Sexuality and Scripture: What Else Does the Bible Have to Say?

Debra W. Haffner

He says:

How fair and pleasant you are


O loved one, delectable maiden.


You are stately as a palm tree,


And your breasts are like its clusters.

I say I will climb the palm tree, and

Lay hold of its branches.


Oh, may your breasts be like

Clusters of the vine.

And the scent of your breath like apples,

And your kisses like the best wine that

Goes down smoothly


Gliding over lips and teeth…

She answers:

That pleases my lover, rousing him

Even from sleep.


I am my lover’s,


He longs for me,

Only for me.

He answers:

Come my beloved,


Let us go out into the fields,


And lie all night among the flowering henna.

Let us go early to the vineyards…


There I will give you my love.

Song of Songs 7:6–14

The Song of Songs is a delightfully erotic, sensual dance between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman, who, given what we know about marriage at the time the Bible was written, are probably in their early teen years. Their desire for each other is mutual; their passion is mutual; their fulfillment is mutual. The emphasis is on passion and intimacy; there is no discussion of marriage or fertility. And, it is only one of the places in Scripture where physical beauty is affirmed; where pleasure is good, where there are many forms of blessed relationships, and where sexuality is a source of pleasure and pain in our lives.

I love the Bible, but I am relatively new to its teachings. In Sunday school growing up Jewish but not having a bat mitzvah, I never got past Genesis and Exodus. I was taught at an early age by my grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor, that the New Testament was a book that had been used to kill my relatives, and so I never read the New Testament until 1996 during my first semester at divinity school. When a professor there said, “Read this passage like you are reading it for the first time,” I was!

I think it’s also important to note that I first read Scripture as a sexologist. My first semester in seminary was as a research fellow at the Yale Divinity School during a sabbatical from my position as the president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. I was surprised during this first semester to realize as I studied the Hebrew Bible that it was replete with sexual references: I chronicled more than thirty-five sexually themed stories in the book of Genesis alone. When I read the New Testament for the first time, I was most surprised by First Letter to Corinthians. In it, Paul addressed seventeen of the thirty-seven topics that should be addressed in a comprehensive sexuality curriculum.

Many people think they know what the Bible teaches about sexuality. They believe that the Bible teaches that sex is only for procreation and that masturbation, abortion, and contraception are wrong, when actually the Bible is silent on each of these issues. On the other hand, some assume that it is hopelessly patriarchal and should be disregarded completely, when there are actually texts that emphasize mutuality and equality.

It is surprising how infrequently ministers, rabbis, and priests talk about the messages of sexuality in Scripture, when they seem ever present in its books. I echo the experience of National Public Radio’s Marty Goldensohn. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I could never figure out why there had to be two of every animal on the ark. No one would ever tell me. I wondered, was it so God could have spares, like a spare giraffe, in case one giraffe got hurt or sick?”

There are many stories, even core stories such as the story of creation and the birth of Jesus, where sexuality is central but often ignored. In fact, the Bible actually begins with an affirmation of humans as sexual beings. In the first account of creation, God created “humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female, he created them.” The very first thing God says to people is go have sex: “be fruitful and multiply.” In the second account of creation, God is displeased for the first time because God recognizes that “it is not good for man to be alone” and sets out to find Adam a companion. God brings each of the animals forward to Adam and suggests each of them as a companion. Adam rejects them all. It is only then that God puts Adam to sleep to create woman. The centrality of sexuality is emphasized in the last line of the chapter: “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh.” The goal of union is sexual pleasure; procreation is not mentioned in the second account of creation.

Side by side, the two first texts of the Bible emphasize the equality of men and women, recognize that we need companions and helpers in life, affirm sexuality as both procreative and recreative, and underscore that God is pleased to offer humans this gift.

The Bible teaches that bodies are good. Paul taught that the “body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19), and this message appears many times in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The Bible often comments on the attractiveness of the main character: Rebekah “was very fair to look upon”; Rachel was “graceful and handsome”; Joseph was “well built and good looking.” Indeed, Jacob and Rachel are the first recorded instance of love at first sight, partially because of their physical beauty. Jacob, it is written, waits for her for seven years, which “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Gen 29:20). Likewise, the lovers in the Song of Songs are fiercely beautiful and each part of their body is exalted: “how fair and pleasant you are, o loved one, delectable maiden. You are stately as a palm tree and your breasts are like its clusters” (Song 5:4–5).

The Bible speaks openly and honestly about the genitals and bodily functions. It is remarkably upfront about menstruation and seminal emissions. Menstruation is actually used as a plot device in the story of Rachel’s deception of Laban – who saves the items she and Jacob have stolen by placing them under her and saying she has her period so he can’t ask her to get up nor can he touch her bedclothes. There is also the story of the woman who touches Jesus and is healed, despite her being unclean from dysfunctional menstrual bleeding for more than twelve years (Matthew 9:20).

The Bible also has a strong message that pleasure is good. Sexual desire occurs many times in Genesis and other stories. Divine beings are said to desire beautiful human women (6:2); Sarah describes the pleasure of sexual intimacy in old age; Isaac is noticed “fondling his wife Rebekah”; Leah and Rachel negotiate for who gets to sleep with Jacob on which night; Potiphar’s wife strongly desires Joseph; Delilah is able to subdue Samson only after three instances of bondage that he requests. Concerning sex in long-term relationships, Proverbs pronounces: “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. May her breasts satisfy you at all times, may you be intoxicated always by her love” (Proverbs 5:18–19).

Celibacy is not desirable according to the Hebrew Bible, and, at best, it is an option for the few in the New Testament. Celibacy only appears during times of disorganization: Jeremiah remains single because of the impending disease and destruction (Jer 16:2), while Jephthah’s daughter begs her father for two months’ reprieve from her death sentence so that she can “bewail my virginity.” (In fact, the daughters of Israel are said to go out each year to mourn her because “she had never slept with a man” [Jud 11:39].)

