Saturday, October 31, 2015

Evil is Spelled S-E-X (Part 2): The Twisting of Stories About Violence, Abuse of Power, and Justice to be About Sex

This is Part Two of a two-part series. You can find the first part here.

In the first part, I made my case that Conservative Christianity - Evangelicalism - considers sex to be the one sin that matters, and sexual rules to be the one issue that is beyond nuance or discussion. In this part, I look at the way that Bible stories have been (mis)used to enforce a particular view of sexuality. In particular, they have been used to claim that homosexuality is the worst of all sins, and that female "seductiveness" is a close second. 

Growing up Evangelical gave me quite a background in the stories of the Bible. From an early age, my parents taught me. I am pleased to report that they also read to me from the actual source, not just storybooks, so I heard the original Bible (in translation of course) with all the beauty and ugliness in the originals. So let me be clear that when I talk about the spin on these stories, I am not primarily complaining about my parents, who I feel were more balanced than average.

However, I also heard these stories elsewhere, with particular meanings attached to them. And, in some cases, my parents, too, followed the most common Evangelical teaching.

It was later, in my teens, that I spent much more time reading the Bible just by myself. I read it twice through all the way then, and revisited some parts far more times than that. So, I would say that I am pretty familiar with the book, although I am obviously not a theologian or a biblical scholar. In researching this post, I have read a good number of potential interpretations, from some different denominational traditions. One of my treasured books in my own collection is G. Campbell Morgan's epic 1926 work, Life Applications from Every Chapter of the Bible. 

Another part of my research over the last few years has concerned the culture of the Ancient Near East, with a particular focus on the laws of the time. (Hey, I'm a lawyer...) In particular, the laws related to inheritance, protection of widows, ownership of property, and those related to women in general are key to understanding the meaning of the stories. Levirate Marriage, for example, makes no sense to a modern world, but made perfect sense in its own culture. One of the most important facets of the law to understand in this context is the fact that women were, for most purposes, the legal property of men, and that they did not have sexual agency in the sense we understand it today. Their bodies were available to be bought and sold by men. (See my blog post for more on this.) On the other hand, there were laws in place to ensure that women were not discarded once they grew old, and to provide for them after they were widowed. It is in light of these legal facts that one must read the stories from that time and place in history, not our present laws and cultural baggage. 

It began to occur to me beginning with my teen years (when I first read the Bible cover to cover) that some of the stories were being assigned meanings that they didn’t appear to have, when read in historical context. Or even sometimes just by themselves. I have since noticed that some of these interpretations have become particularly popular among preachers with patriarchal agendas, thus confirming to me the way that Evangelical teachings on sex are often inseparable from a particular view of male authority. (I hope to blog on this in the future.) Bill Gothard was, of course, a supremely skilled twister of scripture, and I will point out some of his worst ones in the course of this post. However, some of these are more mainstream, dating back as far as centuries. Still, it seems to me that there has been a trend over the last few decades toward imposing sexual and often gendered meanings on stories, a trend which may well be due to Gothard's influence on Evangelicalism over the last forty years. It's not just that the stories have been sexualized, but that the other themes are ignored.

I decided to start listing stories that seemed to be misinterpreted, and noticed that a lot of them appeared to be about violence, abuse of power, justice, or a combination of those, but were twisted to be about sex. Furthermore, many of these seemed to be originally about the violence of males, but were then made to be about the sexuality of females. The end result is that modern American Evangelicalism doesn't seem to believe that the Bible really has much to say to us about violence, abuse of power, or justice. At least not things that would cause us to change our behavior.

Here are some examples that I found:

1.The Flood

I remember being vaguely aware of the belief that the flood occurred because humans had gotten too evil. Just somehow, too evil. And then, I remember the reference to Lamech. That’s a good reference, actually, but the focus was on the fact that he had two wives. Ooo! Bigamy! That’s sex.

And then, later, it became popular to talk about the Nephilim.

If you want to go down a rabbit hole, google that one. Regardless of whether you believe in the Genesis stories as literal history, or legend and parable, at least one can agree that terms “Sons of God” and “Daughters of Men” isn’t exactly a clear concept. Certainly, enough ink has been spilled about possible interpretations. Since Genesis is an older book, even by Biblical standards, it seems quite possible that we cannot find a clear, infallible meaning for this bit.

That never stops some people, however, from proclaiming that they know what this means. Hence the interpretation that this meant that the "Nephilim" were demons who were bonking human women, leading to evil half-breeds of gigantic size. (Never mind Christ’s teaching about angels not marrying…) Combine this with the references to well known apocryphal legends by Saint Jude a few millennia later, and you can pull out this cause and effect thing. God didn’t like this whole interspecies sex thing (an analogy to homosexuality, naturally), so he went and flooded the earth.

This interpretation is endorsed by none other than Douglas Wilson, by the way, in his explanation for why same sex marriage is “far worse” than slavery.

