Friday, September 08, 2006

Was there Sex in Eden?

Caution: Do not read this particular post if the topic of sex disturbs you. My purpose is not to offend you!

My last post argued that the eating of the tree in Genesis 3 had nothing whatsoever to do with the emergence of sensuality in human life on earth. But this fact raises an intriguing question: Were Adam and Eve enjoying sexuality before the fall? The well-known biblical scholar James Barr, for one, believes the answer to this question is yes.

I believe I have at least one further argument to add to those of James Barr. For me, one way to get some traction on the question is to remember that the OT does in fact contain poetry about what a return to the garden of Eden might look like: the poetry of the Song of Songs / Canticles.

In the Song of Songs, the ruptures and foul consequences of the Genesis 3 are reversed and overcome, and humanity, male and female, return to Edenic life. And certainly there is sensuality aplenty.
In view of the poetry of the Song of Songs, the uneasiness and qualms about sensuality of much of the Christian tradition makes precious little sense. Augustine's description of what making babies might have looked like had it happened in Eden appears particularly ridiculous!

Here are his words (usually printed in Latin!) from his City of God, 14.26:

In Eden, it would have been possible to beget offspring without foul lust. The sexual organs would have been stimulated into necessary activity by will-power alone, just as the will controls other organs. Then, without being goaded on by the allurement of passion, the husband could have relaxed upon his wife's breasts with complete peace of mind and bodily tranquility, that part of his body not activated by tumultuous passion, but brought into service by the deliberate use of power when the need arose, the seed dispatched into the womb with no loss of his wife's virginity. So, the two sexes could have come together for impregnation and conception by an act of will, rather than by lustful cravings. (City of God, Bk. 14, chp. 26).


Blogger Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Of course, "Eden" is not historical.

But, regardless, I am not sure Augustine is our best guide to the nature of unfallen sex. He believed that, before the fall, humans would have sex only for procreation, as with the animal kingdom (not knowing that most animals have distinct "seasons," whereas the human female is always "in season"). He also believed that the male erection would be under conscious control! (Something as odd as his thought that pregnancy would have happened "without loss of virginity-" a weird concept completely.)

Augustine's prudishness was a reaction to his own pre-Christian promiscuity.

Human sexuality--from God's own design-- has both continuities and discontinuities with that of our fellow animals. Medieval theologians tended to see all the differences as due to sinfulness. Procreation was the only legitimate purpose. Thus, they had bizarre moral judgments such as rape and incest being less morally evil than homosexual sex or masturbation because AT LEAST with the former there was the possibility of pregnancy (rather than seeing pregnancy compound the crime against the rape or incest victim)!!

Since the "sexual revolution," our tendency has been to disconnect sex too much from procreation and see it primarily as recreational.

Both views downplay its essential role in cementing and strengthening the marriage bond. Augustine to the contrary, not all married passion is "lust." The Song of Songs celebrates the eros that permeates even agape between a couple in a way that Augustine misses. Augustine has, unfortunately, messed up much of Western Christian views on sex.

Sat Sep 09, 10:15:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I should note that not all the imagery of Song of Songs translates across cultures. If I tell my wife that her breasts are like the twin fawns of a gazelle, she may or may not be flattered. If I tell her, however, that her hair is like a flock of goats, or that her teeth are like a flock of ewes (6:6), she's likely to throw something at me.

At the very least, it will hardly kindle a romantic mood in this household! :-)

Sat Sep 09, 10:19:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

I was hoping the topic of sex would spark some discussion! Thanks for these notes, Michael. Your second comment reminds me of the famous cartoon in The Door magazing, their most requested cartoon ever: I'm sure most people have seen it, but if not, do check it out.

I've also just discovered some great discussion of this entry by Prof. Chris Heard over at his Higgaion blog: When I get home this afternoon, I'm sure going to study Chris's comments! ---Stephen C.

Sun Sep 10, 07:07:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Dan Trabue said...

I'm not sure I get the point. Is this writer suggesting that enjoying one another's bodies amounts to lust - hence the need to separate lust from the sex act? Is he saying that only through lust are we aroused?

If so, I think I'd have a different definition of sinful lust than he does.

Beyond that, is there any practical reason for pondering whether or not Adam and Eve were sexually active?

