The Francis Asbury Society

The Old Testament Roots of Sexual Ethics

Going to the source of Christian views of sexual morals

by Dr. John Oswalt

How shall a Christian form his or her sexual ethic? This is a burning question in the Church today. It is spawned by the sexual revolution, which was in turn spawned by the development of the contraceptive pill and the legalization of abortion on demand. These two things together have given the illusion that sexual activity can now be engaged in without the fear of unwanted results, that is, conception of a child and its subsequent birth. The net result has been to reduce sex to a recreational activity on a plane with any other recreational activity. But that has produced some other results, largely unforeseen. One of those is the trivialization of sex. Removed from the mystery and wonder and responsibility of conception and birth, it turns out that sex is really rather oversold. It is like a drug: the more you get, the more you want; there is never enough. Where once the question was, “Do you kiss on the first date,” now the question is, “Do you have sex on the first date?” We hear of 12 and 13-year olds practicing “safe sex” on each other (operative language “on each other) by which is meant oral sex. Far from the deeply suggestive Hebrew idea that to have sex with another is to “know” them, sex today is simply a matter of using another. The other person is simply a means to an end – the end of selfish pleasure, which is an insatiable master.

But there have been other unplanned results of this unplugging of sexuality from conception and birth. One of those results is the removal of any argument against homosexuality from nature. If sex is merely recreational who is to say with whom or what one takes ones recreation? So the male and female bodies are uniquely complementary for the purpose of conception? So what? My body is mine to do with what I choose, and there is nothing that can stand between me and my choice. Of course the “nature” issue has become marvelously one-sided in this argument. Whereas one could never appeal to “nature” to say that man is clearly intended for woman, when a homosexual says that he or she is biologically conditioned by “nature” to be as they are, the argument becomes irrefutable. Thus, one could only oppose such activity because one fears or hates homosexuals. The idea that there could possibly be a rational or moral argument against this behavior is simply inadmissible. That has been said loudly enough and repeatedly enough until people have begun to believe it. Nietzsche has been proven right: language is power.

So what is the Christian to do? The answer ought to be simple. For 2000 years Christians have appealed to the Bible for their moral and ethical guidelines. If you want to know what to do or how to live, look to the Bible. It is a word from God, revealing his intentions for life and practice. But if Christians have used it in that way, they have, unfortunately, used it in another way. We have also used the Bible to provide a divine warrant for what we wanted to do in the first place. Too often it has been used in this way as a means to justify prejudice and self-serving. And because it is such a large and complex book, it has proven all too amenable to such unworthy uses. We can only hang our heads in embarrassment and shame at the ways in which the Bible has been used to justify slavery or the subjugation of women, to name two.

But these tragic failures cannot justify the wholesale abandonment of the Bible as a moral guide, as our opponents would like to see happen. At stake here is the nature of the Bible itself. If it is merely a randomly collected amalgam of the literature of the Jewish and early Christian communities, which collection process, extending across a millennium or so, intentionally obscured the actual formation of those communities, then there is indeed good reason to abandon it. At best, it would be a deeply flawed witness to where we have come from as a Christian community. To look upon it as a source of direction for moral choice would not be only wrong in that case, but ludicrous.

Ah, but that is not an accurate description of the Bible’s origins. And the reason I say that is because of the Bible’s unique understanding of reality. Those who insist that the Bible is simply one more product of the evolution of human thought in the West Semitic milieu are forced to downplay the central defining features of Biblical thought. How is it that among all the religious systems of the ancient Near East the Bible alone insists that there is one God not many, that the world is the intentional creation of one personal Creator, and not an effusion from the body of watery Chaos, that the Creator is distinct from his creation, not a part of it nor an expression of it, that magical ritual is forbidden rather than being the fundamental understanding of the relation between human and divine, that God is supra-sexual, not sexual at the deepest level of his being, that God is primarily to be known within the context of human history and not in timeless myth, etc., etc.

In short, this Old Testament religion, which is supposedly simply one more expression of West-Semitic religion, contradicts West-Semitic religion at every important point. How are we to explain this? Our opponents respond by insisting that the differences are only that, differences. After all, whether it is one god or many, they still believe in gods. Likewise, whether the sacrifices were thought to be magically effective or not, the Hebrews still practiced sacrifice just like every body else. The issue here is, where did these supposedly insignificant differences come from, particularly since the Hebrews are the only ones who hold to them. Surely if all the religions evolved along the same lines from the same original concepts, it is more than a little strange that only one of them would go in a radically different direction on every significant point. In short, even if we say the differences are not an argument that Hebrew religion is unique, we still must account for the existence of those differences, and accident will not do!

