A response to Meg Warner ‘Does the Bible really say … that sex outside marriage is wrong?’

Dr Warner’s argument

In her article ‘Does the Bible really say… that sex outside marriage is wrong?’ posted on the Via Media. News website on 23 May 2019[1] Dr Meg Warner acknowledges that:

‘…. the overwhelming impression of the various biblical references and allusions to sex outside marriage is negative. Extra-marital sex tends to be viewed in biblical texts as ‘A Very Bad Thing’. One thinks, for example, of the professed view of Paul ‘that it is better to be married than to burn’ (1 Cor 7:9).’

However she then goes on to argue that:

‘In order to know whether, or how, the Bible’s references and allusions to extra marital sex ought to shape our conduct today, however, we need to look more closely.’

In order to take a closer look at the Bible’s teaching she turns to the laws on sexual conduct in Deuteronomy 22:13-29 which she says are the ‘foundation for biblical views on this subject.’ She summarises the contents of these verses as follows:

‘…. a single woman, living in the home of her father, should not have sex (so that she can present herself to her husband as a virgin – Deut 22:13-21), an engaged woman should not engage in consensual sex (Deut 22:23-29), and a married woman who has sex with someone other than her husband should die (Deut 22:22). Meanwhile, a man who has forced sex with a single woman will be required to pay a fee to her father, marry the girl and never divorce her (Deut 22:28-29), a man who has sex with an engaged woman should be put to death (Deut 22:23-27), and a man who has sex with another man’s wife should be put to death (Deut 22:22).’

While accepting that these provisions in Deuteronomy 22 ‘could be viewed as a code that forbids sex outside of marriage,’ Dr Warner cautions against the simple assumption that what is said in these verses ‘represents God’s will for us today.’

This is because underlying what is said in these verses is the idea of women as property. In Dr Warner’s words:

‘Women were, in a very real sense, regarded as the property of the men to whom they ‘belonged’ – usually their fathers or husbands. In general, a woman was valuable to the man to whom she belonged, unless she failed to marry, in which case she became a burden. Marriage was in part a financial transaction, in which a girl’s father looked to receive a ‘marriage gift’ or mohar from her suitor. A father owned not only his daughter, but also her sexuality, and virginity was considered essential to what a woman brought to her marriage.’

This fact, contends Dr Warner, should lead the Church to re-consider whether it should reject sex outside marriage for two reasons.

First, the ideas reflected in Deuteronomy 22 are now outdated:

‘We no longer, in the West, consider women to be the property of men, and while marriage may still be a family concern, it is no longer essentially a financial transaction. The principles set out in Deuteronomy 22 are no longer needed to ensure protection from shame and financial loss. Further, if we were all familiar with Deuteronomy 22, and understood the social values that it upheld, we would likely be appalled, and perhaps choose to boycott behavioural patterns based upon those social values, rather than to compel people to follow them.’

Secondly, these ideas:

‘…. are not clearly of themselves inherently biblical. The code in Deuteronomy adopts prevalent community standards and attitudes, and makes special rules and provisions for Israelites. Today’s prevalent community standards and attitudes are vastly different. The special rules and provisions put in place for ancient Israelites may not be helpful, and may even be harmful, in our context.’

Assessing this argument

What should we make of this argument? The answer is that we should reject it for two reasons.

First, there is nothing to suggest that what underlies the laws about sexual conduct in Deuteronomy 22:13-29 is a belief that a woman is the property of her father or her husband.

This is something that is not said anywhere in Deuteronomy 22 which means that the evidence for it has to lie somewhere else in the Old Testament. However, no such evidence exists. As Richard Davidson notes, the Old Testament nowhere suggests that women were regarded as property.

Elsewhere in the Ancient New East, because wives and daughters were regarded as a man’s property in the same way as his slaves or oxen, a ‘vicarious punishment’ could be imposed in which ‘a man was punished for a crime by having to give up his wife or daughter.’ In the Old Testament, by contrast, where women were not regarded as property ‘no such vicarious punishment is prescribed.’ In similar fashion, he says, because a wife was regarded as property, other Ancient Near Eastern law codes permit a husband to ‘whip his wife, pluck out her hair, mutilate her ears, or strike her, with impunity,’ whereas ‘no such permission is given to the husband in biblical law to punish his wife in any way.’[2]

As Davidson goes on to say:

‘Far from being regarded as ‘chattel,’ according to the fifth commandment of the Decalogue and repeated commands throughout the Pentateuchal code, the wife/mother was to be given equal honour within the family circle (Exod 20:12; 21:15, 17, Lev 20:9; Deut 21:18-21; 27:16).’[3]

If we ask why a wife or mother is to be given equal honour the answer given in the Old Testament in the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 is that it is because both women and men share the same humanity (Genesis 2:23) and as such have equal status as those created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). Eve is the equal human partner of Adam.

It is sometimes suggested that the tenth commandment of the Decalogue sees a wife as property alongside ‘his manservant, his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbour’s’ (Exodus 20:17). However, as John Otwell has pointed out, in fact the wife is not listed here as property, but simply as the first-named member of a household. This point is made clear in the parallel version of the commandment in Deuteronomy 5:21 where the wife is the subject of an entirely separate clause. [4]

As we have seen, Dr Warner argues that the Old Testament concept of the mohar paid by the bridegroom to the bride’s father (Genesis 34:12, Exodus 22:17, 1 Samuel 18:25) indicates that marriage was viewed as a ‘financial transaction’ in which the husband purchased his wife from her father. However, as Roland De Vaux explains, this is not the case:

‘This obligation to pay a sum of money, or its equivalent, to the girl’s family obviously gives the Israelite marriage the outward appearance of a purchase. But the mohar seems not to be so much the price paid for the woman as a compensation given to the family, and, in spite of the apparent resemblance, in law this is a different consideration. The future husband thereby acquires a right over the woman, but the woman herself is not bought and sold.’[5]

The reason compensation would be payable would be that a woman’s labour would have economic value for her family and the loss of this would need to be made good. It would be paid to her father as the representative of her family and not because he owned her.

