Sex and the Bible: the awful truth

If you read my last post, Have We Gone Too Far, I am sure you can imagine that it stirred some debate, given that the subject was same-sex marriage. I was pleasantly surprised to see that most responses in the comments section were quite conciliatory, even though many people were not supportive of gay relationships. If I had to sum it all up, it was more like, ‘live and let live, and if we’re wrong, let God be the judge’.

However, from my old school friends on Fortis 78, an email forum for all kinds of debate, the reaction was markedly different. Some of the guys were quite clear that same-sex unions had no place in church, while conceding that the Supreme Court made a legal, not moral or spiritual, decision. Others formed a vociferous opposition, full of fire, brimstone and destruction, prophesying that the United States would pay for its decision in eternal punishment. Yes, seriously. 

Interestingly, I had no issue with their opposition to the very notion of homosexuality, given that I still struggle with the concept and mechanics of gay male sexual intercourse. But what captured my attention and left me almost transfixed was the idea that homosexuality was the worst of all sins, maybe except for murder, and that any condoning of its practice would lead to eternal damnation. This led me to thinking about sex in general and how it is represented in the Bible, versus what is commonly taught.

My adolescent awakening 

When I was growing up in Jamaica, I was very fortunate to have a highly-literate grandmother who read widely and was fascinated by the works of Thomas Hardy, William Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters and Alexandre Dumas, amongst others. Her favourite book was the Bible and, much as she believed in Jesus Christ, she loved to explore the hidden meanings and contradictions she discovered in its pages. She was convinced that its contents were inspired by God, but understood that it was written, translated and edited by human beings, with all their frailties and fallibilities. This made for fascinating discussions in the kitchen when I returned from school in the afternoons and watched her prepare the evening meal. 

One fateful afternoon, I summoned up the courage to ask her about girlfriends. I was at that awkward stage of puberty when such matters are exciting, confusing and daunting, all at the same time. Mama didn’t even look up at me as she launched into all the ‘dos and don’ts’, according to the scriptures. I figured I knew all of that, so I pressed her on more complex issues such as liking two girls at the same time and what to do about it. And that’s when she levelled with me that the Bible was quite ambivalent about some aspects of human sexuality. To illustrate, she talked about the many wives and concubines of David and Solomon, and how their royal needs did not appear to affect God’s attitude towards them or the favour he bestowed. Furthermore, she admitted that there was no single verse in the Good Book that prohibited having more than one wife, although there were lots of passages that recommended it.

Obviously, these examples were put into the context of that particular period of human development, the workings of patriarchal societies and the privileges accorded to kings and wealthy men. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that there were exceptions to the seemingly rigid rules laid down from the pulpit of our Pentecostal church, right there in the pages of the very book that prohibited them.

It was good to be a patriarch

In the years following that confusing conversation, I was to encounter other contradictions that didn’t appear to bother anyone else. Maybe I was just a weird kid who thought too much, but I remember a Sunday School moment when we were learning about the story of Jacob, Leah and Rachel, meant to exemplify love, faith and perseverance. It was a fascinating tale but I couldn’t help but notice that there was no reproach from God, or anyone else, for a man who marries two sisters, sleeps with them on rotation and gets Rachel’s maid pregnant, with her permission, because she couldn’t have children. No one else seemed to notice, so I kept quiet.

The truth is that ‘traditional marriage’, as we have come to know it, didn’t exist in those early days. Men virtually owned their wives and could have children with the hired help (Abraham, Sarah and the servant Hagar is another example); fathers protected their daughters’ virtue but could give it away at a moment’s notice (Laban, Leah and Rachel; and Lot offering his virgin daughters to the baying mob outside his house); and polygamy was rife (too many male Biblical characters to mention). A woman became your wife if you ‘went into her’, a charming scriptural phrase for entering her tent and consummating the relationship. Note the lack of consent by the women – fathers gave away daughters and wives gave away servants.

