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The Bible and Sexuality

John Goldingay 

We may begin with the opening chapters of Scripture, because sexuality is an important theme in both creation stories (insofar as it is appropriate to distinguish two). This is actually rather striking. One would hardly have expected either a religious text or an account of the origins of the world to have been so interested so soon in the significance of humanity’s male- and femaleness.

Genesis 1 comes to its first climax with the creation of a God-like humanity (its second climax is God’s enjoyment of his rest day). The verses are allusive over wherein the God-likeness consists. (Indeed, much is allusive in Genesis 1-3, not least over matters to do with sexuality. Probably we have tended to build too much doctrine and ethics on these chapters too easily, and need to be a bit more reticent in our handling of them.) There is no suggestion that humanity’s God-likeness consists in its reasoning power or spiritual nature. Insofar as the context offers any guidance, it consists in (or perhaps rather implies) humanity’s being put in control of other creatures (1:26) and in its being created male and female (1:27; only this second gloss on ‘God-likeness’ is mentioned when the formula reappears in 5:1-2). Apparently the God-likeness of humanity is only present in the combination of male and female. Certainly humanity itself is only present in this combination. Adam - in this context - is not male; it is a word like ‘mankind’ or ‘humanity’ or homo sapiens. It is then further defined as ‘male and female’. There is about humanity both a unity and a plurality. Genesis 1, then, immediately subverts the suggestion that the male is the ‘natural’ human being, the female being a deviant type. Only man and woman together make real humanity. Together they hear God’s word, receiving his blessing and his commission to multiply as families, to exercise power in the world, and to enjoy its produce. Genesis indicates no differentiation of role in the fulfilment of this commission, nor any internal hierarchy within humanity.

It is now fashionable (but not necessarily therefore wrong) to read Genesis 2 in a similar egalitarian way. Here, too, God forms ‘a human being’: adam again, but not here a collective, and the context here stresses the link between adam and the adamah from which it was made (hence Phyllis Trible in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality - on which much of this section depends - translates ‘earth-creature’). In the first part of the story, effectively the creature is sexually undifferentiated. When differentiation appears, a divine awareness of the being’s incompleteness appears with it. God thus forms another human being as a companion for the first, one who stands over against him. (‘Helpmeet’ has misled people. ‘Helper’ does not suggest a subordinate; God himself is often people’s ‘helper’ in the OT! Perhaps the image of the Holy Spirit as the one who comes alongside to be our helper and companion [John 14] helps to get the impression in Genesis 2 right.)

The identity of being which is shared by these two people is expressed by the picture of one of them being built up from a part of the other. Their equality is perhaps suggested by the fact that the part is a rib. As the midrash put it, woman is not made from man’s head, to rule him, or from his feet, to be trodden down by him, but from his side, to stand alongside him. It is when she stands alongside him that the man becomes aware of himself as a man, in the company of a woman (ish, ishshah). He addresses her as a person over against himself (he does not name her - as if he were in control of her - in the way he did the animals). The loneliness of the sole human being is overcome through the gift of another in whom he recognizes identity, yet also the differentiation of sexuality which is a means of their communion (and not, in the first instance, of anything else - eg procreation).

The idyll is soon spoiled. It is not explicit in the story that cynicism and disobedience gain access to human experience through some distinctive female weakness. The weakness of the male (so strangely silent, even though apparently present through the exchanges between serpent and Eve) is as clear as that of the female. The story does not indicate why it was the woman that the serpent approached. (I shall hint at a religio-historical explanation when we come to consider women in Proverbs.) The woman fails by her words, the man by his silence, and both by their deeds.

Consequences follow in the area of sexuality, as in other areas. I noted that in Genesis 1 there is no suggestion that man and woman are responsible respectively for home and family, world and work. Is it significant that these realms are now assumed to be divided between the sexes (3:16-19)? Certainly both realms are spoiled. (I wonder whether the pain of motherhood [3:16] is the inner pain of parenthood - watching your sons kill each other, for instance [Gen. 4] - rather than merely the physical pain of giving birth; the words would bear this meaning, and it fits the context.) It is as a result of turning from God’s way that the couple gain a negative awareness of their sexuality (3:7), and it is as a result of this that a hierarchical relationship between a man and his wife comes into being. ‘To love and to cherish’ becomes ‘to desire and to dominate’ (Kidner) (3:16).

