Interpersonal activity involving sex organs that does not conform to God's revealed lawsgoverning sexuality. The account of creation ( Gen 1:1-28 )includes reproductive activity as an essential part of the developmental scheme. Thisimportant function is given special prominence in the narrative describing the creation ofwoman ( Gen 2:21-24 ).In a process cloaked in mystery, God takes an aspect (Heb. sela, improperly translated"rib" in many versions) of Adam and fashions it into a genetic counterpart thatis specifically female, and which matches Adam's maleness for purposes of reproducing thespecies. Adam and Eve are thus equal and complementary to one another, of the samephysical and genetic composition apart from the slight difference that governs thecharacteristic nature of male and female fetuses. God tells them to "Be fruitful andincrease in number; fill all the earth and subdue it" ( Gen 1:28 ).
In normal males the sex drive is a powerful biological and emotional force that isoften difficult to control satisfactorily, particularly when it expresses itself inaggressive terms. But in the early narratives dealing with human family life there are nospecific regulations for sexual behavior apart from the statement that Eve's husband willbe the object of her carnal desires ( Gen 3:16 ). As theworld's population grows, so do the human misdemeanors ( Gen 6:5-6 ), whichseem to include mixed marriages ( Gen 6:2 ) and possiblesexual perversions, although the latter are not mentioned explicitly. At the same timethere are certain situations of a sexual nature that are to be avoided by followers of theLord. The shame associated with the exposure of male genitalia and the penalties thatmight accrue to observers ( Gen 19:22-25 )illustrates one form of prohibited sex-related activity. This represents the beginning oflater Jewish traditions that held that nakedness was shameful.
In the patriarchal age, homosexuality was a prominent part of Canaanite culture, as theincident involving Lot in Sodom illustrates ( Gen 19:1-9 ). Sorampant was sexual perversion in that place that in later times the name of the citybecame synonymous with homosexual behavior. God's judgment upon such a perversion ofsexuality was to destroy the city and its corrupt inhabitants.
When God entered into a covenant relationship with the Israelites on Mount Sinai ( Exod 24:1-11 ),his intent was to assemble and foster a select group of human beings who would be obedientto him, worship him as their one and only true God, and live under his direction incommunity as a priestly kingdom and a holy nation ( Exod 19:6 ). Holinessdemands adherence to certain stringent rules regarding worship and general conduct, butalso requires a complete commitment of will and motive to the Lord's commandments.
Because of the gross promiscuity of surrounding nations, whose behavior the Israelitesare warned periodically to avoid, the covenant Lord reveals through Moses a collection ofstrict regulations that are to govern Israelite sexuality and morality. If thesedirectives are followed, the individual and the community alike can expect blessing. Butif the Israelites lapse into the immoral ways of nations such as Egypt and Canaan, theywill be punished. God's keen interest in the sexuality of his chosen people has twoobjectives: to exhibit Israel to the world as a people fulfilling his standards ofholiness, and to ensure that, in the process, they enjoy physical, mental, and moralhealth.
The pronouncements on sexuality given to Moses while the Israelites are encamped atMount Sinai occur in two separate places in Leviticus ( 18:6-23 ; 20:10-21 ). Itshould be remembered that Leviticus (the "Levite" book) comprises a technicalpriestly manual dealing with regulations governing Israelite worship and the holiness ofthe covenant community. God had chosen the covenant nation to be an illustration to pagansociety of how individuals can become as holy as God through implicit faith in him andcontinuous obedience to his commandments. By setting out guidelines for the priests toteach to the Israelites, God promulgates explicitly a catalog of what is, and is not,acceptable social, moral, and spiritual behavior. In the distinctions between clean andunclean that occur in various parts of the priestly handbook, the emphasis is on thatpurity of life that should characterize God's people. Enactments of this kind are uniquein the ancient world, and only serve to demonstrate the seriousness of God's intent tofoster a people that can indeed have spiritual fellowship with their Lord because theyreflect his holy and pure nature as they walk in the way of his commandments.