There is a bit of a problem, however: the text itself.

God tells Noah to build the ark, and then explains to him why he wants to destroy the earth.

“I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.”


That doesn’t look so much like a sexual problem as a violence problem.

And how about that Lamech fellow? Taking a couple of wives wasn’t a big deal in that culture. Heck, Abraham had a few, and so did Jacob, and King David, and others. But Lamech was famous for something else. His story is appended to the one about Cain murdering Abel. I believe this is no accident. What does Lamech say? Who does he say it to?

Adah and Zillah, listen to me;
   wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
   a young man for injuring me.

Speaking to his wives, interestingly enough. “Hey, someone messed with me, and I murdered his sorry carcass!” I strongly suspect Adah and Zillah tiptoed a bit around Lamech after that, don’t you?

So, the problem that caused the flood wasn’t just “evil” in some disembodied sense, and it wasn’t sexuality.

It was violence.

This makes even more sense if the surrounding chapters are taken as a unit. Starting with Cain and Abel, some of humanity takes the violent path of Cain - including his descendant Lamech. The violence, fueled by honor culture and testosterone, escalates until mankind’s every thought is toward evil - violence and revenge - all the time.

    2. Sodom and Gomorrah

I dealt with this one at length in my post on the late Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, so I won’t repeat myself at length. In summary, however, a story of violence and rape has been converted into a story about homosexuality. This despite the Bible revealing why Sodom was destroyed - and it wasn’t sex.

"'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

The passage goes on to state that Israel was even more wicked than Sodom. The entire chapter is interesting. It does contain a lot of sex - and pretty graphic stuff. But the "sex" isn’t about sex. The "sex" is a metaphor for idolatry and foreign alliances. And about justice, as stated in the above passage.

The fact that an unjust Israel was considered to be more wicked than Sodom says something. Contrary to the fear-mongering about homosexuality that is endemic to Evangelicalism these days, shouldn't we be more concerned about whether we are seeking justice? If we worry God will smite our nice little nation, won't it be for the ways we oppress others, not for sexuality? 

If you want to look them up, there are further allusions to Sodom in the Old Testament, and they all refer to issues of violence, hypocrisy, and justice. Isaiah 1:10-17 (violence and injustice), Jeremiah 23:14 (clergy having affairs and supporting evildoers), Zephaniah 2:8-11 (boasting and taunting). Look it up...

So, again, a story that is about violence, power, and justice becomes about sexuality in the Evangelical telling.

    3. Lot and his daughters

This isn’t a story you hear in church much. Lot, the so-called righteous man of the previous story, doesn’t take the fact that his wife is now NaCl particularly well, but goes and hides in a cave. The passage makes clear that fear is his motivation.

Lot’s daughters are none too happy about this. Whether they knew they have been nearly fed to a violent mob isn’t clear, but I suspect they didn’t feel all that confident that Lot had their best interests at heart. In any case, they want children.


The answer makes sense in light of the economic and social system of the time. The daughters basically belonged to Lot as his chattel. They had no future ("our father is old") and no options outside of marriage. Once Lot died, they would be at the mercy of starvation or prostitution or whatever they could do with themselves. The property would revert to the nearest male relative - presumably Abraham or Isaac. If they wanted to be supported in their old age, they needed to have children while they still could. Since their father seemed uninterested in doing justice to his daughters by finding them husbands, they took matters into their own hands (and other places), getting themselves pregnant by their father.

A sordid story, to be sure. But is the point really that Lot’s daughters were sluts? Or was the point that Lot was failing to do justice to his daughters? I believe it was the latter rather than the former. In fact, there is a story later in Genesis that has some similarities that can shed light on this one. (See below)

But that didn't stop anyone from making this story about how Lot failed to raise his daughters to be chaste, and that their lustiness gave us the Moabites and Ammonites - enemies of Israel. That is the only interpretation I have ever heard preached. Of course it can't mean that parents shouldn't let their own fears stand in the way of their children's future. 

    4. Dinah

I mention this one specifically because Bill Gothard uses this as a central vignette in his teaching on why women shouldn’t be allowed out in the world (education or employment) without male supervision.

So, Dinah is Jacob’s daughter (at least the only one to be mentioned), and she goes out to the town to visit the local women. Shechem, the entitled son of the ruler of the city, gets horny and rapes her. But, he isn’t all bad (at least according to the standards of the time), as he offers to marry her - and pay a big bride price too. Apparently, he is smitten with her. Furthermore, his father offers to live in peace with Jacob’s clan and trade with them. Not a bad offer, as far as that goes.

Dinah’s brothers, however, are every bit as arrogant and entitled as Shechem. They are furious that he didn’t come and grovel before dad and brothers before taking a woman as his own. Not the proper deference shown to someone as great as Jacob. So, they deceitfully insist that the town get circumcised first. Then, while all the men are laid up with bleeding penises, they go in and slaughter every male adult and child in the town. Yikes!

