The Ethics of Virginity

The Ethics of Virginity: The Bible, Purity Culture, and Feminist Critics

Is purity culture correct when it assumes that premarital sex is immoral due to a loss of virginity, which is thought to be something that should be “saved” for marriage? In this paper I will examine some claims Christians make—from a purity culture perspective—regarding virginity and its intricate link to premarital sex. Next, I will submit purity culture’s claims to a feminist critique. I will then reflect upon the definition of virginity. Finally, I will attempt to synthesize a view of human sexual relationships in which human beings are not reduced to “virgin” or “non-virgin,” where a holistic human being, particularly females, are not reduced to what happened between their legs (or, as in the case of females, specifically their hymens). My synthesis will be predominantly engaging with Helmut Thielicke’s The Ethics of Sex.

In her book Why Wait?: A Christian View of Premarital Sex, Letha Scanzoni summarizes early Christianity’s stance on the subject of virginity. “Virginity was praised with fanatical zeal.”[1] After spending several pages discussing how early Christians essentially abhorred the profane thought of sex, Scanzoni’s comment is fair. Sex, being viewed a degree removed from sin, was relegated to the dustbin of a secular age—for asceticism and self-control were the fruits of the spirit which ascetic monks and hermits cultivated. From Origen’s act of self-castration (a repudiation of sex and the male sex symbol) to Augustine’s claim that if Adam and Eve had not sinned, the “embarrassing” sex act would have resembled something more holy like plant pollination, this ideology infiltrated mainstream Christian thinking.[2] Since asceticism preached a renunciation of sex—something that was propagated as early as the second-century pseudepigraphal Acts of Paul and Thecla—the inevitable culmination of such thinking was virginity as a virtue. But was such a zeal for virginity to be found in the Bible? According to Scanzoni, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Scanzoni, in her piling of one biblical citation over the other, mentions the oft-cited “virginity text,” Deuteronomy 22: 28-29. “If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives” (NRSV). Scanzoni, commenting on this text, writes, “[S]exual relations between two persons who were unmarried (and unbetrothed) required that they must marry one another.”[3] For Scanzoni, virginity is to be maintained up until marriage for the simple fact that premarital sex was forbidden in the Bible. Of course, she marshals all kinds of other evidence—citing Ephesians 5:3-5, Matthew 5:27-30, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, etc.—however, reasons for maintaining virginity are not given. The entire argument hinges on an acceptance of divine command theory: the Bible is the word of God, and humans ought to act according to its precepts. A primary principle undergirding her argument is the principle of obedience to God, which is self-evident in her willingness to cite biblical commands even while dismissing reasons one might have for not following them (e.g., they are obsolete, irrelevant, un-loving, anti-homosexual, etc.).[4] She admits, “[T]his book is not addressed to those who do not desire to place their lives in Christ’s hands. Such individuals cannot be expected to understand and embrace the philosophy of sex outlined here.”[5] This is strange for a book that claims, in other sections, to provide “reasons” for “the modern generation’s search for meaning and reasons behind moral-ethical decisions…”[6] Scanzoni appears to contradict herself. On the one hand, she is trying to convince a generation that is obsessed with “reason” that premarital sex is immoral and virginity up until marriage is the moral thing to do, while simultaneously on the other hand recognizing that her book will not convince those who do not accept the Bible as the Word of God. If you do not subscribe to divine command theory, then you cannot buy her arguments. To be fair, Scanzoni is at least honest about “reasons” other Christians present when trying to dissuade young adults and Christian youth from engaging in sexual intercourse prior to marriage. For example, some resort to scare tactics. “[F]ear of contracting venereal disease does not seem to work very effectively as a deterrent to premarital sex.”[7] Moreover, she recognizes that science and medicine is well on its way towards providing treatment options for venereal diseases; hence eliminating the fear that they had once inspired. Another commonly stated deterrent to premarital sex is the risk for pregnancy. “Christians who cite the risk of pregnancy as the chief reason for abstinence before marriage may find their moral standards threatened by such developments [i.e., development of birth control].” In other words, the chief reasons for refraining from premarital sex—such as contracting disease or the risk of pregnancy—are increasingly becoming irrelevant in the post-modern age. And Scanzoni is honest enough to recognize and mention that fact.