A closer look must now be taken at the regulations governing sexuality. In Leviticus18:6-23, the matter is approached by the use of denunciations to describe immoralbehavior. These fall into two groups, one dealing with carnal associations among peopleclosely related by blood (consanguinity), and the other governing the sexual behavior ofpersons related through marriage (affinity). Accordingly a man is prohibited fromcopulating with his mother or any other wife belonging to his father; a sister orhalf-sister, a daughter-in-law or a granddaughter, an aunt on either side of the family, awoman and her daughter or her son's daughter or daughter's daughter, a wife's sister as arival wife, a neighbor's wife, and a woman during the menses. Homosexuality is castigatedas reprehensible morally, and bestiality is condemned summarily. Everything forbidden hadalready led to the moral defilement of the nations surrounding Israel, and for theseperversions they are to fall under divine judgment (v. 24).
Homosexuality is described in the Mosaic legislation in terms of a man lying with a man"as one lies with a woman" ( Lev 18:22 ; 20:13 ), that is,for purposes of sexual intercourse. The practice originated in humanity's remote past, andappears to have formed part of Babylonian religious activities. The Canaanites regardedtheir male and female cultic prostitutes as "holy persons, " meaning that theywere dedicated specifically to the service of a god or goddess, not that they wereexemplars of moral purity in society. While general condemnations of homosexuality occurin Leviticus, none of the pagan Near Eastern religions thought it either necessary ordesirable to enact comparable legislation, since for them such activities were all part ofnormal religious life in temples or other places of cultic worship.
In general, homosexuality in Mesopotamia is not documented to any extent in survivingtablets, but that it was a widespread problem in the Middle Assyrian period (1300-900b.c.) is indicated by the fact that legislation from that time stipulates that anoffender, when caught, should be castrated. This judicial sentence, when compared with theHebrew prescription of death ( Lev 20:13 ), showsthat in Mesopotamian society the offense was regarded as a secondary civic infraction.While homosexuality seems to have been a recognized part of Hittite life, their lawsnevertheless prescribe execution for a man who sodomizes his son.
Hebrew tradition, in contrast, is emphatic in condemning homosexuality, even thoughsome Israelites succumbed to it. In Deuteronomy 23:18, male cultic prostitutes, andperhaps homosexuals also, are castigated as "dogs, " which is most probably thesignificance of the term in Revelation 22:15. Since the dog was generally despised by theHebrews as an unclean animal, serving much the same scavenging purpose as the vulture ( 1 Kings 22:38 ),the disparaging nature of the allusion is evident.
Bestiality, defined in terms of a man or woman having sexual relations with an animal ( Lev 18:23 ; 20:15-16 ), isstigmatized in the Mosaic enactments as a defilement for a man and a sexual perversion fora woman. It appears to have been fairly common in antiquity ( Lev 18:24 ), beingindulged in by the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Hittites.
The shorter list of prohibited relationships in Leviticus 20:10-21 deals with many ofthe same offenses, but also prescribes punishments for such violations of Israel's moralcode. Thus a man who commits adultery with his neighbor's wife is to be executed, alongwith his sexual partner. This is also the penalty for a man who defiles his father's wifeor his daughter-in-law, because such activity constitutes sexual perversion as defined byGod's laws. Homosexuality is once again condemned, and the sexual perverts sentenced todeath. The marriage of a man, a woman, and her mother is deemed wicked, and the offenderssentenced to be burned with fire so as to expunge completely the wickedness of the actfrom the holy community. Bestiality, condemned already as a perversion, is regarded as acapital offense, which includes the animal also.
