The Puzzle of Sex
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Almost everyone is directly affected by questions involving sex and sexual ethics - yet few are aware of the background to current views on topics such as sex before and after marriage, sex as procreation and fulfilment, homosexuality, sexual abuse, rape and contraception. This new edition offers added and up-to-date material discussion burning current issues in a thoughtful, reflective and challenging way.



Publié par
Date de parution 19 septembre 2013
Nombre de lectures 6
EAN13 9780334048145
Langue English

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The Puzzle of Sex
New Edition
Peter Vardy

Copyright information
© Peter Vardy 2009
First published in 1997 by Fount Paperbacks, UK
This Second Edition published in 2009 by SCM Press
Editorial office
13–17 Long Lane,
London, EC1A 9PN, UK
SCM Press is an imprint of Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd (a registered charity)
St Mary’s Works, St Mary’s Plain,
Norwich, NR3 3BH, UK
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, SCM Press.
The Author has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the Author of this Work
Acknowledgement of sources :
Adam Butler, ‘The Wall’, in A. Dodds, The Hospice Book of Poetry , St Helena Hospice, 1992. Used by permission.
Dale Grant Stephens, ‘Eye to Eye’, in Let Your Heart Talk , Heart Talk Publications, 2003. Permission sought.
Raymond Carver, ‘Company’, in All of Us , Harvill, Random House Group Ltd. Used by permission.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
978 0 334 04205 1
Typeset by Regent Typesetting, London
Printed and bound by
CPI Bookmarque, Croydon CR0 4TD

Introduction: The Sexual Challenge
Part One: The Puzzle of Sex – A Developing Understanding
1. The Creation Stories
2. Women and Sex in the Hebrew Scriptures
3. Jesus – A Scandalous Figure
4. Men, Women and Sex – The Early Christian Tradition
5. East and West – Different Christian Perspectives
6. Reformation Thinkers
7. Old Wine in New Bottles – The Basis for Sexual Ethics Today
Part Two: The Puzzle of Sex Today
8. Psychological Perspectives
9. The Sexual Revolution
10. Contraception and its Social Effects
11. Transactional Sex
12. Love and Marriage
13. The Old Gods Return
14. Sex and Becoming Fully Human
15. Infidelity, Adultery and Betrayal
16. Homosexual Relationships
17. Bringing the Threads Together

