No text in the Bible even hints at masturbation. But the Calvinist effort to
Asa kid raised Evangelical I kept hearing about an angry God who hated sex, women, gays, non-white people and — people in general?
When I checked in with Bible scholars, I found that the sacred text of Christianity wasn’t being described accurately. Here’s eight favorites.
1. Masturbation is not a divine crime
For centuries, the “church” waged total war on self-touch. They’ve eased off in the last few decades — a nice reminder that the “timeless theology” changes whenever they want it to.
But it’s useful to remember that they pointed to a story in Genesis 38 about a guy named Onan as an anti-masturbation text, and loaded on warnings about extreme health problems that would result. In retrospect, the clerics had no such medical knowledge, and misrepresented the Onan narrative to boot. It was theological fraud.
No text in the Bible even hints at masturbation. But the Calvinist effort to crush the practice led to 17th century men turning to prostitutes en masse. As Sheldon J. Watts notes in Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism, this made a “major contribution” to the rise of syphilis.
Having been told that masturbation led to health problems, efforts were made to curb it even in infants, leading to routine male circumcision and female genital mutilation, as countless children were terrorized with the idea of a deity who surveils and punishes their most private moments.
So when you hear “Christian tradition” — you know what that means.
2. No, Jeremiah doesn’t say everyone is “wicked”
Christian theology has a core idea, which is that everyone is utterly, horribly bad. It relies for this point on a line in the Old Testament. As the old KJV translates Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
Having heard this all my life, I was shocked to learn that Jewish scholars had been saying it was wrong. In a study, Tzvi Novick suggests this translation: “The heart is more closely kept than anything, and humanity — what human being can know it?”
The Hebrew wording is complex, but the ancient Greek translation called the Septuagint has this: “The heart is deep above all else, and so is man, and who shall understand him?” The Peshitta, translating from Syriac, has this: “The heart is stronger than any man (all men); who can understand it?”
The secret of the mistranslation is Christian anti-Semitism, that beating black heart of its history. In the 4th century, Jerome writes that Jeremiah 17:9 suggests to him the idea that “no one knows a person’s secret thoughts except God alone,” but he’s noticed an effort “to use this passage against the Jews…”
Christian men made a Jewish prophet attack Jewish people — and kept up the assault until Jeremiah was reading the whole world to filth.
3. No, God doesn’t hate women
Why was this a surprise? I had to face the tradition which had just lied to me about women being second-class. Scholars had to work on untwisting many passages that supported this campaign of error. In the Bible, human males are never placed over human females.
The Bible has as many or more heroines than heroes — and odd figures in between, like Jael, who can’t be sexed. I love the beautiful Sarai, praised for her wisdom, and Tamar, who has sex with three guys in a row and is called ‘righteous’. All heroines are super-sexual, incidentally. No spiritual value is ever assigned to lifetime virginity.
Over and over, we see men in the Bible described as psychotic, murderous, as brave women rise to oppose them. When the male Pharoah is butchering boys, it isn’t men, but midwives, who stage a dangerous intervention. As Tikva Frymer-Kensky notes, the Bible is often the story of women who “foiled the plans of men and shaped the destiny of the world.”
And thank God, because men will drive this thing into the ditch.
4. No, God is not all-male
Though they don’t eagerly volunteer this information, even conservative Christian theologians know that God, in the Bible, is a male-female process. As Robert A.J. Gagnon notes:
“It is true that the Hebrew Bible describes God in both masculine (predominantly) and feminine imagery (for the latter, see Isa 42:14; 49:15; 63:13; Hosea 13:8; by inference Num 11:12; Deut 32:11, 18; Hos 11:1–4).”
But somehow, it seemed so shocking to me — that Christian men had misread the text on so fundamental a level as to leave the impression that God was male and only liked men. I had to go back to the start, with scholars as guides, not clerics — who were just liars.
And God created man in his image,
in the image of God created he him;
male and female created he them.
“The poetical structure of Gen. 1:27 clearly suggests that God himself too was both male and female,” as Johannes C. de Moor observes.
From ‘El Shaddai’, which means the “breasted one,” to the female Wisdom figure (see Annette Schellenberg‘s 2018 paper, “May Her Breasts Satisfy You at All Times”), we see a female deity throughout the Bible.
