PLEASE NOTE: This e-teaching is not appropriate for children, preadolescents, and many adolescents.
When you think about some of the scandalous stories that are found in the book of Genesis, it is a little bit amusing that Christians carry Bibles with them into churches every Sunday morning without shame. If we weren’t so familiar with those stories, hearing them for the first time would be shocking.
We’ve not only got nudists prancing naked around a garden. We’ve also got men lying about their marital status so that their wives consequently become members of other men’s harems. We’ve got women encouraging their husbands to have sex with younger women. We’ve got a whole town of homosexuals hoping to sodomize some male visitors. We’ve got a lustful married woman ripping the clothes off a good-looking young foreigner. We’ve got one man marrying his half-sister and another man marrying his second cousin. We’ve got men taking multiple wives, and in one case, wives who were sisters. And did I mention that we’ve got one man having sex with his daughter-in-law, another man having sex with his two daughters, and another man who has sex with one of his father’s wives? That’s all contained in the first chapters of the book your pastor reads out loud, without apology, every Sunday. The Bible is not a book for prudes.
In any case, now that we’ve considered, in Chapter One, the Edenic start of sex, let’s look at how it progressed after the Fall. The early history of sex is fascinating, but our interest is not academic, but rather, moral. We want to know what is right and wrong in the eyes of God—the one who created sex and rightfully legislates it.
Let me warn you, we’re about to consider some biblical stories that are head-scratchers for most modern readers. I don’t intend, however, to avoid or evade the awkward details, or force interpretations that do violence to the facts. So do your best to keep an open mind. As we read, let’s ponder how much we’ve been influenced by our own cultural or religious backgrounds, rather than by the Bible, regarding sexual matters. How difficult it is to read the Bible honestly, without bias. How blessed is the person who is not too proud to pray, “Lord, I could be wrong about some things, so if I am, please enlighten my understanding!”
Naked and Embarrassed
As soon as Adam and Eve fell, they realized they were naked, and that brought an end to their two-person nudist colony. The New American Standard Bible says, “they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings” (Gen. 3:7). Other translations say “loincloths” or “aprons.” That is, they covered their genitals.
I only mention this because there is a spectrum of conviction among Christians regarding what defines modesty. Cultures differ as well. Many times over the years—as I have traveled in rural settings of Africa and Asia—I’ve appreciated the female fashions that are often much more modest than what is generally found in more “developed” cultures. I’ve been equally surprised, however, when one of those same modest women—with whom I’m having a public conversation—suddenly pulls down one side of her blouse, exposing a shoulder and a breast, in order to nurse a crying baby. One is expected to simply continue the conversation, and one quickly realizes that modesty is a subjective thing.
Regardless, the most primitive cultures in the world at least practice covering one’s genitals, and that seems to be the most basic instinctive standard for modesty, as indicated first by Adam and Eve. Even as modern cultures become increasingly more immodest, the “private parts” remain mostly private, thank goodness.
God soon clothed Adam and Eve with garments of animal skin (Gen. 3:20), but we have no idea how much of their skin He covered with those animal skins. As long as it was only Adam and Eve on the earth, that was irrelevant. Eventually, in the company of other men besides her husband, it would have been best if Eve dressed modestly enough that it didn’t encourage them to desire her sexually. The New Testament admonishes women, in particular, to dress modestly in public (see 1 Tim. 2:9), presumably because male sexual desire is so visually oriented and aroused (something we will explore later in this chapter). But do keep in mind that standards of modesty are subjective, and that your standards have probably been influenced by your culture, secular or religious. That could be good or bad, in my subjective opinion. Also, no amount of female modesty can quench the fire of unrestrained male sexual desire, as our perusal of Genesis will soon reveal.
Strange Story #1: The First Polygamist
We don’t have to read that far into Genesis (only to chapter 4) until we read that a man named Lamech, just six generations from Adam, took two wives. Lamech may or may not have been the first polygamist, but he certainly wasn’t the last. Many notable Old Testament men were polygamists, including Abraham, Jacob, Esau, Caleb, David, Solomon, Ezra, Gideon, Rehoboam, and Joash. To the chagrin of most modern Bible readers, none were ever censured or condemned by God for their polygamy. Nor is there record of any divine prohibition regarding polygamy in the Old Testament, with one exception, found in the Mosaic Law, that no future Israelite king should “multiply wives for himself” (Deut. 17:17).
