Evangelical. Congregational. International.
Following are some questions and answers based on the following series of sermons:
- "The Covenant of Marriage" Genesis 2:18-25 (2/20/00)
- "What is Sex?" Genesis 2:18-25 (3/5/00)
- "What About Premarital Sex?" 2 Samuel 13:1-19 (3/12/00)
- "Hate Masquerading as Love" 1 Corinthians 6 (3/19/00)
- "What Jesus Taught About Divorce" Matthew 19:1-12 (3/26/00)
- "Marriage Roles" Ephesians 5:22-33 (4/9/00)
Click on the links below to read Gordon Hugenberger's responses to the following questions:
Why does the Bible stress the problem of adultery vs. premarital sex?
What are some biblical texts related to premarital sex?
What is the Bible's view of rape and how is Amnon's rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13 relevant for premarital sex?
Since Amnon and Tamar are half-siblings, how can Tamar be right in 2 Samuel 13:13,16 that a marriage between them would be acceptable?
Doesn't this view of marriage place too much emphasis on sex?
Doesn't your view encourage promiscuity?
What if you have slept with your girlfriend or boyfriend, but he or she has no interest in marriage?
What if he or she is a non-Christian?
What if you have had a long string of boyfriends or girlfriends?
How far is too far?
Is it too late?
What if a young couple who have slept together are willing to stop, but have no interest in viewing their sexual intimacy as a marriage-love committing act?
What if, regardless of what the Bible seems to imply or any well-intentioned advice from Pastor Hugenberger, a young sexually active couple have no desire to move toward marital love, but they are willing to stop being sexually intimate? Should they embrace the call of singlehood in a manner that resembles the person who illegitimately divorces their spouse in 1 Corinthians 7:11?
Does the prediction of husbands "rule over" their wives in Genesis 3:16 represent a deviation from the ideal? There is also a page of additional information on the subject of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12, and the October 8, 2000, sermon "Touch Not Mine Anointed." For much a more detailed and scholarly explanation of the theory and ethics of marriage in the Old Testament, see Gordon P. Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant: A study of Biblical Law and Ethics Governing Marriage, Developed from the Perspective of Malachi, Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, 52 (Leiden, New York, Köln: E.J. Brill, 1994 [reprinted in paperback as Marriage as a Covenant. Biblical Law and Ethics as Developed from Malachi; Biblical Studies Library Series, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998]).
Why does the Bible stress the problem of adultery vs. premarital sex? I agree with your perspective on premarital sex, but 2 Samuel 13 is a very disturbing passage! Did you use it because the Bible actually has very little to say on this subject? [condensed summary of original question]
I acknowledge that the Bible is not chock-full of references to premarital sex. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude from this that there are no references or that God is indifferent to what couples do, so long as they love each other, or that in human beings were somehow more spiritual or less prone to sexual sin in earlier times than is the case now.
The fact is, the Bible gives us plenty of guidance on the matter of premarital sex, so we need not be in any doubt about what pleases him or what would offend him. Thankfully, we have not been condemned to have to learn these lessons only by the painful process of trial and error.
If we wonder, however, why there are not more passages in the Bible that explicitly deal with this issue, the answer is that for purely cultural reasons there simply was far less opportunity for this particular temptation than is the case now.
Throughout the entire ancient Near East, men and women normally got married in their mid-to-late teens. For this reason, there were very few individuals around who were old enough to be sexually mature, but who were not yet married or at least "pledged to be married." (Engagement or "betrothal" gave couples the legal status of marriage, even though their marriage was not yet consummated.) This is why far more attention is given in the Bible to the problem of adultery than to the temptation of premarital sexual promiscuity. There was very little in the ancient world comparable to our practice of dating.
In particular, under Roman law the minimum legal age for marriage was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. The Jewish Talmud likewise offers 12 and 14 as the minimum legal ages for marriage.
Of course, these are just legal minimums, not averages. From actual marriage documents that have survived from all across the biblical world from the 3rd millennium BC on down, we know the typical practice was for marriage to occur when couples were in their mid-to-late teens. It is true that in some periods and locales, the men could get married as much as a decade later, but even in those situations, the women would still be in their teens.
In neo-Babylonian marriage documents from the 7th to the 3rd centuries BC, for example, the age of women entering marriage ranges from 14 to 20, while the age of the men ranges from 26 to 32. Scholars explain this unusual postponement of marriage for the men as due to economic factors. By putting off marriage until their own fathers had died, as was the case for most of these men, they could enter marriage with the advantage of an inheritance.
In marriage contracts from ancient Greece, once again the ages of the women range from 14 to 20, but the men are in their twenties, because they typically waited until after compulsory military service.
With most of the men, especially in Israel, and all the available women already married, as a practical matter sexual temptation in the biblical world was more apt to involve adultery than premarital sex.
What are some biblical texts related to premarital sex? What are some passages where the Bible offers clear, explicit guidance on the topic of premarital sex? [condensed summary of original question]
I know that this is not your question, but let me urge you to begin your study of this topic by placing it in the proper context. In other words, make sure that you have a relatively firm grasp on what the Bible teaches on marriage and sexuality more generally. If you did not happen to listen to the sermons I preached on these matters, you might be interested in listening to copies of the sermons: "The Covenant of Marriage" Genesis 2:18-25 (2/20/00) and "What is Sex?" Genesis 2:18-25 (3/5/00).
In my opinion, the most important texts that bear on the subject of premarital sex are Genesis 34; Exodus 22:16-17; Deuteronomy 22:28-29 (according to almost every English translation in print other than the NIV, which is misleading here); 2 Samuel 13:1-22; John 4:17-18; 1 Corinthians 6:15-20; 1 Corinthians 7:7-9, 36-38; and 1 Thessalonians 4:2-8 (especially as translated in the RSV or NAB).
It may help to discuss two of these passages here in some detail, Exodus 22:16-17 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29.
A. Exodus 22:16-17
If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins. (Exodus 22:16-17)
Rather than a categorical imperative, sometimes called "apodictic law," such as "love your neighbor as yourself," this law in Exodus 22:16-17 is an example of what is called "case law." In other words, it is an "if… then…" kind of love. When one interprets a case law, the object is to discern what are the relevant underlying principles which are determinative or illustrated by the case, and then, apply these principles much more generally.
To illustrate these interpretive principles, there is another case law in Exodus 23:4: "If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him." If one happens to find a wandering ox that belongs to a friend, rather than an "enemy," the principle of Exodus 23:4 would still apply. This is an example of extending the application of a text, or its underlying principle, from "the greater to the lesser," that is, from a harder situation to one that is easier. Likewise, if one happens to find a wandering Golden Retriever, or even a Honda Accord, rather than an ox, surely the same underlying principle would apply. You must "take it back to him"!
In an analogous manner, once the underlying principles of Exodus 22:16-17 are determined, it seems likely that this law would be no less applicable if one's girlfriend happens to be an orphan or if a "bride-price" is no longer used.
The first stipulation in Exodus 22:16, "if a man seduces a virgin," distinguishes this case from one of rape, where the woman remains unwilling. The language of seduction, of course, implies the man's initiative in this premarital sexual relationship, and perhaps for this reason, the stipulated remedy assumes that the man should take a similar initiative in regularizing the illicit relationship in marriage. In other words, it is not up to the woman to beg, nag, or shame her boyfriend into "making her an honest woman." If the man himself is genuinely repentant in keeping with the Word of God in Exodus 22:16, he will take whatever initiative is required. (See also the good example of this kind of repentance on the part of Shechem in Genesis 34.) In any case, once again, at a minimum the word "seduces" assures the reader, at least in the end, this man did in fact secure the woman's consent. Hence, this law has nothing to do with cases of sexual abuse or rape.
The description of this woman as "a virgin" has sometimes been misunderstood. Incidentally, in case you are wondering, the Hebrew term in this verse [bethulah], is not the same term as is found in Isaiah 7, which predicts that a "virgin [`almah] will conceive and bear a son," who will be the Messiah. In any case, the term "virgin" here in Exodus 22 might better be translated as "a young maiden." The Hebrew term in question does not refer to the woman's chastity, but to her age. It is used of any woman who is old enough to be sexually mature, in other words, old enough to be married, but who is not yet a mother. This is why the term is used to describe a married women who has not yet had a child. For example, in Joel 1:8 we read, "Mourn like a virgin in sackcloth grieving for the husband of her youth." From this example it is obvious that this term "virgin" does not refer to technical virginity. This is why some Bibles translate the word as "a maiden." Joel's point is that the nation should grieve as a wife might for her deceased husband when she does not even have the consolation of a child. Furthermore, since the Hebrew word bethulah, commonly translated "virgin" or "maiden," actually refers to "a woman who is old enough to be married, but not yet a mother," a passage like Genesis 24:16 is not guilty of a needless redundancy when it describes Rebekah as "a virgin, and no man had had relations with her" [NASB].
The reason, then, that Exodus 22:16 specifies that this woman is a "virgin" or "maiden" is not to eliminate its application to women with a sexual history. The point is rather to stress the capacity of this woman to give meaningful consent. She is not a little girl; she is of marriageable age.
