Michael Coogan. God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says. Twelve, 2010. (237 pages)
— VIA —
Full disclosure: I did not actually finish “reading” the book (a term I use to communicate that I have actually digested a book’s full content).
Coogan does in this book what any author of a short survey of the Bible needs to do. He writes presumptively and selectively with surface regard for historical or cultural context, two critical (and I mean critical) elements for appropriate interpretation. I will try and elucidate a couple examples below.
This does not mean that the entire book is not worth reading. Those unfamiliar with the various euphemisms, characters, and dramas of the Biblical text may be enlightened to read about the variegated content regarding sex and gender in the Bible. However, I would suggest that any reader consider carefully the statements that assume various ways in which the Biblical world lived and acted. Much of the content is summations of the Biblical text/narrative with editorialized commentary thrown in-between, and little actual “insight.” This makes the subtitle quite apropos because this book really is about what the Bible really says (a re-statement of the stories). In other words, just pick up a Bible and start reading. You’ll get more out of that.
— Notes & Review —
For example, right in the introduction, Coogan mentions that in the Ten Commandments, “Yahweh declares that he punishes sons for the sins of their fathers to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:9) He suggests this is “inconsistent” with a later passage; “A son shall not suffer for a father’s iniquity, nor shall a father suffer for a son’s iniquity;…” (Ezekiel 18:20) He states, “Inconsistencies like these require first that the readers of the Bible who consider it authoritative read all of it, not blithely picking only passages that coincide with their own views.” (xiv-xv) While I concur, Coogan himself seems to dismiss that very principle in this example. The key words that he is comparing (underlined above) are a) different Hebrew words, and b) have different interpretations and meanings. Just like you cannot “blithely pick” only passages that “coincide with [your] own views,” neither can you “blithely” compare passages and conclude inconsistencies without taking into account language, culture, and historical context.
First, the word “punish” in the Ten Commandments passage above is “פקד” a word that has a whole host of meanings, e.g. “account for,” “visit,” “heed,” “regard,” “muster,” “attend to,” etc. One plausible interpretation is that God will visit or account for the sins of the previous generation to the third and fourth, meaning, that while sins carry through to offspring (just think of any dysfunctional family), God will “attend” to that sin as it is carried through to the next generations. It’s redemptive, and in many ways Fatherly, in the sense of caring for those who suffer because of their parents.
Second, even if the word was interpreted as “punish,” there’s a literary technique employed that draws comparison and contrast. The very next line in both Exodus and Deuteronomy is, “and making lovingkindness/mercy/everlasting faithfulness to a thousand [generations] who love me and guard/keep my commandments.” (my translation) It is a way of communicating God’s greatness by using a comparison/contrast technique. When God “hates” Esau, but “loves” Jacob, God doesn’t literally hate. It’s a Hebraism to declare that God’s love for Jacob is extremely great, so much that it may appear to be hate of Esau. (Malachi 1:3; Romans 9:13)
Third, the word in Ezekiel is “ישא” which can mean “carry,” (and “suffer”) which means that the two passages very plausibly are actually saying the exact same thing.
Coogan gives none of this as possibility, though again, neither can he in a book like this. However, this is an example of the several times in which other perspectives are completely disregarded, and his agenda (or penchant) for pointing out “flaws” in the Bible ruins the integrity of his scholarship, and thus, the content of this book. Coogan’s lens through which he reads the Bible appears quite influenced by this notion of “inconsistent” and “contradictory,” a note to be understood when reading.
In “TO KNOW IN THE BIBLICAL SENSE,” Coogan is right to point out the many euphemisms that the Bible uses (“to know,” “to eat,” “to go into,” “feet/legs,” “flesh,” “hand,” “remembrance,” “playing,” and of course, the metaphors used in Song of Songs), a fact that is often missed (or rather, ignored) by contemporary readers who wish to sanitize or moralize the Scriptures. I concur, that sex is celebrated, and not just for reproduction.
However, we slip right back into suspicious interpretation in Chapter 2 when Coogan talks about the “status of women.” Agreed, the culture then was patriarchal, and the bet-av (בית ־ אב) was the milieu at the time. However, to call this subjugation of women “divinely ordained” (22) again misses the redemptive movements of the entire story. We also ought not be surprised that, with the exception of one or two examples, every culture and religion of the ancient world was male-dominated. So, not only should we not be surprised, we ought to read the Bible through that lens to see if more is going on in the text than mere reporting or sanctioning of such activity.
In the Hebrew Bible, virginity is an attribute only of women. (33)
Again, in a male-dominated society, this ought not surprise us, and we should not a priori suggest that this is the agenda of the Bible.
