The Mosaic Moral Upgrade

Sex is for Christians! A Joy-Filled Look at the Blessings of Biblical Sexuality - Chapter 4

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

The Mosaic Moral Upgrade by David Servant

As we were considering, in the previous two chapters, the moral deficiencies of ancient sexual standards, you may have wondered how ancient consciences could have remained undisturbed by what we confidently classify as immorality. Even when one’s culture approves of inappropriate behavior, does not one’s God-given conscience condemn compromising conduct?

The answer is “yes,” but culture often wins over conscience. If “everyone is doing it” or “everyone thinks it is OK,” the inward voice of conviction is more easily ignored. Although unregenerate people certainly “show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Rom. 2:15), they often “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18). People today do it every bit as much as ancient people. Nothing has changed.

As a contemporary example of how people suppress their conscience, consider the issue of abortion. No one can deny that abortion takes the life of either a human being or what will become a human being if it is allowed to develop. Thus, abortion is either the murder of a human being or a future human being. Everyone knows that, just as everyone knows that destroying a bald eagle egg, punishable in the U.S. by a $5,000 fine and a year in prison, kills a future flying bald eagle. Yet abortion on demand is legal and culturally acceptable in the United States and much of the world. Every woman who has an abortion knows that what is in her womb will be born a baby if she doesn’t have an abortion. The reason for abortion is to prevent the birth of a baby. Even though the consciences of all such women condemn them (and all such men who encourage them), they find justifications that often includes cultural and legal acceptability. “Abortion must be OK, because it is legal and many people do it,” they think to themselves, and that is enough to overcome the objections against murder that arise within their hearts.

All of this is to say that we should not be surprised if people of ancient cultures collectively suppressed their consciences regarding various moral matters related to sex. Thankfully, with the giving of the law of Moses to Israel some 400 years after Jacob’s clan relocated to Egypt, some light began to shine in the darkness. Moses’ laws helped awaken dormant standards of morality already written on the hearts of humans. Although it contained some cultural concessions, the Mosaic Law was an improvement over anything any prior civilization had to offer, so much so that Moses could boast to the generation of Israelites who would possess Canaan:

See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it. So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” For…. what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today? (Deut. 4:5-8, emphasis added).

The Moral Morass in Egypt and Canaan

Ancient Egypt, like all civilizations, had its codified laws and court system, as did the seven nations that Israel dispossessed in Canaan after the Exodus (identified as the Canaanites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hittites, Hivites, Jebusites and Perizzites). Archeological discoveries provide some insight into the laws of a few of those nations, but the best source of information is actually found in law of Moses, in which God repeatedly told Israel not to adopt, not only the immoral behaviors of Egypt or Canaan, but the statutes of those nations as well. For example:

I am the Lord your God. You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes (Lev. 18:2-3; emphasis added).

Clearly, God found fault with lifestyles and laws in both Egypt and Canaan. The Mosaic Law consequently contained regulations that stood in stark contrast to what was permitted and practiced in both of those spiritually dark places.

Let’s continue reading Leviticus 18 (having just read two initial verses above) to help us understand some specific sexual behaviors that were practiced in Egypt and/or Canaan that apparently were culturally and legally acceptable in those nations. As you read, keep in mind that the phrase “uncover the nakedness of” is an obvious euphemism for “have sex with”:

None of you shall approach any blood relative of his to uncover nakedness; I am the Lord. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, that is, the nakedness of your mother. She is your mother; you are not to uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness. The nakedness of your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether born at home or born outside, their nakedness you shall not uncover. The nakedness of your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter, their nakedness you shall not uncover; for their nakedness is yours. The nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, born to your father, she is your sister, you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s blood relative. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is your mother’s blood relative. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother; you shall not approach his wife, she is your aunt. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law; she is your son’s wife, you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and of her daughter, nor shall you take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness; they are blood relatives. It is lewdness. You shall not marry a woman in addition to her sister as a rival while she is alive, to uncover her nakedness.

Also you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness during her menstrual impurity. You shall not have intercourse with your neighbor’s wife, to be defiled with her. You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God; I am the Lord. You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination. Also you shall not have intercourse with any animal to be defiled with it, nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it; it is a perversion.

Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); so that the land will not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you. For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people. Thus you are to keep My charge, that you do not practice any of the abominable customs which have been practiced before you, so as not to defile yourselves with them; I am the Lord your God (Lev. 18:6-24, emphasis added).

Shockingly, Canaanite men were having sex with their mothers, stepmothers, sisters, stepsisters, granddaughters, aunts, daughters-in-law, sisters-in-law[1] and neighbors’ wives, as well as having sex with mothers and their daughters, mothers and their granddaughters, other men, and even animals. Some Canaanite women were also having sex with animals, and they were obviously participating in the sins of the men enumerated above. There apparently were very few, if any, sexual standards. The Canaanites were “sex maniacs” in every sense, practicing every form of incest and sexual immorality. In addition to all of this, out of devotion to their god, Molech, some parents were dedicating their children to him as cult prostitutes.[2]

God said all that He did in Leviticus 18 because, tragically, it needed to be said. The people of Israel were being delivered out of a perverse culture and were about to find themselves invading an even more perverse culture. So God enumerated His sexual standards. To say that His standards were a moral upgrade in comparison to what was acceptable in Canaan would be a gross understatement.

Leviticus 18 also offers a perspective to those of us who have decried the moral sexual slide of Western culture over the past fifty years. Sexual immorality could be much worse in our culture, and in light of the current trend, Leviticus 18 reveals to us where our culture is heading, apart from a spiritual awakening. The broader acceptance and de-criminalization of sexual perversions has only just begun. Just as no one a few decades ago would have believed the sexual depravity that is now prevalent, none of us would believe it if we could foresee the decadence on the horizon.

What’s Missing from the List

Absent from this list of perversions in Leviticus 18—and elsewhere in the Mosaic Law—are some of the sexual practices that are often condemned within Christian circles. One can’t help but wonder why any condemned sexual practice would be missing from the entire Old Testament, especially in light of such extensive Old Testament lists like this one, that mentions at least eighteen specific sinful sexual behaviors. Why would God elaborate with such specificity yet fail to ever mention certain sexual behaviors of which He disapproves, in at least one of the Old Testament’s 2,315 verses? Food for thought.

There are no comparable lists of specific sexual sins in the New Testament, and from that fact most Bible readers don’t conclude that sex with an animal or one’s daughter-in-law are OK since neither practice is specifically condemned in the New Testament. Rather, most Bible readers reasonably assume that any sexual behavior condemned by God for 1,400 years is still condemned by God today. It is interesting, however, that many Christians consider certain sexual behaviors to be sinful that are not condemned in either Old or New Testaments. We will consider those behaviors in later chapters.

Although the New Testament does not specifically denounce everything condemned in the Old Testament, it does condemn “sexual immorality” in general. The Greek word that is often translated “fornication” in English translations of the New Testament, porneia, has a much broader meaning than “sexual relations between two unmarried people.” Porneia is better translated as “sexual immorality,” referencing all sexual sin, and it is translated as such, for example, in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 (NASB):

For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality [porneia]; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel [body] in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter [thus it seems that porneia includes adultery] because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you (1 Thes. 4:3-8).

Porneia is also often translated in New Testament English translations simply as “immorality” within sexual contexts. Paul, for example, denounced a man within the Corinthian church who was living in an incestuous relationship with his stepmother (or perhaps mother), which he characterized as “immorality [porneia] of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles” (1 Cor. 5:1). Jude similarly wrote that Sodom and Gomorrah indulged in “gross immorality [ekporneuo]” (Jude 7).

All of this being so, it is quite safe to assume that any sexual behavior condemned in the Mosaic Law is still wrong in the eyes of God, even if it is not specifically condemned in the New Testament. Similarly, it seems reasonable to question if any specific sexual behavior should be condemned by Christians that is not condemned in either Old or New Testaments.

Let’s continue that thought as it relates to polygamy as we return to Leviticus 18.

The Mosaic Law on Polygamy

Those who, after reading of the pervasive polygamy found throughout Genesis, hope for a massive moral upgrade in the Mosaic Law are destined to be disappointed. The Law of Moses did not prohibit polygamy, although it did restrict it. For example, we just read in Leviticus 18:

You shall not marry a woman in addition to her sister as a rival while she is alive, to uncover her nakedness (Lev. 18:18).

