In Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, Richard M. Davidson presents a conservative perspective that explores the theology of sexuality in the final canonical form of the Old Testament. This compilation balances both the exegesis of specific passages and traces the development of sexuality throughout the many eras of Israelite history.
Davidson clearly states in the preface that the purpose of this work is to present a “wholistic theology of sexuality in the OT” (p. 2). His research has led him to the conclusion that the Old Testament attests to a unified theology of human sexuality. This conclusion is a result of his analysis of the final form of the canonical text, with an emphasis on literary criticism and new biblical theology. A second crux of interpretation for Davidson is his focus on the importance of creation theology as the foundation for the interpretation of the Old Testament. Genesis 1–3 is the lens through which he interprets the development of human sexuality. In the opening chapters of his book, he lays out basic tenets found in Genesis 1–3 that become the standard by which he judges sexual practices found in the Old Testament.
In the first section, Davidson analyzes human sexuality in what he labels the “divine design” of Genesis 1–3. For Davidson, the beginning of Genesis “provides the interpretive foundation for the rest of Scripture” (p. 16). This foundation consists of ten observations drawn from Genesis 1–3: sexual differentiation, heterosexuality, monogamy, equality of the sexes, sexual wholeness, exclusivity in marriage, permanence, intimacy, procreation and the goodness of human sexuality. From these observations, Davidson argues that Genesis 1–3 provides a paradigm for a heterosexual, monogamous, and egalitarian marriage between men and women. In addition, this section also addresses the complexity of gender relations as revealed in the events of Genesis 1–3. Davidson upholds that the original design for humanity was that of an egalitarian relationship between the sexes without one gender assuming headship. However, he argues that this original mutual and egalitarian relationship is disrupted by the fall and that the woman is now subject to her husband. He advocates for a gradual return to the original egalitarian relationship but admits the need for the “voluntary submission of the wife to her husband’s leadership as a result of sin” (p. 76). He rejects the view that this is a negative judgment but instead argues that this a positive promise for the couple.
In the second section, Davidson explores the many facets of human sexuality throughout the Old Testament. This is life “post-fall,” and according to Davidson, the Old Testament reveals how humanity has both preserved the positive pattern of human sexuality upheld in Eden and also distorted the original egalitarian design. Each of these chapters deals with one of the ten observations gleaned from Davidson’s study of Genesis 1–3. In each chapter, Davidson outlines which behaviours constitute a positive affirmation of the Edenic pattern and which ones are a departure and distortion of God’s design. As an example, one of the ten observations he draws from Genesis 1–3 was the emphasis on heterosexuality as normative for human sexuality. Davidson argues that heterosexual relationships uphold the original pattern of Eden, while homosexuality, transvestism and bestiality are “distortions of the creation norm” (p. 133). The majority of this section is a comparison between the law codes of the ancient Near East and those of the Old Testament that address the paradigm outlined in Genesis.
Davidson concludes his book with an examination of sexuality as presented in the Song of Songs. For him, the Song of Songs is the holy of holies of human sexuality, embodying a positive affirmation of the Edenic paradigm. He argues that the book upholds the Edenic design of a relationship between a monogamous and heterosexual married couple. It is, for him, a return to Eden but not a perfect parallel as “the poetry of the Song reveals the existence of a world of sin and its baleful results...” (p. 553). As with the previous section, Davidson analyzes the ten principles found in the Edenic design and outlines their presence in the Song of Songs. The final principle, the goodness (or wholeness) of sexuality, is relegated to its own chapter. According to Davidson, this is the high point of the Song of Songs in which sexuality is upheld for its beauty. The book ends with an afterword that discusses the implications of this study for a New Testament theology of human sexuality.
Davidson has produced an enormous volume dealing with every conceivable facet of human sexuality as it appears in the Old Testament. It is a rich resource that helps to situate the development of sexual practices in the Old Testament. A particular strength of this work is the continual comparison and contrast between the law codes of the ancient Near East and those of Israel. Although Davidson does not employ a feminist hermeneutic, he continually interacts and dialogues with feminist scholars. He outlines the strengths and weaknesses of a variety of views before advancing his own argument. Moreover, he makes an admirable effort to mediate between both liberal and conservative perspectives on gender relations.
The methodology of elevating Genesis 1–3 as the authoritative and normative model for human sexuality is problematic. The Edenic paradigm becomes Davidson’s sole model for a unified theology of sexuality. This is apparent when applied to earlier texts that do not adhere to the ten categories Davidson draws from Genesis 1–3. His reliance on the final canonical form while neglecting traditional historical-critical methods complicates his interpretation of monogamy and polygamy. Davidson concludes that the Edenic ideal of a single husband and wife is proscriptive of marriages throughout all Israelite history. For Davidson, the presence of polygamy in the pentateuchal narratives does not attest to an earlier practice that predates the tenets of Genesis 1–3 but instead he argues that the strife and family conflict found in these texts demonstrates an implicit “theology of disapproval” (p. 180). Thus, the observations that Davidson draws from Genesis 1–3 are continually placed upon other texts as normative instead of examining each text in its own context and historical situation.
In addition, an area that is underdeveloped is the consideration of positive aspects of sexuality as found in ancient Near Eastern texts. Davidson’s thorough exploration of ancient Near Eastern documents is commendable but they are usually relegated to areas which he deems as “distortions” of the divine ideal he finds laid out in Genesis 1–3. It would benefit his argument to examine any similar positive examples of sexuality that might be comparable to that of the Song of Songs in other ancient Near Eastern texts.
Davidson has produced a useful volume detailing many areas of human sexuality in the Old Testament. The bibliography is more than extensive and provides a wealth of helpful information.