This is the Chapter About Masturbation

Sex is for Christians! A Joy-Filled Look at the Blessings of Biblical Sexuality - Chapter 7

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

"This is the Chapter About Masturbation" by David Servant

Because I happen to know that there is a lot of interest in the topic of masturbation, I also realize that the danger exists that many readers started this book by scanning the table of contents in hopes of locating a chapter on the subject. You can see by my chapter title that I’ve made it very easy for those readers to find what interests them.

If you are one of those readers, however, I’m going to request that you employ some restraint and not read it without first reading all the prior chapters. The reason is because those chapters frame this one within some essential context. We’ve considered some “strange sexual Scriptural stories” and some relevant revelation from the Mosaic Law. I’ve warned strongly against the dangers of porn. Those earlier chapters lay a foundation that will help make this one even more beneficial than it would otherwise be. If you haven’t already read them, please do.

OK, from this point onward, I’m going to trust that every reader has heeded my advice. So now let’s talk about masturbation.

Who Does It?

Surveys indicate that the large majority of people, both men and women, have masturbated. Here’s the data from a survey of Americans:

Despite its commonality as a sexual experience, masturbation is often considered taboo, more so than other sex-related topics. As with most taboo subjects, many wonder what’s normal or average in this area. To begin, the vast majority of American men and women report having masturbated at some point, although more men than women say they have masturbated at least once (89 percent and 70 percent respectively). But the frequency with which men and women report masturbating is widely divergent. Nearly twice as many women as men (50 percent vs. 27 percent) report that it has been at least six months since they last masturbated (or that they have never masturbated). Meanwhile, men are far more likely to report recent masturbation. Twice as many men as women report masturbating within the past week (54 percent and 26 percent, respectively) and over three times as many men as women report masturbating either the day of the survey or the day before (28 percent and 9 percent, respectively). So while most men and women have masturbated, men report doing so substantially more often than women.[1]

To reiterate what we just read, a little over half of American men, and about a fourth of American women, masturbate on a weekly basis. The survey did not reveal the percentage of those who combined pornography with masturbation. It did, however, reveal that masturbation is not something only done by single people:

Although masturbation is more common among those who are not romantically involved with anyone, it is hardly uncommon among those who are in romantic and/or sexual relationships. Among men who have no romantic partner, two in three (66 percent) report masturbating within the past week, compared to half (51 percent) of those who are involved with someone. Among women the differences are much smaller: 29 percent of single women and 25 percent of coupled women report masturbating in the week prior to the survey, a difference that can be accounted for by the differing age distributions of single and coupled women.

The survey I’m citing did not ask respondents’ marital status, but only if they were currently “romantically/sexually involved” with someone. It would seem safe to assume that many romantically/sexually-involved survey respondents were married, which would indicate that as many as 51 percent of the married men and as many as 25 percent of the married women masturbate at least weekly, which is probably not a good sign regarding their marriages. I’ll address masturbation within marriage later.

The survey I’m citing also did not ask respondents any questions regarding their identification with any religion. In light of the statistics, however, regarding porn use by professing Christians compared to non-Christians, I suspect the percentage of professing Christians who regularly masturbate would not be significantly less than non-Christians. Of course, just because a certain percentage of men and woman regularly masturbate does not make masturbation morally right or wrong.

As I shared in this book’s introduction, it was hundreds of thousands of young men who viewed a video teaching I posted on YouTube titled, Is Masturbation a Sin According to the Bible? who were my initial inspiration to write this book. When I began this project several months ago, over 560,000 people, mostly young men, had watched that video. Today when I looked it was over 700,000. Most are young men who: (1) are at the lifetime-peak of their God-designed and God-given sexual drive, (2) are daily being bombarded with sexual imagery and provocatively-dressed women, (3) find themselves increasingly more sensitive to sexual stimuli as their God-designed bodies cyclically build up a supply of semen until they receive some physical release either through sex, masturbation, or a nocturnal emission and (4), live in cultures that discourage pubertal and early marriage.

Many are trying to please God, and they consequently aren’t frequenting bars to pick up females for one-night stands. Nor are they fornicating with their girlfriends. Many are doing their best to resist entanglement with porn. Still, they masturbate with some degree of regularity. They try to stop, but find it very difficult or seemingly impossible.

