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The first book of the Bible is a picture of sin run amuck. Of course, we also find in Genesis a display of God’s creative power, his plan of redemption, and his sovereign mercy in blessing his undeserving people. But even amid this wonderful good news, we see plenty of examples of the corrupting effects of sin from Genesis 3 through the end of the book.

In particular, Genesis is replete with examples of sexual sin. From Sodom and Gomorrah to Dinah and the Shechemites, some of the most horrific examples of sexual sin are found in Genesis. Most students of the Bible know those (in)famous stories of male sexual violence and assault. What we may have missed, however, is how diverse the other stories of sexual sin are in Genesis.

This point about the diversity of sins is convincingly demonstrated by Brian Neil Peterson in his article “Male and Female Sexual Exploitation in Light of the Book of Genesis” in the latest issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (62.4 [2019]: 693-703).

Peterson, associate professor of OT at Lee University, makes the case that sexual abuse and abuse of power in Genesis cannot be confined to one pattern. While there are several examples of men sexually exploiting women, there are also examples of sexual sin and abuses of power involving men and men, women and women, and even cases of women sexually exploiting men. Peterson repeats several times that he does not want to minimize any of the sexual sins of guilty men—past, present, or future. At the same, if we are to do justice to the record of sin in Genesis, we must acknowledge that sexual exploitation has been part of the human condition, irrespective of gender, from the beginning of recorded history (694). With Genesis as an inspired and trustworthy account of sin’s work in the world, we should expect sexual sin and abuses of power to characterize both men and women, even if more prevalent by men.

Sexual Exploitation in Genesis

The brilliance of Peterson’s article is its simplicity. Once he lays out the examples in Genesis, the data looks exceptionally clear and compelling (701-702). Peterson points to more than a dozen examples of sexual exploitation in Genesis.

Many of the most (in)famous examples are of men sinning against women:

  • Abraham leverages Sarah’s sexuality, putting his wife at risk in order to save himself (Gen. 12, 20).
  • Lot offers his daughters for the sexual pleasure (essentially rape) of the clamoring men at his door (Gen. 19).
  • Isaac leverages Rebekah’s sexuality, putting his wife at risk in order to save himself (Gen. 26).
  • Laban uses Leah’s sexuality for financial gain (Gen. 29).
  • Shechem rapes Dinah (Gen. 34).
  • Reuben takes advantage of Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and has sex with her (Gen. 35).

Clearly, these are heinous examples of men—for their own protection or pleasure—sacrificing, seducing, or raping women. We cannot denounce these sins too strongly. And note, the examples above do not include the sin of polygamy—which was not part of God’s original good design and which almost always carries negative results in the biblical narrative. Polygamy can be seen as further exploitation of men against women.

There are also examples of men sinning against men:

  • Ham takes advantage of Noah and engages in some form of inappropriate and shameful sexual behavior regarding his father (Gen. 9).
  • The men of Sodom clamor for sex with Lot’s male visitors, who are really angels (Gen. 19).
  • Peterson also mentions that Ishmael may have sexually abused his younger brother, Isaac, taking the language of “mocked” or “laughing” to be fondling or caressing (Gen. 21).

The sin of sexual exploitation, however, is not only a male problem. We also see examples of women sinning against women.

  • Sarah forces her servant, Hagar, to sleep with Abraham and be a surrogate womb for her (Gen. 16).
  • Leah does the same thing with her servant, Zilpah (Gen. 30).
  • Rachel, in turn, uses her servant, Bilhah, in the same way (Gen. 30).

Finally, there are also several examples of women sinning sexually against men:

  • Lot’s daughters conspire to get their father drunk and then both have sex with him so they can get pregnant (Gen. 19).
  • Leah and Rachel bargain for Jacob’s sexual service in hopes of getting pregnant (Gen. 30).
  • Tamar—who was previously sinned against—tricks and seduces Judah, her father-in-law, into having sex with her and getting her pregnant (Gen. 38).
  • Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph and then lies about him when he refuses her advances (Gen. 39).

Clearly, sexual exploitation is not a one-way street in Genesis. This is not to suggest that the severity of each sin is the same, nor that the experience of being sinned against is the same in each instance. The point of comparison is not to foster a false moral equivalency, but to make the necessary point that sexual sins can be committed by men and committed by women, against men and against women.

Three Points

So what does this mean for our current cultural context? Three brief points.

One, we certainly don’t want to use Genesis to minimize the sin of men against women (or the sin of anyone against anyone!). The point of Peterson’s article—and the point of this post—is not to say, “Sexual sin and the abuse of power is no big deal,” or even to suggest that men and women commit this type of sin in equal numbers. Sexual exploitation is always a grievous sin.

Two, I can’t help but notice how men and women in Genesis sin in ways we might expect from men and women. The examples of sexual exploitation at the hands of men involve violence, physical abuse, and using female sexuality for personal gain. Women can sin in these ways too, of course, but it’s striking that the examples of sexual exploitation at the hands of women involve seduction, deceit, and the desire for motherhood at all costs. Surely, there is a lesson to be learned in the particular ways that men and women can be tempted to sexual sin and the abuse of power. The almost universal facts of nature are that men are physically stronger than women and more easily aroused than women. This means that sex is too often something men forcibly try to take from women, while sexuality is something women too often wield as a great power in relationships with men. Genesis shows that both happen in a fallen world and that both are wrong.

Three, while there is much good that can and has come from our cultural #MeToo moment, it would be a betrayal of biblical anthropology in general, and the testimony of Genesis in particular, to think that sexual sin and exploitation only occur at the hands of men against women. It’s simply not biblical to posit a matrix of oppression confined to tidy categories that only move in one direction. While certain ways of sinning may be more common to one gender, we should not think that either men or women are free from the sins of the flesh depicted so vividly in the first book of the Bible.

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