What they don't teach at Sunday school: the joy of Old Testament sex

A new study is set to cause a storm by focusing on the Bible's treatment of sexual matters. Andy McSmith looks into the row – and revisits some of the good book's steamier episodes

In the late stages of the Second World War, Evelyn Waugh was trapped in Europe in the company of Randolph Churchill, the boorish son of the wartime prime minister. "In the hope of keeping him quiet," he wrote to Nancy Mitford, "Freddie and I bet him £20 that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight. Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud... or merely slapping his side & chortling 'God, isn't God a shit!'."

What the younger Churchill was discovering, rather late in life, is that there are some very dark passages in the Old Testament, stories of lust and cruelty that have no obvious moral. Incest, bigamy, rape, mutilation, deceit, loyalty and love can all be found in the Good Book.

Nathan Abrams, from Bangor University, Wales, has now taken the risky step of putting together a book entitled Sex and the Jews, a collection of essays on aspects of Jewish life which he thinks deserve more attention than they have received, such as Yiddish lesbian poetry.

One of the contributions is an essay by Geoffrey Dennis, a rabbi based in north Texas, on Jewish erotic theology, which looks at some of the raunchier passages from the Old Testament. Another American academic, Jay Michaelson, who is openly gay, has contributed an essay on why it is possible to be both an orthodox Jew, and gay, despite a notorious Old Testament verse which lays down that men who sleep with other men should be killed.

Written by different authors, possibly at very different times, the Old Testament can be self-contradictory. The story in 1 Samuel of the friendship between David, the handsome young warrior who has just killed Goliath, and Jonathan, son of King Saul, is often interpreted as a tale of gay love. In one verse, it says: "And it came to pass... that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul." If they were gay lovers, there is no indication that the God of the Old Testament disapproved, a reaction that fits comfortably with modern enlightenment culture.

In other passages, God's attitude to sex seems shockingly repressive, as when, for instance, he pronounces a death sentence on Onan, for pleasuring himself in a way that denied his wife the chance to become pregnant. Hardline theologians might like the idea that all sex is sinful other than for the purpose of procreation, but for the more liberal-minded, it is a tricky story. It arises from a culture in which a woman's standing in the community and sense of self-worth depended heavily on her capacity to produce children.

Dr Abrams, who comes from a Jewish family, was also struck by the curious morality of the Old Testament, as displayed by Lot, a righteous man who offers hospitality to travellers passing through Sodom, and when a mob gathers wanting to rape the men, offers his virgin daughters instead. It is as if the girls' virginity belongs to their father, who is so good that he is prepared to sacrifice this precious possession for the sake of his guests. Later, when the going gets rough, Lot is seduced by those same daughters – another tale of the desperate lengths women went to achieve motherhood.

"I think the lesson to be drawn from this story is about what can happen sometimes when people are set obsessively on a certain path, even if it is the right path," Dr Abrams said. He is now bracing himself for the reaction he can expect to his book, either from traditional Jews or, at the opposite extreme, from people who will see the book as food for their anti-Semitic prejudices.

"I'm not a theologian, and I don't speak for any organisation or community. I just want to start a discussion on issues that might not have been discussed in this detail before. These are serious essays by people who have been studying these subjects for a long time ... These essays haven't been written to shock and they're not sensationalist or purely prurient.

"There are parts of the Jewish community that don't like us airing our dirty laundry in public ... and there are anti-Semites who will like what we are doing. They will say it justifies their view of Jews as sexually corrupting. I don't think these people should stop us having a healthy debate."

The book, published last week by Five Leaves, will have its formal launch on Thursday, when the Jewish Museum is hosting a panel discussion in north London.

The harlot by the roadside

Genesis 38

Judah was the fourth son – and chosen heir – of Jacob and Leah. But he had married a Canaanite, so his three sons were not pure Hebrew; and he had no grandchildren. After his first son had died childless, his widow, Tamar, married Judah's second son, Onan, who also died. Custom dictated that she should then marry the third son, but Judah wanted her out of the family. Tamar, undeterred, disguised herself as a prostitute and waited to seduce Judah as he came in from the fields. Months later, Judah heard that his unwanted daughter-in-law was pregnant and sent for her to be judged and condemned. He discovered, to his surprise, that he had sired an heir in his old age. "She hath been more righteous than I," was his verdict.

