The Layperson’s Bible: Sexual Behavior Part IV – Chastity

Much has been made of the concept of Christian chastity; it has, in large part, governed churchly as well as secular matters, leading, among other things, to the belief that priests should be abstinent and that pre-marital sex is a sin. In fact, the virginity of unmarried women was, and to some extent continues to be, a prize to be safeguarded. Well, sort of.

For example, if a man accuses his wife of not being a virgin, and her father has the tokens proving her virginity, he must pay father 100 shekels of silver, and keep the wife. If the tokens (likely cloth showing the blood that results when the hymen is broken) cannot be found,

“Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house.” (Deuteronomy 22:21)

But, interestingly, a woman who voluntarily surrenders her virginity might also find thereby a means of securing a husband, albeit in a somewhat backhanded way:

“If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found;
Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.” (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

In other words, a man can have his wife killed if he can prove she was not a virgin when they married. On the other hand, the man who actually does the de-virginizing can be forced to marry her. (I guess that’s necessary, since the poor woman who is no longer a virgin seemingly can’t marry anyone else under potential penalty of death.) In short, the woman who is trying to land a particular husband will do well to sexually seduce him. But by the same token, a smart man carrying a torch might employ the same strategy to obtain a wife who might otherwise have been unattainable.

These, however, are Old-Testament regulations. What does the New Testament have to say on the subject?

Well, interestingly, not very much. In fact, except for on the subject of marriage and adultery (see my previous post), the Gospels have surprisingly little to say regarding sexuality. Jesus in his teachings does not seem to have been overly concerned with carnal behavior; indeed, not one of his famous parables concerns the big Biblical bugaboos of homosexuality or bestiality, nor even, for that matter, the concept of chastity. So where does that come from?

If you ask me, the modern conception of Christian abstinence comes not from the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, but from Paul in his Epistles. One day I will sit down and count up the number of times Paul disparagingly utilizes the word fornication; I’m willing to bet that it occurs more times in his Epistles than in the rest of the Bible combined. Furthermore, the whole concept of virginity, or at least male virginity, appears to derive from Paul, who concedes that:

“Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful.
I suppose that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be.” (Corinthians 7:25-26)

So here for the first time, three-quarters of the way through The Bible, arises the first suggestion that chastity is desirable for both men as well as women. Paul’s advice to both sexes? To marry, as a means of staving off unsavory and perhaps illicit sexual desires; that is, of course, if those desires cannot be quenched entirely:

“It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.”(Corinthians 7:1-2)

“For I would that all men were even as myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.
I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I.
But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” (Corinthians 7:7-9)

In other words, the conception of sexuality as a need or desire to be squelched and frowned upon comes not from God, nor from Jesus, but from Paul’s admittedly ungrounded interpretation of what he personally thinks is best regarding carnal behavior. Nowhere, absolutely nowhere else in the Bible does any other person, however holy, recommend abstinence, which is untenable at best, as a preferred way of life. While certain behaviors may be seen as abominations, and adultery in the form of the time is strictly forbidden, no one besides Paul seems to view sex itself as a thing to be shunned and avoided.

Read, for example, Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins who went forth to meet their bridegroom. (Matthew 25) Really? Ten virgins for one bridegroom? This reads more like modern porn than like Bible-talk, and like some pretty outrageous porn at that. But does Jesus judge the virgins, or the bridegroom? Not in the slightest. Because while heavenly matters are certainly superior to earthly ones, God is, and always has been, practical; recognizing since the day that Adam and Eve left Eden that man was and always would be a slave to his flesh; that He, indeed, made him that way.

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