Oh, and they also plunder the town, taking the property - and yes, the women too - for their own. Jacob understandably realizes this wasn’t a particularly politic move. But his sons aren’t repentant. Shechem should have realized Dinah wasn’t there for the taking - he should have groveled first.

Again, this is apparent once you understand the culture of the time.

Now, for Gothard, the lesson is that women can’t be let loose alone among men, because men will lose control of themselves around a beautiful women, and will end up taking her. Thus, women should (as in some Islamic states) be accompanied by a man at all times, so that she is “protected” from all those horny men. (In retrospect, considering Gothard’s own inability to avoid sexually assaulting and harassing young women, this teaching should have been a huge red flag. But it wasn’t. For decades, Evangelicals generally supported Gothard and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on his seminars and materials.)

I strongly disagree with Gothard’s reading of this story. Even in the culture of the time, it seems that Dinah did nothing wrong. Shechem was a jerk, but he tried to make it right. (In fact, he did exactly what the Mosaic law would prescribe a few hundred years later.)

A better interpretation of this is that Jacob’s sons were inexcusably violent, exacting not justice, but revenge. They are following the ways of Lamech. (Remember him?)

So, once again, a story about violence and justice is turned into one about sex.

    5. Judah and Tamar

This is the story that sheds light on the story of Lot’s daughters. Judah has three sons. The first, Er, marries Tamar, a local girl. Er is apparently a nasty dude, so God snuffs him.

Then, an ancient law comes into play, one we don’t really get in our modern times. Er’s younger brother Onan was supposed to marry Tamar. Why would that be? Well, remember that her only possible retirement plan was a child. (This is why being childless wasn’t just sad, it was terrifying.) The first son born to Tamar would inherit Er’s property, and take care of Tamar. (Any subsequent children would belong to Onan.)

Now, Onan wasn’t happy about this. For two reasons. First, he doesn’t seem thrilled about taking on his brother’s wife and expending time caring for his brother’s “offspring.” But he has another incentive: the first born got a bigger portion of the father’s property. If Er doesn’t have any legal “descendants,” guess who gets that share? That’s right, Onan does!

So Onan goes and spills his semen on the ground rather than risk losing the money he thinks should be his.

God isn’t too happy about this, so he smites Onan as well.

Why would God do that?

Presumably, levirate marriage (or sex) isn’t the point. I strongly doubt God would have wanted me to sleep with my sister-in-law if my brother had died without children. Isn’t it more likely that Onan’s transgression was that he refused to do justice to Tamar?

Before I go on with the story, let me mention that this story typically makes its way into Evangelical sermons only to allegedly show that masturbation is wrong. (See "onanism" as a term for masturbation.) Never mind that Onan is practicing coitus interruptus, not masturbating. The point of the story is justice, not sex.

The story moves on. Tamar waits for a while, because Judah promises her the third son, Shelah. However, Judah is a bit gun shy, after two sons have been divinely whacked. So he fails to fulfill his promise. Tamar isn't stupid, and she realizes she is being done wrong.

Tamar is enterprising, so she disguises herself as a shrine prostitute, and waits for Judah to come by. Judah can’t resist the temptation, so he offers her a goat for her “services.” She exacts his seal and staff in security for his promise.

Later, she turns up pregnant, and Judah, a little slow on the uptake, is furious. He is about to burn her to death for having sex (got to love the double standard), but she produces the staff and seal, and he realizes that she is “more righteous” than he is.

What changed? The fact that she had sex? Not so much. Judah realizes that he has failed to show justice to his daughter-in-law. Deprived of justice, she takes matters into her own hands (and other parts), and obtains what she is due: an heir and a share of the inheritance.

So, once again, this story is about justice, not sex per se. The lesson isn’t “don’t masturbate” or “don’t be a prostitute or sleep with prostitutes.” The lesson is “do justice to those to whom it is due, particularly the vulnerable - like widows.”

This story also shows why Lot was unjust to his daughters. He owed them the chance at offspring and a future, and he deprived them of it. Like Tamar, they were not being “sluts.” They were “more righteous” than Lot. In fact, as Judah realizes about Tamar, she is “more righteous,” not in spite of the fact she had sex, but because she sought justice through it.

Just a side note: if this interpretation of the lesson of these stories is correct, then Gothard (and other patriarchists) have a lot to answer for, as they have advised parents to deprive their daughters of education and choice in partners, and thus limit their ability to provide for their own futures.

Another note on this: the Evangelical interpretation does date back pretty far. St. Jerome may have started it. However, one should note exactly why they took this view. Aristotle (and others of his time) believed that sperm was literally "seed." As in, it contained a fully formed tiny human (the "homonculus" in later alchemist writings) that was "planted" in the woman to grow. According to Aristotle, if the woman's womb did a good job, the seed would grow into a male. If something was less than optimal, the seed would grow into a female, which Aristotle believed to be an insufficiently developed - or defective - male. 

