Category Archives: Sex

All My Relations (Leviticus 19 The Original Cut)

This is one of my favorite chapters in all of Scripture. At first I tried to squeeze this whole chapter into one post, but like the love of God it could not be contained. So, instead I will break this up into two parts. First, I will consider the chapter in its Old Testament context. In the next post I will interpret and connect the chapter to the New Testament, primarily Jesus’ reference to this passage and the Letter of James.

We are the Land
My reading of this chapter has been partially inspired by a traditional Native American greeting that the musical group Ulali enshrined in a powerful song. The greeting is “All my relations” and it is offered as a reminder of our connections to each other. The song which I have quoted at the end of this post captures beautifully the sense of this powerful, all-embracing salutation. It is in this light that I offer my thoughts on this pivotal chapter in the Hebrew Scripture.

Verses 1-4 are a recapitulation of the first five commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai against idolatry, making idols and using the name of YHWH in vain, and for keeping the Sabbath and honoring father and mother (Ex 20:3-6, 8-12). I wonder about the way that the command to honor parents and the Sabbath are lumped together in verse 3. It’s almost the inverse of the Native American tradition of thinking about consequences to the seventh generation. Here Sabbath practice (which includes the care for the land involved in Sabbatical and Jubilee years) honors those that have gone before by continuing the tradition and legacy of stewardship of creation. Verses 5-8 then concern the peace or fellowship offering, connecting this opening salvo to the sacrificial system which maintained and nurtured Israel’s ongoing relationship with YHWH. The context of this covenantal relationship with YHWH is is the foundational framework for understanding the commandments that follow.

The following verses deal with Israel’s social relationships and their use of nature. The practice of gleaning combines these two arenas into one practice.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19:9-10)

It is hard to imagine farmers allowing the practice of gleaning in our era of industrial agriculture that is so obsessed with yields above all other measures or qualities of crops. There is a certain amount of respect inherent in this command for those who gain their sustenance by foraging for leftovers in other people’s fields. In North American culture we tend to look down on those that take handouts in order to survive (though not in the case of farmers who are propped up by government subsidies), but this practice was a way of maintaining community ties with those who were most vulnerable. The story of Ruth and Boaz certainly does not condemn them for making use of this practice. The rest of the commandments can be read in light of this first command which combines social relationships and their relationship to nature.

It also seems important to note that almost all of the commands come in pairs, each verse containing two or more commands that somehow relate to each other. Often a section of commands is concluded by a command or statement about how this relates to God and then the words “I am the LORD”. This is the pattern for 9-18 and 23-37. Only verses 19-22 break with this pattern (I’m not sure exactly why). For example, verses 11-12 almost seem to imply a scenario in which someone gets more and more entangled in their misdeeds (this is also the plot of many a Hollywood comedy). First someone steals. Then they must cover up what they’ve done by lying and “dealing falsely”. Perhaps when confronted or in an effort to keep their sin hidden they make an oath or swear using the Divine name to back up their (false) righteousness. You can see how these commands relate, intertwine and culminate. This also connects broken social relationships to a broken relationship with God.

Many of the verses leading up to the well known verse 18, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, also concern the treatment of neighbors, “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him” (13), “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (15) and “you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor” (16). Loving your neighbor has very little to do with feelings in this context, but requires concrete actions.

More Sex and the Land
Verses 19-25 are filled with subtle references to sex. First there is a prohibition against breeding two different cattle and planting fields with two kinds of seed. This may seem foreign to us, since our culture has gone far beyond traditional breeding and crossing of animals into the realms of cloning and bioengineering. Planting a field with only one kind of seed sounds like the monoculture of industrial agriculture practiced around the world today, but contradicts what science has taught us about biodiversity and ecosystems. I’ll be honest, without the help of commentaries for more insight into this particular prohibition I would just be shooting in the dark (and as you may know that can be dangerous). The commandments concerning fruit trees in verses 23-25 are pretty much common sense. Most fruit trees take 3-5 years before producing fruit, again in the way of all living things involving sex of some kind.