What next shall I say? For time will fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Jephthah, Samuel, and various other interesting males, let alone Jephthah’s daughter (but Trible considers her in Texts of Terror, along with some other women not mentioned in Heb. 11). But I will say something about Samuel’s mother, and David (and Ruth); and about Samson, the other figure who receives only bare mention in Heb. 11.

‘To love and to cherish’ is turned into ‘to desire and to dominate’. Samson’s story is about desire and domination, about woman and violence. He is the OT’s most macho ‘hero’; the Bible’s James Bond.

Yet the links are superficial. James Bond is always the successful ladies’ man. If hearts are broken, it will not be his. He rides off into the sunset with a sequence of attractive girls.

Four women feature in Samson’s story. The first is his mother: one of those archetypal OT women who for years tried and hoped and prayed in vain for a child, then bore one in fulfilment of God’s promise, a son out of whose eyes the sun shone (‘sunshine’, Samson means). The picture of this woman and her husband (Jdg. 13) contrasts sadly with those of the woman he marries because he fancies her (Jdg. 14-15) and of the woman he picks up to spend a night with because he feels like it (Jdg. 16:1-3). Then there is the woman he falls in love with. It is a tale of unrequited love. Delilah is interested only in being the woman who can find out for the Philistines the secret of Samson’s strength, for thirty silver pieces. The Philistines are able to seize him, gouge out his eyes, and take him back as a trophy to Gaza. There, bound in bronze chains, he grinds at the mill in the prison (Jdg. 16:4-20).

Samson is a tragic hero because of the contrast between his actual life and his divine calling. He was destined to use the strength of his manliness to deliver God’s people from their enemies, but he did not know how to be a real man either with that strength or in his relationships with women, which were directly his downfall.

Inside most of us there is a little James Bond, a little Samson (or a little Delilah?); the James Bond film appeals to those fantasies. The Bible’s James Bond, however, lives in the real world, where sex and violence rebound back on you. It insists that we live in this real world, not in a celluloid one; a real world in which, because there is something of Samson and Delilah inside us, something of their tragedy also inevitably appears in our lives. We make a mess of what we do with our maleness and our femaleness. Lots of films outside the Bond genre recognize that, of course. What the Bible adds is that making a mess of your life, your relationships, and your calling need not be the end of the story. Samson’s failures cannot be undone, but eyeless in Gaza he prays, and his manly strength knows one final, terribly fruitful moment of violence (Jdg. 16:30).

Samson appears once more in Scripture, in that list of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. Even Samson is there, among the cloud of witnesses! If there is room for him, there is room for anyone else who makes a mess of being a man (or of being a woman).

The OT’s next, and greatest, study in maleness is David. Violence and sex are prominent in his story, too. Each of the first four chapters in which he appears (1 Samuel 16-19) emphasises his significance as a warrior. Saul kills in thousands, David in ten thousands. Yet he is no macho hero. The only person he is ever said to love is another man, and the most moving expression of his feelings is his lament at the deaths of his beloved Jonathan and of Saul, his father (20:17, 41-42; 2 Sam. 1). The story puts more emphasis on Jonathan’s love for David, however, which prevented Jonathan’s competing with David for his father’s throne. The political significance of David’s relationships with women is even clearer (eg 1 Sam. 18:26; 2 Sam. 3:12-16). Ironically, however, it is through letting a Samson-like fancy for a woman get the better of him that he sows the seeds of destruction for his regime as well as for his family life (2 Sam. 11). His handling of his family in succeeding years consistently betrays a weakness which contrasts with the decisiveness he manifests in affairs of state and which inevitably carries implications for the latter - he loves those who hate him and hates those who love him (19:6). The end result of all this is the mirroring of the sexual feebleness of his last days and the political feebleness that still cannot grasp the succession nettle.