Looking for answers, they turn to Christian leaders—who most often are men who are married, who masturbated up until marriage, who have also masturbated at times as married men, and who tell them it is wrong for them to masturbate! (Paul’s words in Romans 2:22 come to mind: “You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?”) Some go so far as to teach that masturbation is a form of sexual immorality that will send one to hell. Yet even that threat does not provide strong enough motivation for most single masturbators to overcome their habit. They feel addicted. It is for those men that I’m going to try and find some grace in the Bible. Of course, most of what I write will have some application to women, but please forgive me if I focus on men, as they have a greater propensity towards masturbation.

Masturbation is most often condemned because of its association with lust. If lust is morally wrong, and if masturbation always includes lust, then masturbation must always be morally wrong. That simple logic is persuasive. There are, however, some alternative views which challenge that logic. Let’s explore them.

Challenge #1: Scripture’s Deafening Silence

It is quite logical to think that, if masturbation was morally wrong, the Bible would plainly say so. Yet not only does the Bible never condemn masturbation, it never even mentions it. Not one word. Not even an allusion to it using some alternate phrase like “self-stimulate, “self-pleasure” or “solo sex.”

That is significant, because the Bible is no small book. Rather, it is a collection of 66 books, consisting of 1,189 chapters, 31,103 verses and 807,361 words. Moreover, it addresses many sexual topics. It includes a lot of positive references to sex. And, as we have already learned, it enumerates numerous sexual behaviors that God condemns, such as adultery, fornication, homosexuality, incest, lust, rape, and bestiality (sex with animals).

Personally, I would never have thought it would be necessary for God to say anything in His Word regarding the inappropriateness of humans having sex with animals. How many people are tempted to commit that sin? Of those who are, how many yield?

Compared to the frequency of other sexual sins committed by humans, the practice of bestiality is extremely rare. And compared to the prevalence of masturbation, it is practically non-existent in human experience. Yet God condemned bestiality, a very rare practice, four times in the Bible,[2] but never once did He mention, condemn or forbid masturbation, an act that is nearly universal. His silence on the subject is deafening.

Think about how many times adultery is condemned in Scripture by way of direct commandment (as within the Ten Commandments) and by example (as with David and Bathsheba). The act of masturbation must be thousands of times more common than adultery in human experience.[3] Yet masturbation is not mentioned even once in Scripture, much less condemned.

Is it wrong to think that, if masturbation is morally wrong, God would have mentioned that it is wrong somewhere within the Bible’s pages? That it would have been condemned in at least one of the Bible’s 31,000 verses?

In response, some say that, although masturbation is never mentioned or condemned in Scripture, lust is condemned, and because masturbation always involves lust, every time Scripture condemns lust it likewise condemns masturbation.

Even if all of that is true, we still can’t help but wonder why the Bible is completely silent on the subject of masturbation. Adultery always involves lust, but God found reason to repeatedly condemn it—specifically by its name—and not just by its association with lust. Why didn’t He do the same regarding masturbation, a practice that is much more prevalent than adultery? Why didn’t He condemn it at least once during the 1,500-or-so years that He was speaking through the authors of the Bible? His silence makes me wonder if we are missing something in our understanding.

Some say the Bible does mention masturbation in “veiled references.” The interpretation of those veiled references, however, is subjective, as we will soon see. Even if the subjective interpretations of those veiled references are accurate, we still must ask, Why is the sole “evidence” for God’s alleged condemnation of masturbation found only in the subjective interpretations of a few tiny fragments of Scripture, interpretations that stand in contradiction to the Bible’s complete absence of any specific and plain condemnation of the act? Can anyone cite another sexual sin that has been committed by multitudes of people for all of human history that is not directly and specifically condemned in the Bible? So why is masturbation the single exception? Let’s consider some of the most common alleged “veiled references” to masturbation.

Onan’s Sin

The story of Onan, son of Judah, grandson of Israel, has been so often been associated with masturbation that Onan’s very name has been incorporated into an English synonym for masturbation: onanism. The biblical story of Onan, however, actually has nothing to do with masturbation.