Sandwiched in between these two verses is another command concerning sexuality (20-22) further connecting sexual relationships and sexuality to our treatment of the land (see Sex and the Land). The image of the land falling into prostitution in verse 29 is an interesting one in this regard. The connection between objectifying sexual relationships and objectifying the land is reiterated. The keeping of Sabbath practices in verse 30 then properly reflects the opposite of prostituting the land.

I would need much more time and space to make all of the connections in this chapter, but I believe they are there. For example, verse 26 contains two seemingly unrelated commands, the first not to eat blood and the second not to try and tell the future. If we recall that the prohibition of consuming blood is because it is the source of life (see Blood Cries Out), then the connection to telling the future is our attempt to control or have power over things that are not ours to control. Verses 27-28 are about how we mourn and our relationship to the dead, the opposite of the previous verse.

Present in all of these commandments is the idea that sex, fertility, the land, respect for life and for things that are beyond our control are interconnected parts of the same whole reality and our relationship to it. As I said before, I think that the Native American greeting “All my relations” is a helpful way of understanding this.

All My Relations by Ulali

To our elders who teach us of our creation and our past so we may preserve mother earth for ancestors yet to come

We are the land

This is dedicated to our relatives before us thousands of years ago

And to the 150 million who were exterminated across the western hemisphere in the first 400 years time starting in 1492

To those who have kept their homelands

And to the nations extinct due to mass slaughter, slavery, deportation and disease unknown to them

And to the ones who are subjected to the same treatment today

To the ones who survived the relocations and the ones who died along the way

To those who carried on traditions and lived strong among their people

To those who left their communities by force or by choice and through generations no longer know who they are

To those who search and never find

To those that turn away the so-called unaccepted

To those that bring us together and to those living outside keeping touch, the voice for many

To those that make it back to live and fight the struggles of their people

To those that give up and those who do not care

To those who abuse themselves and others and those who revive again

To those who are physically, mentally or spiritually incapable by accident or by birth

To those who seek strength in our spirituality and ways of life and those who exploit it, even our own

To those who fall for the lies and join the dividing lines that keep us fighting amongst each other

To the outsiders who step in good or bad and those of us who don’t know better

To the leaders and prisoners of war politics crime race and religion innocent or guilty

To the young, the old, the living and the dead

To our brothers and sisters and all living things across mother earth

Whose beauty we have destroyed and denied the honor the Creator has given each individual

The truth that lies in our hearts

All my relations

Sex and the Land (Leviticus 18 and 20)

Leviticus 18:24-28 Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sins, and the land vomited out its inhabitants… And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations before you.

These are the chapters of Leviticus (18 and 20) that caught my attention as a teenager, because, of course, they were all about sex. Both chapters contain approximately the same laws with some variances, but chapter 20 prescribes punishments for violations, either being put to death or cut off from the people. The first thing I will point out is that the vast majority of these injunctions were for men. In chapter 20 they are explicitly addressed to men, except for 20:16 which is the same as the previous verse except that it is addressed to women. In chapter 18 the ambiguous “you” is used, but it is clear that these injunctions are meant primarily for the men. My theory and assumption is that these prohibitions are primarily about asymmetrical power relationships in a highly patriarchal social structure.

The reason given for these laws is “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes” (Lev 18:3) So, the people are between the land of Egypt where they experienced the foundational event of their existence in the Exodus and the Promised Land of Canaan. Coming out of Egypt defined them as a people and during the time in the wilderness they had to overcome their desire to return to where they “sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full” (Ex 16:3). They were formed through that experience of liberation and wandering in the wilderness as a peculiar, pilgrim people. They were promised a land where they would be able to make a home as a people. “But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples” (Lev 20:24). The people will have to once again define themselves in terms of their relationship to their God and the people whose land they are going to be inhabiting.