In one sense we are taken much further inside the character of the man himself than we are in the case of Samson, though in the end this leaves his character a deeper enigma. Sometimes he seems to be the man who walks in God’s way - seeking God’s guidance, honouring those who deserve honour, making merry before Yahweh no matter who is watching (2:1, 4b-7; 6); and to be the man whom Yahweh loves and blesses (5:10,12; 7). He can equally be portrayed as the man who has the knack of falling on his feet as rivals to the throne one by one disappear from the reckoning; and as the man with an eye for the main chance (eg 3:13-14; 9?). Rarely are his motives stated, even (indeed notably) in the Bathsheba story and its unpleasant aftermath, so that the narrative leaves us with a deep ambiguity over his character (cf Miscall; Perdue).

In between the stories of Samson and of David (following the order in the English Bible) there appear Ruth and Hannah, whose stories manifest a different form of ambiguity. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, indeed, there are a number of Israelite women who make their mark in political and military roles (Deborah, Jael, Esther), though without moving quite outside female frameworks (Deborah is ‘a mother in Israel’, Jael uses her role as hostess, Esther hers as consort). Ruth and Hannah’s stay well within those frameworks.

Both stories assume a patriarchal structuring of society. Ruth begins with Elimelech in charge of Naomi and with their sons ‘taking wives’ (1:1-4). When all three women are widowed, Naomi assumes that Ruth and Orpah have no alternative but to find security in the house of a husband (1:9); while Naomi’s own future - and, in the end, Ruth’s, when she insists on accompanying Naomi - will depend upon a male guardian figure (EVV kinsman/redeemer) fulfilling his moral obligations (2:1; 3:1-2). When the guardian, Boaz, meets Ruth, he asks who (ie which man) she belongs to (2:5). When Naomi sends Ruth to court him, she assumes that the man will tell Ruth what to do (3:4). When the legal position turns out to be more complicated than we thought, the destiny of the two women has to be determined by two male parties in the presence of ten of the city’s male elders (4:1-12). When agreement is reached, it involves the man buying the woman in order to preserve the name of another man 410). When the story ends, it is with a list of the male line to which Ruth’s son belongs (4:17-22).

Hannah’s life, in turn, is substantially shaped and given its significance by the stereotypes of a patriarchal society. She, too, is presented to us as a man’s wife, under his lordship, an appendage to him. She has to share even that ‘status’ with someone else, and bear the hurt that follows from this. Her significance or worth is determined first by her not having and then by her having a child (rather, a son).

Hannah’s story works within these stereotypes, yet it also works against them. Hannah is a woman open with her emotions, direct in her words, forthright with her husband, bold in her promises, courageous in her acceptance of the Lord’s promise, and vindicated in her trust in him. She seems to have found a form of freedom within stereotypes which were hallowed by nothing but tradition, but which she could hardly demolish.

In Ruth, a questioning of customary attitudes is first hinted by Ruth’s ‘clinging’ to Naomi and her plea not to be forced to ‘leave’ her: they are the expressions used of the man and woman in Genesis 2:24. Back in Bethlehem, the two women begin with initiative and move on to manipulation if not propositioning Boaz; despite the talk of Boaz telling Ruth what to do, actually it is the other way round (3:7-9; what exactly Ruth did and what she invited is left allusive). When Boaz marries Ruth, the Bethlehem women see their child not as Elimelech’s (and certainly not as theirs; I remember reflecting when we got married that it didn’t really seem to be our occasion but our parents’, and for Ruth and Boaz even the birth of their baby wasn’t their own!); ‘a son has been born to Naomi’, they declare! Naomi, Ruth and the Bethlehem women bear their own burdens and work out their own salvation in a man’s world; ‘they are women in culture, women against culture, and women transforming culture’ (Trible, Rhetoric 166, 198).

There are, then, a number of OT stories that imply reflection, or at least stimulate reflection, on what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. Once we leave Genesis 1-3, however, there seems to be little in these stories that looks on the two together in relationship to each other. We do find such reflection, offered or encouraged, in Proverbs and the Song of Songs.

