What the Bible Really Does (and Doesn't Say) about Sex: The How, When, Why, and With Whom of Scriptural Prohibitions and Permissions

What the Bible Really Does (and Doesn't Say) about Sex: The How, When, Why, and With Whom of Scriptural Prohibitions and Permissions

by Matthew O'Neil


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781634310529
Publisher: Pitchstone Publishing
Publication date: 11/23/2015
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Matthew O’Neil is an activist, theologian, and teacher. He has an MA in theology from Saint Michael’s College, and he is a certified Humanist chaplain and celebrant. He is the author of You Say That I Am: Jesus and the Messianic Problem and writes for the Danthropology blog through the Patheos network. He lives in Saint Albans, Vermont.

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What the Bible Really Does (and Doesn't) Say about Sex

The How, When, Why, and With Whom of Scriptural Prohibitions and Permissions

By Matthew O'Neil

Pitchstone Publishing

Copyright © 2015 Matthew O'Neil
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63431-054-3



The Bible is an especially curious book when explored for sexual content. Any average person, who knows of modern-day religious teachings and the very loud religious outcry against sexuality, would think that the only biblical mention of anything sexual would relate only to prohibitions on sex. To be sure, if you were to look for obvious statements about sex in the Bible, you would most likely first come across prohibitions on sex. But, with a more attentive read, we can discover some rather lustful ideas and pornographic narratives written between the lines of the Bible. In this section we will discuss the Bible's use of sexual euphemisms, the fine line between prohibition and permissible sex acts within the Bible, and how we as a society — and even many authors of and figures in the Bible — have gotten it all wrong.


Euphemisms for sex are varied throughout the Bible. Thankfully, in those cases where the euphemisms are not obvious, we find parallels in other ancient Near Eastern texts that provide relevant context, allowing us to understand their intended meaning. Just as two thousand years into the future people might have little to no idea what we mean today when we call someone "hot," so too can we be easily confused by slang from the ancient past without proper reference points. As an example, consider how much language has changed just within the past fifty years. Younger generations today likely have no idea what "backseat bingo" means, though it's highly likely any of their grandparents who came of age in the 1950s know exactly what the term means.

One such euphemism found throughout the Bible is "to know" — as in person XX knew person XY. We see this in passages like Genesis 4:1: "Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain." It is hard to imagine conception, and the subsequent birth of a child, without intercourse (and this is putting aside the notion of the virgin birth in Matthew and Luke). In fact, Cain's name derives from the Hebrew qanah, which means "to create," and the story is used to demonstrate the creative wonder in the first conception and birth of a child. This example provides a rather compelling case that "to know" meant to have sexual relations with someone.

This euphemism also appears in Numbers 31:17, when Moses commands the Israelites, who are on a conquest to settle the Transjordan, to "kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him." This is another transparent example of what "to know" means. In black and white, it states that "to know" someone is to sleep with them. A similar usage of "to know" is found in Judges 21:12, which refers to four hundred young virgins among the Jabesh-gilead who had never "known a man by lying with him."

In the Book of Amos 3:1–2, Amos writes, "Hear you this word that the LORD has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." Later translators of Amos may not have highlighted the sexual implications of this passage, but the wording does suggest a special relationship — an intimate connection Amos had not only with Israel, but also with Israel's God, Yahweh.

Two other euphemisms for sex are "to go in to" and "to come in to." Deuteronomy 21:10–14 describes the legal obligations one has when taking a woman captive during a war. In this situation, the author writes, after a month of allowing her to mourn the loss of her family, either through her family's death or her captivity, the captor shall "go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife." This sexual instruction, while reading as permission to rape, is meant to mark the consummation of a marriage. This passage is a continuation from Deuteronomy 20:15–18 and applied to the Canaanites, as they often became, like any war captives, concubines for the Israelites. This law in ancient warfare did not just apply to women.

A "to come in to" variation is found in Joshua 2:1–3, when Joshua sends two spies to Jericho. "So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there ... 'Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house.'" While not explicit, this passage has a sexual undertone. Adding to this undertone is the fact that the spies are sent from the land of Shittim, where the Israelites had sex with the women of Moab in Numbers 25:1. The author of Joshua appears to focus on the Israelites finding success, or showing their superiority, through sexual conquests.