That restriction was certainly a slight moral improvement over what was thought to be acceptable by Jacob, as well as by his wives—sisters Leah and Rachel—and by their father, Laban. It may also have contradicted the standards in Canaan. It was not, however, a ban of polygamy. If God had prohibited all polygamy, there would be no need for a commandment restricting a man from marrying sisters. Although this restriction would help prevent sibling rivalry, it obviously falls short of promoting the ideal of monogamy.

Elsewhere in the Mosaic Law we find laws that regulate polygamy, but that obviously don’t prohibit it. For example:

If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then it shall be in the day he wills what he has to his sons, he cannot make the son of the loved the firstborn before the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn. But he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the firstborn (Deut. 21:15-17).

The inclusion of these regulations in the Mosaic Law, and the matter-of-fact description of what sounds like a tragic triangle, make it clear that God wasn’t holding men in Israel to a standard of monogamy. But at least He was trying to mitigate one wrong that polygamy might spawn in relation to the children of polygamists’ wives.[3] Since the Lord addressed the issue, it must have been needful. But, again, polygamy itself was not condemned, but rather, was accepted, just as it was in Genesis.

These particular regulations do highlight the fact that polygamists face unique problems, and astute Israelites may have picked up on that and gained some monogamous wisdom. On the other hand, some Israelites may have viewed these particular regulations as implying that a good second wife could be the cure for a difficult first wife, as it is somewhat likely (but not certain) that such a man’s first wife would have given him his firstborn son (making the first wife the “unloved” one in the scenario). It seems unlikely he would have married her had he not loved her from the start (unless the marriage was arranged by his parents, and against his wishes), and thus it seems most likely that she fell into his disfavor for some reason at some later point in time. That may be the reason he took a second wife. Of course, all of this is somewhat conjectural.

These regulations do imply that God is opposed to divorce since the polygamist described remains married to a wife whom he does not love, even when he has another wife whom he does love. That may have also been a moral upgrade compared to the marital code in Canaan. In light of what we know about sexual standards there, I suspect divorce was easy and commonplace.

Another Moral Upgrade Regarding Polygamy

There is no hiding the social stratification of ancient cultures, including that of Israel. By simplest definition, one was either a slave or free person. Slaves were bought and sold, and were considered to be the property of their owners. One might initially become a slave through the conquest of war, by being sold by one’s father or family (as was Joseph), being born to slaves, or by selling oneself due to a personal financial crisis.

We’ve already encountered some slaves in earlier chapters of this book. Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah were all female slaves, “maidservants,” who belonged to Sarah, Leah and Rachel, respectively. They, like all slaves, existed to serve those who owned them. Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah even served their female masters sexually by having intercourse with their masters’ husbands in order to bear them surrogate children.

The descendants of Israel were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years until God freed them from their harsh taskmasters. In Egypt, just as in other ancient cultures, slaves existed for every kind of service, including sex. Sex with a slave was culturally acceptable and legal. I suspect it was mostly men who had sex with their female slaves, but Potiphar’s wife was perhaps a liberated woman who didn’t think men were entitled to all the fun. Neither did she think any seduction was required regarding Joseph, the handsome hunk her husband had acquired. Rather, she grabbed him by his garment and said, “Lie with me!” (Gen. 39:7, 12). She was giving orders to her husband’s slave. (It is very likely that Potiphar regularly had sex with his female slaves.)

It is important to remember that not all slaves throughout all time in all cultures have been treated—or mistreated—equally. We’re about to read a regulation in the Mosaic Law which makes reference to a male slave who, when allowed his freedom, chooses to remain a permanent slave, in part because he “loves his master.” And although the Mosaic Law’s regulations regarding slavery are often troubling to modern readers who live during the narrow sliver of history when slave-free societies exist, once those readers understand the historical context of the Mosaic Law, they realize that, although God did not abolish slavery in Israel, He definitely upgraded slave treatment at the time. It started a “human rights” trend that has gradually grown wherever God’s light has been allowed to shine. People who live in places where human rights are most honored often have no realization of the debt they owe to Judeo-Christian influence (and more Christian than Judeo, by the way). The relatively-recent idea, for example, that “all men are created equal,” was spawned by people who believed one God created all people.

