Friday, October 8, 2010

Michael Coogan's "God and Sex": Book Review

Professor Coogan teaches Scripture: "I am sometimes asked by relatives and students to suggest biblical passages for use at their weddings, but few are appropriate." If God wrote Holy Writ, he did so as a "forgetful" writer--and a "terrible" one. Not only is the Good Book full of inconsistencies, but its protagonist holds not only a powerful grudge against the men and women made in his own image. Coogan's quick, clear, and no-nonsense pages explain "what the Bible really says." No wonder that brides and grooms can find little in either Hebrew writings or Christian testament to celebrate married, monogamous, and licitly carnal love.

Sinless romance occurs rarely; for ancient societies obsessed with patriarchy and paternity, women count as chattel. Bought and sold by their fathers, tossed away by their betrothed, denigrated by their Creator, women's rank can be summed up in the Tenth Commandment. As Coogan reminds us, coveting our neighbor's wife ranks second, after envying our neighbor's house. Real estate took precedence, and women--while ranked ahead of the male and female servants, and the oxen next door--nevertheless mattered far more as breeders than as beloved.

Coogan's chapters, arranged with more care than much of Scripture, show few inconsistencies. He begins by analyzing "to know in the biblical sense." This phrase conveys the truth that the ancients knew: sexual intimacy conveys a deeper understanding of our partner. He shows where indirect terms for sexual intercourse lurk. When I studied the Book of Ruth in my Catholic high school, I was puzzled why widowed Ruth "uncovered the feet" of her wealthy relative, Boaz, to "lay at his feet until dawn." This did not sound very romantic.

Coogan explains that the term for "feet" often disguised "genitals." Likewise, Delilah caused Samson to "sleep at her knees," so this implies that she post-coitally cut off his hair to unman his vigor. That passage now makes sense. The woman (not Mary Magdalene although often assumed to be her) who knelt at the feet of her master, Jesus, to bathe and kiss his feet, may cloak innuendo. A "hand" in Hebrew terminology may mean an erection. Even an artificial phallus--via a clever Hebrew pun on this implement as "re-member-ance"--enters the metaphorical arsenal with which wanton Israel's personified as an impious, pagan slattern. Reticence began to take over for biblical writers no less than most moderns. Persistent textual ambiguity cautions us not to transfer our contemporary interpretations back to every venerable passage in Scripture.

On this basis, Coogan takes us through subjects that limit the status of women. Widows, virgins, celibates, the Virgin Mary, and the public and domestic roles of women define her subordination. Coogan minimizes feminist attempts to find a wealth of positive portrayals. The extended celebration in the Book of Proverbs of the ideal woman turns out to be a model demonstration, as in a home economics text for teen girls once upon a desert time, of how a housewife should act. The Bible changes little from Jewish to early Christian eras in depicting women. They remain under men's dominance. A static rather than dynamic condition continues, while males find obedience exacted from a God who enforces his side of every bargain or contract. Such legal distinctions permeate this ancient world: sex is one more realm to police and enforce.

Abortion, arranged marriages, endogamy and exogamy, polygamy, and divorce next gain attention. In the Gospels, the situation of divorce narrows; Jesus challenges rabbinic authority by being more conservative than his forebears in regard to divorce. That Jesus never married, an unusual status for an adult Jewish male, makes for its own ambiguity. Coogan brushes aside speculation as to the sexuality of Jesus, mistrusting whatever imaginative scenarios for same-sex or Magdalene-compatible love that later storytellers contrive.

Adultery, sex within family boundaries, prohibited relationships, and rape and prostitution earn study. The utter brutality of the murder of Dinah and the tossing aside of Tamar, both entangled within conniving and cruel scenarios that recall gang-rape and "honor" killings, one-night stands and sleazy cover-ups remind us of the less-edifying chapters of the Bible. Yet, less commonly preached examples of role models: seductive murderesses as freedom fighters Jael and Judith; Jephthah's doomed virgin daughter; or two ancestors of David and Jesus, the Jericho prostitute Rahab and the one-time prostitute Tamar, endure.

However, again contrary to recent attempts by liberal scholars wishing to find a freer non-normative sexuality within the margins of Scripture, Coogan holds that "temple" or "cult" prostitution did not likely exist. The Hebrews attributed to their enemies whatever aberrations in diet or ritual or sex that the Chosen People feared. Within the cultures around Palestine, Coogan cannot find evidence for ritual prostitution in the worship of a god or goddess.

