Sex is discussed openly, explicitly and directly from the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation. If the Scriptures are our only infallible rule of faith and practice, then as C. S. Lewis said, there’s no use being more spiritual than God!
In the Beginning
So let us begin where the Bible does: at creation. The Genesis accounts are not scientific treatises. Rather, they tell us who we are, why we are, and what are God’s purposes for us.
Humankind was created in God’s own image, to have a relationship with God, to please and honor God, to walk and talk with God. Intertwined with these concepts is the firm declaration that both male and female were made in God’s image. In Genesis 5:2 we read, “Male and female he created them. He blessed them and gave them the name ‘Man’ (adam) on the day they were created.” Adam was the name for both man and woman, indicating all humanity. Right at the beginning of Genesis we are given a definition of humanity that is inclusive of both men and women, based upon their creation in God’s own image.
To turn to the better known account in Genesis 1:27- 28, we read, “Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it.’ ” Here we have a specific mandate to exercise human sexuality, accompanied by God’s blessing. The creation story tells us that we are both spiritual and sexual beings. Sexual activity is part of God’s design and decree, intended not only for the benefit of the human race but of the earth as well.
While procreation is surely a wonderful outcome of sexual union, the second chapter of Genesis demonstrates that it is by no means the primary purpose. Here we are given the particulars of what is laid out more generally in chapter one. God makes each part of the world and after each stage sees that the work is good. After the creation of the male, however, God says, “It is not good that man should be alone.” Just as the world was empty until God filled it, now the heart of man is empty. The man was designed not only for a relationship with God but also for a relationship with another who might share his humanity, his desires and emotions, his aspirations toward God. For as the human heart is best satisfied when it reaches out to the one true God and centers its devotion there, so too the heart is best satisfied when it reaches out to one single partner and centers its devotion there.
First God lets the man view the available options. All of the animals are paraded past to see what the man will name them. Naming here consists of examining and classifying, giving each a title in accordance with the nature of the particular beast as the man perceives it.
The man, standing there with the animals, is lonely and painfully aware that none of these splendid creatures can truly fill the void in his own heart. He is pictured as waiting and longing, perhaps dreaming of the one with whom he can share his life. When the man can find no suitable partner among the beings already inhabiting the earth, God creates a new person.
Seeing the man’s loneliness, God declares, “I will make a helper like him” (ezer kenegdo). The word ezer here used for “help” appears some twenty-one times in the Hebrew Bible. Almost all of the usages refer to God, such as “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Ps 121:1-2). Many have tried to distort the designation of woman as helper in order to place her in an inferior status, but that is not the sense of the text. Kenegdo, the second word in her description, refers to the likeness and equality of the woman to the man.
Some find it demeaning that the woman is drawn forth from the man’s side, but the Hebrew text stresses that she is like him, of the very same substance, and that she is given to the man as a blessed gift. Therefore the man bursts into song, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” He finds himself fulfilled in another, his own life given a meaning that was not possible when he was alone. They are given to one another for a life of love and sharing and delight.
The description of the woman indicates the man’s understanding of who she is and what her relationship is to him. The man is reaching out for communion with her; he understands who she is and how she may become one flesh with him.
It is no mistake that the biblical authors used the verb “to know” in describing the intimacy of sexual communion. The Genesis text goes on to tell us that the man and the woman were naked before each other and unashamed. They were aware of the beauty of the bodies God had made and gave them willingly to each other. The reference to nakedness surely implies not only a nakedness of body but also a nakedness of soul, a willingness to bare oneself to the other, to share one’s whole being. Here was sex without sin, ordained and nurtured by God.
Song of Solomon
The most idyllic expression of sexual union is found in the Song of Solomon. Here both bride and groom share as equals in a relationship that is spiritual, intellectual and emotional, as well as physical. Their communication is rich, sensitive and tender. The delight which they experience in one another’s bodies is told in language so frank that it is usually obscured in English translation.
The curves of your thighs are like jewels,
The work of a skillful workman.
Your navel is a rounded goblet;
It lacks no blended beverage.
Your waist is a heap of wheat
Set about with lilies.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
Twins of a gazelle.
How is it that this remarkable description of marital love is so often read devotionally? Why do people use it to guide them to a new adoration and love of Christ as the heavenly bridegroom? Hymns and Christian devotional literature throughout the centuries has been heavily dependent upon the language of the Song of Solomon, and this is no mistake. Our spiritual nature lies very close to the sexual. The union depicted in the Song is exalted to the highest pinnacle of human lovemaking. What better way to meditate upon our seeking of God than in the sublime language with which this song describes human love?
Yes, the spiritual and the sexual lie close together in the human heart, and therein lies the danger. The bride and the intimacy she offers are called a “walled garden” to be entered only by the beloved (Song 4:12). Within that garden lay delights of communion that only the two of them may know. The wall shuts out all others. Much that is in the Bible is written to safeguard that garden and the intimacy sheltered within.
Drink deep from the waters of your own cistern
And running water from your own well.
Should your fountains be dispersed abroad
Streams of water in the streets.
Let them be only your own
And not strangers with you.
Let your fountain be blessed
And rejoice with the wife of your youth.
