Inquisitor. Old Testament "sexual morality" for men was nothing more than a question of property rights. While women were highly valued, they were considered a special form of property. Property meant to produce offspring to further the all-important bloodline.
Below is an article I posted on this board about five years ago.
Sexual Morality In The Old Testament Differs From That In The New Testament
Conservative Christians like the Jehovah's Witnesses often claim that, like the New Testament, the Old Testament forbids all sexual relations outside marriage, including relations between unmarried people. That is not quite true. To see that patriarchal and Israelite culture adhered to a different standard, we must first understand just how the Old Testament treats marriage, sexuality and related items.
The Old Testament View of Women As Property
The most important thing to understand is that what might appear to be Old Testament standards for sexual conduct were often nothing more than standards regulating property rights -- the property rights that men held over women. Many Christians will object to this claim, but the proof is found all through the Old Testament.
In patriarchal and Israelite culture, women were viewed as property -- a special and highly valued kind of property, but property nonetheless. The man was the owner; the woman was the chattel. A daughter was the property of her father, and a wife was the property of her husband. For example, Proverbs 31:10 comments on a man's view of a good wife: "A capable wife who can find? Her value is far more than that of corals." It would be unthinkable for a woman from that culture to say something like, "My husband is worth far more than corals." It would be as unthinkable as a horse saying that about its owner.
The Hebrew words for "husband" include "baal" (literally, "owner, master") and "adhohn" (literally, "lord"). The words for wife include "beulah" (literally, "owned as a wife"). The wife was completely under her husband's authority, and the husband had a proprietary right over her. As the owner, the husband could divorce his wife, but as the chattel she could not divorce him. Neither patriarchal "law" nor the Mosaic Law had any provision for a wife to divorce her husband.
If an Israelite man bought another Israelite man as a slave, and provided him with a wife, and at the end of the six years of slavery the slave opted for freedom, then "the wife and her children will become her master's." (Exodus 21:4) Thus, even the wife of a slave was not his own, but the property of the master.
Women were not free to choose their husbands and they were not even "given in marriage" -- they were literally bought by their husbands for a customary "bride price" (cf. Genesis 34:11, 12; Exodus 22:16; Ruth 4;10; 1 Samuel 18:23, 25, 27) that could be paid in money, services, or anything else of value acceptable to the husband and the woman's present owner. In the "services rendered" category, young women could be given to valiant men for their service in war (cf. Joshua 15:16; Judges 1:12; 1 Samuel 17:25).
The marriage relation was legally formed by the act of betrothal, which generally occurred when the husband paid the bride price to the parent or guardian of the bride. The betrothed man had all legal rights over and privileges toward his betrothed that a married man had over his wife except for sexual relations. That had to wait until the formal marriage ceremony, because sexual relations would produce the primary product of the marital ownership of the woman -- children.
Women in general could not inherit property -- only men could. The exception was when a man died without any sons and levirate marriage (see below) was not performed; his daughters would then inherit his property. Women could own property, even slaves, but generally only what they were given as gifts or had bought.
While women were owned by husbands as property, that ownership was limited by law and custom. It was not an ownership of her person, but was a right to enjoy her company and services, and to have children by her. A wife or concubine could not be sold, and so her position was better than that of a mere slave.
A husband who suspected his wife of unfaithfulness could demand under the Mosaic Law that she be given the "jealousy water test" (Numbers 5:11-31) but a wife who suspected her husband of unfaithfulness had no such recourse. In fact, the husband could have sexual relations with any unmarried or unbetrothed woman he pleased, as there were no explicit prohibitions in the Law against it. The caveat was that if he did, he would have to pay a bride price to her father, and possibly marry her. When a man was caught with another man's wife, it was not up to his wife to demand the death penalty, but was up to the injured husband.
There is much evidence in the OT that in early patriarchal times, when a man died, his heir inherited not only the dead man's regular property but also his women. Ruth 4:1-10 illustrates how this worked with respect to levirate (brother-in-law) marriage. Boaz "repurchased" not only all of the dead Elimelech's property from the dead man's widow Naomi, but all of the property of his dead sons -- including Ruth, the widow of one of the dead sons, and Naomi. How did he do that? He paid money to Naomi. Then he took Ruth as a wife. Since Naomi was already beyond child bearing age, Boaz then performed levirate marriage with Ruth on Naomi's behalf, and the resulting son became the legal son of Naomi. That son became David's grandfather. The point of levirate marriage was that a man's land and other family property should remain in the hands of his legal descendants. Provision was made to create such legal descendants via levirate marriage if they did not already exist, for the corollary purpose that the man's name not die out.