But, by far, the most fascinating biblical discovery of my adolescence was the Song of Solomon, a beautiful, erotic poem about two young lovers that is rarely credited for what it is. The first time I read it, with its graphic, lustful descriptions of the female anatomy, I wondered whether I had stumbled upon some forbidden text that had been left in by accident. Grandma was relaxed about it and explained that Solomon really loved everything about women and that this was his tribute. Since then, I’ve heard pastors attempt to describe it as ‘God’s love for Israel’ and other such nonsense. Read it and decide for yourself the spiritual meaning of, “Between your thighs lies a mound of wheat bordered with lilies.” Or, “You are slender like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters of fruit. I will climb the palm tree and take hold of its fruit.”

The marriage myth

Anyway, what am I getting at? I am suggesting that, when it comes to sex, the Bible is not as black & white as it is portrayed by the church. It does make room for people’s traditions, allows for extra-marital solutions to problems like childlessness and reflects the nature of the societies that existed at the time it was written. Most importantly, it documents an evolution of mankind and shows a marked difference between ancient Jewish/Hebrew/Muslim practices and the relative simplicity of Christianity, which has given rise to our modern views on marriage, fidelity and family life. I don’t believe it’s possible to reconcile the practices of the Old Testament with the way most societies function today.

And yet, many priests and pastors suggest, or rather insist, that marriage, as practiced today, started ‘in the Garden of Eden’ and has continued ever since. Really? Then how do they explain the polygamy, sexism and misogyny of the patriarchs? Or the insatiable sexual appetites of David and Solomon, the most beloved of a God who never condemned them for it? These were ‘men of God’ who founded the most favoured of nations and built His temple. Surely, we can have a more intelligent conversation than this. Or do we somehow believe that God will be reduced if we admit that the Bible is more complex than a set of ‘unbreakable’ rules.

Time for a more honest discussion 

The sad truth is that much of the breakdown in society has come from the disconnect that people have with this uncompromising approach to Biblical infallibility. And what gets lost is that the principles and laws in the Bible are the very foundation of our civilisation, the bedrock of our constitutions and legal systems. They have helped us to keep our families together and build more compassionate societies, in which welfare systems and charities do their best to support the weak and vulnerable. 

We have used those same principles to go way beyond anything that existed before Christ, in areas such as gender equality, civil rights, child adoption and monogamy; outlawing slavery and segregation, granting women the vote and allowing females in the pulpit. We frown on societies in the Arab world that still practice what we preach from the Old Testament and vilify them for holding to those values which we have long since abandoned. 

A world without pre-marital sex?

And so, we come full circle to the question of gay marriage. I suspect that it will always be a bridge too far for most of us to cross but I believe that as we continue to evolve, gay relationships will become more accepted. A precedent has already been set in Western society with pre-marital sex which, despite its clear prohibition in the Bible, has become an acceptable norm. So normal that our lives, as currently lived, would disappear without it. 

And if you think I’m exaggerating, try this out. Close your eyes and imagine a Christian utopia with no more gay sex. Perfect – life as God intended! Ah, not so fast – keep them closed. Now imagine a world without pre-marital sex. That’s right, delete all your romances, most of the movies you’ve ever watched, the books you’ve read. Erase all the love songs that are wired into your subconscious and trigger great memories every time you hear them. No Marvin Gaye, Teddy P, Babyface or Motown. Cancel your magazine subscriptions, your cable TV and the Internet. Why? You would have to, because the suggestion, promotion and depiction of pre-marital sex is so woven into the fabric of modern society that only a deep-cleanse could bring us to the perfection we require of gay people. 

Now open your eyes. Our imperfect world is still here. Your music collection is safe, along with all your books and DVDs. Your intellect, sharpened by these somewhat tainted materials, is intact. Let’s face it; we’re all leading imperfect lives, doing the best we can to live up to the moral and spiritual values we hold dear. Everyone has their own struggles and each man should “work out his own salvation”, without judgement from the rest of us.

