Reviewed by Greg Cochran
How many pages would it take to write a book discussing the Old Testament references to human sexuality? Apparently, it takes about 844. That is the number of pages Richard Davidson commits to the subject in his book, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament. Of course, 144 of those pages are dedicated to Davidson’s bibliography.
Davidson scours both the Old Testament text and the Ancient Near East (ANE) context out of which these scriptures were crafted. He devotes more than a little energy to the dynamic interplay of sexuality in the Ancient Near East versus sexuality as God intended (which should have been manifested faithfully by God’s covenant people—but was not always). Davidson navigates between the pagan errors of divinizing sex on the one hand and the sacralizing it on the other. Against divinizing, Davidson references the prevalent notion of the gods engaging in sexual intercourse. Davidson speaks against sacralizing in the sense that it was common ANE practice to consider sexual activity as a sacred, religious activity.
Against these errors, Davidson shows that sex is part of God’s creation: its mystery and profundity are an aspect of God’s creation, not a participation in the divine. As Davidson says it, “Because humans (and their sexuality) are created by God and are not part of divinity, any attempts to divinize or sacralize sexuality in Israel, as done in the pagan fertility myths and cult practice, is met with the strongest divine denunciation” (85).
Distinct from pagan confusion concerning human sexuality, the Old Testament holds forth a portrait of God which explains human sexuality, love, and marriage. So, Davidson concludes, “The love between man and woman is not just animal passion, or evolved natural attraction, but a holy love ignited by Yahweh himself! The love relationship is not only beautiful, wholesome, and good but holy. Lovers, then, will treat each other with godly self-giving because they are animated by a holy self-giving Love” (630).
Davidson’s conclusion is not reached without a rigorous and unrelenting quest to dig through all the research on sexuality in the Scriptures and the ANE. His research is organized in three parts: Sexuality in Eden; Sexuality Outside the Garden; and a Return to Eden. For part one, Davidson focuses attention on the first three chapters of Genesis.
Chapter one exposes the nature of sexuality in creation, focusing textual attention on Genesis 1-2. Davidson, an evangelical Seventh Day Adventist scholar, outlines ten aspects of sexuality from these accounts in Genesis. His outline includes topics such as heterosexuality, monogamy, exclusivity, permanence, wholeness, beauty, and holiness. Included in his discussion is a lengthy argument for an egalitarian relationship between male and female, along with a spirited defense of objections to these egalitarian convictions.
Chapter two completes Davidson’s section on “Sexuality in Eden: The Divine Design.” In this chapter, Davidson covers the Fall, offering an exposure of the nakedness of Adam and Eve. Davidson discusses divine judgment and its effect on marriage and sexual relationships. Davidson compares six different views on male headship and the relationship between man and woman. He reiterates his earlier assertion of egalitarian concepts in terms of headship.
Chapter three begins section two of the book. Chapter three is titled “Creation Ordinance versus Cultic Sexuality.” Davidson demonstrates that sexuality is ultimately positive. Sexuality originated in the divine Word of creation, not in divinity itself. Sexuality is a creation ordinance, not part of the divine order. Thus, again, Davidson asserts that biblical sexuality condemns every attempt to divinize or sacralize sexuality.
Chapter four moves more particularly into a defense of human heterosexuality as God’s creation design. Davidson contrasts heterosexuality against pagan practices of homosexuality, transvestitism, and bestiality. Davidson covers significant Old Testament passages related to homosexuality. He argues (contra Gagnon) against the view that Ham’s sin against Noah was homosexual rape (Gn 9). He argues the story of Sodom and Gomorrah refers both to inhospitality and homosexual rape. He further makes plain the clear force of the Levitical prohibitions against homosexuality (Lev. 18, Lev. 20). Davidson walks through passages in each section of the Old Testament (law, prophets, writings) and concludes, “The [Hebrew Bible] has revealed a consistent and clear condemnation of homosexual practice” (169).
Chapter four then moves to a discussion of transvestitism and bestiality. Against the former, Davidson notes that the Old Testament demands an upholding of the male-female distinction built into creation. Any attempts to blur or diminish sexual distinctions is opposed to God’s created order. Against bestiality, Davidson highlights the severity of the punishment—the death penalty—for both the human and the beast with whom sexual intercourse took place. The chapter concludes with clarity: “God unequivocally upholds the creation duality between the sexes (Gen 1:26) and the heterosexual norm for marriage (Gen 2:24). Divine judgment is pronounced against those who engage in homosexual practice or bestiality” (175).
