Seven Strange Scriptural Sexual Stories, Part 2

Sex is for Christians! A Joy-Filled Look at the Blessings of Biblical Sexuality - Chapter 3

PLEASE NOTE: This e-teaching is not appropriate for children, preadolescents, and many adolescents.

Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilphah, Jacob’s four wives

I hope that, after reading the first two chapters, you are growing a little more comfortable mixing sex and spirituality. Scripture is full of sexual references, and it is interesting that many of us—who believe the Bible is God’s inspired Word—find certain parts embarrassing. When you think about it, it is a little bit of a chuckle that we believe certain things God said in His Word are inappropriate to mention in church, or just about anywhere for that matter. Modern Christian culture tends to be a tad Victorian. In many Christian circles, even the word sex is taboo, so it is softened with the euphemism intimacy.

It is also a little funny that some parts of the Bible that are read publicly in church services have become so familiar to us that we’ve become oblivious to the sexual connotations. May I point out a few of them before we consider four more strange, sexual, scriptural stories?

Sexual Redemption

God’s great plan of redemption through Jesus could be said to have begun with His calling of Abram, whose sexual episodes we’ve been looking at in the previous chapter. He lived about 2,000 years before Christ and is mentioned quite early in the Bible, in Genesis 11.

The first time God spoke to Abram, he was 75 years old. The Lord instructed him to relocate to Canaan while also promising him that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him. That was a cryptic pledge that would later evolve into a plain promise that the Messiah—the future Savior of the world—would descend from his lineage. God was planning Christ’s incarnation via Abram’s descendants at least 2,000 years in advance, but it would, of course, only occur through multiple generations of people having sex.

I realize you may have never looked at the genealogy of Christ that way, but the fact is, a lot of people—over a period of two thousand years—had a lot of fun unwittingly doing their sacred part to bring Jesus into the world. Pretty hard to separate sex from the redemption story.

Of course, the final chapter of that somewhat-sexual story ended with a non-sexual virgin birth. Victorians love that fact, as it removes the alleged shamefulness of sex from any association with the incarnation. Uber-Victorians even go so far as to make Mary a perpetual virgin, in spite of much scriptural evidence to the contrary.[1] But they all somehow forget the many orgasms enjoyed by everyone in the messianic line between Abram and Mary’s parents, orgasms that occurred just as the “divine seed” was being passed.

And consider what is actually being said every time a pastor mentions the “virgin Mary” from the pulpit before men, women and children. It’s surprising that no one blushes. Can you imagine how an average congregation would react if their pastor said, “God chose Mary—who never had a man’s penis inside her vagina—to be the mother of Jesus”? The deacons would be holding an emergency meeting right after church for sure!

Abraham Becomes a Surgeon

But let’s return to Abram again before we focus on four more strange stories. A number of times between the ages of 75 to 99, the Lord spoke to him, repeatedly promising him multitudes of descendants as well as their future possession of Canaan. Before he reached age 85, the Lord specifically promised him—through a special covenant ceremony—that a yet-unborn son would be his heir. And when he was 99 and his wife was 89, the Lord again promised them a special son who was to be named Isaac, and who would be born to them in their old age. It was at that time that God instituted an identifying mark of His covenant with Abram—then renamed Abraham—and his household, telling him:

Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant (Gen. 17:9-14).

Keep in mind that you have just read the actual words of God. Also keep in mind that there is a good chance that neither Abraham, nor any of the men in his large household, had ever heard of anyone being circumcised.[2] If that was the case (or even if it was not), it would have been interesting to observe the reaction of the hundreds[3] of men in Abraham’s clan when he announced his intention to obey God and circumcise them:

Good morning, gentlemen! I hope everyone had a good night’s sleep! This morning I have some good news and some bad news!

First the good news: I’m giving everyone the rest of the day off. In fact, I’m giving everyone the rest of the week off!

Now the bad news: After what I’m about to do to you, you will not be able to do anything for a week!

Now then, please form a line to the right. When I stand before each of you, I’ll need you to lift your garments above your waist, because I’ll be using my knife to amputate the loose skin that covers the head of your penis. I’ll be as careful as I can. I may be 99 years old, but I’m still pretty steady with my hands. Please refrain from moving or screaming during the surgery. There will be no anesthesia. My assistant will be providing cloth bandages that you can use to help stop the bleeding.

From this day on, you will be marked as one who is in covenant with God. He spoke to me this morning, and He is the one who requires this surgery. Welcome to Calvinism!”