On the other hand, the qualification, "who is not pledged to be married" in Exodus 22:16, is necessary to make clear that this passage is not talking about a case of adultery. As is apparent from Deuteronomy 22, among other texts, the Bible views the promises made in an engagement with perhaps much more seriousness than do we. Even though the marriage has not yet been consummated, if a man and woman are "pledged to be married" or "betrothed," they are now called "husband" and "wife" — exactly like Mary and Joseph in Matthew 1:16, 19, 20, 24; Luke 1:27; 2:5 — and any sexual infidelity is viewed as an act of adultery (cf. Deuteronomy 22:23f.).
In terms of modern sensibilities, the "bride-price" mentioned in Exodus 22:16 could hardly be more off-putting. In spite of a reference to marriage, the implication of paying a "bride-price" to a woman's father is utterly demeaning to women in that it appears to reduce them to some kind of commodity that men purchase from other men. The problem here, however, is based on a complete misunderstanding of the actual practice in Old Testament times. A "bride-price," which would be better translated a "marriage present," was a substantial sum of silver, gold, etc., which a young suitor paid to the parents of his fiancée. Those parents, in turn, took that sum in its entirety and added to it whatever inheritance they wished to pass on to their daughter. The combined amount, then, comprised what is called the "dowry." The dowry was given to the bride when the marriage was completed. The purpose of this indirect transfer of wealth from a man to his future wife through his in-laws was to create an indisputable public record of her legal entitlement to those assets. In the event of an unjustified divorce or the death of a husband, the dowry would automatically revert to the wife and would guarantee her financial security. In this respect, then, a marriage present was the opposite of a modern prenuptial agreement. Rather than protecting the assets of a begrudging husband, the marriage present assured that those assets would be transferred to his injured wife! Accordingly, the practice of giving a marriage present provided a strong financial disincentive for divorce.
In view of Shechem's willingness in Genesis 34 to pay any price that Jacob asked in order to marry Dinah, the law in Exodus 22:16 may be intended, at least in part, to set a limit to protect a love-smitten suitor from extortion. At a minimum, the mandated payment of a bride-price, or marriage present, was public evidence of the repentant man's honorable intentions toward the woman. In this respect, it is perhaps comparable to the modern practice of giving a diamond engagement ring.
There is an important subsidiary clause in verse 17: "If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins." Although the young man is responsible to repent by pursuing marriage, this does not guarantee that the marriage should be allowed. The final outcome is subject to the ratifying consent of the woman's parents. Under biblical law, the father's right of refusal seems to be a corollary of his more general right to disallow any vow made by a dependent daughter (Numbers 30:3-5). A woman lived under the protective custody and guardianship of her parents, and, presumably, their right of refusal would be exercised in her best interest, rather than in a manner that was arbitrary or mean-spirited.
For example, a father could prohibit a marriage if his daughter were of diminished mental capacity, even if she happened to be of marriageable age ("a virgin" or "maiden"). Likewise, a father would hopefully prohibit a marriage if it could be determined that the boyfriend was still a lecher and a cad, and that he was just going through the motions of repentance, perhaps because of social pressure, self-pity, or guilt, rather than because of genuine marital love.
An aside on Genesis 34
An aside on Genesis 34
Here it may be helpful to amplify the legislation of Exodus 22 with the moving example of Shechem's genuine repentance in Genesis 34. Shechem's relationship with Dinah is almost a foil for Amnon's relationship with Tamar in 2 Samuel 13.
Now Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land. (2) When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and had his way with her [NIV: violated her]. (3) His heart clove to [NIV: was drawn to] Dinah daughter of Jacob, and he loved the girl and spoke tenderly to her. (4) And Shechem said to his father Hamor, "Get me this girl as my wife." (Genesis 34:1-4)
Then Shechem said to Dinah's father and brothers, "Let me find favor in your eyes, and I will give you whatever you ask. (12) Make the price for the bride and the gift I am to bring as great as you like, and I'll pay whatever you ask me. Only give me the girl as my wife." (Genesis 34:11-12)
Far from "repenting" by kicking his girlfriend out and slamming the door, as did Amnon in 2 Samuel 13, Shechem immediately does everything in his power to consummate his marriage to Dinah, offering to give any gift or meet any requirement that her father Jacob wishes to impose. Although Shechem's relationship started in lust, it ended with him "head-over-heels" in love with Dinah. The word "cleave," which is used of his love, is often used in covenant contexts for the love Israel should have for God, and it is the same word as is definitional of marital love earlier in Genesis 2:24 ("For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and the two will become one flesh").
We can summarize the lesson of this example by saying that what God has in mind for couples who have slept together is not first of all a "shut-gun marriage," but "shot-gun love."
Incidentally, later on, Simeon and Levi, who are the brothers of Dinah, murder Shechem and his people — even though they had taken steps to enter into the covenant of circumcision. Genesis 34 offers no explicit moral comment on what Simeon and Levi did. In Genesis 49, however, Jacob makes it abundantly clear that when they pretended to avenge the honor of their sister, they committed an unjustified atrocity. Although they were the next in line after Reuben, who forfeited his inheritance because of sexual sin, both Simeon and Levi and their descendants forfeited their kingdom inheritance (neither tribe was given a tribal allotment in the Promised Land), and the privilege of being the bearer of the promised Messianic royal seed (Genesis 3:15; 12; 17:6, 16; 22:18) devolves onto Judah (Genesis 49:10), in whose line King David and, ultimately, Jesus Christ were born.
More on how to apply the parental consent mentioned in Exodus 22:17
More on how to apply the parental consent mentioned in Exodus 22:17
In the modern context, of course, many single individuals are living outside the protective custody of any parents. It is possible, however, that the wise principle embodied in Exodus 22:17 is still applicable, especially if we allow the ratifying authority of one's parents to devolve onto older brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ (cf. Proverbs 27:10; Matthew 12:49; 2 Corinthian 6:13; 3 John 1:4). Although an eligible couple who have slept together should seek to regularize their relationship in marriage and in this way live up to the one-flesh marital bond of love that is depicted in sexual union, the ratifying counsel of fellow believers is an important safeguard. Human beings have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception when it comes to matters of the heart. The confirmatory judgment of older brothers and sisters in the faith can provide a needful reality check on the sincerity of the couple's repentance.
Modern weddings tip their hat to this principle when the question is asked, "If any one in this assembly can show just cause why they may not be married, lawfully, in the sight of the State, or rightfully and pleasingly in the sight of God, let him speak now, or hereafter hold his peace."
B. Deuteronomy 22:28-29
B. Deuteronomy 22:28-29
"If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and he seizes her and they are discovered, (29) he shall pay the girl's father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has had his way with her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives."
Evidence that Deuteronomy 22:28-29 concerns consensual premarital sex, rather than rape:
The vast majority of modern English translations support this rendering, which makes clear the concern of this law with an instance of premarital sex. Unfortunately, the NIV interprets this law very differently. Its translation implies that the law concerns the rape of an unmarried woman: "If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl's father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives."
All scholars are agreed that rape is considered in the law which comes immediately before this passage, in Deuteronomy 22:25-27. Against the translation of Deuteronomy 22:28 in the NIV, however, it is important to notice that the Hebrew expression in that earlier law, which is correctly interpreted as "rape"(wehecheziq bah ha'ish weshakab `immah, rendered in the NASB as "and the man forces her and lies with her") is not the same expression as is found in Deuteronomy 22:25 (wetephasah weshakab `immah, rendered in the NASB as "and seizes her and lies with her").
Rather than a reference to rape in Deuteronomy 22:28-29, decisive evidence that this law concerns a case of consenting premarital sex, even if that consent is won after the strong initiative of the man, appears in the expression, "and they are discovered." It is widely recognized that the implication of consent attends the same expression, "is discovered," in Deuteronomy 22:22 (rendering this a case of adultery rather than rape). This interpretation finds further support in various ancient Near Eastern laws outside the Bible, where the qualification "is discovered" appears as a standard legal formula intended to imply the consent of the parties who were acting secretively before their discovery.
Furthermore, the Hebrew word `innah, found in verse 29 and translated "he had his way with her" or "he violated her" as in the NIV, can also be used of a consenting woman, as it is earlier in the same chapter in verse 24. Consequently, the use of this word does not require the assumption of rape, as is sometimes supposed.
Finally, given the likely concern for the well-being of the woman reflected in the denial of the guilty husband's right to divorce in verse 29, the remedy of an enforced marriage to a rapist whom she may have bitterly hated appears contradictory and totally inexplicable. The clearest indication elsewhere regarding the biblical attitude toward the rape of an unbetrothed woman, namely 2 Samuel 13, suggests that although marriage was possible, if the woman was willing, it was certainly not required. The implication of Tamar's scream in verse 19 (cf. Deuteronomy 22:24, 27) and the subsequent narrative in 2 Samuel 13-14 indicates that such a rape merited the death penalty.