To Anne Vardy
with grateful thanks

Introduction: The Sexual Challenge
Is underage sex wrong? Much depends on how ‘underage’ is defined. In Britain and the United States the age of consent is 16, in Vietnam 18, in Madagascar 21, in Spain 13 and in some countries in the Arab world a girl may be married and have sex once she has had her first period (which can be at the age of 10). Adultery is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia yet in the West it is common and scarcely raises any public comment. Homosexuality is widely accepted in parts of San Francisco, in Sydney’s Kings Cross area or in Brighton and Hove in England – in other parts of the world it is punishable by death. Sex on the internet is increasingly common and sexually explicit magazines are available on the shelves of all Western newsagents.
Is sex on the internet wrong? Websites such as Second Life have boomed in popularity in recent years and the first divorce has taken place with one partner citing her husband’s adultery through his avatar with a female avatar on the internet. Sex is meant to be one of life’s great pleasures and many magazines and television programmes are devoted to either sex or helping people make themselves sexually attractive. In schools, ‘health’ programmes teach young people how to avoid the risks associated with sex, often divorced from any wider moral or psychological considerations. Implants are now being used by teenage girls to avoid the risk of pregnancy instead of having to ‘bother with’ condoms or ‘the pill’ and a vaccine is being increasingly given to 12-year-olds to avoid infection by the HPV virus during adolescent sexual activity. Meanwhile, the rate of marriage is declining with more couples choosing to live together, yet at the same time the divorce rate is rising.
Sex is at once routine, simple, straightforward and yet complex. It can be both beautiful and devastating. The beauty of a flower is directly related to the need to pass on its genes through the assistance of insects, bees or butterflies. Male animals fight each other in order that their genes can be passed on rather than their competitor’s. They engage in hugely complex and demanding displays to attract females and invest much of their energies in the process, often shortening their lives as a result. Sex is the means by which almost every individual plant and animal reproduces, the very process by which species evolve and by which life on earth continues to exist.
The link between sex and reproduction invests a bodily action with a profound significance, for individuals and for society in general. Sustaining the young requires huge investment both in terms of parental time and of resources. The selection of a sexual partner has, therefore, profound significance. The ability to control the rate and type of reproduction determines the success of an individual and ultimately of a community. From the earliest times individuals have been interested in controlling their own fertility, being discriminating in their choice of partner.
Historically human beings, and particularly those who have an education and/or political power, have liked to play down the importance of ‘base instincts’ like sex in their lives, claiming that human beings are potentially unique in being able to ‘rise above’ animal needs and desires to behave on a ‘higher, rational level’. However, experience teaches that the power of sex can undermine humanity’s idealistic, rational vision of itself. Because of this, sex has often been viewed with suspicion and has been seen in negative terms particularly, it must be said, by religion. Religion has always been aware of the power of sex and, generally, with some exceptions as in parts of Hinduism, it has been looked on negatively, as an unfortunate necessity in perpetuating this temporary and unsatisfactory world. Sex must be directed towards reproduction and then kept firmly under control.
Sex has disrupted and distorted the orderly working of communities when unleashed from its tight bounds. Greece went to war with Troy because of the beauty of Helen and the sexual drive that drove King Priam’s son to steal her away from her Greek husband. The Hebrew Judge, Samson, was overthrown because of consequences arising from his sexual behaviour – he failed to live up to his celibate calling as a Nazirite prophet, was attracted to a foreign prostitute rather than a good Hebrew girl, spent time trying to please her rather than engaging in productive work and ended up humiliated and dead. Choosing the right sexual partner for your son or daughter was a central concern of monarchs in the Middle Ages. It could ensure peace and stability or could foster ambitions in terms of expanding territory or undermining a troublesome neighbour. A bad match could lead to the end of a dynasty and disastrous civil war. The association between sex, sin and suffering was made early in human history. It was the accepted interpretation of the story of the Fall in Genesis well before the time of Jesus which made it all the more significant that he was born of a virgin and remained apparently unmarried. By the time of the renaissance, images of Adam and Eve in the Garden typically showed the serpent in highly sexualized female form suggesting that female beauty aroused the bestial nature of men and thus prevented them from fulfilling their potential as rational beings in the image of God and in harmony with God. In some versions of Islam, women are told to keep their bodies completely covered to avoid providing temptation for men.
Today, the link between sex and reproduction has been largely broken due to modern methods of contraception, particularly the pill which was developed by Dr Gregory Pincus in the early 1950s and which, it is estimated, one hundred million women use today. The impact of the link being broken has been described as a revolution and this is a fair description. The practical and political significance of sex has altered. If large numbers of children and consequent investment do not necessarily result from the sexual act, society (in the form of politicians, the law, religious authorities and families) becomes less concerned with controlling it. However, that vacuum was soon filled by media and advertising agencies who seized on the potential of sex as a means of controlling people, though in a different way and to a new end. Sex is now used overtly to sell every commodity and people are encouraged to enjoy sex in quantity as well as quality from earliest adolescence. The use of sex in this way is legitimized with reference to science, albeit a twisted, distorted and very selective version of science. Sex is said to be ‘natural’, and human beings like other animals are said (in the words of Richard Dawkins) to be ‘the lumbering robots blindly programmed to pass on the selfish molecules known as genes’. 1 All efforts to control fertility and to influence the outcomes for individuals and societies therefore seem futile or insidious. Human beings should enjoy the now, take advantage of contraception which may reduce possibilities and delay the inevitable, allowing everyone to ‘eat and drink for tomorrow we will die’. The ideas that actions and choices may have a long-term significance beyond producing higher or lower amounts of personal happiness, that our lives may have a purpose other than to pass on DNA, is being eroded.
Unfortunately, while sex may not always result in visible, practical consequences, the human psyche has not evolved to accept that sex is so trivial. Freud famously argued for the important role of sexual development in psychological balance and while his insights are unfashionable among therapists today, few would deny that sexual experience has the ability to shape and damage us on a profound level, whether or not it results in children.
