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In his provocative book, Beautiful Union: How God’s Vision for Sex Points Us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort of) Explains Everything,1 Josh Butler articulates a theological picture of God’s union with humanity in Christ that is sexual, rather than sacramental in nature. Butler makes exegetical and categorical errors that lead him to at least two theologically problematic conclusions. First, in saying that sex “explains everything,” he collapses every biblical image — Butler calls them “icons” — into the sexual one. Second, in so doing, however unintentionally, he suggests that God’s union with the church, and with individual Christians in the church, is a sexual one.
We will look at three of his exegetical and categorical errors — the river, the womb, and the blood of the cross. While it might be tempting to draw clean lines between images that Scripture bundles together — Jesus, for example, mixes a good number of the metaphors He uses for Himself — Butler erroneously traces every single image back to only one, the sexual one. Thus he misses the richness of the varied pictures God uses to describe His relationship with the church. The reader is not raised up to contemplate the mystery of God’s grace but is forced to contemplate salvation as a quasi-sexual act.
River and Streams. Butler claims that the meeting of two elements in nature typologically relates to a sexual encounter. Day meeting night, water meeting land, a tree rising up out of the earth — these are all, for Butler, illustrations of an ecstatic sexual encounter between two people (pp. 22–26). The “mega mystery” (μέγα μυστήριον) named in Ephesians 5:30–32 furnishes the language for this spark, this “union” that ultimately points to God’s union with His people (xiii–xv). To take just one such image, the river, Butler claims that the kind of fertility provided by water to land, rather than simply being the water that plants and animals drink to stay alive, is sexual in nature.
Butler traces the word “separate” through the Pentateuch, relating it to the “streams” of humanity that flow from the various patriarchal “heads” — Adam to Seth to Abraham to Jacob. According to Butler, because humanity is metaphorically likened to “streams” — because a river makes the valley “fertile” — the Scripture invites us to think about water in an overtly sexual way, which can be extended to the way that God gives life to the world, by His Spirit (189). “Jesus refers to the Spirit as living water, an ancient term for rivers,” writes Butler. “Unlike the standing water of puddles and ponds — stale and stagnant, filled with leaves, animal feces, and disease — river water is alive: rushing, moving, and bringing life to everything along its path. Similarly, the Spirit of God is like a river from Eden, causing crops to thrive and population centers to arise. The river of life is the Giver of Life” (189, emphasis in original). It is an obvious thing to say — water gives life. But the way that water gives life is not necessarily sexual. The other way it gives life is when people drink it to stay alive. Eating bread and being sustained by food is not the same thing as being given life through the sexual act. What are we to imagine when Jesus calls Himself the Bread of Life? Or the Vine?
Nevertheless, Butler believes the river of life, in Scripture, is a picture of sex. He is explicit about what he means: “Life moves forward through liquid means. The man’s procreative presence goes forth in intercourse to water the soil of the woman’s womb. Inversely, the woman moistens in the exchange to make way for this aquatic channel between them. They are like two sides of a canal opening, to share this river of life. The fruit of their love, if conceived, is nurtured within a liquid womb, until the water breaks and the newborn emerges through a river of life” (191). Although such descriptions are gratuitous and might make the reader uncomfortable — for surely those able to read Butler’s book already know where babies come from — he presses the metaphor to the extreme, likening the kind of water that Jesus offers to the generative kind, and not the kind that you drink when you’re thirsty. “Jesus gives his river of life to you,” explains Butler, “and you bear his life to the world. ‘The water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ Jesus fills us up as his bride to overflowing, pouring his presence into you like water into a pitcher until it spills out all around. Jesus’ goal is not simply to give himself to you but to pour himself through you, like streams of living water into a barren and thirsty land” (201, emphasis in original).
It bears repeating that there are different kinds of water discussed in the Bible. There is the “water” of the womb, the amniotic fluid that protects and promotes life, which isn’t just water. There is the water of the Great Flood, which destroyed all life. And there is also water that we drink so that we don’t die. Jesus, likening Himself to the Living Water, is talking about the latter kind. In the same way that Jesus likens Himself to a door, a vine, and a shepherd, the Holy Spirit appears as a dove, and is like the wind that blows where it wishes. These metaphors must be tempered by the fact that the Spirit is a personal Subject, the third Person of the Trinity. He is not the sexual fluid that joins a man and a woman. However unintentionally, Butler’s overtly sexual description of how he thinks God gives life to the world draws the image down into the sexual act, rather than allowing the very pointed moments in the Bible that actually do refer to sex to draw the mind’s eye up into the heavens where there will be no giving or receiving in marriage.
Womb or Belly? Butler makes much of the fact that the Greek word sometimes translated “belly” in John 7:38 (also “heart” or “innermost being”) is elsewhere more usually translated “womb.” He writes, “did you catch that word belly above? It could be translated ‘womb’ (its most frequent meaning in the New Testament). That’s where the waters are flowing from. Rivers rushing forth from our womb, as from the inner sanctuary of the temple, bearing his life-giving presence to the world” (200, emphasis in original). Because the inner sanctuary of the temple is the place where God promises to meet with His people, and because the womb is where the man and the woman together create a new life, it is crucial, for Butler, that the rivers of “living water” that Jesus promises will flow out of the person by the Spirit correspond to the procreative act, rather than to the need for water.
