Among the few things we know about our ancient past, we know that since time immemorial sex was sacralized. Religious celebrations often included sexual activity. Evidence abounds indicating that religion centered on fertility. The oldest clay figurines most commonly found represent fertility goddesses. In the Old Testament she is known as Asherah or Astarte, the goddess also known as Ishtar. The Old Testament bears witness to the centuries-old struggle within the people of Israel against polytheism and in favor of monotheism. That was a constant struggle that, apparently, did not eliminate the “groves’ and the “high places” before the Exile. There sexual acts were carried out that, according to sympathetic magic, guaranteed the fertility of the land, the herds and the families.
In the polytheistic pantheons, the gods were sons and daughters of other gods and among the gods, as in extended families, rape, incest and adultery were common. The story of the family of king David, one may note, has all the elements of the stories of the gods. The familial relations among the gods of the pantheons, however, are difficult to establish because the gods changed names traveling from one culture to another, and the extant sources come from different times and places.
In their efforts to bring together peoples with different religious, ethnic, linguistic and geographic backgrounds, the authors of the Old Testament searched for a way to unify them under one God and one temple, and to relate the One God to the people in a way that was not sexual. On this account, with few exceptions, they do not refer to God as Father, and they never use the feminine form of the noun “god”. When referring to a foreign goddess, they use the masculine plural, rather than the corresponding feminine singular form of the noun. For them goddesses did not exist. To mention them, and thus to admit their existence, apparently, was considered a way to leave the door open to polytheism.
The adoption of such radical measures reveals the vitality of polytheism among the people of Israel. When the Torah is read alert to this struggle for monotheism, one soon discovers here and there the underlying polytheistic canvass on which the monotheistic story was painted. The first words read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And there was confusion and vacuum, darkness and abyss, and the wind of God was blowing over the primeval ocean [Tiamat].” Surely we have here three theogonic pairs that existed before creation. In the poetic books, the sons of God are members of the pantheon, and come together to the celestial council. When Ruth tells Naomi that she wishes to go with her to Canaan, Naomi insists that she should stay in Moab and worship the gods of that land. These remnants of polytheism testify that the struggle for monotheism was long and hard. One of the best weapons in this fight, it seems, was the elimination of divine couples and the desacralization of sex. That is, the war against polytheism brought about the secularization of nature.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that in Judaism the number one sin is idolatry, and the number two sin is abnormal sex. Of course, cultures decide what is normal sex. What is to be noticed is that the condemnation of abnormal sex is not based on moral or ethical criteria. It is based on religious criteria of ritual purity. Sex is taboo, just as touching a dead body, or the secretions of a bodily orifice. On the other hand, “normal” sex is considered very good, and Old Testament authors have no scruples describing Yahweh as a romantic lover lying on the grass with his beloved, Israel, enjoying the breeze that gently whistles on the trees and creates an atmosphere conducive to love. Either as a divine gift that allows humans to gain a better understanding of God and that, besides, gives them the power to create a new being, or as that which together with idolatry places humans under the wrath of God, sex has throughout the ages enjoyed a central role for those who see themselves as creatures in God’s world. But this has not prevented its secularization.
The process of secularization, as I have already mentioned, began when the Old Testament authors took away nature’s divine powers in their struggle against the fertility cults. The confrontation between the religion of the gods of fertility and the God of history is paradigmatically summed up in the narrative of Elijah and the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. This story is the sum of the Old Testament. Yahweh is the God who establishes and takes away kings, and also the one who causes to rain and gives fertility to the land. Don’t think that behind every natural element there is a divine being. The God of history is above nature. While the God of Genesis 2, the God of the Yahwist authors, is anthropomorphic, the triumph of monotheism gives us the God of Genesis 1, the transcendent God who speaks from beyond, or through prophets.
The process of the secularization of our daily living in the earth God created has moved forward slowly but surely through time. The challenge to the doctrine of the transubstantiation of the host by the reformers of the XVI century is s marker in the desacralization of nature. The discovery of gravity by Isaac Newton brought about much insecurity on those who considered the movement of the stars in space to be the direct work of God. There has been no lack of those who pointed out that the introduction of electric lightning to the streets and public places put out of work hundreds of ghosts and phantoms. We have all heard that the first Russian astronaut upon returning to earth declared that he had not seen God in space. With the new telescopes that can receive information of the Big Bang and can penetrate the black holes in the universe, the secularization of our symbolic universe has reached limits never imagined by the authors of the Old Testament.
For most of our contemporaries, sex has nothing to do with divinity, and even less with morality, unless it is being used as a weapon to assert supremacy or abusive control. Genetics, one of the sciences that have made the most significant advances lately, makes possible the manipulation of human fertility on purely scientific terms, under the supervision of bioethicists. The abundance or the lack of children is not seen as evidence of the displeasure or the good will of fertility gods. In vitro fertilization, frozen sperms, chemical stimulants, surrogate mothers willing to carry to term someone else’s fertilized egg, all these tools have replaced gods as the agents of fertility, not only among humans but also among animals and seeds. Today, sex is the servant of pleasure and of anyone with something to sell, no matter what is being sold.
