The secular press is buzzing with the release of two books dedicated to discussing a revisionist view of sex in the Bible. These books are: Michael Coogan, God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says (New York: The Hachette Book Group, 2010) and Jennifer Wright Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011).
These two books have been featured in Newsweek, “What the Bible Really Says About Sex,” an article written by Lisa Miller. Knust was interviewed by Stephen Prothero in an article that appeared on the Huffington Post.
Knust, who is an ordained American Baptist minister and Assistant Professor of Religion at Boston University has written the most radical, revisionist book on what the Bible says and teaches about sex.
Her premise is that the story of creation of the first human person in Genesis 1 was a case of androgyny, that is, that the first person was both male and female and had the genitals of both sexes. Then, in the creation story of Genesis 2, the sexes were separated and this separation created sexual desire in human beings. This desire drives man and woman to have sex so that they can become one again.
This view that God’s original plan for his creation was that a human person would have two sexes in one body is the creation of a fertile mind that finds no support in the Bible. Knust bases her view on ancient Jewish interpreters who were trying to explain why there are two creation stories in Genesis.
Knust’s interpretation is so radical that she reinterprets what the Bible says in order to present a modern view of sex and sexuality that is a complete departure from what the Bible has to say and teach.
In her interview with Prothero, Knust says that the Bible presents premarital sex as “a source of God’s blessings.” She finds justification for this view in the story of Ruth’s encounter with Boaz. She believes that the Bible presents the sexual relationship between men as positive because David and Jonathan were involved in a gay relationship. She also says Tamar’s desire to have children by dressing like a prostitute to have sex with Judah “trumps the prohibition against prostitution.”
Time and space will not allow me to give a detailed response to the issues Knust raises in her book. What follows is just a brief evaluation of the four issues Knust raises in these articles:
1. The Case of Ruth
Ruth 3:7, 14 says: “And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down. . . . So she lay at his feet until the morning.”
It is true that the word “feet” can mean “genitals” in a few passages of the Old Testament. To say, however, that Ruth exposed Boaz’s genitals, is to read a sexual meaning into the text that may or may not be there. Even if Ruth exposed Boaz’s genitals, it does not mean that they had sexual intercourse. It is possible that Ruth was tricking Boaz into thinking they had sex.
Deception does not mean approval. Even if Boaz and Ruth had sex on the threshing-floor, it does not mean that premarital sex is recognized in the Bible as a source of blessing.
2. Premarital Sex
The case of Ruth cannot be used to give approval to premarital sex. If Boaz was tricked, then the Bible is not giving approval to premarital sex, as Knust suggests. Compared to sexual practices in our society today, Israelite society was not permissive. The lack of a moral code to guide people today prevents them from making the right choices when it comes to sex and sexuality. People’s choice are culturally conditioned and do not reflect a biblical understanding of human sexuality.
Premarital sex in Israel was so uncommon that the Bible does not give any law or regulation about it. The case of Amnon and Tamar could be considered an example of premarital sex. When Amnon tried to have sex with Tamar she said: “Do not force me! This is no way to behave in Israel. Do not do anything so disgraceful!” (2 Samuel 13:12). So, premarital sex was considered a disgraceful act in Israel.
Another example of premarital sex is found in Deuteronomy 22:28-29: “Suppose a man has intercourse with a young woman who is a virgin but is not engaged to be married. If they are discovered, he must pay her father fifty pieces of silver. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he may never divorce her as long as he lives.” So, if a man had sex with a woman outside marriage, he had to marry her.
In Israel, the sex act consummated a marriage: “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This is the reason the Apostle Paul says that Christians should not have sex with a prostitute, because when they have sex, they become one flesh: “Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh’” (1 Corinthians 6:16).
The meaning of human sexuality taught in Genesis 2:24 and the mutual relationship established between a man and a woman when they come together emphasizes the reason premarital sex was not allowed in Israelite society.
In the Bible, when married people have sex with people other than the marriage partner, it is called adultery. Sex between people who are not married is called fornication: “But for fear of fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2).
3. Tamar’s Prostitution
The case of Tamar is a unique case because it involves the issue of Levirate marriage. In Levirate marriage, the brother of a deceased man would marry his brother’s widow in order to provide an heir for the dead man. In the case of Tamar, her husband had died, so Judah, Tamar’s father-in-law, gave her his oldest son so she could have a child. Because the man refused to give her a child, he was struck dead because of his iniquity.
Judah then refused to give Tamar his other son, so Tamar dressed as a sacred prostitute and had sex with her father-in-law. Judah did not know that the woman was his daughter-in-law. When he discovered that Tamar was pregnant, he believed she should be killed because she was pregnant with the child of another man.
The Bible does not approve prostitution, but like in our society today, prostitution was very common in Israel and in the Ancient Near East. The reason Tamar dressed like a prostitute was because Judah violated a societal rule and refused to provide an heir for his dead son. So, she was forcing him to fulfill his obligation.
4. The Case of David and Jonathan
There is no evidence that David and Jonathan were gay partners. Both of them were married and had children. They were just friends who had the kind of friendship that was common in the Ancient Near East. This type of friendship is unknown today. This is the reason people mistake this kind of friendship with a gay relationship.
Jennifer Knust offers a radical revisionist interpretation of the biblical texts dealing with the matters of sex and sexuality. Her interpretation departs, not only from the traditional ways those texts are interpreted, but also from the true meaning of what the texts actually say.
In her interview with Prothero, Knust concluded: “Some biblical passages can support my point of view. Others do not. So, as firmly as I believe that ‘love your neighbor’ can capture God’s point of view, I cannot be certain that I am right.”
Ms. Knust, I can help you: you are not right.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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