It was the footnote that made me sit up and take notice. I was reading Ezekiel 16 where God is pronouncing judgement on Israel, calling her his bride whom he had loved and cared for, but who had been unfaithful. In verse 25, he says 'at the head of every street you made your beauty an abomination, offering yourself to any passer-by'. However, 'offering yourself' had a footnote next to it which said that the actual phrase in Hebrew was 'spreading your legs' to every passer-by.
Now this was the English Standard Version of the Bible that I was reading, one that places a high value on accurate translation, and yet the translators had chosen to replace the accurate 'spreading your legs' with the more discreet 'offering yourself'-even though the actual words were entirely intended to have the shocking impact which they carry-which has to beg the question 'why?'. The only conclusion I can come to is that the translators were concerned that readers would find the phrase too shocking, which reflects a much wider problem the church has-that in a world that is on one level obsessed with sex, and yet on another level is messed up and confused about it, the church and Christians are all too often too embarrassed and confused themselves to boldly speak into society about it.
When the subject of sex comes up in church settings-and it comes up all too rarely-it is put into 'safe' boundaries. It is put into a separate seminar that people choose to attend if they wish, or put into a youth group discussion. If sex comes up at all in a Sunday morning preach, it is usually surrounded by cushions of 'I'm sorry if anyone is embarrassed by this but …' and is moved on from as quickly as possible. All this reinforces a notion that sex is somehow a shameful or embarrassing subject.
The Bible knows no such boundaries. It devotes a whole book, the Song of Songs, to a couple expressing sexual desire for one another. Large parts of Leviticus deal with the approach under old covenant law to all kinds of sexual issues-without any warning to the effect of 'we're going to talk about sex now. If you think you might be offended you can stop reading if you want to'. In Proverbs 5, warning of the dangers of adultery and exhorting men to rejoice in their wives, it says 'let her breasts at all times fill you with delight'. The only boundary the Bible sets is that sex is for a husband and wife within marriage, and indeed is a core part of the 'one flesh' that constitutes marriage, but within that boundary it sets out what a huge delight it is.
And lest anyone reading this think that the Bible in examples like the above just reflect men being obsessed with sex, one of the principles in the Bible that desperately needs to be taught clearly is that it presents sexual desire as something that is equally normal and good for both men and for women. One of the facts that is striking about the Song of Songs is that the man and the woman both equally express their desire and fantasies about one another. The apostle Paul in writing to the Corinthian church assumes that sexual pleasure is something a wife should expect from her husband every bit as much as a husband from a wife. In 1 Corinthians 7 he says: 'The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband', and then goes on to say 'do not deprive one another'.
This very issue, of sex being intended to be something of delight for both the husband and the wife, is one reason why Christians and the church need to ensure that sex is something that is discussed and taught on without embarrassment as part of normal day to day life. People come into the church with all kinds of history and perspectives on sex. Even for those who have grown up in a church background there can be all kinds of wrong teaching that has given false guilt about sex, and for some, tragically and appallingly, abuse in their past for which a godly perspective on sex is key to restoration and healing.
Couples can often struggle on, thinking that they are the only ones with difficulties on a particular sexual issue, when a church with a biblical attitude to sex can promote a culture of openness between friends and in the church community, where they can find others who've worked through the same issue and found solutions.
Sex was one of God's greatest gifts in creation. Part of the church's calling lies in restoring an understanding of just what that means.
(Thanks to my wife for her input and advice on this post.)