Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sex and The "Biblical" View

Read this book

by Ben Howard

On Tuesday I started reading Rachel Held Evans' new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. The book is an A.J. Jacobs-like take on the idea of biblical womanhood. For a year, Rachel tries to abide by all of the scriptures relating to women and along the way hilarity and insight ensue.

I'm only three chapters in so far, so this isn't a review, but the book has already sparked a few interesting ideas. In between chapters, Rachel does a profile of a woman from the Bible. The profile between the second and third chapters is Tamar.

If you don't know the story of Tamar, she is the daughter-in-law of Judah. She marries his oldest son, who dies. Then, according to custom, she marries his next oldest son. He also dies. At this point, Judah should marry her to his youngest son, but he refuses. A childless unmarried widower would have been in serious trouble in this society so this refusal is not only a violation of the law, it is also deeply unjust.

Like any proper biblical character, Tamar solves this problem by pretending to be a prostitute and sleeping with Judah, her father-in-law. When the family becomes outraged at Tamar's pregnancy, she reveals to Judah that he is the father and he realizes that he has sinned by not giving her his youngest son.

Yeah, that's a bizarre story. I know. However, note that nowhere is Tamar repudiated for her actions. In fact, she is listed in Jesus' genealogy in Matthew. In fact, the other three women listed (Bathsheba, Ruth, and Rahab), are also involved in relationships that our society would deem illicit. Bathsheba sleeps with David who then kills her husband, Ruth seduces Boaz (check out your Hebrew idioms), and Rahab is a prostitute.

This collection of characters and stories makes me ask a question. Where exactly did we get this puritanical notion of biblical sexual morality? Even the Bathsheba story doesn't condemn sex, it condemns adultery and murder.

Queen Victoria
Now, some will point out that Paul talks an awful lot about sexual immorality and that's certainly true, but is that a response to sex or a response to an overly indulgent culture that expressed sexuality in dehumanizing ways?

I don't want to argue that our present-day cultures overwhelming view of sexuality is correct and that the church should embrace it. In fact, I don't want to endorse anything about our current sexual culture. It's selfish, indulgent, and dehumanizing. People are used for the satisfaction of others. People are consumed.

But at the same time the notion of a biblical view of sexuality seems to have far more in common with Victorian social mores than with anything resembling a truthful and honest reading of the Bible. The Bible talks about sex, but it isn't obsessed with it. It's a biological function and a part of life. You can interpret some books like the Song of Solomon to openly celebrate it.

I think we need to start talking about sex in our culture without acting like its the most titillating topic of conversation. It's part of life, let's treat it that way. Churches need to openly talk about this topic. Families need to openly talk about this topic. Friends need to openly talk about this topic.

Also, we need to crack down on people referencing the "biblical view" of whatever. Bringing the word "biblical" into a conversation about morality or social issues is the equivalent of referencing Hitler or communism in a conversation about politics. It's a bomb intended to disrupt and stop conversation. It's a trump card. Even worse, the person using it is usually wrong. The use of the term biblical ends up denigrating and besmirching the very book that someone is trying to hold so dear.

Biblical family?
Rachel Held Evans conclusion in the book, according to reviews, is that no such thing as biblical womanhood exists. In the gay marriage debate, there are constant references to the biblical or traditional view of marriage. In response, Fred Clark at the blog Slacktivist has started posting his Chick-Fil-A Biblical Family of the Day every Friday to show the diversity and bizarreness of the "biblical" view of marriage and family.

The Bible is a book that tells us about God and how God relates to us and who God is. It is not necessarily a book that tells us about morality. That morality is dictated by our relationship to God and God's character. It is dictated by who God has created us to be and how we are to express that in our context.

We have to interpret things in our world and that's okay. Everything has to be interpreted. The best way to do that is discuss it intentionally in community. It is best to have people tell us why they agree and disagree with what we do and how we can and should improve. It is best to be open to change and growth. 

So let's talk about sex and see where we end up.


You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenHoward87 or email him at benjamin.howard87 [at]

Also, you can subscribe to On Pop Theology via RSS feed or email on the top right corner of the main page.


  1. In a recent Intro to OT grad class we dealt with this topic, in a round about way. It's been a few weeks so my memory is hazy, but the idea was that any time someone deviates from the biblical model, strife ensues. Abraham and Hagar is one example. Tamar and Judah would be another. The point being that God was still working, even through man's brokenness, to complete His plan in His way. I'm not willing to say there isn't a biblical view of sexuality. That's not to say I know exactly what it is either. It requires more searching and prayer, as well as an open mind.

  2. Ian, I can see your point, but let me respond by asking this. Is there a story in the OT where strife doesn't ensue? It may be true that anytime this is violated bad things occur, but that's case in almost every story. In fact, I think it might be the point of the stories.

  3. There are moments, flashes of obedience, when strife doesn't occur. David isn't completely flawed. Abraham has his moments. I know I'm reading a NT mindset onto the OT, but in all this failure to meet the standard I see why we need Christ and the Gospel. But that is another issue entirely.