Implications of Deuteronomy 22:28-29 for premarital sex
Implications of Deuteronomy 22:28-29 for premarital sex
Having argued that Deuteronomy 22:28-29 treats a case of premarital sex, rather than rape, we may observe several points of contrast between this law and the similar case in Exodus 22:16-17. One obvious difference is the precise specification of the amount of the marriage present, namely "fifty shekels of silver." Based on Exodus 22:16-17, W.H. Gispen, for example, assumes that this amount represented the normal marriage present for virgins. This is possible, but not certain. Alternatively, this figure of fifty shekels may be exceptionally high in order to penalize the offender. At the same time, there may also be a secondary concern to compensate the parents, who are deprived of their customary right of refusal, unlike the case in Exodus 22. In support of understanding the fifty shekel payment primarily as a penalty, G.J. Wenham and J.G. McConville note a symmetrical (chiastic) literary structure of the six laws which are grouped in Deuteronomy 22:13-29. On this approach, the fifty shekels paid to the girl's father in the last law in verse 29 and the prohibition of divorce find corresponding stipulations in the first law treated in verse 19, where they are clearly intended as penalties.
The apparent denial of the parents' right of refusal constitutes a second striking difference between the present law and that found in Exodus 22. Perhaps the most convincing explanation for this difference is the degree of the girl's consent and (perhaps even on-going) abetment implied in the phrase "and they are discovered" in Deuteronomy 22:28. In other words, while Exodus 22 considers the case of the seduction of an unbetrothed nubile girl (a one-time occurrence perhaps requiring some assessment by her father of the degree of her reluctant consent), Deuteronomy considers the special case where there is unmistakable circumstantial evidence for consenting premarital sex. With this evidence of the girl's complicity, there would be little point in a father so disregarding his daughter's implied wishes by forbidding a marriage. For evidence that a young woman's preferences and consent were indispensable for marriage, see Genesis 24:5, 57ff.; 29:18; Exodus 2:21; Judges 14:3, 7; 1 Samuel 18:20; 2 Samuel 13:13; Proverbs 18:22 (see also Tobit 6:11).
The last significant difference between Exodus 22:16-17 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29 concerns the revocation of the husband's right of divorce in the latter text (as also in Deuteronomy 22:19). The inequality of this punishment by contrast to Deuteronomy 22:22, for example, where the girl is also punished, and the remarkable protection it affords to the wife suggest that this law, as A. Phillips states, "recognizes that an injury has been inflicted on the girl. This is entirely in accord with Deuteronomy's humanitarian ideals, particularly towards those who had no means of protecting themselves through the courts (Deut. 10:18, 24:17-22)." This recognition of an injury to the girl need not contradict the earlier claim for her consent. Verse 28a makes plain the man's initiative and so greater responsibility for what transpires: He "meets a virgin... seizes her and lies with her."
Furthermore, if it is the case that in Exodus 22 the couple voluntarily reveal what has transpired, while in Deuteronomy "they are found," this difference may suggest a further explanation for the forfeiture of the husband's right of divorce in Deuteronomy 22. It may be that this law considers this man's marital intentions to be questionable, as in Deuteronomy 22:19 where a husband who was looking for a way out of his marriage (but wanted to keep the marital property?) similarly forfeits his right of divorce. In Exodus 22, on the other hand, no such provision is necessary because it appears that this groom is quite ready to rectify his situation (much as was the case with Shechem). Not only are his honorable intentions implied by their self-revelation, but also the only impediment anticipated is that the bride's father might "utterly refuse" his request. As will be recalled, the stipulated customary "marriage present for virgins" may offer further testimony to the repentant groom's willingness, in that it may have been intended to protect him from extortion (cf. Genesis 34:11, 12).
What is the Bible's view of rape and how is Amnon's rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13 relevant for premarital sex?
I've really enjoyed your series on marriage and sexuality — and my parents, non-Christians, who came to visit last weekend thought that your sermon on "What is Sex?" was (in their words) "the best they had heard on the subject." So thank you for breaking down some stereotypes of Christianity in their minds, and for helping me witness to them.
Yesterday's sermon ["What About Premarital Sex?"], however, bothered me. I agreed with the overall message and think that it is an important one; however, I would have suggested sticking to the Levitical passages. Statistically speaking, nearly one-third of the women in front of you in the congregation have been sexually abused in some way, and the mixing of teachings about rape (with all the Biblical societal concerns involved) and about premarital sex I think was a poor judgment call. I know this was not at all your point, but the slight implication (by choice of the passages) that marrying the person who raped you is generally in God's will was very hard to listen to, and I think it would be appropriate to speak some clarification to the subject in coming weeks.
That being said, please know that God worked in me powerfully through the service yesterday — the pain it brought up allowed me to cry afterwards about issues relating to a sexually abusive relationship I experienced during high school. I've been dealing with my past over the last few weeks, but very numbly, and a good cry was exactly what I needed. As usual, our amazing Father works miraculously through all circumstances.
Finally, please know also that you have my continued support and admiration as a powerful channel through which God speaks His word. Thank you for all you do for the Kingdom. [ this is an exact quotation used by permission]
For a more complete answer to these excellent questions, please listen to the sermon "Hate Masquerading as Love" 1 Corinthians 6 :15-20 (3/19/00).
In brief, you are right that the Bible defines rape not in terms of any necessary threat to the victim's life (Amnon is not holding a knife and he nowhere says, "Sleep with me or I will kill you"), but in terms of coercion and the lack of consent on the part of the woman.
In Deuteronomy 22:23-27 there are a pair of laws which take up the subject of adultery: the woman in each case is pledged to be married. The second law, however, makes clear that if a man forces his intentions on a betrothed woman, this is not a case of adultery. It is instead a case of rape.
It is helpful to note that in the absence of any witnesses to the attack, the Bible gives the woman the benefit of the doubt. If afterwards she says the sexual advances of her attacker were unwelcome, then they were unwelcome. Period. If her objections were ignored, and she was overpowered, then this was a rape, and the law stipulates that the rapist should be put to death.
(25) But if out in the country a man happens to meet a girl pledged to be married [to differentiate from a case of adultery] and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die. (26) Do nothing to the girl; she has committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders his neighbor, (27) for the man found the girl out in the country, and though the betrothed girl screamed, there was no one to rescue her." (Deuteronomy 22:25-27)
Incidentally, the analogy that is stated in this law between rape and murder is insightful and tremendously therapeutic for those who have experienced this terrible wrong.
We associate shame with rape, because so often in the modern world there is a tendency to blame the victim. The parents of one friend of mine kept asking her, "Why did you go out on that lonely path in the woods by yourself?" — as if she had it coming. But the Word of God says that any such blaming of the victim is a cruel lie: "This case [a case of rape] is like that of someone who attacks and murders his neighbor." (Deuteronomy 22:26)
When someone is attacked and murdered, there is no shame that attaches to the victim! The one who has done something that is vile, disgusting, and shameful is the murderer, not his prey! In exactly the same way, rape is a crime of unspeakable violence, and the victims of any such crime can only have our deepest love and sympathy.
I realize, of course, that victims of rape and sexual abuse do, of course, still feel a sense of shame. Even Tamar says, "What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace?" (2 Samuel 13:13) But this has nothing to do with the true shame that comes from doing something wrong. Amnon is the only one who should feel that kind of burning shame.
The disgrace that Tamar feels is the undeserved false shame that comes from being humiliated: the sense of degradation from being used and thrown away. It is just one more horrible part of the grievous injury that is rape. It is, however, an aspect of suffering with which our Lord Jesus is especially familiar. The Bible assures us "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tested in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin." (Hebrews 4:15) It is no accident that when his attackers did to Jesus as they pleased, part of their abuse was to strip him and beat him. When he was crucified, they took his clothes, so that he would be naked and utterly humiliated before his detractors. It is hard not to think of Psalm 69, which Jesus quoted and the Gospel writers apply to the cross: "You know how I am scorned, disgraced and shamed; all my enemies are before you." (Psalm 69:19) Indeed, may those who have been so humiliated, take comfort as they think of the Savior. "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:2)
2 Samuel 13 is nevertheless applicable to the issue of premarital sex. The lesson of 2 Samuel 13 in no way minimizes the horror of rape! Nevertheless, as is often sadly the case in real life, the Bible has masterfully captured a painful complication in this particular case. We know that Amnon's claimed love for Tamar proved only to be hatred in disguise. Nevertheless, he forced his attentions on someone who actually did deeply love him in return. Keep in mind, Tamar was not attacked by a stranger in Central Park. She had known Amnon all her life.
I think we should be very reluctant to criticize her for anything she said. When Amnon makes his proposal, "Come to bed with me, my sister" (2 Samuel 13:11), even if he says this because he wants her consent, she is right when she condemns his plan, "Don't do this wicked thing" (2 Samuel 13:12). If there is going to be sexual intimacy such as Amnon was proposing, Tamar knew that God wanted the wedding to come before the honeymoon. "Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you." (2 Samuel 13:13)
It would be perfectly understandable if this offer of marriage were merely a desperate ruse, a deception intended to allow her to escape. I don't think, however, that this is what it was for at least three reasons:
Amnon is the one who deceives, not Tamar.
Even as a deception, the offer of her hand in marriage would only work if she believed that deep down this would be an attractive option for Amnon. If Amnon had said, "Come to bed with me or I will kill you," I don't think Tamar would have bothered make this proposal.
The offer of marriage is consistent with many hints in the story that Tamar genuinely cared for Amnon (the special bread she feeds him is literally "heart-shaped confections" in verse 6, 8, and 10) — and it is also consistent with her later hope that Amnon would repent not by allowing her to leave, but by the kind of marital love that should accompany sexual acts.