"To lie with" and "to come in to" appear together in Genesis 30:15–16, when Rachel and Leah discuss mandrakes, a potato-like plant believed to be an aphrodisiac. When Rachel requests some from Leah, Leah becomes upset, saying, "Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son's mandrakes also?" As a trade, Rachel suggests, "Then he may lie with you tonight for your son's mandrakes." When Jacob approaches, Leah tells him, "You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son's mandrakes." The use of both of these turns of phrase, coupled with bargaining over a food thought to inspire lust, suggests sex is being traded for the potato roots.

"To make laugh" is slang for intercourse as well. In Genesis 26:6–9, when Isaac and Rebekah travel to Egypt, they stop in Gerar. As with the story of Abraham and Sarah (twice) before, Isaac tells the men who approach them that Rebekah is his sister. After they had been there a "long time," King Abimelech of the Philistines looks out a window and sees Isaac "making Rebekah laugh." The phrase "to make laugh" is a translation of the Hebrew metsaheq, which also means "to fondle," used euphemistically here and elsewhere to mean sexual intercourse. Interestingly, the use of metsaheq in this passage cleverly refers to Isaac's name, which shares the same shq root. Isaac's name was given to him after God told his mother, Sarah, that she would bear a child, making her laugh (Genesis 18:12).

Another story using "to make laugh" is in Genesis 21:9–10. Because of Sarah's inability to produce children for Abraham, she had given him her servant girl Hagar, who ended up giving him his first-born son, Ishmael. After Isaac is born and has been weaned, Abraham throws a great feast to celebrate. While there, "Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, making her son Isaac laugh. So she said to Abraham, 'Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.'" If we read this passage literally, it would seem funny for Sarah to cast out Hagar and Ishmael simply because Ishmael made Isaac laugh. However, if we read it as we read the text in Genesis 26, we see the passage refers to some type of sexual play. Alternatively, some scholars argue that metsaheq can also be translated as "to mock with laughter" and that Sarah witnessed Ishmael pretending to be Isaac, the true heir of Abraham. Either interpretation provides enough justification to warrant Sarah's reaction and expulsion of the two.

"Uncovering nakedness" is yet another euphemism for sex. We see this in Leviticus with its list of sexual prohibitions. Leviticus 18:6–7 states, "None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness ... You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness." Nakedness can be a term used to refer to genitals, equivalent in meaning and use to the Latin pudenda, which means "shame," but which is also the root for pudendum, a word used to refer to genitals. Elsewhere in the Bible, such as in Deuteronomy 28:57, Ruth 3:7–14, and Isaiah 7:10, the word "feet" is used as a euphemism for genitals. This may make you rethink how you view the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet in Matthew 26:14 and Luke 22:24.

And while we are touching on the subject, in parallel traditions of the Near East, the word "hand" was often an indirect way to refer to genitals. We see this in a Ugaritic text from the second millennium BCE that reads, "El's hand grows as long as the sea, El's hand [as long as] the ocean." This is the beginning of a narrative describing the conception and birth of the goddesses Dawn and Dusk. El becomes aroused when he sees two women, or two goddesses, and his "hand" grows. We see a similar usage in the Dead Sea Scrolls: "Whoever takes out his hand from under his clothes and his nakedness is seen will be punished for 30 days." Even in the Hebrew Bible, we have an example of "hand" used in place of phallus. At Isaiah 57:8, it reads, "Behind the door and the doorpost you have set up your symbol ... you have loved their bed, you have gazed on their hand." In other translations, "their phallus" or "their nakedness" is used in place of "their hand." The authors of the Near East's religious texts clearly understood that "hand" was a common term to refer to genitals.


Even in the modern world, a tremendous amount of money and energy is spent promoting premarital chastity, particularly for women. This is almost exclusively done in the name of religion. In 1973, R. J. Rushdooney wrote a book titled The Institutes of Biblical Law, which championed the philosophy of Dominionism, the idea that Christians should politicize religion. In his book, Rushdooney advocated for the death penalty for, among other things, astrology, incest, adultery, and "unchastity before marriage." The administration of George W. Bush spent one billion dollars on abstinence-only education, which 30 percent of U.S. school systems utilized, and which resulted in a higher rate of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. James Dobson, author of Marriage Under Fire, an evangelical Christian, and founder of the ferociously anti-gay group Focus on the Family, similarly advocates for abstinence-only sex education. In the 1990s, many religious groups championed the "Allegory of Chastity," a virginity pledge teens took to remain celibate until marriage. This included wearing a silver ring with an inscription of 1 Thessalonians 4:3–4, "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor."