In the greater context of the Old Testament, however, that prohibition (as we will soon see) cannot be viewed as forbidding polygamy, but rather forbidding extravagant polygamy, such as was ultimately practiced by King Solomon who, almost unbelievably, had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). That is “multiplying wives.” Remember that a number of the kings of Israel and Judah had polygamous marriages and were never condemned for it, including David, who had at least eight wives and ten concubines.
Interestingly, David got in trouble, not for taking multiple wives and concubines with whom he had sexual relations, but for having sex with another man’s wife. That woman, Bathsheba, became pregnant by him, so David ultimately arranged for the death of her husband, Uriah, on the battlefield. David’s intent was to marry newly-widowed Bathsheba to hopefully avoid being exposed as the adulterer that he was.
God was understandably very angry at David for adultery, murder, and deception, and He sternly rebuked him through the prophet Nathan:
Why have you despised the word of the Lord by doing evil in His sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon. Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife (2 Sam. 12:9-10).
Keep in mind that, when David committed adultery with Bathsheba, he already had at least seven wives. We might have thought God would have said to him, “First of all, you’ve already grievously sinned six times, taking seven wives. Every time you have sex with any of your six most recent wives, you are committing adultery against your first wife. And now you’ve had sex with a woman who is married to another man, committing adultery again, and you’ve murdered her husband as a cover-up!” But there is no hint of rebuke for David’s polygamy. In fact, read the surprising earlier context of Nathan’s rebuke:
Thus says the Lord God of Israel, “It is I who anointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul [Israel’s former king who tried to kill David]. I also gave you your master’s [Saul’s] house and your master’s wives [Saul’s wives] into your care [literally, “into your bosom”], and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these! Why have you despised the word of the Lord by doing evil in His sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon” (2 Sam. 12:7-9, emphasis added).
Shockingly, God said, “I gave Saul’s wives into your care.” Bible interpreters don’t all agree on exactly what God meant. Some maintain it does not mean that God gave David deceased Saul’s wives to be his wives, but as something else, perhaps servants.
Regardless, God said that He would have added even more blessings of the same kind if David wasn’t satisfied, and He said that to David when he already had at least seven wives. Naturally, we’re all hoping God didn’t mean that He would have given David even more wives if he had wanted. (But it sure sounds like it.)
In any case, there is no hint of condemnation elsewhere in the Bible regarding David’s polygamy. Rather, we read, for example, in 1 Kings 15:
Abijam became king over Judah. He reigned three years in Jerusalem…. and his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God, like the heart of his father David…. because David did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and had not turned aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, except in the case of Uriah the Hittite (1 Kings 15:1-5, emphasis added).
That is not Scripture’s only approbation of David. He was a man “after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22), and a prophet (Acts 2:29-31) whom God used to author 75 Psalms that have blessed believers for 3,000 years. Yet, amazingly, he was a man who had at least eight wives and ten concubines.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to be recommending polygamy in this chapter, or in any latter chapters. Quite the contrary, as you will see. God gave Adam one woman. Monogamy is the biblical norm that Scripture repeatedly affirms as being far superior to polygamy. It is helpful, however, to understand polygamy’s historical and moral place in the Bible to accurately understand Scripture’s condemnation of adultery and fornication. Clearly, as David’s life illustrates, when God forbade adultery, He was not forbidding polygamy. Polygamists are not automatically adulterers. David was a polygamist who became an adulterer when he had sex with another man’s wife.
Strange Story #2: Abram Shares His Wife
Although there is no record that God gave any group of people on earth a codified written law from the time of Adam to Moses, there is some evidence that He did reveal some regulations. For example, hundreds of years before the Mosaic Law, Noah knew there were clean and unclean animals (see Gen. 7:2, 8; 8:20). Similarly, hundreds of years before it was prescribed in the Mosaic Law, Judah instructed one of his sons to “perform his duty” (Gen. 38:6-10) regarding Levirate marriage, a custom we will consider in the next chapter.