So, in this view, spilling the "seed" was kind of like abortion. It killed perfectly good tiny humans. So any sexual act that did not result in sperm in a vagina was wasteful, and thus forbidden. Hmm. Even though we now understand egg and sperm, you can see echoes this ancient belief in the current debate over birth control (see my previous installment) and in some weird theories about dead babies embedded in the uterus. (Hello, Kevin Swanson - no relation to me.)  

And, I can't resist a Monty Python clip about this very topic.


    6. Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

Despite John Piper’s attempt to make this about women being seductive (see my post here - which analyzes the story in more detail), this is a story about an abuse of power. Potiphar’s wife attempts to obtain sex from a slave using her power, then, when he physically resists being raped - to the point he abandons his garment and runs away naked! - she has him thrown into the dungeon for several years until a miracle saves him.

That isn’t a story about sex - and certainly not about how bad it is when women want or seek sex - but one about power, and injustice.

7. The concubine in Judges 19.

This story is a good analogue to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Except the ending is even worse. While Lot offers his virgin daughters to be gang raped, the offer is refused. I’m sure the daughters were glad about that. 

In the Judges story, the concubine is offered. And not just that, she is shoved out the door, and then abused and raped by the mob until she dies, hand grasping at the door. 

Again, yikes! The cavalier attitude toward the lives and bodies of women in the Ancient Near East was downright appalling, to say the least. In any case, just like in the story of Sodom, it is a stretch to make this story about sexuality, rather than violence and injustice. Note that the owner of the concubine cuts up her body and sends the pieces across the land as an object lesson. What might that lesson be? Not completely sure, but maybe something along the lines of “mankind is so violent in this land that they cannot be satiated until they murder a woman”?

This story is merely one example of the horrible ways that women are mistreated in the Old Testament. Anyone who thinks that the world would be a better place if we literally returned to the laws and culture of that time is either in denial - or perhaps a sociopath.

    8. David and Bathsheba

I addressed this one in part in one of my posts on Doug Phillips. (It's buried in the middle.) My point there was that the only reason this story is about adultery is that Bathsheba was already married. Had she been single, David could have taken her as his wife - or concubine - at will. It only became adultery because she was another man’s property already. (A fact made clear by the story that the prophet Nathan tells David.)

There is another facet to this too, however. In Evangelical tellings, all too often Bathsheba is portrayed as a shameless hussy, appearing naked where a man might see her, and willingly sleeping with David, then callously standing by as her husband is murdered.

In other words, she is assigned at least half the blame.

In context of the culture, however, it quickly becomes clear that she is not only not at fault, but is the victim of an abuse of power.

She isn’t out slutting around naked. She is ritually cleansing herself after her menstruation. Of course she is outside. Only the very richest would have had anything resembling indoor plumbing. She was doing precisely what the Mosaic law required her to do. She was innocent.

Speaking of innocence, when an king of the ancient world sent for you, you couldn’t exactly refuse. And if he wanted to sleep with you, he had the army to back him up. Not that women in that culture even believed they had the option of saying no in most cases. In any case, she was “taken” by the king, and that was that.

David, now realizing he had knocked up another man’s wife, tries to get the husband to cover up for him. Uriah will have none of it, so David murders Uriah.

Again, does this really look like a story about sex? Or is it one of abuse of power, entitlement, and murder. Is the point that women need to be careful lest men get horny? Or that women are always there to entice one into adultery?

Or is it that men who wish to abuse their power can rape and murder and commit adultery - and only a true prophet would risk his head to tell the king off?

But the sermons I have heard have tended to focus on just a few things. The patriarchists emphasize both Bathsheba’s supposed “immodesty” and the fact that David wasn’t off at war, like a “manly man” would have been. Both of these assume that once David saw the “slut,” he was helpless. In the more general Evangelical sense, the emphasis is always on the adultery. I can’t remember ever hearing one about the sense of entitlement and power that motivated David. This would seem to be more apropos, considering the endless stream of preachers who go after vulnerable parishioners - often much younger and less powerful. The problem isn’t primarily sex - but the love of power and the sense of entitlement.

    9. Amnon and Tamar

It appears to be bad luck (at least in the Bible) to have been named Tamar. Both were victims of injustice. (Weird coincidence: if I had been a girl, I would have been a Tammy. Close call, that...)

In this story, Amnon and Tamar are half-siblings, the offspring of King David. One thing most sermons do get right is that David’s “fling” with Bathsheba probably did lead to the later disintegration of his family. But not for the usual reasons given. Usually, you hear that it was his inability to control his sexual urges that led to his family failing to respect him. That’s ludicrous. David was no more or less promiscuous than any other powerful man of his time. He had multiple wives before Bathsheba, and nobody questioned it - including Nathan, who told him he could have had many more women had he asked.

