A Return to Eden: Redeeming Sexuality

by Tremper Longman III, Robert Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies.

An edited excerpt from his presentation in the March 9, 2011, chapel service.

Sexuality is a controversial topic; people disagree passionately about it, especially where to draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate sexual behavior. Speaking as a biblical scholar, I want to address the question, “What does the Bible say about sex?”

First, why do we care what the Bible says about sex? Because we’re Christians, we believe the Bible is the place where God speaks to us most directly to reveal himself and his will for our lives. It’s the standard of faith and practice. God can speak to us in other ways: through reason, experience, the Holy Spirit and nature — but not in contradiction to the teaching of the Holy Spirit in the Bible. If our experience leads us to believe something that differs from the Bible, then it’s not the Holy Spirit speaking but our desires. If someone says the Holy Spirit has told them something that scripture contradicts, I can be sure it’s not the Holy Spirit.

What about the interpretation of Scripture? Is it a private matter? Are there so many possible interpretations that we just choose the one that suits our purposes? While it’s true that parts of the Bible are legitimate areas of debate and uncertainty, there is much that is clear and certain as well. I consider the Bible’s teaching about sexuality clear, especially in reference to homosexuality. The Bible says a lot about sex, and I can’t address it all here — and I refuse to make homosexuality the sole subject of my talk as that gives a wrong impression about the Bible.

Many consider the Bible a killjoy when it comes to sex. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. It’s true that the Bible puts definite restrictions on sexual behavior, but it does so in the context of a celebration of sexuality. God made us sexual beings. He wired us to enjoy the pleasure of physical touch.

The story begins in the Garden of Eden, and Genesis 2:4-25 gives a close-up look at the creation of humanity. Genesis 1-2 tells us that God made everything, including humanity, but doesn’t specify how he did so. Genesis 2 narrates the story of the creation of Adam and Eve to inform us about God, ourselves and our world. The passage focuses on gender relationships and marriage.

At the beginning of Genesis 2, God creates Adam from the dust of the ground and his breath, a metaphorical description that emphasizes our special relationship with God despite the fact that we’re creatures. Adam then lives in Eden in harmony with God.

But God detects a problem: loneliness. For this reason, God creates Eve. The text highlights Eve’s and Adam’s equality before God. Being created from Adam’s side means Eve will be a helper who corresponds to him. The word “helper” doesn’t mean valet, it describes someone who will be his ally and equal.

At the end of Genesis 2, after Adam gives the first hymn of the Bible celebrating the arrival of Eve, he says, “This one is bone from my bone and flesh from my flesh! She will be called ‘woman’ because she was taken from ‘man.’” The chapter ends by saying, “This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” This passage defines marriage: leaving parents, forming a new primary loyalty, weaving together two lives through common experiences and communication. Being united into one refers to sexual intercourse, which is a sacramental moment. It’s an outward sign of an inward reality.

The chapter ends with Adam and Eve being naked in the garden and feeling no shame. They’re not only physically naked, they’re psychologically, spiritually and emotionally open without shame. They live in a harmonious relationship with God and each other.

But this changes in act two, the account of Adam and Eve’s rebellion. Genesis 3 tells us that sin and death aren’t part of created nature but a consequence of human rebellion. In particular, Adam and Eve rebel against God by asserting moral autonomy or independence. They eat the fruit of the tree and know what is good and evil just like God even though they understand what he wants. Their sin is not a lack of clarity concerning God’s command; they challenge and reject it because they think they’re smarter than he is. They — not God — will define what is right and wrong, with horrible consequences for humanity. This approach remains a problem today when we take clear Biblical teaching on sexuality and decide we know better than God does.

The man and the woman suffer consequences for their rebellion. The punishment God directs to the woman affects their relationship in a fundamental way. “Now your desire will be for your husband, but he will come and rule you.” This word “desire” doesn’t mean something romantic; it means the desire to control. It’s the same rare word used in the next chapter for Cain’s desire to dominate. The Biblical text is rooting the problems we have with each other in our sin.

Because of human rebellion and sin, Adam and Eve can no longer stand naked before each other but hide and cover up. Humans were created in a harmonious relationship with God, enjoying an intimacy with each other. But because of our insistence that we, rather than God, define what is right and wrong, we experience doubt, pain and loneliness. Thank God the story doesn’t end here.

