by J. Harold Ellens
Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006, xxiii + 183 pp.
Reviewed by Tal Ilan
As the title of this book indicates, it intends to offer to the reader something new.
But the combination of Bible and sex is hardly new. Everyone is aware that the Bible has very definite views on sex. What Ellens is saying is that this view is not what we know from our childhood Bible education, or from what our pastor/priest told us in church; if we go by their statements, we will labor under the impression that sex is inherently bad. Ellens claims, however, that the Bible thinks sex is positive and wonderful and that it is the big bad church that has spoilt all this for us.
I am not making this up. On page 41 Ellens writes: “… the stupid attitude of the official church on this issue throughout history did, unfortunately, keep the people of God in a mind-set of ambiguity about really enjoying sexuality unabashedly as God obviously intended. Those damnable bishops spoiled a lot of godly fun and wholesome pleasure by inducing false shame and guilt, and the fear …”
As this quotation indicates, this book is clearly and playfully written, in order to entice and allure the reader, but basically it has a very clear, contemporary-oriented thesis. Ellens maintains that we in the Western world know what good sexuality is: If in the past we were warned that extramarital sex is bad, well-nigh life-endangering, we now consider it trifling. One can use birth control and enjoy it wholeheartedly. If we were told that homosexuality was a grave crime, we now know that gay people are not to blame for their sexual orientation. On the other hand, while in the past women were considered sexual objects of males, to be sold and exchanged, used and discarded, we are now expected to treat them as sexually equal beings. Ellens supports all these notions, and while he admits that in the past we were told that the old views were God given, and derived from the Bible, if we read the Bible anew, with Ellens, we will see that this is not so. In other words, Ellens wishes to find in the Bible a past that is usable for his congregation.
Let me demonstrate this through one case (Genesis 19:1–8). The story of Sodom has been used in the past to claim that homosexuality is viewed in the Bible as a sin that earned the city its destruction. When God’s messengers visit Lot in Sodom, the men of the city demand that Lot hand his visitors over so that they can be homosexually raped. Lot refuses and offers his virgin daughters to the crowd instead.
Ellens rightly interprets this as a sign that Sodom was punished first and foremost for breaching the code of hospitality. Thus, condemnation of homosexuality is probably not the issue here.
But what do we do with Lot’s offer to hand his virgin daughters to the crowd of Sodomites? Since the Bible does not condemn this offer, but only its refusal by the crowd of Sodomites, I would assume that a completely different code of sexual behavior than ours is at work here, a code that does treat women and their sexuality as the property of their menfolk to be appropriated at will.
The Bible is a document that reflects the beliefs and values of the Ancient Near East. But Ellens is not willing to admit this. Instead he engages in the following apologetic sermon: “… Lot is so aware of the homosexual interests of the particular crowd that mobbed his door that he saw them to be of no threat to his daughters … knowing that his daughters would be of no interest to them and therefore would be perfectly safe and in no sense at risk. One must imagine that his doing so incites a general burst of sarcastic laughter among the company of family and friends inside the house, including merriment on the part of his daughters …” (page 107).
I think this example will suffice.
Tal Ilan received a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was guest professor at Harvard and Yale. She is currently professor of Jewish Studies at the Free University in Berlin, Germany.