It is one of the major themes of the randomly collected aphorisms which dominate Proverbs 10-31, and one of the two topics which dominate the sermons in doggerel verse that occupy the bulk of Proverbs 1-9. By nature, Proverbs does not systematize its reflection; it characteristically offers the reader individually-encapsulated insights. These often look unbalanced on their own; readers who have taken particular aphorisms (eg the famous cartoons of the nagging wife) out of the context of the rest of the book have seen Proverbs as narrow and chauvinistic. Illuminating insights on what makes a marriage work emerge from bringing together the varied material in Proverbs on male and female roles and temptations, and allowing the aphorisms and sermons to confront each other.

To a man, Proverbs says, ‘Love, don’t wander’. Keep alive a vision for a relationship which remains full of joyful delight, of enthusiastic affection, even when it is decades old (5:18-19). Will, not just autonomic feelings, are evidently assumed to be involved. You commit yourself to loving her, to focusing on what attracts you to her rather than on what annoys you (cf 10:12). Loving her must be wary of setting itself to changing her; though love does have a nurturing, transforming effect. It also nurtures the relationship itself, because of the loving response it draws from its object. The converse point is that marital unfaithfulness is both wrong and stupid (5:16-17, 20; 6:28-29). (Proverbs 1-9 lays great emphasis on this point, probably because it sees a parallel between how husbands and wives relate and how God and his people relate: marital faithfulness is a parable of religious faithfulness. This metaphor was encouraged by the role that sex played in contemporary religions. The women that Proverbs warns men against are at one level the female functionaries of these religions. And this may be the reason that the creation story pictures sin entering the Garden through the woman yielding to the blandishments of the serpent - a fertility-cult symbol).

The twofold exhortation to men, ‘Love, don’t wander’ (the positive with its negative corollary) may be paralleled by a twofold exhortation to women, ‘Do, don’t nag’. When a woman nags (19:13; 21:9, 19; cf 15:17: 17:1), her complaints overtly concern peccadilloes, shortcomings which look trivial yet which she seems unable to ignore. If he loved her, she might be able to; there is another sense in which love hides a multitude of faults (10:12). A woman who is loved is unlikely to nag. But a woman who nags is not loved - it is a vicious circle.

A woman’s nagging may also be a displaced way of giving expression to a general dissatisfaction with her lot in life. Here the positive exhortation is important. ‘Do [ie achieve], don’t nag’. Proverbs closes with an often-derided portrait of an achieving woman (31:10-31). Home is still assumed to be the arena of what she does (though a man’s work in that culture would also be more likely to be home-based than is the case in ours). But she is clearly a woman who is achieving, and who is expected and trusted by her husband to achieve. This woman is surely less likely to be a nag.

Even when it is being positive, Proverbs is predominantly problem-centred in its treatment of sex, as of other topics. The Song of Songs offers a marked contrast. It is not even merely a manual of teaching about sexuality, but a celebration of it.

It has commonly not been read that way. In his book on the Signs of Glory in John’s Gospel, Richard Holloway notes how the first of these signs, at Cana, relates to two areas of life that easily go wrong, sex and drink. Enthusiasm for each can be a form of idolatry, because they offer ersatz versions of the love and joy that are to be found in God alone. The Church has therefore often attempted to outlaw both sex and drink, but when it has sought to do so, it has had difficulty in living with Scripture - either with a story about Jesus facilitating drinking at a wedding or with poems about sexual love, which it rendered harmless by means of typology and allegory. (I recently heard an allegorical exposition of the enthusiasm for strong drink and male make-up in Psalm 104:15, too.)

The Song of Songs no doubt assumes a context in faith and morality - certainly this is the context in which it is set, by virtue of appearing in Scripture. It has little or no overt concern with ethics or religion, however; it does not talk about what you ought to do and it makes no mention of God. It does not mention marriage as the context of sexual activity, or children as its purpose. It is a multi-faceted expression of the feelings of two people in love: enthusiasm, excitement, longing, happiness, wonder, fulfilment, acceptance, delight, anticipation, joy.

