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Family Values Meets Disturbing Biblical Role Models in 'God and Sex'

Loggia di Raffaello's Adam and Eve banished from Eden (partial)

The Good Book is full of inconsistencies, and its protagonist holds a powerful grudge against the men and women made in his own image.

God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says

Publisher: Hatchette
Length: 236 pages
Author: Michael Coogan
Price: $24.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-10

Professor Coogan teaches Scripture: "I am sometimes asked by relatives and students to suggest biblical passages for use at their weddings, but few are appropriate." If God wrote Holy Writ, he did so as a "forgetful" writer -- and a "terrible" one. Not only is the Good Book full of inconsistencies, but its protagonist holds a powerful grudge against the men and women made in his own image. Coogan's quick, clear, and no-nonsense pages explain "what the Bible really says". No wonder that brides and grooms can find little in either Hebrew writings or Christian testament to celebrate married, monogamous, and licitly carnal love.

In the Bible sinless romance occurs rarely; for ancient societies obsessed with patriarchy and paternity, women count as chattel. Bought and sold by their fathers, tossed away by their betrothed, denigrated by their Creator, women's rank can be summed up in the Tenth Commandment. As Coogan reminds us, coveting our neighbor's wife ranks second, after envying our neighbor's house. Real estate took precedence, and women as wives -- while ranked ahead of the male and female servants, and the oxen next door -- nevertheless mattered far more as breeders than as beloved.

Coogan's chapters, arranged with more care than much of Scripture, show few inconsistencies. He begins by analyzing "to know in the biblical sense". This phrase conveys the truth that the ancients knew: sexual intimacy conveys a deeper understanding of our partner. He shows where indirect terms for sexual intercourse lurk. When I studied the Book of Ruth in my Catholic high school, I was puzzled why widowed Ruth "uncovered the feet" of her wealthy relative, Boaz, to "lay at his feet until dawn". This did not sound very romantic.

Coogan explains that the term for "feet" often disguised "genitals". Likewise, Delilah caused Samson to "sleep at her knees", so this implies that she post-coitally cut off his hair to unman his vigor. That passage now makes sense. The woman (not Mary Magdalene although often assumed to be her) who knelt at the feet of her master, Jesus, to bathe and kiss his feet, may cloak innuendo. A "hand" in Hebrew terminology may mean an erection.

Even an artificial phallus -- via a clever Hebrew pun on this implement as "re-member-ance" -- enters the metaphorical arsenal with which wanton Israel's personified as an impious, pagan slattern. Reticence began to take over for biblical writers no less than most moderns. Persistent textual ambiguity cautions us not to transfer our contemporary interpretations back to every venerable passage in Scripture.

On this basis, Coogan takes us through subjects that limit the status of women. Widows, virgins, celibates, the Virgin Mary, and the public and domestic roles of women define her subordination. Coogan minimizes feminist attempts to find a wealth of positive portrayals. The extended celebration in the Book of Proverbs of the ideal woman turns out to be a model demonstration, as in a home economics text for teen girls once upon a desert time, of how a housewife should act.

The Bible changes little from Jewish to early Christian eras in depicting women. They remain under men's dominance. A static rather than dynamic condition continues, while males find obedience exacted from a God who enforces his side of every bargain or contract. Such legal distinctions permeate this ancient world: sex is one more realm to police and enforce.

Abortion, arranged marriages, endogamy and exogamy, polygamy, and divorce next gain attention. In the Gospels, the situation of divorce narrows; Jesus challenges rabbinic authority by being more conservative than his forebears in regard to divorce. That Jesus never married, an unusual status for an adult Jewish male, makes for its own ambiguity. Coogan brushes aside speculation as to the sexuality of Jesus, mistrusting whatever imaginative scenarios for same-sex or Magdalene-compatible love that later storytellers contrive.

Adultery, sex within family boundaries, prohibited relationships, and rape and prostitution earn study. The utter brutality of the murder of Dinah and the tossing aside of Tamar, both entangled within conniving and cruel scenarios that recall gang-rape and "honor" killings, one-night stands and sleazy cover-ups remind us of the less-edifying chapters of the Bible. Yet, less commonly preached examples of role models: seductive murderesses as freedom fighters Jael and Judith; Jephthah's doomed virgin daughter; or two ancestors of David and Jesus, the Jericho prostitute Rahab and the one-time prostitute Tamar, endure.

However, again contrary to recent attempts by liberal scholars wishing to find a freer non-normative sexuality within the margins of Scripture, Coogan holds that "temple" or "cult" prostitution did not likely exist. The Hebrews attributed to their enemies whatever aberrations in diet or ritual or sex that the Chosen People feared. Within the cultures around Palestine, Coogan cannot find evidence for ritual prostitution in the worship of a god or goddess.

