Biblical Birth Control: The Surprisingly Contraception-Friendly Old Testament
When the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases about the conflict between new healthcare mandates and religion, it sparked a heated conversation on the religious rights of for-profit corporations.
In Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. v. Sebelius and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, the Court will decide whether these corporations can refuse to cover as part of their employee health care plans certain types of contraception, which they allege prevent fertilized eggs from implanting and therefore object to on religious grounds.
As many have already argued, we should not have to live our lives according to certain groups’ interpretations of religious laws. But as a student of ancient religious texts – I run a secular Jewish house of study for culture-makers in New York – I take real issue with these groups’ reading of the Bible, too.
The Old Testament, despite some believers’ insistence to the contrary, does not take a hard line against contraception or abortion. The Bible and the 24 other books that make up the Jewish canon make both direct references and thinly veiled allusions to women using contraception.
These books include references to women using contraception to have, and enjoy, premarital sex, to use their sexuality as a political weapon without risking pregnancy and prove their fidelity to their husbands. More on that later. (There are far more references to contraception in rabbinical commentaries on the Bible, but I won’t get into them here since they are not considered authoritative texts by those from other religious traditions.)
Let’s start with the hot sex! The Song of Songs is a long, sexy, romantic poem that many are surprised to find in the Bible. It is an unusual text in that it makes no mention of God or law, just a young, unmarried couple chasing, and lusting, after one another and eventually, as I and others believe, consummating their relationship. Over the centuries, religious scholars have argued that the poem is a metaphor for divine love. Still, it is pretty hard to ignore the poem’s graphic descriptions of the longings of the flesh.
For example, in chapter 7 the young man says to young woman: “Thy stature is like to a palm-tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes. … ‘I will climb up into the palm-tree, I will take hold of the branches thereof; and let thy breasts be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy countenance like apples; And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine, that glideth down smoothly for my beloved, moving gently the lips of those that are asleep.”
As Athalya Brenner points out in her book “The Intercourse of Knowledge: On Gendering Desire and Sexuality in the Hebrew Bible,” a number of the plants mentioned in the Song of Songs were used by women in the ancient Mediterranean world as contraception and abortifacients. These include pomegranates, wine, myrrh, spikenard and cinnamon. Brenner goes on to argue that since the book makes no mention of procreation as the purpose of sex, the many metaphors comparing sex to “gardens” and “orchards” may also be read as a reference to the forms of birth control that those gardens provided. Indeed, the man in the poem seduces the woman by offering her many of the plants that would have allowed them to have sex without the risk of pregnancy.
Another place in the Bible where contraception may have played a role is in the Book of Esther. This one’s about a beautiful woman named Esther who disguises her Jewish identity to become the queen of the Persian King Ahasuerus. When her cousin discovers an inside plot to kill all Jewish people, Esther intervenes through seduction and eventually saves the Jews.
In an article in the scholarly journal Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Joseph Prouser points out that the King’s potential wives were all required to anoint themselves with myrrh oil and aromatic herbs for one full year – which is a pretty long time for what some read as just a beauty treatment. Myrrh was a known contraceptive at the time, cited in the writings of Soranus of Ephesus, a Greek physician who was an expert on gynecology and midwifery. He explained that when used in a pessary, myrrh oil would work as an abortifacient, preventing the implantation of fertilized eggs. The aromatic herbs may have also had contraceptive properties.
The recurrent contraceptive imagery in Esther bespeaks the strength and control she exercises over affairs of state and Jewish national survival. Although confronted with powerful men who would exploit her sexually, and from whom the threat of bodily harm is readily apparent, Esther manages to protect herself and her people. The Scroll of Esther is thus allegory as national autobiography: the story of a Diaspora Jewry regularly threatened with rapacious assaults by hostile neighbors and historic foes.
As Prouser sees it, contraception allowed Esther, who wielded power through her beauty and ability to seduce, to take control of her reproductive system.
There is a darker example of birth control in the Bible, and it appears in Numbers 5. This describes a ritual when a husband, who suspects that his wife has cheated on him, can force her to swallow a special concoction prepared by a priest. If she has been unfaithful, the Lord will “make [her] belly to swell, and [her] thigh to fall away.” In other words, she will abort her fetus. If not, this means she is empty of womb and ready to conceive her husband’s child.
The one Bible story that some read as anti-contraception is that of Onan, who withdraws before ejaculating and is then killed by God as a punishment him for “spilling his seed on the ground.” The backstory here is that Onan doesn’t want to impregnate his wife Tamar, the widow of his brother Er, because he doesn’t want to share his inheritance with a child they might produce.
This is the text that the Catholic Church takes as proof that contraception is unholy, along with the many mandates to “be fruitful and multiply.” However, many biblical commentators have noted that God’s anger is because Onan failed to live up to his legal obligation to impregnate his brother’s widow, and not because he wasted his sperm.
Everything I’ve written here is my understanding of these texts. I don’t see myself, or anyone else for that matter, as an absolute authority, and hardly expect everyone to agree with me. The wonder of the Bible lies in the way in which it can be read in so many different ways and mean so many things to so many different people.
But it’s worth pointing out that until 1968, a good number of Evangelical Christians may very well have agreed with my reading. As Jonathan Dudley notes in his book “Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics,” magazine articles in Christianity Today and Christian Life in the late ’60s made the case for life beginning at birth. These articles cited Exodus 21:22–24, which says that the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense — killing a person, as stated elsewhere, most definitely is.
Dudley says these were mainstream opinions at the time, until televangelist Jerry Falwell started turning against abortion and contraception, aligning himself with Catholics – who, incidentally, were not always opposed to abortion either. So, according to Dudley, instead of following biblical law, Evangelical Christians have been swept up in a 30-year-old reactionary political movement.
The Bible is shared cultural history for many Americans, whether we read it as the word of God or not. (I don’t, for whatever that’s worth.) It is at times beautiful and at times troubling, and there is no question that it was written within the context of a patriarchal society. Nevertheless, it can be more observant about human nature than many of its most loyal adherents and uninformed critics give it credit for.