Amnon refused to listen to Tamar and, because he was stronger than she, he forced his intentions on her. Immediately afterward, his feigned love gave way to hate, and he told her "Get up and get out." At this, Tamar protests, "No!' she said to him, `Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me'" (2 Samuel 13:16). In my opinion, here too, we should be reluctant to criticize her.
Of course, Tamar would have been perfectly within her legal rights to declare straight away that this was a rape. We, who are the readers, can see that this is so a mile away. And yet, in spite of the grievous offense committed against her, Tamar still loved Amnon, and from her objection at being sent out, it appears that she hoped that Amnon would repent in the way that Shechem had. Although Tamar had no moral obligation whatsoever to say what she did — although she had every right just to walk out on Amnon and consign him to the severe punishment he deserved for forcing his intentions upon her, she still considered it his moral obligation to repent of that sexual act with marital love. If this is true even for Amnon, it is certainly true for any instance where the sexual act is more consensual.
Ideally, of course, sexual intimacy should always be an expression of genuine self-giving love for one's spouse, and mutually desired. But even when this act takes place with far less worthy motives, including just a desire for self-gratification, or even when it is accomplished with a degree of deception or coercion ("if you won't let me do this to you, you obviously don't love me, and I'm going to find someone else"), one's moral obligation is to live up to the marital love that should have been expressed by this act.
The New Testament seems to be in agreement. When Paul writes, "Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, "The two will become one flesh" (1 Corinthians 6:16), he is applying the marriage formula of Genesis 2 to a situation where the couple could not be less committed. Their relationship is purely commercial and their motive is self-gratification.
Likewise, Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well implies that the Lord viewed sexual acts as inherently marital, even when the individuals involved are unaware of the fact. He invited her to go get her husband. "I have no husband," she replied. Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. (18) The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true" (John 4:17-18). It appears that Jesus considers each of her illicit relationships as a marriage, and the only reason that the present relationship is not included is that this time, the man in question is already married. In her downward spiral of promiscuity, she has now sunk to adultery.
Since Amnon and Tamar are half-siblings, how can Tamar be right in 2 Samuel 13:13,16 that a marriage between them would be acceptable?
You stress that 2 Samuel 13 is written in a manner that is very sympathetic with Tamar and affirms her viewpoint as correct in the eyes of God. I am stuck, however, on one point. Since Amnon and Tamar have the SAME FATHER, namely David, would not a marriage between them be explicitly prohibited by Leviticus 18:9, Leviticus 20:17, and Deuteronomy 27:22? This seems to be the interpretation favored by the notes in the NIV Study Bible on those passages. If so, doesn't the Bible condemn not only what Amnon did to Tamar, but also the marriage that Tamar proposes in 2 Samuel 13:13,16 as a case of prohibited incest?
Yes, of course, what Amnon did to Tamar proved to be a case of condemned incest, just as it was a case of rape. Nevertheless, although the Bible condemns incest (illicit sexual relations with a close relative), I still maintain that it does not condemn marriage to a close relative. I say this for several reasons.
As far as I can tell, the inspired author of 2 Samuel sympathizes with Tamar and approves of everything she says. Whereas everything that Amnon says is a lie, what she says appears to be true. But if she can be trusted when she says, "Don't do this wicked thing," then I am inclined to trust her when she says, "Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you." Amnon is the one who resorts to ruses and deceptions. I think it would be strange to find that the heroine Tamar does as well.
In my view, all of the Bible's moral law is merely a reflection of the character of God. As a result, the moral precepts of the law at Sinai, whether about marriage, murder, honesty, or anything else, as opposed to the ceremonial law (such as the requirement to use Levitical priests; the requirement for bulls for certain offerings; etc.), are universally binding. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The humble obedience that pleased him yesterday, pleases him today, and will please him forever.
Accordingly, if Leviticus 18 or 20 or Deuteronomy 27 actually condemns marriage to near relatives, then I cannot understand how God Himself could have created the world in such a way that, even if there had not been a Fall, Adam and Eve's offspring would necessarily have had to disobey His law! They had to marry close relatives. Likewise the offspring of Noah would again be forced into this same disobedience.
In addition, Moses writes in Genesis 26:5 that long before the giving of the law at Sinai, Abraham kept in a substantial manner the moral law of God: "my requirements, my commands, my decrees, and my laws." This language is not merely a reference to the command to leave Ur or to sacrifice Isaac. It is a stock formula, in the vocabulary of Moses, for the law of God given at Sinai! See Deuteronomy 11:1; 4:40; 8:11, 20; 9:23; 26:17. Hence Abraham was substantially a covenant-keeper (without ignoring some of his sins which are explicitly condemned in Genesis). Moses was aware of Abraham's marriage to Sarah, who was his half-sister (Genesis 20:12), but nowhere does the text hint at divine disapproval for that marriage. Of course, Abraham sinned in many details of his life, but it is hard to imagine that he sinned when he married Sarah, since she was the chosen vessel of the promise (Genesis 17:16), unlike his "marriage" to Hagar, which Genesis clearly does condemn. Likewise 1 Peter 3 implies his marriage to Sarah was exemplary.
Although the vocabulary in Leviticus 20 is admittedly ambiguous (the Hebrew word "take" can refer to a marriage, the way the NIV renders it, but it can also refer to non-marital "taking" for sexual use, as in Genesis 34:2), I maintain my earlier point that the vocabulary in Leviticus 18 is not so. If Leviticus 18 prohibits marriage to close relatives, rather than just illicit sexual promiscuity with those relatives, then Leviticus 18:16 would make Levirate marriage illegal (keep in mind that the Bible does not consider consanguinity, that is relationships by blood, more real or closer than affinity, that is, relationships by marriage)! But elsewhere Moses requires Levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-6; Genesis 38; Ruth 3:12; 4:5). Remember, Levirate marriage refers to the obligation for an unmarried brother, or next-of-kin, to marry his sister-in-law, if her husband died without offspring. So Moses must not have understood his own language in Leviticus 18 (not just verse 16, but elsewhere in the chapter where it also appears) as referring to marriage.
Although it may strike us as unwise, given our appropriate concerns about birth defects, I stand by my brief claim that the Bible actually does not condemn as inherently immoral the marriage of near relatives. In other words, what is driving the passages you mention in Leviticus 18, 20 and Deuteronomy 27 is the intention of condemning illicit sexual relations (such as Amnon wanted), not marriage to a close relative (such as Tamar wanted). The vocabulary of "uncovering the nakedness of" (which is translated in NIV as "have sexual relations with" in Leviticus 18) simply is not used elsewhere of marriage. Accordingly, the Law of Moses did not set aside the practice of Abraham's marriage to Sarah, or Moses' own parents, Amram and Jochebed (who were relatives). Nor does it condemn the subsequent marriage of Rehoboam to Mahalath (2 Chronicles 11:18), etc. Accordingly, Tamar's offer of marriage was sincere and made in good faith, even if it was offered under tragic circumstances.
Finally, it might be worth adding that this perspective on the morality of marriage between close relatives will be of increasing relevance and, perhaps, comfort, as a larger number of persons in our society confront the danger of unwittingly marrying a close relative. This problem has come about because of the increasing number of persons who are being conceived by artificial reproductive techniques that make use of donor gametes (especially eggs, which cannot be frozen, and so are used locally). Most of the individuals thus conceived will not know their exact biological ancestry. Whatever other ethical issues may be raised by the use of these techniques, in my opinion one issue that we need not worry about is the alleged moral problem of the danger of unwittingly marrying a near relative.
Doesn't this view of marriage place too much emphasis on sex?
Everyone agrees that sex is an important aspect of life, but this view of marriage seems to place far too much emphasis on it. Marriage is much more than a physical act of intimacy.
Of course, in many respects you are right. In biblical terms the one flesh bond of marriage cannot be reduced merely to sex. Rather, it refers to a profound communion of life, of which sexual intimacy is only one part. Nevertheless, the sexual act clearly and most vividly portrays that one flesh definition of marriage. As Jesus summarized: "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator `made them male and female,' and said, `For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not put asunder." (Matthew 19:4-6)
What is key, however, for the Bible's understanding of sexual intimacy is its divinely appointed use, when consensual and between eligible persons, as a marriage covenant-making and renewing symbolic act. I don't know how to explain this point better than I attempted to do in my sermon on March 5, 2000, "What is Sex?" based on Genesis 2:18-25. So I won't repeat those arguments here. Given that divinely appointed meaning, however, it should not surprise us that the Bible places the emphasis that it does on sexuality.
In particular, it seems to me, this is why the misuse of sex is viewed in the Bible as especially tragic and self-defeating. As Paul writes, "Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body." (1 Corinthians 6:18).
Likewise, I think that this why rape is viewed as a such a grievous wrong in the Bible _ because it takes that which was designed by God for the ultimate expression of marital love and kindness, and uses it for the ultimate expression of hatred and cruelty.
It is also why, it seems to me, that Jesus singles out "fornication," which is a sexual sin against one flesh bond of marriage, as the exclusive ground that God allows for divorce.
