Sex scandals have bubbled up though the murky currents of American politics of both the left and the right, but they’ve always been most outrageous when they’ve involved Republicans, especially the Bible-thumping, evolution-denying red-staters of recent decades. After all, the assumption prevails that such Republicans, being so ostentatiously pious, really ought to behave the way the Good Book tells them to.
But such an assumption rests on grossly false premises – that the “Good Book” is actually good, that it offers pleasant, morally edifying tales, that it strictly ordains temperance and chastity, and that the undeniable, if unoriginal, wisdom encapsulated in the Golden Rule – “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” – is, well, the rule and not the exception.
That this is not the case really should surprise no one. After all, the New Testament turns on an impossible, outlandishly lewd “truth” (and here I’ll cite a famous anti-religion author): that the “Almighty committed debauchery with a woman engaged to be married.” That is, God had sex with Mary, betrothed to Joseph, who was thus divinely cuckolded. The New Testament, says the same author, brims with other “glaring absurdities, contradictions, and falsehoods.” The Old Testament is even worse, bristling as it is with “obscene stories” and “voluptuous debaucheries.” The Joshua chapter, for example, amounts to a “history of rapine and murder, as savage and brutal as those recorded by his predecessor in villainy and hypocrisy.” In said author’s telling, the Bible is hardly a tome from which one could derive any kind of decent morals at all. Quite the contrary. Instead of the epithet the “Word of God,” it might better be called, says he, “the word of a demon,” and “a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.”
Who indited such flagrant blasphemy against the Holy Scriptures? Not, as one might expect, the late Christopher Hitchens or some other “New” atheist, but the revolutionary deist and enemy of organized religion, Thomas Paine – the everlasting human font from which many anti-religionists, including myself, draw inspiration. The above quotations come from his fiery treatise against Christianity, "The Age of Reason," which he wrote more than two centuries ago. "The Age of Reason" is a book to read and treasure and reread. Paine was in places unjustly dismissive of the Bible (as I’ll explain below), but if nothing else, "The Age of Reason" gives lie to the notion, advanced by quasi-literate modern-day commentators with faith-dulled axes to grind, that “stridency” characterizes the New Atheists alone. Paine was relentlessly “strident,” and his brilliant Biblical exegesis shows how right he was to be so.
But back to the Bible. Aside from the bogus incident of parthenogenesis that supposedly begat Jesus, what else about the Good Book is less than good? Before we proceed, let me recommend readers choose, as their Bible of reference, the 1611 King James translation (the text I cite throughout this essay), with its wonderful language so influential in English literature, language that renders the banal versions circulating in the United States now little better than supermarket-shelf Bibles for dummies. The haunting verses of Ecclesiastes, Psalms and Proverbs make for some of the most transporting reading imaginable. I say this knowing, obviously, that not a single word of these texts owes its charm to divine afflatus. Credit goes not to the Lord, but to anonymous churchmen translators toiling away in the time of Shakespeare.
Anyway, for those who understand it as such, the “debauchery” of the Lord deflowering the Virgin Mary befouls the New Testament and Christianity as a whole. But what of sex in the Old Testament? Things started out pretty well, with Adam and Eve running around naked, and God himself giving them an encouraging coup d’envoi by ordering them to “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth” –celestial license to get it on. But then a talking snake shows up, chats with Eve, and ruins everything. Adam could have said no to her proffered apple, but he didn’t. The blame has somehow attached to Eve for all eternity, and has justified misogyny of the rankest sort ever since.
Did the Fall, with all its disastrous repercussions for women throughout the millennia, and expulsion from Eden spell the end of good times for sensualists, especially gustatory ones? Preachers ranting red-faced about hellfire and damnation would have you think so. But they are telling only part of the story. Isaiah 22:13 counsels us to “behold joy and sadness, slaying oxen, and killing sheep, eating flesh, and drinking wine: let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die” – not bad advice from a book of the Bible Paine called “one continued, incoherent bombastical rant.” Ecclesiastes, which Paine rather ungenerously denigrated as “the solitary reflections of a worn-out debauchee,” informs us in lines 2:24 that, “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor” all of which comes “from the hand of God.” And later in Ecclesiastes, in 8:15, we learn that “a man has no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.”
There are other lines endorsing revelry in the Old Testament, but the sex-positive ones are surely less well-known. Proverbs 5:18-5:19 says “rejoice with the wife of thy youth . . . let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love.” [There is yet another a] marvelous poetic divagation in the Song of Solomon (7:6-12): "This they stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters [of grapes]. . . . I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine . . . . And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly . . . . Let us get up early to the vineyards . . . . there I will give thee my loves.” Carousers find less to rejoice about in the New Testament, though Luke (12:19-12:20) declares “Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” Some will object that I’m presenting such lines out of context, but that is what preachers often do in their homilies. Given the Bible’s wild inconsistencies, this is only natural.
