What's Up with Weird Bible Sex?
This is the second article in a short "Genesis January" series to help people explore the complexity of the Bible at the start of a new year.
So you're starting a Bible reading plan in Genesis? Well, buckle up, because Genesis might be the most sexually wild book in the Old Testament. Of course, that's not how we tend to think of Genesis, but the sex scenes are there. From the slightly cringey to the extremely upsetting, sex appears with and without euphemism in these origin stories of Israel.
I still remember the first few times that I read the book of Genesis as a new Christian. I didn't know much about it beyond some vague notions of a flood and a guy named Abraham. I was a blank-slate reader. I never expected to find scenes that couldn't have been shown on broadcast television--as salacious as the first few episodes of an HBO series. But of course these are not scenes of erotic titillation designed to hook the audience. Something much stranger is happening. Sex, we learn from the first book of our Scripture, is central to our participation in God's work.
The topic arises ordinarily and early in the book of Genesis. Both creation accounts end with sexualized humans. In Genesis 1, we read, "In the image of God he created them, male and female he created them" (v. 27, NRSVue throughout). The male-female image of God already contains the potential for sex. And the two sexes have at least one purpose: procreation. The second creation account ends with man and woman becoming "one flesh" (2:24).
After their exile from the garden of Eden, the couple produces three sons. But the narrator does not merely tell us that they had three sons. Instead, Genesis 4 is punctuated with a formulaic description of sex: The man knew his wife and she conceived and bore a son. Then, the man knew his wife and she conceived and bore a son. Then, it happens again, ending with Eve's bitter celebration of Seth's birth, "God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him" (4:25).
That's more than the necessary attention to sex and Genesis is, of course, just getting started. Much of the plot of the book revolves around implied sexuality activity, obscured by the fact we just don't think about what is being presumed. But the narrator tells us of a barren woman named Sarai (16:1), and then a barren woman named Rebekah (25:21), a barren women named Rachel (30:1-2), and a barren woman named Leah (30:9). There are more besides those, less central to the main narrative. The women of Shechem, for example, have their wombs closed by God (20:18).
We might miss that, until very recently, there has been only one way to know that a woman is infertile: regular participation in procreative sex with a man. Of course, it might be the man who is infertile, but Genesis is clear in at least some instances that it is God who causes infertility. And this is only known by the women and their husbands in one way. The implicit sex is important to the story that Genesis wants to tell.
Anyone who reads the Bible today may be tempted to skip over the sex. It can seem too crude, too impolite, or at least not spiritually edifying for our morning devotions. But I want to argue that we should read the Bible that we have and take it seriously. Even the R-rated bits. When you read Genesis, pay attention to the details of the sex. They are trying to teach us about the nature of our bodies and communities before God.
When sex unravels us
Consider the ways sex in Genesis unravels people and institutions. Even today, people who have survived in lawless lands and war zones know that sexual violence degrades the person, the family, and the broader society. As Jacob Onyumbe Wenyi writes in Piles of Slain, Heaps of Corpses, "traumatic events do not only break individuals; they also break social beliefs and customs and alter the collective memories and identities of communities."
This is what we see in Genesis. When foreigners enter the town of Sodom, "the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man," descended upon Lot's house to commit sexual violence upon the foreigners and scar the collective memories and identities of communities (19:4). Such violence traumatizes everyone involved, including the ones inflicting violence. Lot pleads with all the men in the town not to violate the sanctity of the shelter of his roof. In a bizarre turn, Lot attempts to extend his protection over the vulnerable foreigners by offering his two daughters to be sexually violated by the mob. When Genesis descends into the genre of horror, it entangles the atrocities of weaponized sex with the plight of the vulnerable--as it does in Sodom.
We read another case of weaponized sex unraveling a community when it's used against Jacob's child as a tool for political negotiation. The prince of Shechem rapes Dinah, which causes the prince's father to negotiate a political treaty with Jacob and his sons. The asking price here is Dinah's body. The narrator never voices Dinah's concerns, but her brothers are indignant at the actions of the prince, and they note that his actions break apart their custom, collective memory, and the identity of the community (34:1-31). In retribution for their sister's body, some of Dinah's siblings attempt to redeem her, as they see it, with a massacre.
Even when the sex isn't violent, Genesis shows us the way it can destabilize societies and harm people for generations. As a general rule in Scripture, when a man carries out sexual relationships with multiple women who are alive at the same time, the children of those liaisons exhibit the signs of fractured communities and identities. The narrator doesn't comment on the morality of the sex, but we see God intervening to care for the children harmed by the fractured family relationships, from Ishmael to Joseph.