The book finds its strongest footing when exploring same-sex relationships. Coogan emphasizes how "male homoerotic relationships" as we know them lacked the same equivalents that gay activists strive to place them in, alongside heterosexual ones, today. The modern notion of "homosexuality" lacking, Coogan cannot substantiate earnest defenses of Jonathan and David's love "more wonderful than the love of women" as the predecessor in sanctioned Scripture for Adam and Steve at a courthouse in a few states recent mornings. Coogan sets such "love" as better matched to covenental rhetoric used in treaties, a form of male-bonding in a society that--as in segregated cultures now--keeps apart men and women in public, and which puts down women as inferior to men, especially prior to marriage.

Scriptural support for male sexual relationships appears elusive. (Lesbians as free from issues of patriarchy or paternity went unmentioned in the Hebrew Bible.) That is, male-male sexual references existed in the codes of Leviticus as one example of "category confusion." Wearing clothes woven from different types of yarn, plowing with two different species of animals, cross-dressing: these along with a man who was penetrated, and thus "feminized," by another man all occupy the realm of mixed natural categories. For Hebrews obsessed by keeping order, and avoiding contamination, Coogan sets "sex between men" as no more "intrinsically wrong" than "wearing clothing made from wool and linen," if we are to insist (as Christian fundamentalists and "Torah-true" Jews do today) that "divinely given prohibitions are eternally binding." Coogan reminds the reader that we cannot pick and choose which prohibitions from Leviticus to obey and which to discard. However, I wondered about the relevance of Peter's famous vision of what was non-kosher which was given him to lawfully eat under the new dispensation; as with Mary Douglas' theory on purity vs. danger as the solution to the mysteries of categories here, Coogan's lack of crucial contexts appears odd.

His book can shorten what needs expansion as a foundation for his swift arguments. The basis of these chapters as lectures may account for some of this concision. This book moves very rapidly. While summations of bible stories are necessary for non-specialists or the less devout, their length did subtract, given only two hundred pages are devoted to this vast topic, from the usefulness of this text. Coogan does append endnotes referring to monographs, so this compression may have been a compromise to keep this an admirably calm and jargon-free overview.

Although the actual Hebrew and Greek terms are rarely discussed per se by Coogan, he shows how translations mislead us. For instance, the King James version chooses "whores" and "sodomites" where a nuanced version closer to the Hebrew would render "not holy women" and "not holy men." "Kadosh" means holy, but also "set apart." This typical word-play in the original language itself upends the categories that dominate the traditional Jewish worldview of an ordered creation within a covenentally faithful Israel who must keep up its bargains with Yahweh, or else face doom, deportation, and the dispersal of its women to her enemies. The casting of Israel as an unfaithful consort makes for some of the harshest, and most explicit, condemnations within sexual terminology used in the Bible, terms that in many versions find euphemism.

Yahweh himself enters the final chapter "Fire in the Divine Loins: God's Wives in Myth and Metaphor." He earns his own textual disguise. The recent discovery of a site where "I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah" was scrawled above graffito of a phallic god arm in arm with his goddess, "his divine wife," reminds us of the prehistory of what became--as the Hebrews tried to separate themselves into a category totally apart from their neighbors and foes--a single, angry, paranoid Lord. The "naked wives of Yahweh" stripped and mocked in front of men in the Book of Ezekiel are a late attribution to this early allegory, where the most patriarchal Father of all controlled his women. He punished his wayward daughters. He banished his unfaithful wives. While he may forgive his fallen women and take them back, he never seems to forget.

Concluding, Coogan chides any who rely on the Bible "as an anthology of proof texts to be cherry-picked for scriptural support for preconceived conclusions." He confronts us with "an insanely jealous and abusive husband" as part of God's role. For those who regard the Bible as the ultimate authority, such evidence cannot be dismissed if other passages (such perhaps as those of Leviticus often cited?) are asserted as relevant now as three thousand years ago. "Family values," in the Bible, provide disturbing role models for us.

Coogan encourages an alternate interpretation. As the U.S. Constitution originated with a different understanding of slavery, or the role of women, than what we accept today, so with the Bible. A fundamentalist, literal, "originalist" dogmatism denies Scripture's evolution to catch up to current society. By a communal consensus, our nation developed wider interpretations for the Constitution than those initially codified. Similarly, Coogan urges "liberty and justice for all" within a more forgiving, and more lovingly liberating, version of a flexible, adaptive teaching that can more truly enlighten its believers today. (Posted to Amazon US 10-8-10 & 10-9-10; featured 10-14-10 on PopMatters.)