Nevertheless, scientists such as James Watson, the discoverer of the DNA double helix, are now calling for a further separation between sex for pleasure and for the more serious business of reproduction, which should be undertaken in the laboratory. The measurable advantages of helping people to make rational choices about the number and type of children that they have, or of controlling who may or may not reproduce, of giving evolution a helping hand, have long been the subject of speculation. Science-fiction writers, such as Andrew Niccol in Gattaca (1995), find it a topic which taps into the public psyche as the story of Frankenstein once did, but eugenics were discussed seriously by the politicians of the Third Reich who wished to ‘purify’ the population, and before that by Victorian British as a way of improving society and avoiding the catastrophic famine predicted by Malthus. While many people may shrink from handing the business of making babies over to doctors and politicians, this future may be closer than is commonly thought.
The reality is that the separation of sex and reproduction has created an unprecedented opportunity for sexually transmitted infections which in turn increase natural infertility and necessitate artificial fertility treatments, many of which enable greater choice and control in reproduction. One in nine 17-year-old girls have Chlamydia or, in the case of boys, are carriers of the virus. If left untreated in girls Chlamydia may lead to infertility in later life. Sperm-counts are falling across the Western world for reasons unknown but possibly connected to diet, lifestyle or the preponderance of female hormones from the contraceptive pill in water supplies. One in seven 30-year-old couples will not be able to have children naturally and IVF or IVM will be needed to help them to reproduce if they want children. Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis is becoming increasingly common for those who have IVF and offers seemingly endless possibilities to reduce the incidence of genetic disease or to ‘improve’ the outcomes of pregnancy in other ways.
Further, overpopulation is the biggest threat that the world faces. It drives the need for energy which in turn drives the consumption of fossil fuels, the release of carbon dioxide and climate change. It drives up the demand for food, which causes prices to rise, the gulf between rich and poor to widen and radicalization, fundamentalism and violence soon follow. The Chinese government took radical action in enforcing a one-child policy. Although regarded as inhumane it could be seen as expedient when the population of China tops 1.3 billion, more than 20% of the world’s population. Since 1979, the policy has succeeded in reducing the fertility rate to 1.7, equating to population growth of -0.4% in real terms, though the population of China is still expected to grow, peaking in 2030, ten years before the Indian population which uncontrolled is running at a fertility rate of 2.8, surpasses it. Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis (or cruder forms of selection such as the abortion of female foetuses) is increasingly common in both China and India as a means of controlling the sex of offspring. Individuals would much rather invest resources in income-producing boys than in expensive girls – particularly as boys are expected to support their parents financially when they grow old whereas girls leave the family home and have no responsibility for their parents. The gender-balance in some regions has been seriously affected in many areas, and the social and human side-effects of economic decisions are acutely felt as there will be few women to ‘go round’.
The availability of contraception seems to make purely political preaching about the value of exclusive lifelong marriage hollow and many religious authorities have accepted that sex for unitive and procreative purposes can be separated – the first step to accepting sex outside marriage and to confusion as to how to regard and what to do with children born of acts whose intentions were purely unitive. Those who have not accepted the separation of sex and reproduction preach against the use of contraception, but in a milieu in which marriage is not regarded by many as sacred and where people are encouraged by others to see personal fulfilment in terms of physical gratification the arguments against sex for pleasure seem weak.
None of the issues are straightforward and possibly no subject raises such strong opinions, objections, or sensitivities as sex. Many still consider it in some ways dirty, a subject which should not be discussed at all – while others can talk about little else. Any book that seeks to understand and help the reader think through the puzzle of sex faces a daunting task. It needs to have a clear sense of history, since all intellectual and cultural ideas have their origins in the past, and it needs to understand modern developments in psychology, modern understandings of physiology and the complexity of religious, philosophical and psychological attitudes to sex. Above all, perhaps, any study of the issues needs to be clear and balanced without imposing an agenda. Sex is, above all, intensely personal and relates to the lives of every person – including those in old-age homes where sexual activity is increasing due to the advent of drugs such as Viagra and Cialis.
In order to understand where we are at any moment in history one needs to understand the past that has brought us to this point. Goethe said that ‘Anyone who cannot draw on three thousand years of history is living from hand to mouth; it is the only thing that separates us from a naked ape’. His point is that understanding the historical background to culture, values, ideas and prejudices is essential for anyone to decide how to think seriously and well about contemporary issues or to try to chart a way forward into the future. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of sex, where values and attitudes are passed on from one generation to another without necessarily being examined. Different cultures develop varying attitudes to sexual ethics without necessarily interrogating these or thinking deeply about how these attitudes have developed or whether they are still appropriate. In almost any society religious attitudes to sex have had a profound influence. In order, therefore, to understand the present we must understand the past. The German philosopher Hegel made this clear – he was the first to write a philosophy of history showing how ideas in the past have developed through a tension between dialectically opposed positions to bring us to where we are today. A series of opposing positions form a thesis (a particular view) and an antithesis (an opposed view) which seem irreconcilable and incompatible but, over time, these incompatibilities are resolved and a new unified view emerges which unites the seemingly irreconcilable positions and develops a new thesis which in turns gives rise to an antithesis and so the process continues. Tensions between views, therefore, are creative and out of intellectual tensions time produces new insights. When one looks back in history, one needs to understand these developments in order to make sense of the present. In doing this, it will become clear how many errors have been made and what a devastating effect these have had on countless millions of people – nevertheless there was a real wisdom in some ancient ideas and this needs to be preserved.
In Part One of this book the development of understanding about sex and sexual ethics will be traced. It is this background that modern ideas reacted against and which, for many, still provide the main alternative to the dominant contemporary understandings. In Part Two, the issue of whether the traditional insights into sexual ethics still have any application will be evaluated using the latest understanding of psychology and physiology before moving on to engage with sexual practices, attitudes and ethics in the contemporary world. It is possible to read Part Two without Part One, but this would be to omit the background which has informed and shaped modern culture and not to engage with the mistakes of the past.

