Believe it or not, the definition of ‘acceptable’ sexual behavior changes quite a bit throughout the narrative of Scripture. What was once normal and acceptable sexual behavior is illegal today in the United States (and most of the rest of the developed world). This change in the landscape of biblical sexuality can make it downright difficult to define what ‘acceptable’ Christian sexuality should be today. There are some people who believe that Christians should model their sexuality after 1st century Palestinian cultural norms. I would argue that throughout history biblical sexuality has followed cultural trends while also holding to a core set of beliefs, and that Christians today should continue that tradition. Indeed I believe we already practice this tradition without knowing it, and refuse to acknowledge it or apply it evenly to all people-groups.
Today’s question: Was the sexuality of ancient biblical characters influenced by accepted cultural norms?
Let’s start today’s investigation with the story of Abraham and Sarah found in Genesis chapter 15. Here, God promises Abraham that his descendents will be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Oddly enough, at this point in Scripture Abraham is 75 years old and childless; his wife Sarah is in the same geriatric boat. But Abraham and Sarah believe God (for which faith Abraham is reckoned as righteous by God) and they try to have kids of their own for eleven years. But those eleven years pass and Sarah remains childless; you can imagine her frustration. So in Genesis chapter 16, Sarah says this to Abraham:
“Now Sarai (God changed her name to ‘Sarah’ later), Abram’s wife (God changed his name, too) had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar, so she said to Abram, ‘The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.’ Abram agreed to what Sarai said….Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.”
It was common practice in the Near East at this time in history to take another wife for child-bearing purposes if a man’s first wife was unable to conceive; that’s exactly the scenario we see play out here. This is not a one-time event: In Genesis 30 Abraham’s grandson Jacob marries two sisters, and those two sisters’ maidservants, so that he can have children. In neither situation did God reprimand His chosen people for their behavior; in fact, he helped Jacob’s wives conceive!
Are we then to conclude that ‘acceptable biblical sexuality’ today includes remarriage (or having four wives) if a man’s first wife cannot conceive children? I believe most Christian leaders would argue that it does not; they would probably argue that times have changed. Indeed times have changed, but before moving too quickly past that acknowledgement let’s realize what we are saying: What was once culturally and religiously acceptable sexuality is no longer appropriate.
Do you agree?