The Song of Songs gives us a collection of love poems in which an unnamed man and woman speak to each other rapturously. They often enjoy intimate relationships in a garden, most of the time feeling no shame. The Song of Songs demonstrates that it’s possible to experience sexual pleasure in this life in spite of sin and brokenness. It’s a book about the redemption of sexuality.

The Bible speaks positively about sex. God made us sexual beings and not just for the purpose of having babies. Here’s the controversial point: The Bible clearly states that sexual intercourse is reserved for marriage. The seventh commandment says, “You must not commit adultery.”

Why would God want to restrict the pleasures of sexual intimacy to marriage? Sex involves more than physical pleasure. It binds two people together, body and soul. To have sex with someone is to become completely vulnerable to them. Such relationships need to be protected by legal commitments as the Bible indicates by calling marriage a covenantal commitment. Sex and marriage are not just personal; they’re not just a private matter. They involve other people, most pointedly your partner, but also your friends, family and society at large.

The biblical law specifically prohibits certain types of sexual relationships. The Ten Commandments give general ethical principles, and the case law that follows applies them to specific situations. What does adultery mean? The case law says there should be no sex outside of marriage. If a man has sex with a married woman, he and she, if she consents, will be seriously punished. If a man has sex with an unmarried woman, he has to marry her. Some laws also prohibit certain kinds of marriage.

Leviticus 18 and 20 list prohibited sexual relationships; most involve incest, but homosexuality is included. Leviticus 18:22 says, “Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin.” Leviticus 20:19 repeats, “If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act.” The passages are clear. But modern readers and even some ministers and biblical interpreters have tried to obscure their meaning. I can’t address all their arguments here.

One objection to this prohibition points to Old Testament laws that are no longer relevant. We don’t offer sacrifices anymore or observe dietary restrictions or purity laws. We’re not concerned with the Levitical prohibition of clothing made from more than one kind of material or sowing a field with two different types of seeds. Why should we care about the Old Testament law concerning homosexuality?

Jesus never disowned Old Testament law; he affirmed it vigorously, including the sexual laws, when he stated in Matthew 5:17-19, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until it’s accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”

The New Testament makes it clear that the coming of Christ fulfilled certain laws that will no longer be observed. The sacrifices are shadows of the reality of Christ’s sacrifice. The laws concerning food and mixtures were relevant when God’s people, the Israelites, were supposed to stay separate from the Gentiles. These laws are no longer kept in the New Testament.

But the moral law of the Old Testament continues to apply. The New Testament explicitly joins voice with the Old Testament in prohibiting homosexual relationships, making it clear that the laws in Leviticus 18 and 20 are still valid. Paul wrote in Romans 1:24-27, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who’s blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchange natural intercourse for unnatural and in the same way also, the men giving up natural intercourse with women were consumed with passion for one another.”

There are modern attempts to blunt the clear teaching of this passage as well. One of the most common argues that Paul isn’t speaking of committed homosexual relationships but of pederasty, which was a common practice in the Greco-Roman world. But there is a perfectly good Greek word for pederasty, and Paul would have used it if he meant it.

Some wrongly suggest that people in the first century didn’t know about homosexual orientation or committed homosexual relationships; indeed they did. Jesus never addressed homosexuality, so he must not be concerned about it. But Jesus affirmed all the law and typically only spoke about things that were disputed in his culture; homosexuality wasn’t. We can’t pit Paul against Jesus. Paul’s words are scripture just as much as Jesus’ words.

I could say more, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression that homosexual behavior is some kind of mega-sin in a different category from other sins. I’m addressing it because it’s being discussed in the Christian community and there’s confusion about what the Bible says. My sympathies go out to people who experience fear, loneliness and doubt as they think about their sexual orientation. We must consider how to support them in their struggles. But that shouldn’t lead us to obscure the Bible’s clear teaching on sexuality.

Let me be clear. Having homosexual desires isn’t condemned in the Bible; acting on them is. Having heterosexual desires toward a woman you’re not married to isn’t condemned; acting on them is. We need to be a community of people who support each other. I would love to see Westmont — and even more the church — be places where we can share our sexual struggles and brokenness whether homosexual or heterosexual and support each other as we seek to live a life pleasing to God. We’re all broken. We’re all sinners. But we shouldn’t give ourselves a pass or ignore sin, we should challenge ourselves and each other in love to be obedient. Our sin and brokenness should drive us to Christ who suffered for us and understands our heart.