The reason that David’s adultery - and the subsequent murder - led to the disintegration of his family is that his sons learned the entitled attitude and cavalier approach to the rights of others from him. Absalom rebelled, because he was a pretty boy and the people liked him. Why should he not seize what he was entitled to? Also, since his dad didn’t step in to defend Tamar (see below), why should he respect him?

Amnon shows his sense of entitlement another way. He gets horny for his half-sister. She tries to dissuade him from raping her, but he goes ahead and does it anyway. To add injury to insult, he then casts her away, rather than marrying her. This was doubly problematic, since, as a non-virgin, she had limited marketability, and she now had nobody motivated to care for her after David’s death. Except Absalom, her full sibling. Since David doesn’t step in, Absalom kills Amnon. One can only speculate about how life was for Tamar - a now tainted and unmarriageable woman - after Absalom’s death, but it probably wasn’t pleasant. 

Once again, this is a violent story. A violent rape, followed by a retaliatory killing after justice is denied. To make this primarily about sex - incest - is to ignore the violence and entitlement, and to shift the blame from where it belonged, an entitled and violent man, to a woman who had no say in her fate.

11. Nineveh

This city is best known in the Bible from the Jonah story. Nineveh (the capital city of Assyria) was wicked, so God sent Jonah to preach to them. Jonah, not the nicest guy exactly, didn’t want to go. Why? Because he wanted to see Nineveh destroyed, and if he did his job, they would repent, and not be destroyed. Enter giant fish, etc.

It isn’t too hard to find, in the plethora of illustrations of the story, many that depict prostitutes in the background or foreground as Jonah stands preaching to the Ninevites. There is definitely a feeling that their sin is in good part sexual. This isn’t a universal, but it is definitely there in large part.

But was sex really Nineveh’s sin?

Well, did you know that there is an entire book of the Bible (in addition to Jonah) that is about Nineveh? That would be Nahum. The prophet Nahum talked a pretty good bit of smack about Nineveh. And it is worth reading.

Again, like Ezekiel, he makes use of a sexual metaphor, accusing Nineveh of prostitution. And you know what? The meaning is the same: Nineveh is pursuing alliances with other nations so that she can continue her violence against others.

Some key passages:

Woe to the city of blood,
   full of lies,
full of plunder,
   never without victims!
The crack of whips,
   the clatter of wheels,
galloping horses
   and jolting chariots!
Charging cavalry,
   flashing swords
   and glittering spears!
Many casualties,
   piles of dead,
bodies without number,
   people stumbling over the corpses –
all because of the wanton lust of a prostitute,
   alluring, the mistress of sorceries,
who enslaved nations by her prostitution
   and peoples by her witchcraft.


All who hear the news about you
   clap their hands at your fall,
for who has not felt
   your endless cruelty?

It is no mystery why these words were spoken. The Assyrians were - by all definitions - one of the most cruel and violent empires of the ancient world - and that is saying something. Their reputation went before them, and the impaled bodies were left behind. 

The problem with Nineveh wasn’t sex. It was violence.

(By the way, kudos to the Veggie Tales guys for choosing “slapping each other with fishes” as a good explanation of Nineveh's sin in their Jonah movie. A Monty Python reference and an kid-sized metaphor for violence!) 

Mr. Lunt and Pa Grape face "The Slap of No Return" in Jonah.

    11. Queen Esther

I’m kind of surprised that I even am including this one, because at least during my childhood, there wasn’t any confusion about the meaning of this story. Esther was a young girl (probably 13 or 14) who was placed in a difficult and dangerous position, but had the faith and presence of mind to save her people. I had never thought of Esther as anything less than one of the great heroes of the Bible.

But, guess what? Apparently, there is a trend toward a different interpretation, evidenced by Mark Driscoll. Apparently, it is now okay to compare Esther to a slut, whoring herself out to the king. Never mind that she, like Bathsheba, had no real choice in the matter. Unless you consider suicide the appropriate choice.

Once again, though, an obsession with female sexuality leads to mistakes like this. If she hadn’t been so darn sexy, the king would never have taken her. Thus, women, beware, lest you tempt men.

But what is this story really about? Well, violence, power, and justice, right? The king is pissed because his queen won’t do a sexy dance in front of his drunken buddies. So he exiles her. (Vashti got off easily, in some ways. The king could well have executed her for disobedience.)

Haman is pissed because Mordecai doesn’t kiss his posterior sufficiently. So he abuses his power with the king to seek the slaughter of all the Jews.

Esther uses her charms and intelligence to win the heart of the king, and then seeks justice against the man who has wronged her and her people.

Again, violence, abuse of power, and justice. These are themes everywhere throughout the Old Testament (to say nothing of the New Testament), but they are often - and increasingly - re-framed as cautionary tales about sex.

