It may come as a surprise that there is quite a lot of polygamy in the Bible. Some of the better-known polygamists, each with several wives or concubines, include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Moses, David, and Solomon. That said, biblical polygamy usually had a bitter ending. According to the Book of Kings, Solomon had ‘seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines’, but ‘his wives turned away his heart’. ‘For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God…’ (1 Kings 11:3-4).
Incest, bestiality, and prostitution
The Bible also features a fair bit of incest. Lot’s daughters both became pregnant by inebriating their father and raping him (Genesis 19:30). Ham ‘saw the nakedness’ of his father Noah. When Noah ‘awoke from his wine’, he ‘knew what his younger son had done unto him’ (Genesis 9:22,24). Tamar dressed up as a harlot and had sex with her unsuspecting father-in-law Judah in exchange for a goat. ‘And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt (Genesis 38:34).’
Leviticus prohibits incest: ‘None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness… (18:6).’ It also prohibits bestiality: ‘Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion (18:23).’ Deuteronomy condemns prostitution: ‘There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:17).’ St Paul also condemns prostitution: ‘Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid (1 Corinthians 6:15).’
The idea of exclusive monogamy goes right back to Adam and Eve. In Genesis 1, God seems to have created man and woman at the same time: ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.’ After blessing them, the first thing God tells them is to ‘be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth’. However, Genesis 2 finds Adam alone in Eden. God says that ‘it is not good that the man should be alone’, and creates Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. Adam seems to consider Eve as another self: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh… Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.’ This pronouncement implies marriage and monogamy as the norm for man. Much later, the Apostle Paul advised that a bishop ‘must be blameless, the husband of one wife… (Timothy 3:2)’. The serpent that draws Eve, and through Eve Adam, to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is seductive, and phallic in form, and may represent sexual temptation or adultery. To punish Eve, God curses her to the pangs of childbirth, and to marital subservience. He clothes Adam and Eve in skins and tosses them out of Eden.
The concept of romantic love, which is, in fact, fairly modern, barely exists in the Bible. All love is directed at God, and the love for the spouse and more generally for the other is subsumed under the love of God. In the Binding of Isaac, Abraham’s love for God trumps his love for Isaac his own son, whom he is willing to sacrifice for no other reason than that God commands it.
Today, the most popular reading for weddings is Chapter 13 of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Here is a quick run-through:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way: it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things … When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways … And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.
The problem in this context is that Paul is not referring to bleary-eyed romantic love, but to Christian love for our fellow men. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which is the source of the passage, gives the Greek agape as ‘love’, but the King James Bible prefers to render it as ‘charity’: ‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’ Faith, hope, and charity are called the three theological virtues—‘theological’ because they are born out of the grace of God, and because they have God for their object. Charity in particular is the love of man for God, and through God, for his fellow men.
Even the Song of Songs (the Song of Solomon), which appears to celebrate sexual love, is read by the Jewish tradition as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel, and by the Christian tradition as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and his ‘bride’, the Christian Church. ‘I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste (Solomon 2:1-3).’
David and Jonathan
So it is perhaps not entirely surprising that the two greatest love stories in the Bible are not of husband and wife, nor even man and woman, but of man and man, and woman and woman. David rivalled Jonathan, son of King Saul, for the throne of Israel. After slaying Goliath, he appeared before Saul with Goliath’s head in his hand: ‘And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul … And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle’ (1 Samuel 18).’ Much later, upon learning of Jonathan’s death on Mount Gilboa, David lamented: ‘I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women (2 Samuel 1:26).’ One evening, Saul rebuked Jonathan for favouring David over his own father and family: “Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother’s nakedness?” David and Jonathan both had wives and children, and we are to believe that the love between them was homosocial rather than homosexual.
Ruth and Naomi
In the Book of Ruth, Naomi is married to Elimelech. A famine leads them and their two sons to move from Bethlehem to Moab. In time, Elimelech dies, as do their two sons, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law destitute. Naomi returns to Bethlehem, entreating her daughters-in-law, who are Moabites and thus from a different ethnic group, not to follow in her barren footsteps. But Ruth insists upon following her, telling her: ‘Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried…’ This sounds more like a marriage vow than anything else. When the pair arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi tells the Bethlehemites: Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara (‘Bitter’), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.’ Ruth takes to gleaning in the barley fields of Boaz, who it transpires, is a kinsman of Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband. With Naomi’s encouragement, Ruth marries Boaz, who bears Ruth a son, Obed. Interestingly, it is as if Obed is the son of Naomi: ‘And the women said unto Naomi, Blessed be the Lord, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman, that his name may be famous in Israel. And he shall be unto thee a restorer of thy life, and a nourisher of thine old age, for thy daughter in law, which loveth thee, which is better to thee than seven sons, hath born him. And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it. And the women her neighbours gave it a name, saying, There is a son born to Naomi…’ For the genealogy, Obed was the father of Jesse, and through Jesse, the grandfather of David.
Is married life better than celibacy? Jesus did not marry, and neither did Paul or most of the Prophets. Paul clearly favours celibacy and chastity, but accepts that most people ‘cannot abide even as I’ and that ‘it is better to marry than to burn’:
It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband … But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn … He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.
While Paul permits (but does not command) marriage, Solomon, the apocryphal author of Ecclesiastes, seems—despite, or because of, his 700 wives—to warn against it, as well as against lust, on the grounds that they detract from the path to God:
I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness: And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.
The early Church Fathers took their cue from Solomon and especially Paul in favouring the freedom of celibacy over the bondage of marriage and family. Noting that angels are single, St John Chrysostom argued that celibacy surpasses marriage inasmuch as angels surpass men (Homily 19 on First Corinthians). Writing in the third century, St Cyprian maintained that, although God had commanded Adam and Eve to multiply, the earth, by now, was full (Of the Discipline and Advantage of Chastity).