Sometimes the consequences are subtle, but they're there if you pay attention. Consider the single sentence that notes Reuben had sex with his stepmother Bilhah (35:22). That detail comes and goes, but Jacob notices the betrayal and recalls it on his deathbed. "Unstable as water," he says to his son, "you shall no longer excel because you went up onto your father's bed" (49:4).
Sex, it seems, can unhinge a community. There are many more examples, from the Nephilim to Onan, demonstrating a wild array of ways that weaponized sex shatters more than individuals.
Taking and giving in sex
But there is another whole category of weird sex in Genesis that a careful reader should note. The text also depicts women sexually directing men's bodies, and sometimes the bodies of women under their power, for seemingly noble purposes. Their efforts are portrayed sympathetically, even if their actions cross all kinds of moral boundaries later laid down in the Torah.
Sarai swings a plan into motion with her husband, Abram. She pleads with her husband: "You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave; it may be that I shall obtain children by her" (Gen. 16:2). The enslaved woman's feelings about this proposal are left in the space between the words. Sarai has the power to do what she wants, so she takes Hagar and gives her to Abram, who, we are told, "listened to the voice of Sarai." This notably isn't the first time in the text that a wife has taken and given something to her husband who listened to his wife. There's a distinct echo of Eve here (Gen. 3:6, 17).
Nor is that the end of the sexual taking and giving. Two generations later, Rachel and Leah employ their servants as sexual surrogates when they believe that God has closed their wombs. It's a baby-making competition between one man, Jacob, and four women: Rachel, her servant Bilhah, Leah, and her servant Zilpah. It's difficult not to see this whole mess as the single driving factor behind this later sexual prohibition in Leviticus: "And you shall not take a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive" (18:18). But if the law is read as an explicit answer to the rotating sexual relationships of Jacob and these four women, note that Leviticus does not condemn the enslaved sex surrogates, nor even the competitive sisters. It's the man who is commanded not to take his wife's sister's.
For me, mandrakes highlight the most bizarre story in this menage a cinq that creates the 12 tribes of Israel. Leah's son Reuben, the one who later has sex with his stepmom, grows mandrakes--a plant in the nightshade family. Rachel wants some mandrakes. Ever the entrepreneur, Leah cuts a deal: sex with Jacob for some of Reuben's mandrakes. Rachel agrees. "When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, 'You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son's mandrakes'" (30:16). Jacob agrees. Together, they produce Issachar, whose name could be translated in context as "a whore's wages." In this case, Genesis unsubtly suggests who is the "whore." (It's Jacob.)
Finally, we come to a mixed story of arranged and coerced sex for noble causes. God kills Er, Judah's son, because of his untold wickedness. But Er's divine execution leaves Tamar as a marooned widow desiring to propagate Judah's tribe through her children (Gen. 38:6). Judah sends his next son, Onan, to have surrogate sex with Tamar, perhaps following a protocol later codified as Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. Onan has sex with Tamar, but ejaculates on the ground. God considers this crime against Tamar and the line of Judah so egregious that God kills Onan (Gen. 38:10). Judah understandably hedges on sending his next young son in to give Tamar children. Now, Judah is complicit in the crime against his own generations to come.
Tamar gets creative. She dresses as a cult prostitute and waits for Judah, her father-in-law, presuming he will arrive and want to have sex with her. He does. Genesis almost casually describes Judah's sexual encounter with a (presumed) prostitute and seems to take delight in playing out the scene where his own sin is revealed to him in peeled back layers (much like Nathan's revelation to David about a baby produced in casually described sex that ends in murder and calamity, per 2 Samuel 12:1-15).
The importance of sex talk
All of this sex is a little baffling, even bizarre at points. But as Christians, we ought not be too delicate for Scripture. So let's ask, what's going on? In some cases, as with Sodom, Onan, and Reuben, there are explicit condemnations in the text. But more often, the morality is unremarked about, suggesting that while other biblical texts will make that their central aim, the book of Genesis is up to something else.
From the stories of straightforward procreation to the accounts of infertility, multiple varieties of violence, sexual surrogacy, and even sexual denial, Genesis is a narrative developing ideas about the body, exploitation, procreation, and sex's inextricable role in families and empires alike.
As you read Genesis, you'll notice many intertwined story lines, cameos, and curious descriptions of God's actions and knowledge. Don't be afraid to think about those scenes. It may be strange, but that doesn't mean it's not important. God is working. And Genesis is laying down fundamental and coherent theology on the body, the family, and the narrative of redemption and restoration. The rest of Scripture, including Jesus's teachings about bodies and human relationships, depends on this sex talk.
Dru Johnson is a professor of biblical and theological studies at The King's College in New York City, director of the Center for Hebraic Thought, editor at The Biblical Mind, and host of The Biblical Mind podcast.
[ This article is also available in espanol. ]