Once again prohibitions are not given as hypotheticals lest God spark the sinful imagination of human beings. Rather these things were practiced and therefore needed a prohibition against them. The prohibitions have primarily the other nations in their sights, “for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean” (Lev 18:27), but it’s certainly feasible that the Israelites had already adopted some of these practices. Some would argue simply that Leviticus was probably written by the priestly class after the Babylonian Exile and has in view the practices that they adopted during that period. Regardless of when Leviticus was written, it seems that the purpose is clear: to distinguish the Israelites from non-Israelites by abstaining from sexual practices and child sacrifice in which the nations around them engaged. While a secondary reading of the prohibitions as unacceptable because of the biological and social problems associated with the sexual practices is certainly accurate, my reading of the text is that what is inappropriate about these relationships is primarily the abuse of power inherent in them particularly as they are almost exclusively addressed to men.

Caring for Creation is Sexy
What is then most fascinating for our purposes here is that an explicit connection is made between these sexual practices and their relationship to the land. These practices not only defiled the people and their relationships, but also the land itself. The land is not a neutral entity forced to accept whatever human beings happen to do to it. The land is depicted as a character with its own autonomy and the ability to vomit out the inhabitants. The Israelites are not immune to this connection to the land and the consequences of the practices that have been forbidden

Wendell Berry has pointed out this connection between sex and the land in numerous places. Somewhere he said that when you’re willing to exploit your fellow human beings’ sexuality you are more likely to be willing to exploit the earth and vice versa. They involve the same mentality that objectifies other people and nature. This way of thinking and acting disconnects from each other and nature by dehumanizing other people and pretending that we are separate from nature. In an article he wrote entitled “Feminism, the body, and the machine” Berry expounds further on this theme.

It is odd that simply because of its “sexual freedom” our time should be considered extraordinarily physical. In fact, our “sexual revolution” is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of “freeing” natural pleasure from natural consequence. Like any other industrial enterprise, industrial sexuality seeks to conquer nature by exploiting it and ignoring the consequences, by denying any connection between nature and spirit or body and soul, and by evading social responsibility. The spiritual, physical, and economic costs of this “freedom” are immense, and are characteristically belittled or ignored. The diseases of sexual irresponsibility are regarded as a technological problem and an affront to liberty. Industrial sex, characteristically, establishes its freeness and goodness by an industrial accounting, dutifully toting up numbers of “sexual partners,” orgasms, and so on, with the inevitable industrial implication that the body is somehow a limit on the idea of sex, which will be a great deal more abundant as soon as it can be done by robots. (accessed at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2096/is_1_53/ai_102979436?tag=untagged)

So, according to Berry the basic problem is not the particular behaviors or acts prohibited here, but the way of relating to the earth and other human beings that they embody. As I said before, there is a basic problem of asymmetrical power relationships here in which the ability to dominate other human beings and the earth is taken as permission to do as we please. Privileges embedded in cultural norms and mores are sometimes hard to unmask. They are often subtle and assumed, and therefore go unnoticed for the most part, particularly by the dominant class that benefits from the privileges bestowed on them through the social order. Perhaps by pointing the finger at Egypt, Canaan and the other nations, this was a more subtle way of pointing the finger at Israel itself. By proclaiming loudly that Israel should not be like “those people”, the text clearly judges any resemblance that Israel had to those nations past, present or future.

This way of relating, dehumanizing, dominating and objectifying people and nature violates the basic principles embedded in ecology and I would argue in the biblical narrative and biblical assumptions about our relationship to the land and each other. This is what lies at the root of these chapters, not some sort of puritanical notions about sexuality or arbitrary rules solely intended to make Israel different, but a radical reminder about who we are as creatures and how we are to reflect the image of God embedded in us in our relationships.

P.S. I want to blog more about these connections just so the traffic on my blog will increase by using the word “sex” a lot. If I can somehow combine it with words like “hot” without sounding lewd, then the traffic might increase even more. Though I’m not sure those readers will stick around to read what I write.

