Thursday, September 27, 2007

on sex in the Bible...

A few of the more interesting excerpts from Sam Torode's review in Books and Culture of J. Harold Ellens' Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration

...For example, Ellens notes, polygamy is the most common model of marriage in the Bible, and one can still make a strong biblical argument for polygamy in societies where women greatly outnumber men (such as in areas ravaged by war).

Two nice points, the latter of which I used in discussing Olasky's recent essay on prohibiting polygamy...

Driving home this point, Ellens cites the Old Testament stories where women, most notably Ruth and Esther, employ their feminine charms to seduce men for the furtherance of God's aims (and their own). Far from being condemned, these women earn nothing but praise from the biblical authors. It's ironic that Ruth is upheld as a role model for conservative Christian girls today. Instead of "waiting on God" for a husband, she spotted a good man, followed him home from a party, and jumped into bed with him—violating three "Biblical Rules for Dating" at once...

OK, that's not the way I would put it, but the point is still valid-- and irony is still delicious.

Despite its weirdness and obscurity, the story of Onan has had a profound influence on church history. "First of all," Ellens writes, "for centuries Jews and Christians used this scripture as an argument to turn the very natural experience of masturbation into an evil behavior, even a terrifying sin against God." More than this, early Christian commentators like Augustine and Jerome used the Onan story to condemn coitus interruptus and, by extension, all other methods of birth control.

These early theologians believed that "semen is a sacred fluid" and that to deliberately waste or misuse it is a grave sin worthy of damnation. But, Ellens argues, they misread the text. Onan was not punished for separating sex from procreation or for spilling his sacred semen: "His error was that he refused to perpetuate the memory, name, and lineage of his brother."

Not that masturbation is not problematic for a variety of problems-- but Onan's antics are not a legitimate proof text on that point. This text refers to "levirate marriage" (as does the passage in Ruth), where Onan had a responsibility to his dead brother and his widow. Onan's failure is a combination of immediate self-gratification while ignoring God's command and the long-term consequences of failing his duty/opportunity here.


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