Nicholas Kristof recently wrote an article for the New York Times titled, “Religion and Sex Quiz.” Based on a new book by Jennifer Wright Knust from Boston University, the point was to demonstrate how “murky and inconsistent and prone to being hijacked by ideologues” the Bible can be. Kristof acknowledges “cherry-picking” the questions from a wider quiz, but he wanted to demonstrate that “ambiguity is everywhere.”
Really? Let’s take the quiz, look at the answers given by Knust/Kristof, and then see what the Bible actually says.
1. The Bible’s position on abortion is:
a. Never mentioned.
b. To forbid it along with all forms of artificial birth control.
c. Condemnatory, except to save the life of the mother.
New York Times:
A. Abortion is never mentioned as such.
While abortion is never mentioned as such, the sanctity of human life is a clear concept. The argument has always revolved around when life begins and when the ending of such life is murder. And murder is clearly condemned. Surely life begins at some point, and when that point is matters. So rather than making abortion a non-issue, the sanctity of human life makes wrestling with abortion one of the more significant issues of our day – regardless of where you land on when human life begins: conception, brainwaves, or birth.
2. The Bible suggests “marriage” is:
a. The lifelong union of one man and one woman.
b. The union of one man and up to 700 wives.
c. Often undesirable, because it distracts from service to the Lord.
New York Times:
A, B and C. The Bible limits women to one husband, but other than that is all over the map. Mark 10 envisions a lifelong marriage of one man and one woman. But King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (I Kings 11:3). And Matthew (Matthew 19:10-12) and St. Paul (I Corinthians 7) both seem to suggest that the ideal approach is to remain celibate and avoid marriage if possible, while focusing on serving God. Jesus (Matthew 19:12) even seems to suggest that men make themselves eunuchs, leading the early church to ban enthusiasts from self-castration.
There is little doubt that the Bible’s ideal for marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman. And that while marriage is celebrated, so is singleness. Both are a matter of calling. But trotting out polygamy is a tired approach when attempting to water-down the understood definition of marriage. Polygamy is mentioned in the Bible, but never suggested or prescribed. It is one thing to note someone having multiple wives; it is another to condone it. The Bible never condones it. In fact, if you keep reading I Kings 11, you find that his taking of foreign wives was condemned and led to his downfall.
3. The Bible says of homosexuality:
a. Leviticus describes male sexual pairing as an abomination.
b. A lesbian should be stoned at her father’s doorstep.
c. There’s plenty of ambiguity and no indication of physical intimacy, but some readers point to Ruth and Naomi’s love as suspiciously close, or to King David declaring to Jonathan: “Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (II Samuel 1:23-26)
New York Times:
A and C. As for stoning on a father’s doorstep, that is the fate not of lesbians but of non-virgin brides (Deuteronomy 22:13).
Listing “A” is certainly right; Leviticus is clear in its condemnation of homosexuality. But suggesting a homosexual relationship between Ruth and Naomi, or David and Jonathan, is unconscionable and a clear case of eisegesis (reading into the text what is not there). Two men, or two women, can’t be in a close friendship without making it sexual? Please. It completely bypasses the ancient near-eastern culture of its day (men still kiss on the lips in Russia as friends!) and draws modern conclusions based on our own sexualized culture. To look to either relationship as possible support for homosexuality is beyond conjecture and enters the world of wishful thinking.
4. In the Bible, erotic writing is:
a. Forbidden by Deuteronomy as “adultery of the heart.”
b. Exemplified by “Song of Songs,” which celebrates sex for its own sake.
New York Times:
B. Read the “Song of Songs” and blush. It also serves as a metaphor for divine relations with Israel or with humans.
Yes, Song of Songs celebrates sex between a man and a woman in a committed relationship (2:16) of marriage (the wedding procession is described in 3:6-11). And the problem is?
5. Jesus says that divorce is permitted:
a. Only after counseling and trial separation.
c. Only to men whose wives have been unfaithful.
New York Times:
B and C. Jesus in Mark 10:11-12 condemns divorce generally, but in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 suggests that a man can divorce his wife if she is guilty of sexual immorality.
This is attempting to make it sound as if Jesus said one thing in Matthew and another in Mark. Matthew wrote primarily to the Jews, who were in dispute between the schools of Shammai and Hillel over the interpretation of Dt. 24:1-4. Shammai was the conservative school, Hillel the more liberal. Jesus sided with Shammai, and Matthew thought that important to include for his Jewish audience. Nothing in Mark’s record contradicts Matthew’s – Matthew just gives a fuller account in ways relevant to the intended audience.
6. Among sexual behavior that is forbidden is:
c. Sex with angels.
New York Times:
A, B and C. We forget that early commentators were very concerned about sex with angels (Genesis 6, interpreted in the Letter of Jude and other places) as an incorrect mixing of two kinds.
Yes, adultery and incest is clearly condemned in Scripture. But while there is not space for it here, the idea that “sons of God” in Genesis 6 refers to angels is far from conclusive and in the minds of most excluded through the very nature of the created order. The phrase “sons of God” refers to human beings in other sections of Scripture, and one of the more plausible interpretations is that this refers to the intermarriage of godly men and sinful women (Sethites with Cainites).
7. The people of Sodom were condemned principally for:
c. Lack of compassion for the poor and needy.
New York Times:
C. “Sodomy” as a term for gay male sex began to be commonly used only in the 11th century and would have surprised early religious commentators. They attributed Sodom’s problems with God to many different causes, including idolatry, threats toward strangers and general lack of compassion for the downtrodden. Ezekiel 16:49 suggests that Sodomites “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
This is such a revisionist interpretation it’s hard to know where to begin. When the angels went to Sodom, Lot told them it was not safe to sleep in the open, so he invited them into his home. Later that night, “all the men from every part of Sodom – both young and old – surrounded the house. They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them. Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, ‘No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing.’” (Genesis 19:4-7, NIV). Homosexuality so marked the men of Sodom (cf. Jude 7) that it is still called “sodomy” to this day. Granted, since this text is about rape and not consensual sex, it’s not the prime passage on such matters as gay marriage (though there are certainly others that speak to that matter). But to say that homosexuality was not a part of the wickedness or the subsequent judgment ignores how “the inherently degrading quality of same-sex intercourse plays a key role in the narrator’s intent to elicit feelings of revulsion on the part of the reader/hearer” (Gagnon).
So take the quiz, but don’t be fooled. The Bible is not as “murky,” “inconsistent” or “ambiguous” as you might be led to believe.
It’s just counter-cultural.
James Emery White
“Religion and Sex Quiz,” Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times, May 21, 2011. Read online.
Jennifer Wright Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire.
Robert A.J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001).
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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