1 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Part One: The Puzzle of Sex – A Developing Understanding

1. The Creation Stories
Within European thought, many attitudes towards sexual relationships depend, even if indirectly, on the Bible. Yet, the Bible was written by human beings. There is no suggestion in Christianity, Judaism or Islam that the books of the Bible were written other than by human beings who were telling their story of God’s interaction with the world. The biblical stories are complex and sophisticated accounts which were given great thought. It is easy to read them far too simplistically.
The same phrases can occur again and again in the biblical accounts, albeit with slight shifts of emphasis in different settings. It is essential, therefore, that the reader of a text should pay attention to the context and should seek to understand what the writer wishes to say. What cannot and must not be done is to take a few words of text out of the context in which they are placed. It is also important to recognize that any reader brings their own presuppositions to bear on the text and these influence interpretation. The idea of anyone having a total lack of presuppositions is nonsense – we are all the products of our experience and our own individual perspectives. We cannot be completely neutral. The biblical accounts have been used in different ways by many groups, often to serve their own interests.
If one is going to try to avoid imposing one’s own prior convictions on the biblical material, it is essential to take the text seriously. The more people wish the Bible to ‘speak’ to them of God, the more they have an obligation to try to understand exactly what the Bible is saying. Nowhere is this more the case than in the area of sexual relations where a few key texts are often quoted out of context and with limited understanding.
The New Testament has surprisingly little to say about sex – and this particularly applies to the gospels. The Hebrew Scriptures speak of sexual matters in more detail although the relevance of these comments today is a matter for debate. However, prior to tackling the specific references to sexual behaviour, a more general theme needs to be dealt with at some length – and that is the relation between men and women. The biblical story of creation is the starting point as it has been highly influential on future relationships between men and women but, also, Jesus is recorded as drawing on the creation story in support of his views on marriage while some epistles recall either the creation of Eve or her sin.
The Genesis accounts of creation
In their opening chapters the Hebrew Scriptures contain two creation stories which are entirely separate. They come from two different traditions and two different authors and were placed together long after the original stories were passed down by word of mouth in an oral tradition that would have extended over many centuries. The first of these stories is contained in Genesis 1.1–2a and the second runs from Genesis 2.4b to 3.24. Both accounts owe a great deal to the creation myths of neighbouring, more developed cultures in Babylon and possibly Egypt. The first story is dated by scholars around the sixth century BC; it was probably written about the time of the exile into Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem. The second account is held to be earlier, possibly from 1000 to 800 BC. Both stories seek to explain not just the existence of physical phenomena but the way things are and both explore the relationship between men and women.
1. The first creation story (Genesis 1.1–2.4a)
The story which appears first in the Bible has men and women being created together on the sixth day, apparently as God’s final act. The crucial passage is:
Then God said ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. (Gen. 1.26–27)
The Hebrew word translated ‘man’ here is adam , a word which elsewhere means earth, creature of the earth or more generally mankind. The word is not necessarily singular and not necessarily specifically gendered – the implications of the translation ‘God created man’ are not necessary to the original text and it might be more helpful to render the passage ‘Let us make human beings in our own image, after our likeness’.
Many misunderstandings have arisen due to a failure to recognize this. Human beings are given dominion over the earth, its plants and its animals – not specifically men. Both man and woman are given the same food to eat. Human beings, male and female, are made in the image of God. Perhaps then God can be understood as both male and female, not specifically as a male as has been traditional among many Jewish, Christian and Muslim believers. In the Genesis 1.1–2.4a story, God is referred to as elohim in the Hebrew, and this word is used throughout the Pentateuch and in some other places in the Bible. 2 The word is actually a plural, literally ‘the Gods’ (imagine how many Jews and Christians would feel if the first line of the Bible was translated, ‘In the beginning the Gods created the heavens and the earth . . .’). Perhaps the use of this word suggests that a single name or gender can only capture part of God’s reality. Remember, this is the God who appears in the burning bush or out of the whirlwind to Elijah. God is not a man or a woman, though metaphoric talk of God in male and female terms can help to increase human understanding.
Once the male and female human beings were created, then the story continues:
God blessed them and said to them ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea . . .’ (1.28) And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. (1.31)
This creation story thus records, right at the beginning, that God created males and females together and blessed them both – their gender, involved in the command to multiply, was part of this blessing and is strongly emphasized as good. The whole of the first account of creation is positive and there are no negatives at all. Man and woman are together created by God, together they are blessed, together as part of this blessing they are told to populate the earth and God is pleased with God’s handiwork.
The idea of God creating human beings together is echoed later in Genesis:
In the day that God created man ( adam ), in the likeness of God he created them, male and female he created them and called them man ( adam ) in the day that they were created. (5.1b–2 KJV)
It is important to notice that it is only human beings whom God names – apart from the earth, the day, night, moon and stars etc. The idea of ‘naming’ is important – God gives to adam , to human beings, the power to name animals (Gen. 2.20), but in the case of human beings themselves it is God who gives them the generic name adam , often translated ‘man’, but which covers both male and female.
2. The second account of creation
The second Genesis account is inserted after the first, although it was written up to four hundred years earlier. It is a completely separate account and gives a different version of creation. No serious attempt has been made by the early compilers of the written text we now have in front of us to harmonize the two stories. They are left distinct and can be treated as separate accounts although the fact that the later version is placed first may well have been intended to give it priority. Whereas the first creation story is clear in emphasizing the equality of men and women, the second story appears more ambiguous. ‘Adam’ is created first and Eve is created subsequently as a ‘helpmate’. The woman appears to be in a subservient position and, indeed, some theologians have said that it is by the woman’s sin (listening to the temptation of the serpent) that Adam is caused to sin. This simplistic reading has given a negative role to women down the centuries – but it is largely untrue as a careful reading of the story makes clear.
In this second story, adam is not created directly but is formed from the dust of the ground:
Then the Lord God formed adam of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and adam became a living being. (Gen. 2.7)
Literally this means that YHWH (God) breathed into the clay the breath of life. The word adam means both the dust of the ground and mankind generally – god breathes into the clay and gives it life. Adam is not created first and then God breathes life into him. There is a single action by which God breathes life into the dust and thereby creates the first living human being.
