Sexuality, what it is and how it plays into God’s role of salvation are fascinating to discuss. I presume that this is at least one reason why St. John Paull II came out with his ‘Theology of the Body’. It is a topic that virtually everyone is interested in, especially today.
One of the most intriguing questions to me is what the Bible has to say on sexuality. There are many instances in which Scripture does bring up, address or imply various meanings upon human sexuality. I do not intend to discuss all of them here, nor will I bring up every single instance in Scripture in which sexuality is mentioned. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of sex within the Bible, but I do hope that some key themes can be revealed about sexuality and how God designed it within us.
One of the most obvious passages of sexuality is in Genesis 2: 24, where after Eve was formed from the side of Adam we are told, ‘That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two become one flesh.’ I have talked about this verse before in a previous post concerning marriage, but just to recap:
The meaning of ‘two becoming one flesh’ identifies with both the sexual act and with the spiritual life of husband and wife. That is why sex between husband and wife is a physical representation of the spiritual reality in which they live together; they are one, just as Christ is one with his Church. In fact, marriage between husband and wife is a symbol of the union that Christ has with His Church, as seen in Ephesians 5 where St. Paul quotes Genesis 2: 24 and then says, ‘This is a great sacrament; but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church’ (Ephesians 5: 31-32). Thus sex between husband and wife is meant not merely as a symbol of the spiritual reality of husband and wife, but even more so of the spiritual reality of Christ being one with His Church. This is the fulfilled meaning of Genesis 2: 24 and of marriage and sexuality as a whole.
Any and all other passages on sexuality build off of and hinge on this understanding. Sex and marriage point to other Godly things, but it first and foremost points to the union of Christ and His Church, as all things that pertain to salvation must.
Another thing we see a few times in the Bible is the idea of ‘knowing’. Genesis 4: 1 ‘And Adam knew Eve his wife: who conceived and brought forth Cain…’. The famous Sodom and Gomorrah store in Genesis 19: 5 where the townspeople said to Lot, concerning his two guests, ‘bring them out hither that we may know them’. Or how about Numbers 31: 17, ‘Therefore kill all of the male sex, even of the children: and put to death the women that have carnally known men.’
In all of the examples the word know or knew, Hebrew word yada, connotes a sexual meaning. This is especially obvious in Genesis 4: 1 where the immediate action that occurs after Adam knew Eve was Eve’s conception of Cain. It is interesting that yada, however, does not necessitate a sexual connotation. In fact, it is more often then not used in the Bible as: to comprehend something, to understand something, or to learn something, as for example in Exodus 6: 7 where God says, ‘I will be to you a God: and ye shall know [yada] that I am the Lord your God…’ (emphasis mine).
This to me seems to be intentional. The sexual act is clearly an idiomatic meaning for yada. Thus the normal meaning for knowing is in some way tied in to the understanding of the sexual act.
Take Genesis 4: 1 as an example. If Adam knew Eve then yes that means they had sexual intercourse. But it also means much more then that when you take into consideration what yada is usually defined as. For Adam to know Eve through the sexual act means he knows her and understands her in a way that no one else does: in a personal, intimate, and unifying way. Marriage and the sexual act meant to accompany it is the unification of man and woman and as such you, in the ideal situation, know (understand) this woman or this man in a way that is completely unique and that no one else ever has before.
Another definition of yada is to reveal. This is even more tied in with the sexual connotation in Genesis 4: 1, for Adam and Eve reveal their whole selves to each other via the sexual act, as does any husband and wife who enters into the marital bond. An act that is supposed to be in its very nature entirely self-sacrificing (because you are literally giving your body and soul to your spouse in the act) entails that each spouse reveals themselves to each other in ways they could not before. As a result the other spouse grasps an understanding of their beloved more fully than they did and could before.
What a beautiful way of understanding the conjugal act.
‘But wait,’ you may say, ‘Even if a passage like Genesis 4: 1 could be interpreted in that way doesn’t a passage like Genesis 19: 5 fly right in the face of that? Isn’t the intention of the townspeople against Lot and his guests to do something horrible and wrong? And if so, how could that square with your interpretation of ‘to know’?’
Genesis 19: 5 does seem to be talking about a sexual act here, since only a couple of verses later Lot offered his two daughters to the crowd who ‘have never known man’. So what can we make of this?
It seems to be that yada is being used here to describe purely the physical act of sex. But this is not contradictory to the deeper meaning behind yada described above for two reasons. First, even today we use the word ‘sex’ as simply the physical act of sexual intercourse, even though when I and other Catholics use the word ‘sex’ we imply something with a far deeper meaning. So it is very possible for the same situation to be applied here.