So where does that leave us? Why should young people maintain virginity? Scanzoni says, in tout court, “For the Bible tells me so.” Scanzoni writes regarding a sexual ethic, “[T]he Bible does provide clear guidelines and commandments in this important area.”[8] Is that true? Jennifer Knust, a biblical scholar who specializes in sexuality, says that such a statement is not true. For example, when discussing the sexual poem Song of Solomon, Scanzoni unjustifiably describes it as an “exaltation of married love.”[9] For Scanzoni, the Bible is a text singing one message: no sex before marriage; and if there is sex, it’s married sex. Even when there’s no reason to suppose the text is describing married love, Scanzoni imposes her views on the text, committing the sin of eisegesis. Knust, citing the Song of Solomon, suggests the complete opposite: the poem is relating in positive terms premarital sex. “My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him” (5:4).[10] She goes on to ask the rhetorical question, “Can the Bible be used to support premarital sex, even for girls? The answer, I have now discovered, is yes.”[11] The point here is that the biblical text does not necessarily sing one message, a message sung by Scanzoni. As Knust points out, the Bible has no single, sexual ethic. For example, the issue of prostitution in the Bible is not explicitly condemned in the case of Judah and Tamar. “According to Genesis, a woman who sleeps with her father-in-law can be a heroine.”[12] Polygamy is the norm in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Exodus 21:10 relates that if a man takes another wife, “he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife” (NRSV). One final, disturbing example: Exodus 21:7 encourages a “master,” after having purchased a woman as a slave, to marry the woman himself or to his son. Apparently, one could essentially own a contractual sex-slave[13]—and that was okay, according to the Bible. In short, sexual encounters that we moderns would probably dismiss as “immoral” are found as the norm in certain “biblical” books. The Bible, therefore, contra Scanzoni, does not produce a sexual ethic; instead, it provides us with a wide-range of various—and often times contradictory—sexual ethics. This sets before us a strange problem: if one even, theoretically speaking, accepts divine command theory, and accepts the Bible as the Word of God, is one able to come to Scanzoni’s “clear guidelines and commandments”? As Knust insists, marshaling biblical evidence, this is simply not the case. What, then, are we to make of the laws regarding virginity?

The concept of virginity, at least as it stands in Deuteronomy, is inextricably linked not necessarily to notions of “purity” as much as it is linked to whom gets paid and how much. The laws around female virginity “see[k] to protect the honor of the father and make the seduction or slander of an Israelite virgin an expensive proposition.”[14] In other words, the laws dealing with virginity—or lack thereof—are questions of economics and not morality per se. The woman, again, has not much say in whom she marries or how she is treated—she is, ultimately, the father’s property. And, may I remind you, the Bible is okay with that, too. The sexual ethic embraced by purity culture is essentially a form of divine command theory: the Bible says that you must be a virgin on your wedding day. That’s how they interpret it. This leads to a strange morality in which women and men are so preoccupied with keeping hymens intact that all forms of sexual expression—such as anal and oral sex—are given the blind eye. So where does that leave us? Having laid out the mostly evangelical Christian case for the maintenance of virginity, being inspired by purity culture, and having articulated at least one view that criticizes the biblical scholarship for maintaining it, I will now turn my gaze towards a feminist critique of purity culture and its cozy relationship with virginity.

Jessica Valenti has a problem with purity culture. In attempting to de-emphasize the sexual in inter-sex, heterosexual relationships, it has perpetrated—in a rather profoundly ironic way—the sexual. Valenti points out how having sex is tantamount to being immoral in purity culture. “Idolizing virginity as a stand-in for women’s morality means that nothing else matters—not what we accomplish, not what we think, not what we care about and work for.”[15]The mostly evangelical, mostly Christian Right, continues to reduce all inter-sex relationships to the sexual. When a male who was born and raised in purity culture engages in a relation with a female, he is, in fact, taught to be interested in one thing, and one thing only: is the female a virgin? If so, she is a “godly” (read: “ethical”) girl; if not, she is a slut/whore/cunt (read: “unethical”) girl. Morality is reduced to sexology; the moral human, female agent is reduced to what happens “down there.”

Valenti laments how women think that what happens “down there” is tantamount to being “moral.” For Valenti, this is a patriarchal reinforcement of women’s “ethics of passivity”; that is, women are only able to be ethically passive—all that matters is that they don’t allow active penetration of their vagina by a man’s hyperactive penis. She condemns this ethic of passivity by stating: “[R]estraint does not equal morality.”[16] If a woman chooses not to have sex—for whatever reason—that does not make her a good or bad person, a virgin or a slut. What matters, instead, is whether she is, indeed, a good or bad person morally—just like a male is judged.

One of the larger problems that we have avoided articulating until now is the definition of virginity. In her groundbreaking book Virgin: The Untouched History, Hanne Blank details her findings concerning the concept of virginity. “What we mean when we say ‘virginity’ is as ephemeral, as relative, and as socially determined as what we mean when we say ‘freedom.’”[17] Having said that, Blank broadly defines the term to mean “a human sexual status that is characterized by a lack of any current or prior sexual interaction with others.”[18] Notice that her definition has nothing to do with a hymen, blood stains on the bed sheets, or females. For, as Blank points out, the moment we begin throwing in hymens and such, we are left with strange consequences. For example, if “virginity” is reduced to “having an intact hymen,” then all males are immediately virgin, whether sexual or not. Moreover, this implies that all gay men and lesbians (who have only resorted to cunnilingus) are also virgin. If you define the term to mean sexual intercourse with the opposite sex, you likewise lose all the homosexual people. And you fail to include the couples that engage in non-vaginal sex acts like anal sex, cunnilingus, and oral sex.