But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for fornication [NIV: marital unfaithfulness], causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery." (Matthew 5:32)
"I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for fornication, and marries another woman commits adultery." (Matthew 19:9)
Doesn't your view encourage promiscuity? [condensed summary of original question]
First of all, it is important to stress that no one is saying that "premarital sex" is approved by God. The words of Tamar make this abundantly clear: "Don't, my brother!" she said to him. "Don't force me. Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don't do this wicked thing." (2 Samuel 13:12)
Far from encouraging promiscuity, in my opinion a wholesome view of sex as a divinely appointed marital-love committing act is much more likely to have the opposite effect. It is true this does not condemn premarital sex because it is inherently wrong or disgusting, etc. But such an approach not only fails to honor what the Scriptures actually teach, it may also be very damaging in psychological terms. How exactly can the same act be disgusting yesterday, moments before the wedding, but beautiful and God-pleasing today?
Equally misguided, in my view, is the advice to young people that they are not mature enough to handle this kind of relationship (i.e., a sexual relationship). Pride and spiritual blindness will almost always get the upper hand with such an argument.
No, in my view, premarital sex is wrong for one reason only - because, in effect, there is no such thing! Premarital sex is like a premarital wedding. It is inherently marital because it commits a couple to love each other with marital love _ to love the other person as one flesh. For this reason, the only question a young person needs to ask is "Do I love him or her enough to swear my unconditional love for the rest of my life? If not, then you had better not make love, because "If you touch it, you bought it." On the other hand, if you believe you do have this quality of love, then God would have you inaugurate your marriage with public vows, before you swear that love before him in bed. "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God" (RSV 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5). Hebrews 13:4 may also be relevant: "Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral."
What if you slept with your girlfriend or boyfriend, be he or she has no interested in marriage? [condensed summary of original question]
If you have slept with your girlfriend or boyfriend, but he or she has no interest in honoring what took place in bed with marriage, then you are like Tamar, once Amnon slammed the door in her face. She did not spend the rest of her life camping outside his door or knocking to see if he would change his mind today. Instead "Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore her long-sleeved garment which was on her; and she put her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went" (2 Samuel 13:19). In other words, Tamar acted as if she were a widow, bereaved of the husband of her youth. There is a crushing loss here _ and it is one that you should feel if you have truly repented. But as with any widow in the Bible, there is a presumption that she is now perfectly qualified to move forward into another marriage if she wishes, this time with God's blessing. Notice, for example, that Paul urges young widows to remarry in 1 Timothy 5:14.
What if you were not thrown out, but you were simply not invited back in? This may be answered more clearly when we treat the topic of divorce and define the term "fornication," which Jesus uses to refer to the sole ground that justifies divorce. Briefly, I would argue "fornication" includes willful desertion, as well as adultery. So, if someone with whom you have had sexual relations has now gone on to have relations with some one else (adultery), or if he or she has simply refused to continue into marriage their relationship with you (desertion), this would constitute a de facto divorce and repudiation of that relationship. Lacking any marriage vows, this is comparable, in my opinion, to the case of the Samaritan woman at the well to whom Jesus said, "You have had five husbands…." Each successive illicit relationship constitutes a dissolution of the previous relationship.
What if he or she is a non-Christian? [condensed summary of original question]
In my opinion, it is not wrong to date a non-Christian, but only if by "date" you mean what the term used to mean 25 years ago (i.e., cultivating a real friendship with a member of the opposite sex, but without sexual intimacy). In fact, many of us have found such dating to be a blessed means for winning girlfriends and boyfriends to Christ. What better conduit for the Gospel than to hear it through someone who genuinely loves you?
On the other hand, there are many biblical texts that confirm that it IS sinful to marry a non-Christian. The Old Testament explicitly opposes marriage to those who do not acknowledge the Lord. See Exodus 34:12-16; Deuteronomy 7:2-4; Judges 3:6; 1 Kings 11:2; Ezra 9:12; Nehemiah 10:30 and 13:25. This prohibition is not motivated by racism, since Rahab the converted Canaanite Harlot and Ruth the converted Moabitess are welcome to marry into the household of believers. What is prohibited was "interfaith" marriage. Likewise the New Testament prohibition against "being unequally yoked" would seem to apply to such a case, although I agree that Paul was not explicitly addressing marriage. He writes, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?" (2 Corinthians 6:14) Applying this principle to marriage, however, Paul insists that a widow "is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord." (1 Corinthians 7:39). Although Paul's attention is focused on widows, there is no logical reason why the same injunction would not apply to any marriage.
In my opinion, it is not sinful to BE married to a non-Christian. In other words, Peter envisions a case in 1 Peter 3 where a wife comes to Christ before her husband and seeks now to win him by her loving example. "Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives." (1 Peter 3:1-2)
You ask, however, what if you have had "premarital sex" with a non-Christian? Does this change God's view of that act, so that it does not commit you to marital love? My response would be to note what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:16: "Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, "The two will become one flesh." In my view, Paul does not limit this claim so that it applies only to Christian prostitutes!
Perhaps to state this differently, in my opinion this question is identical to a question I have often heard, "What if I married the `wrong man'"? Sometimes a marriage will become so plagued with problems, that a wife or husband will reveal that their parents advised against their marriage, and that they themselves had serious misgivings about it even on their wedding day. They are now sure that God never wanted this marriage to come about.
When we hear such a claim, it is of course heart-breaking and tragic. But it does not change God's intention for those individuals now. Perhaps it is true that God did not want them to enter into this marriage. Perhaps they are exactly like David and Bathsheba, who should never have gotten married. But now that they have made this commitment (before their neighbors at their wedding, and before God at their honeymoon), now that they are married, God's will is clear. His will is for them to love their spouse, and any children that may have been born of that union, in a manner that reflects his own love for us. Period!
What if you have had a long string of boyfriends or girlfriends? [condensed summary of original question]
The possible need to repent with marital love only applies to the most recent relationship. Nevertheless, in certain cases it still may be appropriate and necessary to go back to earlier relationships in order to be reconciled. Genuine repentance requires confession to those who may still be bitter against you: "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23f.) Remember also, "Fools mock at making amends for sin, but good will is found among the upright." (Proverbs 14:9)
So, you may owe apologies to many people you have offended, but the implication of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is that one need not, and should not return to an earlier marital relationship if there has been an intervening marriage. When Jesus confronts the woman at the well, Jesus reveals that she had had a string of illicit relationships: "Jesus said to her, `You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband'" (John 4:17-18). Her life, however, had witnessed a downward spiral from promiscuity (the five "husbands") into what is now adultery ("the man you now have is not your husband"). Lacking any marital vows, each sexual relationship constitutes a dissolution of the previous relationship - kind of divorce. Because the most recent relationship is itself adulterous, since the man in question is already married, there is no possibility of repenting by allowing that relationship to be consummated in marriage. Hence, Jesus makes no such suggestion. The fact, however, that he does not exhort her to return to one of the previous relationships confirms our present understanding: only the most recent sexual relationship has the potential for requiring the repentance of marital love.
Likewise this stress on the here and now is exemplified in David's relationship with Bathsheba. Clearly, here was one marriage that should never have come about. It was begun in adultery and facilitated by a murder. But once this marriage took place, with David's repentance it became a marriage that God wonderfully blessed. From this union was born Solomon, whom God loved and renamed "Jedidiah" (2 Samuel 12:24), and it was ultimately through the descendants of this same union that our Lord Jesus was born. Based on David's example, what God requires of a man is to love the wife he is now married to, or marry the woman he is now living with, but not try to undo the ancient past, that can no longer be undone.
How far is too far? [condensed summary of original question]
There is not much detail in the Bible You are right, the Bible does not give an exhaustive answer or an anatomical map to answer your question. I think that there are at least three important reasons for this apparent omission.
First, the problem you raise was not especially relevant in the biblical world since typically young men and women married very close to puberty. The average age of marriage in the Roman period was in the mid-teens for both men and women. Accordingly, there was nothing comparable to our modern practice of dating.
Second the Bible's norms are, by God's design, trans-cultural. An Eskimo, for example, might like to know at what point it would be permissible to rub noses, but this gesture was meaningless in the biblical period. For the same reason, when the Bible considers marriages roles, it says nothing about who should wash the dishes or who should tale out the rubbish. Similarly, the meaning of a romantic kiss in certain cultures (such as in most Muslim contexts) is such that it would already be going "too far" unless the couple were married.
Third, the proper answer to the question of "how far is too far?" depends, in significant measure, on how much love is present. The Bible requires all believers to act in a truthful manner. For example, if the gesture of romantic kissing means that there is genuine love between a couple, then romantic kissing is already going too far if you only like your girlfriend, but you do not yet love her deeply.
Of course, kissing is pleasurable, so a couple needs to be especially careful not to allow the love of being loved, or the love of expressing love, to overrule the need to "speak the truth in love."
The Bible's strong condemnation of Judas' betrayal of Jesus by a (non-romantic) kiss, rather than merely by a pointed finger, is a more compelling example of the application of this principle. "While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus asked him, `Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?'" (Luke 22:47-48)
Likewise, in Proverbs 27:6 we read, "The kisses of an enemy may be profuse, but faithful are the wounds from a friend."
Applying the same principle to our relationship to God, "The Lord says: "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men" (Isaiah 29:13).
There are four important considerations that may help answer your question.