Keeping all of that in mind, let’s consider another passage in the Mosaic Law that regulated polygamy within the context of slavery. Because so much of what is described in this particular passage is foreign to those of us who are so far removed from the cultural and historical context, I’m going to provide running commentary within the text as well as post-text commentary.

The Six-Year Slave

If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment (Ex. 21:2).[4]

This regulation applies to the purchase of a fellow Jew, not a foreigner, as a slave. At the Exodus, no longer was any Israelite person a slave, so this regulation could only have applied at some point in the future when, for example, a fellow, free Israelite, sold himself as a slave in order to raise a sum of money, probably to repay an insurmountable debt (see Lev. 25:39-40). He, therefore, would have negotiated his own purchase price. No Jew in such a situation would have sold himself to someone whom he thought would mistreat him and, if there was sufficient demand, he could even sell himself to the most desirable buyer, which might be the highest bidder. The price of a slave was naturally influenced by supply and demand.

The slave’s servitude was limited to six years, which of course also affected the purchase price. The buyer was essentially purchasing, in advance, no more than six years of labor. The buyer was taking a risk—as was anyone who purchased a slave—because slaves sometimes die prematurely or run away. If a buyer thinks he is paying for six years of labor but only gets two, he’s made a bad investment.[5] Incidentally, for this reason, slave owners were motivated to keep their slaves healthy and strong. Inherent within slavery is a guarantee of food, clothing and shelter. Wise slave owners took good care of their “property” in order to maximize the return on their investment.

In one sense, in such cases a slave buyer was actually making a loan to his new slave. The slave buyer loaned his new slave the agreed sum that he needed, and the slave then repaid the loan to his new owner through labor that, over the period of his servitude, was equal in value to the agreed purchase price.

I think you can see how slave purchasers in these kinds of scenarios could consider themselves to be good folks who were helping out needy fellow Hebrews, and how those men who sold themselves as slaves would likely agree. So this is not as bad as it might have initially appeared to many readers.[6] God provided a fair economic means for Hebrew men to sell six years of their labor for an advance payment. It is not unlike what is historically known as “indentured servitude” when, for example, European immigrants to the American colonies signed contracts to work for several years as payment for costly transportation across the Atlantic which they could not otherwise afford. Once they worked off their debt in the new land, they were free of any further obligation.

Let’s continue reading about a Hebrew man who might sell himself as a six-year slave.

Some Technicalities

If he [the six-year slave] comes alone, he shall go out alone; if he is the husband of a wife, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, “I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,” then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently (Ex. 21:3-6).

A married Hebrew man might sell himself as a slave, so that he would be a slave for six years while his wife was a free woman. When his six-year term of service was complete, she of course would go with him, a free woman married to a now-free man.

If, however, an unmarried Hebrew man sold himself as a six-year slave, and while a slave, his owner gave him, as a wife, one of his own female slaves, things get complicated. She is the property of the master. The master has an investment in her (his purchase price), and he isn’t selling her to his six-year male slave, as that male slave would have no means to purchase her. Rather, the master was giving his six-year male slave a gift of a wife whom he could not otherwise afford, as all wives came with a bride price. So it was an act of kindness on the part of the master. But it was not an act of supreme kindness, as would have been expressed by his relinquishing all ownership of his female slave. Had the master’s only option been to relinquish all ownership in his female slave in order to give his six-year male slave a wife, he likely would never have made his offer.

Of course, the unmarried six-year male slave knows all of this going into his marriage to his master’s female slave. He could opt to remain single for six years and, once a free man, work to save money to pay a bride price (recall that Jacob had to work seven years to afford his bride price). He might even hope to eventually save enough money to purchase the wife offered by his former master if she were available then. Standard male sexual desire, however, is not always so patient, and it is easy to sympathize with the six-year male slave who opts to accept his master’s offer, even with the strings that were attached.

