07 March 2008

Sex and the Old Testament

Changing the subject back to something much more fun: Today's Independent has an article titled "What they don't teach at Sunday school: the joy of Old Testament sex". There is an anecdote about Evelyn Waugh who was trapped in the company of Randolph Churchill, the son of the prime minister. "In the hope of keeping him quiet," he wrote to Nancy Mitford, "Freddie and I bet him £20 that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight. Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud... or merely slapping his side & chortling 'God, isn't God a shit!'."

Of course, that doesn't come as a surprise to anyone who has read (or seen) A Clockwork Orange in which Alex starts reading the bible for the same things that the younger Churchill discovered: that there are some very dark passages in the Old Testament, stories of lust and cruelty that have no obvious moral. Incest, bigamy, rape, mutilation, deceit, loyalty and love can all be found in the Good Book.

A professor at Bangor University, Nathan Abrams, has put together a book about the sexy bits in the Bible called Sex and the Jews in which he comes up with some pretty interesting observations.

I have found that Judaism is a whole lot more liberated about sex than its bastard progeny, Christianity. For example, abortion is not a problem for Jews who do not believe in life beginning at conception. In fact, the Jewish perspective is closer to the medical perspective which is that the unborn infant's life is purely speculative, but the mother is a living person whose life and well being should be considered.

Written by different authors, possibly at very different times, the Old Testament can be self-contradictory. The story in 1 Samuel of the friendship between David, the handsome young warrior who has just killed Goliath, and Jonathan, son of King Saul, is often interpreted as a tale of gay love. In one verse, it says: "And it came to pass... that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul." If they were gay lovers, there is no indication that the God of the Old Testament disapproved, a reaction that fits comfortably with modern enlightenment culture.

In other passages, God's attitude to sex seems shockingly repressive, as when, for instance, he pronounces a death sentence on Onan, for pleasuring himself in a way that denied his wife the chance to become pregnant. Hardline theologians might like the idea that all sex is sinful other than for the purpose of procreation, but for the more liberal-minded, it is a tricky story. It arises from a culture in which a woman's standing in the community and sense of self-worth depended heavily on her capacity to produce children.

Dr Abrams, who comes from a Jewish family, was also struck by the curious morality of the Old Testament, as displayed by Lot, a righteous man who offers hospitality to travellers passing through Sodom, and when a mob gathers wanting to rape the men, offers his virgin daughters instead. It is as if the girls' virginity belongs to their father, who is so good that he is prepared to sacrifice this precious possession for the sake of his guests. Later, when the going gets rough, Lot is seduced by those same daughters – another tale of the desperate lengths women went to achieve motherhood.

"I think the lesson to be drawn from this story is about what can happen sometimes when people are set obsessively on a certain path, even if it is the right path," Dr Abrams said. He is now bracing himself for the reaction he can expect to his book, either from traditional Jews or, at the opposite extreme, from people who will see the book as food for their anti-Semitic prejudices.

"I'm not a theologian, and I don't speak for any organisation or community. I just want to start a discussion on issues that might not have been discussed in this detail before. These are serious essays by people who have been studying these subjects for a long time ... These essays haven't been written to shock and they're not sensationalist or purely prurient.

"There are parts of the Jewish community that don't like us airing our dirty laundry in public ... and there are anti-Semites who will like what we are doing. They will say it justifies their view of Jews as sexually corrupting. I don't think these people should stop us having a healthy debate."

On the other hand, I question where Christian theology has come up with its perspectives upon the Bible which vary greatly from Jewish scholars. Talmud scholars spend most of their time debating the fine points of the Bible, and have been doing so for long before most Christian scholars ever knew Hebrew. I mean it IS the Jewish holy book which has had extra texts added on to it.

This isn't the essay to get into what parts of the "New Testament" are valid or not, but there are apocryphal texts out there which have a different take on Christianity (e.g., the Gospel of Mary Magdalen). The Baptists criticise the Mormons for adding on texts to a perfect Bible, but who decided which of these texts were valid? Was the Council of Nicea divinely inspired or politically motivated? Likewise, who is to say that texts which go against Judaism are valid?

Whatever the case, Judaism has a totally different attitude toward sex and Childbearing than does Christianity. An attitude which is much more tolerant toward sex.

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