Ch. 3. – Sexual relationships and the Bible

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Earlier this week we had Valentine’s Day where we proclaim our love for the person we want to spend our life with. This would have been very different throughout the many periods written about in the Bible. People would not recognize the idea of marrying for love, because most marriages, as I understand it, were arranged. Perhaps the song playing in the background as I write this, should be Tina Turner’s, What’s love got to do with it?:
“What’s love got to do, got to do with it?
What’s love but a second-hand emotion?”

Frequently, girls would know who they were going to marry from pre-teen days, and many would have been married by their mid-teen years. It is generally considered that Mary’s marriage to Joseph was an arranged marriage, and she was no older than fourteen when she gave birth to Jesus. According to Jewish tradition girls could be married from the age of puberty, so from about twelve and a half. This is culturally alien to us and today we would consider this repugnant. Jewish husbands would normally be married sometime between the ages of 18 and 23 years old.

Just now I said most marriages were arranged. Whilst that is true, not all were arranged marriages because some were for love, or perhaps for lust! I can think of three: Jacob marrying Rachel (though he could only have her after marrying Leah first!); Samson and the young unnamed Philistine woman of Timnah (Judges 14); and David’s love of Bathsheba (even though she was already married, so that got messy). Can you think of others?

So, as you probably gathered, this time I’m taking a look at the various types of relationship talked about in the Bible. As good evangelical Christians we like to think that marriage can only be one that involves one man and one woman. Those of us who grew up in the church probably know the Bible quite well. When we were children we had “Children’s” Bibles that sanitize the stories. Then, as we grew older we were taught the same stories in Sunday School (or whatever your church calls it today) and then later on, as adults, we would again hear the same stories preached in sermons, frequently skipping the difficult verses, because the preacher wanted to focus on a different aspect of the passage.

When I was a teenager I read the Bible through from cover to cover, to be able to say I’d done it, but I didn’t repeat the exercise until 2013, although I had probably covered the Bible in a random fashion (church sermons, Bible study groups, private devotions etc), a good many times over the years. When I first read the Bible it was rushed, and I wasn’t paying a proper attention to the words, but subsequent readings from 2013, have been much more controlled, because I’ve highlighted verses as I’ve gone through. Since 2013, I have read the Bible through once every year as part of a structured reading program. However between my teen-aged and recent years, I tended to have blind spots with certain passages and would unconsciously skip over some of what they say, especially some of those dealing with wholesale slaughter in the Name of God, and those dealing with multiple wives and how it could be “blessed by God” in those days, but not now.

I had developed a comfortable mindset that although other relationships were mentioned, the Bible clearly taught marriage was only going to be blessed if it involved one man and one woman. The Old Testament wasn’t really applicable to day-to-day life today, and could be safely consigned with the label “interesting, but not relevant”. However, when I started reading the Bible more closely, I realized it wasn’t as clear cut as all that. I found examples of all kinds of relationships mentioned, but found none that were directly condemned (other than in Genesis 6: 1-5). I remember growing up and being told that because Solomon had many wives, he lost interest, and ignored, God, wandering away from faith. In fact that is rather simplistic and only partially true. Yes, his ardor for God diminished, but it wasn’t linked to the number of wives he had, but because he married women from nations God had forbidden, and started to worship the gods his wives worshiped. See 1 Kings 11. The issue was idolatry not polygamy. The clear message from Scripture is that if he had kept his heart focused on God, he would have continued to be blessed by God.

Be aware that in Scriptural terms, having wealth and children are always seen as being a sign of God’s blessing, so both Solomon, and David his father, were considered blessed by God.

Having mentioned David, you will remember he was “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). In 2 Samuel 12: 8, where Nathan is convicting David of his sin with Bathsheba, he quotes God saying: 8 I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more”.  The clear implication being, that if David had but asked, he would have been given more wives, because “wives” are specifically referenced in Nathan’s remark. God is a generous God, so his bounty to David would not have been limited to wives, but wealth and territory as well. So, it seems from Scripture that the number of wives doesn’t seem to be a real problem. However, I believe the key was the quality of the relationship with, and the focus on, God – not the number of wives.

So in this chapter I primarily look at Polygamy and the many and various examples of this throughout the Bible. I also look at what Jesus teaches about relationships in the New Testament and see what we can learn. Polygamy is an over-arching term which we frequently misuse today. What we usually refer to as Polygamy is really Polygany (one man and multiple wives). In the Bible we also have an example of Sororate marriage (- a marriage of two or more sisters and one man) in the story of Jacob marrying both Leah and Rachel, the daughters of Laban (Genesis 29).

I also take a look at Concubinary, which is where a man takes a concubine – someone who bought as a slave, but in addition to day-to-day duties as a slave, is also expected to fulfill a sexual role as well. Today we would use the expression of being a sex-slave, but that carries connotations in our culture of abuse, whereas in the culture of the stories we are reading, abuse isn’t front and center of the relationship. Don’t forget the Bible isn’t shy about calling out behaviour considered wrong by the culture of the time. Usually concubines were in addition to wives, not (usually) an alternative. Many of the early patriarchs of the Bible had concubines, as did most of the Kings, and we have a very unpleasant story involving a concubine that concludes the book of Judges. We will come back to this later on, because of it’s parallel to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In a later chapter, I will spend a lot more time looking specifically at marriage, and the many types of marriage the Bible records, usually at the instigation of God. There are eight, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves! Nowhere in the Bible is it taught that having multiple spouses is wrong. However, by the time of Jesus and the early church, we know from documents that it was culturally more unusual, although it sometimes happened. Don’t forget Herod the Great and his nine wives (though not all were alive at the same time!). Don’t confuse Herod the Great, who was the king who wanted to kill the baby Jesus, with the later, Herod Antipas. (Antipas took a page from the Henry VIII line of killing his wife so he could marry his brother’s wife – or maybe it should be the other way round, Henry learning from the example of Antipas! But it’s wrong whichever way you spin it!) There were far too many Herod’s around at the time!

