Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire
By Jennifer Wright Knust
What does the Bible say about sex? Unmarried sex? Same-sex sex? Sex with angels?
In Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, (HarperOne 2011) Dr. Jennifer Wright Knust tackles serious questions regarding the Bible and sex in a clear, accessible manner. Knust teaches in the department of religion at Boston University where she is an associate professor of New Testament and Christian Origins. She is also an ordained American Baptist minister. Unprotected Texts is a meaty 343-page book with endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. It is available in hardback, paperback, and electronic editions and has been featured on NPR.
“Introduction: Why the Bible is Not a Sexual Guidebook” explains Knust’s interest in addressing issues of sexuality. Drawing upon her Christian upbringing and her experiences as a minister, a mother, and a biblical scholar, she aims to offer insight and greater complexity to overly simplistic moralizing of so-called biblical teaching regarding sexuality.
Chapter one “The Bible and the Joy of Sex: Desire In and Out of Control” explores biblical portraits of sex and sexual desire within and outside of marriage. It includes discussions of Song of Songs, Ruth, and King David’s sexual exploits.
In Chapter two “Biblical Marriage: There Is No Single View on Marriage Presented in the Bible,” Knust illustrates the range of types of marriages reflected in biblical texts and reviews varied and contradictory biblical teachings on marriage, celibacy, and divorce.
Chapter three “The Evil Impulse: Disordered and Ordered Desire” describes how within Christianity sexual desire becomes something to be tamed and controlled.
Illicit sexual behavior is discussed in chapter four “Sexual Politics: God’s Wife, Cursing the Canaanites, and Biblical Sex Crimes.” It highlights the ways in which notions of sexual perversion were used rhetorically against Israel’s enemies.
Chapter five “Strange Flesh” focuses on two forms of out-of-bounds sex: sex with angels and sex with foreigners.
Body parts and bodily fluids are covered in chapter six “Bodily Parts: Circumcision, Semen, and the Products of a Woman’s Womb.”
In the conclusion “So, I Hear You Have Five Husbands,” Knust reflects on the biblical account of a woman who has five husbands (John 4) and the lack of judgment offered by Jesus regarding her marital history. Knust ends with a serious caution to those who would seek easy answers to thorny questions regarding sexuality.
Knust writes in language that is accessible to an adult reader. She provides citations for all biblical quotations, and the endnotes and bibliography would be useful for those who are interested in conducting their own research on issues of sexuality. Her discussions highlight the ways in which biblical texts have been used within Protestant circles, but a reader from any or no faith tradition would find her work illuminating.
While Knust’s work is written for a lay audience, it would be more beneficial for the reader who has had introductory coursework in academic biblical studies. The average reader may not be familiar with the Babylonian Exile, the Epic of Gilgamesh, or terms such “Pseudo-Pauline” of “pseudepigrapha. ”Although Knust explains her use of these and other terms, someone who is not already knowledgeable regarding such issues may feel overwhelmed.
In my experience as a biblical studies professor, I have found that even students who do not identify themselves as “evangelical” or “conservative” Christians have long-held and unexamined beliefs about “what the Bible says.” They expect to learn the “right” answer in my class. Unprotected Texts would be more helpful for those readers who are open to reading biblical texts not as a guidebook for life but as a literary work that may be interpreted in different ways. Citing the many controversies in which biblical texts have been used on both sides of arguments, Knust explains, “The Bible is complicated enough, ancient enough, and flexible enough to support an almost endless set of interpretive agendas” (p. 21). Readers who believe that there is single “correct” biblical interpretation may find her approach frustrating.
Also, Knust does not provide “yes” or “no” answers regarding which sexual acts are in- or out-of-bounds. Instead, she elucidates the textual, literary, and historical issues relating to biblical texts on sexuality. For example, in discussing the woman with five husbands (John 4) Knust writes, “The story has no single meaning. Therefore, the issue for readers of the Gospel is not whether a particular interpretation is valid but whether it is valuable, and why” (240). For readers who understand “biblical” teaching as involving clear-cut answers, Knust’s work will prove challenging.
Knust advocates a don’t-throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater stance that allows her to find biblical texts resonant and meaningful even if disturbing in some ways. For those who have ears to hear, it can be a liberating read that dispels many common misconceptions about the Bible and sexuality.