There are many types of blessed relationships in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, not only heterosexual monogamous marriage. Isaac is the only patriarch in the Bible who is monogamous. Solomon is said to have had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (1 Kings 11:3); David, his father, has a paltry twenty-one wives; in fact, the texts tell us that when David is depressed in his old age, a young woman is presented to him as the cure, although he is too depressed to take advantage of her (l Kings 1:1–4)!

Jesus’ message is one of love and radical inclusiveness, for both men and women and of people with differing sexual lifestyles. For example, in the Gospel of John, Jesus shocks his disciples by revealing himself to the Samitaran woman—who has had five husbands and is currently cohabitating with another man. He chooses her to spread the message that he is the Savior, but he doesn’t tell her to marry the man with whom she is cohabitating (John 4:4–42). And, in one of the most quoted passages of the New Testament, Jesus refuses to condemn the woman accused of adultery: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Of course, they all depart (John 8:1–11).

The Bible is full of rich and rewarding relationships between people who do not live a heterosexual monogamous lifestyle, such as: Abraham and Sarah and Rachel and Jacob, who are married but the men have other partners with whom they have children; Martha and Mary, who share their homes together as sisters; Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz, who parent the same child; the bands of disciples who leave their families to travel and work together.

The question that I am asked most frequently about sexuality and Scripture concerns whether the Bible condemns homosexuality. We heard many times during recent denomination debates about sexual orientation that the Bible condemns homosexuality, and this statement is often presented without comment or challenge. I believe that it is at best inaccurate to use Scripture to condemn committed, consensual, same sex-adult sexual relationships. These type of relationships did not exist when Scripture was written.

There are only four passages in the Bible that explicitly address same-sex activities: two in Leviticus and two in Romans. That there are only four passages show that this subject was of relatively little importance. In contrast, there are ten prohibitions in Leviticus alone on having sex with a menstruating woman and seventeen on how to make a grain offering. The Hebrew Bible also condemns eating fat, touching the bed of a menstruating woman, and cursing one’s parents.

There are passages in Scripture that describe love between people of the same sex. Jonathan and David seem to fall in love at first sight: “When David had finished speaking, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1); “Jonathan took great delight in David” (1 Samuel 19:1); and David wrote of Jonathan, “Greatly beloved were you to me, your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26) Other writers have suggested that the relationship of Ruth and Naomi was one of lovers and that Boaz may have been used only to impregnate Ruth. It is truly ironic that the passage often recited at heterosexual weddings, “Where you go, I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people” (Ruth 1:16) was first said by one woman to another.

What about Sodom and Gomorrah? Wasn’t that about homosexuality? Later books in the Bible clarify that this is a story about inhospitality. According to Wisdom 19:13, the sin of Sodom was a “bitter hatred of strangers” and “making slaves of guests who were really benefactors.” Ezekiel 16:48–49 attests that “this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

Scripture recognizes the existence of sexual variation and sexual minorities in its passages about eunuchs. During the time that the Bible was written, eunuchs were men who either were born with missing or incomplete genitals (such men were once called hermaphrodites but now are called intersexuals) or lost them in battle. According to Isaiah, eunuchs received special blessings from God: “Do not let the eunuch say, I am just a dry tree…to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbath, who choose the things that please me, and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house, and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name”(Isaiah 65:3–5). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks about different kinds of eunuchs, saying, “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”

More important than any specific passage is the overall theme of Scripture: love and inclusion. Early in the Gospels, in a story repeated in all three of the synoptics, Jesus is asked, “‘Rabbi, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to them, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’”(Matthew 2:3 –40). My personal theology is that we express divine intention on earth by how we treat each other, how we understand our own sexuality, and how we express it with others, not simply through acts but through our very relationships. Theologian Paul Tillich, in his book Love, Power, and Justice, wrote, “Love is the drive towards the unity of the separated….It is the fulfillment and triumph of love that is able to reunite the most radically separated beings, individual persons.” Likewise, theologian Martin Buber, in his work 10 Rungs: Collected Hasidic Sayings, said that the route to knowing God is through our own relationships. He said, “To love God truly you must freely love your fellow man; if any one tells you that he loves God but does not love his neighbor, you will know that he is lying.”

Scripture is less concerned with an ethic of sexuality than it is with an ethic of love. I believe that any use of Scripture that violates people’s essential nature, excludes them from God’s love, and impedes them from living according to their own conscience and integrity violates the very message of the good news. 

The foundation of my ministry about sexuality and religion is fundamentally about teaching people to love each other. It is also the foundation of most religions and most sexology. Both ministers and sexologists, and indeed the authors of Scripture, knew that each of us wants to be loved—just the way we are. The ultimate challenge of Scripture, and also of life, is to love generously, courageously, and with integrity our neighbors as well as ourselves. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love with all your soul, your heart, and your might.” I think Jesus and the rabbis were right: there really isn’t much more that we need to know.

The Reverend Debra W. Haffner is the director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing and is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister serving as the endorsed community minister with the Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut. She is the author of From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children and Beyond the Big Talk: Every Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens, as well as the co-author of a college sexuality textbook and “What I’ve Learned About Sex” as well as several monographs for churches on sexual health. Rev. Haffner was honored with the 2000 Distinquished Service Award from the Association of Yale Alumni in Public Health; she has also received the highest honors from Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. She received the Connecticut Sexuality Educator of the Year Award in May 2002. She is currently a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School and also teaches courses at Union Theological Seminary. This paper is excerpted from a sermon on “Sexuality and Scripture” at the Chautauqua Institution, Summer 2003.