Every morning, observant Jewish men say this prayer: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who has not made me a women.” This reflects a correct understanding of biblical views of the superiority of men to women, as does Paul’s paraphrase of the creation story, that the woman was created for the sake of the man, and therefore the husband is the head of the wife. (1 Corinthians 11:3, 9) If there were women who achieved positions of authority, that was exceptional rather than usual. (59)
There are many different ways of understanding this Jewish prayer. “Perspective” and “function” are most likely the most appropriate, rather than disdain. In other words, the Jewish prayer reflects upon the joy and calling of having responsibility (thus praying in the negative “that I am not…”) and the function of being devoted to the mitzvaot (the commandments). In addition, if you understand compare/contrast — as mentioned above — this is not about misogyny. This is about dedication. Especially since women have their own prayer, “Thank you for making me according to your will,” a prayer that is every bit as orthodox as the previous.
And in regards to Paul and women, the topic is too large to sum up here. I simply refer you to other research and study.
I appreciated Coogan’s attention to the David and Jonathan story, appropriately pointing out that kissing did not mean then what it means today, thus we can infer no interpretation regarding homosexuality from this relationship. Coogan also points out that the Sodom and Gomorrah story has more to do with pride, hospitality, etc., than it does with sodomy. And, Coogan’s treatment of the New Testament is decently fair, pointing out that “none of these passages elaborate on their condemnation of homoeroticism.” (138)
Coogan provocatively suggests that “The cumulative evidence…is continuous and undeniable: Yahweh is envisioned as a sexual being.” (178) We find this in archaeology as well, and is something that deserves scholastic attention. I don’t think Coogan’s book is the appropriate avenue (for reasons already stated), however, if it is a springboard for further study, then we would do well to jump.
Right before the conclusion, Coogan writes the following, a good summary of his agenda:
In any case, whether metaphor or myth, the biblical depictions of Yahweh as an insanely jealous and abusive husband are problematic. Can an individual believer or a community of believers, for whom the Bible is authoritative, dismiss these passages out of hand? Are only some parts of the Bible authoritative? If so, what criteria do such individuals and communities use to decide which ones? These questions have been asked repeatedly over the centuries, and they are especially urgent today, when the Bible is appealed to in support of all sorts of “family values,” often in contradictory ways. Before addressing these questions, we must begin by reading the Bible on its own terms — what it meant to its original writers and audiences. That also means reading the entire Bible, in all its grandeur and complexity and horror, not privileging only those parts that say what we think it should say or what we want it to say. We should not use it just as an anthology of proof texts to be cherry-picked for scriptural support for preconceived conclusions.
YES! And now if he could go back and re-write God And Sex with that ethic in mind! It would not just be a longer book, but one that is more beneficial to the discussions, both scholarly and popularly.
Editor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible Michael Coogan recently applied his thorough knowledge of Scripture to a universal and eternally relevant topic: sex. In God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says, he discusses everything from marriage and prostitution to “fire” in God’s own loins (yeah, you may want to reread the Book of Ezekiel). Coogan puts the Bible, which is often inconsistent on such hot topics, in perspective, and you may find yourself surprised by what the ancient texts have to say. (See 10 surprising facts about the world’s oldest Bible.)
Your book begins with a discussion of the erotic Song of Solomon. Does its inclusion in the Bible mean there was a positive attitude toward sex back then?
I think there was a positive attitude toward sex in general, because reproduction was essential. Anything that led to reproduction was certainly viewed positively, and the idea of refraining from sex for religious reasons was something that was fairly unusual in Judaism in most periods. In many passages it’s a highly erotic text, and it was a text that rabbinic literature tells us used to be sung in taverns. Yet when I was in seminary many decades ago, it was razored out of many of the Bibles that we had. (See pictures of religion in the ruins of Katrina.)
Is there any word in the Bible that isn’t a euphemism for genitals? There’s feet, hand, knees, flesh.
The word for testicles is stones. There aren’t what we would call precise anatomical terms. As with any literature, passages in the Bible can have more than one level of meaning. And sometimes there may be a kind of sexual innuendo or double entendre there that is implicit. (Read “The Case for Teaching the Bible.”)
Even laughing has a sexual connotation.
That’s a great one, and you don’t see it until you get to the story about Isaac telling the foreign king that his wife Rebecca is his sister, and then the king sees Isaac making Rebecca laugh, and he says, “She’s not your sister, she’s your wife!” Usually the translation itself is not literal; the translations will say fondling, caressing, or something like that. But the Hebrew word actually means to make laugh. It’s the same word that’s used in other contexts, as in the story of the golden calf, so there’s a hint of an orgy there, which complicates the offense.