Of course, God did give everyone a conscience that instinctively conveyed inward moral instructions (see Rom. 2:14-16). Beyond that, there were times when the Lord orchestrated events that sent very clear moral messages to certain groups. For example, God “struck Pharaoh and his house with great plagues” (Gen. 12:17) when he took Abram’s beautiful 65-year-old wife, Sarai, whom he innocently believed was Abram’s sister, as one of his wives. Here’s the full story:
Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. It came about when he came near to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say that you are my sister so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you.” It came about when Abram came into Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. Pharaoh’s officials saw her and praised her to Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. Therefore he treated Abram well for her sake; and gave him sheep and oxen and donkeys and male and female servants and female donkeys and camels.
But the Lord struck Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. Then Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her and go.” Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him; and they escorted him away, with his wife and all that belonged to him (Gen. 12:10-20).
In light of God’s actions in this story, it seems safe to assume Pharaoh never got around to having sex with Sarai, even though Scripture doesn’t explicitly say so. Regardless, there should not be any doubt in any readers’ minds at this point what God thinks of adultery. It is so grievous to Him that when He chose to spotlight Ten very important Commandments, His prohibition against adultery was mentioned twice: “You shall not commit adultery…. you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife “(Ex. 20:14, 17). That is, don’t do it, and don’t even think about doing it!
Abram certainly doesn’t earn an A on most readers’ report cards for either his trust in God or his care of his wife. His appraisal, however, of he and Sarai’s predicament as vulnerable sojourners was certainly prescient. The Egyptians did notice Sarai’s beauty, and Pharaoh did desire her. But would the wife-coveting Egyptians have attempted to murder him had he not lied about his relationship with Sarai? Of that, we can’t be sure. We can be sure, however, that if any Egyptians had attempted to kill childless Abram, God, who previously promised him descendants, would have protected him.
I can’t help but wonder if Abram fully thought through his intended deception beforehand. Was he surprised when Pharaoh added Sarai to his harem? That seems doubtful in light of his stated reason for his deception. When it occurred, was he concerned? Surely he prayed for the Lord to deliver himself and Sarai from their predicament. As he accepted all of Pharaoh’s many gifts, knowing they essentially were payment for his wife, did it bother him? We all certainly hope so.
Regardless, Pharaoh’s questions to Abram indicate that he already knew—even before God sent the plagues upon his household—that it was wrong to have sex with another man’s wife. Yet he had no scruples about having multiple “legitimate” wives, and God sent no plagues on him or his household for it. So, in this second strange Genesis story, we see again that God’s clear condemnation of adultery was not a prohibition against polygamy. God certainly didn’t discourage polygamy as He did adultery. This doesn’t mean He approved of polygamy, but that, if He did disapprove of it, He didn’t disapprove of it nearly as much as He disapproved of adultery.
When Men Become Monsters
Is there anything more we can learn from this strange story? Yes, we can learn something about male sexual nature. Abram had a wife who was beautiful, and he was acutely aware that other men would be attracted to her. Keep in mind that the most any other man might be able to see of Sarai was her face (her hair would likely have been always covered in public) and, very limitedly, her shrouded figure. Yet Abram was still worried. He understood male sexual nature quite well, and in the context of ancient Egypt, he knew it could cost him his life. Other men, just from seeing the beauty of his wife, would be tempted to kill him in order to possess her. That gives us some insight into (1) how visually-oriented males are sexually, and (2) how dangerous unrestrained male sexual desire can be. Please ponder both of these, as the implications are significant.
Modern males living in civil societies aren’t as likely to murder another man in order to possess his beautiful wife, but it is not because male sexual desire has diminished one iota over the centuries. Rather, social pressure, inner character, and the threat of judicial retribution help restrain the lion that lives within men. But we’ve all witnessed what can happen when those leashes snap in the heat of unrestrained passion. The married man, for example, who allows himself to be captivated by another woman risks his marriage, family, and reputation, and sometimes his livelihood or ministry. What drives some men to take such enormous risks and make such foolish decisions? Nothing other than unrestrained sexual desire that starts with a stare. Remember that unrestrained male sexual desire turned David, a “man after God’s own heart” into an adulterer and murderer.
