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I have just finished reading the amazing book entitled Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire. To say that I've waited a long, long time for a book this scholarly, honest, intelligent, and completely readable would still be a complete understatement.
Knust does something that I've been trying to do myself to a very limited extent, and that is to point out the extraordinary absurdity of claiming the Bible speaks with any kind of coherence on the notion that marriage is meant to be limited to "One Man, One Woman". However, she speaks from the perspective of a minister and scripture scholar, and though her work is scholarly, it is not in any way dry, dull or ponderous. She has produced a beautifully detailed, completely annotated discussion of sexual and marital norms as portrayed in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, set against the backdrop of the cultural and political circumstances within which these norms existed.
As I've observed on my own, Knust makes emphatically clear that all Hebrew statements concerning marriage and sexuality were based on the primary principle that women were considered to be chattel. Above slaves, children and livestock in the hierarchy, they were none-the-less the property of their fathers or brothers if they were unmarried, and their husbands after marriage. All the restrictions on adultery related to a man's property rights over a woman. Although a man was permitted more than one wife in patriarchal times, women were NOT permitted more than one husband. Men, of course, were not censured for sexual activity with slaves or prostitutes, although there were definite restrictions on the "how, where and who".
Another very valuable contribution Knust makes is to compare - in easy-to-understand tabular form - the variety of attitudes towards marriage, sexual activity and celibacy discussed in the various epistles that have been included in the Christian canon. This saves the reader a tremendous amount of effort in terms of flipping back and forth between one text and another, and sets these ideas in the context of the changing perspective in the Early Church concerning the immanence of Christ's return. She also, and I am extremely grateful for this, investigates the flawed historical assertions that there was significant "Sacred Prostitution" practiced as part of the ritual of non-Hebrew cultures at the time of Christ. Additionally, she compares the attitudes towards marriage and sexuality in the Roman Empire at the beginning of the Christian Era, and quotes a number of Greek and Roman sources that parallel the writings of early Christian apologists.
The key point that of course is of most significance to me is the realization that the misogyny and devaluation of women, which was apparently a major driving force in ancient times, is still, unfortunately, a very major part of our current cultural and spiritual landscape. From the incredible abuse of women that is still practiced under what Islam calls Sharia Law, to the Roman Catholic insistence on priestly celibacy and the refusal of holy orders to women, to the conflicts the US military is still having about what particular roles to allow women in the armed forces, the issue remains. I recently heard an interview with a female general who discussed the insistence of the army less than a generation ago that women should not be eligible for promotion to command rank because it was generally believed that by the time they got to that point in their careers, they'd be undergoing menopause, and "everyone knew" how unstable women were during their "change of life"! Whatever view we take, what another writer has termed "pelvic issues" tend to oppress women the most.
I would like to quote part of the concluding paragraph of Knust's book, because I believe it focuses her thesis so beautifully, and says exactly what I've wanted to hear said for so long:
"Those who attempt to belittle or demean a class of people, denying them rights on the basis of an unexamined interpretation of a few biblical passages, are expressing not God's will but their own limited human perspective, backed up by shallow and self-serving reading of the biblical text. No one should rejoice when Jezebel is eaten by dogs. Slavery is never acceptable, whatever the bible says. And it is a tragedy, not a triumph, every time some young person somewhere is crushed by the weight of taunting and shame inspired by cruelty masquerading as righteousness. If the Bible is truly the word of God, as Christians have claimed for centuries, then surely it deserves to be treated better than this. If human bodies matter to God as much as some ancient Israelites, Jewish Sages, and early Christians taught, then surely they deserve both protection and high regard, no matter what. The Samaritan woman desired living water capable of quenching thirst forever, not still water trapped in a bucket and available for one thirsty afternoon. When it comes to the Bible, may we imitate her example, seeking abundant life in all the interpretations we offer." (pp. 247 - 8)