How important is it to read the Bible in its original languages?
It’s essential for some of us to do it, if for no other reason so that translations can be made that are as accurate as possible. Often translators reflect their own views and their own biases just as much as the biblical writers do. I was interested recently in this case that the Supreme Court had in the Westboro Baptist Church. I looked at their website, and he lists all the passages that he says the Bible talks about sodomy. Well, in most of them sodomy isn’t discussed at all. The term sodomy is a translator’s term to translate Hebrew words that never mean sodomy in the sense of anal intercourse between males. (Read “Should the Highest Court Protect the Ugliest Speech?”)
Given all the examples of polygamy, where in the Bible is marriage sanctioned as a union only between one man and one woman?
There is no unequivocal statement in the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible, that says that monogamy should be the norm. For the most part, biblical characters we know well, if they could afford it, had many wives. Solomon, the greatest lover of them all — maybe why he’s attributed with writing the Song of Songs — had 300 wives. So the fundamentalist Mormons who insist that polygamy is biblical are right, in a sense. If you’re going to be a strict literalist, there’s nothing wrong with polygamy. (See the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.)
We never know if Adam and Eve are married, right?
That’s right. There’s no marriage ceremony described. Here’s another case where the issue of translation comes up. The same Hebrew word can be translated either as woman or wife. So when it says that the man knew his wife, and she got pregnant — that’s another euphemism, to know in the biblical sense — it could also be the man knew his woman and she got pregnant.
You devote a chapter to the status of women. Is the reason there are so many misconceptions about the Bible and sex the fact that we often forget how patriarchal those societies were?
The status of women is important as background, but it’s also another example of how we have, for the most part, while accepting the Bible as authoritative, moved beyond it and in some ways rejected some of its main points of view. If we can do that for things like slavery or the subordinate status of women, then we can do it on other issues as well, like same-sex marriage. We have to ask the question, How is it that we’ll take some parts of the Bible and say they are absolutely and eternally binding, and other parts can simply be ignored?
As for abortion, the Bible doesn’t say much.
It doesn’t say anything. That’s one of the things I find most interesting, because both sides of the contemporary debate about abortion will quote the Bible in support of their position. They have to quote verses that don’t really talk about abortion.
Addressing the sexuality of God, you write, “Yahweh is envisioned as a sexual being,” according to certain passages.
He is described as a sexual being, but the language is both mythical and metaphorical. (See pictures of John 3:16 in pop culture.)
Those descriptions, in Ezekiel, for example, even if they’re allegories, are pretty explicit.
They’re very explicit. They’ve in fact been called pornographic.
Were people in biblical times less prudish than we are today?
I think in some ways they were, even though they used a lot of euphemisms. When they were thinking about their god, they thought of him in ways not that different from the way other people thought about their gods. If you could describe God as a king or a shepherd or a warrior, then you can also describe him as a husband, and doing the sorts of things that husbands do. In the Greco-Roman world in which Christianity arose, the idea that a deity would come down to earth and have sex with a mortal would have been not surprising at all.
Reviewed by Phyllis Trible
God and Sex. Who would not be intrigued by so expansive and seductive a title coming from a secular and boutique press? But the subtitle narrows the scope: What the Bible Really Says. If that phrase suggests either a prudish or salacious bent, the identity of the author assures us differently. A scholar of ancient Near Eastern and Biblical studies, Michael Coogan writes from head and heart—and both are in the right place.
For him, the paradigm of male dominance and female subordination governs gender relationships in the Bible. “Your desire will be for your man,” says Yahweh to the woman in the story of Eden, “and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). “That decree,” says Coogan, “illustrates the bleakness of the overall Biblical picture for feminists who would claim the Bible as an authority.” Yes, the paradigm heralds bleakness. Whether that bleakness also harbors blessing, readers must decide.
In declaring Genesis 3:16 a divine “decree” and, later, a “curse,” Coogan misreads. (He is in good company, from the apostle Paul and his successors through millennia.) These words of Yahweh to the woman do not characterize her status in creation but rather her life after disobedience. They do not “decree” patriarchy; they describe it. They announce judgment; they do not prescribe punishment, which comes later in expulsion from Eden. Further, Yahweh never “curses” the woman. This word the deity reserves for the serpent and the earth (via the man). In numerous ways, literary analysis disqualifies Genesis 3:16 as the paradigmatic proof text for endorsing patriarchy.