Does the Bible present us with exemplars of sterling conduct and ethical fortitude? Not quite. According to Genesis, we are all nothing less than the base progeny of incest. Adam’s son Cain, exiled to the land of Nod, has sex with his wife (Genesis 4:17) and she conceives. The problem is, with Cain, his brother Abel, and mom and dad Adam and Eve still the only folks on earth, where did he find his spouse? Did Cain sleep with – and knock up – Eve? This is the inescapable, if repugnantly à la Georges Bataille, conclusion.
There’s more incest, though. The infamous widower to a pillar of salt, Lot, onetime resident of rollicking Sodom (sister city of Gomorrah), in Genesis 19:30-19:36 gets drunk on wine and sleeps with both his daughters. But, surprise! He can’t be blamed: the girls seduced him, for the noble aim of preserving his “seed.” Judah (of Genesis 38) beds a “harlot” who turns out to be his daughter-in-law; for the crime he himself committed, he orders that she be burnt, but then generously decides otherwise. In Exodus, Moses’ mother Jochebed weds Amram, her nephew. The offspring of this unholy union, Moses, turns out to be, not surprisingly, less than a stellar individual – in Paine’s telling he’s “a detestable villain,” a “chief assassin and impostor” possessing “the most horrid [character] imaginable.” Even the patriarch of patriarchs, the would-be slayer of his own son, Abraham (Ibrahim to Muslims), fesses up in Genesis 20:12 to having married his half-sister.
There are many other incidents of sex and marriage with half-sisters and cousins and so on. But what of gay sex? The Bible, of course, forbids it, warning (in Leviticus 22) that ”thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: [it] is abomination.” Later in the same chapter, it is declared that those who do so “shall surely be put to death.” How many preachers and pastors have cited these lines to rail against gays, no one can say. Yet possibly, a few Biblical personalities chose to ignore such strictures. In 1 Samuel 18:1, we read that “the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” Then, in 2 Samuel 1:26, David informs Jonathan that “very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” Just a bromance or an instance of gayness? We don’t really know.
Women, too, may have gotten it on with each other. In the Book of Ruth, Ruth and Naomi may have been lovers.
Most readers have heard of the Gnostic Gospels -- apocrypha, discovered in Egypt only in 1945, that really belonged in the New Testament but were probably rejected by early Church authorities as too wanton. One of the Gnostic texts has Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene with such fervency that the Apostles got pissed off and reprimanded him. No such explicit foreplay made it into the bowdlerized New Testament, of course. First Corinthians exhorts us to marry. Thessalonians urges each of us to “possess his vessel” – i.e., his Johnson? – “in sanctification and honour; not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God.” (Note how the Bible, in true sexist fashion, for the most part addresses men.) First Corinthians also enjoins us to “Defraud ye not one the other,” – that is, deny sex to each other – “except it be with consent for a time,” lest Satan take advantage of our “incontinency.” There is certainly worse advice in the Bible than this.
But much of what the New Testament tells us about sexual behavior is repellent. References abound to “impurity” and “fornication” (for example, 1 Corinthians 6:18: “flee fornication . . . he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body”), and vile, body-negative verses occur, such as, in Colossians 3:5, “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Those who are “effeminate,” those who lust and those who masturbate are, says Corinthians 6:9-6:10, “unrighteous,” on the same level as thieves, drunkards, revilers, and extortioners, and shall not “inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:21 expands on these points, and there are other examples. Yes, all this contradicts Luke 12:19 (cited above), but that’s the point. One can use the Bible to justify pretty much any “abomination.”
In any case, you don’t even have to actually commit a sin of the flesh to earn the wrath of the Lord. Just daydreaming about it is enough. Those who came of age during the Jimmy Carter era will recall the president’s untoward admission that he had lusted after women in his heart – an unprecedented, TMI admission for our commander-in-chief to make back then, and a grim portent of how the Good Lord would find himself, a few years later, dragged into national politics to our enduring detriment, with the obese homophobe and de facto Al Qaeda sympathizer Jerry Falwell and his fulsome Moral Majority the first of many problems to come. Carter was referring, of course, to Matthew 5:28: “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
Some may object that if those as far back as Thomas Paine were pointing out such things, why is it worth our time now to examine what the Bible actually says? Well, even as nonbelief is spreading, three out of four Americans view the Bible as the Word of God. The “Good Book” continues to poison our politics and give succor to all who would halt our tentative progress and hurl us back into the Dark Ages, threatening women and their rights, our science-based education and our future in a technology-dominated world, and the flickering, almost extinguished (rationalist) spirit of the Age of Enlightenment – the Golden Era of atheism and renewal, humanism and promise. We need a re-Enlightenment, and fast. A first step in the right direction would involve scrutinizing the religious canon that still enjoys far more respect than it deserves.
And let’s be clear: The respect that, say, the King James translation of the Bible does merit has nothing to do with it supposedly being (says 2 Timothy 3:16-17) “scripture . . . given by inspiration of God, . . . profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” but for being one of the wellsprings for English-language prose and poetry.
Psalms 119:105 proclaims the Bible “a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” This it is not.
We should shout this truth on public squares and from rooftops throughout the land.