Although I’ve mentioned Onan’s story in an earlier chapter where we considered the practice of levirate marriage, let me briefly refresh your memory. Onan’s older brother, Er, died, because he “was evil in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord took his life” (Gen. 38:7). So Onan’s father, Judah, told him to do something that was later stipulated in the Mosaic Law,[4] that is, marry his brother’s childless widow with the understanding that their consequent children would be his deceased brother’s heirs (Gen. 38:8). Onan obeyed his father, but only limitedly:

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. 38:9-10).

Did we just read about masturbation? No, Onan had sex with his brother’s widow. That is not masturbation. That is sexual intercourse. Just before he climaxed, Onan intentionally withdrew himself in order to avoid impregnating her, lest he give her a child who would legally be an heir of his deceased brother.

God wasn’t angry with Onan because he masturbated, because he didn’t masturbate. And God wasn’t angry with him because “he wasted his seed on the ground.” That is something that occurs involuntarily any time a human male has a nocturnal emission. (If Jesus had a standard human body, He had nocturnal emissions.) God was angry at Onan because of his selfishness towards his deceased brother and particularly his brother’s widow. Onan had no scruples about taking her as a wife and repeatedly enjoying sex with her, but he wanted her to remain childless so that he would gain his deceased brother’s inheritance.

To use Onan’s story as proof that masturbation is a sin is a preposterous twisting of Scripture. To create a word that includes Onan’s name and is a synonym for masturbation is indefensible.

Paul’s Alleged Condemnation of Masturbation

It is sometimes claimed that Paul condemned masturbation via a veiled reference when he, in his first letter to the Corinthians, warned married couples against sexually depriving each other:

Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. 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. 7:1-5).

According to Paul, Satan may tempt sexually-deprived married persons who lack self-control. It isn’t difficult to imagine the devil whispering into the ear of a sexually-deprived married man: “You aren’t getting the sex you need from your wife, so why not proposition your neighbor’s wife, or find a prostitute?”

Either option, of course, would be an act of adultery.

Keep in mind that non-marital sex was readily available and easily accessible in Corinth, where the recipients of Paul’s letter lived. As I’ve previously mentioned, sex with prostitutes and slaves was entirely acceptable in much of the ancient world, both legally and culturally. Any Corinthian man who was inclined could walk to a local brothel or pagan temple and engage in sex with a prostitute. Perhaps that was one reason Paul wrote exclusively to the Corinthians:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, ‘The two shall become one flesh.’ But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee immorality (Greek: porneia)” (1 Cor. 6:15-18).

Some speculate that Paul not only had the temptation to commit adultery in mind when he warned sexually-deprived married persons, but also the temptation to masturbate, and that this passage is one of those “veiled references” I mentioned earlier.

One problem with that interpretation is that it makes Paul warn against a sin that is never once mentioned in the entire Bible, including Paul’s writings, as being a sin. If there was ever a good opportunity for Paul to mention or condemn masturbation, it would have been in the sex- and marriage-related passages in his first letter to the Corinthians. But Paul said not a word on the subject there, or elsewhere. That being the case, could Paul’s warning to sexually-deprived married Christians be intelligently paraphrased, “Come together again so that Satan will not tempt you to commit a sin that is never once mentioned or condemned in the entire Bible”? That seems unlikely.

Another problem with that interpretation is that a sexually-deprived married person could masturbate while imagining his or her spouse, which would not be lustful by definition. Jesus, for example, equated lust with adultery of the heart. So, imagining a sexual encounter with one’s spouse is not lust. Some married men report that such masturbation—when they must be apart from their wives for extended periods and face subsequent daily-heightened sexual sensitivity—is a safeguard against temptation and a preventative against adultery. It is hard to argue against that. A sexually-deprived married person could make the same argument that spouse-centered masturbation helps him/her avoid adultery and lust.[5]

Challenge #2: Masturbation as a Sin Preventative

In light of all this, and since Paul clearly recommended that married couples regularly engage in sex as a preventative against sexual sin, the question could be asked regarding masturbation and non-married persons: Would Paul then condemn non-lustful masturbation for those who don’t have the benefit of marital sexual release if it helped them to avoid fornication? In light of all the interest regarding masturbation, especially by sincere, single Christians struggling with God-given sexual desire, I’d like to explore that idea a little further.