Western cultures are no longer based on honor and shame, but on justice and freedom. As a result sexual honor or shame no longer have the power they once had to destroy lives. Even adultery, which catches the public’s attention and causes well known politicians to be reproached and to become the laughing stock of comedians, is mostly seen with the eyes of the one who said, “Neither do I condemn you.” Adulterers are condemned for being unfaithful, for being hypocrites, that is, for being unjust to their marriage partners. As such, they are condemned without God’s participation. In his justly famous novel Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy treats adultery extensively, its motives, its consequences, its price, its essence in deceit. Analyzing all these aspects with masterful control of his art, Tolstoy makes clear that adultery is the complete negation of the highest human values and of any hope to achieve happiness or freedom. But, this faithful defender of Christianity does not appeal to the Torah. He only appeals to a transformed vision of the kingdom of God.
This is the world in which we westerners live, and those who wish to maintain a close tie between sex and God find themselves in an atmosphere with strong opposing winds. It is surprising that they do not find support in the Bible because the condemnation of abnormal sex there is linked to a cultic system of blood sacrifices and a tribal patriarchy that do not fit our symbolic universes.
The great theological advancement of the Old Testament was to find the way to relate human beings and their God without reference to fertility. This was achieved with the concept of the promise, the concept of the covenant, the concept that what links God to creation is God’ creative word. There is no biological link to the divine. Human beings were not created to facilitate the leisure of the gods and their sexual orgies. They were created to obey God’s word.
The apostle Paul, who considered the Risen Christ to be the down payment of the New Creation, did not base his theology on the covenant with The Law at its core. For him, Christians are united with the crucified and risen Christ. This union is achieved when an individual is crucified and raised with Christ in baptism. As a result, the baptized lives “in Christ”. It is amazing to see that Paul uses not only crucifixion and resurrection but also sexual activity as a metaphor for the union of the Christian with Christ. Writing to the Corinthians, the dwellers of a city famous for its predominant sexual freedom, Paul says, “Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two shall become one flesh’. But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against his own body” (1Cor. 6:16-18). In other words, he who has “joined himself (sexually) to Christ” cannot “join himself (sexually) to a prostitute” because sex makes “the two become one”. Of course, Christ is not joined to one. Christ is joined to many. In the same way the prostitute is one with many. That is, the fornicator is in fact committing adultery.
The most interesting aspect of this argument is that Paul does not base it on the sanctity of fertility. It is based on Genesis 2:24 and the power of sex to make of two one. Paul then elaborates that this is true both in the realm of the flesh and of the spirit. The problem with the prostitute is that by becoming the center of attraction for many she makes the Christian fornicator sin against his own body. For Paul, the flesh as such is not evil. To live in the flesh is normal, natural, but to live according to the flesh, according to the norms of fallen humanity, is to live sinning. Here Paul sets fornication apart from all other sins. This is not the case according to The Law, but Christians no longer live under The Law. The traditional Jewish definition of sin as the transgression of The Law, is not Paul’s definition. For him, “that which is not of faith is sin” (Rom 14:23). Only by this definition are all other sins committed “outside the body”. That fornication is the only sin which a Christian commits “against his own body”, not against The Law, not against God, not against the sexual partner, can only be understood when one remembers that Christians are members in the body of Christ. The Christian no longer lives in the body that was crucified at his baptism. The Christian lives in Christ, in the body of Christ which is a spiritual and concrete reality within the material world. If the flesh is the means for living naturally, normally, the body is the means for objectifying life within the material world. Christians live in the flesh, but not “according to the flesh”. Here Paul re-defines what is normal sex. Good sex makes two one in the spirit. These two now manifest their life in one body.
This is what distinguishes human sexuality from animal sexuality. Human sex is not, principally, for the reproduction of the species in the natural world, as many Christians have argued through the centuries and some still argue. In contra distinction to the rest of the animal kingdom, human beings imagine their lives and consider their sexuality an integral part of their human identity, they have the ability to reason, to remember and to reflect upon their own thoughts. For them sex is not just the ability to procreate. It is a sui generis way of communication, of expressing love, of establishing a union at the level of inexpressible sentiments. Sex is part of the spiritual reality, not just the carnal. For this reason, Paul thought the fornicator sins against his own body. He is disfiguring the body by dislodging a member. He is amputating the only body Christ has to be objectively present on earth today.
For Paul, sex and divinity function in a radically different way from the one in the Old Testament. It is not a matter of getting in touch with divine powers that are taboo and be tempted to use them by means of sympathetic magic. Sex is the means to transcend ourselves and be joined with the one who is the bridge to the life of the spirit.