Sunday, 5 February 2012

Biblical Models for Sexual Morality? Perhaps not ...

"Irregular - but not invalid". An interesting form of words, suggesting that something has not happened in the normal or proper way, but that it still counts the same as if it had. It describes ordination to the priesthood in certain circumstances (like John Wesley's ordinations of priests for the Americas, when he was not himself a bishop) and, for centuries, re-married divorcees, who were deemed not free to marry by the Church of England, but having got married, could hardly be classified as anything else. The same might be true of some attitudes to civil partnerships in our own day.

In an series of internet discussions about sexuality and marriage I have been interested by the way in which the Bible is used to affirm things which it doesn't actually say. This is mainly because the Biblical writers were not really very interested in either - that people (well, men!) would have sexual desires, and that marriage was a sensible place to park them, was obvious and required no expounding. The reason for this does not seem to be any prevailing sense of Natural Law, but the entirely practical social provision that in a patriarchal society a man must know who his children are, and when he sells off his daughters, he must be sure of their virginity in order to get a good price for them. Interestingly, some African cultures turn this one on its head and put a higher price on a woman who already has a child, as proof of fertility, and certainly genealogical research on 18th century England suggests that marriage often followed on from proof of fertility, rather than preceding it (if judged by counting the number of months between the wedding and the baptism of the couple's first child, which in my studies has seldom been more than nine).

What strikes me about the Biblical books is how often it is the irregular which becomes valid. Take the succession of younger sons, for instance. The natural order, and the prevailing custom in most societies, is that the eldest son is the heir. This is partly for the sensible reason that in a world with much shorter lifespans than our own, the eldest son had the greater chance of actually being an adult when he inherited. And once the rule is established, there do not need to be feuds about the succession. Only, there were: from Cain and Abel and Jacob and Esau, to the sons of David and beyond. And it tended to be the upstart who found favour with God. There is certainly no sign of the impartial lack of favouritism which modern parents go to some lengths to show.

And we can search high and low for any attractive picture of marriage. If we take Adam and Eve to be archetypes (which they must be, or else their grandchildren would have been the children of incest, abhorrent to the ancient Hebrews - the fact that there is no quasi-Fundamentalist attempt to explain this away is evidence that it never occurred to anyone to take the story literally) we find absolutely nothing to suggest love between the sexes until the Song of Solomon. There's plenty of marriage (but no registers, no statutes, and no Canon Law - marriage was whatever people said it was in those days), and polygamy was, likewise, regarded as entirely unremarkable. There's also plenty of male desire. Jacob wanted Rachel, and was mightily disgruntled to be fobbed off with Leah, the bird with the squint, first time round, but we're not told what the ladies in question thought of Jacob. In the story of David's adultery with Bathsheba we hear all about him, and nothing about her. And God is so cross with David that he kills their first child, although accepting Solomon as David's successor later on. Bathsheba is portrayed as a loyal mother - but as a wife, we know nothing about her, and whether she thought losing her child was a fair price to pay for having to yield to David's advances.

Female desire features, if I have remembered rightly, in only two places - the Song of Solomon, which is so rude the authorities have tried to bowdlerise it as a parable of God's love for Israel, or Christ's for the church, which it evidently is not - and Genesis 3, where a woman's desire for her husband is actually described as a curse, because having given in to it, he will then be horrid to her and boss her around. "How very unlike the home life of our own dear Queen" as they used to say. Interestingly, Adam is cursed for listening to his wife, something for which husbands have been trying to compensate ever since.

Polygamy - or more properly polygyny, as it's only the boys who get to choose more than once, not the girls - was rife. In the words of the cheerful verse:

King David and King Solomon led very merry lives
With many, many, concubines, and many many wives.
But when old age came over them, with many, many, qualms
King Solomon wrote the proverbs, and King David wrote the Psalms.

As already noted, these two licentious libertines found favour with God, long before they retired with their quill pens to the library.

Polygamy is at no point outlawed, nor is it suggested that monogamy is better. It is regarded as entirely natural that a man should have more than one wife - if he could afford it - and there is no suggestion that there should be any limit to their number, nor that he should treat them all equally, as became the Muslim rule many years later. The Orthodox, and our own Book of Common Prayer, are forced in the marriage service to refer to Isaac and Rebecca as probably the only monogamous couple in the Bible.

You just can't find modern marriage in the Old Testament.