You may question how masturbation could be non-lustful for an unmarried person. Although it is often assumed that lust must always accompany masturbation, that assumption is wrong.

Although imagining a sexual encounter with the opposite sex during masturbation might make it more pleasurable and increase the chance of achieving orgasm, such imaginations are not essential. In his book, Your Brain on Porn (mentioned in Chapter 5), Gary Wilson suggests a self-test for porn-using men who find themselves with diminished libido or erectile function. By administering his recommended test, they can determine if their problem is caused by their brain being “rewired” by porn use or because of some other reason. He writes:

1.) First, see a good urologist and rule out any medical abnormality.

2.) Next, on one occasion masturbate to your favorite porn (or simply imagine how it was if you’ve sworn it off).

3.) Then, on another occasion masturbate with no porn and without fantasizing about porn.

Compare the quality of your erections and time it took to climax (if you can climax). A healthy young man should have no trouble attaining a full erection and masturbating to orgasm without porn or porn fantasy.

The young man who cannot masturbate to a climax without porn or porn fantasy knows that his brain needs “rebooting” (see Chapter 5) if he is to recover normal sexual performance and desire.

Regardless, there are at least two ways that masturbation need not involve lust: (1) when it is done by married persons who imagine their spouse and (2), when it is done without imagining a sexual encounter. For such cases, the argument that masturbation is always morally wrong because it always involves lust is invalidated.

Some suggest that there is a third way that masturbation by unmarried people need not involve lust, and that is if it is done while thinking of an imaginary person, perhaps even an imaginary future spouse, so that one is imagining a sexual encounter within the holy context of marriage, and thus an actual person is not the object of one’s desire. Technically at least, such an imagination differs from what Jesus condemned: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).

A problem with that, however, is that if such a single person becomes engaged to be married, that single person is then regularly masturbating while imagining a sexual encounter with someone other than the actual person to whom he/she is going to be married, which could understandably be quite offensive to one’s fiancée/fiancé if it was known. Some who advocate this means of masturbation apart from lust suggest that, after engagement, it is OK to imagine sex with one’s fiancée/fiancé, and that such masturbation can serve as a safeguard against committing fornication prior to the wedding night. Readers will have to judge the merits of this viewpoint for themselves.

Burning with Passion and Lacking Self-Control

You may recall that in the previous chapter, I made reference to Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians to single Christians:

Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion (1 Cor. 7:7-8).

Paul clearly acknowledged that there were single Christians in Corinth who were “burning with passion.” So sexual thoughts were consuming them to some degree. And they did “not have self-control.” To what degree they lacked self-control we are not told. At bare minimum, they lacked the self-control to remain unmarried. But their lack of sexual self-control could have been manifested in other ways. For them, Paul wisely advised marriage. Marriage, which provides the opportunity for regular, legitimate sex, is the solution for Christians who burn with passion and who lack sexual self-control.

In light of this, and in regard to the appropriateness of masturbation, the question is sometimes asked: If Paul actually thought masturbation was a legitimate means of sexual release for the unmarried who are “burning with passion” and “lacking self-control,” why didn’t he also recommend masturbation as he did marriage?

A possible short answer to that question is that God’s ultimate intention in creating males and females with sexual desire was not so they would all masturbate. Rather, it was that they would marry. Masturbation is a very inferior substitute for marriage.

Beyond that, it is possible that the single people whom Paul had in mind in this passage—those who were “burning with passion” and who “did not have self-control”—were already masturbating. To think otherwise would seem naïve. Of course, single men who are “burning with passion” and who consequently masturbate only find temporary sexual relief. It isn’t long before they find themselves once again burning with passion. For such Christians, marriage, not masturbation, is the only good solution.

In any case, I hope you noticed the grace in Paul’s words to single people who are burning with passion and lacking self-control. There is no hint of condemnation. He wished that everyone had his self-control, but he recognized it was a gift not given to all. He also acknowledged that other Christians had a different “gift.” That gift could only be the gift of sexual desire—that sometimes burns with passion—and finds fulfillment only in marriage.

In the Interim

Do you suppose all the single Christians in Corinth who were “burning with passion” and “lacking self-control” ran out and got married the day after Paul’s letter was publicly read? No, I suspect it took a while for most of them to land a willing mate. Even arranged marriages take some time.[6] So there was no better solution until they were married. Until then, they would continue, at least at times, to find themselves burning with passion and lacking self-control.