His new wife, by the way, will feel supremely loved by him, as she knows he is essentially giving up hope of ever being a free man to marry her. The likelihood of him walking away a free man in six years and leaving his wife and children behind as slaves would seem to be very slim, although that was an option. More likely, at the end of six years he would opt to remain a permanent slave. Obviously, we’re not reading in this passage about some historically harsh form of slavery, but rather about a benevolent form of slavery that provided mutual benefits to both masters and slaves, so much so that a slave might declare his love for his master and desire to be his permanent slave.

Readers could, of course, argue about some inherent unfairness of the regulations we’ve just considered, but keep in mind that the nature of law, as it attempts to regulate imperfect human conditions, is imperfect itself. One can potentially find something inherently unjust in every law on some level. What is perfectly fair, for example, regarding child custody rights of divorced parents, or regarding fines levied against speeders, some who drive luxury imports and others who drive old clunkers? People debate issues of justice because they are not always black and white. Laws imperfectly arbitrate imperfect human conditions. They address the mess. The Mosaic Law did that better than anything that preceded it.

The Divine Rights of Concubines

This book and chapter, of course, is not about slavery, but sex. But we needed to read the initial context of Exodus 21 in order to understand what follows it. Apart from its historical context, what we’re about to read could appear to promote patriarchalism at its worst, when in reality, it established an elevated standard of women’s rights, including sexual rights, within a highly-patriarchal world. Here’s the next sentence in the passage:

If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do [that is, after six years of service] (Ex. 21:7).

Keep in mind that all ancient fathers sold their daughters, either as brides (as did Laban with Leah and Rachel), or as servants (as did the fathers of Bilhah and Zilpah to Laban), or as concubines. As we continue reading this passage, we will see that the father under consideration has sold his daughter as a concubine, presumably because that is the best he could do, perhaps because there was no one willing to pay a full bride price. Some daughters are more desirable.

Remember that the marital status of a concubine was less than that of a wife. Concubines had some marital rights, which is why they are sometime referred to in Scripture as wives, but they did not possess all the rights of a full-fledged wife, as we will soon see as we keep reading this particular passage.

Regardless, the female slave/concubine is not set free after six years, as was the case with male Hebrew slaves, and the reason is sexual. She has had sex with her master as his concubine. However…

If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master who designated her for himself [that is, as a concubine], then he shall let her be redeemed. He does not have authority to sell her to a foreign people because of his unfairness to her (Ex. 21:8).

In this scenario, the purchaser suffers “buyer’s remorse.” As his property, he has the right to sell her, and it is not considered a divorce as would have been the case had he married her as a full-fledged wife.[7] Note, however, that he is required by the Mosaic Law to sell her back to her father who, out of love for her, “redeems” her. So dad refunds the purchase price and she’s back home. The whole episode was tragic on several levels, but the Law addresses the mess and brings it to the best resolution under the circumstances.

Note that the original purchaser was not permitted to sell his concubine to foreigners, which is an obvious protection for her against additional abuse. The original purchaser has only one selling option, and that is to the woman’s father who originally sold her. Thus she ended up back home, hopefully the safest place she could be.

Also note that God labels the original buyer’s rejection of her as “unfair.” He has wronged a woman. And that is at least part of the rationale behind the prohibition against selling her to anyone other than her father. God was in essence saying, “You’ve wronged her by taking her as your concubine and then rejecting her, but I’m not going to contribute to her misery by subjecting her to having to live with a man like you for the rest of her life. I’ll allow you to extract yourself from the relationship and save her from the misery of belonging to you, but you have no other option than to return her to her father and, in order to incentivize you to release the woman you’ve wronged, I’ll require him to refund your original purchase price. You’ll have your money back, and perhaps she’ll get a chance to find herself loved at least as a concubine by another man.”

Can you see how this law, framed within a patriarchal culture, protected women from some significant abuse that was likely very common outside of Israel? As horrific as concubinage seems to us, it was ingrained in ancient culture, but at least the Lord did something to provide a means of escape for women who were abused as concubines. And there’s still more…

If he designates her for his son [that is, rather than purchasing her for himself as a concubine, he purchases her for his son as a concubine], he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters (Ex. 21:9).