Second, the passage could actually prove the deeper meaning if the wording is being used in order to prove a point. We see this for instance in 1Corinthians 6: 15-16 where St. Paul says, ‘Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take Christ’s members and make them the members of a prostitute? Of course not! [Or] do you not know that anyone who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For “the two,” it says, “will become one flesh.”’ Now clearly St. Paul does not think that having intercourse with a prostitute is unifying in the same way that a husband and wife having intercourse is, even though he compares both situations to the passage from Genesis 2: 24; if that were the case then that would mean that a man and a prostitute would be comparable to Christ and his Church like husband and wife is. But that is the point. St. Paul is using the Genesis 2: 24 comparison to show how ridiculous it is for one to misuse their body for sexual immorality, for it becomes a false connection to that unifying aspect of marital love.
So it is in Genesis 19: 5. The crowd’s use of the word ‘know’ here shows how twisted and godless they really are to imply that their suggested actions are comparable to the true meaning of sexual complementarity that God designed.
Hence no contradiction remains. Yada can have clear sexual implications and it speaks to the very nature of the sexual act to do so.
Last but not least, we must discuss the Song of Songs. While justice cannot be done to it here it nonetheless needs to be discussed for its obvious sexual and marital imagery.
The Song of Songs was originally meant to describe the ideal relationship between God and Israel, as numerous biblical authors have described said relationship as a marriage. The coming of Jesus was a fulfillment of the Song as the Song becomes a ‘type’ of sorts for Christ and his Church. In other words, the Song that was a symbol of the marriage between God and Israel now, with the coming of Christ, represents a fuller understanding of God’s marriage with the whole Church. Ephesians 5 is a fulfillment of the Song of Songs.
The Song is also seen as a great example of human marital love and sexuality. This makes sense, for if the full meaning of the Song comes to light in Christ and His Church and human marital love is a symbol of Christ and His Church, then it follows that certain parallels the Song makes can be applied to husband and wife.
The very first verse, ‘Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth’ is a kickoff to how the rest of the Song is going to be: poetical and sensual. The Bride and Bridegroom continue this by referring to each other with loving characterizations of the other; ‘my beloved’, ‘O most beautiful among women’, ‘as a lily among thorns, so is my beloved among women’, ‘you ravish my heart my sister, my bride’, ‘my lover is radiant and ruddy; he stands out among thousands’. Even by today’s standards these would be considered to be very romantic and loving ways to refer to one’s spouse.
Sensual scenes are seemingly depicted throughout the Song as well. One such example is when the Groom describes his Bride as an ‘enclosed garden, a fountain sealed,’ (Song 4: 12) and his Bride responds, ‘Let my lover come to his garden and eat his choice fruits’ (Song 4: 16).
Later the Bride describes an instance in which the two meet: “I was sleeping but my heart kept vigil; I heard my lover knocking: ‘Open to me, my sister, my beloved, my dove, my perfect one! For my head is wet with dew, my locks with the moisture of the night.’ I have taken off my robe, am I then to put it on? I have bathed my feet, am I then to soil them? My lover put his hand through the opening; my heart trembled within me, and I grew faint when he spoke. I rose to open to my lover, with my hands dripping myrrh: with my fingers dripping choice myrrh upon the fittings of the lock.’ (Song 5: 2-5).
And another: “[Bridegroom] How beautiful you are, how pleasing, my love, my delight! Your very figure is like a palm tree, your breasts are like clusters. I said: I will climb the palm tree, I will take hold of its branches. Now let your breasts be like clusters of the vine and the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like an excellent wine –[Bride] that flows smoothly for my lover, spreading over the lips and the teeth. I belong to my lover and for me he yearns. Come, my lover, let us go forth to the fields and spend the night among the villages. Let us go early to the vineyards, and see if the vines are in bloom, if the buds have opened, if the pomegranates have blossomed; there will I give you my love” (Song 7: 7-13).
Very sexually implicit themes here, yet nonetheless beautiful because of how beautiful the sexual act and marital love truly is. The last quoted verse in particular is breathtaking, for it shows their explicit yearning for and their unity to one another by having the Bride complete the Bridegroom’s words of passion and desire. This speaks to the very heart of intimate and binding love.
That is the case with the entire Bible, though. All of Scripture points towards the beauty of God-given sexuality and love whether it plainly discusses it or not. That is because all of Scripture is focused on the author of that sexuality and love, the Eternal Love. From that Love alone flows forth the grace present in the marital covenant and the marital act.
May God give us the grace to always remember the gift of our sexuality and may we use it in accordance with His will. Amen.