Moses didn’t think God was all-male. In Numbers 11:15, the prophet addresses the deity using a female pronoun. The “mother and father” to be honored in the Ten Commandments is likely God.
5. Women can be “clergy” if they want
A bizarre amount of Christian debate concerns a question about which the Bible is mostly uninterested. There is no special category of “clergy” as overlords, telling everyone what to do.
As many times as male clergy bark out speeches on stage on Sunday, it’s just people talking, and the Bible isn’t regulating that process. You can get on the stage and talk if you’re a man or a woman, on any day of the week, as it turns out. Shocking spiritual facts.
The “pulpit” is not a special spiritual location. A “church” is not a temple — it’s just a building! The word ‘pastor’ is just the word ‘shepherd’ — a job usually done by women (cf. Gen 29:9; Exo 2:16–21; Song 1:5–8).
Indeed, when Moses becomes a shepherd he probably learns it from his wife. A nice model for Christian men, perhaps.
6. No, divorces aren’t some spiritual crime
Oh, the Christian men go on and on about God hating divorce. They like to quote Malachi 2:16 on the point, the Jewish prophet evidently having banned divorce for the whole human race — for all time?
It was just another lie. The scholar Jack Collins notes traditional commentators haven’t liked to talk about the actual problems in translating Malachi 2:16, as this “weakens the Biblical testimony against divorce.”
Divorce is totally legal in Old Testament law, and repeatedly required in situations of Jewish intermarriage. And Malachi 2:16 is not even against divorce. The actual verse is difficult to translate (you can follow Collins’ complex discussion if you like). The Septuagint has this: “But if, since you hate her, you should send her away . . .”
From the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Latin Vulgate, there are many other possibilities. Russell Fuller, in a 1991 study, notes many versions “support the act of divorce.” A reading of Malachi 2:16 from the Dead Sea Scrolls is: “If, having hated, divorce! says the Lord the God of Israel . . .”
And none of this has anything to do with the Jesus community — which is seen as “one body” (1 Cor 12:27, etc.), a people who “shared everything” (Acts 4:32). This seems to have been a sort of a group theological marriage among people who liked each other.
Let’s not kid ourselves. That’s not later Christians.
7. No, God doesn’t hate prostitutes
It’s quite the opposite. I stared in shock at James 2:25. In this passage, there is praise of Rahab the Harlot — who is held up on the level of the great Abraham.
Then I realized the mystic madam of Joshua 2, an ancestor of Jesus, was, throughout early Christianity, a huge heroine. She was the prototype of the Gentile convert! Scholars say, interestingly, that Rabah’s name means ‘female genitalia’. I love saying ‘Cunt the Harlot’ as a Christian heroine.
The Old Testament law has no ban on prostitution, and sex in general is largely unregulated. Men, of course, can have sex with prostitutes, concubines, and multiple wives.
In the narratives, not just Rahab, but several women on the sexual margins play key roles — from Delilah to the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. There is no reason to think they’re anything but exalted heroines.
8. No, God doesn’t hate LGBT people
Somehow Christian men decided that the great cosmic villain of history was the florist down the street. But actually, God isn’t in the hating game. That’s more a Christian men thing.
So they summoned a range of weird references to make their case.
Scholars look over the anti-gay translations made by “the church,” which is to say, Christian men — and just sigh. By means unknown to any intelligent life forms, the Greek word arsenokoita, about which almost nothing is known, became the late 19th century word “homosexuality,” as found in translations of 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10.
Then we got a Christian rewrite of Leviticus 18:22:
“Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.”
It’s less easy to hit people over the head with a literal translation provided by scholars: “And-with a male not you-will-lie ‘lyings-of’ a woman.”
What does that mean? Too bad there aren’t any Levitical priests around — for a couple thousand years. For Jewish rabbis it’s been a real puzzle. They note the problem of the plural “lyings” and that the verse doesn’t say: “Don’t have sex with men as with women.” It just doesn’t say that.
Susan Pigott, an Evangelical professor of Hebrew, thinks the context might be idolatry. But she offers: “Isn’t it interesting, that when Jesus quoted Leviticus, he quoted a verse about love (Lev. 19:18)? Maybe, if we’re going to pick one verse out of Leviticus to plaster on signs, that’s the one we should choose.”
“Love one another.” That’s what Jesus says.
Not that a lot of Christians seem to have noticed the “new commandment” of John 13:34? May they receive their reward. 🔶