I’ll leave you with this thought. A long time ago, a group of righteous men were intent on following the laws laid down in the Old Testament. Like some of my friends, they believed in the divine destruction of people who wilfully committed heinous crimes of the flesh. Luckily for the accused, the judge was a bit unusual for his time; somehow he had evolved and had a more sympathetic view of the situation. Rather than pronounce the woman guilty or innocent, he issued a challenge: 

“He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 

I think he deserves the last word.

36 thoughts on “Sex and the Bible: the awful truth

  1. Again I loved reading this piece Michael.
    It’s factual, interesting and definitely presents and provokes a well rounded discussion on topics that remain taboo in a lot of African society. I do believe it is time to confront these kinds of topics as you do so beautifully.
    I eagerly wait your next write up.

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    1. Thanks John, this feedback is so precious because I never know if I am striking a chord with my readers. Sometimes you have thoughts and wonder, “Is it just me?” Then you realise that there are some topics that people dare not discuss until you give them permission by raising it in public. I hope that this is one such time. Cheers!

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  2. Absolutely brilliant. My best read so far. It suggests perhaps the vociferous opposition to same sex marriage in the name of protecting the sanctity of our society ought to have started way before now. Certain things have laid prcedence for what is happening now.

    Sex sells and still does. We all have consumed ( Christians , non Christians, Straight, Gay everyone) and the media continues to feed us from what we watch, hear and read.

    It is sad but true, gay relationships will become more acceptable and become woven in the fabric of modern society alongside premarital sex, fornication, adultery, divorce, abortion, child brides, human trafficking etc.

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    1. Well, thank you my fellow blogger – high praise indeed! You’ve captured the essence of the piece very well. It’s very easy to find a ‘sin’ or lifestyle that we abhor and focus on that, while the unseen evolution continues. As usual, I appreciate your support and feedback. Take care.

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  3. Great read Micheal !!
    Dialogue is always the way forward. So often people only listen or read to respond without trying to understand.
    Rumi reminds us “since in order to speak, one must first listen, learn to speak by listening”
    Here’s to supporting those who listen to speak while trying to understand.

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  4. Well written Michael. You’ve opened my eyes to some questions I had about the bible. As a member of the Fortis78 and had similar upbringing I do understand the difficulties of this topic but do agree that time will dictate it’s acceptance.

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  5. Great article again. Intriguing reading. Nicely set up.

    Your new career as an author is secure. You are very talented.

    You should write a newspaper column or become an editor-at-large

    Maybe you should try your hand at some fiction as well.

    Best wishes

    Paul

    >

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  6. Michael, there must be a line not to cross. Is that Gay marriage and lifestyle? This I cannot say. As humans we all are hypocrite in one way or another. I too am selective in what bridge to cross and which ones to avoid. With all the evolving of society into a more humane and caring with women rights etc., we see a more movement to what I call decadence. Again to each his own. Sad that whatever direction mankind takes, the move away from god as those of the Christian beliefs were brought up believe, happens. My question is why are we so weak? The contradiction, the interpretation and misinterpretation is a powerful mixture for confusion, hypocrisy and arrogant self-righteousness we are seeing coming from many within and without the religious organizations.
    To be honest, I see the ways of the intimate behaviours of Western society as moving towards the ways of the Romans. As we know the Roman society disintegrate. I am wondering if that is what will happen to the Western societies. There must be something for moral and ethics. The problem is how do we define moral and ethics and who make the definition. It must come from God as many would say but how will the average man know?
    The evolving of society is still fraught with evil and still have the remnants of their history of evil so where do we draw the line. Is there such a word as sexual deviant or is it left to each to determine what is deviant? I do have a hard time accepting two person of similar anatomy be see as a couple. It just not biologically feasible in my mind. Funny none of the major religion really accept that lifestyle. Some more aggressive than the other.
    The fact that we all sin still is not an excuse to justify harmful behaviours of society ability to maintain itself. If not, murderers, rapist and many others can use the say defense of all sins are equal to destroy and maimed. After all, the British changed the word Pirates to Buccaneers to legalize and justify piracy.

