The Layperson’s Bible: Sexual Behavior Part IV – The Lesser Offenses

As we have seen, one of the Bible’s recurring concerns is with what might be termed the sexual offenses, some of the most notable of which are homosexuality, adultery, and incest. However, Biblical teaching also concerns itself with a wide range of lesser sexual offenses, admonishing its readers:

“Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you:
And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants.” (Leviticus 18:24-25)


Thus, according to the Lord, sexual misbehavior is one of the causes for which the current residents are to be expelled from what is to be the land of the Israelites, a theme which traces back even to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Committing sexual offenses is not merely sinful, but defiles the very land on which it occurs in much the same way that the spilling of innocent blood does. And it appears that in Biblical times, a nation that defiled its land might be deemed unworthy to live upon it. 

This is not so illogical once you realize that sex itself is seen as a source of “uncleanness” for the persons engaging in it:

“And if any man’s seed of copulation go out from him, then he shall wash all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the even.
And every garment, and every skin, whereon is the seed of copulation, shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the even.
The woman also with whom man shall lie with seed of copulation, they shall both bathe themselves in water, and be unclean until the even. (Leviticus 15:16-18)


One wonders whether this is the source of the practice, still frequently observed in the modern world, of showering after sex. Of course, no amount of showering could rid a woman of the uncleanness of menstruation, a condition that was apparently so offensive that everything a menstruating woman touched was considered unclean:

“And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.
And every thing that she lieth upon in her separation shall be unclean: every thing also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean.
And whosoever toucheth her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even.
And whosoever toucheth any thing that she sat upon shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even.
And if it be on her bed, or on any thing whereon she sitteth, when he toucheth it, he shall be unclean until the even.
And if any man lie with her at all, and her flowers be upon him, he shall be unclean seven days; and all the bed whereon he lieth shall be unclean.
And if a woman have an issue of her blood many days out of the time of her separation, or if it run beyond the time of her separation; all the days of the issue of her uncleanness shall be as the days of her separation: she shall be unclean.
Every bed whereon she lieth all the days of her issue shall be unto her as the bed of her separation: and whatsoever she sitteth upon shall be unclean, as the uncleanness of her separation.
And whosoever toucheth those things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even.
But if she be cleansed of her issue, then she shall number to herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean.” (Leviticus 15:19-28)


Indeed, sex during menstruation appears to be a sin almost as wicked as incest, and which calls for a similar punishment:

“And if a man shall lie with a woman having her sickness, and shall uncover her nakedness; he hath discovered her fountain, and she hath uncovered the fountain of her blood: and both of them shall be cut off from among their people.” (Leviticus 20:18)

“And if a man shall take his sister, his father’s daughter, or his mother’s daughter, and see her nakedness, and she see his nakedness; it is a wicked thing; and they shall be cut off in the sight of their people: he hath uncovered his sister’s nakedness; he shall bear his iniquity.” (Leviticus 20:17)

Of course, in ancient times, menstruation was far less common. If you get married at thirteen and, if fertile, spend most of your life having children until you die an early death in the very act of childbirth, your normal cycle just doesn’t kick in as often as it does today.  

But the “uncleanness” of women does not extend merely to menstruation. As we have previously noted, although the big Biblical bugaboo regarding men concerns male homosexuality, there seems to be little concern in the Bible over homosexuality among women. There is, however, ample discussion of prostitution, almost as if, on the scale of sin, being a whore is the female equivalent of being a male homosexual:

“There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 23:17)

And again there is the reference to the land, as if the land itself might be defiled by the acts of its residents:

“Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness.” (Leviticus 19:29)

Transvestitism, also, was apparently not unknown in Biblical times:

“The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” (Deuteronomy 22:5)

I’m not sure whether the transgendered individuals of today should be discouraged by being termed “abominations,” or heartened by the fact that people have evidently been struggling with gender issues for at least two millennia. 

But perhaps the crown of interesting sexual prohibitions in the Bible is the stricture against bestiality, a capital offense on an equivalent with homosexuality and punishable by death. It’s actually mentioned at least five times (Exodus 22:19, Deuternomony 27:21, Leviticus 18:23, and Leviticus 20:15 and 20:16), which makes one wonder whether the act was either really offensive or really common among the people of the time.

“And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast.
And if a woman approach unto any beast, and lie down thereto, thou shalt kill the woman, and the beast: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:15-16)

“Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion.” (Leviticus 18:23)

Confusion isn’t quite the word I would use to describe it, but I do question whether it was really fair to slay the beast if the person ravaging the beast was clearly at fault. Perhaps lost somewhere in the sands of time was an exemption for non-consenting beasts. Or maybe the point was to ensure that any animal that was so enticing to humans be merely obliterated from the planet and thus cease to pose a temptation to God’s allegedly more intelligent creatures.

It is also interesting to note the types of sexual behaviors that the Bible does not prohibit. Nowhere, for instance, is oral sex mentioned, much less forbidden. Neither are threesomes or varieties thereof; nor, for that matter, in spite of the Bible’s pervasive homosexual dread, is anal sex between a man and a woman ever addressed. Had these practices merely not been invented yet, or were they actually not frowned upon? Presumably we shall never know. But if nothing else, the Biblical catalogue of sexual offenses makes one thing clear: ancient peoples participated in sexual behaviors that were as kinky and unpredictable as those in the pornography of today, and subject to as much ongoing debate.   

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