In keeping with the above observation about the inherent pleasure of romantic expressions, Proverbs 6:27f. gives sound advice to us that, if we are going to avoid getting burned: "Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched?"
We need to keep the fire as far from us as possible or, to switch metaphors, if we want to avoid falling off the edge of a cliff, we should stand as far back as possible.
Paul confirms this principle in 1 Corinthians 6:18 when he admonishes his readers not just to "avoid immorality," but to "flee it": "Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body." In your romantic relationships, do you look like someone who is running the other way from sexual immorality. Or do you look like someone who is bound to run into trouble?
Similarly, in the context of warnings against sexual immorality, Job declares, "I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a woman" (Job 31:1).
In keeping with the above points, it seems to me that the challenge for us as Christians is to "mean more with less." If "awesome" has come to mean "okay," that's alright because we still have words in our vocabulary like "great," "outstanding," and "exceptional." What if the meaning of all these terms, however, is reduced to "okay"? We would feel very frustrated that we are unable to express genuine greatness.
If sexual intimacy is allowed to mean no more than "I am a man and you are a woman, and I didn't have anything else to do tonight," then what is left to express the intoxicating love of marriage?
It is not that we want to be less loving or less demonstrative of our love than many others in our culture, but that we want to learn how to mean more with less. We want the gesture of holding hands to mean, "I care for you dearly." On this scale, then a hug would be elevated to "I think the world of you, I am so glad God brought us together." If we go further out on the scale, a romantic kiss would now mean "I love you with all my heart."
Only on a trajectory something like this will sexual intercourse be reserved to mean what it should mean, namely toward your spouse, "Honey, I love you so much, I want to marry you all over again this minute." And, with respect to the God who witnesses your love making, it would mean "Lord we invite you to hold us accountable to this sacred depiction of the one flesh bond that is definitional of marriage.
If we debase the more romantic/sexual expressions so that they mean just, "Hi, how are you?" not only will we be lying, we will be denying ourselves a more adequate means of expressing greater love, when we finally experience it.
I often think of this with some pity for those who have decided to use sexual union to mean mild feelings of attraction. What will be left, what will they do to express the thrilling depths of love that God intends for them to feel once their relationship develops into marriage? Keep in mind that marital love will make that earlier relationship of romantic interest seem like nothing.
For this reason, and because of past struggles with relationships that had become too physical, one happily married couple in our church decided when they were first dating that they would only hold hands and hug to express their love. When finally they became engaged, they allowed themselves to advance to the pleasure of kissing, which by that point was so thrilling to them, it was spine-tingling.
With respect to specific gestures of love, as a quick approximation, it may be useful to approach this topic from the vantage point of marriage itself. If you were married, how far would be "too far" for you to go with someone who is not your spouse, with respect to Jesus' prohibition against adultery? I don't think we need to be advanced ethicists to sense that what Clinton and Lewinsky did was an act that should have been confined to marriage. As such it constituted infidelity against his marriage. Even the late night comedians, not to mention "the man on the street," were not fooled by his legalism. Everyone seemed agreed that he had had "sex" with his intern, and the only one he was fooling by claiming otherwise was himself.
There are not many biblical texts which address the issue of intimate fondling directly, but Ezekiel 23:3 implies that this would be viewed as adulterous from the standpoint of a marriage: "They became prostitutes in Egypt, engaging in prostitution from their youth. In that land their breasts were fondled and their virgin bosoms caressed" (Ezekiel 23:3). It is possible that the mention of fondling is intended here as an example of pars pro toto, so that it represents the tip of the iceberg, rather than the totality of their wanton promiscuity.
The potential significance of touching genitalia likewise comes through in a non-sexual use of this gesture for oath-taking: "So the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore an oath to him concerning this matter" (Genesis 24:9). From this example, albeit non-romantic, it appears that the Bible does not view touching this region of one's anatomy as a meaningless act. Given the solemnity of this act, my inclination is to suggest by analogy that the safest rule for intimate fondling, especially of genitalia is, "If you touch it, you bought it." Save such acts for marriage where they belong.
It is indisputable that sexual intercourse is reserved for marriage from the Bible's perspective. If this is so, acts that are universally recognized as even more intimate, such as oral sex, would have to be equally reserved for marriage. As one considers less intimate acts, in my opinion, the question is to relate any act in some honest way to a correspondingly lesser degree of love - and to reserve enough levels of sexual intimacy for what you can anticipate will be deeper levels of more thrilling love up ahead. This is similar to the question, should I marry a woman if I find her not unattractive? If you decide that the answer is yes, then what will you do when you meet a woman who takes your breath away, because you can't stop thinking about her?
Some concluding comments
Some concluding comments
Finally, I would say that there are of course a zillion benefits (health, marital happiness, and otherwise) to adopting some kind of conservative understanding of sexual intimacy outside marriage, such as I am outlining above. One that may not occur to couples, however, is the way this will produce an unshakeable trust in the fidelity of your spouse that will stay with you throughout your marriage. If you were unable to wear down the other's defenses and were able yourself to resist the temptation of sleeping together, in spite of your deep love for each other and your raging hormones, you can be sure that no one else will ever be able to get any further!
As you reflect further on this topic and pray about its application to you, it may help to know that there are many real live human beings in our church, with all the normal levels of hormones, etc., who love the fact that by the grace of God they have never had sex with anyone other than their spouse. They make no claim to perfection, but when they close their eyes and are thinking passionate thoughts, the form of only one man or woman comes to mind: their own handsome husband or gorgeous wife. Indeed, in spite of 25 years of marital counseling, I have never met any one who regretted whatever sexual purity God enabled them to have. By contrast, I have counseled with more dear brothers and sisters than I can count who regret their sexual past, even though they knew it was forgiven in Christ. It is never too late to repent, and you will never be sorry for doing so
Is it too late for me? [condensed summary of original question]
It is never too late to repent and enjoy the abundant life for which God made you. This is not to deny that our past actions may carry present implications (even after God forgave David, Uriah was still dead, he was still married to Bathsheba, and she was still pregnant with his child). But it is to insist that our lives are never so derailed that God cannot lay new tracks. We need to repent, not run away!
Jesus' word to the woman caught in adultery was not, "Now your life is ruined! You might as well give up!" Instead he said, "Neither do I condemn you ... Go now and sin no more" (John 8:11)
If you don't believe in the cleansing power of the blood of Christ, you will never comprehend the astonishing reality that Jesus Christ, who was the embodiment of holiness and sinlessness, chose to wed to himself a bride who had the worst kind of past: the Church. But when he did this, he so forgave and transformed her, that he "made her holy… and presented her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish" (Ephesians 55:26-27).
For this reason, Paul reminds his readers in 1 Corinthians 6: "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
Because of this same glorious Gospel, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:16f., "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"
We wish we were better, but we are not hopeless. With Paul, our testimony can be, "For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect" (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).
As John Newton once put it, "I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be. I am not what I hope to be in another world, but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the Grace of God, I am what I am."
What if a young couple who have slept together are willing to stop, but have no interest in viewing their sexual intimacy as a marriage-love committing act? [condensed summary of original question]
If a man steals your TV, it is an encouraging act of repentance that he later regrets it and has promised himself, and perhaps even God, that he is never going to steal a TV again. I do not want to minimize the value of that kind of repentance. It is an evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit and we should encourage this repentant brother.
Nevertheless, I actually think one can do better. If the repentant thief is truly repentant, he will soon discover (perhaps from the Scriptures or from his own conscience) that a more adequate turning to God requires him to make proper amends. As Proverbs 14:9 reminds us, "Fools mock at making amends for sin, but good will is found among the upright." Accordingly, he might even return your TV - not to earn God's forgiveness, but as a response to His grace. Robert Dabney once observed, "The next consequence of repentance will be, to prompt us to make reparation of our sin, wherever it is practicable. He who truly repents, wishes his sin undone. But if he truly wishes it undone, he will, of course, undo it if it [is] in his power."
Of course, sometimes you may have a thief that has stolen so many things over so many years, that the attempt to repay and return everything would be utterly hopeless. It would require the rest of one's life. In that case, perhaps saying and doing something like Zacchaeus would be the ideal. Just publicly admit your sin and declare "open season" on yourself. If there is anyone out there who is still bitter and wants to make a claim against you, you will do your best to make restitution.
Turning to the issue of how to repent of "premarital sex," I am inclined to compare it to any other repentance, such as repenting from theft. Or, even, repenting from an elopement. Let's say, you were young, foolish, and it just seemed like it would be fun to get married. But you had no idea what you were getting into. Obviously, it would be good to repent by taking marriage much more seriously, promising that you will never again act so rashly, counseling friends not to follow you headstrong example, etc. And I think this degree of repentance would certainly honor God. But I suspect, it would be still better to repent by living up to whatever responsibilities God considers you now to have based on that past sinful behavior - whether it is to return the stolen TV to its rightful owner, or to love the man you wish you had never married (by the way, one couple has come to me for counseling who is in exactly this position - they got married just 6 months ago and know that it was a mistake, they are too young...), or to take care of the baby you should never have borne.