A ‘garden’ is a key image in the poems (eg 4:12 - 5:1; 6:1-12). Barth treated the Song of Songs as an extended commentary on Genesis 2:18-25. It is almost as if in their love the woman and the man recover Paradise lost. (As it is put in our culture, ‘Heaven, I’m in heaven...’.) But only ‘almost’. ‘In the Song, Paradise is limited by the fallen world; Death is undefeated, society imposes shame on the lovers, time inevitably separates them.... The ideal harmony of “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” disappears on the last appearance of the formula: “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me”’ (7:10, echoing Gen. 3:16) (Landy, JBL 98:524). As the warnings of Proverbs are accompanied by some positive statements about sex, so the celebration of the Song is accompanied by indications that it has not surrendered to romanticism.

The significance of sexuality is qualified in a different way by the New Testament. At Cana, Jesus affirms marriage, but refuses to allow it to interfere with considerations of whether his time is yet come. He apparently remained celibate, as did Paul. The time being short, Paul rather wished that all believers could remain celibate, though he recognizes this is unrealistic (1 Cor. 7).

Given this position, it is striking to find Paul affirming the position of women here and elsewhere in 1 Corinthians. His views need to be understood against the background of the way the average pagan Corinthian saw women, and the way the Corinthian Christian women saw themselves. (What follows is largely dependent on Banks.) In Greek cities generally, girls were mostly confined to the home, except for occasions such as festivals and funerals. Women were not expected to be educated. They might learn to read and write (and to cook and sew) but they were not expected to be able to appreciate intellectual matters or serious conversation. Married women were regarded as inferior to their husbands; their place was in the home looking after the house and raising the family. They could go to the theatre, but took no part in intellectual, political or civil life. A man’s serious personal relationships would be with other men, not with his wife. Intellectual writers addressed their teaching to other men. A woman had no legal status separate from her husband’s; she was part of his property. He had no obligation to be faithful to her, though indiscretion on her part could lead to divorce - while it was much harder for her to get a divorce from him.

The women believers at Corinth knew that they were released from the conventions, standards and values of this age, and called to witness to those of the age to come. Many of the activities Paul condemns among the Corinthians seem to reflect their understanding of their Christian freedom. Sexuality was one area this affected. Man and woman are one by creation (Gen. 1-2) and one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28) - or as the Corinthians apparently put it, ‘everyone has Christ for his [or her] head’ (1 Cor. 11:13) (this seems to be the Corinthians’ own catchphrase, which Paul quotes both to affirm and to qualify). So why keep distinctions such as the way you wear your hair - why not let your hair down? Why shouldn’t a man be free to have a perm or a woman to have a crew cut if they feel like it? Why keep to arbitrary conventions? (I doubt whether hats/veils are actually the issue in 1 Cor. 11; more likely the whole chapter is about coiffure. But the main point is not affected by this question.)

In responding to the Corinthians’ excesses, Paul does not go back on ‘all are one in Christ Jesus’. In ch.7, he shows himself as interested in teaching wives as husbands. Both are morally responsible. They are on equal footing regarding sexual gratification. The wife has authority over her husband as well as vice versa (v.4). (Eph. 5 works in a parallel way. Wives are to defer to their husbands; but this exhortation comes in the context of a command to all believers to defer to one another, a command which does not imply that the one to be deferred to has the right or responsibility to give the orders. The implications of the command are rather exemplified in what follows. Their implication for husbands is more demanding than it is for wives: their headship implies not making the decisions, but making the sacrifices. It is husbands who have to walk the self-denying way of the cross.)

In 1 Cor. 16, Paul speaks of Aquila and Priscilla together having a congregation meeting in their house (it was hardly their house legally); both, of course, are Paul’s colleagues in Acts, Priscilla often being named first. In ch.11, Paul assumes that it is normal for women to take part in prayer and prophecy in church (the two most important activities that happened there?). There is apparently no difference in the roles that women and men play in worship. Yet outward differences between them are to be preserved. All are one, but all are not identical. Paul takes up the point which is fundamental to Gen. 2 itself, that men and women were created different. The talk about ‘headship’ underlines this point (‘head of’ in Greek as much suggests ‘origin of’ as ‘master of’): man and woman are of different origin, and that is a parable of their different nature, to be preserved by differences of appearance. Paul’s view contrasts with the one which asserts that men and women are really the same, apart from certain superficial physical differences. He does not pronounce on what these differences are; he simply invites us not to lose sight of them. They are one aspect of the diversity of humanity which is part of the way God has made it.