I would be willing to bet that most of my female readers do not fully comprehend the strong nature of the male sex drive. Female readers—although it will likely be impossible for you to relate—think about what this second strange story in Genesis reveals: Just a glimpse of a woman’s face and shrouded body, with absolutely nothing known about her personality or character, can potentially ignite a man’s sexual desire towards her, a desire that, if left unchecked, could turn him into a murderer, abductor, rapist, or all of those. Scary, yes.
Male sexual desire is biologically aroused by female imagery, real or imagined, and the hormonal reaction to a stimulus is automatic, creating in the male brain a sensation of pleasure that, like all sensations of pleasure, seeks to be sustained and increased. So the man who sees an attractive woman finds within himself a desire to continue to look at her. And just as no one can explain why they want to continue to gaze at a pure alpine lake surrounded by snow covered mountains, or why such a scene causes them pleasure, so no man can explain why a female face and form is so captivating. It is simply instinctive.
Although men cannot stop the automatic reaction to a stimulus, they can, with determined effort, will to ignore it by looking elsewhere or, if the image is imagined, by replacing it with some other non-stimulating image. But that does not necessarily extinguish the desire that has been aroused, and in order to gain mastery over it, he may have to make repeated decisions. Even then, he may find the same image popping up in his mind, without warning, hours, days, weeks, or years later. It is a battle that most all men face, as they are continually bombarded with provocative female images.
Godly men do their best to win those daily battles, and the wisest among them find that the best strategy is to avoid the stimuli as much as possible. But most men can’t live like monks in a monastery. They exist in environments they can’t control. Every day is like walking through a mine field.
Sadly, many women do not understand what good men grapple with every day of their lives. Nor do they realize how they contribute to those men’s challenges. Even worse, some who send steady seductive signals by their revealing and form-fitting fashion disparage any man who can’t help but notice. They expend great effort to entice men to look at them but become angry when they do. They dress like sex objects and complain when they are treated like sex objects.
Of course, there is never any excuse for male sexual harassment or assault of women. But women who broadcast sexual signals have no right to complain when male receptors pick up on those signals and male brains automatically start pumping hormones. Female immodesty is a form of sexual assault against men. Women who don’t want to be sexually harassed and assaulted by men should not sexually harass and assault men via immodesty.
I think it is safe to assume that Sarai was innocent of any immodesty. Still, that didn’t guarantee she was safe from unseemly stares that led to a potential nightmare. If the glimpse of a pretty face and a shrouded female form can turn men into monsters, what might happen when a bikini is added to the mix?
Strange Story #3: Sarai Shares Her Husband
About ten years after the Egypt episode, childless Sarai, at age 75, suggested to 85-year-old Abram that he have sex with her unmarried Egyptian maid, Hagar, in order that she (Sarai) might “obtain children through her” (Gen. 16:2). It would be the ancient equivalent to surrogate motherhood via intrauterine insemination, but without any middlemen.
The Genesis account tells us: “Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived” (Genesis 16:3-4, emphasis added). Hagar became Abram’s wife, but not in the full-fledged sense, but rather as a secondary wife, a concubine. The Genesis story makes it quite clear that Sarai and Hagar were never equals (see Gen. 16:9).
Although Sarai’s suggested remedy for her barrenness may sound strange to us, it was not strange to her or Abram. Archeological discoveries of law codes from the Ancient Near East reveal that surrogate sex was quite common. For example, the 282 laws contained within the famous Code of Hammurabi (c. 1755–1750 BC), which likely predated the Mosaic Law, included the following six interesting laws:
- If a man wishes to separate from his wife who has borne him no children, he shall give her the amount of her purchase money and the dowry which she brought from her father’s house, and let her go.
- If a man take a wife and this woman give her husband a maid-servant, and she bear him children, but this man wishes to take another wife, this shall not be permitted to him; he shall not take a second wife.
- If a man take a wife, and she bear him no children, and he intend to take another wife: if he take this second wife, and bring her into the house, this second wife shall not be allowed equality with his wife.
- If a man take a wife and she give this man a maid-servant as wife and she bear him children, and then this maid assume equality with the wife: because she has borne him children her master shall not sell her for money, but he may keep her as a slave, reckoning her among the maid-servants.