The marriage of a man with his sister from either side of the family is declared ahighly immoral union, and the participants are to be put to death. The same is true of aman and a woman engaging in sexual activity during the woman's menstrual period. Suchblood is considered highly defiling, and a gross violation of the purity that God desiresas the norm for Israel's social behavior. The seriousness with which God assesses hisholiness is reflected in the severe penalties prescribed for the infractions listed above.The phrase "their blood will be on their own heads" is a euphemism for capitalpunishment. Sexual relations between a man and his aunt, or between a man and hisbrother's wife, are regarded as dishonoring the legal spouses, and are accorded the lessersentence of childlessness. In some cases, however, this is tantamount to causing the deathof the family, a prospect that few Hebrews could contemplate with equanimity. InDeuteronomy 25:5-10, the law allows a man to marry his deceased brother's childless wifeso as to rear a son for his brother's family, but this is very different from a manmarrying his brother's wife while her legal husband is still alive.
There are important reasons why these enactments were part of ancient Hebrew law. Moralpurity and spiritual dedication were fundamental requisites if the chosen people were tomaintain their distinctive witness to God's power and holiness in society. Theprohibitions reinforced the traditional emphasis on family honor, since the family was thebuilding block of society. It had to be maintained at all costs if society was to survive.Any marriage relationship that was too close would have exerted a devastating effect oncommunity solidarity by provoking family feuds that could last for centuries.
Serious problems would also have arisen through intermarriage when the result of suchunions was the concentration of lands and riches in the hands of a few Hebrew families.For modern observers, however, the greatest danger by far would have resulted from thepollution of the genetic pool because of inbreeding. The bulk of the relationshipsprohibited by the legislation involved first and second degrees of consanguinity, that is,parent-child and grandparent-grandchild incest. Coition within the forbidden degrees offamily relationships generally results in genetic complications when offspring areproduced. Recessive genes often become dominant and endow the fetus with various kinds ofdiseases or congenital malformations. This seems to have been the force of the Hebrew tebel[l,b,T], aword that occurs only in Leviticus 18:23 and 20:12. It comes from balal [l;l'B],meaning "to confuse, " and conveys aptly the genetic upheaval that occurs inmany cases of inbreeding, since God's rules for procreation have been upset. Only in a fewinstances does close inbreeding produce beneficial effects by removing recessive lethalgenes from the genetic pool. (This may have happened in the case of ancient Egyptianroyalty.) Nevertheless, even in such instances, inbreeding diminishes the energy and vigorof species that are normally outbred, and reinforces the wisdom and authority of theMosaic legislation.
When God entered into a covenant relationship with the Israelites he furnished themwith certain fundamental regulations engraved in stone to symbolize their permanence.These "Ten Commandments, " as they are styled, contain certain injunctions of amoral character dealing with adultery, theft, false witness, and covetous behavior ( Exod 20:14-19 ).The last three offenses are social in character, involving the community of God to agreater or lesser degree. But the commandment prohibiting adultery deals with an act of ahighly personal nature, occurring between normally consenting adults, which violates the"one flesh" character of marriage.
The fact that a commandment deals specifically with this form of behavior seems toindicate that adultery was common among the ancient Hebrews. At all events, adultery wasunderstood as sexual intercourse between a man and another man's wife or betrothed woman.Similarly, any act of coition between a married woman and a man who was not her husbandwas also regarded as adultery. Certain exceptions to these stringent rules were toleratedin Old Testament times, however. A man was not considered an adulterer if he engaged insexual relations with a female slave ( Gen 16:1-4 ), aprostitute ( Gen38:15-18 ), or his wife's handmaid with the spouse's permission ( Gen 16:4 ). Nor was aman deemed to be in an adulterous relationship if he happened to be married to two wives.
The traditions banning adultery, made specific in the Decalog, were enshrined deeply inIsrael's national life. The prophets warn that divine judgment will descend upon those whopractice it ( Jer23:11-14 ; Ezek22:11 ; Mal 3:5 ).The Book of Proverbs, however, takes more of a social than a specifically moral view ofadultery, ridiculing it as a stupid pattern of behavior that leads a man toself-destruction (6:25-35). The prophets use the term figuratively to describe thecovenant people's lack of fidelity to the high ideals of Mount Sinai. The prophets viewthe covenant as equivalent to a marriage relationship between God and Israel ( Isa 54:5-8 ). Anybreach of the covenant, therefore, is an act of spiritual adultery ( Jer 5:7-8 ; Ezek 23:37 ).
