God and Sex

What The Bible Really Says

by Michael Coogan

New York: Twelve, 2010, 256 pp.
$24.99 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Phyllis Trible






God and Sex. Who would not be intrigued by so expansive and seductive a title coming from a secular and boutique press? But the subtitle narrows the scope: What the Bible Really Says. If that phrase suggests either a prudish or salacious bent, the identity of the author assures us differently. A scholar of ancient Near Eastern and Biblical studies, Michael Coogan writes from head and heart—and both are in the right place.

For him, the paradigm of male dominance and female subordination governs gender relationships in the Bible. “Your desire will be for your man,” says Yahweh to the woman in the story of Eden, “and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). “That decree,” says Coogan, “illustrates the bleakness of the overall Biblical picture for feminists who would claim the Bible as an authority.” Yes, the paradigm heralds bleakness. Whether that bleakness also harbors blessing, readers must decide.

In declaring Genesis 3:16 a divine “decree” and, later, a “curse,” Coogan misreads. (He is in good company, from the apostle Paul and his successors through millennia.) These words of Yahweh to the woman do not characterize her status in creation but rather her life after disobedience. They do not “decree” patriarchy; they describe it. They announce judgment; they do not prescribe punishment, which comes later in expulsion from Eden. Further, Yahweh never “curses” the woman. This word the deity reserves for the serpent and the earth (via the man). In numerous ways, literary analysis disqualifies Genesis 3:16 as the paradigmatic proof text for endorsing patriarchy.

Nonetheless, Coogan’s overall assessment is right. For some 40 years (a fitting Biblical time frame), second-wave feminists have wrestled with patriarchy and the Bible. They, too, have cautioned that the Bible belongs to the foreign country of antiquity. Despite its ubiquitous presence in the news and its canonical standing in communities of faith, it remains distant, even alien, in time, languages, mentality and geography. For diverse reasons—scant evidence, contradictory data, discrepancies among genres and historically locked views—what the Bible really says (or really does not say) about matters such as abortion, marriage, divorce, adultery, rape, prostitution and same-sex relationships does not readily transfer (for better or worse) to our world. Tensions between “original meanings” and contemporary applications persist—tensions that Coogan compares to interpreting the U.S. Constitution.

But what about competing evidence within the Bible? What about women characters, for example, who don’t seem to fit patriarchal strictures? In ancient Israel, the prophet Miriam was never linked to a husband. Leader in victory at the crossing of the sea and questioner of authority in the wilderness, she survived censure to endure in prophetic tradition as the equal of her brothers Aaron and Moses (Micah 6:4). The prophet Deborah, identified perhaps as “woman of fire,” exercised authority as judge and military leader in the settlement of the land (Judges 4 and 5). In the reign of King Josiah, the prophet Huldah (without her husband) authorized the beginnings of the Bible (2 Kings 22:14). And the prophet Noadiah, identified by neither father nor husband, opposed the policies of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 6:14). In the New Testament, the prophet Anna, a widow apparently living an independent life, blessed the child Jesus who had been brought to the Temple (Luke 2:36-38). Four unmarried daughters of Philip the evangelist also held the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:9). To these prophets we add wise women (of Tekoa and Abel), queens (Jezebel and Vashti), widows (Naomi and Judith) and disciples (Mary, Mary Magdalene, Joanna).

Throughout the Bible various women, by their actions, words or status, challenge the patriarchal paradigm, at least indirectly. Although Coogan reports on these public figures, he fails to stress their potentially subversive presence. What did such women represent? Tokens? Exceptions? An alternative narrative? A lost history? A saving remnant within the bleakness of patriarchy?

Despite this book?s title, God takes center stage only in the last chapter. There Coogan argues that the Biblical deity is a male, indeed a sexual being who engages in reproductive activities in a polytheistic environment. The archaeological find at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud depicts two figures with the inscription “Yahweh and his Asherah” (eighth century B.C.E.). Within the Bible, more evidence surfaces: Ezekiel?s description of the divine loins (1:27); the pairing of Yahweh in the Temple with Asherah; metaphors of Yahweh as Israel?s husband and father; the goddess Wisdom alongside Yahweh; and the Christian formula for the parentage of Jesus: son of God, born of a virgin.

