One of my favorite comics shows a dickless Adam looking up to God beseechingly. Adam tells God that Eden is great but something is missing. God looks at him for a moment and says; "Hmm you're right." And in a flash, God gives him a penis. Adam begins playing with his penis and gushes. "It's great. Thanks God!" To which God replies solemnly; "You can't use it."
No one knows exactly when God showed up on the scene. Prior to his arrival humans worshipped a plethora of Gods who commanded such things as the wind, the sun, the motion of the waves, whatever. Everything in nature was controlled by Gods. There was sometimes a chief God, like Thor or Zeus, but he was merely the first in the pantheon. The king among the nobles. The idea that there was only one God and he controlled the whole shootin' match evolved slowly. Even the Hebrew God that we know as today as the Almighty began as a tribal God, Yahweh, who oversaw the fortunes of the clan of Abraham and later the tribe of Israel.
These Gods were willful and petulant but they could be placated, usually by acts of sacrifice. They didn't care how you behaved sexually. In fact they didn't care about anything you did. Adultery, incest, murder didn't trouble them in the slightest. As long as you made the requisite sacrifices in their name they were cool. If a volcano blew or the rains didn't come it was because the sacrifice was insufficient. Slaughter a few more virgins and everything would be back on track.
The idea that God cares about moral behavior is perhaps the most important development in religious history; far more important than the development of monotheism itself. The first recorded monotheistic deity was the Egyptian sun God Ra (from whom we get the word "ray") and nobody worships him now except a few contrarian hippies. But a God who would demand moral behavior was an absolutely revolutionary notion and it changed forever the way people viewed both God and morality.
To be sure, morality pre-existed the idea of a moral God. Every human society has a moral code. Every human society has evolved ways to enforce this moral code. Theft and murder are pretty much universally condemned. But what about sex? How did sex get such a bad rap? Everyone agrees that it feels great. It generates feelings of love, makes babies, allows us to be fruitful and multiply. For those engaged in it, it may be the closest they'll ever come to true happiness. So why is God so down on it?
Well the first response to this question is to assert that God doesn't hate sex per se. God approves of sex within strictly prescribed limits. The idea that God doesn't want you to have sex at all is a uniquely Christian notion which we'll get to later. The following is a list of sexual behaviors sanctioned by God:
- Procreative sex with you wife once you're married.
- There is no 2. That's it. That's all you're allowed, bub.
All the rest - pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, consorting with prostitutes etc. - are strictly outlawed. A few behaviors such as adultery, bestiality, homosexuality and sleeping with a virgin who has been promised to another man are punishable by stoning.
The Bible seems to be silent on masturbation. (Forget what you may have read about Onan being killed by God because he spilled his seed on the ground. What Onan did was pull out before he came so he wouldn't get his brother's widowed wife pregnant.) Nor is it mentioned in the Koran. Given the universal enjoyment of masturbation can we assume that this silence bespeaks God's acceptance of this activity? Well, no. Rabbinic law and one ambiguous passage in the Talmud suggest that God is against whacking-off as well. Other religious leaders are of the same opinion if for no other reason that masturbation necessarily involves impure thoughts.
Why is God such a prude? To understand this we need to look at the culture in which this God emerged. The Semites, from whom our concept of God is derived are thought to have been pastoralists, living in small groups of a few families. They were highly patriarchal. A man's wife and daughters were his possessions and he guarded them jealously. A daughter was only valuable as a potential mate if her virginity was intact. If it wasn't, she may be unmarriageable and a subsequent burden on the family unit. Men were also naturally jealous of other men who might seduce their own wives. Given the carnage that would result from such liaisons, one can easily understand mores prohibiting such behavior would develop. It's equally easy to see how any moral God would hold the same mores.
The patriarchal morality of the Hebrews is evident throughout the Old Testament. The most grievous sexual sins involve a violation of property. It's a sin for man to go whoring but God doesn't come down hard against it. He may not wink but he does seem to turn a blind eye. But if the same man sleeps with the wife of another, they're both to be stoned to death. If a virgin has sex with a man, he must marry her. If she's promised to another man, they're both to be stoned to death. Any wife who sleeps with another man is to be stoned to death. Onan was killed because he refused to give his brother's wife an heir who could claim his property.
What about prohibitions against homosexuality? My theory is that it's icky to God because it's all about pleasure, not procreation. Ditto for bestiality – and you can bet in a pastoralist society with all the women off-limits, there was a lot of sheep-fucking going on.
Obviously, if all women have to be virgins until married and thereafter faithful to their husbands, there's not a lot of kosher messing around to be done. Why isn't masturbation mentioned in the Bible? Because it had nothing to do with the violation of a man's property it simply didn't come up. God didn't care. Admonitions against masturbation came about later as Judaism developed into an organized religion with a priestly caste that sought to extend the original prohibitions into a generalized tenet – only sex within the confines of marriage was acceptable.
Then along came Jesus and even marital sex became a sin. But we'll leave that for next week.
Tenting The Toga
A Short History Of Getting Laid
The Holy Penis
In Search Of The Holy Foreskin
No-Sex Pledges Linked To High-Risk Sexual Behavior