When I went through puberty, I was given a book with dating advice for the Christian adolescent, mainly consisting of tips on how to avoid having sex: “staying vertical,” for instance. Growing up, I often heard “Sex is a gift from God … when you’re married.”
I grew up as the Bible nerd at my Christian school. I was my class’s Bible trivia rep. I knew all of the verses that prohibited sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, transgender identities, etc. As I grew older, I became frustrated with the dogmatic reading of those verses. Toward the end of high school and through college, I curated other verses and arguments to counter the homophobia in my church community.
This curating was complemented by a class at UC Berkeley: “The English Bible as Literature.” I learned that the Bible wasn’t a monolith but a tapestry with competing worldviews, some even sex-positive. Doing more research in the class and on my own, I learned to read the Bible as myth rather than literal history, to recognize that these were stories to be engaged with from different angles rather than histories requiring one true interpretation.
Wanting to understand biblical sexuality from a more literary perspective rather than a religious one, I visited UC Berkeley professor of Hebrew and comparative literature Robert Alter, whose translations and commentaries we read in the “Bible as Literature” course.
Walking to his office, I hoped to confirm Dan Brown-esque religious conspiracy theories of appropriated paganism, half-remembered sex goddesses or priestesses who would use sex as their ministry in connecting mankind with the divine but then be denigrated in translation as “prostitutes.”
Instead, he told me the story of Tamar in Genesis 38, a story that was never highlighted in my religious education. Tamar’s husband dies, so she is married to her brother-in-law, who ejaculates outside of her to avoid impregnating her. God doesn’t approve of this waste of semen and smites her second husband. As a childless widow, Tamar can’t have full agency in her community and remains under the care of her father-in-law, whose wife eventually dies. Tamar dresses up as a prostitute, veiling her face, and offers herself to her father-in-law, who gives her his signet ring as a deposit. He doesn’t recognize her.
After sex, Tamar goes back home. When her father-in-law comes back to pay the prostitute, he can’t find her. When he later learns that Tamar is pregnant, he accuses her of adultery and quickly calls for her burning. But when she reveals his ring, he apologizes, “She hath been more righteous than I” and gives her her due payment. The future editors and compilers of the Bible revered Tamar and eventually included her in the genealogy of King David and later Jesus Christ.
This isn’t some half-assed feminist portrayal of a woman with a golden heart despite being a prostitute. This is a story of a woman who is empowered by the role of a sex worker. The moral of the story has to do with the marriage customs of the time, but in Tamar, we see an independent woman who is empowered by her sexuality rather than restricted by it.
The culture portrayed in the Bible viewed sex as a procreative duty, according to Alter. That’s why God kills the husband who ejaculates outside of Tamar and why anal sex is strictly prohibited, as a waste of divine, procreative potential. That may also be why there’s no prohibition or mention of lesbianism throughout the Bible. No seed? No problem.
That could be a valuable outlook for a community trying to create a culture in the face of desert deaths and empires. But is it a healthy worldview for 2018?
We have a better handle on procreation. The guilt that we’ve inherited with sex manifests in teenage pregnancies and homes broken by homophobia.
“The genealogy of guilt,” Alter went on to describe, “seems to come from the doctrine of virginal sin.” He’s referring to the belief that sexuality comes from sin in the Garden of Eden, a reading coming from early Christians more so than the Hebrews. Just as the Hebrews were trying to form a nation, early Christianity tried to form an empire. The strict, procreative sex laws could help with nation-building.
But out of this worldview in which sex was a divinely ordained task, we get the biblical book of Song of Songs. This text is typically read as a literary allegory describing the love between God and Israel or Christ and the Church, but it is only enigmatic if you can’t understand erotic romance. It is a poem about two unmarried lovers enjoying sex together. No guilt. No shame. The affair is even public. This is where sex is finally seen as a pleasure and not a civic duty. If you’re interested in a good resource, Alter has written a translation and commentary: “Strong as Death is Love.”
Young Christians on college campuses don’t only have liberation to gain from discussing frank sexuality with each other but are in a unique position to push their religious communities toward discussing sex positivity more. The shame of sex is inherited from a conflation of religion and empire, taking societal taboos as moral absolutes. That’s not to say these sexual behaviors are worthless. There are benefits and costs of monogamy just as there are benefits and costs of polygamy; the Bible acknowledges both. There can be honor in chastity and power in virginity. But there can also be righteousness in whoredom and transcendence in blissful (premarital) sex. The Bible says so.