Apparently, those hundreds of men believed Abraham had heard from God, proven by their submission to his surgery:

Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s household, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day, as God had said to him. Now Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin (Gen. 17:23-24).

A Week Off to Ponder

It is difficult to believe that Abraham could have single-handedly performed minor surgery on no less than 300 men in a single day. Perhaps he worked quickly, or perhaps he had help. (I doubt he circumcised himself.) Regardless, I can’t help but wonder what everyone, including Abraham, was thinking that day and all during the week that followed as they convalesced.

All of them certainly realized they were now “marked men” because God had ordered it. I wonder if they inwardly questioned why God didn’t choose some other way of marking them. I would have wondered that. Why not a tattoo, or an ear piercing? Why not a mark that would be publicly visible, rather than one that would generally be hidden? Why a mark on their sexual organs of all places? And why on the most sensitive part of their bodies?

We could speculate about the answers to those questions for a long time. I suspect, however, that those newly-circumcised men collectively concluded that God was sending some messages.

First, of course, is the message that He wanted them to be marked so that they would be differentiated from those who were not marked. God’s people are not like others.

Second, perhaps He wanted them to know that He owned their bodies, and He could do what He wanted with them. Their surgeries injected new meaning into Job’s ancient words, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away” (Job 1:21).

Third, and more specifically, God owned their genitals. Their “private parts” weren’t private to Him. Human sexuality is part of God’s domain over everything in the universe. And that being so, perhaps they concluded that they better only use their genitals in a way that pleased Him.

It may be a stretch, but I wonder if any of those men—who may have heard stories of kings castrating their conquered enemies or their harems’ guards—were thankful that the God of Abraham let them keep their manhood with all the associated pleasure and procreative potential. They hadn’t lost anything they really needed (and modern science reveals that there are some health benefits to circumcision). But they did possess a continual reminder that on one day in the past, God marked them as His.

In any case, that was the start of circumcision, and it is a practice that has only gained in popularity since Abraham’s time. It is estimated that today 38% of the world’s men are circumcised. And to the utter horror of Victorians, Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, possessed a penis that was circumcised when He was eight days old (Luke 2:21).

Goodness, even in the New Testament epistles, circumcision—which is a sure allusion to the male penis—is frequently mentioned, and with important spiritual significance: “And in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11). Jesus has spiritually circumcised every believer. Now just imagine thousands of Christians unblushingly singing that beloved old hymn derived directly from Philippians 3:3, We Are the Circumcision! They are literally singing in church about penises. More specifically, they are singing that they are a bunch of blessed circumcised penises! (Who writes these songs anyways?)

Let’s move on to our fourth strange story.

Strange Story #4: Repeating the Same Old Stunt

As I previously mentioned, when Abram was 99, God renewed His promises to him and renamed him Abraham. He also renamed his wife Sarah. Not long after, they pulled the same stunt they’d resorted to in Egypt twenty-four years earlier. They again pretended to not be spouses but siblings, in order to prevent the men of Gerar from killing Abraham in order to possess his beautiful bride, who was 89 years old at the time.[4] Abraham and Sarah’s plan worked in Gerar just as well as it had worked in Egypt:

Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” So Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married.” Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, “Lord, will You slay a nation, even though blameless? “Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her. “Now therefore, restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

Like Pharaoh, Abimelech already knew it was wrong to have sex with another man’s wife, even prior to his divine dream. Abimelech also believed, however, that he would have incurred no guilt in taking Sarah as a second wife[5] had she been unmarried. And God seemed to confirm his conviction, saying, “You are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married.” The implication is that, had Sarah not been married, Abimelech would not have incurred guilt in taking her as an additional wife. When Abimelech defended himself, God said, “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her.” If Abimelech was sinning by taking unmarried women prior to his taking Sarah, God obviously didn’t stop him.

The night after his terrifying dream, Abimelech did not waste any time correcting his error and confronting Abraham for his deception, which Abraham justified. In the end, “Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they bore children. For the Lord had closed fast all the wombs of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife” (Gen. 20:17-18). This seems to indicate that Sarah remained in Abimelech’s household for a number of months without being violated, as it would take quite a few months for all the sexually-active women within his household to realize they had become infertile.

Regardless, we’ve just read yet another story that illustrates the fact that Old Testament polygamists only became guilty of adultery if they had sex with a woman who was already married.