Given the above, it is easy to see why what Christians regard as sexual sins were largely condemned in the OT, not as sexual sins per se, but as injury to property rights. For example, when an unbetrothed virgin was seduced, it was seen by the community and dealt with by the law as an injury to the father's property. The seducer had to pay the standard bride price no matter what, and if the girl's father permitted, marry her and not ever be allowed to divorce her. If the girl were already betrothed, then the seducer (or rapist) was to be stoned to death because he had stolen another man's extremely valuable property. The difference between the two situations is that the betrothed girl was already 'owned by an owner' and therefore was already the property of a husband.
These laws also indicate that such property crimes were viewed as much more severe when committed against a husbandly owner than a fatherly owner. Why? Because only the husbandly owner had the right to bear children by the woman, which was among the most highly valued rights of all. After all, a man's name could be propagated only through his male children. Thus, if an unentitled man had sexual relations with a betrothed or married woman, he was to be executed for stealing the husband's exclusive right to have sexual relations and bear children with his wife.
If, as conservative Christians claim, prohibitions on sexual relations per se were the focus of various OT laws and customs, then there would be no difference between a man's seducing a betrothed or an unbetrothed woman, since in both cases he would have committed "fornication". Therefore we must conclude that if God gave laws to the Israelites, and tacitly or explicitly approved of patriarchal laws and customs that became part of the Mosaic Law, then God had to have viewed sexual conduct rather differently back then as compared to Christian times. Therefore God must have changed his standard of sexual conduct for faithful men when Christianity overtook the Mosaic Law.
Nowhere in the OT is the fact that faithful men of patriarchal times adhered to a different sexual standard better illustrated than in the patriarchal institutions of levirate (brother-in-law) marriage and polygamy.
Levirate marriage was really a relic of the ancient right to inherit the widow, as mentioned above in connection with the Ruth-Boaz story. The Mosaic Law elevated the custom, with minor changes, into a law. It said that when a man died without sons, his nearest relative (usually a brother) was to marry the widow and bear children. In earlier times it appears that all of the offspring would be reckoned as belonging to the dead man (Genesis 38:8, 9), but under the Law only the firstborn male would be so reckoned (Deuternonmy 25:6). It seems almost to go without saying that the "firstborn" would have to be the firstborn son, since daughters did not count in passing on the dead man's name, and the law was specific that levirate marriage was to be performed if a man died without sons. The nearest relative was to marry the widow even if he was already married (Deut. 25:5). This is an important point, for it proves that God gave his explicit approval to polygamy when the nearest male relative was already married.
While monogamy was the ideal in marriage, polygamy was an accepted practice in OT patriarchal society. For example, Abraham's first wife Sarah gave him her slave Hagar as a second wife. He also had other wives and concubines. (Genesis 25:1, 5, 6; 1 Chronicles 1:32) Abraham's brother Nahor had a wife and a concubine. (Genesis 22:20-24) After Laban tricked Jacob into taking Leah as a wife, Jacob also was given Rachel (of course, Jacob paid the bride price by fourteen years of service to Laban). Jacob's wives also gave him their slave girls Bilhah and Zilpah as wives. (Genesis 29, 30) Nothing in the account indicates that anyone, including God, objected to the arrangement. Indeed, the fact that the entire Israelite nation came from these four wives proves that God approved of the arrangement. Jacob's sons Simeon and Benjamin clearly had several wives. (Exodus 6:15; Genesis 46:21; Numbers 26:38-41; 1 Chronicles 7:6-12; 8:1) Many other descendents of Abraham in pre-Law times had multiple wives. Moses himself had two wives. (Exodus 2:21; Numbers 12:1)
Polygamy not only was not prohibited, but was expressly provided for under the Mosaic Law. Deuteronomy 21:15-17 regulates inheritance for the sons of a man with two wives. Exodus 21:10, 11 regulates what a man must do if he took a slave as a wife and then took a second wife: "her sustenance, her clothing and her marriage due are not to be diminished." Leviticus 18:18 says that a man must not marry both a woman and her sister, implying again that polygamy was otherwise permitted. By making express provisions for polygamy, the Law authorized it.
Polygamy was practiced, with God's approval, by a number of important Israelites under the Law. Judge Gideon had seventy sons by many wives and one concubine. (Judges 8:30-31) Elkanah, father of Samuel, had two wives. (1 Samuel 1:2) Saul had several wives. (2 Samuel 12:8) David had many wives and concubines (2 Samuel 5:13), and in fact, God himself gave David all of Saul's wives. (2 Samuel 12:8) Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. (1 Kings 11:3) Judge Jair had thirty sons, obviously by more than one wife. (Judges 10:4) Judge Ibzan had thirty sons and thirty daughters, and Judge Abdon had forty sons, obviously by a number of wives. (Judges 12:8, 9, 13, 14) Others who had multiple wives were: the sons of Issachar (1 Chronicles 7:1-5), Shaharaim (1 Chronicles 8:8, 9), Rehoboam (18 wives, 60 concubines) (2 Chronicles 11:21), Abijah (14 wives) (2 Chronicles 13:21), and Joash (2 Chronicles 24:3).
