Three Taverns Church

Biblical Sexuality – Part 2: The Patriarchs


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?

5 thoughts on “Biblical Sexuality – Part 2: The Patriarchs

  1. It seems to me a matter of convenience on the man’s part. Hey, my wife can’t have children so I’ll get another. Why did nobody consider it to be God’s will that a particular couple were not to have children? After all, God could enable anyone to have a child if he so wanted.

    • Hey stuartart, this was actually his wife’s idea…she got a bit impatient with God’s plan for children. I’m sure he was thrilled at the idea, though. Having said that, it’s curious that they didn’t try this idea sooner. If it was a culturally-acceptable practice I wonder why they didn’t use this tactic before they became octogenarians. We’ll never know, but it is something to think about. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Cultural aspects of sexuality in the Bible are very interesting. Confusing even. This story is but one example. David had several wives, Solomon had hundreds of wives & concubines, and yet we know the important role these men played in the history of Judeo-Christian beliefs.

    I think it is important to point out that there were consequences in the example of Abaham & the men I mentioned. These men faced difficult situations because of the “other woman/women,” and the offspring. Offspring as well paid heavy prices due to the decisions of their parents.

    It seems to me that there is an issue of revelation as well as culture. In the days of Abraham & Jacob, there was no “ten commandments” & they knew only what God revealed of Himself to them directly or from the stories passed down orally. Not quite as simple as I state it of course: Sodom & Gomorrah give a clear indication that God was unhappy with sexual norms in that culture. The indication is that Lott & his family were “righteous enough” to be rescued…that they understood the norms were out of God’s plan & they abstained from indulging. Of course, then Lott’s daughters have their own weird ideas sexually speaking….um, yeah, confusing! lol

    The New Testament gives us some clarification regarding what God “accepted” before the new covenant. Jesus said God allowed for “easy divorce” in OT days b/c mens hearts were hardened. The NT standard for a Christian leader is to be the “husband of one wife.” And even that is debated like crazy. I think it means you don’t practice the standard of being married to multiple women, live an adulterous life, etc. Basically a “one woman kind of man.” Many interpret that passage to mean a man who’s never been divorced.

    As with the first post in this series, I think lots of interesting cultural questions are raised with your post. However, I think the NT gives us really clear answers about God’s standard for sexuality for Christ-followers regardless of the cultural norms.

    • Thank you for the thorough response! Let me move through your comments point by point:
      1. Yes, sexuality in the OT is very confusing
      2. I would argue that unless God specifically calls out behavior or action as sin, we should be careful when we ascribe the brand of ‘sin’ to an action only because it had negative consequences
      3. There is a definite progression of ‘acceptable’ sexuality in Scripture. What I find most fascinating about that progression is how we start with the Patriarchs following custom, move to the Law which defines Jewish culture, then come into the time of Christ when He ignores culture altogether.

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