Trying to think about the concept of virginity is nothing new. Augustine of Hippo, in thinking about Christian virgins who were raped by pagan men, could not help but redefine virginity. For him, “being raped did not constitute a loss of virginity, providing one had resisted with all one’s heart and soul.”[19] Without having the space to relate the mass amount of research Blank relates, it should be quite obvious that “virginity,” however one looks at it, is a very elusive term. When purity culture invokes it, they usually mean “a human who has not had[20] physical, vaginal sexual intercourse.” Fantasizing about sex—as in Jesus’ saying[21]—does not constitute the act of sex. You can fantasize about sex day and night, and still be a virgin in today’s mainstream evangelical culture. And we haven’t even begun discussing masturbation, vibrators, dildos, and other sex toys. This leaves us in the precarious position of having to articulate an ethics of sex in which virginity is taken to mean something that we cannot quite grasp. It remains a term that is both vague and elusive. Despite that, I will now attempt to articulate a view that embraces feminist critiques and allows us—both secular and Christian people—to move the discussion forward on virginity and premarital sex.

Helmut Thielicke, in his masterful The Ethics of Sex, believes that the Christian sex act must never be reduced merely to the biological. “[I]f sexuality were merely a function, we would hardly be able to understand why the partners should not be exchangeable at will and why promiscuity should not be legalized and made a social institution.”[22] This leads him to conclude, “[O]nly the ‘being’ of a person is unique, irreplaceable, and unrepeatable.”[23] For Thielicke, a human being must be encountered as a holistic individual, full of emotions, a history, characteristic traits, and, ultimately, as someone who was “bought with a price” (1 Cor.6:20; 7:23).[24] Theology plays a very particular role here: it forces one to view the Other as an individual who is important to God; it forces one to see the imago dei in the Other. “He who seeks only the partial—only the body, only the function, and again possibly only a part of this—remains unfulfilled even on the level of eros, because, having lost the wholeness of the other person, he also loses the other person’s uniqueness.”[25] In addition to engaging with the Other in his or her wholeness, as a being created by an Almighty God, Thielicke also believes that the Bible gives us its own way of interpreting the sex act: in the Bible, sex is a method of “knowing” the Other. Thielicke argues that in the Bible the euphemism for “to have sex” is “to know.” Hence we have the phrase: “Adam knew his wife, Eve” (Genesis 4:1). Why was the verb יָדַע ([yada‘] “to know”) chosen to signify “to have sex”? For Thielicke, this was simply because the act of sex itself was viewed as a process of knowing the Other. Thielicke contrasts this method of sexual knowledge, calling it “knowledge ‘from the inside,’” with mere knowledge of sex, calling it “knowledge ‘from the outside.’”[26] He writes, “Sexual knowledge is qualitatively different from knowledge about sex.”[27] What is important in human relations, from a theological perspective, is to remember what sex is: it is more than just a biological function. To have sex is to engage in the mystery of unveiling secrets—it is about getting to know, to really know, the other human being. It is knowledge of the Other “from the inside.”

The driving factor in Thielicke’s ethics of sex is this irreducible view of it. He wants to continually reinforce the idea that there is something more going on here. He calls it “the mystery of sex.”[28] But there is also another implicit verb running through the book: agape.[29] “[A]gape brings out, ‘loves’ out, as it were, the real person within the other human being.”[30] In the process of knowing the Other, in the process of “loving out” the real person, one encounters the face of God. It is this—and not virginity per se—that makes sex sacred, that makes the mystery of sex a μυστήριον (mustérion). In fact, virginity virtually plays no role in Thielicke’s work. He mentions it briefly on roughly two pages.[31] The reason for maintaining virginity in Thielicke’s opinion is because he believes in the now-discredited view of “the formative power of the first sexual encounter.”[32] Having said that, Thielicke is not reducing the mystery of sex to merely the physical. One could argue that, when discussing female virginity (which usually has to do with the physically intact or non-intact hymen), purity culture is mostly reducing sex to biological function. In contrast to this, Thielicke allows the act of sex to be seen in its totality, in its relationship to everything human beings touch—be it the physical, the biological, the ethical, or the romantic. Perhaps this is why he failed to write a book on hymenology. Instead, he wrote a book on what it means to engage in sex from a theological and ethical perspective.

Whether one is secular or religious, one cannot help but stand in sheer appreciation of Thielicke’s poetic views on the ethics of sex. Yes, if one were to idealize sex, this would be what it would look like. It would be an act of agape coalescing with the act of knowing the Other “from the inside.” Whether his view is “biblical” or not is open to debate, I do not know. What I do know is that whenever a church or a couple want to meaningfully discuss the ethics of virginity—what, how, and why we should remain virgins until marriage—his thoughts on the subject must surely be engaged with. If the purity culture route is taken, one is, as the feminist critique has shown, prone to reducing the human relationship to biological functions and hymenology. That is, one is left merely describing physical traits of the Other. “She is a virgin; her hymen is intact; she must be an ethical person.” Such stringently descriptive accounts of the Other are seldom useful. Moreover, purity culture tends to reduce ethics to sexology. As Thielicke has shown us, the sex act is about knowing the Other on an intimate level. Merely describing what a female’s hymen looks like at any given moment does not imply we have engaged in intimate knowledge of the Other. In fact, it’s probably shallow at best. As Hanne Blank has demonstrated, the idea of what it means to be a “virgin” is a great deal of culturally relative speculation. It is not something set in stone, something we can easily pinpoint and manipulate. The Bible itself, as a collection of books written over many centuries, does not offer us “clear guidelines and commandments.” Likewise, in the spirit of the Bible, this paper concludes by offering no such clear guidelines and commandments. All I can offer are thoughts influenced by the Bible, culture, reason, and science. Pick and choose as you please. It seems to me that the principle of love is more important than naïve adherence to the Bible and some of its obsolete commandments.[33] I would like to close with the following quote from Augustine: “Love…and then do whatever you will.”[34]

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and philosophy of language. 




