Dispatches

Thumping in the Bible: Sex in the Old Testament

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I
think it was Umberto Eco who said that he dreaded reading the Bible as a teenager, until
he discovered how much sex was in it. He had a point: as early as Genesis 2, God
says, “It is not good for a man to be alone” (a belief I’ve long subscribed to), and he makes
first the animals, then Eve. I’d rather not comment on the order of these events — the

implications are clear to those who want them to be clear — I’d rather point out that Adam
gets a partner in Eden faster than most of us would at a sex addict’s convention.


    

And such is the nature of the Bible as a whole: couplings are common, incest
omnipresent and innuendo aplenty. The Good Book does not lack for good parts,
especially the Old Testament — you just have to sift through endless lists of progeny and
litanies of the scourges inflicted on the Israelites to get to them.


    

Take the story of Abraham and Sarah (originally Abram and Sarai), the second sexually active couple
in Genesis. In the course of a few chapters, Sarah, while pretending to be Abraham’s
sister to protect him, gets abducted into the Pharoah’s harem (bad Pharoah, bad Pharoah),
proves herself to be Abraham’s half-sister, gets released, then gets taken into Abimelech’s
harem (who is warned by God not to go near her), gets released, convinces Abraham to
have a baby (Ishmael) with the maid Hagar, and eventually has a baby with him herself
(Isaac). So much happens so fast in the Bible, that reading it for naughty bits is like trying
to distinguish body parts in scrambled adult channels on TV. If your attention wavers for
even an instant, you risk missing the enchilada.


    

Amid all the wham-bam sex tales in the early books of the Old Testament, the most
interesting involve Lot and his daughters. Lot, you’ll remember, was the one man in
Sodom that the Lord decided to save from the fire and brimstone. So he sends two angels

to Lot’s house to warn him of the destruction and give him instructions for getting himself
and his family out of Dodge. Now the inhabitants of Sodom were not called Sodomites for
nothing, so when they see the two male angels — certified hotties — going into Lot’s house,
they want a piece of the action. “Both old and young, all the people from every quarter”
circle around Lot’s house, banging on his door, calling, “Where are the men which came in
to thee this night? Bring them to us that we may know them.” Among the fabulous
euphemisms for sex in the King James translation, “to know” is one of my favorites. I
envision a mob of sex fiends hemmed in around Antonio Sabato Jr., screaming, “We want
to know you, we just want to know you.” You get the point.


    

Lot realizes he has a difficult situation on his hands. So he goes out to the throng,
locking the door behind him, and says:

“I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters
which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to
them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they
under the shadow of my roof.”

Here is a good example of what can transpire in the course of a few Biblical words.
You scan the line, scan it again, and say to yourself, In place of the angels, did Lot just
offer the crowd his virgin daughters to do with what they will? I mean, being a good host
is nice and all, but that seems a bit extreme. The mind reels — not unproductively — at what
would befall the innocents if they were cast to the awaiting wolves.


    

Thankfully, the angels intervene. They pull Lot back into the house and blind the

Sodomites pressing against the door. Then they facilitate Lot’s exit, with wife and
daughters in tow, but, in their flight across the plain, Lot’s wife makes the mortal mistake
of looking back (like many of us toward old relationships) and is turned into a pillar of salt.


    

Yet the saga of Lot and his daughters is not over. Having fled to the town of Zoar, he
eventually becomes afraid and moves himself and his daughters to the mountains.
Apparently it’s a little underpopulated up there, and his daughters begin to despair of
ever getting nookie. The older says to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a
man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth. Come, let us make our
father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve the seed of the father.”
Ah, the old Get Dad Drunk and Have Him Impregnate Us trick — pretty sneaky, Sis!
So on consecutive nights the daughters get Lot schnookered and go lie with him (again, a
nice euphemism, though not as good as “come in unto”). Lot, the sod, doesn’t seem to
notice either time. Eventually each of his daughters gives birth to a son.


    

Now, mind you, all this has happened in the first twenty pages of the Bible (at least in my
edition). This is some kind of book. By comparison, the first twenty pages of Best
American Erotica 1999
contain nowhere near as much sex, and a fraction of the
scandal. True, conventional erotica tends to have more adjective-heavy descriptions of sex
than one finds in the Holy Book (the Song of Solomon is the exception, as we will see),
but for sheer quantity of nudge nudge, the Bible is up there.


    

By and large, the Old Testament is a very weird document, full of bizarre and rather
unsavory tidbits that the New Testament tried to smooth over. Even God himself had to be
rendered kinder and gentler the second time around, for in the Hebrew books he was
forever casting plagues and famines down on the people, and insisting on himself as a

“consuming fire” and a “jealous God.” In Isaiah 3, for example, the “haughty” daughters
of Zion with their “wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go and making a tinkling
with their feet” will be smote down by the Lord, and he will discover their “secret parts.”
Ooh. Best take off those bangles before it’s too late.