Ben Hogan said...

I haven't read his book on God & Sex yet, but I probably will. Let me just say, though, that the view point you are coming from as offering "evidence" has yet to be shown. I find your book review to be something that rally's behind someone who thinks the same way as you do and heralds them as making clear the Bible, when in actuality grave errors are made.

I'd invite you to read my review of Coogan's article regarding the "family values" you spoke of. I think you'll find a better explanation of biblical text in there than you will with Coogan's interpretations.

I know we come with different viewpoints on the world and the Bible, but if you ilke to read and you enjoy sane debate, then check it out.

From another Irish descendant,

Ben Hogan

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Ben, thanks for the post and the link. Coogan's summed up, unsurprisingly, in what you cite and respond to at your blog link his book's arguments.

The intricacies and debates are vast, of course, but I'd say your conclusion emphasizes a point that he's weak on: the NT transformation of the spiritual message over the letter of the OT law. "I hope that Mr. Coogan can someday use his position in teaching about the OT to learn about how it completely set the scene for the entrance of Christ into the NT."

His book, not much more than a couple hundred large-type and fast-paced pages, benefits from readability but suffers a bit from his overly rapid look at the Gospels and their shift into Pauline and apostolic revisions of the laws. He rushed through the impact of Jesus, perhaps because Coogan's grounded more in what preceded the Incarnation.

You raise well a subtler point about slavery then vs. now; I'm curious if the defenders of the practice in more recent centuries, in debating the abolitionists, were aware of these nuances as both sides contended, citing Scripture for their pro-con arguments about the morality of modern slavery? Knust touches on this same analogy in her book, but the context I raise with you is not (so far) delved deeper into.

After I read your reply to my review, a proof-version of a book by a prof of religion, "an ordained American Baptist pastor" teaching at Boston U, Jennifer Wright Knust, arrived today for review; I've started "Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex & Desire." Raised a strict Baptist, but as a scholar rejecting any reading that erases the contradictions embedded in a bible created by humans in response to their own diverse dealings with the body and the heart, she denies any definitive consistency as if from a bible-based "rulebook for sexual morality." So her students may be in the same situation as Coogan's across town at Harvard as far as you're concerned!...

Similar in scope and approach to Coogan, but more cognizant (I think-- I have a ways to go) of the later biblical revisions and responses to earlier texts, she's also intrigued by inconsistencies regarding sexual teachings and moral tales as signs not of divine error but of human diversity! I have a hunch she may depart from you about God's role in scriptural creation and transmission perhaps? But as a Baptist, maybe not? We'll see. I predict you will find in her arguments similar criticisms to those you discuss in Coogan. Yet she may edge closer to you, given a nearer orientation.

My review of her study will be out circa Jan. 25. at the New York Journal of Books. I will post it here. I appreciate your interest.

Ben Hogan said...


I apologize; I didn't see your response until now. I often forget that I need to check back and cannot rely on an automatic email unless I set that up somehow. In eithercase, thanks for your thoughtful reply.

There's a lot of ways to approach concepts and ideologies and the Bible itself, but one has to come at it with a decision to maintain one of two things: 1)The Bible is absolutely authoritative and divinely inspired; being infallible 2) The Bible is not infallible, therefore not ultimately authoritative.

From there it is easy. If one believes that the Bible is what it claims to be: God's Word, then all else pales in comparison when people rise up to claim there are inconsistencies.

If one is not convinced, then conviction is lost and everything else in the world suddenly has a chance of being considered viable and validated as truth, even if it goes against the Bible's teachings.

Regarding the topic of sexuality, many people who claim to be even evangelical Christians are allowing for the culture to trump the teaching in Scripture, so it comes as no surprise that people within Christian circles are not saying things like homosexuality, incest, and adultery are inherrently sinful.

This saddens me because if we cannot allow anything to be the standard of living, but the ever changing culture, then we are willingly throwing our cares to the wind.

There is a terribly simple logic involved in having a constant for moral law in the face of emotionally driven social and moral changes. The Bible is that constant we have and need.

Again, thanks for your reply and I'm sure we'll see more of each other in the future!

I have since posted a C.S. Lewis book review and started a couple series on my blog. One is how often the Bible references God's sovereignty in salvation (election, predestination, calling, etc.) and another is centered on the question, "Why Does God Allow Bad Things to Happen?" It's been good and I invite you read and comment as well.