Now we are talking about the New Testament period, you will remember the example of Levirate marriage (If a man dies without children his wife would be given to a brother to conceive children on behalf of the dead brother.) used by the Sadducees to challenge Jesus about which of the seven brothers would be married to the wife who had been married to them all, after each had died in turn. (Matthew 22: 24-32; Mark 12:18-23 and Luke 20: 27-33.) If Levirate marriage was purely theoretical, and no longer happening at the time of Jesus, the question would lose it’s power of immediacy, so the fact it is treated seriously, indicates it was still happening. However, the example the Sadducees brought was somewhat stretched!

As an interesting aside, it wasn’t realized until the 1900’s that a woman contributed anything to the development of a child. It was thought that a woman was simply the incubator for the child, whose complete identity was passed by the father’s sperm during sex. No-one knew about egg production, or the purpose of the menstrual cycle. Hence, the spilling of Onan’s semen during sex with Tamar (Genesis 38), was seen as being evil, because he was willfully destroying life. Furthermore, in that previous example the Sadducees brought, they would have had no understanding that a woman might have reproductive issues, and so have little or no chance of conceiving. On the other hand all seven brothers may have been infertile, but as it was probably just an illustrative story, the family may not have really existed.

Getting back on track, I think I need to make it clear, I am not advocating polygamy in any of it’s forms, because for most of us one spouse is quite enough! I give a clue to my current thinking in this chapter, but I can’t say it’ll be one I hold to till my dying day, because thinking changes with your experiences, and as you add to your knowledge.

When we look into a culture different from our own we get very judgmental, applying our standards and expectations into what we think we are seeing, and we fail to realize that the people concerned, literally don’t understand what you find so objectionable. When we look at the writings of the Bible we are not just looking at a Middle East culture of today – which is different from our own, but one that was changing all the time over a period of 2,000 years from the time of Abraham to the Early Church – which itself was 2,000 years ago. So, it’s very wrong to retrospectively superimpose our cultural standards on people so long ago.

I would argue we can observe, note and respect the social mores of the period. We must learn as much as we can about life at the times we are reading about. How do historians of whatever period we look at, record what happened? What do other documents, architecture, tools, art, etc. tell us? We can intelligently compare and contrast, but we must be careful not to unfairly condemn or criticize because we cannot personally know the pressures and expectations of the respective cultures of the period. I think the yardstick for my criticism would be “does the behaviour we read about, harm oneself or others”? If it does, perhaps we have some grounds to be critical! But what do the Biblical writers say specifically? Can we be sure the words are accurately translated? Can we in good conscience say “God sees the bigger picture”? In some instances, that might be fair and justified, but in others that might be a cop-out to avoid a difficult discussion.

I was going to keep this quote till later in the series, but it is so good I have to include it here (and I’ll probably just use it again later in the series). Someone called Emmanuel, wrote in to Justin Brierley, at Unbelievable (the Premier Radio show). On the programme broadcast on 6th February 2021, the letter was read regarding a previous episode which was on the subject of defending the God of the Old Testament. During the broadcast there was criticism of the Old Testament’s tacit acceptance of slavery, and in this extract Emmanuel writes:

“I, as an African, found this particular one culturally inadequate.  We are asking people, centuries later, to judge a book, although written for them, but not addressed to them. 

The example I could give is the following: in my culture, as well as many others, people still give dowries.  We take pride in that, but over here in England, where I live now, virtually everyone sees it as “buying one’s wife”, yet no one would ever say “I bought you”, to his wife.  It’s the same inadequacy: we can’t understand what it was like to be in their shoes, simply because we weren’t there.  

I could give you another one: my grandmother’s first husband died, and then she married his younger brother.  Even I struggled with that one, but its cultural.  She had the choice to leave, but because we marry into a family, and not a person, she chose to stay, and in a sense honour her first husband by marrying his brother.  We don’t do that anymore very often, but it’s another example of how cultural differences should be seen as just that, and people or times not judged by the standards of our own.  I too struggle with some passages, but I found looking at the context, and especially the culture surrounding it, enlightening.  Consider the slavery comments of Paul.  What was more wise: submission, or to tell them to rebel and be killed?  Was God to regulate what he knew he couldn’t stop at the time, or give another command, that would have simply been impossible to obey?”

You may disagree with some of what I have written. That is fine, and we can respect each other’s views, but if you have experiences or insights that you think might help, please feel free to contact me. In the meantime download chapter 3 here, or here.

There have been some download problems, but this should draw the file down from my Dropbox file as a workaround. You don’t need to sign in or sign up, to Dropbox, unless you want to, just click on the download button and select Direct Download and it’ll save to your designated folder.