In this second story, this earth creature is the central focus of God’s attention and everything revolves around it. Plants and animals are brought to it for naming (Gen. 2.19–20) and it is placed in a garden watered by a river which divides into four to form the four great rivers of the then known world. Adam is given power over all creatures, symbolized by all the creatures being brought before adam for naming. The Hebrew connotation of this would be that all earthly creatures are subject to the earth, they are ultimately mortal, contingent, whereas the structures of creation and mankind are named by God and are thus in a different category. Mankind in this early state is in a category by itself, a living being but in the image of God and named by him. Many scholars have interpreted this to mean that Adam was immortal in the pre-Fall state. However this adam does not have a companion – none of the animals are a fit companion. God, therefore, decides to create a companion or helper for the earth creature. Phyllis Trible, in her book God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality points out that both the words ‘companion’ and ‘helper’ have unfortunate connotations in English which do not exist in the original Hebrew. In English, these words imply someone in a subservient position or an assistant. Trible says: ‘To the contrary, in the Hebrew scriptures this word often describes God as the superior who creates and saves Israel.’ 3 God is, therefore, described by the same word used to describe adam ’s helper – the connotation is, therefore, far removed from someone who is inferior. However, the crucial point to understand in relation to human gender is the manner of the creation of male and female from the asexual adam .
God creates woman out of adam , the earth creature, and, as Trible points out, it is only after this creation that adam is described as male. The Hebrew word for woman is issa and it is only after the creation of woman that the earth creature is described as ish which means man. Thus the verses can be rendered as follows:
Then the adam said ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called issa because she was taken out of ish .’ (Gen. 2.23)
Trible puts the point like this: ‘The new creature, built upon the material of adam , is female, receiving her identity in a word that is altogether new to the story, the word issa . The old creature transformed is male, similarly receiving identity in a word that is new to the story, ish .’ 4
Male and female are, therefore, created simultaneously out of the non-gendered earth creature. The two human beings are made for each other – there is no suggestion in the text of the male dominating or having superiority over the female. Adam , in earlier verses, is given dominion over all animals but no such dominion is given to the male over the female. We have, instead, two equals.
However, the story does not end there. The serpent comes to tempt the first woman and the first woman is portrayed as autonomous, free and able to make her own decisions. In response to the serpent’s question, she accurately summarizes God’s command to her and her partner not to eat of the tree in the centre of the Garden – which has come to be known as the Tree of Knowledge as it gave knowledge of the distinction between good and evil. There seems no clear reason for God’s command except that God is to be obeyed because God is God. God threatens death if the two humans act against God’s command. The serpent appeals to the woman’s rational powers: ‘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’ (Gen. 3.4–5).
The woman ate the fruit because she saw that it was desirable and it would make her wise – but God’s punishment came on her and the man because of their disobedience. She offered the fruit to the man who also ate – there was no suggestion of beguiling, tempting activity by the woman. There were two autonomous individuals who made their own decisions. The man was not criticized for failing to control the woman. He had no right of control.
God then punishes the two of them for their disobedience, the man is made to work for a living and the woman will give birth, both of which result in pain, and ejects them from the Garden. However, the really significant point is that it is only after their punishment by God that man’s dominance over woman becomes asserted for the first time. God specifically says that the man will ‘rule over’ the woman (Gen. 3.16). As a result of this, the man now names his wife Eve (3.20) – this is significant because it is the act of naming that confers control. God brought the animals to adam so that he could name them, this naming constituted his dominance. When the man now names the woman he asserts, for the first time, his dominance over her and reduces her to much the same status as the animals which he already controls. Lisa Cahill says that ‘we find that supremacy and subordination, as distinct from difference and cooperation, are not part of the original creation but of the condition of sin . . . man and woman have equal responsibility and dignity.’ 5
The idea of male supremacy and female obedience is introduced only as a reflection of the prevailing social reality at the time when the Hebrew stories were written. In the second creation story, male supremacy is justified as a result of the disorder brought about by sin. However, what is not found in the developed account in the Hebrew Scriptures is any idea that women are intrinsically of less value than men – for instance a woman’s testimony is worth the same as that of a man, a husband may not physically beat and ‘correct’ a wife if he thinks she is falling into error and, in the developed Hebrew Scriptures, the idea of one man having one wife is accepted.
3. The two creation stories contrasted
Several points should be clear from the above: There are two entirely distinct stories of creation which cannot easily be harmonized although it is true that the two accounts are recorded alongside each other. These stories were written by human beings who reflected on God’s creative and sustaining activity in the world long after the events took place. Both the stories have men and women being created absolutely equal, although in the second story the woman becomes subservient after the Fall (as the disobedience of the two humans is named as they are held to have ‘fallen’ from a state of perfection or sinlessness into disobedience which is equated with sin). These accounts do not claim to be divinely dictated. They are stories portraying the dependence of the universe on God and contain great insight and wisdom, but they were written by human beings a long time after the events they purport to describe and are human reflections on the relationship of God to the world and to each other.
Today the Western world accepts women as autonomous human beings, able to make decisions in their own right. It must be recognized, however, that for thousands of years women have not been looked at in this way. All too often women have been regarded as possessions with men being the dominators with rights of ownership over them. F. X. Murphy points out:
A misogynistic and patriarchal prejudice has pervaded the Church’s moral thought down the ages, based on the incident of Eve as the temptress in Genesis, and confirmed by the Stoic rhetoric in which the early Christian thinkers were trained. . . . Churchmen from Tertullian and Cyprian in the third century to Jerome and John Chrysostom in the fifth, delighted in denigrating womanhood as the source of the human race’s downfall. 6
As we shall see, the story of Eve’s temptation of Adam was one of the foundation stones on which Christian theologians and leaders have built their understanding of sexuality and God’s will for the relationship between men and women and, in particular, the subservient position of women. This position cannot be justified.
In summary
It is clear that the Hebrew creation stories give no grounds for treating women as being other than the equal of men nor for any negative attitude to sex. The story of the temptation of Eve was later to be wrongly used by Christian writers to give a negative picture of women and the cultural world of ancient Israel was not to take seriously the equality of human beings portrayed in the creation stories. There are no grounds in the creation stories for seeing sex as being other than a positive part of what it is to be human.

