It’s been a while since we discussed sex on this blog, mostly due to the fact that I have had several good, hard thinks and conversations about the subject and am nearly ready to put some ideas down in writing. I want to start vaguely and then move to specifics.
Conversations about sexuality are much like building a house. It really does no good to argue about the color of the paint or the particular furnishings of the house unless the foundations are discussed and decided upon. Most of the debates I hear about sexuality are more concerned with the furnishings of the house than the foundations of the house itself. Sure, the couch might look nice and be well made, but if it won’t fit through any of the doors, it’s of very little use.
Foundationally speaking, Jews and Christians often look to the same place: Genesis. Genesis begins with the building of a grand house, Creation, and the making of humans to inhabit that house as God’s representatives. These representatives were designed to reflect God’s character, love, and authority into the world, and reflect creation’s praise back to God. This is the idea of the royal priesthood, the role humans were made to fill.
Following this idea through Genesis shows what happens when humans are unfaithful to that calling and cease reflecting God’s character and begin reflecting nature back to itself. At that point, violence, exploitation, the beginnings of empire, power grabbing, greed, and lust all take shape as the story of Genesis continues into the story of Babel.
Abraham is then chosen to be the recipient of the Covenant. God cuts a covenant with Abraham and his family, which sees a dramatic illustration in the strange vision of Genesis 15, where God, as King, takes responsibility for the covenant with Abraham. This covenant is renewed in Exodus at Mt. Sinai where the people are given their royal, priestly vocation and then are told what would happen in case of infidelity on their part followed by God’s promise to redeem them.
After this covenant is cut with Abraham, with circumcision being the sign, the rest of Genesis is interwoven with the theme of sexuality. There are temptations, refusal of duty, lying, almost adultery, fornication, polygamy, and more. It makes more sense in light of Jewish interpretation (provided by Rabbi Sacks in his Covenant and Conversation materials, specifically the podcast “What is the Theme of the Stories of Genesis?” published 12/19/16) which points to the theme of sexual fidelity being parallel to fidelity to God. Marital faithfulness reflects faithfulness to God.
This makes sense as throughout the prophetic writings, the prophets use the image of Israel as the bride of God, which is then echoed in the letters of Paul which often reference the church as the bride of Christ. The idea of marriage being a covenant of faithfulness enacting our faithfulness to God is an ancient one, indeed. Israel’s sin is often couched as one of infidelity, of adultery, by chasing after other gods or putting other objects in the place of God. (See the entire book of Hosea which is a long illustration of this idea.) Reflecting the will of money, sex, power, or the individual led to exploitation, oppression, and violence among God’s people, which God, through the prophets, condemned. The issue at the center, though, was God’s longing to have Israel return to faithful covenant living. (And before anyone is quick to throw blame on the Israelites, we are all guilty of handing over ourselves to objects and drives that are not God. We, too, are called to repent and return to faithfulness.)
Sex is something that does matter to God. It matters as the method of human procreation. It matters as the way marital partners share in the joy of faithful covenant-keeping. It is a crucial part of the grand vocation to reflect God’s character, authority, and order to creation in that our committed faithfulness should reflect God’s own committed faithfulness.
A quick note on circumcision: John Goldingay notes that circumcision is pointedly a male issue. Why? Because in ancient times, as well as now, society has often given men free rein with their sexuality, while women often have been expected to be much more reserved. In part, God is literally cutting the male ego, especially in regards to sex, down to size. (This is not the only interpretation of circumcision, which is primarily the “cutting in” of the covenant illustrated by God marking this people as separate with a particular purpose.)
The foundation for sex is faithfulness. Sex without faithfulness is an exercise in handing our God-given authority to nature. We are called not to succumb to nature, but to rise above it, to join in God’s task of giving more meaning to the act of sex than mere pleasure, or mere procreation, but something deeper, more humble, and far more important.
Sources for this post are: Genesis parts One and Two by John Goldingay, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ various Covenant and Conversation resources, written and in podcast form. (As far as Bible translations used in studying these books, see the JPS version, the NAB, and John Goldingay’s literal translation included in his commentaries.
Photo Credit: Free stock photo of man, couple, love, woman via Pexels