Genesis 2 teaches that we were created in a harmonious relationship with God and each other. Genesis 3 explains that human rebellion has shattered this harmony and intimacy. The Song of Songs speaks about the possibility of redeeming sexuality. But this side of heaven, it will never be perfect. Everyone, gay and straight, will experience pain and brokenness in their sexuality. Paul holds up being single as the ideal for everyone between the first and second coming of Christ, because unattached people can focus on God and on ministry. There’s nothing wrong — and much right — about heterosexual or homosexual Christians choosing to remain single and celibate.

Everyone, whether single or married, has much to look forward to: a return to Eden and the vibrant, harmonious, intimate relationships experienced in the garden, described in Revelation 19:8 as a great marriage supper. “For the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. To her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure, for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”

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10 Responses to A Return to Eden: Redeeming Sexuality

  1. mike moore says:

    How convenient. How typical.

    Longman has found, as have many many before him, a lovely rationale enabling him to pick and choose only those verses that support his theological point of view.

    Question: if one re-affirms Levitical laws in regards to sexual behavior, as does Longman, then shouldn’t one also affirm the penalties – usually death – for breaking those laws?

    No, wait, I seem to recall that Jesus allowed an adulterous woman to walk away with a mere verbal slap on the wrist – “sin no more” – so I guess Levitical laws apply, but their penalties do not. Oops, that won’t work, because that would mean splintering the very scripture Longman declares valid … of course, like Longman, I suppose you could pick and choose which bits of scripture you like if you have a nice rationale. Darn, I wonder if Jesus was just as confused as I?

    There is Good News, however.

    On one issue, Jesus was not in the least confused. Unlike homosexuality, Jesus said a lot about divorce. Again, it seems very convenient and accommodating, given the high divorce rate among conservative Christians, that Longman chose not to focus his attention on divorce.

    Christians and their churches have spent and continue to spend enormous time/resources to forge religious, secular, and legislative condemnations of the LGBT community. The prime example, Prop 8, vilified all LGBT people (“Protect Our Children!” “Gays want to destroy traditional marriage!”) and forced others’ religious and moral values upon a secular LGBT community, denying our civil rights in the process.

    I wonder if Westmont and anti-gay Christians will ever use the same vigor and venom to condemn divorce and codify civil prohibitions against divorce? (Clue: don’t hold your breath.)

  2. This chapel talk was a response to an open letter from 30 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Westmont alumni, as well as over 100 straight alumni signing on in support. For those who wish to hear the other side of the story, I encourage you to check out http://westmontlgbt.wordpress.com.

    • Janell Hampton says:

      Awesome, I wil spread the word about this. One positive thing to come of this well known diatribe is that it gives we homosexual Christians a forum through which we can connect. God works in mysterious ways, yes?

  3. Hannah Wilder says:

    For centuries, Scripture has been used to fuel the fears of the majority.Whether it’s religious diversity (Roman Catholic vs. Protestant), people of color, women or homosexuals, the Bible has been used to support inequality and fearful ignorance for millennia. Holy wars waged in the name of Christ have spilled so much innocent blood. It’s a tragedy and a black mark on the history of Christianity.

    What’s sad about this post is the dogged commitment to a viewpoint that alienates daughters and sons from mothers and fathers. If we could all embrace a more humble attitude of, “well I believe X, but I trust God to deal with the state of someone else’s soul,” we’d be able to extend more love and generosity to those who disagree with us.

    I agree with Professor Longman, “sexuality is a controversial topic.” How true that is. Unfortunately for some of us, it’s not just the most recent topic for a Biblical exegesis, but it is our lives, our selves, our relationships. If the leadership at Westmont College continues to maintain their what some might call arrogant confidence that they know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, God’s view on homosexuality, and if they preach it from their pulpits and teach it in their classrooms, then they will likely be the site of the next tragedy of the death of another young, bright, promising, gay student.

    That’s one holy war I wouldn’t want to answer to God for.

  4. Janell Hampton says:

    As an out, declarative, God’s love claiming lesbian, I find a certain irony present as I prepare to address Longman’s thoughts- after all, I spend much of my time and effort showing my queer brothers and sisters God’s love by arming them with reason and critical thinking skills to rebut simplistic arguments that literally chase us out of churches and away from God.