As we all know, when the Hebrews are asked where their “different,” that is to say, “unique,” religious ideas come from, they are quick to answer. And the answer is, “God!” They are equally quick to depict themselves as remarkably unresponsive to God’s attempts to communicate reality to them. This in itself is remarkable. Can you imagine the Greeks telling us that when it comes to logical, philosophical reasoning they are complete dunderheads? Hardly! They will tell us that they created philosophical thought because they are the most brilliant people in the world. Yet the Israelites tell us again and again that throughout their entire history they doggedly resisted every idea that is now contained in their sacred writings. So if they resisted those ideas, denied them, fought against them, how did these ideas survive to get in the Book? The answer given is that certain faithful people – prophets, they are called, from Abraham on – were inspired by God to say these things, and that the sweep of history proved them right again and again until even the most thick-headed, obstinate person had to admit they were right. Does that sound like evolution to you? It does not to me. No, it sounds like revelation. That the God who is not this world, but has made this world with divine purpose, has found a way despite concerted human opposition, to reveal the nature and meaning of life from within the very context of that life.

So what does that mean for our original question? It means that we should indeed look to the Bible to see what a Christian sexual ethic should look like. When we do that we discover that God has some very decided ideas about sexual ethics. But then another problem arises. Clearly, there is that in the Bible which was incumbent on certain people for a certain time, but is not incumbent on all people for all time. We need look no farther than the sacrificial system. That system was solemnly enjoined upon the Israelites at Sinai, and they violated it on pain of death. It was God’s Word. Yet no Christian today practices any of it, and we feel not the least qualm of guilt over our failure to do so. Why? Because we understand that sacrificial system to be symbolic of spiritual reality, which reality has now come in Jesus Christ. This is what John the Baptist meant when he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” And the Baptist’s thought is widely enlarged upon by the writer to the Hebrews. The sacrificial system was for Old Testament times, but not all time. Is that true for the Old Testament’s system of sexual ethics, too? The simple answer is no. Why? Because directly opposite to the situation with the sacrificial system, the Old Testament requirements and injunctions concerning sexuality are reaffirmed in numerous and various ways throughout the New Testament. Far from releasing us from them, the New Testament underlines them.

So, having said all that, what does the Old Testament say about sexuality and can we discern anything of why it says these things? I want to go to one of the strongest statements and use that as the basis for my observations. The book of Leviticus is certainly not a favorite among Christian readers, yet it is of far greater importance to our faith than most of us realize. In the first seventeen chapters we see the gracious provision of atonement that has been made for us so that we, fallible as we are, may yet live in the very center of God’s holiness. But why does God want us to live in the center of his holiness? The final chapters of the book, chapters 18-27, give the answer to that question: so that we can be holy as he is holy. Does that mean we are to share his transcendent essence, the qualities of the numinous that Rudolf Otto talked about? No, it is to share the divine character that most truly expresses his holiness, a point Otto completely missed.1 “You must be holy for I am holy” is above all an ethical statement.

Strikingly, the very first issue that is addressed in this second part of the book is sexuality, and the entire chapter 18 is addressed to this issue. And, as if that were not enough, just one chapter later much of chapter 20 is given over to many of the same points already made in chapter 18. Why is this? What is going on?

Several mutually contradictory explanations have been offered. Two of these we may dismiss immediately. The first is that these were slaves coming out of the desert, and like all rural, uneducated people were frightfully repressive, especially in matters of sexuality. The second, coming out of higher critical thought, argues that virtually all of Leviticus originated with the post-exilic priesthood, who like their leader Ezra, were sexually repressed, and insisted on obtruding themselves into the private lives of all their people. As to the first, it seems to me to be the voice of urban prejudice speaking. All rural people of all times and places cannot be lumped together as sexually repressive. The second explanation must necessarily contradict the first since now it is being said that the Leviticus proscriptions did not originate with a repressive, rural culture, but one that had been immersed in Babylonian culture which was highly urbanized. However, it is like the first in that it is equally prejudicial. Who says that priests are necessarily sexually repressed, or that Ezra, in particular, was? In this argument, as in the former one, hard evidence in support is in singularly short supply. As to the Bible’s sexual restrictions growing out of repression, I call upon us to take a long look at the so-called Song of Solomon, or as the Hebrews title it, the Song of Songs. If one reads that canonical book with any attention at all, it will become very clear that for the Israelites sex within the boundaries of a committed heterosexual relationship was pretty much a “no holds barred” situation. Repression? Hardly!

