Script Out Passages: The men of her town shall take her and stone her to death.
St. Andrew's Stars Episode that goes with this sermon:
But even more troubling than the specific laws and practices that are
found in the Bible, are the assumptions that lie behind them. Look, for
example, at the laws of sexual morality that we read from the Book of
Deuteronomy this morning and ask the question what are the assumptions behind
those laws. These laws assume, for example, that virginity is very important –
but only female virginity. The sexual history of a man never seems to be a
Hespeler, November 1, 2015 © Scott McAndless
Deuteronomy 22:13-30, Matthew 21:28-32, Psalm 72:1-14
f you are going to look at the passages of the Bible that people sometimes struggle with and maybe even sometimes wish weren’t there at all, you are going to end up, sooner or later, talking about sexual morality. Well, today is that day and we are going to delve into some of the sexual themed passages of the Bible.
Talking to some people, of course, you will definitely get the impression that the Bible is all about sexual morality, that the only thing that matters, as far as the Bible is concerned, is what happens in the bedroom. Certainly when you hear somebody complain about how nobody follows Biblical morality anymore, you can be almost certain that the morality that they have in mind is the sexual kind. For many people, that is the only Biblical morality that matters.
Now, is it actually true that the Bible is totally obsessed with sexual morality? Not really. At most, sex is just one of many moral subjects that the Bible spends time talking about. It is a concern, but it’s not as central as some would make it out to be. And there are some things that Bible does say on the subject that we would have trouble with. And I’m not saying that because I think that so many of us are liberal-minded people. There is lots of what the Bible says about sex that even the most conservative among us would find downright immoral and perhaps even evil.
Much of the Bible takes it for granted, for example, that polygamy is fine and dandy. King Solomon, one of the great heroes of the biblical tradition, had over 700 wives and 300 concubines. Itshe can force her maidservant to sleep with her husband and bear a child for her. Fathers are permitted to sell their daughters into sexual slavery, women can be forced to marry the men who rape them and should also be stoned to death if their hymen doesn’t bleed on their wedding night. These are all things that do not fit with what we would call good and positive sexual morality and many of them we would even condemn as abusive and criminal.
Nevertheless, female virginity was clearly something that was valued. In fact, it was so valued that, if it was questioned or stolen by rape, it was given a cash value – a compensation that had to be paid. But here’s the thing. The compensation was always to be paid, not to the woman, but to her father. The underlying assumption was that the father (not the woman herself) was the victim when a woman was raped or dishonoured in any way. That is kind of messed up, but that was clearly how they saw it.
That is because of another, deeper assumption behind all of this – the assumption that a woman was not a person so much as she was a piece of property. She was a valuable asset who belonged to her father until she was passed onto someone else in marriage. That is why, if that asset was devalued in any way, some sort of compensation had to be paid to her “owner.”
Another assumption is clear: marriage was a transaction. It was sometimes a straight-up economic transaction where a woman was sold in exchange for wealth or property. It was sometimes a social transaction where families allied themselves through marriage to build up their standing in the community. But there was always something to be gained (for the men involved at least) through marriage. Women could also at least hope for some sort of economic security through marriage, but that was about the only benefit they got.
One thing that marriage was definitely not about was love. That is not to say that couples didn’t sometimes love one another. We are told, for example, the Patriarch Jacob did love one of his four wives. King David was apparently also quite fond of one or two of his wives. We are never told, in the Bible about women who were in love with their husbands because nobody cared about that. But anyways, perhaps some who were lucky would find love or domestic harmony in marriage, but that clearly wasn’t what marriage was about.
A woman’s desires or wishes didn’t matter at all. But I personally don’t think that the nature of human beings – men and women – has changed all that much in the last few thousand years, so I am pretty sure that both men and women did have desires and wishes and even (gasp) urges back then. So what did a woman who had been engaged to marry a man that she had never met by her family and who fell in love with another man who wanted to be with her do? Such a woman had no recourse. If she met and slept with her beloved in the city, they’d both be stoned to death – he for raping her and she for failing to cry out. If they met in the countryside, she would survive and he would die so that was not much better.
And that brings us to the question of consent. Consent, for modern people is absolutely essential to the moral and legal definition of rape. Basically, for our modern legal system and for most of our moral judgements, if someone has sex with someone else without their freely given consent, that is just plain wrong and usually falls under the definition of rape. When you consider that certain classes of beings (including children) are not considered to be competent to give their consent, that really covers a wide range of sexual offenses.