    12. Divorce

Just one more, from the end of the Old Testament, the last voice from the prophets until the appearance of Christ. Malachi is an interesting book in many ways, not least in its warnings and rebukes. You will find calls for social justice (don’t oppress your laborers, widows, orphans, or foreigners who live among you), rebukes against clergy for showing partiality, and warnings about not providing food for the poor. (This is the real meaning of the call for “tithes,” something most preachers forget.)  In Malachi, you can also find these words:

[T]he Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.
Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.
‘The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘does violence to the one he should protect,’ says the Lord Almighty.
So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.

This passage, unfortunately, has been used in our modern times to beat up on people who divorce. In many cases (in my experience as a lawyer), it is used to try to force abused women to stay with their abusers.

But this is not the point of the passage. At the outset, notice something: the man is always the one doing the divorcing. Why is that? Because women couldn’t divorce their husband until modern times. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that women could divorce if they were beaten or of the man cheated on them. We need to keep that in mind in any discussion of divorce.

All of these references in the Bible to divorce concern a man divorcing his wife, never the other way around. Not just that, but what would happen if a woman was divorced? Well, she could hope her family would take her back. She could beg. She could starve. And she could prostitute herself to avoid said starvation. Don’t forget as well that when this was written, a man could take multiple wives. So if he just wished to sleep with someone else, he could. A divorce meant that he was formally breaking his oath to support her - and casting her out to fend for herself.

Divorce was a freaking big deal for a woman. Now this passage makes sense. The word the NIV translates as “unfaithful” is sometimes translated as “broken your faith to.” The essence of the word isn’t sexual. It is about breaking the promise. When you took a wife, you promised to protect and support her, because once you slept with her, she had few other options. If you sent her away, you were being unjust.

This is why I believe Christ would later confirm that a man who sent his wife away without support was unjustified unless she had already sought the arms of another man.

So again, the point of the passage isn’t that women should only have one sexual partner (which is how it is often used in practice), but that once you take on an obligation to a vulnerable member of society, you need to do her justice.

That’s why carelessly importing ancient teachings on divorce into our modern times can often cause injustice. Instead of seeking to protect women, who were vulnerable in a Patriarchal society, we use these to force women stay in relationships where they are being abused. As a lawyer with experience representing the victims of domestic violence, I believe the Evangelical Church, on balance, is causing more harm than good by its teachings on divorce. Rather than assist victims in leaving and thus attaining safety, they use teachings intended to protect women to deny them protection. This is backwards, and we need to recognize that. 

Recently, I said to another Christian friend that I would sooner send one of my divorce clients to hell for counseling before I would send them to the church. I wasn't joking. Of course, I would prefer that my clients go see a licensed counselor, one that has embraced modern knowledge of the dynamics of abuse. But it is clear, from my experience as a lawyer, that the terrible, harmful, dangerous advice that clients get is coming from the church, which tends to prioritize gender hierarchy over women's safety. (The bad advice goes the other way too, with men being blamed for not being "spiritual" enough or not being "leaders." Hence why I would never advise a client to seek counseling within the church.

So again, in this passage, the issue really should be one of justice. Keep your promises, and don't treat women as disposable.  

Bonus from Malachi: I mentioned the concern for justice? Here is the quote:

So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 3:5)

How many times have you heard a sermon with specifics about sex and divorce, telling people exactly what the preacher thinks God wants people to do or not do? Now think, have you ever heard a sermon on Malachi 3:5? Did it focus on the problems of defrauding laborers or depriving immigrants of justice? And, to the point, were there ever specific instructions about what a Christian should or should not do? Does the God actually care about these issues? Or is He just obsessed with sex? I certainly have never heard a sermon like that in my 39 years in Evangelicalism. I suspect it would be too politically unpopular.


Now, not all of these interpretations are taught by all Evangelicals, obviously. Gothard and the other patriarchists are the worst offenders. However, I particularly remember the David and Bathsheba story being taught with her assigned equal or greater blame than him. And I have heard Malachi used time and again to browbeat women into staying in abusive relationships. The story of Onan is indeed taught as an example of why masturbation is wrong. The Nephilum are indeed considered the cause of the Flood by many, and I remember being taught that. 

In fact, with the exception of Mark Driscoll's murder of the Esther story, I have experienced each and every one of these somewhere in a church-sponsored teaching or publication. 

Finally, let's be honest: Sodom and Gomorrah and the Levite's Concubine are nearly exclusively taught as stories about homosexuality, and as a proof text for why God hates gay sex more than any other sin. To the point where He will destroy a nation that doesn't purge the gays. 

What does our view of sex say about God?

So far, over these two posts, I have laid out evidence that we consider sex to be the measure of evil in our society. I have also shown that many stories that are about violence, power, and justice are now being twisted to become object lessons on the evils of sexuality - particularly female or homosexual sexuality. I believe that once you start to look at things through that realization, it is hard to avoid some conclusions about the Evangelical view of God.

First, it has become increasingly obvious to me that the Evangelical version of God appears to care more than anything else about what humans do with their genitals. That is what the Evangelical god considers grounds for smiting. You want your nice little nation destroyed? Do the nasty. Of all the things God will see as grounds for destruction, it is women having sex out of wedlock, and particularly gay sex.