Nonetheless, Coogan’s overall assessment is right. For some 40 years (a fitting Biblical time frame), second-wave feminists have wrestled with patriarchy and the Bible. They, too, have cautioned that the Bible belongs to the foreign country of antiquity. Despite its ubiquitous presence in the news and its canonical standing in communities of faith, it remains distant, even alien, in time, languages, mentality and geography. For diverse reasons—scant evidence, contradictory data, discrepancies among genres and historically locked views—what the Bible really says (or really does not say) about matters such as abortion, marriage, divorce, adultery, rape, prostitution and same-sex relationships does not readily transfer (for better or worse) to our world. Tensions between “original meanings” and contemporary applications persist—tensions that Coogan compares to interpreting the U.S. Constitution.
But what about competing evidence within the Bible? What about women characters, for example, who don’t seem to fit patriarchal strictures? In ancient Israel, the prophet Miriam was never linked to a husband. Leader in victory at the crossing of the sea and questioner of authority in the wilderness, she survived censure to endure in prophetic tradition as the equal of her brothers Aaron and Moses (Micah 6:4). The prophet Deborah, identified perhaps as “woman of fire,” exercised authority as judge and military leader in the settlement of the land (Judges 4 and 5). In the reign of King Josiah, the prophet Huldah (without her husband) authorized the beginnings of the Bible (2 Kings 22:14). And the prophet Noadiah, identified by neither father nor husband, opposed the policies of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 6:14). In the New Testament, the prophet Anna, a widow apparently living an independent life, blessed the child Jesus who had been brought to the Temple (Luke 2:36–38). Four unmarried daughters of Philip the evangelist also held the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:9). To these prophets we add wise women (of Tekoa and Abel), queens (Jezebel and Vashti), widows (Naomi and Judith) and disciples (Mary, Mary Magdalene, Joanna).
Throughout the Bible various women, by their actions, words or status, challenge the patriarchal paradigm, at least indirectly. Although Coogan reports on these public figures, he fails to stress their potentially subversive presence. What did such women represent? Tokens? Exceptions? An alternative narrative? A lost history? A saving remnant within the bleakness of patriarchy?
Despite this book’s title, God takes center stage only in the last chapter. There Coogan argues that the Biblical deity is a male, indeed a sexual being who engages in reproductive activities in a polytheistic environment. The archaeological find at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud depicts two figures with the inscription “Yahweh and his Asherah” (eighth century B.C.E.). Within the Bible, more evidence surfaces: Ezekiel’s description of the divine loins (1:27); the pairing of Yahweh in the Temple with Asherah; metaphors of Yahweh as Israel’s husband and father; the goddess Wisdom alongside Yahweh; and the Christian formula for the parentage of Jesus: son of God, born of a virgin.
Believers cannot neglect these threatening descriptions, says Coogan. But to what extent have believers neglected them? Even though polytheism and a female consort may not be acceptable, the basic idea that God is male has endured for centuries, sometimes as unofficial dogma. After all, Jesus called God “Father.” Missing among many believers are sustained critiques of this idea.
Female images of God, in contrast to a female consort, call for attention. The metaphor connecting divine mercy (rahamim) to the vehicle of the womb (rehem) permeates the Bible. One small witness describes the God who “writhed in labor pains” giving birth to Israel (Deuteronomy 32:18). Sexual overtones in these portrayals are not male. Although early in his prophecy (chapter 3) Hosea depicts Yahweh as the abusive husband beating his wife Israel, later Yahweh repudiates both male identity and violence. “For I am God (‘el) and not male (‘is), the Holy One (qadosh) in your midst, and I do not come to destroy” (Hosea 11:9). Is this the pattern of the abusive husband—to feign goodness and mercy? Or does the declaration of holiness testify to God beyond (male) sex, gender and attendant consequences? In keeping with his passionate plea that we read “the entire Bible” and not “cherry-pick” for “preconceived conclusions,” Coogan might have explored these and other counter-texts.
On one occasion, God set before ancient Israel life and death and then commanded the people to decide the difference. “Choose life that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Likewise recognizing that authority derives from the community, Coogan admirably concludes that what the Bible really says (this time, its “underlying ideals”) moves “toward the goal of full freedom and equality for all persons.” That rhetorical flourish awaits development beyond the provocative subject of God and Sex.
[Distinguished feminist Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible is professor of Biblical studies at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in North Carolina. From 1981 until her “retirement” in 1998, she taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1994, only the second woman to serve in that capacity since the organization was founded in 1880.]