So what is going on? When we look at the text itself, we find another explanation. The Israelites are forbidden to engage in any sort of sexual activity outside of hetero-sexual marriage because that is what the Canaanites do (Lev. 18:24-27; 20:22-24). But immediately the next question emerges: was this not then merely a way of keeping the Israelites separate from the Canaanites? In this understanding the Bible is not saying that these extra-marital sexual activities are intrinsically wrong, but just that it was important in the early going (or during the post-exilic period?) for Israel to maintain its distinctness from the surrounding people if it was to retain its identity as a unique people of God. Thus, it is argued, these prohibitions are time-conditioned. They were for that time when the Israelites were in danger of being absorbed into the surrounding culture and ceasing to be the people through whom God could convey his love to the world. As an aside, I might ask, is the Church not in such danger?

But be that as it may, the question is, is that what the text is saying, that these behaviors are only forbidden because they are Canaanite, not because there is something intrinsically wrong about them. I do not see how a straight-forward reading of the text could ever permit that reading. These things are contrary to the nature of humanity as God has made it, and because the Canaanites have insisted on practicing them the land – the Creation – is vomiting them out. That figure of speech is surely intentional. Why do we vomit? We do so to eject something from the gastric system that will be destructive to that system. That this is the correct reading of the data is supported by two repetitions in this list of prohibitions. These actions are seen as being “unclean,” and they are also called “an abomination.” What is the point here? That which is unclean is contrary to the nature of Yahweh. Isaiah knew himself to be unable to survive in the presence of the Holy One because his lips, representing his life, were unclean. The unclean cannot survive in the presence of the Clean; the two conditions are mutually exclusive. Hands that are clean are not simultaneously unclean.

But why do these behaviors: incest, bestiality, adultery, fornication, and homosexual practice, render us unclean in the presence of Yahweh? The answer is that they are contrary to life as God created it. This is the significance of that word “abomination.” We do not have the time to go into an exhaustive study of the concept here, but let me simply say that when we look at the occurrences of the word we find it regularly used to refer to “unnatural” actions that are detestable to the Creator. These are actions which in the most fundamental sense fly in the face of the universe as God designed it.

But if this is true – if engaging in sexual activity outside the bounds of lifelong, heterosexual marriage is a denial of the very thing God made us for – why is such activity so deeply tempting to us? Why does the Canaanite in all of us find it so attractive, so much so that it is the first thing God addresses in his call to holy living? I think we begin to see the answer when we look at the first nine verses and the last verse of chapter 20. There the sexual prohibitions found in verses 10-21 are “fronted” by a prohibition from offering ones children as a sacrifice to idols (vv. 1-5), and by a prohibition from having anything to do with mediums and wizards (vv. 6-9).2 This latter point is then reinforced by verse 27 which says that anyone practicing wizardry must be put to death. What is this encapsulation of the sexual prohibitions between idolatry and sorcery saying? I believe it is saying that for the Canaanites, and for us, the unbridled expressions of sexuality were a religious statement. Their sexual activities were a statement about their view of reality and an attempt to place themselves in that reality.

What was the Canaanite view? It was the standard ancient Near Eastern position which I touched on above: this psycho-socio-physical cosmos is all there is to reality. And a concomitant of this view is that everything in the world is continuous with everything else. That idea of continuity does not necessarily follow from the idea that the cosmos is all there is, but it is necessitated by the need to control that cosmos. Humans are profoundly needy beings. Apart from our physical needs, most of which we cannot supply for ourselves, there are a host of social and psychological needs. If these are not supplied, we shrivel up and die. So how can we gain control over the cosmos to make it supply our needs? First of all, there cannot be anything beyond the cosmos, for if there is, it is totally out of our control. And in the cosmos, there can be no boundaries between the realms of human, nature, and spirit. If I take this world to be all there is, but yet admit that there are boundaries between the realms of human, nature, and divine, then I have to further admit that there is no way to insure that my needs are supplied. That alternative is not acceptable. The whole point of insisting that this world is all there is is to render it susceptible to human control, and that requires the hypothesis of continuity.