Sex and Civilization

An interesting tangent emerged in my reading of Ever Since Darwin. When considering some aspects of the evolution of human beings, Gould quotes Freud. In one case it concerned the idea that we retained juvenile traits of primates in our evolution, a process called neoteny. Our upright posture is a trait found in juvenile primates, not adults. Freud elucidates another interesting facet of this development in his book Civilization and Its Discontents (which is now on my list of books to read, not knowing that much about Freud).

Freud argued that our assumption of upright posture had reoriented our primary sensation from smell to vision. This devaluation of olfaction shifted the object of sexual stimulation in males from cyclic odors of estrus to the continual visibility of female genitalia. Continual desire of males led to the evolution of continual receptivity in females. Most mammals copulate only around periods of ovulation; humans are sexually active at all times…Continual sexuality has cemented the human family and made civilization possible; animals with strongly cyclic copulation have no strong impetus for stable family structure. “The fateful process of civilization,” Freud concludes, “would thus have set in with man’s adoption of an erect posture.” (208-209)

I’ve read this paragraph over and over again, and the implications are only slowly sinking in. Freud claims that the basis of all civilization begins with the development of an erect posture which has an impact on sexuality and therefore family structure. Now, the thing you often hear about Freud is someone mocking his obsession with sex and that so much of his analysis is based on studying people with neuroses. I don’t know enough about Freud to comment on these common criticisms, but this particular argument taken at face value by a scientist like Gould appears to have some credibility.

When you think about the senses in terms of language it is clear that smell takes a huge backseat to almost all the other senses. Our sense of sight is certainly primary and we have more words to describe how something looks, sounds, feels or tastes than we do for how it smells. Just try and think of all the words related only to smell. How many are related to other senses? And the effect of this shift toward vision also moved our sexuality away from the natural cycles of pheromones to being constantly receptive and sexually active. I wonder how exactly this creates a stable family structure in the beginning. I assume it has to do with monogamy of some kind developing, but I’m not sure precisely how. The irony, of course, if this is true, that the shift toward a sexuality based primarily on visual stimulation formed the beginnings of civilization, is that the eventual effect of this shift in modern civilization is precisely the breaking down of family structures (among many other factors).

Perhaps this shift is also the beginning of the objectification of women, which makes a lot of sense, meaning that our social structures have developed unjustly based on evolving sexuality. Far from excusing this behavior based on some natural argument, the expression of genes has more to do with our environment, choices and social constructs. This is the argument Gould makes again and again in the book against scientific ideas like biological determinism that have led, and continue to lead, to the justification of racist cultural prejudices.

Of course nature is all about sex. That’s what keeps the whole thing moving and evolving (though he shares an interesting theory about the evolutionary benefits of homosexuality) swapping genes and trying to making sure yours survive. Yet Freud seems to also indicate that this fundamental understanding of our nature and relationship to the environment erodes as civilization “progresses”.

Freud argued further that as civilizations become increasingly complex and “modern,” we must renounce more and more of our innate selves…the price of civilization is individual suffering. “It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the nonsatisfaction…of powerful instincts. This ‘cultural frustration’ dominates the large field of social relationships between human beings.” (260)

As I hinted concerning the objectification and domination of women, it is possible that the “individual suffering” of civilization is partially the unfortunate result of the evolutionary traits which made civilization possible. It seems to me that the “renunciation of instinct” that seems to be required by civilization to an ever greater degree can be called neither good nor bad. In the case of the oppression of women (based ultimately on our evolving sexuality and then gradually the patriarchal institutions that grew out of that instinct) there is certainly a case to be made for renouncing this instinct. On the other hand, capitalism seems to require the suppression of more altruistic instincts that are present in natural systems and evolutionary theory. This may be an instinct that we have suppressed to our detriment.