    But before I pluck the low hanging fruit of Longman’s argument, consider this, dear readers: According to Father Tom Doyle homosexuality is not a sin. It is a gift. A gift. That should resonate with many of you. Especially the author of the above post.

    But alas, back to that post above:

    Mr. Longman, I do not profess to know the desires of your heart in writing the post you have written, but I feel compelled to address- briefly- a few of the statements you make above with questions and comments I am sure you have anticipated or hosted in your own heart, mind, and soul.

    1.) “Speaking as a biblical scholar, I want to address the question, ‘What does the Bible say about sex?'”

    – you identify yourself as a biblical scholar and like all biblical scholars, your thoughts, opinions, and ideas about the text in the bible are actually no more credible than any other person interested in offering an opinion about the words within. I too am a biblical scholar, but one who lives and thrives in God’s love outside the dominant paradigm’s pre-set party line opinions. I accept that my thoughts as a biblical scholar are also no more credible than yours- but when it comes to bringing people to Christ and shining the true light of Christ throughout our respective worlds… I could probably give you a run for your money.

    2.) “I consider the Bible’s teaching about sexuality clear, especially in reference to homosexuality.” I just brought this point up to say how comfortable it seems to see the bible’s teachings as clear.. almost like there is nothing left to learn though time spent praying, meditating, and striving to discern God’s message through the words… must be nice.

    3.) Oh “Leviticus,” how I adore thee and the multifaceted reasons for which your laws are cherry picked and tossed about… let me count the ways…

    4.) “Having homosexual desires isn’t condemned in the Bible; acting on them is.” Riiiiiight…. I love this one. This concept is one youthful christians use to separate themselves from the incessant condemnation their parents and fundamentalist contemporaries spew revealing the truer hateful bile about sin, hell, and fags must die.. I much prefer the scripture that says sex is good, joyfeul and a gift from god.

    5.) “’This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’This passage defines marriage:” This passage actually does NOT define marriage… it defines what happens when one man leaves his parents’ home to live in a loving, marital relationship with one other woman. This statement by Longman surprises me the most because as a professor at Westmont, I assumed he would be more forthright about the reading of this text being “in his opinion” a definition of marriage. I mean, it literally isn’t, so Longman saying it is is actually him infusing scripture with his own interpretation in what many scholars could legitimately call an irresponsible, inaccurate fashion.

    6.) “These laws are no longer kept in the New Testament.” Longman speaks of laws no longer kept in the New Testament pretty casually, but without explaining WHY he sees some laws as no longer kept and WHY others- in his opinion- are still kept; after all, Christ reigns in the New Testament and all HE had to say about homosexuality was ” .” I mean, Paul doesn’t trump Christ- does he?

    7.) “But we shouldn’t give ourselves a pass or ignore sin, we should challenge ourselves and each other in love to be obedient.” This is a beautiful sentiment by Longman; one with which I couldn’t agree more. But we all know the our primary obedience is to drawing nearer to one another in God’s love and, together, drawing nearer to god.

    This whole post has felt like a prayer to me. Thank you Longman. And thank you, queer graduates from Westmont. You are changing the world, saving lives, and really walking the talk of our call to spread God’s love.

    Amen!

  5. Jason says:

    I made it to the second paragraph before I stopped reading. When this scholar writes, “If someone says the Holy Spirit has told them something that scripture contradicts, I can be sure it’s not the Holy Spirit.”, I feel little hope that he could impart on any of us, including his followers, a just and holy insight into any part of this Life. His spiritual world is one filled with dead ends, fear of oneself, and the hatred of others. I encourage all those seeking freedom from fear and death to listen instead to someone who was known to say heaven can be found here on earth:

    Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” — An interpretation of the Gospel of Thomas found in an ancient dump site along with uncounted others like it. “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.”

  6. Jules says:

    Whew! Boy am I grateful to be a lesbian and not a gay man right now… I mean, taking this scripture literally (below), as Longman does so well, I guess must mean that lesbians are OFF THE HOOK since there’s no mention of women committing this kind of “detestable” act. Thanks for helping me to actually find relief in these scriptures, Professor Longman; so glad to know I won’t be condemned to hell now and that I can be my true lesbian self without worrying about God’s wrath.
    “Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin.” Leviticus 20:19 repeats, “If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act.” The passages are clear.”