So I would hope and pray that the hypothetical couple you mention would repent in the ways you suggest. But I would also hope they might go one step further, not in order to agree with some theory or to please Hugenberger, who does not matter a bit, but to try to obey God who knows everything about our sex drives and who inspired Exodus 22:16-17. Hence, I would want them to agree with God, not that sex is a bad thing or a dirty thing which they should avoid from now on, but that it is thrilling and wonderful gift from the Creator which He designed to be a marital-love committing act. Accordingly, from what I can see the Bible expects that, in spite of the concerns you mention, they would seek to consummate their relationship in marriage. If, as you suggest, they really are far too young, or if there is some other reason why marriage would displease God (perhaps the young man is just seeking marriage out of guilt, or pressure, or concern about an expected baby, rather than out of heartfelt love for the baby's mother), then the girl's parents or her Christian brothers and sisters, who are responsible to give ratifying consent to the couple's desire for marriage (every wedding asks with good reason, "if anyone here knows any just cause why this marriage should not be performed, let him speak now..."), would be wise to refuse that permission.
In a way, I suppose, one could also compare the kind of counsel one should give to a pregnant unwed girl. Of course, the most important thing is to be clear on the Gospel of Christ's forgiveness. Still, in my view, this is not at all necessarily in conflict with the strong preference we should have in trying to support her in assuming the responsibilities of motherhood, even if she seems quite young. Most women in the history of mankind have been in their mid-teens, so as hard as it is, it cannot be impossible. Having said this, there will still be some very tragic cases where it will appear preferable to urge that the baby be given up for adoption. Perhaps there are complicating factors of drugs, lack of parental support, financial needs, etc. Still, we need to be very cautious before we give that apparently sensible counsel to give up the baby. It may be too easy for those of us who are outsiders since we are aware of the awesome demands of an infant (just as we are aware of the demands of a marriage), but we may be in danger of minimizing the profound emotional consequences of that decision for a young mother (and also for her boyfriend - based on experiences I have had counseling boys who became suicidal over the decision to give up a baby or abort). At the least, we had better be on our knees for a good long time, seeking the wisdom that comes only from God, before we start offering any counsel for the lives of others when so much is at stake with either decision.
What if, regardless of what the Bible seems to imply or any well-intentioned advice from Pastor Hugenberger, a young sexually active couple have no desire to move toward marital love, but they are willing to stop being sexually intimate? Should they embrace the call of singlehood in a manner that resembles the person who illegitimately divorces their spouse in 1 Corinthians 7:11? [condensed summary of original question]
Once again, obviously I feel that the Bible's counsel to young couples is:
First, do not sleep together until you are married.
Keep in mind, if you do sleep together before marriage, God views this as a sin in need of his forgiveness, but He also views your sexual intimacy as a marital-love committing act - even if your intentions were nothing more than self-gratification (Exodus 22:16-17; John 4:18; 1 Corinthians 6:16). Keeping this fact in mind will help you control your passions far better than you ever thought possible, and you will do so not by convincing yourself that sex is dirty or dangerous, but that it is far too wonderful a gift to use unless it is within the context of an equally wonderful love.
Nevertheless, if you ignore this counsel and still sleep together, then you should seek to consummate that relationship in marriage, by speaking to your parents/your brothers and sisters in Christ. They may, as Emily Jones predicts, counsel against marriage because of culturally perceived factors of age, maturity, etc. That is their call, according to Exo. 22, for which I pray they will seek wisdom from God. Your responsibility, however, is simply to ask God to give you a love for this other person to match the one flesh bond that was depicted in sexual intimacy. If that intention is stopped by others, you still will have done your part. Meanwhile, you will have also reinforced a precious lesson for your heart that will benefit you the rest of your life (and you will never again fall so easily into promiscuity). In other words, your decision not to marry should be made, hopefully, not out of selfish concerns about cramping your style or limiting your life, but out of the sincere desire of putting your girlfriend's interests before your own. Your parents or Christian friends have helped you to see that a marriage would be harmful and unfair to your girlfriend because you have no ability to provide for her needs, etc.
To state this a little differently, in my option the situation of a couple (no matter what age) who sleeps together is exactly analogous to what would happen if that couple managed to conceive a child. If you conceive a child, God holds both of you equally responsible to love that child with parental love (reflecting His love for us). In our culture, there are many adults, as well as peers, who will try to pressure you into aborting the baby. This may seem like a good way to get "the problem" behind you, but in my opinion it is not God's way. It is possible that your parents and the Christian community may judge that you are far too immature (perhaps you are mentally retarded) or that there are some other mitigating circumstances that would make it dangerous or wrong for you to keep your child. If so, in my view you are still obligated to seek to love that child with parental love! In this case, however, in submission to the Godly counsel of others (including your parents), you may choose to give up your child for adoption out of love for that child. Because your motives are to put the best interests of your child before your own interests, I believe that this painful decision would be pleasing to God.
If you repent by that kind of love that results in a desire to marry or, based on the Godly counsel of others, the decision to put the interests of your girlfriend or boyfriend before your own and so not enter into a marriage, then, of course, it is likely that their counsel would apply equally to any other marriage as well. If so, then obviously you should seek the gift of singleness - at least until your increased maturity solves whatever problems there were which prevented your first marriage. I do NOT agree, however, that it is necessary to embrace a permanent call to singlehood. If you follow Exodus 22 and the parents prohibit that first marriage, there is no suggestion that you are now disqualified from another marriage. Once again, like Tamar who expressed her situation using the gestures of a widow's grief, you would be free to marry someone else, just as any widow is free to marry someone else.
What if just one member of the couple repents as I am suggesting, by seeking to love the other with marital love (that puts that person's interests first), but that the girlfriend or boyfriend does not reciprocate. He or she refuses permission to tell the parents and does not want to mention anything to any Christian brethren.... I would say that the penitent member of the couple is in exactly the same situation as that of Tamar when Amnon slammed the door. He or she need not camp out on the doorstep in hope of a change of heart, and he or she is free to marry someone else.
What if neither repents by seeking to love the other with a marital love that puts the interests of the other first? What if they just keep sleeping together because they feel like it, or what if they decide to just break up and start sleeping with someone else? I would say that neither option represents progress toward adopting God's view of sexuality, and therefore I consider them regrettable and likely to end in emotional, psychological, spiritual, and perhaps even physical (STD's) harm to the couple. This is why Paul warns, "he who sins sexually, sins against his own body" (1 Corinthians 6:18). In the end, however, no matter how tangled and messed up our life may become, as long as we are in this mortal life, there is always a way to repent that will allow us to receive Christ's forgiveness and to move forward into an abundant life with His blessing. Sometimes, like the sinful woman, all we can do is weep at Jesus' feet because in practical terms there really is nothing else we can do to repent.
What if, instead, the couple simply breaks up (they are unwilling to seek any greater love for each other), but at least they decide to put off all other sexual intercourse until they are married - whether to each other, or to some other persons. Although this falls short of the biblical ideal, it would, it seems to me, represent significant progress toward that ideal, and it should be affirmed as such.
Hope this helps.
Does the prediction of husbands "rule over" their wives in Genesis 3:16 represent a deviation from the ideal? [condensed summary of original question]
Actually, although I know many fine scholars who make that suggestion, I am not persuaded that it is so. In my view, the `rule over you' of Genesis 3:16 is not a deviation from the ideal, but a restatement of it, just as this exact same expression is not a deviation from the ideal in the almost word-for-word parallel text of Genesis 4:7.
In Genesis 4:7 God warns Cain, "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; its [rebellious] desire is toward you, but you must rule over it." The rare term that is translated "desire" is found in only three passages in the Bible. The fact that two of them are Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7 helps establish an intentional parallel between these two passages. The desire in both passages has nothing to do with sexual attraction, but is a desire to resist or usurp authority. The divinely prescribed remedy in both cases is for the other party (Cain or the husband) to "rule over" that which is resisting that rule. In Genesis 3:16 everything depends, of course, on the precise nuance "rule over" (Hebrew: mashal). This word need not carry any harsh overtones, however. Accordingly, I would paraphrase Genesis 3:16 as follows: "Your desire (to usurp authority) will be toward your husband, but he shall rule over you (with the very same type of servant-leadership as Jesus enjoins in Matthew 20:25-26).
If we understand Genesis 3:16b in this manner, then this statement parallels what God says with respect to childbearing for the woman in Genesis 3:16a and work for the man in Genesis 3:17-19. In each case God is not establishing some new responsibility, as this were the beginning of Adam's responsibility to work (Genesis 2:15) or for Eve to bear children (Genesis 1:28). What was new under the circumstance of the curse was that these responsibilities would now be resisted and frustrated by pain, thorns, and futility. Likewise, the husband's leadership in marriage is not new (Genesis 2:18, 20). What is new is the predicted resistance of his wife to that leadership.
A Marriage Prayer
Text from Park Street Church's Congregational Prayers on March 26, 2000. Angela Essamuah:
Let us join our hearts in prayer:
Our sovereign Lord, we thank you for our calling in Christ as a community of believers as we sing your praises in a world that has been darkened by sin and evil.
We thank you for the calling to the covenant of marriage, the calling to a lifetime of commitment. In this as in all other aspects of life, we recognize that without your Spirit's enablement, we would not be able to do it on our own. Indeed, apart from Christ, we can do nothing.