Paul’s sympathy for sexually-frustrated single Christians should certainly not be interpreted as a license to sin in light of his warning to the Corinthian Christians that sexually immoral people and adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators (Greek: pornos, or “sexually immoral”) nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

Take note that Paul did not include “those who burn with passion and lack self-control” in his list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Only if they became fornicators were they in spiritual danger. Paul did not condemn single people who struggled with their God-given sexual desires. And he never said that those who masturbate are sexually immoral.

Challenge #3: God’s Empathy Regarding Male Sexual Desire

Since it was God who gave all men (and women) sexual desire, He naturally empathizes with those who are frustrated because of what He gave them. This fact seems to be rarely taken into consideration when the subject of masturbation is discussed. One of my early (male) readers expressed it this way: “Given what we know about how God has made us, it seems silly to me to think that He would make this drive so strong in us but then expect us to completely repress it until we can marry.”

In previous chapters, I’ve tried to point out Scripture’s affirmation of what all men already know about the highly-sensitive visual nature and relentless tug of standard male sexual desire. As I did, I was often fearful that female readers might conclude men are beasts.

If you are a female who wants to better understand standard male sexual desire, I would recommend Shaunti Feldhahn’s landmark book, For Women Only: What You Need to Know About the Inner Lives of Men, particularly chapters six, seven and nine. Feldhahn candidly admits that she was shocked when she first began surveying and interviewing Christian men regarding their daily sexual struggles:

Here’s the insight I stumbled on by accident, and which applies to even the most faithful of husbands: Regardless of whether they let this temptation into their thoughts (and many men work hard to avoid doing so), the unique wiring of the male brain creates an instinctive pull to visually consume the image of an attractive woman—and these images can be just as alluring whether they are live or recollected. Two areas of this “men are visual” thing surfaced that I, at least, didn’t really get before:

—First, a woman who is dressed to show off a great body is an eye magnet that is incredibly difficult to avoid, and even if a man forces himself to not look, he is acutely aware of that woman’s presence.

—Second, even when no such eye magnet is present, each man has a mental photo file of stored images that can intrude into his thoughts without warning, or be called up at will.

Keep in mind that Feldhahn was writing mostly about married men in those paragraphs, men who have some degree of sexual satisfaction in their marriages. The struggles of single men are even more acute.

Wait, There’s Still More…

Feldhahn co-authored a follow-up book with Craig Gross titled, Through a Man’s Eyes, which explores the visual nature of male sexual attraction so thoroughly and candidly that the book’s introduction includes a warning to women who are apt to be shocked by, and thus misapply, what they are about to learn. Feldhahn and Gross reference the neuroscience behind men’s visual sexual nature, and they do an excellent job explaining the instinctive, involuntary reaction that men’s brains experience when exposed to sexual imagery. It turns out that those old cartoons of men’s eyes jumping out of their sockets when a curvaceous woman walks by were not so far from reality.

In a chapter titled, Just Because They Want to Look Doesn’t Make Them Jerks, Feldhahn describes how even pre-pubescent boys find themselves attracted to female forms:

It is hard for many of us [women] that the initial visual pleasure—and temptation—is truly involuntary and biological, even for guys who want to do the right thing. It can help to understand that this visual awareness and resulting desire are present even in very young boys who have no concept of sex—and yet have exactly the same type of physical pleasure and draw that we’ve been talking about here.

I’m sure I’m not the only mom to have seen this type of thing. One woman told me that she took her three-year-old son with her to a fabric store, where she browsed the sewing patterns while he sat on a chair and looked at pictures in his book. At least she thought he was looking at his book. Unbeknownst to her, he found the sewing-pattern images of women in their underwear much more fascinating. A few minutes later he yelled across the crowded store, “Mom! Every time I look at these girls my pee-pee stands up!”

This little boy was three years old and had no idea what sex was…but he still had a male brain.

After a man experiences an involuntary, biological, visually-triggered, pleasurable, neurological reaction to sexual imagery, he then has the ability to choose to continue to indulge or to look away. That is when the inner war begins. Even if he looks elsewhere, the photo that his brain captured of the provocative image might pop up in his imagination immediately afterwards, or at some point in the future, without warning.