So, with all this in mind, what else does the Bible actually say about chastity? Paul of Tarsus provides the clearest references to the matter. The passage of his that has had perhaps the greatest influence on the Church's teachings about celibacy is 1 Corinthians 7:25-26: "Now concerning virgins, I have no command of The Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are." Though this passage has influenced the Church's views on chastity the most, it is interesting to note that Paul, quite explicitly, states that he is expressing his own personal view and that he is not communicating a command from God or Jesus. What is perhaps even more damning to the Church's reliance on this view is Paul 7:8-9: "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion." In effect, Paul offers an out for those who are not chaste. More significantly, he does not say it is necessary for people to stay celibate — rather, he says that if one were to become "aflame with passion," it would be preferable that one marry.

This is not to say Paul felt premarital sexual activity was okay. He was very much an apocalyptic Jew. He writes in several of his epistles about the "groaning in labor pains" of creation, a metaphor for the coming apocalypse also used in 2 Esdras 4:42, 10:5–14; Matthew 24:8; and Mark 13:8. (Mark 13 predicts a coming apocalypse, often referred to as the "mini apocalypse.") Paul believed that those who were married were more concerned with earthly matters, whereas those who were unmarried and chaste concerned themselves with the desires and needs of God. 1 Corinthians 7:32–34 shows us this:

The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of The Lord, how to please The Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband.

This accompanies Paul's aforementioned recommendation to remain celibate and unmarried, like himself, which comes after a number of recommendations in regard to sex. This particular chapter in 1 Corinthians, and the chapters that follow, do focus on sex, but the discussion centers specifically on the eschatological, or apocalyptic, calling from God.

"Eunuch" is another important term to know in the context of the Bible's discussion of sex. While the word means "a man or boy deprived of the testes or external genitals," for writers of the Bible, it also served as a metaphor for a celibate male. We see this in Matthew 19:12: "For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can." Church father Origen took this passage quite literally and castrated himself to avoid sexual temptation. Similar to Paul, Matthew presented celibacy as a way of preparing oneself for the coming kingdom of God during the eschatological age. To be a eunuch, in this sense, was to be celibate voluntarily.

Even the Book of Revelation has an interesting perspective on chastity and virginity. This final book of the New Testament, as an apocalyptic writing, is often equated to the Hebrew Bible's Book of Daniel and makes a rather startling claim in chapter fourteen. It states, "It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as the first fruits for God and the Lamb." The term "first fruits" in this passage is a call back to Exodus 23:19: "The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the LORD your God." So, it would appear, when the end time comes, these 144,000 virgins (14:1) will be the ones welcomed into God's kingdom. This might explain why, over the course of the two thousand years since the founding of Christianity, only a very small percentage of canonized individuals, whether men or women, had spouses. A very large majority of them were celibate males, with the occasional widow or widower.

Early church fathers like Clement of Alexandria championed Paul of Tarsus' view that marriage was second to chastity. Methodius of Olympus, a Church father and ecclesiastical author, wrote a piece titled Symposium of the Ten Virgins (a parody of Plato's Symposium) that includes speeches by ten female virgins in praise of chastity. As one virgin argues, procreation may have been absolutely necessary in the beginning, but it has become a "crude and archaic" relic of humanity's origins. In the tenth century, the Church went so far as to attempt to make lay people as chaste as monks, before finally imposing celibacy on clergy in 1215.

Modern-day advocates of premarital celibacy may cite the same Bible passages as their antecedents, but in today's work, the celibate ideal is no longer one that can be reasonably held or expected to be effective.


In 1852, when Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormons after the death of its founder, Joseph Smith, announced publicly the doctrine of plural marriage, evangelical Christians throughout the United States went into a fury. In response, the U.S. Congress enacted anti-bigamy and anti-polygamy statutes, which in turn were used to prosecute Mormons in federal court. After George Reynolds, a Mormon man with two wives, was tried for his plural marriage, he brought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, stating that such laws kept him from practicing his religious right to marry several women. The Court, having not yet had the opportunity to clarify the religion clause of the First Amendment, decided unanimously in 1879 that "free religious exercise could not be an excuse to violate the sacred obligation of monogamous marriage by taking on multiple wives." It stated, "Polygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe, and, until the establishment of the Mormon Church, was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people."


Excerpted from What the Bible Really Does (and Doesn't) Say about Sex by Matthew O'Neil. Copyright © 2015 Matthew O'Neil. Excerpted by permission of Pitchstone Publishing.
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Table of Contents


1. Sex,
2. Women,
3. Abortion,
4. Homosexuality, Transgenderism, and Transsexuality,
5. Circumcision,
6. Birth Control,
About the Author,

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