Newsweek's Lisa Miller Hypes 'New Scholarship' on Bible's View of Human Sexuality

Leave it to the religion writer who sees the Jesus of the Bible as "typically cranky" to give credence to "scholars" who argue the Bible considers gay and/or premarital sex perfectly kosher.

In her February 6 post, "What the Bible Really Says About Sex," Miller noted that "[t]wo new books written by university scholars for a popular audience try to answer this question.":

Jennifer Wright Knust and Michael Coogan mine the Bible for its earthiest and most inexplicable tales about sex—Jephthah, who sacrifices his virgin daughter to God; Naomi and Ruth, who vow to love one another until death—to show that the Bible’s teachings on sex are not as coherent as the religious right would have people believe.




With their books, they hope to steal the conversation about sex and the Bible back from the religious right. “The Bible doesn’t have to be an invader, conquering bodies and wills with its pronouncements and demands,” Knust writes. “It can also be a partner in the complicated dance of figuring out what it means to live in bodies that are filled with longing.”

Miller continued by summarizing the arguments of Knust and Coogan yet failing to quote at length any conservative theologian to dispute or criticize their conclusions.

For example, Miller claims that in the Old Testament:

Husbands, in essence, owned their wives, and fathers owned their daughters, too. A girl’s virginity was her father’s to protect—and to relinquish at any whim. Thus Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the angry mob that surrounds his house in Sodom.

Of course conservative scholars might note that  the account of Lot fleeing from Sodom is not prescriptive of the sort of marital and family life that one should strive for. Subsequent to fleeing from God's judgment of Sodom, Genesis records that Lot's daughters took turns seducing their drunken father and bearing children as a result of that union. Those children went on to father pagan nations that were enemies of the Israelites.

Lot is hardly an exemplary character worthy of emulation, he's much more a cautionary account.

Miller continued to confuse narrative accounts as giving license for the activity described:

The Bible is stern and judgmental on sex. It forbids prostitution, adultery, premarital sex for women, and homosexuality. But exceptions exist in every case, Knust points out. Tamar, a widow without children, poses as a whore and solicits her own father-in-law—so that he could “come into” her. Her desire to ameliorate her childlessness trumps the prohibition against prostitution.

Elsewhere, Miller observed that "[i]n the Bible, 'traditional marriage' doesn’t exist. Abraham fathers children with Sarah and his servant Hagar. Jacob marries Rachel and her sister Leah, as well as their servants Bilhah and Zilpah."

All those things are true, but a cursory read of Genesis shows that those marital arrangements produced all manner of strife, jealousy, discord, and violence that harmed not only the individuals involved but subsequent generations of their offspring.

These are all points that could be capably described by a theologian with a greater command of the topic than I, yet Miller gave readers just two brief quotes from conservative scholars, including the following from the penultimate paragraph of her story (emphasis mine):

A person alone on her couch with Scripture can also come to some dangerous conclusions: the Bible has, at certain times in history, been read to support slavery, wife-beating, kidnapping, child abuse, racism, and polygamy. That’s why Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that citadel of Christian conservatism, concludes that one’s Bible reading must be overseen by the proper authorities. Just because everyone should read the Bible “doesn’t mean that everyone’s equally qualified to read it, and it doesn’t mean that the text is just to be used as a mirror for ourselves,” he says. “All kinds of heresies come from people who read the Bible and recklessly believe that they’ve understood it correctly.” As the word of God, he adds, the Bible isn’t open to the same level of interpretation as The Odyssey or The Iliad.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is a writer living in New Carrollton, Md.