People (most often those who oppose it, Christian fundamentalists mostly) tend to equate Darwinian theory with some form of determinism. The genius of Gould is his ability to deftly navigate between the extremes of bad religion and bad science. There are biological processes at work that shape us through evolution over generations and millenia, but genes are nothing until they are expressed. The expression of most of our genes is not like our eye or hair color, something we can’t control. Our genetic makeup only finds expression as we interact with our environment. Far from taking away our choice, this increase in knowledge places the responsibility squarely back on our own shoulders as unique creatures with the ability to make choices about how our genes are expressed in relationship to other human beings and nature. Civilization as we have constructed it is not natural because of Freud’s ideas about the influence of erect posture on its development. Genetic material is simply the raw stuff of possibility.

I’m still kicking a lot of these ideas around in my head. I find them intriguing, provocative and helpful in some ways. At the end of the day this rabbit trail once again points me to the hope that we can imagine possibilities beyond the world we’ve created.

Sex, Salvation and Species

Wendell Berry pointed out the relationship between our understanding of sex and our willingness to exploit nature. A distorted view of one leads to a distorted view of the other. Eugene Peterson in his book Christ Plays in 10,000 Places makes a similar point about our conception of human beings as abstracted from creation. He tells a story about how he chastised a little girl who had picked flowers in a National Park causing her to cry. His protection of the pristine wilderness around him neglected to count the little girl among God’s creation. The two are part of the whole and we neglect either part at our own peril.

Barbara Kingsolver’s fifth novel, Prodigal Summer, weaves together, not only stories of human beings and their relationships, but also their relationship to nature. The setting is both the pristine wilderness of forest preserve and the farms still clinging to life all around it. While I couldn’t claim a favorite among the three pairs of people in rural Appalachia that the novel follows, the elderly neighbors of Garnett Walker and Nannie Rawley are an entertaining and instructive pair to listen in on. Garnett is a crotchety, retired science and 4-H teacher who is losing his eyesight in more ways than one. His quest is to restore the American Chestnut tree destroyed by a non-native blight and the ensuing intervention of human beings. He believes in industrial agriculture and its way of looking at nature. In contrast, his neighbor, Nannie Rawley, has the only certified organic apple orchard around.

Their story follows the clash of these two worldviews and eventually the finding of some common ground and humanity. The best parts are the arguments they have through a series of letters and face to face encounters. Garnett Walker proposes a question to his nemesis Nannie Rawley in a letter,

“Are we humans to think of ourselves merely as one species among many[…]? Do you believe a human holds no more special authority in this world than, say, a Japanese beetle or a salamander? If so, then why is it our duty to set free the salamanders, any more than it is the salamander’s place to swim up to the state prison in Marion and liberate the criminals incarcerated there?” (186)

I think Garnett’s question is a good one, if a bit misguided. It seems that often we study nature as if we were not part of it. If we are but one among all the creatures then why should we waste our time saving other creatures. You don’t see them trying to fix our problems. If all we do is reduce ourselves to one among all the creatures, then we run the risk of losing what makes us unique and what gives us the potential for great good even in the face of our own great evil. Nannie Rawley later on replies,

“Since you asked, yes, I do believe humankind holds a special place in the world. It’s the same place held by a mockingbird, in his opinion, and a salamander in whatever he has that resembles a mind of his own. Every creature alive believes this: The center of everything is me. Every life has its own kind of worship, I think, but do you think a salamander is worshiping some God that looks like a big two-legged man? Go on! To him, a man’s a shadowy nuisance (if anything) compared to the sacred business of finding food and a mate and making progeny to rule the mud for all times. To themselves and one another, those muddy little salamander lives mean everything.” (215)

To some Nannie Rawley’s understanding of our “special place in the world” reduces humanity to creatures, but I see it as a needed corrective to the insistence that we were so special that we somehow stopped being creatures dependent and part of creation. It also reveals how egocentric and species-centric our understanding of God and creation really is. In God’s creation there is no sacred and secular. The designation of holy things and sacred rituals and places serves only to remind us of the sacredness that permeates all of creation, the salamander’s “sacred business of finding food and a mate and making progeny”. If anything or anyone is “set apart” it is for the purpose of bringing all things back into alignment with God’s original intentions and purpose for creation, not to extract or separate us from creation or other human beings.