Mon Sep 11, 12:12:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Don't get me wrong, Augustine contributes a huge amount to theology. That said, Augustine cleary had some real problems with sex! A little bit of psychotherapy during his youth might have cleared things up, but then the church, and indeed Western civilization would have lost perhaps its only really profound thinker between, say, Paul and Aquinas.
Okay, is this discussion just for fun, or is there a spiritual and practical point? Well, I think one relevant theme here is that the church has to do a much better job of talking about and encouraging true intimacy. We've got to orient ourselves on kind of passionate intimacy that so put off Augustine. This is intimacy not for the sake of procreation but for its own sake. I am so bold as to argue that the Song of Songs wants us to have this sort of intimacy also with God, but that's another post (or maybe a whole seminary course)...

Mon Sep 11, 06:19:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...

A fine post indeed! I have been reading some on Gensis 3 and have now see some articles from the guild that suggest that part of the "Image of God" motif could be reproduction. In essence, when humanity reproduces they are in effect creating life just as Yahweh did in the Garden. Steve, what say ye to this?

Tue Sep 12, 01:52:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Thanks, Joe. Gressmann once argued, "begetting and sparking life is a divine craft." If you remember any of the specific articles in question please post them.
Your comment about linking the intimacy shared by the couple in Eden with the image of God makes me think of Karl Barth's idea that the Imago consisted in Mitmenschlichkeit, our human capacity for true mutuality with one another. Of course, Barth was specifically thinking of Gen 1:27, "In the image of God He created them / male and female He created them //."
On the other hand, I wonder if it is not really best to link the specific theme of "knowing good and evil" with what Gen 1 refers to as the Imago. Thus, what the wise woman of Tekoa says is that David is "like the angel of God" specifically in that he shows a special ability to "discern good and evil" (2 Samuel 14:17).
--Stephen C.

Tue Sep 12, 08:08:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux threw himself into half-frozen ponds to free himself from sexual temptation. He also wrote lengthy commentaries on the Bible’s Song of Songs (also called “The Song of Solomon”) “to prove it was not about sex”--a feat without equal in the history of Biblical interpretation… for its foolhardiness.

My breasts like towers: then was I in his eyes as one that found favor.
- Song of Songs 8:10

That couldn’t possibly be about sex could it?

Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts like clusters of grapes… I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also your breasts shall be as clusters of the vine.
- Song of Songs 7:7-8

“Really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree” was how the Steve Miller Band sang it in their hit song, “The Joker.”

Let us get up early to the vineyard… There will I give thee my loves. The mandrakes give a smell and at our gates [or doors] are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.
- Song of Songs 7:12-13

“Gates” or “doors” are euphemisms for the genitalia. And the two-pronged “mandrake” root is crotch-shaped. Since ancient times “mandrakes” have been related to sexual potency. Take Genesis chapter 30 in which Jacob’s barren wife tells him she has “hired him [a child] with mandrake.” Speaking of “pleasant fruits,” notice how “breasts” are described as “clusters of grapes,” and be sure to keep an eye on further appearances of “fruit” in the Song of Solomon:

As the apple tree among the trees of the world, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
- Song of Songs 2:3

Hmmm, that wouldn’t be referring to fellatio, would it?

The smell of your nose, like apples.
- Song of Songs 7:8

Translated literally it’s puzzling. “Noses” do not “smell like apples.” The Anchor Bible dissects the linguistics, concluding that this refers to the scent of a woman’s “vulva.” The reference to “apples” also mirrors verse 2:3 where the female “sits in the shadow” of the male’s “apple tree” and finds his “fruit” “sweet” to her “taste.” Should not her “fruit” smell equally as “sweet” to him?

Your navel [literal Hebrew, “groove” or “slit”] a rounded crater, may it never lack punch!
- Song of Songs 7:2

It is not difficult to spot the euphemism being employed in this case. Cunnilingus anyone? As for further food-based metaphors that discuss the craving for sex as if it were analogous to the craving for food:

Female speaking: Breathe upon my garden, let its spices flow. Let my love enter his garden. Let him eat its delectable fruits.
Male speakimg: I entered my garden, my sister, my bride; I plucked my myrrh with my spice; I at my honeycomb with my honey; I drank my wine with my milk.
- Song of Songs 4:12-5:1


Poetic allusions to the most intimate of female charms are sometimes overlooked or studiously ignored by translators. In the Song of Songs 2:17 the lady invites her lover to be like a gazelle on “cleft mount(s)” and in 8:14 the invitation is to “spice mound(s).”