God’s Surprising Concessions

Why did God make men this way? Perhaps because He intended that the only sexual imagery that would enter male brains through male eyes would be images of their wives, resulting in marital bonding, ever-deepening love, and lots of babies. He probably also intended that marriage would occur close to puberty. Back in the day when most marriages were arranged, wise parents certainly factored that in.

Regardless, God knows we’re no longer living in Eden, and He definitely made some concessions in the Law of Moses regarding male sexual desire. Some of those concessions are likely to disturb modern Puritans like me and you. For example, Deuteronomy 21 contains a biblical passage from the Law of Moses that you’ll never see on anyone’s refrigerator door:

When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. It shall be, if you are not pleased with her, then you shall let her go wherever she wishes; but you shall certainly not sell her for money, you shall not mistreat her, because you have humbled her (Deut. 21:10-14).

Christians don’t like to think about the fact that Jesus is the one who gave this law concerning female prisoners of war, but because He is one with His Father (John 10:30), He is an author of the Mosaic Law just as much as He was the Sermon on the Mount. Keep in mind the Law of Moses was Israel’s rulebook from the time of the Exodus to Christ’s death, between 1,600 and 1,300 years.

Perhaps our only consolation regarding Deuteronomy 21:10-14 is that in the Old Testament’s recounting of wars, we find that the Lord generally supported Israel when they were obeying His commandments, and He often used them as a tool of His judgment upon wicked nations. So there were, at times, prisoners of war, and sometimes Israelite soldiers saw beautiful female captives to whom they were attracted enough to desire them as wives (which, we can concede, was morally superior to raping and killing them).

In fact, just prior to Moses’ death, God/Jesus instructed Israel to go to war against the Midianites to execute His judgment upon them, and 12,000 Israelite troops killed all the Midianite men. They returned to Israel’s border, however, not only with plunder but also with war captives who consisted of Midianite females and children. Moses was quite upset about it, saying:

Have you spared all the women? Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord [see Num. 15:1-9 for the details]. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves (Num. 31:15-18).

Without commenting on the troubling barbarity and patriarchal essence of what we’ve just read, I simply want to point out that only the virgin female captives were spared, and for the purpose of becoming wives of Israelite men, an example of what was regulated by the laws we previously read from Deuteronomy 21:10-14. I assume what was prescribed there was an upgrade from what was ordinarily practiced regarding female prisoners of war by other nations at the time, particularly as I read the clause that addresses a captive’s first month’s treatment while she mourns for her parents (which implies she was an unmarried virgin rather than a widow), and the final clause concerning proper divorce.

Nevertheless, we have one more illustration of the nature of male sexual desire and a surprising concession God made for it. An Israelite soldier sees a beautiful young woman among the captives of war, and just from seeing her, without knowing anything about her personality or character, desires her and takes her as a wife. And although we all cringe just thinking about it, we know from reading the rest of the Mosaic Law that such an Israelite soldier might already have a wife or wives, and that the captive woman whom he desires could be an additional wife rather than his sole wife. In fact, the very next passage in Deuteronomy is one we’ve examined in an earlier chapter that regulates the inheritance of a man who has two wives, one of whom he loves and one of whom he does not love (see Deut. 21:15-17).

These particular laws that regulate marriage to female war prisoners, by their existence, indicate that God was empathetic towards Israelite soldiers who were sexually attracted to female war captives. Note that the primary reason an Israelite soldier might desire a female war captive as a wife is because she is “beautiful.” Marriage would give him exclusive sexual rights to her. Sexual desire was definitely part of the equation. And that was OK with God/Jesus, who invented human sexual desire.

That doesn’t mean, however, that God/Jesus didn’t require some self-control from Israelite men who took female war captives as wives. After taking such women into their homes, out of some consideration for them, they had to wait a month before having sex with them. That requirement speaks volumes about male sexual desire. The reason God told them to wait is because they didn’t want to wait. The primary reason they took such wives was for the sex, as is made clear from God’s instructions to wait a month: “After that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife” (Deut. 21:13).