Blank, Hanne. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Bloch, Ariel and Chana Bloch. The Song of Songs: A New Translation, with an Introduction and Commentary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Burt, Donald X. Day by Day with Saint Augustine. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006.

Knust, Jennifer. Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

Thielicke, Helmut. The Ethics of Sex. Trans. By John W. Doberstein. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

Scanzoni, Letha. Why Wait?: A Christian View of Premarital Sex. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975.

Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009.


[1] Letha Scanzoni, Why Wait?: A Christian View of Premarital Sex (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 30.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Ibid., 79. Italics original.

[4] For example, the modern ethical discussion surrounding gay marriage and gay relationships are not considered by Scanzoni. Why? Because the Bible “clearly” instructs against such relations. The principle of obedience to God over-rides concerns such as the principle of “love.” What if two gay people want to have premarital sex in a loving relationship, is that permissible? Such questions are dismissed a priori simply due to the fact that the over-riding principle of obedience to God, being the practical application of divine command theory, stands in direct contradiction to the sort of ethic one may discover when applying other principles, such as love.

[5] Letha Scanzoni, Why Wait?, “Introduction.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 50. Italics original.

[8] Ibid., 21.

[9] Ibid., 99.

[10] Some scholars, however, dispute Knust’s interpretation of the Song, see Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation, with an Introduction and Commentary, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). “Some commentators have attempted to understand this verse as a euphemistic account of sexual intercourse. This is implausible…” (Ibid.). In addition, I’m not sure that Knust is correct in making the assumption that this poem is describing premarital sex. It’s possible the lover and the beloved are married—nothing in the text suggests that they aren’t. (Knust is over-zealous in her want to demonstrate how strange, liberal, and non-evangelical the Bible is even when it isn’t [as it may be in this specific case].)

[11] Jennifer Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 5.

[12] Ibid., 7.

[13] The slave woman does not appear to have any say in what happens to her. “When it comes to their sexuality, the consent of women, slaves, and foreigners was not sought” (Ibid., 63). The marriage to her master or her master’s son is, presumably, not something she has a say in. Hence, my calling her a “contractual sex-slave” is probably fair—for, at least in the modern world, marriage without consent is not valid. So, contra the Bible, I wouldn’t call her “marriage” to her damn master (!) a marriage! In fact, I am calling this contractual arrangement what it is: sex slavery with some benefits.

[14] Ibid., 62.

[15] Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009), 24.

[16] Ibid., 25.

[17] Hanne Blank, Virgin: The Untouched History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 5.

[18] Ibid., 6.

[19] Ibid., 7.

[20] The verb here conveys one of two things: (1) the male having sex with his penis penetrating a female’s vagina; and (2) the female having sex with a male who’s penis is repetitively penetrating her vagina. This sounds redundant and maybe unnecessary but that is not the case: one could come up with all kinds of scenarios in which some exception to this rule is created (for example, a man only “sticks it in” once and then abandons the girl, does that constitute the vaginal sex act?).

[21] Matthew 5:28 says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (NRSV). Apparently, having sex with someone else “in his heart” is not really sex. But try having sex physically and without one’s heart, that’s sex!

[22] Helmut Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 23.

[23] Ibid., 24.

[24] Ibid., 25.

[25] Ibid. Italics original.

[26] Ibid., 67-8.

[27] Ibid., 66.

[28] Ibid.

[29] In the New Testament, agape (“love”) is usually the verb used to describe God’s love for humanity. It is a theologically loaded word.

[30] Ibid., 98. Italics original.

[31] The pages are 67 and 83.

[32] Ibid., 85.

[33] I can only make such a bold claim because there are plenty of biblical scholars who have written massive tomes dealing with ancient customs that are, by all means, obsolete (I am thinking of such things as sacrifices and slavery, for example). In this paper, I cited one such scholar: Jennifer Knust. For evidence of contradictions in the Bible and some of its strange stances on human sexuality, I refer my readers to her book.

[34] Quoted in Donald X. Burt, Day by Day with Saint Augustine (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006), 4.


Crime and Punishment in the Garden of Eden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Sexual Consciousness, Unnatural Sex Acts, and the Primeval Couple in Genesis 3:4-7

For years readers of Genesis have been drawn to the stories found about the primeval couple in the mythical Garden of Eden. From the beginning of the narrative arch to its climactic ending, the story appears to be a self-contained unit. The beginning is marked by God’s divine command to ’adam in 2:16-17, in which YHWH commands: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”[1] The middle of the narrative is the tension-filled discourse involving a snake, Eve, and Adam (3:1-7). A conflict scene in which YHWH confronts the primeval couple regarding their disobedience then follows (3:8-13). The climactic conclusion is the punishment meted out by YHWH. It is, then, when read in its final, canonical form[2], a story of “crime and punishment.”[3] What is the primeval couple’s crime? In this paper, I will primarily focus my attention on Genesis 3:4-7, in particular I will be analyzing various interpretations of the phrase “the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” which occurs as the official name of the tree in 2:9. What does it mean? In lay circles, it has come to mean that the primeval couple gained moral consciousness by eating of the tree’s fruit. Other scholars have argued that the “knowledge” had more to do with “mastery of one’s existence.”[4] I find all such interpretations to be unconvincing. Therefore, in this paper I will argue that the tree of knowledge of good and evil had to do with sexual consciousness. Moreover, I will argue that the punishment in this tale of “crime and punishment” has to do with the crime of “unnatural sex acts.” I believe that such an interpretation, while it may not convince everyone, explains virtually all of the data, making sense in the biblical context and its Ancient Near Eastern context.