The lady of the Song speaks of her unguarded vineyard (1:6), and there is frequent reference (2:16; 4:5; 5:1; 6:2) to the garden(s) where the lover grazes, not among “lilies” (as traditionally understood), but on the lotus, an ancient and famous sexual symbol. The body part praised as a rounded crater (mixing bowl) never to lack mix (7:2) is hardly the navel but a receptacle not far below. The all-spice part(s) of the lady (4:13) are not “shoots” but a “groove” or “conduit” [the vulva].

Song of Songs 5:4 states, “My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him” which is suggestive of intercourse…”Hand” appears as a euphemism in another part of the Bible which states, “You have loved their bed, You have looked on their manhood [literal Hebrew, ‘looked on their hand’].” (Isaiah 57:8, NASB) And the Dead Sea scrolls refer to a member of the Hebrew religious community at Qumran being fined for exposing his “hand.”

There is even sexual suggestiveness in the use of the word “couch” in Song of Songs 1:12-13 (which states, “While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance.”--RSV). The double entendre meaning of “couch” is illuminated by Rabbi Judah’s ancient remark that Jerusalem men were lewd: “One would say to his colleague, ‘On what did you dine today? On well-kneaded bread or on bread not kneaded; on white wine or dark wine; on a broad couch or a narrow couch; with a good companion or a poor companion?’” “All these queries,” Hisda explained, refer “to fornication.”

Marvin H. Pope, “The Bible, Euphemism and Dysphemism In” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. I

Just because the author of the Song of Songs praises “well favored” women with “breasts like towers,” is no reason to think “the Lord” finds “favor” with them. He’s into virginity--into it deeper than any Protestant ever imagined. Take the following heavenly scene:

I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps: And they sung as it were a new song before the throne [of the Lord]...and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. These are they that were not defiled with women; for they are virgins.
- Revelation 14: 2-4

Why is it important that the 144,000 male harpists not be “defiled” with women?
Likewise, why did Moses feel it was important for Israelite men to “come not at their wives” before “meeting the Lord?” (Exodus 19:15,17) What exactly is so bad about having a little nookie before meeting the Lord?

And why did Paul teach: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman [sexually]…Are you loosed from a wife? seek not a wife…The time is short: it remains that they that have wives be as though they had none.” (1 Cor. 7) And finally, why did Jesus say, “Some have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven?” (Mat. 19:12) What’s the lesson behind all this?

There appears to have been some ancient taboo about a woman “spiritually defiling” a man by having sex with him. (I wonder if a single Protestant Christian still believes this? Do they “come not at their wives” before traveling to the annual Southern Baptist Convention? I doubt it.)


Thu Oct 19, 08:53:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

I think this is a misunderstanding of Augustine. He doesn't think there's anything wrong with sexual pleasure. If his resistance to seeing sexual lust as good is taken to imply that, then I think it gets him wrong. What he sees as a problem is when the passions get in the way of reason. The passions ought to be subservient to reason, perhaps further motivating someone to do what reason already dictates, or perhaps being countered by reason when they conflict. What is bad is when the passions motivated you to do something that reason tells you not to do. Any sexual desire of that form is thus lust. But frequently sexual desire may motivate someone to engage in sexual reproduction in the right circumstances (i.e. within marriage, in a circumstance apart from some specific fast from sex as Paul allows but does not endorse in I Cor 7, and when the pursuit of seeking children as a result is at least part of what one will accept by using reason). Once those conditions of reason are met, sexual desire is a perfectly good motivator for sex. What Augustine says would be different before the fall is not that erections would be independent of sexual desire. It's that sexual desire would be connected with reason rather than being involuntary. But reason and the passions can work together when the passion in question is not a lust of the form that interferes with reason. Before the fall there would be no such passions, and so sexual desire in the form of desiring the pleasure that comes from the act would be perfectly appropriate.

Tue Nov 07, 01:54:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Thank you for this, Jeremy. It is very good to have a real student of philosophy enter this discussion! I am acutally quite a fan of Augustine, so I am glad to see him defended. But I still have questions. I still think Augustine emphasizes the procreative goal of sex and minimizes its goal of intimacy and mutual self-giving. Indeed, I believe that Augustine would hold it to be wrong to have sex while avoiding procreation. In short, the notion that sexual desire and sexual intimacy have the goal of enhancing committed love between two humans has little or no visibility in Augustine. Would you agree? ---SLC

Tue Nov 07, 03:28:00 PM GMT-5  
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