This passage sums up, I think, the thesis of Kingsolver’s novel, that we are a part of the creation yet uniquely able to manipulate and responsible for the very creation on which we depend.

“Yes, sir, eating others and reproducing their own, that’s true. Eating and reproducing, that’s most of what God’s creation is all about… It’s not mud, Mr. Walker. It’s glory, to be part of a bigger something. The glory of an evolving world…You say only an intelligent, beautiful creator could create beauty and intelligence? I’ll tell you what. See that basket of June Transparents there? You know what I put on my trees to make those delicious apples? Poop, mister. Horse poop and cow poop.”

“Are you likening the Creator to manure?”

“I’m saying your logic is weak.”(277-278)

It seems that Nannie is moving beyond the kind of debates over creation and evolution to which Garnett is accustomed. We are more about eating and reproducing than we care to believe. We are more creatures, more physical, than our gnostic spirituality (yes, even in the church), wants to admit. Yet we are unique participants in the ongoing work of creation with God. We can take horse and cow (even our own!) poop and turn it into something beautiful.

Turkey D-Day

Today is turkey D-Day. About 40 birds will be prepared for the Thanksgiving Day table… in other words butchered. Tomorrow about 40 more will meet their maker and become someone’s dinner. I recently “talked” on facebook with a friend of mine from Fort Hood and shared about my transition to farmatarianism, eating only meat that you know personally. I was a vegetarian for eight years. I wasn’t a really good vegetarian, whatever that means. I was more concerned about the way meat was produced and what was in it. I was also concerned about the effects of excessive meat consumption on our bodies and the planet. I wasn’t concerned that animals should never be killed for food.

Anyway… it was probably strange for my friend to hear that I would be helping slaughter some 80 birds and what’s more I would happily eat them given the chance. I still don’t eat a lot of meat. It’s not often an option at the farm, but when it is I appreciate the life of the animals that we eat. Our turkeys are free range in every sense of that word. They roam free all day, foraging for food and stretching their legs. Our goats and cows also spend the majority of their time in pastures eating their meals straight from the soil. That is worlds apart from how your Big Mac or even grocery store meat is produced.

So, every year Cargill (God bless ‘em!) donates about 100 turkeys to the farm along with their bedding and feed. We raise them and sell them for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We could ruminate on why Cargill would donate these birds to a farm that teaches methods of agriculture directly opposed to large industrial-scale production. Perhaps it’s a form of penance, an attempt at reaching some sort of redemption. Perhaps someone in the company has a subversive ironic streak. Regardless, it is a good things for these birds and the people that buy them.

Clearly, these turkeys have been bred for one thing and one thing only… meat. These are dumb animals. These birds see a large predator (aka me or Edwina, the wayfaring farm dog) and think to themselves, “Hey let’s all go check that out! Guys come over here! Look a predator! Let’s all go say hi!” Needless to say they would not last long in the wild. Unfortunately they also don’t last that long on the farm. One turkey randomly had a heart attack one day and became dinner. It seems they are looking for ways to die. Apparently it is not really true that turkeys can drown from looking up at the rain, but they’re so dumb it seem plausible.

Barbara Kingsolver’s account of trying to get her turkeys to reproduce and hatch eggs is a riot. The reason industrial turkey sex is so funny is because it simply does not happen. Imagine a couple of full grown adults who are supposed to be well versed in the birds and the bees, stumbling over what’s what and what goes where like a couple of pimply teenagers. Add to the lack of knowledge the fact that these guys are bread to be a tub o’ meat on toothpicks. They are no longer physiologically shaped for reproduction. In case this hasn’t been made abundantly clear let me say it. The turkeys you buy in the store do not have sex. They all have to be artificially inseminated in order to reproduce. That in itself is not humane.

There are heritage breed wild turkeys out there that you can buy. Those guys are smart and they know how to have sex. So, think about the life of turkeys this holiday season when you’re sticking that Butterball in the oven or deep fryer. Support turkey sex and happy turkeys this year and buy your bird from a farmer.