It should also be noted that it appears that the mohar was held in trust with any added value belonging to the father and the family he represented, but with the capital reverting to the daughter on his death, or if she was reduced to poverty by the death of her husband. This explains the complaint by Rachel and Leah in Genesis 31:15 that Laban ‘has been using up the money given for us.’ [6] This too makes it clear that the mohar was not a payment to his father for his property.

Secondly, Dr Warner is mistaken when she declares that the case law in Deuteronomy 22 is ‘the foundation for biblical views on this subject.’

If what she means by this is that historically this was the first piece of biblical writing on the subject of sexual misconduct that then led to all the others then there appears to be no evidence that this the case (and none is offered by Dr Warner).

If what she means that within the Canon of Scripture this chapter is the definitive explanation of why sex outside marriage is to be rejected then she is equally wrong. In the biblical Canon the laws in Deuteronomy 22:13-29 are an amplification of the seventh commandment (‘You shall not commit adultery’) as recorded in Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18) which in turn reflects God’s creation of marriage as a sexually exclusive relationship between one man and one woman in Genesis 2:24. Furthermore, if we move to the New Testament St Paul tells us that the marital relationship established in Genesis 2:24 is itself based on something more fundamental, namely the eternal relationship between Christ and his Church to which human marriage points (Ephesians 5:32).

Why are the various forms of sexual conduct described in Deuteronomy 22:13-29 wrong? Because they are all forms of sex outside marriage which are all covered by the general prohibition of adultery in the Decalogue. Why does the Decalogue prohibit adultery? Because God established marriage as an exclusive sexual relationship pointing to the exclusive and permanent relationship between Christ and his people.

What all this in turn means is that the biblical rejection of all forms of sex outside marriage, like the biblical insistence on the equal dignity of men and women, is not, as Dr Warner suggests, simply a reflection of cultural attitudes commonly held across the ancient world. Instead it is based on a view of God’s creation of the world and of God’s relationship with his people that is unique to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

A final point made by Dr Warner that we need to consider is her claim that:

‘… both Exodus and Deuteronomy make provision for the family of a single woman who is sexually assaulted to be married off to her assailant. At the time of writing these provisions functioned pastorally. Today, in the West at least, they would be considered abusive.’

The texts she is referring to are Exodus 22:16-17 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29 and the problem with her reading of them is twofold. First, Exodus 22:16 talks about ‘seduction’ not assault and the specific Hebrew word tapas used to describe the sexual activity in Deuteronomy 22:28 plus its statement that ‘they’ (and not just ‘he’) are caught in the act likewise seem to indicate ‘that the woman had acquiesced and was a willing partner in the sexual encounter.’ [7] Secondly, it is not a case of the woman alone being ‘married off.’ Both the man and the woman have to marry. What the texts imply is that if an unmarried couple decide to have sex then they have to accept the consequences of their action (except in the case where the man is completely unsuitable for some reason in which case the girl’s father has the right to forbid the marriage –Exodus 22:17).

Conclusion

What we have seen is that Dr Warner’s argument is misleading in several respects.

  • It is not the case that Deuteronomy 22:13-29 is the foundation for the biblical rejection of sex outside marriage:
  • It is not the case that what is said in depends on the idea that a woman ids the property of her father or her husband;
  • It is not the case that these verses simply echo the ideas of the surrounding culture;
  • It is not the case that Exodus 22:16-17 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29 are about a woman being married off to someone who has sexually assaulted her.

In addition Dr Warner has failed to acknowledge the way in which the actual foundation for biblical thinking about sexual ethics is the creation narrative in Geneses 1 and 2 and what St Paul says in Ephesians 5:32 about marriage being a reflection of Christ’s relationship with his Church.

For all these reasons her article does not make out a persuasive case for the Church to reconsider its traditional view that faithful Christian discipleship requires sexual abstinence outside marriage and sexual fidelity within it.

This does not mean that Christians today need to adopt the specific laws laid down in Deuteronomy 22. As Article VI says, is it not the case that the ‘civil precepts’ contained in the Old Testament ‘ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth.’ What it does means, as Oliver O’Donovan writes, is that as Christians we need to learn to see within this law (as within the Old Testament law as a whole) ‘a revelation of created order and the good to which all men are called, a ‘moral law’ by which every human being is claimed and which belongs fundamentally to men’s welfare.’ [8]

[1] Dr Meg Warner, ‘Does the Bible really say… that sex outside marriage is wrong?’ athttps://viamedia.news/2019/05/23/does-the-bible-really-say-that-sex-outside-marriage-is-wrong/

[2] Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), p.250.

[3] Davidson, p. 250.

[4] John Otwell, And Sarah Laughed: The Status of Women in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), p.76.

[5] Roland De Vaux, Ancient Israel – Its life and Institutions (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1988), p.27.

[6] De Vaux, p.27.

[7] Davidson, p. 359, Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1992) p.286, and Katie McCoy, ‘Did Old Testament Law Force a Woman to Marry Her Rapist?’ at https://cbmw.org/topics/sex/did-old-testament-law-force-a-woman-to-marry-her-rapist/.

[8] Oliver O’Donovan, On the Thirty Nine Articles (Exeter: Paternoster, 1986). p.64.

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