A note finally on 1 Timothy 2, which takes a contrary view of the involvement of men and women in leading worship (cf the fact that all Jesus’s disciples were men). The difference is often taken to imply that 1 Timothy is actually by someone other than Paul, though this does not solve the question of the theological relationship between the passages. The way I would handle this question is by seeing 1 Timothy as an alternative way of responding to a tricky situation which is similar to that at Corinth, though perhaps more severe. The Pastoral Epistles indicate in various ways a need in the churches addressed to cope with difficult pastoral problems by firm leadership and affirmation of the church’s tradition, and the attitude to the position of women belongs in this context. The way in which Genesis is used to support the positions taken, like much other use of Scripture in the NT, follows rabbinical forms of argument rather than reflecting the meaning of Genesis itself. Not that this makes 1 Timothy unfaithful to the OT, for a similar stance to the one taken in 1 Timothy sometimes appears in the OT (even if it is not in Gen. 1-3). Both OT and NT offer creation - and redemption - visions of what it means to be a man and a woman; both also implicitly recognize the difficulty of living by those visions. Both offer paradigms of believers trying to live in the light of these visions, yet to live realistically in a sinful world.



Alter, R, The Art of Biblical Narrative 114-30, New York: Basic, 1981 [David]

Banks, R.J., ‘Paul and Women’s Liberation’, Interchange 18 (Sydney: AFES, 1976) 81-105 [cf Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community (Exeter: Paternoster, 1980) 113-31].

Barth, K.,Church Dogmatics iii. 1 and 2 (Edinburgh: Clark, 1958 and 1960). [Gen. 1-3, Song of Songs].

Berlin, A., ‘Characterisation in Biblical Narrative: David’s Wives’, Journal for the Study of the OT 23 (1982) 69-85.

Bird, P.A., ‘Male and Female He Created Them’, Harvard Theological Review 74 (1981) 129-59.

Brenner, A., ‘The Israelite Woman’ (Sheffield: JSOT, 1985).

Crenshaw, J.L., Samson (London: SPCK, 1979).

Gros Louis, K.R.R., ‘The Difficulty of Ruling Well: King David of Israel’, Semeia 8 (1977) 15-33. Reprinted in Gros Louis (ed.), Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982).

Gunn, D.M., The Story of King David, (Sheffield, JSOT, 1978).

Hanson, P.D., ‘Masculine Metaphors for God and Sex-Discrimination in the Old Testament’, The Ecumenical Review 4 (1975) 316-24 = Hanson, The Diversity of Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982) 136-47.

Kidner, D., Genesis (London: IVP, 1967).

Landy, F., ‘The Song of Songs and the Garden of Eden’, Journal of Biblical Literature 98 (1979) 513-28.

Landy, F.,Paradoxes of Paradise: Identity and Difference in the Song of Songs (Sheffield: Almond, 1983).

Miscall, P.D., The Workings of Old Testament Narratives, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983 [Abraham, David]

Otwell, J.H., And Sarah Laughed (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977). [Woman in the OT].

Perdue, L.G., ‘”Is there anyone left of the house of Saul...?” Ambiguity and the Characterization of David in the Succession Narrative’, Journal for the Study of the OT 30 (1984) 67-84.

Phipps, W.E., ‘Adam’s Rib’, Theology Today 33 (1976-77) 263-73.

Preston, T.R., ‘The Heroism of Saul’, Journal for the Study of the OT 24 (1982) 27-46.

Sakenfeld, K.D., ‘The Bible and Women: Bane or Blessing?’ Theology Today 32 (1975-76) 222-3.

Tilby, A., ‘How the Virgin Birth Attracts Hostility’, The Times, 28 November 1981.

Trible, P., God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978) [on Gen. 1-3, Song of Songs, Ruth].

Trible, P., Texts of Terror, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.

Williams, J.G., Women Recounted: Narrative Thinking and the God of Israel (Sheffield: Almond, 1982).


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