Second, this obsession makes another thing clear: the Evangelical god isn’t all that upset about violence. The fact that 80-90% of Native Americans were wiped out by the Europeans through intentional slaughter, starvation, displacement, and disease? Not really a big deal. The fact that white Europeans and Americans enslaved millions of Africans? And that many millions died as a result? Not a problem. Those wars fought over minor points of doctrine from the Reformation onward? Eh. (as Doug Wilson would say.) Those tortured and executed for “heresy” or political disagreements? So what? You want to oppress and evict immigrants? No problem. God is just fine with that. You want to advocate the return of Jim Crow so you can avoid serving gays? (Hello, Matt Walsh) Don't worry. God will love you - and approve your actions. You want to eliminate wage protections for the less powerful in our society, despite Malachi's concern about that? Go right ahead! God supports every form of Capitalism. Assault rifles with Bible verses and the Knights Templar logo? Why not? God would be happy if you bust a cap in an Arab, right? Want to claim that those "serious" about their faith will start packing heat to be prepared to gun down their enemies? I'm totally sure that is in the Sermon on the Mount somewhere, so why not? 

Apparently, God doesn't really have anything to say about our modern problems of oppression, greed, racism, and classism.   

As long as you keep your sex within heterosexual marriage, God will be happy with you. 


For some weird reason, Evangelical leaders seem puzzled about why they keep losing young people and intellectuals. I don’t think it is a big mystery. If the primary focus of your doctrine in practice is about prevention of sex, while the other pressing moral issues of our time seem unimportant - or you are fine when people pick the side of the powerful rather than the vulnerable on those issues - what do you expect?

Many of us don’t want to worship a god that tolerates violence against women, xenophobia, jingoism, contempt for the poor, arrogance, misogyny, and a whole host of other things. And we have a hard time reconciling a concept of a god whose primary preoccupation is what we do with our genitals with the teachings of Christ - or even the rest of the Bible. 


One final thought: C. S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors, one I respect even (or especially?) when we disagree. I believe he has a degree of intellectual honesty that few possess in American Christianity these days. (Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that he knew his history, philosophy, and science.) In any case, in Mere Christianity, he wrote about the two kinds of sin, those of the flesh, and those of the spirit.

If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.

Lewis is, in my opinion, both very right and very wrong in this quote. He is right in all except for the first sentence. Perhaps it is because he was English and died before American Evangelicalism went off the rails. Because, as I pointed out in the first half of this two part post, American Evangelicals sure as freaking hell regard unchastity as the supreme vice, and all too often seem largely unconcerned about - and all too fond of the sins of the spirit.


A few links relevant to this discussion:

I intended to put this one in the previous post as a further example of my thesis, but forgot. Ben Corey of Formerly Fundie wrote this fascinating post on human trafficking, and how sex trafficking has come to dominate the Evangelical discussion rather than the more common labor trafficking.

"Furthermore, I think there’s a sizable number of Christians who found in human trafficking empowerment to wage a culture war against anything connected to the adult entertainment industry/ sex industry– though I’m not sure many of them consciously realize it. Once one accepts the not-exactly-true narrative that “most of them are doing it against their will,” it becomes blanket permission for a broader culture war that isn’t so much about ending modern slavery as it is about policing purity."

The emphasis on sex also distracts from the more difficult issue, which is that all of us profit from the slave labor from labor trafficking - and ending that would require changes on our part, not just preaching against porn.

The whole post is well worth reading:

Why Sex Still Dominates Christian Focus On Human Trafficking

I also missed including this link, which I didn't discover until after I had already posted the first part. One of Evangelicalism's weapons against abortion is the network of "Crisis Pregnancy Centers." While I believe there are a lot of good people working and volunteering at these places, and that they can sometimes do good, I have to note that because of ideological concerns (which are necessary for them to retain their funding from Evangelical and Catholic individuals and organizations), they do not provide birth control, and actively condemn Planned Parenthood for doing what they can't and won't do. 

This post by Libby Anne from Love, Joy, Feminism is a good place to start. I am impressed by how gracious she tries to be about the good things about an organization that preaches a religion she does not believe. But by the end, she can't, and neither can I. You can see the problem in the fact that they condemn birth control, instead insisting on "Biblical principles when it comes to sex, marriage, and children." 

As Libby Anne points out, Jesus is not a form of birth control. I have Jesus. I'm married. If I had relied on Him to plan my family, I would likely have at least 10 children by now. (Also, I wonder if "Biblical Principles" is a reference to Bill Gothard, who also taught the "quiverfull" philosophy.