2 Some scholars believe that the first five books of the Bible were compiled after the exile out of texts originating from at least four authors and time-periods. The J and E sources represent the oldest texts (and the second and first creation stories respectively), marked by their use of different words for God – the J source using YHWH, the Jewish tetragrammaton name for God which is never enunciated, and the E source using elohim , a word which means ‘the Gods’ in plural.

3 Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality , Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1978, p. 90.

4 Trible, God , p. 97.

5 Lisa Cahill, Between the Sexes: Foundations for a Christian Ethic of Sexuality , Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985, p. 56.

6 F. X. Murphy, ‘Of Sex and the Catholic Church’, Atlantic Monthly , February 1981, p. 44.

2. Women and Sex in the Hebrew Scriptures
Following the creation stories in Genesis, the Hebrew Scriptures record a number of approaches to the relation between men and women relating to different periods of time. These vary generally in accordance with different time frames, which can be broadly differentiated as follows: The Patriarchal period extending from Abraham through to Moses and the exodus from Egypt. According to the text, this was a period of wandering, nomadic families moving with their large herds over wide areas. The period of the Judges and the Kings when there were independent kingdoms roughly within the area of the modern Israel. The kingdoms were united under David and Solomon. This continued up to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The exilic and post-exilic period from the time of the Israelites being taken away to slavery in Babylon, their eventual return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem up to the time of Jesus.
These will be dealt with separately.
1. The Patriarchal period
This is the period of the great patriarchs or ‘Fathers’ of Israel extending up to the time of the exile into Egypt. The key figures are Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Joseph. In this society, marriage normally represented the son of one family acquiring the daughter of another – it involved a contractual relationship and was normally negotiated by the two families. The acquisition was a form of ‘purchase’ – a marriage gift, sometimes described as a ‘bride-price’, was given by the husband-to-be to his fiancée’s father (see Gen. 34.12; Ex. 22.16ff; 1 Sam. 18.25). However, this is not straightforward. The wife did not simply become the property of her husband or of his family. For instance, if the husband died, the widow had the right to remain in his family by marrying another member of it or she could return to her own family unit. The bride-price was not the money paid as if for the purchase of goods. It may have been seen as compensation to the daughter’s family for their loss or, on some accounts, the money may even have been the property of the bride-to-be. For instance, in Genesis 31.15, Rachel and Leah, the two wives of Jacob, say that their father had ‘been using up the money given for us’ – the implication being that the bride-price was not their father’s to spend/use. However, another way of seeing this is to see all wealth stemming from God and the daughters having a natural right before God to this money – so it may not be a clear indication of any legal entitlement.
The husband acquired firm rights over the wife, but these rights were not total – the wife also had rights. In particular, she had the right to food, clothing and the right to sleep with her husband (Ex. 21.10). Such rights were therefore fairly minimal. For instance, when Abraham went down to Egypt, he knew that Sarah was very beautiful and was nervous that someone might kill him in order to sleep with her. He therefore told Sarah to pretend to be his sister (Gen. 12.10–16). Reports of Sarah’s beauty were sent to the King of Egypt (the Pharaoh) who, thinking she was single, married her and gave great riches to Abraham. However, God punished Pharaoh (seemingly unfairly as he did not know that she was unmarried) and Pharaoh then discovered Sarah was married. He therefore sent Abraham and his wife away. Abraham did the same trick again later when he met with King Abimelech, who then took Sarah but before he could make love to her God stopped him, threatening him with death. He, naturally enough, was rather upset as he did not know that he had done anything wrong (Gen. 20.1–7).
The wife was expected to produce children and, if she did not, the fault was considered always to be with the woman, never with the man. Lack of children was a source of shame to the woman and children were the greatest possible blessing. They were seen as a gift of God. A wife without children might consider her life not worth living – for instance Rachel says to Jacob ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’ (Gen. 30.1). Children were particularly vital as there was no idea of life after death, and men considered that they lived on through their children – so without children their ‘name’ could not live on.
A childless woman, however, had a remedy. She could give her slave girl to her husband who could then bear children for her. For instance, Jacob’s wife, Leah, had four sons. Jacob’s second wife, Rachel, did not have children and was jealous of Leah so she told Jacob to sleep with her slave girl, Bilhah. Having done so, Bilhah had a son to whom she gave birth ‘between the knees’ of Rachel (Gen. 30.3) and it thus became Rachel’s son for which she rejoiced and thanked God (Gen. 30.6). Rachel did the same again, sending her husband to sleep with Bilhah and thereby getting another son. This was an early use of surrogacy but whereas today surrogacy might involve the woman’s egg being fertilized by her partner’s sperm in the laboratory, in the days of early Israel the husband could impregnate the slave who belonged to the wife and the resulting child would be considered to belong to the wife.
A very similar situation occurred when Abraham’s wife, Sarah, could not have children. Sarah sent Abraham to sleep with her slave girl, Hagar, and then gave her to Abraham as his wife (Gen. 16.1–15). The child, named Ishmael, was Abraham’s first born but, when Sarah herself had a son later, Abraham drove Ishmael out into the desert at her request. Sarah said to Abraham: ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac’ (Gen. 31.10). Hagar and Ishmael were cast out into the desert and would have died had God not taken pity on them and allowed them to survive. (Ishmael, interestingly, is seen as one of the key figures in Islam – guarded by God and making his home in the wildness of the desert areas, the forerunner of the desert-wandering nomads of Arabia.)
There is one recorded case of a man not having any sons giving his daughter to a slave in order that the daughter could bear a son for him (1 Chron. 2.34–5). Because the father of the child was the man’s slave, the child could become his son.
The number of families in the patriarchal period was fairly small although they would have been extended, with many members. The marriage of cousins was allowed and marriage to a half-sister is described without any sense that this was wrong (e.g. in Gen. 20.12 and, later, in 2 Sam. 13.13). Later, however, sex between a half-brother and a half-sister was condemned (Ezek. 22.11).
Jacob and his sons went down into Egypt with their families due to a drought in Palestine. They settled there and, over the years, grew into a large company of people. They were initially allowed to work as free people thanks to the influence of Joseph who became one of the Pharaoh’s chief counsellors, but in later years they became slaves to the Egyptians, exiles who worked at building and other tasks, but maintaining their own identity and above all their worship of God. Eventually, Moses and Aaron led an exodus out from Egypt, across the Reed Sea and into the Sinai desert where, for many years, they lived in the desert in conditions almost harsher than those from which they had escaped. The text records that it was in this period that the Ten Commandments were given.
Women have important roles in the early stories of Israel’s leaders. Rebecca is instrumental in enabling Jacob to gain dominance over his older brother and thus go on to become the original Israel. Later, Potiphar’s wife is the means by which Joseph is brought from obscurity into the Pharoah’s notice, and that of Pharoah’s daughter. Moses’ mother and quick-witted sister Miriam were the means by which his life was saved and he was able to lead the people to freedom.
After the people of Israel came into the land of Canaan, women were often treated very much as possessions. Women were not simply the property of their husbands however, they had some rights, but these were restricted. It is significant, for instance, that only men could divorce or ‘disown’ women because only men had effective ownership rights (Deut. 24.1–4), the wife had no freedom to dispose of herself. The following stories are indicative of the mind-set of the times, which clearly varied over the years.
2. The period of the Judges and the Kings
Rahab (Joshua 2.1–6, 27)