In his teachings Jesus stands firmly in the traditions of the Mosaic law and prophecyby regarding adultery as sin. But he extends the definition to include any man who lustsin his mind after another woman, whether she is married or not. It is thus unnecessary forany physical contact to take place, since the intent is already present ( Matt 5:28 ). By thisteaching Jesus demonstrates that, under the new covenant, motivation is to be consideredjust as seriously as the mechanical act of breaking or keeping a particular law. Themotivation of a believer should always be of the purest kind, enabling obedience to God'swill freely from the heart, and not just because the law makes certain demands.
Whereas the female is cast in an inferior, passive role in the Old Testament sexuallegislation, Jesus considers the woman as equal to the man in his teachings about divorceand remarriage. In consequence the woman has to bear equal responsibility for adultery.Much discussion has taken place about Christ's return to the strict marriage ideals ofGenesis 2:24 ( Mr 10:6 )and the explanatory clause "except for marital unfaithfulness" ( Matt 5:32 ; 19:9 ), which allowsfor remarriage after divorce and which does not occur in either Mark 10:11 or Luke 16:18.
Before New Testament technical terms are discussed, it is important to realize thatChrist was directing his teaching at the new age of grace, which in his death was torender Old Testament legal traditions ineffective. The Mosaic law was specific about theconditions under which divorce could occur. The wife had fallen into disfavor because herhusband had found something unclean or indecent about her, and therefore he was entitledto divorce her. Jesus teaches that this procedure was allowed by God as a concession tohuman obduracy ( Matt19:8 ), even though the Creator hated divorce.
In New Testament times, only the man was able to institute divorce proceedings. It wasin reality, however, a rare occurrence, and at that mostly the prerogative of the rich,since poor men could not afford another dowry or "bride price" for a subsequentmarriage. The accused woman was protected under the law to the extent that her husband'saccusations had to be proved. Thus some scholars have seen the Matthean explanatory clauseas indicating immorality as the sole ground for divorce, following the contemporaryrabbinical school of Shammai, and not for some purely frivolous cause, as the school ofHillel taught. If this explanation is correct, Jesus was addressing a Jewish controversythat had no bearing on God's marriage ideals in the age of grace, and which Mark and Lukeconsequently ignored because the exception did not apply to their audiences of Christianbelievers.
The most common term in the New Testament for sexual immorality is porneia [porneiva], andits related forms pornos [povrno"] and porneuo [
The New Testament contains far less teaching about sexual immorality than the OldTestament, on which Christian morals and ethics are based. The Mosaic law condemnedadultery, but placed less emphasis on prohibiting some other sexual offenses. In the end,disregard for the Mosaic enactments brought Israel to ruin, and this made it important forthe Christian church to distinguish carefully, among other matters, between adultery as asin and porneia [porneiva],which was a fatal perversion.
The New Testament requires believers to deny physical and spiritual lusting afterpeople and false gods, and to conduct their behavior at a high moral and spiritual level.Sexual activity is to be confined to the marriage relationship, and if a married man orwoman has sexual intercourse with someone other than the spouse, that person has committedadultery. To be most satisfying for the Christian, sexual activity must reflect the valuesof self-sacrificing love and the unity of personality to which the Christian'sreconciliation to God by the atoning work of Jesus brings the believing couple.
R. K. Harrison
Bibliography. D. S. Bailey, Sexual Ethics; H. P. Bell and M. S. Weinberg,Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity among Men and Women; H. Thielicke, TheEthics of Sex; H. L. Twiss, ed., Homosexuality and the Christian Faith.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Immorality, Sexual'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".