- If his wife bear sons to a man, or his maid-servant have borne sons, and the father while still living says to the children whom his maid-servant has borne: “My sons,” and he count them with the sons of his wife; if then the father die, then the sons of the wife and of the maid-servant shall divide the paternal property in common. The son of the wife is to partition and choose.
- If, however, the father while still living did not say to the sons of the maid-servant: “My sons,” and then the father dies, then the sons of the maid-servant shall not share with the sons of the wife, but the freedom of the maid and her sons shall be granted. The sons of the wife shall have no right to enslave the sons of the maid; the wife shall take her dowry (from her father), and the gift that her husband gave her and deeded to her (separate from dowry, or the purchase-money paid her father), and live in the home of her husband: so long as she lives she shall use it, it shall not be sold for money. Whatever she leaves shall belong to her children.
Among other things, these laws reveal how important it was in ancient minds to have an heir, and how shameful it was for a wife to fail in that regard. Surely Sarai wrestled with the idea of sexually sharing her husband before she suggested the idea to him, but her desire to mother a child and escape her shame overpowered any reluctance. (I also wonder if wives who employed such a strategy realized its potential to identify their husbands, rather than themselves, as being the barren one.)
In light of the customs of his day, we should probably be thankful that Abram didn’t divorce Sarai for her barrenness or take a second wife on his own initiative. He was a better man than many of his day. And it would be best to imagine he and Hagar’s sexual encounters, not as passionate love-making, but as awkward incidents that ended as soon as Hagar’s pregnancy was obvious. The biblical story certainly leads us to believe that their sex ceased at that point, as Abram took the side of Sarai when she was offended by pregnant Hagar’s newly-acquired arrogance. Sarai “treated her [Hagar] harshly, and she [temporarily] fled from her presence” (Gen. 16:4-6). That was just the beginning of polygamy’s complications for everyone involved.
Christians often like to make every moral issue black or white, but the Bible doesn’t always undergird such unambiguity. Abraham would have likely been monogamous had his wife not been barren. And it was not him, but his wife, who suggested surrogate sex, so he could not be said to have “cheated” on Sarah. And again, nowhere in the Bible is polygamy equated with adultery. That may be difficult for some readers to accept, but it is nevertheless so. As we look more closely at polygamy in future chapters, we’ll see that the standard Christian explanation, “God tolerated polygamy,” is a bit of an oversimplification. In certain cases, God mandated polygamy. (Stay tuned!)
Perhaps the biggest take-away from this particular strange story is how it highlights God’s amazing grace. In spite of their lack of faith in God’s promise that they would have a biological heir and their subsequent polygamy, God kept talking to Abram and Sarai, and He continued to bless them, and Hagar as well. God is good!
So far, we’ve only covered three of the seven strange, sexual stories I want to consider in Genesis. I hope you’ve learned something you can apply to your life. There is much more to come, and I hope to publish the next chapter within two weeks. — David
 The prohibition against multiplying wives found in Deuteronomy 17:16-17 seems to have been prophetically written just for Solomon in light of how he completely fulfilled every part of it: “He shall not multiply horses for himself [which Solomon did; see 1 Kings 4:26]…. He shall not multiply wives for himself [which Solomon did], or else his heart will turn away [just as Solomon’s heart was turned away by his wives; see 1 Kings 11:3-4]; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself” [as Solomon also did]. In any case, no one would conclude, from reading God’s prohibition against Israel’s kings “multiplying horses” for themselves, that they were only permitted to have one horse. Similarly, God’s prohibition against Israel’s kings multiplying wives for themselves cannot be interpreted as forbidding anything but monogamy.
 Additionally, Abram’s fear that the Egyptians would kill him if they knew Sarai was his wife indicate that he thought all Egyptian men believed adultery was wrong, even though they considered murdering a foreign man to steal his wife acceptable behavior.
 Scripture tells us that, after Sarah died, Abraham married a woman named Keturah—by whom he had six more sons—when he likely still had Hagar as a secondary wife/concubine (see Gen. 25:1-6). Keturah is also referred to as a concubine in 1 Chronicles 1:32. Hagar and Keturah may have thus been Abraham’s concubines who are mentioned, but not named, in Genesis 25:6.