Butler’s claim that the word koilia (κοιλία) translated “belly” in John 7 is more often translated as “womb” is technically true but is nevertheless misleading. The number of times a word is translated a particular way is far less important than the context surrounding the word. Koilia is always translated “womb” when the context refers specifically to pregnancy or to giving birth, which happens to be the majority of its appearances. Nicodemus, for example, uses the word when asking whether being born again means that one must reenter his mother (John 3:4). When pregnancy or birth is not the context, the word is almost always translated “belly” because the context has to do either literally or metaphorically with eating, appetite, or digestion. Paul, for example, refers to those whose god is their belly (Phil. 3:19). That is, they are ruled by their appetites. With regard to John 7, since Jesus offers streams of living water to those who are spiritually “thirsty,” a person’s appetite is clearly in view; and thus “belly” would better fit the context than “heart,” and “womb” would fit even worse. It is very unlikely that Jesus means that out of the “womb” would flow living water because half the population of Christians doesn’t have one and because Jesus is referring to the experience of thirst. Without water, the human person perishes. Without the Spirit, the Christian falls away.
Butler goes on to liken the woman’s womb to the “Holy of Holies,” the very place God meets with His people at the heart of the Temple. The Temple is described using female imagery, which makes explicit, Butler believes, the sexual nature of marriage, which is likened to Christ’s marriage with the church. “What gave the temple this life-giving power?” he asks. The answer is obvious, “Beautiful union” (198). The Temple “was the ‘hot spot’ of God’s presence, where heaven and earth intersected and God dwelt in intimacy and power with his bride. The Most Holy Place was like the bedroom, where this union was most powerfully consummated. God’s presence penetrated the temple, and from this center brought life and abundance into the land” (198).
Butler, in this and many other places, seems to misunderstand the purpose and function of the metaphor. To say that the Most Holy Place is like a “bedroom” reverses the sacramental direction of the image. The temple is not a metaphor for sex. Rather, sex within marriage draws one beyond the act itself to Christ and His church. Butler’s sexing of the Temple pulls the mind in the opposite direction, from the Temple down to sexual intercourse.
The Shedding of Blood. Because the Holy of Holies, for Butler, corresponds so perfectly to the woman’s womb, he is able to make the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross relate to the shedding of blood in intercourse. The “tearing” of the woman’s hymen is a counterpart of male circumcision, he says.
[L]ike consummation, the inner sanctuary was entered by the parting of the veil through the shedding of blood. The blood was shed just outside the veil upon the altar, in order to gain entrance and pass through the curtain into the Most Holy Place, where Yahweh dwelt most intimately with his bride and made her fruitful. Circumcision, like consummation and the temple symbolism, involves the shedding of blood to gain entrance through the veil into the Holy Place. Both also thus point ultimately to Christ’s sacrifice: the ultimate shedding of blood, by which entrance is gained into the holiest place, as the veil is torn and the covenant is sealed with his church, and his bride filled with his presence and made fruitful. Circumcision and consummation are prophetic signs of the gospel. (210–11)
In case the reader didn’t quite catch Butler’s meaning, he makes his point even more explicitly:
With circumcision, Yahweh is the outgoing partner while the Israelite male is the receptive partner. With consummation, the husband is the outgoing partner while the wife is the receptive partner. An Israelite male’s torn foreskin was an embodied sign of his covenant union with Yahweh, similar to the wife’s torn hymen as an embodied sign of her covenant union with her husband. The Israelite male functions in the ‘bridal’ relationship to Yahweh, reinforcing the bridal imagery for the entire people of God — men and women — in both Old and New Testaments. (210)
Butler cites no scholarship in making this connection between the hardened heart that needs to be “circumcised” or pierced and the hymen that must be torn before it can bear fruit. He appeals to the account of Zipporah, in circumcising Moses’ son, calling Moses “a bridegroom of blood” (209, Exod. 4:24–26). I find the connections dubious at best, as none of the texts he cites are remotely sexual. It seems that here, as throughout the book, Butler insists on reading anything relating to cutting, to penetration, or doing with blood as inherently sexual. He makes all these different images relate to the sex act rather than allowing the sex act to be one of many different ways God’s life-giving work is depicted in Scripture and nature.
To see how Scripture weaves images together to point every reader to Christ, one need look no further than to the miracle that Jesus performed at the wedding in Cana (John 2). Of course, everyone at the wedding knew the couple would go away to consummate the marriage. But because Jesus was at the wedding, the spiritual eye is drawn away from the couple altogether. Instead, the reader of the text, and probably the people at the wedding, were invited to begin rethinking the various ways that God is joined to His people. Yes, He will have union with them, but a constellation of images re-articulates that union as communion. Jesus is the Bridegroom. But He is also the Light, the Living Water, the Door, the Shepherd, the Bread, the Vine, and at this first miracle, the Wine that is poured out into the cup. That marriage cup becomes, by the time of the crucifixion, the cup of wrath that Jesus drinks down to the dregs. The blood that He sheds is poured into that cup, which we drink.
Rather than concentrating on the dubious symbolism of the hymen — women who deal with blood probably do read the Bible in a more visceral and anxious way than men who don’t — the images the text provides are more than sufficient. A grand unified theory of everything being “sort of about sex” is not textually justified.
I appreciate Butler’s attempt to rescue sex from the overwhelming perversions of this present moment. The Bible is the place to do that work. Some of what he says might be helpful for those who have been so terribly injured by the sexual revolution. Best of all, he is unfailingly pastoral and kind. Nevertheless, by sexualizing our relationship with Jesus, rather than letting sex function sacramentally, to draw us up out of ourselves into the life of God, Butler flattens Scripture and embarrasses the reader.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People, rev. ed. (Square Halo Books, 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends at Standfirminfaith.com and on her Substack, Demotivations with Anne.
Joshua Ryan Butler, Beautiful Union: How God’s Vision for Sex Points Us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort of) Explains Everything (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2023).