Another book will populate the shelves this month that calls into question the traditional interpretation of biblical passages on sexuality. Jennifer Wright Knust, professor of religion at Boston University and ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches USA, points to “the contradictory nature of the biblical witness” with regard to sexual morals.
Touted as a Bible scholar, Knust’s book, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire, carries weighty authority. She has studied the texts extensively, researching history, language and customs in her quest to refute what she considers an irresponsible and dogmatic use of the Bible in political issues of sexuality.
In the introduction of her book, she writes, “The Bible is complicated enough, ancient enough, and flexible enough to support an almost endless set of interpretive agendas. That’s why abolitionists could find inspiration in the Bible’s pages despite centuries of biblically sanctioned argumentation in favor of the enslavement of fellow human beings. Even today, progressives can cite scripture to celebrate the consecration of gay marriage just as effortlessly as conservatives can argue that God refuses to accept anything other than marriage between one man and one woman. It wasn’t the Bible that brought emancipation, and it won’t be the Bible that determines our sexual ethics. Rather, we ourselves must decide what kind of people we will become, what kinds of weddings should be celebrated, and how best to love one another.”
Knust correctly observes that political opponents have used the Bible to support their competing views on the same issue. What one argues the Bible justifies, another argues the Bible vilifies. If the Bible contradicts itself, offering rival points of view, then it has nothing to say in the debate. Extract biblical references and let the arguments stand on human reason. Knust favors this approach, not only in sexual politics, but on other moral matters as well.
But if the Bible presents a cohesive and consistent perspective on an issue, then one of the interpretations must be flawed. This requires further examination of those passages used as proof texts for each position. It implies that one interpretation is wrong and the other is right, or that both may have some weaknesses.
Knust rejects this conclusion. “I’m not interested in judging who gets things wrong or right. Instead I would like to convince all of us to take responsibility for the interpretations we are promoting. I would like us to stop pretending that the Bible has been dictating our conclusions to us so that we can evaluate the implications of what we are defending. The question for me is not whether an interpretation is valid but whether it is valuable, and to whom.”
In order to arrive at this opinion, she must argue that her interpretations of various passages are right. She must show that the Bible does indeed contradict itself and, therefore, must be discounted as a rulebook on sexual ethics.
For example, she uses the book of Ruth to demonstrate that the Bible sanctions premarital sex. Using an unorthodox meaning for the word “feet” (“a Hebrew euphemism for male genitals”), Knust suggests that when Ruth uncovered Boaz’s feet and slept there on the threshing floor, she actually had premarital sex with him. The Bible seems to commend her action.
If Knust incorrectly interprets “feet” in this passage as a euphemism, her argument collapses and the Bible does not sanctify premarital sex. Her position, that the Bible refutes itself and cannot be used as a moral judge, depends, ironically, upon a correct interpretation of the text.
She also points to the Song of Solomon for biblical commendation of premarital sex. “The lovers in this poem are not married, yet they eagerly seek one another out, uniting in gardens and reveling in the splendor of one another’s bodies.” The most honest interpretations of this book of the Bible acknowledge the sexuality and sensuality of the text. The context for the beauty and glory of sexual relations between the man and woman in Song demands careful interpretation. Several interpretations explain this poem as a description of the delight of sex in the act of consummating the passion between two lovers in marriage. Knust would have readers trust her interpretation to be correct so that she can prove the unreliability of the Bible in determining modern sexual ethics.
The complexities of sexuality in the Bible should not be ignored. The biblical silence on the practice of polygamy by Old Testament saints, like Jacob and David, challenges the traditional position of monogamy and demands an honest explanation in a theology of marriage. God’s instructions to his prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute and continue to pursue her when she leaves him seems to defy marriage regulations and sexual standards. Can this confusion be resolved without discrediting the Bible’s authority?
Using creative scholarship, as Knust does, forcing remote and speculative meanings on words and passages that have retained consistent interpretation for centuries, does not contribute to the discussion. Instead, it seems to reveal a bias to defend modern sexual politics in the name of love and acceptance combined with biblical scholarship.
Once again, we see the effect of underlying assumptions and bias upon biblical interpretation. It clearly warns us to hold our own interpretations with humility. Honest scrutiny of our positions is always helpful in moving towards a reasonable and correct theology with integrity.