Chapter five tackles the more ambiguous task of understanding polygamy and concubinage in the Old Testament. Of course, Davidson wrestles with the quintessential case of Abram, Sara, and Hagar. Davidson argues that Abram (like Adam) wrongfully obeyed the voice of his wife and, thus, fell into sin. Further, Davidson argues that Jacob, too, was sinful in taking many wives. He says, “God’s disapproval is shouting at us, as it were, from every detail of the disastrous results of the polygamous union” (187). Davidson addresses 2 Samuel 12 and the “giving” of Saul’s wives to David in terms of possessions, but not divine sanctioning of polygamy. Davidson notes there are 3,000 men mentioned in the Old Testament and only 33 cases of polygamy. The author asserts that these cases are evidence of departure from the Edenic ideal, but not divinely approved.
Chapter six is an 84-page discussion of the elevation (versus the denigration) of women in the Old Testament. Again, Davidson argues from an egalitarian perspective. He offers a number of concrete examples of female exaltation from the Old Testament, including Sara, Hagar, Tamar, and several others like Zipporah and her six sisters. Davidson provides a thorough accounting of the women featured in the Old Testament.
Davidson argues that “the radical lowering of woman’s status in Israel did not come about until after the [Old Testament] times” (294). For Davidson, denigration reflected Greco-Roman values better than it represented Israel’s. For Israel, the male-female relationship was supposed to harken back to the Edenic ideal in which Eve was equally exalted with Adam.
At about half the length of the prior chapter, chapter seven argues for the wholeness biblical sexuality contrasted against pagan practices leading to fragmentation. Sexual fragmentation manifests itself in various ways: prostitution, mixed marriages, masturbation, sexual blemishes, and Impurities.
Chapter eight focuses tightly on the biblical concept of marriage. Specifically, Davidson demonstrates that the Old Testament envisions exclusive marital relationships to the strict exclusion of adultery and fornication. Much of this material has been introduced earlier in the book, but this chapter fleshes out further the foundational notion of God’s zeal and jealousy as the indispensable framework for understanding marriage.
Davidson discusses the high value of virginity in relation to the rape of Dinah and the legal sanctions of Leviticus 21. Davidson notes that, though virginity is extolled, it is never upheld as a permanent virtue. Marriage and procreation are also exalted and affirmed in the Old Testament. Through the remainder of chapter eight, Davidson reviews ANE literature in contrast to the Old Testament. The Old Testament demonstrates “how serious is the divine displeasure with unfaithfulness to the marriage vow—how this sin is seen as an offense against God himself” (351).
Davidson covers a number of passages in the law, prophets, and writings of the Old Testament, demonstrating a thorough commitment to scholarship and exegesis relating to sexual ethics. From his thorough exegesis, Davidson displays the grace of Israel’s God on matters of sexual fidelity.
Chapter nine offers a formidable defense of the permanence of the marriage bond against the contemporary accommodation to a culture of divorce and remarriage. For Davidson, the Old Testament—from Deuteronomy 24 to Malachi 2—offers no sanction to divorce, much less to divorce and remarry.
Davidson defends his argument with a comprehensive consideration of the two texts mentioned. Particularly astute is his exegesis of Malachi 2:10-16. Against the ESV and more in line with the NASB, Davidson translates Malachi 2:16, “Yahweh, the God of Israel says that He hates divorce.” Davidson defends his translation and his conclusion that “this verse presents an unconditional divine condemnation of divorce” (421). The remainder of chapter nine is a practical rejoinder to the position outlined in the chapter. Davidson offers a picture of God full of grace and mercy toward His people—even when the Edenic ideal for marriage has been compromised.
Chapter ten, “Intimacy and Incest,” appears at first glance to be an ill-paired tandem of sexual ethics. The Old Testament begins with the concept of “knowing” used as a description of sexual intercourse. Davidson points out the profundity of sexual intercourse and intimacy. Sexual intercourse is not mere amusement or gratification; it is the most fulfilling knowledge available from one human being to another.
Davidson reviews the contextual literature of the ANE, pointing out that the gods routinely engaged in incestuous relations, but the common citizen was forbidden from such relationships. Davidson argues the patriarchs lived in the pre-Levitical times in which incest (such as Abram and Sara) was not forbidden. After Leviticus and in Deuteronomy, numerous passages are demonstrated to disavow all hints of incest. The closer the relationship, the more severe the punishment. Davidson concludes that incestuous relationships are out of harmony with God’s will for sexuality.
In chapter eleven, Davidson notes the flourishing of procreative sex against various problems such as barrenness, children born out of wedlock, and abortion. As is routine at this point, Davidson begins the chapter with an affirmation of the Edenic ideal of procreation. Davidson carefully distinguishes sexuality from procreation, in the sense that sexuality is a blessing apart from propagating children.