From the Old Testament, it seems that marriages could be arranged, and that the virginity of the bride was paramount. In Genesis 24, Abraham makes his eldest servant swear to pick a wife for his son, not from the Canaanites but from his own kin. According to Deuteronomy, if a newly wed is found not to have been a virgin, she should be stoned to death in front of the door to her father’s house ‘because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house (22:21).’
Gender and marital subservience
Once married, should a wife be subservient to her husband? Used by God to introduce Eve in Genesis 2:18, the word ‘help’, ‘helper’, ‘helpmeet’, or ‘helpmate’, though possibly a mistranslation, suggests that Eve’s subservience predated the fall and God’s curse of marital subservience. According to St Peter, Sara obeyed her husband Abraham, ‘calling him lord’ (Peter 3:6). In Ephesians, St Paul compares marriage to the relation between Christ and the Church: ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church … Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing (5:22-24).’ In Corinthians, he establishes a clear chain of authority: ‘But I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God (1 Corinthians 11:3).’
In the Middle Ages, the word ‘obey’ was introduced into marriage vows, but, even so, a wife’s subservience to her husband is not understood to be unconditional. In Galatians, St Paul says that faith levels the field: ‘But after the faith is come… There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:25,28). In his 1880 encyclical Arcanum, Pope Leo XIII states that ‘The woman… must be subject to her husband and obey him; not indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honour nor dignity.’
Is recreational sex permissible within marriage? Certainly, lust should not form the basis of a marriage (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5). But once married, sex should not be withheld: ‘Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth. Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love (Proverbs 5:18-19).’ St Paul seems to agree, albeit it with less grace and poetry: ‘Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband; and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife (1 Corinthians 7:3-4).’
Levirate marriage, contraception, and masturbation
The practice of levirate marriage is set out in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. A childless widow should not re-marry with a stranger, but with her late husband’s brother; and their firstborn son will succeed in the name and estate of the late husband. This could concern the brother-in-law, who, by fathering a son in his brother’s line, would be creating a claimant on the larger part of his inheritance. When God killed Er, Er’s father Judah told his second son Onan to marry Er’s widow Tamar and ‘raise up seed’ to his brother. But when he lied with Tamar, Onan, who ‘knew that the seed should not be his’, spilled his semen on the ground: ‘And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also (Genesis 38:10).’ This episode is largely responsible for the ban on contraception and masturbation.
Adultery is forbidden in several places. It is, of course, the subject of one of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. David famously lusted after the bathing Bathsheba and impregnated her, leading, ultimately, to the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah the Hittite, the death of Bathsheba’s first child by David, and the revolt of David’s son Absalom. St Paul inveighs against adultery in more than one place, and St Matthew goes so far as to equate it with a lustful thought: ‘But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart (Matthew 5:28).’ According to Deuteronomy, an illegitimate child and his descendants cannot be admitted into the Church: ‘A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:2).’
In Old Testament times, a husband could easily divorce his wife (Deuteronomy 24). Jesus, however, forbids it: ‘But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication (Gk. porneia), causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery (Matthew 5:32, and echoed in Mark and Luke). Jesus refers back to Genesis 1 and 2 when discussing the indissolubility of marriage: ‘Have ye not read, that He which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, for this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder (Matthew 19:4-6).’ By referring back to Genesis 1, Jesus may be implying that marriage ought to be between a man and a woman. Jesus performed his first public miracle at the marriage at Cana, saving the day by turning water into wine. This story has been upheld as evidence that he supported marriage, and also as an argument against teetotalism! St Paul commands: ‘Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).
Marriage and sex are strictly between a man and woman. Leviticus clearly condemns homosexual acts, as well as touching pork, eating shellfish, and getting a tattoo or a round haircut: ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination (Leviticus 18:22).’ The punishment is harsh: ‘they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them (Leviticus 20:13).’ St Paul seems to echo Leviticus in condemning the ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’ and the ‘soft’ or ‘effeminate’ (1 Corinthians 6:9), and again ‘them that defile themselves with mankind (1 Timothy 1:10)—although, given the original Greek, it could be that he is simply condemning male prostitution.
What of Sodom, destroyed by fire and brimstone? In Genesis 19, Lot gives shelter to two beautiful angels. The Sodomites threaten to force themselves upon Lot’s guests, and such is Lot’s idea of hospitality that he offers up his daughters instead: ‘Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof (Genesis 19:9).’ It is not clear whether the sin of Sodom was homosexual rape, lack of hospitality, or both or other.
The only reference to same-sex love between women is in St Paul’s First Letter to the Romans. To punish the people for their idolatry, ‘God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural (physikos, ‘produced by nature’) use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly… (Romans 1:26-28).’ It could be that, rather than homosexual acts per se, St Paul is in fact condemning the prostitution and pederasty of the Romans, or the pagan practice of priests and priestesses prostituting themselves out of their temples, or simply those people who go against their nature, that is, against their heterosexual orientation.
Despite David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi, the concept of homosexuality as a sexual orientation is relatively recent. The only possible mention of homosexuality as a sexual orientation is in Matthew 19:12, when Jesus speaks of ‘eunuchs which were so born from their mother’s womb’.
Many traditional attitudes have come down from the Bible. But the Bible is not only or even primarily an instruction manual. It is not a unified work. It often contradicts itself. It lends itself to interpretation. It is open to misinterpretation. Choices made in style and translation can reflect the biases of the translator. Still, for better or worse, no single book has exerted a greater influence on the way we live and think.