Traditionally, especially for those of us who have graduated Sunday School, the story about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had to do with their freely made decision of choosing their own way over God’s way; the couple chose to disobey God to discover some separate way of “knowing.” In other words, Adam and Eve wanted to abide by their own rules; and, so, as a consequence of eating of this tree’s fruit, they were awakened to moral consciousness. Leon R. Kass interprets the narrative in this way. He writes, “For a human being, as for any human child, the possibility of choosing for oneself lies always within reach. To be a human being means that judgments of good and bad are always in one’s mental garden…”[5] In other words, for Kass, the story has to do with Adam and Eve’s obtainment of moral consciousness.[6] For Kass, the knowledge of “good and evil” should be taken to mean—as the Hebrew phrase וָרָע טוֹב actually suggests—knowledge of “good and bad.” “Bad,” in this case, includes things like pain, sickness, and disorder.[7] In other words, to bite of the tree is to voluntarily begin participating in the experience of “bad things,” such as cancer, earthquakes, and heartbreaks. But does this make any sense, even in the context of Genesis? I don’t think so. For example, the text states that prior to Eve’s biting of the fruit, she already perceived the tree to be “good [טוֹב] for food,” a “delight to the eyes,” and “to be desired to make one wise” (3:6). How could she know that the tree was “good” prior to obtaining Kass’ moral consciousness? Kass, in an ingenious move, writes, “[T]o reach for the forbidden fruit is already to have tasted it.”[8] In other words, Eve, by reaching for the fruit, already tasted of it, and somehow—and this remains unexplained—was able to make judgments on her own prior to reaching for it. Ultimately, in the tale, the primeval couple proves that “a free choice is not necessarily a good choice, not even for oneself.”[9] This means the point of the tale was to demonstrate to its readers that—sometimes?—it is better to listen to God’s divine imperatives, to live by His commands, rather than make autonomous choices.

Does Kass’ interpretation make sense in the biblical context? It does not. The curse that later follows the crime on its heels has to do with a woman’s childbearing experience. And, as most of us know, sex precedes childbirth. The crime, as my paper will later show, has to do with sexual deviance. However, I have spoken too soon. Next, we will look at another unconvincing interpretation: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as “mastery of one’s existence.”

Claus Westermann argues that the entirety of the final narrative contained in Genesis 2-3 is “a story of the breaking of a law and punishment.”[10] God commands the prohibition (i.e., “do not eat…”) directly to the ’adam. The couple[11] does not listen, breaking God’s command. The story is a “direct confrontation between humans and God” in which “God himself discovers the transgression, conducts the trial and pronounces judgment.”[12] In the narrative, according to Westermann, the primeval couple attempts to eat of the tree because it represents “knowledge (or wisdom) in the general, comprehensive sense.”[13] Following a thesis proposed by J. Pedersen, and citing it, Westermann believes the reason that God felt threatened by the couple’s eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had to do with “the god’s zealous maintenance of their absolute superiority.”[14] In eating of the fruit, the couple chose their “craving for more.”[15] In Westermann’s words, it is this that “leads to conflict with God or the gods.”[16] “Human beings are created in such a way that they are capable of advancing their life and of advancing their knowledge… There is a difference between these two human aspirations. To aspire after life comes in conflict with the inexorable barrier of death; to strive for wisdom or knowledge meets no such barrier.”[17] All of this leads to what Westermann believes the author of Genesis is particularly ascribing to the primeval couple: a desire “to be like God” (3:5). Comparing this text with Job 15:7-8, Ezekiel 28:11-19, and Sirach 49:16, Westermann articulates the view that the primordial myths all reveal a primeval person (or persons) “grasping after wisdom to which the creature has no right.”[18] Once the primeval couple disobeyed YHWH, they were punished. The punishment of the woman is of particular importance. She is “cursed” with increased birth pains. Why? Westermann, being unfriendly to the “sexual consciousness interpretation” of this text, remains utterly silent; he does not even address the “why.” Instead, he writes, “[J]ust where the woman finds her fulfillment in life, her honor and her joy, namely in her relationship to her husband and as mother of her children, there too she finds that it is not pure bliss, but pain, burden, humiliation and subordination.”[19] The punishment is harsh. (And Adam, along with the snake, is likewise punished.) Westermann cannot explain why this curse and not another on the woman. He cannot explain it[20]—and does not bother to—because his interpretation is wrong: the text is dealing with sexual consciousness and unnatural sex acts. It is to this interpretation that I now turn my gaze. But before I examine the biblical evidence in favor of a sexual interpretation, I would like to discuss some of the text’s Ancient Near Eastern “relatives.” Such “relatives” will make us aware of the kind of stories the ancients told about the primeval man…

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Aruru creates Enkidu—created as a “double” after the failed creation of the demi-god Gilgamesh, who ended up becoming a tyrant. But Enkidu, too, has problems. He is wild. He runs around naked and lives like a jungle animal. Anu then sends a cult prostitute who seduces him into a night of hot sex. Overnight, after, I assume, several orgasms, he awakens a brand new man: he is now civilized and tame. The animals abandon this new version of Enkidu—“it was not as before; but he now had wisdom, broader understanding.”[21] He returns to the harlot who enticed him. He is now willing to listen to her. She tells him, and I quote, “Thou art wise, Enkidu, art become like a god!…”[22] In this tale, which definitely has parallels with our Genesis text, the “wisdom” that Enkidu obtains is gained by sexual intercourse with a woman. The woman makes a man who he is. It is she who makes a man civilized, for lack of a better word, by means of pussification. Like the “Harlot of Gilgamesh,” Eve, too, forces Adam to bite of the fruit; she is the one who initiates him into sexual consciousness. Adam, like Enkidu, listens to her voice. In the final scene, much like Adam’s placement of the burden of guilt upon Eve in 3:12, Enkidu, too, blames the harlot. Enkidu becomes aware that sexual consciousness, having made him (a) awakened to life and (b) aware of death, is very much a blessing and a curse. And, so, he curses the woman; he curses the harlot. “Such motifs as sexual awareness, wisdom, and nature’s paradise are of course familiar from various ancient sources,” writes E.A. Speiser.[23]

In another Ancient Near Eastern text, known as the Adapa Myth, the god of wisdom, Ea, creates a man called Adapa. One day, while fishing, Adapa’s boat capsizes due to the wind. Adapa finds himself drowning. In the process of falling into the sea, Adapa breaks the wind’s wings, stopping it from blowing for seven days. The sky god, Anu, is enraged by this. He calls for Adapa to appear at the divine council. Ea, the creator-god of Adapa, instructs Adapa on how he should behave in the presence of the god Anu. He tells him, moreover, that he should not drink of the cup which Anu may present to him, nor eat of the food, for it is the drink and food of death. (In reality, the drink and food contain the gift of immortality.) In the end, Adapa refuses to drink and eat, and is sent back to earth to toil and live as a mortal.[24] The story is ultimately a story about Adapa being deceived into not obtaining immortality. Much like the Genesis story, in which the additional punishment is forever being forbidden to eat from the “tree of life,” the Adapa myth tells of a primeval event in history where man was tricked out of eternity. While the Adapa myth does not give us anything “sexual,” it does tell us something that does not sit well with Kass and Westermann’s interpretations: the ancients viewed primeval man as being endowed with wisdom from the get-go. In the myth, Adapa is described in the following poetic manner:

Wisdom… His command was indeed… like the command of Ea. Wide understanding he had perfected for him to disclose the designs of the land. To him he had given wisdom; eternal life he had not given him.[25]

Like Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Adapa in the Adapa Myth, Adam in the Garden of Eden was endowed with wisdom before eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Here’s the biblical evidence.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam, prior to the eating of the fruit of the tree, gave names to every living creature (2:19-20). Robert Gordis writes, “It is a truism that in ancient thought, including the biblical world-view, knowing the name of any person or object is tantamount to comprehending its nature.”[26] In another biblical text, which appears to be speaking of Adam before The Fall, describes him as being “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12). “Semitic, biblical and post-biblical [sources] are at one in conceiving of primal man as endowed with supreme wisdom and beauty before his misadventure.” Gordis further adds: “The theory that it was the fruit of the ‘tree of knowing good and evil’ that conferred the knowledge of the world and intellectual maturity upon Adam is therefore decisively ruled out.”[27] There go Kass and Westermann: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil does not have to do with either moral consciousness or, in a similar vein, “mastery of one’s existence”; instead, the tree has to do with something entirely different: sexuality.

Right from the beginning, the sexuality of the text was bursting at the seams. The phrase used in Genesis 2:9 to describe the forbidden tree in Hebrew is וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב הַדַּ֖עַת וְעֵ֕ץ [“and the tree of knowledge of good and evil”]. This includes the construct noun, with the definite article, הַדַּ֖עַת [“the knowledge of”]. The verbal form of this word [“to know’] is used in the Hebrew infinitive as a euphemism for “to have sex.” In fact, it’s a euphemism for sex in Arabic, Greek, Akkadian, and Latin.[28] Therefore, when the text states that this is the tree of knowing good and evil, it really is saying that the fruit of this tree cause one to become sexually conscious. But what does the phrase “good and evil” refer to then? The biblical texts suggest that this, too, has to do with sexual matters. The phrase וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב [“good and evil”] “may have originated in the two aspects of sexual experience, the normal (טֹ֥וב) manifestations of the impulse and the abnormal (רע).”[29] In Judges 19, there is the odd story about a Levite, his concubine, and an old man who took them both in. In the biblical episode, the Levite and his concubine are on a journey home, and stop at the town of Gibeah, being taken in by an unnamed man. At nightfall, the townsmen demand that the old man hand over his male guest to the townsmen. They want to rape him, essentially. “In each case, the host replies אַל־תָּרֵ֣עוּ[30] and expresses his willingness to offer up instead a woman to their lust.”[31] The phrase cannot be translated, as many translations do, “Do not act wickedly”—for “violating the chastity of an innocent women is surely an evil.”[32] Therefore, it is better to render the verb for רע [“to do evil”] here as “to act unnaturally.” In this case, the word refers to the abnormal sexual act. The opposite word טֹ֥וב, and its verbal forms, would mean “to act naturally.”

In another biblical passage, no other translation of phrase “good and evil” is possible but the sexual. Second Samuel 19:35 reads:

Today I am eighty years old; can I discern what is pleasant and what is not [וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב]? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king?

The phrase translated by the NRSV as “pleasant and what is not” is actually וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב [“good and evil”] in Hebrew. In this passage, King David is lamenting that he can no longer enjoy life. In fact, he is so old, he cannot delight in women and wine, song and dance, and “good and evil.” But in this case, the phrase should probably be a reference to sex. King David didn’t have access to Viagra and, hence, found life to be a bore with all the babes around in the King’s Court. As we have seen, it’s not anywhere near mere conjecture when I say that the phrase “good and evil” has sexual overtones. And, most importantly, it could also mean, in some cases, “natural and unnatural.”

It is neither a stretch of the imagination nor a crime of biblical eisegesis: the fact that Adam and Eve’s, the primeval couple’s, sexual consciousness blossomed after eating the fruit can no longer be denied. Even the snake in the Garden of Eden functions as an object that inspires thoughts of sex. O. Loretz writes, “[T]he serpent in Gen 3 is one of those mythical serpents that represents life and death together. It stands…as a symbol of the Canaanite fertility cult and as such promises life.”[33] In addition to this, some scholars view the snake as “a phallic symbol.”[34]

We are now in a good position to read the pericope this paper is ultimately trying to make sense of. Genesis 3:4-7 reads:

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves (NRSV).

We’ve already ploughed most of the ground for a fertile interpretation of this text. We know that the snake represents the phallus. We’ve discussed what “the knowledge of good and evil” means (and the related phrase “knowing good and evil” used here); it means something along the lines of “sexual knowledge of natural and unnatural sex acts.” We’ve also looked forward into the text and saw that the “curse” directed at the woman only makes sense if the crime in the Garden were a sexual one (as sex results in conception and childbirth). At this point in our exegesis, it appears that the primeval couple performed some kind of unnatural sex act that would have upset YHWH. In addition to this sex act, they also disobeyed YHWH by eating of the fruit of that tree. We are left with two more key ideas to explore. The first is the enigmatic phrase “you will be like God”; the second is the realization that they were “naked.” To those two points in the text I will now turn.

What does it mean to “be like God”? If we are correct that this has something to do with sex, the natural reading of the text would suggest the following interpretation: to “be like God” means “to be immortal like God by means of sex, which results in progeny, implies that your name will live longer than your mortal body—and that is immortality.” As Gordis points out, “[P]artaking of the tree of knowledge afforded the eater the vicarious immortality which comes from the procreation of children.”[35]

What does the text try to communicate when it states that immediately after their eyes were opened, they became aware of being naked? It doesn’t require a PhD in sexology to recognize that something lewd is going on here. After being told not to eat of the fruit of that tree, the couple—albeit completely butt naked—eats of the fruit, fruit which conveys sexual knowledge of natural and unnatural forms of intercourse. Immediately, as their eyes open, as this new knowledge grabs a hold of them, they engage in sexual intercourse. In addition to sex, they recognize something about sex: it takes two butt naked people to engage in it. But that recognition that sex and nudity go hand-in-hand leads the couple to recognize that outside of sexual intercourse, they probably shouldn’t be naked. Nudity turned Adam on. It might turn YHWH on too; it did, several chapters later in Genesis 6, make the “sons of God” engage in sexual intercourse with “children of men” after all (v. 4). The couple, now informed that nudity should be saved for the master bedroom, hides from YHWH. And so, the ancient text introduces us to civilization, society, and clothing. In a vein similar to Enkidu, Adam becomes civilized after his rendezvous with Eve. She makes him a better man.

We must now come to the climactic ending, which, in a strange turn of events, occurred after Adam and Eve had already climaxed their way through orgasm.[36] YHWH finds the primeval couple, gives them clothing, curses them, and kicks them out. Scholars think that there were originally multiple sources at work here, and that two stories were mixed to create this one.[37] Originally, the punishment must have simply been either the curses or the expulsion from the Garden; one story, such as the tree of life tale, must have concluded with curses, and the other, such as the tree of knowledge tale, must have concluded with the expulsion. The final product, as it now stands, must be interpreted on its own terms. What we know, despite what the source critics say, is that the text ends with some form of punishment. YHWH punishes the couple for a crime they had committed. Having engaged in some form or another of unnatural and natural sex, the couple posed a threat to YHWH. At the very least, they simply disobeyed orders. But if our interpretation is correct, the couple, by means of progeny, was also able to live vicariously through them. In a sense, they had disobeyed YHWH and had tricked him. By means of children they, too, would live “forever”—whether YHWH liked it or not. Whether he liked their illicit sexual behaviors or not, they would live forever. But why was YHWH concerned with unnatural sex? The dichotomizing themes of pure/impure, natural/unnatural, have a long history in the Old Testament.[38] It was a way for the Jews to keep themselves set-apart and different from the rest of the ancient tribes. Having said that, the crime, however you look at the text, is clearly an act of disobedience. The question is: was it a sexual act? I think, as this paper has tried to show, the answer is probably a “yes.” It’s a tentative yes, not a dogmatic one.

Allow me to summarize my results and the conclusions I have drawn from them. I first looked at two interpretations of this text that I did not agree with, Kass and Westermann’s, respectively. I have revealed that they do not make sense of most of the data in the text. I then proceeded to show that the Ancient Near Eastern myths, which parallel our own text, reveal: (a) the primeval man was full of wisdom from the get-go; and (b) especially in the Epic of Gilgamesh, primeval man was tamed—brought to civilized life—through sex and sexual consciousness. I then proceeded to demonstrate that even the biblical text reveals to us hints of primeval Adam being endowed with wisdom from the start. In addition to this, I discussed that “to know” was a euphemism for sex; that “good and evil” could also mean “natural and unnatural [sexual acts].” I then grounded my study in the biblical texts themselves. Finally, I have tried to let my interpretation make sense of the “curse” on woman, the setting, and the surrounding biblical context itself. I would like to conclude by stating that, whatever one may draw from the individual premises themselves, and whatever one may ultimately think of the conclusions reached, this interpretation holds, at the very least, some—if not a lot—of water: Adam and Eve gained sexual consciousness in the Garden of Eden, disobeyed YHWH, performed natural and unnatural sex acts, and were ultimately expelled from the Garden of Eden. The myth was a tale of love and romance, nudity and sex—of crime and punishment.

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language. 


Gordis, Robert. “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957).

Kass, Leon R. The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Mark, Joshua J. “The Myth of Adapa.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified February 23, 2011. /article/216/.

Speiser, E.A. Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1964.

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11: A Commentary. Translated by John J. Scullion. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974.


[1] All biblical citations in this paper will come from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] I want to point out that I have decided not to make this paper a paper on sources for several reasons: (1) The scholars virtually all disagree as to where one such source begins and where it ends; (2) contrasting P’s account of the primeval couple’s sexuality (e.g., 1:28) with J’s (thought to be 2:4ff) does not really work as we don’t have enough data in Genesis to give us a holistic idea as to what they agreed upon and what they disagreed about; therefore, (3) the previous points make the excurses in the sexual views of J or P more of a highly speculative and highly tentative enterprise. Finally, I simply chose to deal with the final, canonical form for the simple reason that the final editor, whoever it may have been, chose to weave the tale in such a manner. I am attempting to make sense of what it was that this author (or authors) was/were trying to communicate.

[3] Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974), 193. While I ultimately disagree with Westermann’s interpretation of Genesis 2-3, I agree with him that it is—in its final, redacted form—a tale of crime and punishment.

[4] Ibid., 248.

[5] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 66. Italics original.

[6] Ibid., 63. “[T]he name [of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] suggests rather knowledge of how to live, of what we would call practical knowledge, including but not limited to moral knowledge” (ibid.).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 65.

[9] Ibid., 66.

[10] Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 193.

[11] Here it is evident that the final product of Genesis 2-3 involved multiple sources. In Genesis 2:16-17 it is the man given the command not to eat of the fruit. Another source in the pre-history of the text must have dealt with a “couple”—and not a single individual; hence, Genesis 3:2-7 involves Eve breaking a command she had not heard! Such “roughness” in the text reveals its own subtle disunity.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 247.

[14] Cited in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 245.

[15] Ibid. Citing J. Pedersen here again.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 247.

[19] Ibid., 263.

[20] Ibid., 261-3. He spends three pages on “The Sentence of Punishment of the Woman” without so much as bothering to connect the punishment with the surrounding narrative.

[21] Ibid., 247.

[22] Cited from the “Enkidu Episode” (Tablet I, iv 26-34, ANET 75) in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 247.

[23] “The Story of Eden,” in Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1964), 26.

[24] Joshua J. Mark, “The Myth of Adapa,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified February 23, 2011, /article/216/.

[25] Cited from Tablet A, II. 2ff. in Robert Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957), 128.

[26] Ibid., 125.

[27] Ibid., 129.

[28] Ibid., 131.

[29] Ibid., 131.

[30] “You all (masculine plural), do not do evil!” (my trans.).

[31] Ibid., 133.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Quoted in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 244.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” 130.

[36] Of course at this point in my paper, I have now resorted to a creative interpretation of the text. What I mean by that is, after having done some biblical exegesis, I am trying to understand the message of the text. That is, I am interested in presenting a robust and cohesive version of the story as I see it. I am trying to fit all the pieces of the text together into a cohesive, believable whole. And the “sexual interpretation”—the one I am espousing—seems to make a lot of sense of the data.

[37] For an excurses on sources, see Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 186-196, esp. 195.

[38] Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” 123-4 and 132-3.