If the gods are fundamentally continuous with the visible world, we can understand them. They are an amalgam of human and nature, all that we are and it is, only written large. We have made the gods in our own image. As we are capable of goodness, so are they. But, as we are incapable of sustained goodness, neither are they. As we are often dependable, so are they; but as we are incapable of sustained dependability, neither are they. As we are driven by the basic need of self-preservation at all costs, so are they. As we are obsessively sexual, so are they. As our sexuality is the most mysterious of all the drives, at the same time the most satisfying and the most frustrating, so in its unbridled expression we are most in touch with divinity. That is why the call to a holy life begins with sexual restrictions.

What is bestiality about for the Canaanite? Is it an expression of psychological aberration? Hardly! It is a way of affirming that there is no boundary between human and nature, or in the light of that piece of Canaanite literature which describes Baal copulating with a cow, that there is no boundary between the gods and nature. By the same token, what is adultery about in that world view? It is an affirmation that there is no boundary around any human relationship. Sexuality is so significant that it cannot be limited to one single relationship among two humans. Can the life force be contained in such a narrow confines? Never! A female’s fertility does not belong to her alone or to her husband, it belongs to the world. And what about homosexual activity? There are no boundaries whatsoever that can dictate how I express and participate in the life-force within me.

But it might be objected that by bringing in all these religious overtones I am making the whole thing a little overblown. I first encountered this objection some forty years ago during the social upheavals that characterized the 1960s. I was teaching a Sunday School class and in a lesson aired some of my early opinions along these lines. One of the members of the class was a widow in her late 60s, very sharp, and very crusty, and as kind as she was crusty. After class she came up to me and fixed me with her eye. “Mr. Oswalt,” she said, “you can’t tell me that these boys and girls coupling in the streets are doing that in order to make some religious statement.” I smiled and said, “No, Mrs. Johnson, I can’t say that. But I can say this. They are denying, as forcefully as they know how, that there are any boundaries on their self-expression. No one is going to tell them what to do with their sexuality. It is theirs to use as they wish.” She nodded and said, “I’ll go that far.”

So what is it about sexual self-expression that requires the imposition of these boundaries? Surely it is precisely because of the incredible importance of the sexual embrace for all that God is trying to do among us. Here our entire personhood is caught up as in no other drive. Here our hopes, our fears, our longings are all engaged. Here, as designed by God, we enter into the mystery of communion, surrender, and satisfaction as no where else in human experience. In the final analysis our sexuality is designed to be a lived out parable of what we are made for in God. But the only way this experience can come near serving its divine purpose is if we will admit that we do not define the terms of our existence, but that our Creator does. If we begin by insisting that we will use our gifts to supply our needs in our own way and for our own purposes, all is lost. There is a boundary between us and God that we recognize when we allow him to define our real needs for us and to determine how those needs will be met. And it is in the surrender of our sexual self-expression to him for his purposes in us that we most concretely and effectively recognize and admit that boundary. So, sexual promiscuity of all sorts outside of life-long heterosexual marriage is finally a religious statement. It is a way of saying that there are no boundaries which confine me, that I am God, and that the world is mine to manipulate as I will. On the other hand, life-long faithfulness to a sexually differentiated partner is also a religious statement. We recognize that we are not God and neither is our mate. We no longer need to demand that she or he fulfill what only God can in our lives. We embody our acceptance of God’s right to determine what is right and wrong in life. We discover the joy of complete humanity when the two incomplete yet complementary expressions of humanity come together in an utter self-surrender and self-forgetfulness made possible by absolute commitment. What is it to be holy as God is holy? It is to allow him to lay down the terms of the human condition and to joyously conform to those terms. It is to lose yourself in absolute surrender to him, confident of his complete commitment to you, and in so doing to find yourself as you have never known yourself before. Is that worth building a high hedge around? You’d better believe it.

1. Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy: an Inquiry into the Non-RationalFactor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, tr. J. W. Harvey (Oxford: 1926).
2. Verse 9 condemns cursing ones mother and father, and in the context it looks as if this might have been a part of some magical ritual.
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