Jacob and Solomon were polygamists. Tamar and Rahab were prostitutes. What are polygamists and prostitutes doing on the pages of Holy Scripture? And God told the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute. What about Cain—did he really marry his sister? Abraham did, and he was also a polygamist. Lot offered his daughters up for rape, David committed adultery (or rape?) and the Bible calls both men righteous.
As readers of the Old Testament encounter these confusing and horrific “love” stories they ask, “What’s up with sex in the Old Testament?” The church often ignores the R-rated bits of the Bible, so it’s hard for people to find answers to their disturbing questions about sex in Scripture, which can lead people to give up on God and God’s Word.
Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. David Lamb (@DavidTLamb) about his book, Prostitutes and Polygamists: A Look at Love, Old Testament Style (Zondervan, 2015).
Briefly describe love, Old Testament style.
Dr. David Lamb: Love, American Style was a wacky TV show from the 1970’s that made fun of love, sex, and marriage. My parents didn’t allow me to watch it. But they did want to read my Bible. The funny thing is that love, Old Testament style is even wackier than Love, American Style. And sometimes, these biblical stories can be highly disturbing. Jacob and Solomon were polygamists. Tamar and Rahab were prostitutes. Abraham married his sister. Lot offered up his daughters for rape, and David committed adultery with Bathsheba (I’d call it rape), and the Bible calls both men righteous. And, except for Lot, the first chapter of the New Testament includes all of these individuals in Jesus’ family tree. What’s up with that?
As shocking as these stories are, an even more shocking love story is revealed in the pages of the Old Testament as we see that when humans behave badly, God behaves graciously. I explain that fully in my book, Prostitutes and Polygamists.
Why does the Bible include the worst sins of some of the holiest people who have ever lived?
Dr. David Lamb: It’s hard to say definitely why the divinely inspired authors of Scripture included the stories they did, but the Bible, even when it doesn’t make sense to us, is always honest. We’re used to people in power covering up sins, but the Bible exposes sins, even the sins of its heroes (Abraham, Judah, and David). In order for people to be reconciled with their God, they first need to acknowledge their own depravity. Scripture models this by talking about sexual sins honestly and openly. The point of talking about scandalous sins isn’t to satisfy a depraved curiosity; sort of like glancing at the tabloids while waiting at the grocery store checkout lines to purchase our milk and bananas. The Bible includes these stories because they can give hope to anyone who shares similar temptations, or have given into similar sins because just as God could bless Abraham, redeem Judah, and forgive David, he can bless, redeem, and forgive us.
How can Bible heroes who were polygamists, murderers, adulterers, and more be called “righteous” and lifted up as examples?
Dr. David Lamb: Biblical heroes are held up as examples not because of their flaws and sins, but in spite of them as they trusted God in times of crisis. Abraham isn’t praised for essentially trafficking his wife Sarah on two occasions (Gen. 12; 20) or for sleeping with his maidservant Hagar (Gen. 16), but for leaving his homeland, believing God, and agreeing to penis surgery at age 99 while still trying to father a son through Sarah (Gen. 12; 15; 17). Judah isn’t viewed positively for visiting a prostitute (who just happened to be his daughter-in-law Tamar), but for praising her righteousness (Gen. 38:26) and for offering to sacrifice himself for the sake of his youngest brother Benjamin (Gen. 44:33). David isn’t viewed positively for raping Bathsheba and murdering Uriah, but because he humbly repented of his heinous crimes and was therefore reconciled to God (2 Sam. 12:13; Psa. 51).
How much does the Bible talk about sex and why?
Dr. David Lamb: The Bible talks about sex a lot, starting in the first chapter. God’s first command to the humans was, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). To fulfill this commission, what needs to happen? As I understand it, I think we’re talking about sex. How much sex are we talking about? Well…enough to fill the earth. It thus appears that the first words God speaks to the humans are essentially, “Have a lot of sex” (I’d say in the context of a life-long committed relationship). God could have allowed procreation to take place in many different ways, but he designed it to be pleasurable because God is good, and he wants his image-bearers to be able to enjoy his good gifts like marriage and sexuality, as they reproduce and create more humans made in the image of God. The rest of Scripture tells the story of how humans fulfill this command, sometimes faithfully, and other times sinfully.
What does the Bible say is God’s ideal love relationship?
Dr. David Lamb: Scripture is pretty clear that the ideal for marriage set up by God at creation is one man, one woman, together, forever (Gen. 2:18-25). God brought the first man and the first woman together because it wasn’t good to be alone. The animals, as great as they were (dogs are man’s best friend, right?), didn’t really provide the necessary partnership. So, the husband and wife leave their parents, cling to each other, and, in a mysterious and supernatural manner, become one flesh, not to be separated. Ultimately however, the Bible’s ideal love relationship is that of God towards humans, revealed most profoundly in Jesus’ incarnation, his life of servanthood, and his sacrificial death for sinners.
What aberrant sexual behavior does the Bible regulate and why doesn’t it prohibit it altogether?
Dr. David Lamb: The Bible clearly prohibits prostitution (Lev. 19:29; 21:9; Deut. 23:17), rape and adultery (Deut. 22:22-29), homosexual behavior (Lev. 18:22; 20:13), and incest (Lev. 18:6-18; 20:11-21). I have chapters on each of these topics in Prostitutes and Polygamists.
The problem really is polygamy, which biblically may involve multiple wives, or a combination of wives and concubines (who are essentially slave wives). What’s problematic is that there are so many biblical polygamists, including Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, David, and Solomon (who had 700 wives and 300 concubines! 1 Kings 11:3), and the text doesn’t seem to condemn any of their polygamous marriages. But just because a behavior is not condemned doesn’t mean it’s affirmed. An absence of condemnation, does not constitute an affirmation.