After Moses died, Joshua led the people of Israel down into the land God had promised them, but this land was already populated and it was well defended. The Israelites, therefore, had to conquer the land and, in particular, had to destroy the city of Jericho. Joshua sent two men into Jericho to spy out the city before his attack. These two came to the city and lodged with a Canaanite prostitute called Rahab. However, the authorities discovered their presence and sent troops to search for them. Rahab hid them on the roof of her house. After the troops had left she spoke to them. She said that everyone in the city was afraid because of Joshua’s huge army and knew that God had released the Israelites from slavery under the Egyptians and had helped them to defeat other enemies. She said that she would hide them and would help them to escape from the city provided they promised that when Joshua attacked her city she and her father’s family would not be harmed. This they agreed to, and said that she was to mark the window of her house with red wool. They then returned to Joshua, hiding from Jericho’s troops who were searching for them. After the successful attack by Joshua’s troops, Joshua killed every man, woman and child and all the animals in the city except for Rahab and her family who lived with the Israelites for the remainder of their lives.
The significant part of this story for the purpose of this book is that Rahab was a prostitute who was nevertheless the key to Israel’s successful attack and not once is there any mention of disapproval of her profession. What is at issue in this story is ‘who is on the Lord’s side’ – in other words, who serves God and who opposed God. Only Rahab, out of the whole of Jericho, is portrayed as helping God’s elect forces and so only she is saved. There is no question of her being virtuous or particularly worthy. The only issue is that she sided with God’s forces against her own people.
Samson was a young boy who was blessed by God, set apart by his parents to be a Nazirite, one who would serve the Lord by never cutting his hair, drinking no wine, eating no meat and never having sex. However, the young Samson fell in love with a young Philistine woman on first sight and demanded that his father arrange a marriage between them. When he arrived for the wedding, he told a riddle to 30 of her companions and placed a bet that they could not get the answer. The companions took the bet but failed to get the answer, so they persuaded Samson’s new wife to find the answer and to tell them. She felt a natural loyalty to her country folk and passed on his secret. When they were able to answer the riddle, Samson was furious and rejected her, so her father gave her to Samson’s best man. Later Samson changed his mind and went back to her father’s house to collect her. The father told Samson that he had given her away and offered the younger daughter as a substitute. Samson again lost his temper and went and burnt the fields (using foxes with torches in their tails) of the father’s friends. When the friends found out, they came and killed the father and his daughter. Samson then went and slaughtered the father’s killers (Judg. 14.1–15.8).
In the years that followed, Samson had sex with a prostitute and his enemies lay in wait outside for him, but Samson got up at midnight and pulled up the gates of the city and carried them up a neighbouring hill (Judg. 16.1–3). The next woman Samson took was Delilah, another Philistine (in later centuries it was to become a crime against God to marry a non-Jew, yet at this time it is seen as a feature of Samson’s strength). Delilah was persuaded by Samson’s enemies to finally get the better of him. She wheedled the secret of his strength out of him, again out of loyalty to her country folk who Samson had treated so badly, and thus his enemies were able to kill him, but not before his strength returned one last time and he was able to bring down the house in which he and his enemies were and was thus able to kill them all (Judg. 16.4–30).
Samson is generally regarded as a man in the service of God, yet it is clear he made love to various attractive young women who were not from his own people, was often betrayed and none of this was considered to be morally unacceptable or worthy of condemnation. Only when his hair, the last vestige of his special status as a Nazirite, was cut off did God desert him by taking away his powers because his parents had been told by an angel before Samson’s birth that this should not happen (Judg. 13.5).
The old man from Ephraim (Judges 19.1–21.24)
There were twelve tribes in Israel, supposedly descended from the twelve sons of Jacob and each lived in a certain area. A man from one of the tribes, a Levite, and his servant travelled to a town in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. They needed somewhere to spend the night and no one would take them in. They sat in the square of the town until an old man from Ephraim who was staying in the town saw them and invited them into his house. The Levite and his servant washed and they were eating and drinking when various crude men from the town beat on the door demanding to have sex with the visitor – in other words, we have here an example of the wish to homosexually rape the visitor. The old man told them that they should not do this wicked thing but instead offered to them his daughter and his concubine (effectively a junior wife) saying to them: ‘Behold, here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do with them what seems good to you; but against this man do not do so vile a thing.’
The men would not listen, so the old man seized the concubine (a concubine was not quite a wife, but enjoyed a significant status in a man’s house) and pushed her outside and the men raped her and ‘abused her all night long until morning’. At daybreak they let her go. As morning came, the woman staggered back to the old man’s house and fell at his door. When the Levite opened the door the concubine was lying on the threshold with her hands on the door. The Levite told her to get up and come with him to his home in Ephraim but there was no reply as she had died. When he got her home, he cut her up into twelve pieces and sent the pieces throughout all the tribes of Israel asking for vengeance.
The eleven tribes of Israel gathered and vowed vengeance against the tribe of Benjamin whose members had behaved so badly. The vengeance took place after a great battle when most of the men, women and cattle of the tribe of Benjamin were destroyed. After taking this vengeance, the other tribes of Israel decided that Benjamin had been punished enough and it was now necessary to build up the tribe again. There were some men of the tribe left, but not many and no women. All the eleven tribes of Israel had sworn not to give any woman in marriage to Benjamin’s men. The tribes of Israel agreed, therefore, that the remaining Benjamin men could go to Shiloh and abduct enough women from there to restart their tribe and they would make it right with the Shiloh men.
We have here a story of sexual abuse and rape of the worst kind – but the significant points are not the woman’s ordeal but the abuse of strangers and the violation of the property of the old man. The points being made are that the stranger is sacred and must not be harmed. The Levite’s rights and the law of hospitality had been infringed and he demanded vengeance. The vengeance was taken on the whole tribe of Benjamin and women were obtained, just like a commodity, to repopulate the tribe after its near destruction. This type of story gives an indication of the cultural milieu in which the Bible stories and understanding of God developed. The cultural distance separating us from that time is immense and this must be taken into account when considering the relevance of any biblical text for today.
A similar story is told in relation to Lot, Abraham’s brother-in-law. When Lot was visited in Sodom by two men, recorded as being angels of the Lord, a crowd gathered outside and demanded to ‘know’ the strangers, that is homosexually rape them. This time Lot offered his two pre-pubescent daughters as a substitute, though the power of God strikes the aggressors blind, saving the poor girls and vindicating their father’s righteousness in being willing to hand them over (Gen. 19.1–11).
Naomi was the widow of a man who came from Bethlehem. She had two sons who took wives from the Moabite people among whom they were living. The two sons died leaving the widow and two stepdaughters. The widow, Naomi, told the stepdaughters to return to their own people as she could not provide husbands for them as she had no other children. The normal practice when a husband died early was for the widow to be married to one of his brothers so that she could have children for the dead man. One of the stepdaughters did as she was told and returned to her own people but the other, Ruth, swore not to be parted from Naomi either in life or death and returned with Naomi to her own country. The two widows returned, therefore, to Bethlehem but in considerable poverty and they gleaned behind those who collected corn. The practice of ‘gleaning’ was laid down in Israelite tradition – women were allowed to follow behind the reapers and to pick up the ears of corn that had dropped. One older man, Boaz, noticed Ruth and allowed her to glean in his field. He told his young men not to molest her and arranged for them to drop ears of corn that she could pick up. Rejoicing, Ruth went back to Naomi, who told her that she must go and see where Boaz was sleeping and then go and ‘uncover his blanket’. The actual verse in the RSV Bible is as follows: ‘And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. And she came softly and uncovered his feet, and lay down’ (Ruth 3.7).