While in modern usage adultery refers to any sexual activity of a married person with someone other than his or her mate, adultery in the OT is best defined by examining various cases and laws. A careful examination shows the following:
Among the patriarchs and the Israelites, adultery amounted to any act whereby a married man was exposed to the risk of having a spurious offspring imposed upon him. An adulterous man, therefore, was one who had illicit sexual relations with a married or betrothed woman, and an adulterous woman was a betrothed or married woman who had sexual relations with any man other than her husband. Sexual relations between a married man and an unmarried woman, or between two unmarried people, was simply fornication -- a sin, but not of the order of adultery, because adultery was punishable by death. This was because adultery could pollute a line of descent, could damage an inheritance, or could result in illegitimate offspring that could not become the man's own through the mechanisms referred to above. The offspring that might result from non-adulterous sexual relations could easily be absorbed into society by the man marrying the woman, possibly with the woman becoming another of the man's wives. Clearly, adultery was a function, not of sexual relations per se, but was defined in terms of violation of property rights -- the right of a man to exclusive ownership of his wife's ability to bear him children.
The patriarchal and Israelite view of adultery is intimately connected with the existence of polygamy. A married man who had sexual relations with a woman who was not his wife, concubine or slave, was guilty of unclean conduct, but committed no offense that violated his wife's legal rights. But if he had relations with the wife of another man, he was guilty of adultery -- not because of violating his own marriage covenant, but because of infringing on the covenant between the woman and her husband.
Fornication in OT usage can refer to any illicit sexual intercourse, especially of a married woman. The OT is clear, though, that there were degrees of illicitness. Thus, male and female temple prostitutes, being connected with idolatry, are strongly condemned. Prostitution in general is strongly condemned. The daughter of a priest who committed prostitution (possibly even simple fornication) was to be stoned and her body burned. (Leviticus 21:9) However, no such penalty is imposed on simple fornication by unmarried people, as custom was that they simply married, assuming that the respective fathers agreed.
It is interesting that the Hebrew verb zanah and its related forms almost always give the idea of prostitution and gross immoral intercourse, but can refer to simple fornication. There is no single equivalent English word or idea, and so it is not always completely clear just what the OT is referring to when it uses that word. Thus, condemnations that are clearly made against zanah are almost always against conduct that can be described as prostitution or adultery, not simple fornication.
OT Accounts that Are Often Misinterpreted By Conservative Christians
Probably the OT story that is most often cited as condemning simple fornication is the account of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38:6-26. The story says that Tamar pretended to be a prostitute and Judah had sexual relations with her. She did this in order to trick him into performing brother-in-law marriage with her, because he had dilly-dallied around for many years and failed to marry his youngest son to her after her husband died. The reactions of various characters in the story are claimed as proof that fornication was as strongly condemned in the OT as it is in the NT. However, a detailed look at the story shows that this is not the case.
The story goes that Judah had three sons. The first one, Er, married Tamar, but for unspecified reasons God killed him. Then Judah told the second son Onan to perform brother-in-law marriage with Tamar. Now, remember that back in that ancient time, patriarchal custom was that all of the offspring of Onan and Tamar would have been credited to Er, and Onan would have had to marry a second wife in order to have his own offspring. So Onan pretended to perform the levirate marriage, but each time, he "wasted his semen on the earth so as not to give offspring to his brother." God did not like that, and he killed Onan, too. Then Judah told Tamar to live in her father's house until his third son Shelah grew up and then he would marry her. Many years passed and Tamar was not given to Shelah as a wife. Then Judah's wife died, and after the mourning period ended Judah took a trip. Tamar saw his trip as an opportunity to trick Judah into having sexual relations with her, so that she would have tricked him into a form of levirate marriage and taken a shot at bearing a son. Tamar dressed herself in a shawl and a veil, like an ordinary prostitute, and sat down along the road she knew Judah would take. Judah spotted her, asked to have sexual relations, they negotiated a deal in which Judah gave her his seal ring, cord and staff -- the equivalent of all his major credit cards -- as security until he could pay her. They had relations and then parted ways. Later Judah had a companion try to find the "temple prostitute" to pay her and retrieve his security, but she could not be found. Eventually Tamar was found to be pregnant, and was brought before Judah who ordered his men to burn her for "playing the harlot". She dramatically produced the security that was undeniably Judah's, which identified him as the father. Then he pronounced her more righteous than he, because he had failed to fulfill his word in giving her his third son as a husband. He left her alone after that. She bore twin sons, one of whom was in the line leading to the Messiah.
