Newsweek on Sex and the Bible

Why I continue to receive Newsweek, I have no idea. I haven’t renewed my subscription in a long time so I keep thinking that they will stop sending me their magazine. I look forward to that day.

Now, this hasn’t always been the case. I used to enjoy reading Newsweek for the news. However, the era of getting news through a weekly magazine has long since passed. But the bigger problem, for me at least, is that Newsweek has lost credibility. (See this post for more on Newsweek’s decline.)

The most recent Newsweek arrived at my house yesterday and on the top banner it promised an article on “Sex & the Bible.” My first thought was, “Here we go again.” I wasn’t disappointed.

The actual article is entitled “What the Bible Really Says About Sex” and is written by Lisa Miller, the religion writer. I honestly don’t know how an article like this can end up in a reputable magazine.

In the article Miller “examines” two new books on the issue: Jennifer Knust’s Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire and Michael Coogan’s God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says.

Now I know that this will come as a great surprise to you, but from what I can tell from the article, both of these books reveal that the Bible is okay with all kinds of sexual behavior. In fact, there are no limits. And anyone who says that there are limits, anyone who actually thinks that the Bible teaches that sex is a gift only to be expressed in marriage, anyone who dares to think that marriage is intended by God to be a lifetime covenant between one man and one woman, well, that person is simply a fundamentalist prude trying to control your behavior and prevent you from being all you can be.

According to the article, both authors hope to steal the conversation about sex and the Bible back from “the religious right.” Those meanies.

Lisa Miller summarizes the books’ arguments under the following headings:

The Bible is an ancient text, inapplicable in its particulars to the modern world.
In the Bible, “traditional marriage” doesn’t exist. Abraham fathers children with Sarah and his servant Hagar. Jacob marries Rachel and her sister Leah, as well as their servants Bilhah and Zilpah.

First, if the Bible is “inapplicable” to the “modern world,” then why are these two authors even worried about what the Bible teaches?

Second, even a cursory reading of Genesis is enough to realize that when patriarchs get away from God’s plan for marriage and family, the results are bad. So yes, there is polygamy in the Bible. But it’s never condoned.

Sex in the Bible is sometimes hidden.

It seems that the authors have “discovered” that the Bible contains sexual euphemisms. And like school kids on the playground, they are intent on having fun with their newfound knowledge. They rightly state that “feet” can be used to refer to sexual body parts. But they then wrongly wonder whether every time the word is used, it has a hidden sexual reference.

From this, Coogan makes a rather sensationalistic exegetical move. When he is teaching to college students, he writes, someone inevitably asks about the scene in Luke, in which a woman kisses and washes Jesus’ feet and then dries them with her hair. Is that author speaking about “feet?” Or feet? “As both modern and ancient elaborations suggest,” Coogan writes, “sexual innuendo may be present.” Scholars agree that in this case, a foot was probably just a foot.

If Miller knows that the vast, vast majority of scholars dismiss this idea as silliness, then why put it in the article? Why give it credibility?

That which is forbidden is also allowed.
The Bible is stern and judgmental on sex. It forbids prostitution, adultery, premarital sex for women, and homosexuality. But exceptions exist in every case, Knust points out. Tamar, a widow without children, poses as a whore and solicits her own father-in-law—so that he could “come into” her. Her desire to ameliorate her childlessness trumps the prohibition against prostitution.

Knust and Miller don’t seem to recognize when the Bible is being descriptive and prescriptive. Some times the Bible simply describes what happened, and other times it prescribes what should happen. But they are not the same. Not everything the Bible describes does it prescribe. Just because it did happen doesn’t mean that it should happen. So yes, Tamar posed as a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law, but that doesn’t mean that was the right thing to do.

In another example, Jephthah took vows that led to him sacrificing his daughter (Judges 11). That describes what happened, but it doesn’t mean that it should’ve happened. This is so basic that it’s hard to believe that Knust and Miller are unaware of it.

Conclusion?
Both of these books claim to be breaking new ground, but their arguments are anything but new, having been around for the past few decades. What sets these books apart, writes Miller, is that they are targeted toward a popular audience. Their explicit goal is to undermine people’s confidence in the Bible’s teaching on sex. With Newsweek’s help, that may, unfortunately, happen.

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