It becomes clear enough, however, that given a choice between preventing unwanted pregnancies and abortions, and preventing unapproved sex, the choice is clear. Sex is the real evil, not abortion. 
When "Pro-Life" Means "Anti-birth-control." 
Biblical principles when it comes to sex, marriage, and children. - See more at:
Biblical principles when it comes to sex, marriage, and children. - See more at:

Sexualizing stories involving females isn’t exactly new. Poor Mary Magdalene was transformed from a wealthy supporter of Christ’s ministry and the first Apostle (as St. Augustine pointed out) into a prostitute forgiven of her sexual sin. You can read more about that in my post on the “miracle” and “saint” plays of the Middle Ages.


Another one a commenter brought to my attention: the way that "Jezebel" is a byword for a sexually immoral woman. Why would that be? Jezebel was a notorious idolator, led Israel into Baal worship, and slaughtered the priests and prophets of God. That's bad. But sex is never mentioned as one of her faults. If anything, she seems to be an example of sexless ambition. But the concepts of "virtue" and "vice" when it comes to women have been reduced primarily to sex.   

Thinking back on my numerous times reading the accounts in Kings of Ahab and Jezebel, I cannot think of ANY evidence of sexual misconduct on her part. In fact, it is entirely possible she married Ahab as a virgin (undoubtedly as the seal on a political alliance), and remained faithful to him until his untimely death in war. She certainly seemed loyal enough to him. Come to think of it, she made the "best" of a bad marriage. He was an insufferable and whiny wuss, both selfish and weak, and yet she stood by him. I would tend to think that, given what we know about her, she was firmly in control of her sexuality, and would (like Queen Elizabeth I) have scoffed at the notion of allowing her libido to interfere with her statecraft.  

I’m no particular fan of Bernie Sanders (I’m generally center-right politically, when I can hold my nose enough to dive into politics), but I think this post illustrates how incredibly far the Religious Right is right now from resembling Christ.

In fact, the Religious Right seems to have drifted substantially since I was a child. Back in the day, I recall that left and right could at least agree on the goal of making life better for everyone, particularly those lower down on the socioeconomic ladder. The dispute was over how to best accomplish that. These days, the Religious Right seems to have bought into Ayn Rand’s Darwinistic philosophy of Objectivism. In significant part, I believe this is because they believe that the root cause of poverty is sex. 


Another link worth pondering, on the way that American Evangelicalism has become increasingly full of fear and willing to do violence. 

One of the most depressing things about my spiritual journey over the last decade or so has been seeing those I admired as a child in a different light. One of these has been James Dobson, who I mentioned in the previous post in regard to his transformation of abortion from an issue of violence to an issue of sex. I read a number of his books, and I will admit that he is probably a decent person in his personal life, and certainly not a sociopath like Gothard. However, I didn’t really realize just how committed he was to the belief that being a stay-at-home mom was the only morally acceptable option for women. This particular teaching has been at the root of a great deal of damage to relationships in my extended family, unfortunately. (My wife works outside of the home, and thus is living in sin - or at least not accomplishing "God's Best," as Gothard's euphemism put it.

Two links:

This one details both Dobson’s obsession with sex, his influential belief that evil in our time is primarily sexual, and his commitment to enforcing a pre-feminist view of gender roles. 

This one is a recent example of Dobson (like Pat Robertson and John Piper), blaming present day violence on gay marriage. Even violence can be blamed on sex, right? As the author of the post states (and I STRONGLY agree):

For them politics, not faith, is their interpretive lens.  Christianity becomes a blunt instrument in an ideological struggle.  The result is that people of faith explain a brutal massacre by connecting imaginary dots.  And the fact that doing so damages the Christian faith seems to bother them not at all.

Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris couldn’t have done it any better.

This is one reason I am so passionate about these issues. As I noted in a previous post, many Evangelicals seem to be blaming the Richard Dawkins types when young people leave the faith. However, this is a distraction from the real problems and the real villains. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have not created atheists in anywhere near the degree that these Evangelical leaders have. I would say this is true by several orders of magnitude.

I would add that personally, in my own moments of doubt, it is never the words of Dawkins, or Harris, or Christopher Hitchens, or any of these others that speak to me in the dark of the night. It is the voices of Dobson, and Piper, and Robertson, and Gothard, and others of the Religious Political Right that I hear, and all the others that continue to tell me I cannot keep my faith unless I am willing to embrace misogyny, racism, classism, and sexual moralism as the true meaning of Christianity.


Before you comment, please read my Comment Policy.

I understand that this will be a controversial post. While I welcome thoughtful discussion, there are some things that I do not feel are worth allowing.

In this instance, I am not interested in hearing (again) why God supposedly supports right wing politics. I am also going to delete comments that thump the bible and try to “show” me I am all wrong about the interpretation of these stories. I am also going to delete any comments that go off quoting scripture about why I am all wrong about sex. Been there, done that, have the scars. I also have spent a good deal of time over more than a year working on these posts, reading the different interpretations of the stories, researching, and so on. Chances are, you do not have the one piece of information that would have changed my mind about everything if I had just thought of it. If you want to preach your position, feel free to start your own blog.