As a loving deer and a graceful doe,
Let her breasts satisfy you at all times
And always be enraptured with her love. (Pr 5:16-19)
The Old Testament is a book about covenant community, about people bonded to one another through their commitment to God. The concept of sexual union is usually linked with covenant. Marriage itself was considered a covenant by Malachi (2:14) and Ezekiel (16:8; Pr 2:17), and this is best seen in God’s covenantal espousing of Israel as his wife; but in point of fact, every Old Testament covenant which I have been able to discover deals in one form or another with sex and reproduction.
The covenant made to Noah promised the preservation of humanity upon the earth and the regular functioning of earth’s cycle. Sadly, humankind has often despised and abused this good gift of God. Yet every time we see a rainbow, the visible sign of that covenant, we remember again the continuing mercies of God who will not break a promise.
The covenant with Abraham promised progeny, land and loving care (Gen 17:4-8). Abraham in turn was expected to see to it that all male offspring were circumcised (17:9- 14), for the sign of this covenant is not in the skies but in human flesh. God declared, “My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.” It is no coincidence that the mark of the covenant was placed upon the sexual organ of each male. The instrument which might be so tragically misused for aggression and exploitation was instead dedicated to the holy purposes of God. This organ, which is external and visible, might more easily bear a sign of the covenant than could the female organ which lies within a woman’s body, concealed but receptive. Yet both men and women were called to comprise the covenant community, obedient to the claims of God upon individual human lives.
The entire nation agreed to the covenant at Sinai, where the people promised to abstain from adultery and coveting another’s wife. The covenant of Leviticus 18 enjoined them not to engage in the sexual practices of the heathen surrounding them. Again and again the covenants tell of singling out the people of God, of setting them apart from the surrounding nations with different values, standards, and norms of conduct. If they were a chosen people, it was so that they might show to others what it meant to serve a true and living God.
I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant. (Is 42:6)
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth. (Is 49:6)
If the Bible tells us how good sex can be, it also tells us how bad it can be. Especially in the book of Proverbs we are told that the real danger of promiscuity is to one’s soul.
Sex outside of a covenant relationship is a threat not only to the individual but also to the community. When the children of Israel engaged in ritual prostitution with Moabite women, “Thus did Israel yoke himself to the Baal of Peor” (Num 25:3). Then follows an account of the ravages of a sexually transmittable disease. As the elders gather to pray and seek God’s forgiveness, one man brings his gentile paramour into the camp, right past the service of mourning and repentance. By the courageous action of one priest, the incursion and the epidemic are stopped. The danger to the community is over, and the people are left with the sobering realization that sex, although ostensibly a very private act, has repercussions on an extended circle (Num 25:6-9). Our actions impact family, friends, and fellow citizens.
A Royal Priesthood
The Bible makes a strong differentiation between sex that enriches the human spirit and that which degrades it. The Scriptures speak candidly of the sordid uses to which sex can be put: manipulation and exploitation, violence and aggression. Illicit sex can debase a relationship, demean a person, and violate a soul. Victims can be left with wounds that will last the rest of their lives; and abusers, if they will take responsibility for their deeds, are left with intolerable guilt.
People engaged in premarital or extramarital relationships often assume that if there is mutual consent, no one is being hurt; but the strong pull of emotion can blind us to what we are doing both to ourselves and to others. Many pressures in today’s world convey the impression that copulation is the right of all, with no restrictions of convention or covenant.
Society urges, “If it feels good, do it,” but sexual license doesn’t necessarily feel good later. There may be consequences that were not intended: pregnancy, sexually transmittable disease, or the devastation of one partner when the other no longer feels a commitment to the relationship and leaves. There may be long-lasting emotional pain. If sex is so powerful a force that it can bind two people into one flesh, then it must be used reverently and with great caution.
Sometimes it is this very power that traps us. The bride sang “he drew me with the cords of love,” but it may be these very cords that exert a force which we cannot resist unless we are prepared.
I once heard an obstetrician gynecologist tell of his experience in examining a great many young women before their marriage. Every time he discovered that one of them was still a virgin, he would ask how this had come about in an era when virginity is the exception rather than the norm. Always the woman would answer, “I talked it over with my fiancé, and we decided to wait until marriage.” The key to abstinence is often communication. Couples in love need to say to one another, “Let’s think over the issues and consequences. Is this what we really want?”
Frequently couples drift into a sexual relationship without ever talking it over. It just “happens.” The union for which our bodies and souls cry out overwhelms us. We get too close to the edge, and a force beyond our control, the cords of love draw us in.
Perhaps a grandmother can be forgiven for acknowledging that not all Christians wait until marriage to engage in sex, but I’d like to suggest that there are better ways to build a meaningful and long-lasting relationship.
The waiting and the longing are an essential part of the equation for optimal union. We find this all the way from Adam’s shout of “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” to the description of Jacob’s seven years of labor to earn his wife as “but a short time because of the love he bore her.” Most poignant are the bride and bridegrooms’ yearnings for their beloved in the Song of Solomon. Things hoped for, planned for, prayed for, are more deeply prized and enjoyed when they become a reality.
It was no easier for the ancient Israelites to withstand the pressures of society than it is for us today. The challenge in both Old and New Testaments is to stand out against the culture, to be a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a people who dare to be different. May God give us the grace so to stand.