    

But my favorite Old Testament oddity occurs in Deuteronomy 23, where, in a list of
all those who will not make it to Heaven, it is written: “He that is wounded in the
stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.”
Rum thing, not only do you have to go through this life without the priviest of privies, but
the gates of Paradise are closed to you to boot (and the fact that you can sing a decent
falsetto is pretty minor recompense). Yet the intrigue of this passage doesn’t end there:
why, in fact, are the memberless or the crushed-testicled not welcome into the New
Jerusalem? Interesting question. There are numerous medieval theological debates about
whether angels eat and drink, piss and shit (and where it goes if they do), but I’ve
never heard anyone ask if they screw. Yet here is evidence that the celestial
nightclub serves up more than just juice and cookies. Perhaps this is not the venue to
reinscribe us in thirteenth-century scholastic arguments, but the point is still intriguing: if it
was just sex the elect were after, the penis would be enough. But if the balls are also
necessary, this suggests a certain import to the physical male orgasm itself. To my mind,
this complicates Aquinas’ notion that the postprandial material discharge of angels is only a
vapor (but not a flatulence, mind you); for even if we agree that angel excretion is but gas,
what are we to do with angel jizz? I’m sure Aquinas would have said it was some kind of
noumenal hand lotion.




Even in the briefest of introductions to sex in the Old Testament, no account can ignore one of
the most erotic, exquisite texts not just in the Bible, but in the whole history of Western
literature: the Song of Solomon.
In all the reams of Biblical interpretation, this is the text
that has received the most treatment. The reasons are twofold: the Song of Solomon is
sufficiently explicit to be embarrassing to the anti-sensuality of the later Christian church,
and thus required extensive backpedaling. This is the obvious, confessed reason so many
monks spilled their ink on its pages. The other, only slightly less obvious, is that it is very
fun to read, and decidedly arousing, especially if the only other thing you’re reading is
Samuel and Jeremiah’s accounts of the punishments visited upon the wicked.


    

In effect, the Song of Solomon is generally agreed to be a dialogue between two lovers
(although I, for one, detect more than two total speakers, but that truly is a debate

outside our scope), one called Solomon (not necessarily the famous King who appears
elsewhere in the Old Testament), the other his unnamed lover, who, by some accounts, may
have written the piece. Orthodox Christian interpretations attempt to downplay the hot and
heavy eroticism in the Song by saying that the female lover is the Church, Solomon is
Christ and their love is the spiritual union of the material Christian apparatus with the
higher spiritual forces.


    

Yeah right. The Song begins: “The song of songs, which is Solomon’s. Let him kiss me with
the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.” If the point here was supposed
to be that the Church wants to merge itself with the love of Christ the Savior, there
would have been considerably less distracting ways of saying it. No — the Song of
Solomon is a love poem, and the love is a very corporeal one. That it made it into the
foundational book of Christianity is a mystery beyond my comprehension. But, like the
Psalms, here is a part of the Bible that can be read purely for the love of its poetry.


    

I’m touched all the more by the Song for the occasional odd chord it strikes. Such compliments as “thy neck is
like the tower David builded for an armory” or “they hair is as a flock of goats, that
appear from mount Gilead” have perhaps lost some of their charm in the last few thousand
years (a modern adaptation might be: thy hair is like dark-suited businessmen, leaping out
of skyscrapers on Black Monday). And there are moments that seem downright overdone: “My beloved put in his hand by
the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.”


    

For the most part, though, the poem’s imagery is most pleasantly evocative. A few
highlights: the lover says that her beloved “feeds among the lilies” and that her hands,
when she rises up to him, are “dropped with myrrh.” And Solomon, meanwhile, says to her, “Thy
lips, O my spouse, drop as honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue.” And she back
to him: “Blow on my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into
his garden, and eat the pleasant fruits.” Heart be stilled!



Fan though I am, I hadn’t read much of the Bible until I went to graduate school and, on a
rather prolonged lark, decided to become a medievalist. As a result, I found myself a
late twentysomething pagan having to read the whole of the Good Book. I did it straight
through — not quickly, mind you, but steadily. What I discovered between the now
worn-off covers of my Red Letter edition corresponded so minimally to what I had
anticipated I wondered if I had the right religion. The sex and sexual oddities were only
some of the Bible’s unforeseen pleasures (others include the almost James Bond-like
coolness of Christ, the beauty of Paul’s prose, the phenomenal stories of Job and Ruth,
the bombast of Ezekiel, et cetera.). Having now read the entire Bible multiple times over, I am
still a pagan, but I’m all for placing copies in every hotel room. It’s the most
influential book in Western culture, and it’s a lot better than TV.





©1999
Jack
Murnighan and Nerve.com