  7. Erich Miller says:

    Alas, my thoughts may not be as articulate as those above, but I have sent the following letter to the Westmont Alumni Magazine:

    11 August 2011

    Dear Westmont Magazine,

    I am writing in response to the excerpt from Tremper Longman’s chapel address (“A Return to Eden: Redeeming Sexuality”) printed in the most recent edition of the Westmont Alumni Magazine. Specifically I want to address his comments regarding gay people.

    Professor Longman begins by stating that God created woman in response to man’s loneliness—an acknowledgement that God cares about our need for companionship. He spends time interpreting the words “helper” and “desire” for his audience, aware of the fact that the essence of these words are lost in translation. But when he addresses the verses from Leviticus (used by some Christians to condemn gays), suddenly there is little room for interpretation.

    Professor Longman states that he doesn’t have the time to address other ministerial and scholarly understandings of the verses in Leviticus. Given the (sometimes fatal) tension the issue of homosexuality and the Bible can arouse in young gay women and men, his audience deserves to hear how other ministers and scholars view those verses.

    Professor Longman states that while we can dismiss certain Old Testament laws regarding sacrifices, food, and clothing, the moral laws remain, and then cites Paul’s words from the book of Romans for support. Many gay people know they are gay from an early age. What did we do as young children to be “given up” to our desires? What creature did we “turn to in worship rather than the creator”? The verse Professor Longman cites from Romans ends by stating that the people Paul is talking about made a choice to turn from straight relations to same-sex relations. I don’t know who these people are that Paul is talking about (they seem to be engaged in a spiritual rebellion) but they are not me or my friends. No gay person I know “exchanged” being straight for being gay. We never were straight. We did not choose to be gay.

    Even when I was at my most conflicted about being gay, not one part of me ever believed that the verses Professor Longman cites had anything to do with me or any other gay person I know. We are beloved children of God who have the same needs and desires as straight people: for love, connection and community; for a safe, welcoming world for our children; to not have the Bible used against us as it has previously been used against women and people of color.

    If Westmont alumni would like more information on the subject, Daniel Helmeniak’s “What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality” is a good starting point.

    Sincerely,

    Erich Miller ‘91

  8. My biggest problem with Professor Longman’s piece is that for all his protestations of fidelity to scripture, he is ignoring much of what the Bible has to say about sexuality, some of which is so awful and horrific, I would die rather than force it upon my daughters. In Deuteronomy 22, for example, if a man is caught raping an virgin in the open country, the woman is forced to marry her attacker. In Exodus 21 female slaves are to be the sexual property of their masters (we see this in the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, and in the stories of Jacob’s family as well). Then there is the whole set of regulations under which a childless widow must marry her late husband’s younger brother, and, of course, the Bible welcomes polygamy.

    Unlike Professor Longman I don’t find it possible to find a cohesive, systematic, and constant sexual ethic when I read the Bible honestly, soberly, and seriously, and I suspect one only finds such moral coherence through selective reading and application of the kind of Biblical stories that work nicely on Sunday school flannel boards.

    In the end, I don’t find that the Bible makes a very good sex manual. The Bible directs toward the kingdom of God, but if we march to Zion holding hands with a person of the same sex, I rather doubt a flimsy paper chain of biblical prooftexts will hold the gates closed when the strong and gracious arms of a loving God push them open and welcome us home.

  9. Jay Edwards - Class of 1990 says:

    Westmont College became the center of a public discussion in education circles last year when students wrote a letter of support to a gay (non-Westmont) student. The publication of this letter put Westmont’s policies toward GLBT students in the national spotlight, having many newspapers cover the story, including the Santa Barbara News Press, The Los Angeles Times, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Instead of reporting on the letter, the subsequent debate, and the increasing awareness of the ways that gay Westmont students and alumni have and continue to hurt, The Westmont Magazine chose to print an excerpt from Professor Longman’s chapel talk about his understanding of sexuality. The focus of the other respondents seems to be on critiquing Longman’s understanding of the bible. I won’t begin to try do that. Instead, I take Westmont itself to task for missing, one more time, an opportunity to demonstrate the skills of a free thinking (libers artes) community by presenting the many intelligent perspectives on an issue that profoundly shapes the lives of many in the Westmont family.

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