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    1. Sir Taylor, you have captured the complexities so well – the moral dilemmas, the hypocrisy, human weakness, social evolution, etc. The real point of my article is that none of this is new. You were able to draw parallels with the Roman Empire two thousand years ago- infinitely more decadent than the Victorian era, just over two hundred years ago. In many ways, we are much more progressive than in the Old Testament days and in others, much worse. Muslims view the West as decadent in comparison to their relative closeness to Biblical values – how ironic. While we see them as oppressive to women and gays, or even barbaric in some cases.

      I’m sure that there is a line we shouldn’t cross. In most cases we know what it is, but sexuality seems to have the most grey areas and sharp differences between different lifestyles. Only God can judge in this regard. Murder and the like is far different, mainly because there is consensus on criminality. The differences only come up when you consider punishment for crimes. Capital punishment is out of fashion in many societies because of the likelihood of error and bias that could led to innocent deaths.

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  7. Interesting & outstanding presentation Mike. Valid points which I am sure will evoke a plethora of reactions.
    Fortis forever my brother.

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    1. Thanks Mackie. I’ve had some interesting reactions but nothing too extreme, which is surprising. The best part for me is that I’m not as alone as I thought I was in questioning some commonly-held beliefs. Many people seem genuinely glad that someone else is opening up a debate. As always, I appreciate the support.

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  8. My blogging Mentor, what can i say…. its churning wheels in my head for my next blog post. so watch out for my rejoinder or addendum, i dont know which yet. but ill make sure its worthy to be called a follow up/sequel….

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  9. Interesting read Michael. You know my thoughts about this already and how I have always advocated acceptance. I have never thought anyone was in God’s employ as a judge, neither do I think he is hiring.

    I have heard people that cohabit with their ‘fiancee’ saying gay marriage is very bad but in their defense say ‘God even knows that the body isn’t a firewood…’ Talk about double standards.

    Looking forward to the next post.

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    1. Yes, I remember how surprised I was when you first wrote about tolerance with homosexuality, while you were still living in Nigeria – very brave! As it turned out, people were supportive than expected, even as they disagreed. I love that whole ‘body now be firewood’ defence, the ultimate in hypocrisy. Meanwhile, gays should pray to God and control their urges. Of course.

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  10. I enjoyed this topic very much. It connected with some struggles I had as a teen growing up. Christian Religious Knowledge (C.R.K) was one subject in school I had a hard time learning. Even now I recall a few heated debates I had. Thank you sir.

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    1. You’re very welcome. I think we’ve all struggled with the contradictions between the Old Testament, Christianity as taught by Jesus and the way it should be interpreted in the modern world. Ancient Jewish laws, traditions and history are a useful guide but should never be applied rigidly to our daily lives, unless you want to return to a world where polygamy, sexism and the suppression of women’s rights prevail.

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  11. Michael, interesting piece.

    However, may I humbly point out that the Bible is full of metaphors. The Song of Solomon is indeed referring to the type of intimacy that should exist between God and His people. Song of Solomon makes this easy to comprehend because to know the curves, texture, pleasurable spots on the human body requires intimacy. God wants His people to come to him without restrictions; open. What better way to describe this? This does not take away from the fact that God expects us to be intimate with our spouse. The verses in Song of Solomon confirm this. God created sex to enable communication of love, trust, honesty between spouses.

    In the Bible, Jesus is referred to as the Bride groom while the church is referred to as His Bride. Metaphors help us better understand the message. Look at the term Fountain of Life. This suggests a ‘source of sustenance’. Alpha and Omega which is one of the ways that God is referred to or called, are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. These better show the meaning of the first and last, beginning and the end.

    It is true that in the Old Testament David and Solomon had within their reach all sorts of women. That didn’t make it right. The Bible has within its pages not just the good but also the bad that was done by various generations. It also shows us the repercussions of adopting certain behaviors. The Bible is the Guide/Manual for Christians.

    Keep on writing, Michael. Your pieces cause us to think. A lot of us seem to have stopped doing this.

