Dr. Jennifer Wright Knust concludes her series in the Washington Post today by looking at the question, “What does the Bible say about sexual desire?” I expected her to go out with a bang, but got a whimper instead.
First, she glances off the Song of Solomon:
Attempting to describe the love of the soul for God, the third-century Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria turned to the biblical love poem the Song of Songs. Wounded by love’s desire, in the Song the soul seeks after God in gardens and eagerly anticipates the fulfillment “she” will attain in the bridal chamber. A few decades earlier, Rabbi Akiva described the Song as the “holiest of holies,” daring anyone to challenge the book’s canonicity. “The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel,” he declared. Both the theologian and the rabbi were well aware of the risqué content of this book, but to them this made Solomon’s poem all the more valuable since it accurately describes the love affair between the soul and God, God and the church, or God and Israel. Divine-human intimacy is highly charged, they assumed, and Solomon knew it.
This is the view that held sway in the church for well more than a thousand years. As a result, the Song probably produced more flights of fancy than any other book, with the “interpretation” at times coming completely unmoored from the text. There are still those who advocate such a view today, but thankfully not many.
More recently, the Song has been read not as a metaphor but as a frank description of pre-marital sex. Recalling the great love poetry of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Song vividly describes breasts, flowing black locks, honey-sweet lips and the joy of sexual fulfillment. Yet the Song does not limit sex and desire to marriage: the unmarried lovers meet in gardens and bedchambers over the objections of the woman’s meddlesome brothers. Unique among biblical books, the Song revels in erotic desire, and for its own sake.
Dr. Knust’s view is perhaps exemplified by the book to which she links, A Feminist Companion to the Bible, Volume 2 by Athalya Brenner and Carole R. Fontaine, whose view of the Song is as disconnected from the text as that of any medieval exegete:
Rooted in wedding songs or not, depicts the joys of love unconnected with marriage or procreation. This is in sharp contrast to the normative models of sexuality in the Bible, in which women are property and wives are essentially breeders.
Right. Chapter 3, verse 11 mentions that it is Solomon’s wedding day, and he refers to the woman as his bride five times in chapter four and once on chapter five. But those have nothing to do with marriage. In addition, the first two chapters, erotic though they are, contain no obvious references to sexual behavior–in fact, the reference to virgins in 1:3 suggests that the woman is one prior to her wedding day. That desire is not limited to marriage is obvious to anyone who’s ever been physically attracted to another person, but the debate in the church isn’t over desire or attraction, but behavior.
Having dealt briefly with the Song, she moves on to Ruth:
Still, there is at least one other biblical book that portrays extra-marital seduction positively: the book of Ruth. When a famine forces Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi to return to Israel, the impoverished pair is reduced to gleaning in the fields for whatever grain they can find. Seeing Ruth in his fields, Naomi’s relative Boaz takes a shining to her, and the women conspire to take advantage of the situation. On the last night of the harvest, Ruth lies down next to the sleeping Boaz with every intention of “uncovering his feet,” a Hebrew euphemism for uncovering his genitals. Boaz awakens, praises the lovely Ruth and then spends the night with her, after which he arranges to take her as a wife. Against the odds, these two women secure their own futures, and also the future of the line of King David, by means of an extra-marital assignation undertaken at night in a field.
I think it’s enough to say that one narrative example of this kind of behavior that doesn’t include a moral judgment on it one way or the other really doesn’t cancel out the standards of the Law, or of Jesus, or of Paul.
The Bible is therefore much more open about desire than readers have been led to expect, though other passages do insist that desire be carefully contained.
The Bible is much more open about a lot of things, because it is a book that doesn’t shrink from portraying the people of God as they are, rather than as plaster saints. That says nothing about the moral standards that God has revealed, except that people don’t always live up to them. What a surprise!
The apostle Paul is especially famous for this point of view: looking forward to a time when God’s elect would be resurrected in bodies that engage in no sexual relations whatsoever, he urged Jesus’ followers to adopt celibacy. Yet he was also highly concerned about the dangers of illicit desire. His solution was marriage, which enables weaker Christians to engage in regular sexual intercourse so as to avoid sexual sin.
Actually, I think a correct reading of Paul would indicate that he is expressing a personal preference, but one that he recognizes may in no way be made binding upon the faithful. He sums up his view in 1 Corinthians 7:17 (the same chapter where he tells the Corinthians that he wishes that “all were as I myself am,” verse 7): “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.” At no point does Paul denigrate marriage, or say that it is inferior to the unmarried state. As for his concern about the “dangers of illicit desire,” I would simply point to the state of American society, and especially the omnipresence of pornography and the untold wreckage it has caused to uncounted families, and say that Paul had a legitimate concern.
That concern was founded in a view of human nature that seems strangely absent from an awful lot of discussions of sexuality these days. By way of correcting the tendency of past Christians to treat sexuality as dirty, something to be ashamed of and avoided at all costs, modern Christians seem to have forgotten that sexuality, like every other aspect of human nature, has been tainted by sin. Dr. Knust presents Paul’s concern about “illicit desire” as some kind of neurotic Puritanism, whereas it is simply a recognition that sex has its proper place in human relationships and society, and that there are lots of ways that people misuse, abuse, and desecrate it.
So where does this leave us? Just with the agenda that lies behind the series:
Admitting that we, too, want something, that we too have desires and longings, perhaps we can also admit that we never approach the Bible without some kind of agenda. We are not passive recipients of what the Bible says, but active interpreters who make decisions about what we will believe and what we will affirm. Since the Bible offers so little in the way of consistent advice about marriage, sexuality and desire, it is time to quit using it as a justification for our moral decrees. In conversation with the Bible, we might develop a more nuanced and informed perspective on what it has meant to be human, but we will not find easy solutions to the sharp debates that have been tearing apart communities and bodies for the last several decades. As my mother would say: stop it. Anyone who uses either God or the Bible to preach hate or to deny love and affection to others has failed as both a lover of the Bible and a person of faith. [Emphasis added.]
Again, big surprise, huh? The rest of her three columns is just window-dressing. The part in bold is what she really wanted to say all along, a fact she telegraphed from the first paragraph. Presumably she’d prefer if we used public opinion polls, or that we–meaning the church–took no moral stances on sexual behavior at all (other, of course, than the ones she favors). Or maybe we should just do what the liberal religious academy says, and allow our intellectual betters to make the rules.
Yeah, that’s the ticket.