I must admit that it is difficult to imagine that many marriages to female war captives were successful, as all of Israel’s female war captives were generally born and raised in depraved, pagan cultures, not to mention the fact that most female war captives might find it difficult to love husbands who were members of the army that recently killed their parents. Perhaps all of this is why the final clause in Deuteronomy 21:10-14 provides for easy divorce: “It shall be, if you are not pleased with her, then you shall let her go wherever she wishes; but you shall certainly not sell her for money, you shall not mistreat her, because you have humbled her (Deut. 21:14).

In spite of the obvious chances of such marriages failing, God/Jesus still allowed them, another indication of His surprising empathy towards the divinely-designed and given sexual nature of males.

The Application

What does all of this have to do with God’s attitude towards masturbation by unmarried men? Perhaps nothing. However, God/Jesus was OK with Israelite soldiers being sexually attracted to beautiful female war captives and taking them, based only on a visual encounter, as experimental wives. That would seem to be an incredible concession to male sexual nature. It’s embarrassing to those of us who love the Bible and potentially infuriating to any female who reads this passage. Could the same tolerant God be intolerant of unmarried men masturbating, something driven by the same God-given sexual nature as the soldier who takes a female war captive, and something that is arguably much less potentially harmful?

While such a soldier was obediently and patiently waiting for the required month of sexual abstinence to be over, do you suppose he may have thought about what he’d be doing when the month of waiting was over? Keep in mind his new wife was already living in his home. The whole reason he took her as a wife was because of her beauty in his eyes. So did he entertain any sexual thoughts that month? Is it possible that he even masturbated while imagining his future sexual relationship with his new wife? If so, would the God who was OK with him being sexually attracted to a beautiful war captive and taking her as an experimental wife be angry at him for it?

By the way, on what planet do engaged people—who aren’t already sinfully having sex with each other—never think about sex with their future spouse? And isn’t sexual desire designed to motivate people to marry and to remain married? If “yes,” how does that work apart from sexual thoughts and imaginations?

Beyond God’s empathy regarding male sexual desire demonstrated by His law regarding marriage to female war captives, what about His empathy demonstrated by His toleration of polygamy? Knowing that He was OK with married men being sexually attracted to unmarried women and taking them as additional wives, does that make us think He would have no toleration for unmarried men who masturbate? Can we imagine David, who had at least eight wives and ten concubines, saying to his unmarried teenage sons, “Boys, God is perfectly OK with me having eighteen exclusive sexual partners. That’s the reason you don’t see me around much in the evenings. But don’t any of you dare to think about a naked woman or a sexual encounter until you have your own first wife or concubine!”?[7]

But doesn’t all this contradict Jesus’ prohibition against looking at a woman to lust for her, something he equated to heart adultery?

Of course, Jesus can’t contradict Jesus. New Testament Jesus can’t contradict Old Testament Jesus. Jesus could not have been warning against what He permitted in the Mosaic Law.[8] He could not have been warning against Israelite men being sexually attracted to beautiful, virgin war captives and marrying them, or even against married Israelite men being sexually attracted to unmarried Israelite women and marrying them. So we have to look for a way that New Testament Jesus harmonizes with Old Testament Jesus. And in the next chapter (next month’s e-teaching), that is what we’ll try to do! In the meantime, do send me your thoughts!—David

[1] For the entire survey results, see https://relationshipsinamerica.com/relationships-and-sex/what-predicts-masturbation-practices)

[2] Ex. 22:19; Lev. 18:23; 20:15-16; Deut. 27:21

[3] The survey I just cited indicated that 51% of American males reported masturbating in the previous week. It is quite doubtful that anywhere close to that percentage committed actual, physical adultery in the previous week.

[4] See Deut. 25:5-10

[5] Of course, a married person could use masturbation as a substitute for sex and consequently deprive his or her spouse of sex. That would be wrong.

[6] Moreover, some Christian fathers in Corinth had decided to not give their daughters in marriage for the foreseeable future; see 1 Cor. 7:36-38.

[7] Incidentally, David had a son, Amnon, who raped his half-sister and David’s daughter, Tamar.

[8] Granted, there are some who believe that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus altered the Mosaic Law, something that He, as God, would certainly have the right to do. Against that idea, however, is the fact that Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). In that very same sermon, Jesus went on to do just that: He filled to the full what was already contained in the Mosaic Law and the Prophets.