Onan

Genesis 38

Another take on the tale of Judah and Tamar. Onan's older brother had sinned, so God killed him. Onan's dad said: "Go in to thy brother's wife and marry her, that thou mayest raise seed to thy brother." In other words, their children would, legally, count as the dead brother's children. Onan disagreed so he "spilled his seed upon the ground... and the Lord slew him, because he did a detestable thing." This has been told to children as a fable of the evils of masturbation, though the text implies all Onan did was commit coitus interruptus.

The Rape of Tamar

2 Samuel 3

King David was a fine king, but his family was dysfunctional. His son, Amnon, conspired with a cousin to seduce Tamar, David's daughter and Amnon's half-sister. When she would not consent to sex, he raped her, and then "hated her with a very great hatred". It seemed at first that he had got away with it, but two years later Absalom, Tamar's brother, invited Amnon to a celebration, got him drunk, and had him killed. In short, a thoroughly depressing tale of Old Testament sex and violence.

Ruth and Boaz

Ruth

This at least is an uplifting love story, though it nearly went wrong. The widow, Ruth, loves Boaz, her husband's relative, but there is a closer relative who is obliged by custom to marry Ruth and perpetuate the dead husband's line. Luckily, he did not want the hassle, so Ruth and Boaz lived happily ever after.

Samson and Delilah

Judges 16

Samson should never have trusted that woman. He should have deduced that she was a spy for the Philistines when she kept pestering him for the secret of his great strength. Three times, he had the sense to tease her by telling a false story; then, in thrall to her charms, he let on that if he had a hair cut, his strength would go. That was his undoing. What happened to the treacherous Delilah, the Bible does not say. But the affair stands as an archetypal case of sexual betrayal.

Lot and his daughters

Genesis 19

The Lot family were having a grand time in the sinful city of Sodom until God rained fire and brimstone upon it, and Lot's wife was turned to a pillar of salt for turning round to watch. Father and daughters wound up in a cave. The two girls started to panic that they would never have children, so conspired to get their virtuous father drunk. The result was that Lot had two sons, Moab and Ben-Ammi.

King Solomon's concubines

Kings 11

Solomon may have been wise, but he was sexually insatiable. He "loved many foreign women, as well as the daughters of Pharaoh; women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites... and he had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines" – and the Queen of Sheba. Some of these seemed to encourage him to worship other gods; the Lord sent enemies against Israel as a punishment.

David and Bathsheba

Samuel 2

While David's men were finishing off the Ammonites, the King stayed in Jerusalem and got bored. Wandering about on the roof, he saw a beautiful woman bathing, and ordered that she be sent to his bedroom. She was Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite. When she became pregnant, David tried to cover up his sin by recalling Uriah from the front, but Uriah, a conscientious soldier, would not sleep with his wife while his comrades were at risk. David made secret arrangements for Uriah to be killed in battle, and married Bathsheba. Later, he felt terrible, and repented.

The rape of Dinah

Genesis 34

While the Jews were in Canaan, Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, paid a call on a neighbouring tribe, the Hivites. While doing so, she was raped by a young nobleman called Shechem – although the word "rape" is not used in standard English translations, and there is some scholarly dispute about it. Afterwards, Shechem wanted to marry Dinah, and he and his father, Hamor, visited Jacob's tent to open negotiations. Jacob's s sons intervened to insist that their sister could not marry into a tribe where the men were uncircumcised. Amazingly, Shechem went back to his tribe and persuaded all the men to go through this operation. But no marriage ensued. While they were weakened by pain, Dinah's brothers, Simeon and Levi, massacred them all and took her home.

The Levite's concubine

Judges 19

Why a Levite, his concubine and his servant were travelling from Bethlehem back to their homes in the hills of Ephraim is a complex tale in itself. What concerns us here is that, on their way, they stayed over in Gibeah, where they lodged for the night with an old Ephraimite they had met along the way. During the night a mob, with homosexual rape in mind, surrounded the house and demanded that the Levite be sent out.

The host offered them his virgin daughter and the concubine instead; eventually the poor concubine was thrown to the mob. At dawn the Levite found her either dead or comatose on the doorstep. He took her inside and cut her up into 12 pieces. A peculiarly brutal tale.

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