The New Testament is even more baffling, and begins with the most outrageous and explicit irregularity of all - a child conceived out of wedlock! Shock horror! Well, God was the father, so that's OK. Again, genealogical experience teaches that illegitimate children are quite likely to claim very upmarket, noble, and utterly implausible, men as their fathers, and this one really trumps them all. How on earth could Joseph put up with the shame of it? And not only that, have at least six more children with Mary? (Sorry Catholics, that's the plain sense of Scripture, so it is.) The legend - there is no evidence for it - is that Joseph was an old man, but clearly of undiminished powers, since no similar miraculous interventions had to be suggested for his other children. Perhaps he was a bit of an old goat who got a rebate from Mary's father for damaged goods, and invested it in a nice new workbench for his carpentry? Perhaps he was just a really nice guy who couldn't put his own pride before a woman's dishonour? We shall never know. Scripture refuses to tell us, because it isn't interested.

What Scripture does find interesting, though, is that Jesus has to be the Son of David, and Matthew and Luke give us two exhaustive genealogies to explain how this is so. And two stories alongside them which show how it can't have been. It has been suggested that perhaps Mary was of David's line too (after several centuries, and so many wives and concubines, it's a fair bet that everyone in Palestine back then was descended from David), but Scripture doesn't tell us so, and clearly it didn't matter. So, if anything, Jesus is the promised Son of David not by birth, but by adoption, because it is Joseph who claims the royal ancestor. Needless to say, the two genealogies are a bit of a mess, and it is not fruitful to try to chart them out side by side, but Matthew's is the more interesting, because of The Four Dodgy Women - Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Tamar was incestuously married successively to two men (the second was Onan, but let's not go there) and their father; Rahab was a prostitute; Ruth was a foreigner; and Bathsheba was an adultress. Matthew seems to be telling us "surprising things can happen in even the best-regulated families".

Of course, if we take it literally, the story makes clear that Jesus is NOT in fact descended from any of these dodgy women, but I think it's equally clear that we are meant to understand that he IS. Is that clear?

And what of Jesus himself? It does seem a little odd that he would still be unmarried at thirty. For much of human history, a significant proportion of the male population would be dead before thirty, never mind still single. Our ancestors took "go forth and multiply" very seriously, and we now understand this to be a very simple evolutionary imperative - to conquer the tribe, you have to breed your genes into it. But singleness was not unknown in those times, the Essenes were celibates, and the Prophet Jeremiah had been one (maybe that's why he was so miserable?). Jesus certainly seems to have been very popular with the ladies, as well as the chaps, and no, I'm not suggesting THAT, but simply that his appeal seems to have been pretty universal. Maybe you can only be Son of God in the world by avoiding sexual relationships with anyone - look at the trouble all those Greek, Roman, and Norse, deities got into. We can infer a special relationship with Mary of Magdala, perhaps, but then, if a healer has cast seven demons out of you, perhaps it would be natural to be a bit on the grateful side. Maybe she was a bit of a "cassock-clinger"? (Clergy will know, and others will guess, what that means.)

Scripture is silent as to whether Jesus was married or not. It doesn't make a claim one way or the other, and again, we are left deducing that the writers didn't find the question interesting. He doesn't seem to have been very family-minded, but if you are an itinerant prophet, it's not really in the job description. Nor does he say much about marriage and family life - except that he seems to expect to find love there, although his stories dwell more on parents than partners. And he says there shouldn't be divorce. Interestingly, his disciples respond to this with astonishment and say "well, who'd bother getting married then?" But he also said that to have desire in your eye is to commit adultery in your heart, and that sets the bar pretty high, too. Hyperbole seems to have been something he enjoyed - "motes and beams" comes to mind, and with it Eric Sykes's brilliant little silent film "The Plank". Rather like the comment about hating ones family, you're left wondering, "but did he really mean it?"

Saint Paul is another complicated bachelor, laying down the law to other people. Tom Lehrer once defined a philosopher as "someone who gives helpful advice to people who are happier than he is". Paul thinks marriage is OK, if you really can't help yourself (for the avoidance of fornication "that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry" as the Prayerbook has it), but celibacy is better. There's Gospel work to do, after all, and the old ball-and-chain, not to mention the squalling brats, are just going to be a hindrance, aren't they? Paul is painted as a misogynist, but women clearly feature in his letters as fellow-workers for the Gospel. And although he is categorical about women not having authority, and having to cover their hair ("out of regard for the angels", obviously), perhaps he just meant "in Corinth", not "in eternity"?

One last little bagatelle. The Book of Revelation, Dodgier than the Dodgiest of Old Testament Women, suggests that the 144,000 to be saved (in these ecumenical days, that's about one person from each denomination in the world) are to be "men who have not defiled themselves with women". According to Edmund White's travel book "States of Desire", there is a sect of gay Mormon fundamentalists (sorry, "simple Bible Christians") who have taken this to heart. You couldn't make it up.

So, should our understanding of marriage, sexuality, family life, and love, be based on Biblical models? My answer is, No, best not, because if it is, it's not just the gays who haven't a prayer.

No comments:

Post a Comment