While Old Testament laws seem to condone polygamy (Exo. 21:7-11; Lev. 18:18; Deut. 17:17; 21:10-14; 25:5-6), they don’t actually advocate for it, but are merely legislating what to do when it happens. Polygamy was assumed. God set up the ideal for marriage in Genesis 2, but in a non-ideal world, he gave laws to protect the rights of everyone involved (wives, husbands, sisters, slaves, widows, concubines, and prisoners).
How does the culture of the day (past and present) factor into our understanding of the Bible?
Dr. David Lamb: Culture plays a huge role in interpreting and understanding the Bible. A person from the world of the Old Testament would be shocked at how un-hospitable most people are in the West. We don’t know our neighbors, and we don’t invite anyone who rings our doorbell to join us for a meal, or to stay overnight. When it comes to expectations of hospitality, we would appear to them to be barbarians.
No one wants to be considered a barbarian (except perhaps for Conan). We want our actions to be evaluated not based on ancient values of hospitality, but on how we treat people and love them in our own context. Therefore, we need to do the same to the characters in the Old Testament. And as we do our homework on ancient culture, the problems in the Bible don’t disappear, but they become less problematic as we gain insight into why God does what he does. We also need to remember that God in both testaments tells us to love our neighbor as our self.
Why do you believe Christians should talk about sex more than they do?
Dr. David Lamb: Our culture is obsessed with sex. The church and parents, however, are generally afraid of talking about it. When the church whispers about sex and the culture yells about it, whose voice is going to be heard? If parents and Christian leaders avoid the subject, we’re essentially abdicating responsibility to our culture to teach our children and our parishioners about the topic. The church needs to talk about sex more—not just the ideal but also the reality. And the great thing is if parents or Christian leaders want some good material to teach from, all they have to do is open their Bibles. Granted it’s confusing sometimes, but understanding will come through examination, not avoidance.
What do you mean, “fall in love with Jesus first”?
Dr. David Lamb: Scripture often uses the image of marriage for God’s relationship with his people. The church is the bride of Christ (Matt. 9:15; 25:1; Rev. 19:6; 21:2), and God’s people are called to love him (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30). Tragically, we often love, worship, and prioritize many things before God (e.g., money, sex, power, success, fame, family, education, jobs). When humans worship the gifts, and not the God who gave them, the Bible calls it idolatry. Our culture makes sex into an idol and the church often makes marriage into an idol. When I tell people they need to “fall in love with Jesus first” I’m simply paraphrasing Jesus’ command to seek first God’s kingdom (Matt. 6:33). Jesus is the only thing that can truly satisfy our deepest desires.
How should parents help their children read and understand the R-rated portions of the Bible?
Dr. David Lamb: Parents obviously need wisdom and discernment (Jam. 1:5) as they teach the scandalous sex stories of Scripture, but children are smarter than their parents often think. They know they aren’t getting the whole story in their children’s Bibles. By “protecting” them from the nasty bits we’re essentially handing over responsibility to teaching our sons and daughters about sex to their friends from school, which I don’t think we really want to do.
Both Planned Parenthood and Focus on the Family think that parents and children need to talk about sex more. According to the research, children actually want to learn about sex from their parents. And the more parents discuss sex with their children, the more likely the children are to take on their parents’ sexual values. Fortunately, the Bible talks about sex a lot, so all parents need to do is to stop ignoring the scandalous sections of the Bible when they’re teaching their children.
Teaching the R-rated portions can be done normally and naturally, as these stories appear in Scripture. At Christmas, explain to children what the virgin birth means. When reading through John’s Gospel, explain what it means to be caught in adultery (John 8:3-4). When telling the story of David, don’t just talk about Goliath, also talk about Bathsheba (1 Sam. 17; 2 Sam. 11-12). If parents are talking about the Bible with their children, it’ll come up a lot. We just need to stop editing and sanitizing the Bible.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Dr. David Lamb: As a professional Bible teacher, I have several types of Bible software programs on my computer, but I still use the Bible Gateway website often and find it extremely helpful. I recommend it regularly to my students, who also find it invaluable for searching Scripture, for investigating contextual background, and for checking out multiple translations in English or other languages.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Dr. David Lamb: Christians often quote Paul’s letter to Timothy that “all Scripture is inspired and profitable for teaching” (2 Tim 3:16). While we may believe Paul’s words theoretically, practically I don’t think we do because we avoid so much of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, specifically the scandalous sex stories. But if we were to read, study and teach the scandalous sex stories of Scripture, Paul tells us that we’ll profit from them as we learn profound lessons about human sin and divine grace. Because as humans behave badly, God behaves graciously.
Bio: David Lamb (DPhil, University of Oxford) lived in Lexington (KY) long enough to become a Wildcat fan (age 1), lived in Downers Grove (IL) long enough to become a Cubs fan (age 5), and lived in Ames (IA) long enough to learn how to walk beans and de-tassel corn (age 18).
As a young man, he went west to Stanford (CA), where he studied economics (BA), industrial engineering (MS) and Bible (in InterVarsity). He served on staff with InterVarsity (1986-1999) at Claremont, Redlands (CA) and Penn (PA) and is the author of God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?.
He married his wife Shannon in 1991, and together they created Nathan and Noah. Since 2006, he’s taught Old Testament at Biblical Theological Seminary. He loves to give others a love for God’s Word.