Interestingly enough, the Bible seems to have pretty much the same definition of rape – it defines it as sex without consent. But here is the difference: in that society, no woman of any age was considered competent to give consent. Consent was something that could only be given by her father or by some other controlling male in her life. This is because of the other key assumption lying behind all of these laws: that a woman wasn’t a person and certainly wasn’t, by any measure, equal to any man.
So here is our problem: there are important moral issues around how people live out their sexuality. As Christians we need some help to make right choices around sexuality. As a church, we surely should have some worthwhile and helpful things to say on the subject. But, after examining passages like this one, I really have to wonder what we’re supposed to base those things on because to lift up these particular laws, that make cultural assumptions that we just don’t agree with, doesn’t make sense.
And, let me be clear here: I do see these things as cultural assumptions and not as fundamental truths. Whatever the people of Israel understood of the justice and righteousness and faithfulness of their God – an understanding that developed over time – it was filtered through their culture and all of the assumptions that came with that culture. How could it be otherwise? Just like they assumed that the earth was flat and that the sky was a solid blue dome and filtered their understanding of the creator that they had come to know through those assumptions, they filtered the moral nature of their God through their cultural baggage.
So we don’t have to take on these ancient cultural assumptions ourselves just because they lie behind these biblical laws. But, of course, if we don’t accept the assumptions they are based on, how can we just take the Biblical laws and rules around sexuality and apply them uncritically today? How can we judge people morally by laws that are based on assumptions that we don’t agree with? That is our problem.
So we need to develop a sense of sexual morality – what is acceptable and what isn’t. In fact, I would suggest that our society is in deep need for some guidance about how to live out our sexual lives and relationships. But we are going to have to do more than just read laws and rules out of the Bible and apply them directly to today. Nevertheless, the Bible can help us a great deal as we seek to do this.
There are principles that we can take from the Bible and apply to modern relationships, provided that we find ways to correct the underlying assumptions. For example, we do find this notion of consent in the Bible – that sex needs to be consensual to be positive. Of course, when we look at it we find the assumption that a woman isn’t competent to give consent – that only her father can give it for her – to be ridiculous. But the correctives for that flawed assumption can be found in the Bible itself. We see it in the life and ministry of ministry of Jesus of Nazareth who treated the women he met with dignity and respect – who recognized that they were autonomous persons capable of making their own decisions.
Do you realize, after all, how radical that saying of Jesus in our gospel reading this morning is? “Truly I tell you,” he said, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” He was talking to religious people, very self-righteous religious people, and told them that prostitutes were ahead of them in God’s kingdom. I’m sure that if you had been standing there you would have seen all of their jaws drop when he said it.
They were standing there feeling so certain that they knew who the sinners were and that it wasn’t them. They especially thought that women who strayed, even just a little, from the strict sexual rules, and especially women who dared to take control of their own lives and bodies, were wicked. All such women were despised and treated as prostitutes and yet Jesus dared to elevate these women ahead of these self-righteous men. I think that that is a pretty fair indicator that Jesus felt that grown women were able to take control of consent for what happened to their bodies.
So we can take the basic principles we find in the Bible and yet use the words and actions of Jesus to give a correction to the mistaken underlying attitudes. I think that we can do the same thing with laws around the valuing of virginity, the need for fidelity and the respect for boundaries. There are good principles that are found in the Old Testament laws. So long as we can correct for any negative cultural assumptions like the inequality of the sexes or the loss of freedom of choice by referring to the teachings of Jesus and the early church, these biblical principles can still serve us well.
I would say that I do have a sexual morality – a morality that is, in my view biblically based even though I don’t just try and lift Old Testament laws and apply them today and I do not see some things as previous generations of Christians might have. I believe that sex is a very good thing. It is not just given for procreation but also to bring many positive blessings in relationship. I believe that it is God’s intention that sex be experienced in committed and loving relationships where both parties are treated with respect and valued for who they are. It is in such relationships that sex can find its highest and best expression as God intended.
I do think that we are all called to do our best to encourage relationships and institutions (like marriage) and supports to relationships in which sex in its best form can flourish. That doesn’t mean that I am interested in coming down in judgement on those who haven’t been able to find that yet and I am certainly not going to condemn people for their past mistakes, especially when they are working on correcting them. Nevertheless, I don’t think we need to apologize for being committed to making sex as good at God intended it to be.
My desire, above all, is to define sex positively. There has been too much negativity around this good gift of God down through the Christian centuries. I look forward to getting out from under that kind of negative cultural baggage.
I am not saying, of course, that you should just adopt my understanding and approach to sexual morality. What I am saying, though, is that there is something that you need to work out here. You can’t just lift your notions of what is right and what is wrong from the pages of Scripture – not without examining what is says and what it is assuming. That can be hard work, but I think it is very important and worthwhile work.