Believers cannot neglect these threatening descriptions, says Coogan. But to what extent have believers neglected them? Even though polytheism and a female consort may not be acceptable, the basic idea that God is male has endured for centuries, sometimes as unofficial dogma. After all, Jesus called God “Father.” Missing among many believers are sustained critiques of this idea.

Female images of God, in contrast to a female consort, call for attention. The metaphor connecting divine mercy (rahamim) to the vehicle of the womb (rehem) permeates the Bible. One small witness describes the God who “writhed in labor pains” giving birth to Israel (Deuteronomy 32:18). Sexual overtones in these portrayals are not male. Although early in his prophecy (chapter 3) Hosea depicts Yahweh as the abusive husband beating his wife Israel, later Yahweh repudiates both male identity and violence. “For I am God (‘el) and not male (‘is), the Holy One (qadosh) in your midst, and I do not come to destroy” (Hosea 11:9). Is this the pattern of the abusive husband—to feign goodness and mercy? Or does the declaration of holiness testify to God beyond (male) sex, gender and attendant consequences? In keeping with his passionate plea that we read “the entire Bible” and not “cherry-pick” for “preconceived conclusions,” Coogan might have explored these and other counter-texts.

On one occasion, God set before ancient Israel life and death and then commanded the people to decide the difference. “Choose life that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Likewise recognizing that authority derives from the community, Coogan admirably concludes that what the Bible really says (this time, its “underlying ideals”) moves “toward the goal of full freedom and equality for all persons.” That rhetorical flourish awaits development beyond the provocative subject of God and Sex.

 


 

Distinguished feminist Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible is professor of Biblical studies at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in North Carolina. From 1981 until her “retirement” in 1998, she taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1994, only the second woman to serve in that capacity since the organization was founded in 1880.

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  1. Curtis says

    I’m working on a theory that starts with the Phoenicians, and accounts for the creation of the Jews, and follows through the growth of early Christianity, all the way up to hard core partisanship of conservative fundamentalists in the United States today.

    I admire the Phoenicians as a lost people that nonetheless contributed greatly to the advance of human civilization. They gave us the alphabet, they were pioneers of international trade, which necessitated things like currency conversion, a standardized system of weights and measures, and even the concept of the time value of money. A delivery of wheat at a future date had a greater value than a pile of wheat in an Egyptian field, leading to things like the concept of credit and profit. They also practiced, it is said, child sacrifice.

    Child sacrifice, awful as it obviously is, may have had some societal advantages. First, keeping down the population reduces the need for war, assuming you hold to a theory that war and population pressures may be related. Reducing the number of heirs to the family business might also relieve a need for conflict. There is a chance that the awful practice of child sacrifice may have led to a more stable society and allowed the Phoenicians to focus on trade and other advancements.

    The seminal creation moment for the Jewish religion may be the strange story of Abraham being told by God that he didn’t have to sacrifice the life of his son Issac. Taken alone, out of context, one may wonder what’s the big deal? What is so significant about a father doing the obviously right and decent thing of not killing his son? Only if you propose that the region of the trans Jordon where the refugees of the exodus settled was dominated by the Phoenicians who practiced child sacrifice, does the act of Abraham sparing his son make any sense as a political or moral statement. At least that is my theory. Has anyone else ever proposed this?

    Then you have the phenomenon centuries later of this Jewish splinter cult rejecting the common practices of the Greeks and then the Romans of discarding unwanted female babies and even any imperfect or unwanted baby. In addition to being more ethical, it gave the Christianist religion a population advantage especially of women who filled the gender shortage created by Roman practices. Christianity was largely transmitted by women and surprisingly quickly swept the empire and the Western world.

    So Christianity didn’t create the abortion issue, the abortion issue created Christianity.


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