The book finds its strongest footing when exploring same-sex relationships. Coogan emphasizes how "male homoerotic relationships" as we know them lacked the same equivalents that gay activists strive to place them in, alongside heterosexual ones, today. The modern notion of "homosexuality" lacking, Coogan cannot substantiate earnest defenses of Jonathan and David's love "more wonderful than the love of women" as the predecessor in sanctioned Scripture for Adam and Steve at a courthouse in a few states on recent mornings. Coogan sets such "love" as better matched to covenantal rhetoric used in treaties, a form of male-bonding in a society that -- as in segregated cultures now- - keeps apart men and women in public, and which puts down women as inferior to men, especially prior to marriage.

Scriptural support for male sexual relationships appears elusive. (Lesbians as free from issues of patriarchy or paternity went unmentioned in the Hebrew Bible.) That is, male-male sexual references existed in the codes of Leviticus as one example of "category confusion". Wearing clothes woven from different types of yarn, plowing with two different species of animals, cross-dressing: these along with a man who was penetrated, and thus "feminized" by another man, all occupy the realm of mixed natural categories. For Hebrews obsessed by keeping order, and avoiding contamination, Coogan sets "sex between men" as no more "intrinsically wrong" than "wearing clothing made from wool and linen", if we are to insist (as Christian fundamentalists and "Torah-true" Jews do today) that "divinely given prohibitions are eternally binding".

Coogan reminds the reader that we cannot pick and choose which prohibitions from Leviticus to obey and which to discard. However, I wondered about the relevance of Paul's famous vision of what was non-kosher which was given him to lawfully eat under the new dispensation; as with Mary Douglas' theory on purity vs. danger as the solution to the mysteries of categories here, Coogan's lack of crucial contexts appears odd.

His book can shorten what needs expansion as a foundation for his swift arguments. The basis of these chapters as lectures may account for some of this concision. This book moves very rapidly. While summations of bible stories are necessary for non-specialists or the less devout, their length did subtract, given only two hundred pages are devoted to this vast topic, from the usefulness of this text. Coogan appends endnotes referring to monographs, so this compression may have been a compromise to keep this an admirably calm and jargon-free overview.

Although the actual Hebrew and Greek terms are rarely discussed per se by Coogan, he shows how translations mislead us. For instance, the King James version chooses "whores" and "sodomites" where a nuanced version closer to the Hebrew would render "not holy women" and "not holy men", "Kadosh" means holy, but also "set apart". This typical word-play in the original language itself upends the categories that dominate the traditional Jewish worldview of an ordered creation within a covenantally faithful Israel who must keep up its bargains with Yahweh, or else face doom, deportation, and the dispersal of its women to her enemies. The casting of Israel as an unfaithful consort makes for some of the harshest, and most explicit, condemnations within sexual terminology used in the Bible, terms that in many versions find euphemism.

Yahweh himself enters the final chapter "Fire in the Divine Loins: God's Wives in Myth and Metaphor". He earns his own textual disguise. The recent discovery of a site where "I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah" was scrawled above graffito of a phallic god arm in arm with his goddess, "his divine wife," reminds us of the prehistory of what became -- as the Hebrews tried to separate themselves into a category totally apart from their neighbors and foes -- a single, angry, paranoid Lord.

The "naked wives of Yahweh" stripped and mocked in front of men in the Book of Ezekiel are a late attribution to this early allegory, where the most patriarchal Father of all controlled his women. He punished his wayward daughters. He banished his unfaithful wives. While he may forgive his fallen women and take them back, he never seems to forget.

Concluding, Coogan chides any who rely on the Bible "as an anthology of proof texts to be cherry-picked for scriptural support for preconceived conclusions." He confronts us with "an insanely jealous and abusive husband" as part of God's role. For those who regard the Bible as the ultimate authority, such evidence cannot be dismissed if other passages (such perhaps as those of Leviticus often cited?) are asserted as relevant now as three thousand years ago. "Family values," in the Bible, provide disturbing role models for us.

Coogan encourages an alternate interpretation. As the U.S. Constitution originated with a different understanding of slavery, or the role of women, than what we accept today, so with the Bible. A fundamentalist, literal, "originalist" dogmatism denies Scripture's evolution to catch up to current society. By a communal consensus, the United States developed wider interpretations for the Constitution than those initially codified. Similarly, Coogan urges "liberty and justice for all" within a more forgiving, and more lovingly liberating, version of a flexible, adaptive teaching that can more truly enlighten its believers today.


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