Adultery

By Gordon Hugenberger August 1, 2000

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.