men that they must not place their “members” within prostitutes, other men’s wives, or female relatives, he describes same-sex desire as a symptom of idolatry, which is an “unnatural” form of worship that inevitably leads to “unnatural” sex.
Well, yeah. Sexual behavior that puts one’s own desires above God’s commands is pretty much by definition a form of idolatry, which is not an “‘unnatural’ form of worship,” but one that is expressly, repeatedly, and uniformly forbidden to the people of God as the exchanging of truth for a lie.
The author of the Gospel of Matthew also focuses his sexual ethics on male genitalia, recalling a surprising teaching of Jesus. When asked a question about marriage and divorce, Jesus replies by instructing his disciples to consider voluntary castration: “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (19:11-12). Interpreted as an endorsement of celibacy by most early Christians, some nevertheless took this saying literally, to the point that the canons of the Council of Nicaea sought to stamp out self-castration among the clergy.
Yes, there were early Christians, such as Origen, who took this literally, and did so incorrectly, as the Council of Nicaea ruled. Dr. Knust is a New Testament scholar, and so should realize the metaphorical nature of this saying, given that it appears in the context of a discussion of marriage and divorce, and is therefore suggestive of voluntary abstinence from sexual relations, rather than castration.
Clearly the Bible offers a number of fascinating teachings about human sexuality. Still, no biblical passage describes sexual impulses as a matter of orientation. Working within a very different set of assumptions about the significance of sex, the Bible says nothing about sexuality as currently conceived.
It’s true–no passage in Scripture describes sexual impulses in terms of “orientation.” Instead, it speaks of a combination of heart conditions and specific behaviors. The burden is on Dr. Knust to demonstrate that modern ideas about sexuality have invalidated those teachings. So far, I don’t see her even trying.