It is uncertain what “the custom of daughters” is, but I suspect it has something to do with giving her certain rights generally afforded to one’s daughter.

When the “Dumpee” Gets Dumped

Now here is where it gets very interesting:

If he takes to himself another woman he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money (Ex. 21:10-11).

This could be the most anti-patriarchal verse in the entire Old Testament, and it ought to make your heart sing. Here is what God was declaring: If the original purchaser acquired another concubine, or perhaps took another woman as a full-fledged wife, which now makes him a polygamist, he is required to make sure that his first woman, in this case a concubine, does not suffer because of his decision. He must continue to supply her with sufficient food, clothing, and “conjugal rights.” If he fails at any of these things, she can leave, and presumably return to her father. And in such cases, there is no required refund from dad! The polygamist jerk gets the justice he deserves!

Take note, God stipulated that the new polygamist cannot deprive his first woman, even if she is not a wife but a concubine, of her “conjugal rights.” She has sexual rights, and those rights include frequency of sex. Sexual deprivation in monogamous marriage is condemned in the New Testament (see 1 Cor. 7:3-5). Here in the Old Testament, sexual deprivation is condemned in polygamous marriage.

If the new polygamist says to his first woman, “Sorry, but I’m just one man, so you’ll be getting half the sex as previously,” she can say, “Sorry, but I’m a full woman, not half a woman. See you later, alligator!”

Some readers will want to split hairs over the applicability of this passage to marriage versus concubinage. In my opinion, however, any such technicalities are irrelevant. God originally created one woman for one man, who together were destined to enjoy eternal marital bliss. Separation, rejection, divorce and polygamy (which, when you think about it, is actually a form of separation, rejection and divorce) were never part of the divine plan. But when sin entered the stage, the result was chaos, and relationships between men and women suffered from then on, manifested in a multitude of perverse ways. Perhaps God’s curse upon Eve, “In pain you will bring forth children; yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16) is just a synopsis of women’s plight under the selfish rule of sin-infected men, a patriarchal predicament that was only limitedly rectified by a few regulations in the Mosaic Law, but that was finally remedied in Christ, in whom there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28), and where husbands are expected to love their wives as Christ loves the church (Eph. 5:25).

Take-Away #1

As we wrap up this chapter, here’s something to think about: God plainly declared in Exodus 21:10-11 that a concubine—a women technically owned by a man who purchased her, and one who does not have the full privileges of a wife—can walk away from the relationship if her “husband” deprives her of sex due to the fact that he has another woman in his life. Although he is not guilty of adultery (as we have learned from looking repeatedly at what the Bible teaches about polygamy), he is guilty of sexually depriving a woman who has sexual rights to him. Recall that Paul wrote to husbands and wives:

The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Cor. 7:3-5).

Clearly, Paul believed that husbands and wives had equal sexual rights over each other, and he declared it in the strongest terms. The husband or wife who deprives the other of his/her sexual rights is being sexually unfaithful.

Again, under the Mosaic Law, a concubine could walk free if her “husband” took another woman which resulted in her own sexual deprivation. Do you suppose that wives had lesser sexual rights than concubines? That would seem to be very unlikely. I think it would be safe to assume that a sexually-deprived woman who is married to a polygamist would have just as much right to walk out of the relationship as a sexually-deprived concubine.

So what about the modern wife whose husband regularly masturbates to porn, and who consequently deprives her of sex?

First, he’s robbing her of her sexual rights.

Second, he’s having imaginary sex, not with a legitimate second wife or concubine as might be the case for Old Testament polygamists, but rather to multiple women to whom he is not married. He is committing mental adultery against his wife. Jesus Himself said that adultery is legitimate grounds for divorce (Matt. 5:32). She should not tolerate his behavior. She should confront him. If he repents, she should forgive him and give him an opportunity to regain her trust. If he will not repent, she has legitimate grounds for divorce.

On the other hand, if she has been sexually depriving her husband, she has added temptation to his life and bears at least part of the blame for his sexual unfaithfulness. Remember, Paul warned, “Stop depriving one another… come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Cor. 7:5). To sexually deprive one’s spouse is to put out a welcome mat for the devil.