Strange Story #5: Like Father, Like Son

Unlike his father Abraham, Isaac enjoyed a monogamous marriage. He was not married until he was 40, and his wife’s name was Rebekah. She was his first cousin once removed. But just like his father, Isaac deceived a Philistine king (also named Abimelech) into believing that Rebekah was his beautiful sister, rather than his beautiful wife. Isaac feared being murdered by wife-coveting Philistines while he sojourned in their territory due to a famine in Canaan. Here’s the Genesis narrative:

So Isaac lived in Gerar. When the men of the place asked about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he was afraid to say, “my wife,” thinking, “the men of the place might kill me on account of Rebekah, for she is beautiful.” It came about, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out through a window, and saw, and behold, Isaac was caressing his wife Rebekah. Then Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, certainly she is your wife! How then did you say, ‘She is my sister’?” And Isaac said to him, “Because I said, ‘I might die on account of her.'” Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” So Abimelech charged all the people, saying, “He who touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death” (Gen. 26:6-11).

Notice once again that a pagan king believed adultery was a very serious transgression, one that deserved the death penalty. But notice Abimelech’s complaint to Isaac, “One of the people might easily have lain with your wife.” That is, it would not have been an unusual or unexpected thing for a Philistine man to seduce or rape a woman whom he believed to be unmarried. It could easily have happened to Rebekah. In Abimelech’s and his fellow Philistines’ minds, had Rebekah actually been unmarried, no guilt would have been incurred by any man who had sex with her. As we continue to study the Old Testament as well as ancient patriarchal culture, we will see that sexual mores often hinged on the marital or social status of women. Often only certain women, for example those who were married or betrothed, or those whose fathers were not slaves, were sexually off limits. Prostitutes, female slaves, and the daughters of slaves, however, were not.[6] Horrible, yes. More on this when we consider the seventh strange story, as well as the Mosaic Law in a future chapter.

Like his father, Isaac appeared to be more concerned about himself than his wife, whom he surely knew he was sexually endangering, and he doesn’t get a good grade for trusting God either. The Lord showed him extraordinary mercy.

Strange Story #6: Another Polygamist in the Messianic Line

Isaac and Rebekah’s sons Jacob and Esau both had multiple wives. Esau had five and Jacob had four, two of whom were sisters, Leah and Rachel. They were also Jacob’s first cousins (daughters of his mother’s brother, Laban).

We can extend some mercy to Jacob for his polygamy, as his father-in-law, Laban, tricked him—perhaps by getting him drunk at his wedding feast—into marrying Leah when he thought he was marrying Rachel. But neither Jacob, Laban, Leah or Rachel apparently had any scruples about Jacob having two wives[7] who were of equal status. And I suppose we should be glad that divorcing Leah was not considered to be an option for Jacob, in spite of the fact that he actually didn’t want to marry her from the start. Their marriage was consummated, and it couldn’t be canceled. Besides, Jacob had unwittingly worked seven years in order to pay the bride-price for her.

Jacob’s story becomes even more complicated, however, when “unloved” Leah starts having children, and so childless Rachel, ashamed of her barrenness, encourages Jacob to have sex with a potential surrogate mother, her maidservant, Bilhah, just as Sarai had encouraged Abram to have sex with her maidservant, Hagar. Rachel said to Jacob: “Here is my maid Bilhah, go in to her that she may bear on my knees, that through her I too may have children” (Gen 30:3). Apparently, Bilhah literally sat on the lap of Rachel as she gave birth to “Rachel’s child.”

So Bilhah became Jacob’s concubine (as she is called in Genesis 35:22), a wife of lesser status, and she soon bore two sons by him, both of whom were named, not by Bilhah, but by Rachel. They were her sons. And when Leah suddenly found herself infertile, she gave her maidservant, Zilpah, “to Jacob as a wife” (Gen. 30:9) or as a second concubine, and she soon bore him two sons, both of whom were named, not by Zilpah, but by Leah. They were her sons.

At that point in his life, Jacob was regularly having sex with four women, two of whom were bitter rivals for his love. Christian commentators are always quick to highlight the unsurprising problems Jacob suffered because of his polygamy, but there isn’t one shred of moral censure or condemnation in the Bible for it. He was never labeled as an adulterer.

Interestingly, when Leah’s infertility ended, she was convinced God was rewarding her for unselfishly giving her maidservant, Zilpah, to her husband (see Gen. 30:18). And Jacob’s polygamy didn’t stop God from blessing him, giving him direction, making him promises, using him in the gifts of prophecy and the word of wisdom, and granting him a long life (see Gen. 31:3-16; 35:1, 9-12; 46:1-3; 47:27; 48:14-49:27). Hard to accept, I know! Remember, Jacob’s twelve sons by his four wives became the heads of the “twelve tribes of Israel.” How many polygamists do you know of who lived almost 4,000 years ago who have a modern nation named after them?

Male Propensity to Polygamy

Since we’re on the subject of Jacob’s four wives, we might as well consider male propensity to polygamy—illustrated in all five of the strange stories we’ve already considered—as contrasted with female disinclination towards the same. It should come as no surprise that the same strong sex drive that turns some unrestrained men into monsters turns others into polygamists. All the polygamists in the Bible were men, and if you’re thinking to yourself, “Of course all the biblical polygamists were men, because polygamists by definition are men with multiple wives,” you stand corrected! The definition of polygamy is: “The practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time.” Men who have multiple wives are polygamists who are polygynous, and women who have multiple husbands are polygamists who are polyandrous.

Not only were all polygamists in the Bible men, but most polygamists in human history have been men. This phenomenon certainly has much to do with historical patriarchal culture that has limited women from having more than one husband even while allowing men to have more than one wife. Yet I would be willing to wager that, generally speaking, men have always been more open than women to the idea of having more than one spouse. Although there have been many women who were willing to be married to a man who had other wives, there have been very few, if any, men who would be willing to be married to a woman who had other husbands. I’m sure that male ego has been a factor in that phenomenon, but so has male sexual nature.

This is why you may have previously thought (up until a minute ago) that the word polygamist describes only a man with multiple wives. Women are very rarely polygamists, and I suspect the idea of having two, three, or four husbands would be a turnoff to most women, whereas a surprising percentage of men, although they would be hesitant to admit it, would be open to the idea of multiple wives, and the primary reason is because of the sexual opportunities, which is a telling revelation of their sexual nature.

Allow me to make my case. As I do, I’m hoping that female readers don’t conclude that men are beasts, but rather that they come to a better understanding of male sexual nature for the benefit of themselves and the men in their lives.

The Indications

For some initial evidence, we not only can read in the Bible of about thirty male polygamists, but there is one in particular, Solomon, who had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Concerning the latter group he wrote, “I collected for myself…the pleasures of men—many concubines” (Eccl. 2:8, emphasis added). It sure sounds as if Solomon had sex in mind. It was a primary motivation behind his polygamy.

Apart from biblical Judaism, the Quran allows Muslim men to lawfully have four wives, and Islamic tradition promises Muslim martyrs seventy-two beautiful virgins in heaven, a perverse promise that has been used to motivate many foolish men to sacrifice their lives to murder others. Again, male sexual nature, left unchecked, has the potential to turn men into monsters. Some men will literally die for sex, particularly polygamous sex. I doubt that many women could be motivated to commit suicide by the promise of seventy-two male virgins in heaven.

Add to that evidence the millions of polygamous men currently on the planet, who live in the 58 nations where polygamy, in some form, is legal.[8] Then add the thousands of secret polygamous men in the U.S., who mostly identify with fundamentalist Mormon sects or Islam.

Next, add the hundreds of millions of “mental polygamists,” that is, men who habitually view pornography or frequent brothels and strip bars, who thus have regular sexual encounters with multiple partners, if only in their imaginations. If looking at one woman with lust is akin to adultery of the heart (as Jesus said), then regularly lusting after many women is certainly somewhat akin to polygamy of the heart. Many male readers might fool themselves into thinking—had they lived in an ancient culture in which polygamy was acceptable—that they would never have been polygamists. But their habitual indulgence in porn betrays a different reality. Given the opportunity, and if all potential negative consequences were eliminated, regular porn users would be fornicators or adulterers with multiple partners, or they would be polygamists with many concubines.

There is, of course, no comparable phenomena among females. The percentage of women, compared to men, who habitually indulge in porn, is small. Men, because of their sexual nature, possess a propensity towards polygamy.

One more small piece of evidence I can’t resist mentioning: In July of 1963, the number one song on U.S. pop charts, Surf City, opened with the lyrics, “Two girls for every boy,” an idea repeated at least eleven times before the final chord. Clearly, my thesis even applies to male teenagers.

It is Not Always All About Sex

Polygamist men have not always been motivated purely by sex. Ancient kings, for example, sealed political alliances by adding the daughters of foreign kings to their harems as a preventative against war. Special circumstances, such as barrenness (such as with Sarai, Rachel and Leah), have also opened a door to polygamy.

The truth is that, God-given male sexual nature, when misdirected, can make men into monsters on a broad spectrum—that ranges from rapists and murderers to playboys and sex-motivated polygamists. It is a shame, however, that I’ve felt the need to write so much about the negative manifestations of misdirected male sexual nature that degrades all women in general and some in particular. When God-given male sexual nature is rightly aligned with God’s original intent, so that it is singularly and passionately directed towards one very special woman who is the treasure and delight of her husband, it creates the closest thing on earth to the Garden of Eden.

Nothing in human experience compares to the relationship of a man and woman who are committed to each other for life and who are deeply in love on every level, including sexually. Male sexual desire—in one sense the strongest force on earth—is designed to bind a man for life to one woman who is the blessed beneficiary of his purest passion and deepest affection. She attracts him like a magnet to metal, filling his imagination, even when apart, with thoughts of her beauty. He finds himself living in anticipation of the next time they will secretly and shamelessly meet in Eden to experience the ecstasy of her skillful seduction, and where he pours out his passion upon the only woman on earth. He is the Proverbs 5:19 man:

Let her breasts satisfy you at all times;
Be exhilarated [or intoxicated] always with her love.

But that is just the beginning of the good that grows when God-given male sexual nature is rightly directed, and fulfilled, as was intended. When it is, sexual temptations that lurk in the shadows outside of Eden are easier to resist. Male propensity towards polygamy—in its various forms—evaporates. Men don’t turn into monsters. And not only is the world a safer place for all women, but the world is a better place for everyone, because the air is fresher and the sky is bluer for the pure-passioned and sexually-satisfied man. He not only loves his wife more, but he finds it easier to love everyone more. His children, co-workers, customers, neighbors and fellow citizens all unwittingly benefit. Regarding his children, they grow up in the security of a home that can never be broken, where a strong marriage is modeled that will be imitated for generations. He naturally works hard to provide for them, which benefits the local economy and all of society.

Think of how humanity gains, in so many ways, from men who are committed to one woman for life, compared to how society suffers from unattached, renegade, promiscuous males. Sex is at the center of so much good and evil.

The Blessedness of the Undivided Heart

The hearts of all male polygamists, including mental polygamists, are divided, and they never know the Edenic blessedness of being completely committed to one woman—the woman whom they believe God created, like Eve for Adam, just for them. Scripture’s rapturous love poem, Song of Solomon, contrasts the vast difference between polygamy and monogamy in a passage attributed to a young man as he describes his feelings for his bride:

There are sixty queens and eighty concubines[9],
And maidens without number;
But my dove, my perfect one, is unique:
She is her mother’s only daughter;
She is the pure child of the one who bore her.
The maidens saw her and called her blessed,
The queens and the concubines also, and they praised her (Song 6:8-9).

Although he is aware that there are many attractive women—queens and concubines collected by the king—he only has eyes for one unique and special woman whom he praises. And those queens and concubines, none of whom can claim to be the singular desire of the king, “call her blessed.” No woman wants to be a member of a harem.

Married male readers, if you want to experience marriage as God intended, then you need to look at your wife as Adam looked at Eve—as the only woman in the world. Pour all your sexual attention and energy into her alone. No affairs. No mental affairs. No flirtation. No girl watching. No movies or television with sex scenes or provocatively-dressed females. No lingerie or bikini catalogs or advertisements. In your world, there is only one woman.

Is There a More Sacred Message?

There is one other thoughtworthy aspect of pure-passioned male sexual desire you may not have considered. Paul wrote:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her…. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband (Eph. 5:25, 28-33).

As Christ loves the church, so husbands are to love their wives. Christ has one church that He loves. Although His great heart could, in theory, be divided between many lovers, it is not. And although the clear emphasis of Paul’s admonition relates to husbands imitating Jesus’ self-sacrifice for the church, there is no escaping the sexual allusion in this passage. The two become one flesh. So “husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies” just as Christ “nourishes and cherishes” the church, His body.

The sexual imagery within this oft-quoted passage about husbands loving their wives makes us wonder if male sexual nature—in all its relentless and passionate power to bind a man to one special woman when it is rightly-directed—could be a representative reminder of Christ’s all-consuming love for the church, for which He laid down His life. Is it possible that male sexual desire actually informs us about God’s love for us? If marriage mysteriously models the relationship between Christ and the church, does the magnetic attraction that passion-pure husbands feel for their wives teach us something about Jesus’ love for His bride? I would like to think so.[10]

Strange Story #7: Sex with a Daughter-in-Law

Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and his first wife, Leah. Like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he also was in the messianic lineage. While his clan was living in Canaan, he married a Canaanite woman, a decision that likely reflected his moral deficiency.[11] She bore him three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Concerning Er, Scripture tells us that he “was evil in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord took his life” (Gen. 38:7). Single readers take note: When you marry a Canaanite, your children are half Canaanite.

Judah then instructed his second son, Onan, to do something that was later stipulated in the Mosaic Law,[12] that is, marry his brother’s childless widow, who was named Tamar, with the understanding that their subsequent son would be his deceased brother’s heir. This is a form of what is referred to as “levirate marriage”—when the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow. Levirate marriage has been practiced by both ancient and modern cultures that possess a strong clan structure and in which exogamous marriage (marriage outside the clan) is forbidden.[13]

I’ve encountered forms of levirate marriage many times in Africa, and the ministry that I founded and currently direct, Heaven’s Family, is often involved, among many other things, in assisting Christian widows who refuse to marry one of their deceased husband’s relatives who is Muslim or already married. When they refuse, their deceased husbands’ families often confiscate their property, leaving them destitute, and sometimes even confiscate their children.

Here’s what happened to Tamar:

Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother. But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord; so He took his life also (Gen. 38:8-10).

Onan had no scruples about taking Tamar as a wife, regularly enjoying sex with her, and benefiting materially from her deceased husband’s estate. He wanted her to remain childless, however, for economic reasons. Because Er was the firstborn son, he would have been entitled to a double inheritance from his father, Judah, which would have passed down to his children (or his surrogate children through Onan). As long as Tamar remained childless after Er’s death, however, Onan would be entitled to the oldest son’s double inheritance.

Onan’s selfishness also guaranteed Tamar would never have children who could potentially support her in her later years. Levirate marriage was intended, at least in part, to be a means to care for widows, not exploit them. Onan’s selfishness cost him his life.

Here’s what the law of Moses later taught regarding levirate marriage:

When brothers live together [in the same general vicinity] and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. But if the man does not desire to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to establish a name for his brother in Israel; he is not willing to perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” Then the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him. And if he persists and says, “I do not desire to take her,” then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the sight of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face; and she shall declare, “Thus it is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” In Israel his name shall be called, “The house of him whose sandal is removed” (Deut. 25:5-10).

Notice that we read no stipulation regarding the surviving brother’s age or marital status. He might be older or younger, married or unmarried. But he was expected to take his deceased brother’s widow as his wife, impregnate her, and raise up a son who took the name of the deceased brother. If he refused, he was to be publicly humiliated. His deceased brother’s widow would likely then be free to marry some other man, in which case his clan’s property would transfer to another clan.

The Talmudic writers later opined on the various circumstantial complications that arose from levirate marriage,[14] but it cannot be argued that levirate marriage didn’t sometimes result in sanctioned polygamy when a married man also married his deceased brother’s widow in obedience to the Mosaic Law. This is one reason I wrote in the previous chapter that the common Christian explanation that God reluctantly tolerated polygamy in the Old Testament is a bit of an oversimplification. Clearly, under one special circumstance, God sanctioned polygamy. He wasn’t, however, catering to male lust, but rather was caring for childless widows and perhaps preserving property, such as land and livestock, within clans.

Jesus on Levirate Marriage

The subject of levirate marriage is not as obscure in the Bible as one might think, as it was not only mentioned in the story under consideration and later prescribed in the Mosaic Law, but it was also an influencing factor in the Old Testament story of Ruth and Boaz, and it is sometimes used to explain apparent discrepancies found in the two lineages of Christ in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. Moreover, during His earthly ministry, Jesus once discussed levirate marriage with some religious leaders:

On that day some Sadducees (who say there is no resurrection) came to Jesus and questioned Him, asking, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother as next of kin shall marry his wife, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers with us; and the first married and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother; so also the second, and the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had married her.”

But Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:23-30).

Jesus did not find any fault with the Sadducees’ understanding of what the Mosaic Law stipulated regarding levirate marriage. Their error—which He addressed—revolved around their understanding of marriage after the resurrection.

Jesus, of course, agreed with everything in the law of Moses, as it can rightly be said that He was its author. Had He ever contradicted the Mosaic Law, it would have destroyed His credibility as Messiah and Son of God.[15] Therefore, had He been directly asked at any time during His earthly ministry if the practice of levirate marriage, as stipulated in the Mosaic Law, should be obeyed whenever it was applicable, He would have answered in the affirmative. In so doing, He would have endorsed polygamy under certain circumstances!

Now, allow me to try to put the worms back in the can. The New Testament makes it clear that, as Christians, we are not under the law of Moses, but rather are under the law of Christ (see 1 Cor. 9:19-21). Although there is certainly plenty of moral and ethical overlap between the two, I am of the persuasion that the law of levirate marriage did not cross over into the law of Christ. That being said, I’m sure that caring for widows, in general, did. And Christian widows who remarry are certainly wise to marry a “brother” (in the Lord).

Let’s return to our seventh strange story.

Tamar’s Dilemma

Twice-widowed Tamar found herself in a predicament. Her culture required that she marry Judah’s third and only son, Shelah, but he was not of marriageable age when Onan died. So her father-in-law told her to return to her father’s home until his only surviving son was old enough to be given to her. Judah, however, didn’t actually intend to give his surviving son to Tamar because he was afraid that if he did, Shelah would meet the same fate as his first two sons. In his mind, she was a “black widow.”[16]

Tamar patiently waited, probably for several years, for Judah to keep his word, but when Shelah reached marriageable age and nothing happened, she took matters into her own hands to produce a clan child. She played the part of a prostitute and waited for Judah, who was himself a widower by that time, at a distant city gate she knew he would soon be traveling through. Not recognizing her, he propositioned her with the promised payment of one goat, and they had sex, by which she became pregnant with twins (one of whom ended up in the messianic line). But that is not the end of this particular scriptural soap opera.

When Judah discovered that his twice-widowed daughter-in-law was pregnant, he verbally condemned her and called for her death for “playing the harlot.” She then produced his identifying signet ring, cord and staff he had previously given her as security against the promised goat, and which she had wisely held as security against his anticipated hypocritical condemnation. At that moment, his finger-pointing lost its license, and Judah admitted, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah” (Gen. 38:26).

Judah’s Strange Confession

It is interesting that Judah seems to have only confessed a minor part of his overall transgression, namely, his failure to keep his promise to give his third son to his widowed daughter-in-law. Surely, most of us think, his illicit sexual relations with Tamar—a woman whom he thought was a prostitute—and his hypocritical condemnation of her were much more grievous sins.

The sad fact, however, is that ancient cultural standards of sexual morality more closely resembled those of modern secularists whose only taboo is adultery. As I’ve previously mentioned, in many ancient cultures, sexual mores hinged on the social or marital status of women. Although it was considered morally wrong to have sex with another man’s wife or fiancée, it was not considered immoral to have sex with a prostitute or one’s slave. Sex with a prostitute was thought to be a fair business transaction, and sex with one’s slave was considered a legitimate use of one’s property. In some ancient cultures, having sex with prostitutes or one’s slaves was considered a valid means for a man to avoid having sex with another man’s wife. Difficult to imagine, I know.

Regarding Judah, it is likely that no one in Canaanite culture would have frowned upon him for having sex with a prostitute, even if he had been married. In ultra-patriarchal cultures, adultery is a crime that can only be committed by a wife. It’s OK for a husband to have other sexual partners besides his wife, but she must remain faithful to him. That is, of course, a double standard that is degrading to women.

Tamar’s plan for getting pregnant by Judah seems to indicate the predictability of his behavior. She only needed to be at the right place at the right time and keep her identity hidden, and she was reasonably certain of being propositioned.

It is also very likely that every man in patriarchal Canaanite culture would have, like Judah, condemned Tamar for getting pregnant out of wedlock. She was a widow, always identifiable by her widow’s clothing (Gen. 38:14, 19), who was betrothed to Judah’s third son, Shelah. So she was sexually reserved only for him. That made all others “off limits” to her, and she was “off limits” to all other men. Within her endogamous culture, she had no right to marry outside her clan, so her options were to remain single and childless the rest of her life or somehow sexually entrap Shelah or Judah. For some reason she chose Judah who, to her credit, was unmarried by then.

The Take-Aways

The seven strange stories we’ve considered in this and the previous chapter help us realize how dramatically the quality of life on earth declined after the Fall. Eden’s light was extinguished by a new darkness that covered the face of the earth, and it became a place where every sort of perversion, sexual and otherwise, prevailed. Keep in mind that we haven’t even considered the stories of the wickedness of the homosexuals in Sodom, the rape of Lot by his two daughters, the rape of Dinah, Ruben’s adultery with his father’s concubine, or Potiphar’s wife’s attempted seduction of Joseph, stories also found in the book of Genesis. Deviance took dominion, and it manifested itself through lust, promiscuity, prostitution, rape, adultery, divorce and polygamy, not to mention jealousy, greed, theft, deception, hypocrisy, social stratification, slavery, murder and every other kind of evil.