We pray that the spouses in this congregation will endeavor to spend sufficient time together to fortify the foundations of their marriages. We pray especially for the husbands and wives who are going through rough times in their marriages - those who have through neglect and indifference grown cold towards one another; those who are tearing each other apart by words and acts, such as infidelity or adultery, or are suppressing anger in an unhealthy way. Rekindle their love for each other - guide them as persons who have experienced your forgiveness and love, and as those learning to share this love with other Christians as well as those yet to know you as Lord and Savior. Help them tear down the walls of resentment and build bridges of forgiveness - always remembering that we ourselves have been forgiven by you.
We ask for special grace for those experiencing domestic violence within their marriages. Give them the courage to seek Godly counsel and to choose the path that will redeem them both.
We also pray for couples who have to stay away from each other for long periods of time for reasons such as work, study, immigration, war, disaster or illness - let them look to you for favor to reduce the time apart and reunite them in the shortest possible time. Dear Lord, we pray especially for children who have been orphaned due to the death of one or both of their parents. Let our children, for whatever length of time they have with us, bear witness to the love, partnership, fidelity and permanence in our marriages that they can emulate in theirs in the future. Raise up among us men and women who will be fathers and mothers to those in our congregation who have none because of death, estrangement or separation.
Make our church a place where we will find healing for our wounds, counsel and prayers that will lead us to still waters and green pastures. Give us friends here at Park Street Church, who can embrace us tenderly and in whose words we can find healing for our brokenness. May we as Christian brothers and sisters mediate Christ's grace to one another. We pray, dear Lord, that our lives and relationships will be another witness to your grace, power and our faith in you.
And so our heavenly father, in all our relationships with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, we ask that you make us more offended by our own sin than by that of others. In this season of Lent, help us to set a foundation to control our evil habits:
"Help us to have the right attitude to ourselves:
- Keep us from the pride, which makes us conceitedly pleased with ourselves;
- Keep us from the false modesty, which is an excuse for evading responsibility;
- Keep us from the blindness, which cannot see our own faults;
- Keep us from the selfishness, which puts self in the centre of everything.
Help us to have the right attitude to others:
- Keep us from the critical spirit, which looks for faults;
- Keep us from the thoughtless spirit, which never thinks of the feelings of others;
- Keep us from the cowardice, which is afraid of what others will say;
- Keep us from the desire to curry favor, which makes us, too intent on pleasing others, even at the expense of honor, honesty and of truth.
Help us to have the right attitude to you
- Keep us from the forgetfulness, which never thinks of you;
- Keep us from the rebelliousness which takes its own way of things and the Irreverence which forgets that you are here." 1
We remember in prayer all missionary families, and ask for your blessings on them and ask for your grace as they seek to reach out to their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ across cultures. Thank you for the testimony of Cara Foster and pray that she may live all her life under your blessing.
We remember in prayer, our Christian brothers and sisters in Indonesia facing persecution. We pray for Kris Perkins, our minister to families, his wife Laura, and their team of volunteers -- that he may continue to undergird the families, the youth and the children in this congregation with sound teaching and good example.
We pray for members of our congregation Gabriel , Alyssa, John, Britta, Sue's mother, Andrew, Gail and others not mentioned who are ill and suffering that your healing hand will touch them.
Bring all our thoughts into captivity to Christ who is our risen and victorious Lord and in whose Name we pray. AMEN.
1 Barclay, William. A Barclay Prayer Book. London: SCM Press, 1990. Pp 200-201.
Abraham & Sarah in Genesis 12: Additional Thoughts
The following thoughts answer some questions raised following the October 8, 2000, sermon, "Touch Not Mine Anointed," on Genesis 12, where Abram asks Sarai to inform Egyptians that he is her brother. If you are interested, you might want to check the weekly study questions (with some answers) for October 8, 2000. Since my proposal builds on research I did in connection with my book, Marriage as a Covenant (Baker Book House, 1998), and also because it treats a passage that has been found to be very troubling by many readers, I am hoping, Lord willing, to turn it into a more detailed paper perhaps by this coming summer. If that happens, it will be available on our webpage.
As I said in the opening half of the sermon, Abraham was a sinner and not everything he did was perfect. I would never infer that Abraham did not sin where there is a lack of explicit condemnation. The problem with assuming that Abraham sinned in this particular case, however, is much greater than the assumption that he did not - for the eight or so reasons I mentioned. These reasons include: Peter's admonition in 1 Peter 3 for Christian wives to follow Sarah's example of "obeying" her husband (which has always been viewed as VERY problematic on the traditional understanding of the wife-sister identification);
the problem of Abraham's stupidity (as a plan it was guaranteed to fail, at best only delaying his murder until he refused to give his sister's hand in marriage, and certainly it would never benefit him financially, as some have assumed);
the problem of the psychology of Abraham (it is impossible to imagine in the context of the ancient world that a husband would willingly allow his wife to sleep with another man);
the psychology of Pharaoh/Abimelech in allowing Abram to keep the gifts;
the ethics of God in judging Pharaoh/Abimelech with plagues while he allows Abram to be blessed with increased wealth (hence the text DOES reveal by implication whose side God is on in this situation - unlike, for example, the occasion when Paul and Barnabas disagree and separate);
and finally the typology of Abraham's experience as a deliberate prophetic model - so Genesis 15 - for the later experience of Abraham's seed. This typology, of course, points to the experience of David, who is portrayed as a second Abraham figure (in 1 Samuel 17 God curses the one who curses David; in 2 Samuel 7 God promises to make David's name great with the same language we find in the Abrahamic covenant, etc.) and ultimately to Jesus who is THE SEED of Abraham (Galatians 3), as I mentioned at the end of the sermon. Most immediately, however, it prefigures (according to the explicit promise in Genesis 15) the experience of the nation of Israel going down to Egypt because of a famine, suffering unjust abuse from Pharaoh through no fault of their own (including his attempt to murder the males and keep the females alive), God's intervention with well deserved plagues against Pharaoh and his household, and the final deliverance of Israel who leave Egypt having despoiled the Egyptians of their wealth. Given Moses' authorship of Genesis 12, I tend to think that this typological purpose behind the narrative strongly favors the alternative interpretation I suggested - one where Abraham and Sarah are victims of Pharaoh's maltreatment.
Genesis 20:13 is the passage which implies that Abraham and Sarah stressed their relationship as brother and sister in many situations, not just the two occasions (Genesis 12 and 20) where this strategy failed to protect their lives and marriage as hoped.
One of the keys to my view, which I may not have stressed enough in the sermon, is that sisters do not inherit from brothers. So, if Pharaoh kills Abram, all the wealth, inherited status, etc., which is making Sarai appear so attractive, would go to Abram's male kin (such as Nahor) or, more likely in this situation, to Eliezer of Damascus, who is explicitly designated as his heir in Genesis 15:2. If Abram is married to his sister, as was in fact the case, none of the wealth they had was dowry (marriage to a sister is accomplished without a dowry), and so none would revert to Sarai if Abram died. Eliezer, as Abram's heir, would inherit all of it, and he would be legally responsible to take care of Sarai out the estate until her death or until she married another man.
On the other hand, if Abram is simply Sarai's brother exercising guardianship over her (as Pharaoh wrongly assumed), under normal ancient near eastern law and ethics (much less God's law), no one should "take" Sarai for a wife without her brother's permission, and once Sarai leaves home for her marriage, then, and only then, her brother was expected to assign and transfer her dowry to her. As I said in the sermon, the one thing Abram did not anticipate was a Pharaoh whose ethics would be so low that he would actually abduct ("take") a woman into his harem and only ask questions later, presuming that Abram would readily approve the marriage (much as Shechem abducts Dinah, followed by his belated efforts at arranging a marriage). To act in this fashion is to treat the woman as a prostitute, as Levi and Simeon complain in Genesis 34:31 (play now and pay later).
It is true that Pharaoh and Abimelech were both very keen on avoiding adultery. This commendable ethic, however, would not by itself comfort Abram, since like David when he murdered Uriah, Pharaoh and Abimelech could avoid the problem by killing Abram. It is the fact that they are really sister and brother which alone protects Abram from murder - or at least from any murder motivated by someone who wants to marry Sarai for her presumed wealth and status. Moreover, God's revelation to Abimelech in Genesis 20 that he is "innocent" with respect to the charge of adultery, based on his ignorance of Sarah's marital status, fits exactly with what we know of the actual laws of the nations around Israel (where culpability is determined by whether the man knows that the woman in question is married). We know that the pagans typically branded adultery as "the great sin." This universal repugnance for adultery supports my claim that it would be unthinkable in the context of the ancient world for Abram to acquiesce in his wife sleeping with another man (note how Potiphar reacted even to the false allegation of this possibility in Genesis 39). So it is true, based on their ignorance, that Pharaoh and Abimelech were technically not prosecutable for adultery.
Nevertheless, they are rightly condemned and judged by God with plagues for what they knowingly did with impunity, namely attempt premarital promiscuity with a woman they had no right to take and whom Abram would never have consented to give them as a wife (Genesis 20:6; 26:10). Since God vindicates Abram with those supernatural judgments, it would have been clear to Pharaoh and Abimelech that God agrees with Abram's higher ethics about marriage and the heinous nature of a sin they thought nothing of, namely taking a woman without first arranging a marriage.