Take-Away #2

In full compliance with what we’ve just read in Exodus 21:10-11, any and all of Solomon’s 700 wives and 300 concubines could have walked away, because there is no way Solomon could not have deprived the majority of their “conjugal rights.” I’m sure they all had their reasons for staying (they had plenty of food and clothing), and the fact that they did stay is a telling revelation regarding the differences between male and female sexual nature. Sexless marriage is apparently somewhat easier for women than men. (You can be sure Solomon didn’t suffer from lack of sex.)

Wise wives do their best to learn about and understand male sexual nature and desire, so that they might apply what they learn and so express their love for their husbands sexually. For him, sex is a major part of his relationship with his wife. Wives, consider how important sex is to you, and then perhaps multiply by ten to begin to grasp its importance to him. (Solomon, in all his wisdom, might recommend a multiple of one-thousand…)

Wise husbands similarly do their best to learn about and understand female sexuality, so that they might apply what they learn and so express their love for their wives sexually.

You can read books (like this one) that will help, but because every man and woman is different, the best way to learn is to ask and answer each other’s questions. It’s as simple as saying, “Love, tell me what you like, and tell me what you dream about. Don’t hold back.”

Take-Away #3

Finally, it is wise for us to acknowledge that the Mosaic Law was given to Israel by God, which means it could be said that Jesus was its author. That being so, had anyone asked Jesus during His earthly ministry about any regulation found in the Mosaic Law, He would have given His endorsement, although He may, as He did regarding divorce, have indicated that some of the Law’s regulations were a concession to the hardness of men’s hearts (and I do literally mean “men,” rather than “women”). It is safe to assume that any part of the Mosaic Law we find morally troubling contains some divine concession, and that being the case, the Mosaic Law teaches us how tolerant God is, yet not robbing us of hope that one day, when the world is populated only by those who have repented of their sins and been born again by God’s grace, there will be no concessions to any culture or hardness of men’s hearts, as everyone will love his neighbor as himself. Interestingly, in that day, there will be no marriage, as Jesus told us (Matt. 22:30).

Regardless, all of Jesus’ words need to be interpreted within the context of the Mosaic Law, because He gave the Mosaic Law, and He ministered to people to whom the Mosaic Law was binding. As we consider, in the next chapter, Jesus’ famous words equating lust and adultery, we’ll be interpreting them within the context of what the same Jesus taught hundreds of years earlier on the same subject in the Mosaic Law. — David

[1] Because a number of these prohibitions seem to address sex with married relatives, some commentators assume that God was speaking of such relatives as actually being formerly married and now widowed, and that He was prohibiting marriage with such women. However, here in Leviticus 18, God forbids Israelite men from having sex with their brothers’ wives. If God was forbidding marriage with one’s brother’s widow, that would contradict His requirement regrading levirate marriage we considered in an earlier chapter. Thus, as shocking as it is, it seems men in Canaan were having sex with their married sisters-in-law, just as they were having sex with their neighbor’s wives.

[2] This interpretation of Lev. 18:21 is based on the sexual context that surrounds it, although we know that some Canaanites were sacrificing their children to Molech by casting them alive into fire, another abomination to God (see Deut. 12:29-31).

[3] I cannot help but wonder why God didn’t stipulate that all offspring receive equal inheritances, as that would seem to me to be more just, but there must have been some reason, if only an accommodation to culture.

[4] Interestingly, this particular law, given to Israel soon after the Exodus and within minutes of the giving of the Ten commandments, seems to have been upgraded and improved forty years later, when Israel’s second generation was about to enter the Promised Land (see Deut. 15:12-18).

[5] There is reason to believe, according to Deuteronomy 15:18, that the standard price of a six-year slave was about half of what it would cost to hire a free laborer for six years, so slaves were a bargain, albeit a risky bargain.

[6] And how much more honorable was this practice than the modern concept of bankruptcy, considered by some to be a legal form of theft.

[7] This is one of the fundamental differences between wives and concubines. Recall that Sarah gave Abraham her slave, Hagar, to be a surrogate mother. Hagar became a concubine to Abraham, not a full-fledged wife, and when Sarah and Hagar later had conflict, no divorce was necessary to send Hagar away.