These strange stories also provide some historical context for the Mosaic Law, which God gave to Jacob’s descendants hundreds of years after he died, and which we will begin to explore in the next chapter. The law of Moses was certainly morally superior to all other previous codified systems of law in the ancient world, but it did contain some cultural accommodations that trouble modern readers.

Finally, these strange stories give us some idea how life has improved in many ways, even sexually—at least to some degree in some places—since the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who all sojourned in Canaan. Through the transforming influence of Judeo-Christian ethics and ideals, some of us have moved back to the edge of Eden, and we’re walking in the light that shines in the darkness.

[1] See Mark 3:31; 6:3; John 2:12; 7:3-10; Acts 1:14; Gal 1:19

[2] The earliest documented evidence of circumcision is from the 23rd century BC in ancient Egypt, which may, or may not, precede Abraham’s era (the time of which, scholars debate; see https://answersingenesis.org/bible-timeline/abraham-and-the-chronology-of-ancient-mesopotamia/). It would seem odd that God would select to mark the men in covenant relationship with Him by using an identifier that was widely used by others and for different reasons. But we can’t be certain.

[3] See Gen. 14:14.

[4] You may be wondering if Abraham was losing his mind at this stage of his life, as evidenced by his anxiety over the Philistines coveting his 89-year-old wife. Some speculate that, because Sarah would be a new mother within a year, God was rejuvenating her physical body, which made her appear much younger than 89.

[5] According to Genesis 20:17-18, Abimelech already had a wife, and perhaps some concubines as well.

[6] Note, for example, that Jacob’s sons—all born of a father who had two wives who each ordered their personal servants, whom they literally owned, to have procreative sex with him—were greatly offended when their sister, Dinah, was raped by a Canaanite prince named Shechem. “They were very angry because he had done a disgraceful thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing ought not to be done” (Gen. 34:7). The difference is that Bilhah and Zilpah were slaves who had been purchased by Laban and given to his daughters, whereas Dinah was the daughter of a free man, Jacob, and a free woman, Leah.

[7] The Mosaic Law, however, hundreds of years later, did not forbid polygamy in general but did forbid a man from marrying sisters (see Lev. 18:18).

[8] Polygamy is most common in sub-Saharan Africa, where 11% of the population lives in arrangements that include more than one spouse. In the nations of Burkina Faso, Mali, Gambia, Niger and Nigeria, between 36% and 28% of the population live in polygamous households. In Chad, 24% of those who identify as Christians live in polygamous households. Some nations, such as India, Iran, Iraq, Bangladesh, Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait, allow women to include a clause in their marriage contracts that prohibits polygyny. Other nations, such as Iran and Pakistan, require that a man receive permission from his first wife to take a second wife, and he must show the court proof of his first wife’s consent.

[9] This must have been written when King Solomon was just getting started. He still had 640 wives and 220 concubines to accumulate to reach 700 and 300 respectively.

[10] Lending itself to this idea is the metaphorical marriage between God, a jealous husband, and Israel, His bride, described in the Old Testament books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea. The metaphor is ultimately used to accuse Israel of becoming an unfaithful harlot, symbolizing its idolatry. Yet God, in His great love for His wife, promises to eventually take her back.

[11] Remember that Abram didn’t want Isaac to take a wife from the women of Canaan (Gen. 24:1-4), and Isaac didn’t want Jacob to either (Gen. 28:1), particularly because of all the grief he and Rebekah suffered from Esau’s Canaanite wives (Gen. 26:34-35; 27:46).

[12] See Deut. 25:5-10

[13] Though not found in the Code of Hammurabi, levirate marriage was known among the ancient Assyrians and Hittites.

[14] See www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/levirate-marriage-and-halizah

[15] This is not to say Jesus didn’t think the Mosaic Law didn’t make merciful accommodations for people’s “hardness of heart” or cultural customs, so that some of its laws fell short of God’s perfect ideal. He, for example, pointed out that divorce, although permitted in the Mosaic Law for some circumstances, was never God’s intention for any marriage; see Matt. 19:8.

[16] Judah’s blaming Tamar for the death of his sons rather than blaming them (as Scripture does) certainly betrays his parental bias, which may have contributed to the character flaws that led to their own deaths. Parents, beware!