He frames the history of Israel (barren matriarchs like Sara, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah) as a display of God’s sovereign goodness over all things, including procreation. Yahweh is the true God of fertility. Davidson notes that adoption was not prevalent in Israel partly because God’s people were so prolific.
The Levirate marriage practice offered safeguard for widows and their children. For reasons explained by Davidson, Levirate marriage does not constitute incest (cf. Lv 20:21). While God upholds the value of marriage, He also abhors the pagan practice of abandoning children born out of wedlock in connection with fertility cult rituals (486).
Finally, chapter eleven closes with a section upholding the value of human life in the womb. Davidson argues from Exodus 21:22-25 that the law of just retribution “applies to the fetus equally as much as to the mother, and the fetus is therefore granted under the law the status of a full human being just as the mother” (497).
Chapter twelve is the last chapter in part two of the book. Here, Davidson offers the “anti” Edenic ideal, the view of sexuality which would allow rape in the place of love and evil in the place of beauty.
Davidson again works through literature from the ANE, as well as details the teaching of Mosaic Law. He then walks through various “rape” texts in Scripture. In the rape of Dinah (Gn 34), Davidson sees a full-scale repudiation of rape, as the author of the text and the characters in the text make plain that this rape is an outrageous crime.
Davidson views David’s seduction of Bathsheba as a form of “power rape.” Bathsheba was an innocent victim. Later in the Old Testament, Tamar becomes a victim of violent rape at the hands of Amnon. Davidson makes plain the catastrophic results of this crime, including the eventual dissolution of David’s kingdom.
Rape is everywhere in Scripture shown to be revolting to God. Rape portrays sexuality as unwholesome, ugly, and evil. It parodies the beauty God intended for sexual expression.
In chapter thirteen, Davidson’s work hits its crescendo. Chapter thirteen is the first chapter in Part Three of the book. Part Three is called “Return to Eden.” To frame his theology of sexuality, Davidson turns to the “Song of Songs: The Holy of Holies.” In the Song of Songs, Davidson finds a microcosm of the Edenic ideal lost in the Fall.
Davidson traces the colorful history of interpretation for the Song of Songs, giving particular attention to various allegorical interpretations. Against those, Davidson gladly affirms the more recent literal interpretations which view the book as a chronicle of lovers in love: “All of the other views find in the Song what they bring to it” (551). Davidson contends “that the theology of sexuality in this Song is the quintessence of profound theology in the OT—the holy of holies.”
For Davidson, the Song of Songs represents a return to the Garden of Eden, albeit a return still plagued by sin: “The lovers in the Song are not to be equated in every way with the pre-fall couple in the garden. The poetry of the Song reveals the existence of a world of sin and its baleful results” (553). Even so, the Song depicts woman and man in harmonious relation after the fall.
Chapter thirteen is a kind of consummation for Davidson. All the themes hinted at and argued for in the first two sections of the book, find their completion in chapters thirteen and fourteen. In chapter thirteen, Davidson sees in the Song a complete picture of heterosexual duality in marriage. He also finds clear pictures of monogamy, equality of the sexes, wholeness, exclusivity, permanence, intimacy, and procreation.
Chapter fourteen extols the beauty and wholeness of sexuality in the Song of Songs. Reaching the climax of more than 600 pages of exegesis and interpretation, Davidson translates Song of Solomon 8:6, “For love is as strong as death, ardent love as relentless/intense as Sheol; Its flames are flames of fire—the very flame of Yahweh” (624).
For Davidson, this reference summarizes all of the Old Testament’s theology of sexuality. The flames of love emanate from the Eternal… Yahweh is the genitive cause or origin (627). Human love at its fullest points back to the God who loves his people.
Finally, Davidson offers a brief overture toward a New Testament theology of sexuality. In this final chapter (Afterword), Davidson reiterates the major themes from his own study of the Old Testament. He offers a number of implications for a New Testament theology of sexuality, including that sexuality is a creation order; heterosexual practice is condoned, while homosexual practice is condemned; monogamy (not polygamy) is the created expectation; women are to be elevated, not denigrated; sexuality is an aspect of human wholeness; sexuality expects exclusivity, not adultery; sexuality flourishes in permanence, not divorce; intimacy is expected over incest; sexuality promotes procreation but is not defined by it.
For Davidson, sexuality is God’s creation of wholesome beauty.
Greg Cochran is Director of Applied Studies at the School of Christian Ministries, California Baptist University, and Review Editor for Ethics here at Books At a Glance.
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Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament