“And you shall not go up by steps to My altar, so that your nakedness will not be exposed on it.” (Exod 20:26)
“For Aaron’s sons you shall make tunics; you shall also make sashes for them, and you shall make caps for them, for glory and for beauty. You shall put them on Aaron your brother and on his sons with him; and you shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve Me as priests. You shall make for them linen breeches to cover their bare flesh; they shall reach from the loins even to the thighs. They shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they enter the tent of meeting, or when they approach the altar to minister in the holy place, so that they do not incur guilt and die. It shall be a statute forever to him and to his descendants after him.” (Exod 28:40-43)
“None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a cult prostitute.” (Deut 23:17)
“In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw YHWH sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is YHWH of Armies! The whole earth is full of His glory!'” (Isa 6:1-3)
“So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink–and rose up to ‘play.'” (Exod 32:6)
Hebrew scripture is unanimous in condemnation of cultic sexual behavior, as the quotations from Deuteronomy and Exodus 32 illustrate. Scripture frequently links cultic sexuality to the worship of gods other than YHWH.
But if sexual behavior within marriage is acceptable–even pleasing–to YHWH, why couldn’t marital sex (between a priest and his wife, for example) be part of Yahwistic worship? Indeed, the ability to consummate a marriage is a prerequisite for being a priest in YHWH’s service (Lev 21:13, 20; cf. Deut 23:1). The Song of Songs celebrates the relationship of YHWH and his people using the vivid metaphor of marital sex. When I was a teenager, I read a book about dating and sexual purity that likened sex within marriage to a “two-person worship service!”
Despite the essential goodness of sexual union in marriage, nowhere does scripture condone the performance of marital sex as part of ritual. In fact, the passages cited above from Exodus 20 and 28 and Isaiah 6 emphasize the importance of covering up sexual organs in the presence of YHWH for worship. Steps to YHWH’s altar are forbidden, so that the priest’s or worshiper’s robe will not come up and expose the private parts, even for a second (Exod 20:26). Furthermore, Aaron and his sons, the priests, must wear special undergarments to ensure that their “loins and thighs”–both words are euphemistic for genitals–are completely covered in YHWH’s presence (Exod 28:40-43). Even the heavenly beings–the seraphim, winged sphinxes that worship YHWH day and night, which are never associated with any sort of sin–cover their “feet” (another euphemism for genitals) with their wings in YHWH’s presence.
So, if sex within marriage is good, and the priests are expected to have marital sex and produce children, why is scripture so adamantly against even a hint of sexuality (such as the partial exposure of private parts) in YHWH’s presence?
The answer may be found, I believe, in the ability of humans to reflect YHWH’s creative power as his images. In the sexual act, a man and a woman are capable of doing something that only YHWH can do: create another imago Dei. It is good and right that human beings do so (within the bounds that YHWH has prescribed). But this creative act should not even be alluded to in worship, where YHWH himself and YHWH alone is the object of adoration as Creator. To expose sexual organs or celebrate sexuality in worship is to “steal God’s thunder” as the one from whom humanity’s creative power is derived.
The idea of marital sexual behavior as part of a worship service is not likely to gain much traction in most Christian churches. Yet there is a trend in some churches toward speaking frankly and openly about the particular details of marital sex from the pulpit. Because historically many people inside and outside the church have considered sex to be dirty, these churches are trying to reclaim marital sex as something good and beautiful (so, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Sex?”).
But I wonder whether marital sex can really be re-sanctified by simply talking about it in church, without any concern for whether the topic is addressed with reverence and gravity. It’s one thing to encourage wives and husbands to be available to one another and to seek to please one another sexually–and quite another thing to tell wives from the pulpit to go home, pull down their husbands’ pants, and perform oral sex (the actual teaching of a well-known pastor who is in the news quite a bit right now). Do our public statements in worship about sex and sexuality communicate in our Creator’s presence the due reverence for this creative act? Or in our quest for “relevance” and overcoming legalism, have we sullied that which we tried to celebrate as beautiful? Are we playing catch with our dad’s baseball that was signed by Babe Ruth?