Boaz woke and asked who was there. Ruth asked him to spread his blanket over her which was a gesture of proposal of marriage. This he did and praised her because she had come to him rather than to a younger man – the text is not clear as to whether they made love that night (the reference to Boaz’s feet is almost certainly a euphemism for more intimate parts of his body – the same euphemism is used elsewhere), although it is perhaps likely particularly given Boaz’s reference to Ruth having come to him rather than to a younger man. Boaz was a close but not the nearest relative and first had to negotiate with the closest relative to ensure he had the right to take her as his wife – he then bought her with some land, the two came together as a package. Boaz and Ruth duly married and were to become the great grandparents of Israel’s greatest man, King David. It may be that this story was inserted to explain how the great King David came to have a grandparent who was not one of the people of Israel or, as is commonly thought today, to make a point against the exclusive teaching of the priests after the exile, who sought to make all mixed families illegitimate. But in the Hebrew tradition, Ruth has developed into a great role-model of fidelity.
Ruth showed great loyalty to and love for her mother-in-law as well as great courage – she also trusted the God of her husband’s family against all rational assessment as the chances of her, as a foreigner, finding a new husband or any form of security and support from among her dead husband’s people was remote, whereas she could have returned to her own family with security. With her mother-in law’s advice, she was resourceful in securing a wealthy husband who would safeguard her and Naomi. Her tactics might fairly be described as seduction, but the tactics succeeded and Ruth’s and Naomi’s prosperity was secured. She risked everything in the belief that God and his loyal people would be just and merciful. Her reputation which, if lost, would lead to her being cast out of the town or even killed, was all she had. Once again in the Hebrew Bible, total, irrational faith in the goodness of God was rewarded. Such blatant advances to Boaz were considered not just praiseworthy but resourceful and in keeping with tradition as she went to a close relative and not to just anyone. Ruth is held out as one of the great heroines of the Bible.
David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11.2–12.25)
King David was looking down from his palace roof and saw a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing. She had just had a period and was bathing to clean herself – this had both a practical and a ritual purpose. Cleanliness in the heat of Israel was always regarded as important, but it was the ritual cleansing from the impurity associated with periods that was more religiously significant. David sent messengers to her, had her brought to him and made love to her.
Bathsheba returned home and later discovered she was pregnant. Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, was away on campaign and David sent a message to his army commander to have Uriah sent to him at the palace. When Uriah arrived David asked him how the war was going and then dismissed him, telling him to go back to his house and wash. David expected Uriah to go home and make love to his wife – then her pregnancy could be thought to be due to Uriah. However, Uriah refused to return home while his fellow soldiers continued on campaign and stayed with other soldiers at David’s palace. David then got him drunk hoping that he would then go home to sleep with his wife, but this did not work either and Uriah refused to return home.
So David sent Uriah back to the army commander with a message which said: ‘Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him that he may be struck down, and die’ (2 Sam. 11.15). The plan worked and Uriah was duly killed. Bathsheba lamented him for the required time and then David sent for her and she became another of his wives. We now see, however, a developing sense of what is and what is not acceptable because the prophet Nathan was sent by God to David and told him the following story:
‘There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveller to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared it for the man who had come to him.’ (2 Sam. 12.1–4)
When David was told this story he was furious and said that whoever had done this deserved to die because he showed no pity and David decreed that the man should restore the lamb fourfold. Nathan then said: ‘You are the man.’ (2 Sam. 12.7)
Nathan then prophesied that because of what David had done ‘the sword would never depart from his house’. David had dealt secretly and Nathan prophesied that he would be punished publicly. David repented and asked forgiveness and Nathan said that his life would be spared but the baby born to Bathsheba would die. The child duly fell sick and David prayed to God and fasted for the child’s life, but he still died. Immediately David stopped weeping and went in to make love to Bathsheba again (2 Sam. 12.24). She became pregnant and her son became the great King Solomon – the wisest and richest of all the kings of Israel.
This story is important as there is an increasing understanding that certain conduct is unacceptable and will be punished by God, even though it is done in secret. Yet it is the death of David’s son that is David’s punishment and his next son, by Uriah’s former wife, Bathsheba, becomes a great king and a real joy to David. In a way, David’s sin produced excellent results for him, although the dissension and violence within his own household did indeed occur. The prophet Nathan’s criticism is not because of David’s sexual activity but because he has stolen the property of someone who was poor. Again, therefore, we have the situation where a woman is looked on as a man’s property and punishment comes if she is stolen away. Countryman expresses the point like this: ‘If an outsider did have sexual intercourse with a married woman this constituted a theft of her husband’s right to legitimate offspring. Like any loss of property to anyone, this also shamed the husband and reduced the family’s status in the community.’ 7
David’s son, Solomon, became king and was held to be the wealthiest and the wisest of all the kings of the area – indeed the phrase ‘the wisdom of Solomon’ is widely used even today. However, Solomon made love to many women. He was reputed to have had seven hundred wives and princesses and three hundred concubines. The problem raised by God’s prophets was not the number of women he had, but that many of them were foreigners – he made love to a daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh and to Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian and Hittite women (1 Kings 11.1). There is no mention at all of this being in any sense morally unacceptable. He was punished by God, through his successors, because he had been seduced by these foreign women into worshipping other gods and because he built altars to the gods of his women.
3. The exile and the post-exilic period
In due course, the Kingdom of Israel was overthrown. The Babylonians defeated the army of Israel, the walls of Jerusalem were knocked to the ground, the Temple destroyed and most of the inhabitants carried off in slavery to Babylon. The people of Israel were now in a second exile. The first exile had occurred in Egypt and Moses and Aaron had led the Israelites from there to Canaan which had been the scene of so much of their history. Now, once again, they were exiled – this time in Babylon.
Throughout the long years of exile, the people of Israel are recorded as keeping their faith in the God they believed had destroyed their city but who had promised that it would once again be rebuilt. Out of this period of exile came various significant stories, none more so than the story of Esther.
Esther was a Jew, one of the wives of King Ahasuerus of Persia in whose empire the Jews were held captive. Her adoptive father, Mordecai, learnt of a plot by one of the King’s chief ministers, Haman, to kill all the Jews (rather similar to the modern Holocaust) and the only hope was to change the mind of the King. Mordecai himself had no access to the King and Esther, at great risk to her own life as the King did not know Esther was Jewish, used her intelligence and, perhaps, feminine wiles to persuade the King to a dinner with Haman. There she pleaded for the lives of all her people, knowing full well that a refusal by the King meant the end of her own life as well as the lives of all the Jews in the empire. Her persuasive tactics succeeded and the Jews were saved. To this day, Jews celebrate the festival of Purim which runs over two days and is a time for the exchange of gifts and for rejoicing because of their deliverance from a time of despair.

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