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    1. Hi Imambo, it’s great to have you on my blog! You’re right, my writing is designed to provoke thought rather than trying to push a particular point of view. Most of us tend to follow someone else’s philosophy blindly.

      The Bible is full of metaphors but it is highly unlikely that it would use sexual imagery to illustrate our relationship with God. Those were quite chaste and conservative times, with such matters restricted to a man and his wife or wives. Just look at the references to marital sex – ‘he went into her’ – and you will know that the Song of Solomon would have been extremely risqué for its time. Also, a metaphor can be broken down into parts and each part would relate to the relevant aspect of the spiritual relationship with God. Anyone would struggle in that respect with Song of Solomon. And lastly, the point of a metaphor is to simplify or clarify. Solomon fails in that respect as well, as it is more complex than the relationship it would be seeking to explain. Contrast this with the parables of Jesus and you get the general idea – prodigal sons, sheep and shepherds, bridegroom and brides…

      I love this kind of interaction and hope to get your feedback on some of the other posts, such as ‘Have we gone too far?’ and ‘Above the clouds’, which touch on religious themes. See you soon!

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  12. The first man to take two wives according to the Bible was Lamech, he was the 7th generation from Adam through Cain. From what I understand of Biblical Christian teaching a man can have more than one wife BUT HE CANNOT BE A LEADER OF ANY SORT IN GOD’S HOUSE 1 Timothy 3:2,12 and Titus 1:6.

    Just like you Michael, I find it difficult dealing with gay male sex. I know what they do but. . . Homosexuality is one of the many ways people manifest the fallen nature of man (and woman). It is not the unpardonable sin. In our minds we categorise sin, some are more grave than others. It may be very easy to forgive the theft of a particular amount of money but for a person to steal a unique creative piece of work and destroy all evidence pointing in the direction of the creator may be something else entirely; possible to do but very hard.

    Homosexuality is that grave to many and the Bible does condemn it explicitly. I think this is so because it is so selfish and goes against propagation.

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    1. Hey IK, good to see you reaching back to the older posts.
      It’s not easy, is it? We are all ambivalent on the seriousness of different sins and are probably more forgiving of the ones that have become more accepted in society, or those we are guilty of and find hardest to control in our own lives.

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  13. We all sin in different ways. Hypocrisy is the purest form of tribute that we pay to whatever ideal we esteem. The politician that harps on about propriety for instance later turns out to be the poster boy for grand perfidiousness.

    I think the church should do more of what God called it to- preach the gospel which is Good News. However, I also think we should gently and firmly uphold moral ideals that flow from the Judeo-Christian ethos.

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  14. Immensely intrigued is just the word I can use to describe how reading your posts leave me. As much as you fiercely hit the truth without any iota of pity, your presentation of it completes the wonders. Of a truth you have given me something to reflect on even as I leave your site for the mean time. Well done to done, properly done.

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    1. Thanks very much for the compliment. Living in Nigeria has taught me how important it is to be truthful in my writing because I can speak for millions of people who have learned to retreat from the truth. They retreat out of fear – most of it imaginary – a hangover from the military era when truth cost lives. However, it is time to face up to the government, the church and everyone else that has seen Nigerians as a soft target, happy to be led astray.

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  15. Very interesting read Michael.

    Truthfully Jesus should be allowed to be the judge of everything. Just because you sin differently from me doesn’t give you a right to call me a sinner and pronounce yourself the righteous one. Sin is sin. Whether homosexuality or lusting after that pretty girl across the street (not to mention going ahead to sleep with her).

    My first time stumbling upon your blog. And i absolutely love it! Cheers

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    1. Hi Mayen, It’s a pleasure to have you here! I agree with you absolutely – I’ve always found the distinction between ‘big sins’ and little ones interesting, because the big ones are always somebody else’s. You’ll probably enjoy some of the other posts like, ‘Have we gone too far?’, ‘Above the clouds’ and ‘The guide to church in Nigeria’. Happy reading!

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