This story contains several interesting points. Since Tamar had to be fairly certain that Judah would want to have sexual relations with a prostitute while he was traveling (she must have realized that Judah had not had sex during the period of mourning for his wife and was probably in a state of sexual neediness), she must have known that he was in the habit of visiting prostitutes. It would make no sense for a woman who knew that a man was completely virtuous sexually to think that he would suddenly visit a prostitute. The odds against it are enormous. If Tamar knew this, then the entire family group must have known it. And if the group knew it, and did not condemn Judah for it, then his visiting prostitutes must have been acceptable to the group -- a group of people who lived by the rules of patriarchal society. This fits in well with the information described above, which shows that men were not condemned as adulterers if they had sexual relations with unmarried women. So it appears that a man's committing fornication with a prostitute was both frowned upon and winked at.
Another interesting point is that when Judah's companion tried to find the "temple prostitute" but could not, Judah was very concerned that it not look like he had failed to pay for the service rendered. When the companion reported back, Judah told him: "Let her take them for herself, in order that we may not fall into contempt. At any rate, I have sent this kid, but you -- you never found her." (Genesis 38:23) Clearly, Judah was unconcerned about having committed fornication with a prostitute but was greatly concerned that he would become a laughingstock for failing to pay her.
A third point is that God had seen fit to kill two of Judah's sons for doing something he didn't like. In Onan's case it was failing to perform brother-in-law marriage. If God didn't kill Judah for committing fornication with a prostitute, but killed Onan for what a Christian today would think is a much less serious offense, then it is obvious that God did not think too badly of Judah's sexual escapades. The contrast here with Christian sexual morality can hardly be greater. Law and custom demanded that a married man commit polygamy, and commit 'adultery' as many times as it took to produce a son, with his dead brother's wife. The same law and custom allowed that a man who committed simple fornication only had to marry the girl. Conservative Christians would condemn all of these as adulterers and fornicators worthy of death at God's hands.
A fourth point is that Tamar was condemned for 'playing the harlot', which might look at first glance like she was condemned for fornication. But remember that she was promised by Judah to be his third son's wife, and that she was still waiting for a husband with whom to perform brother-in-law marriage, so she was obviously looked upon as at least a betrothed woman. Thus, her 'playing the harlot' was not mere fornication, but adultery which was punishable by death.
Another OT story cited as condemning simple fornication is the account of Dinah, daughter of Jacob. Jacob and his large family group were living Canaan, and eventually one Shechem, a Canaanite, seduced Dinah. He asked his father to get Dinah as a wife for him. Jacob and his sons Simeon and Levi "heard that he had defiled Dinah his daughter". Through deceit, Jacob's two sons tricked Shechem and his fellows into getting circumcised, and then killed all the men of the city. Jacob was upset because of the possible repercussions from other Canaanites, but his sons said, "Ought anyone to treat our sister like a prostitute?"
Again this account might seem as if it reflects a hatred by OT characters for fornication, but again a consideration of the cultural context shows that it does not. The normal punishment, if one could call it that, for seducing an unmarried girl was that the seducer had to marry her. That is exactly what Shechem's family wanted him to do. But Jacob's sons went far beyond that and killed, not only the seducer, but all the males in his family and in his city. Clearly, the account is not condoning such overreaction, but condemning wholesale murder. Thus the account provides no justification for claiming that the OT condemns simple fornication the same as it does adultery.
A third OT story often trotted out as condemning simple fornication is the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. Joseph got to be appointed as master over everything in Potiphar's household, so much so that Potiphar "left everything that was his in Joseph's hand; and he did not know what was with him at all except the bread he was eating." (vs. 6) From time to time Potiphar's wife would try to seduce Joseph, but he would refuse, saying that Potiphar "has not withheld from me anything at all except you, because you are his wife. So how could I commit this great badness and actually sin against God?" Clearly, Joseph's objection was not to committing simple fornication, but to violating another man's wife. In accord with patriarchal law and custom, he would have been stealing Potiphar's exclusive right to sexual relations with his wife, and Potiphar would have had the right to demand the death penalty. Clearly, the account is about adultery, not fornication.
According to the New Testament, Jesus interpreted the words of Genesis 2:24, "That is why a man will leave his father and his mother and he must stick to his wife and they must become one flesh", as meaning that God's standard for marriage was in the beginning, one man and one woman. Genesis is clear that Noah and his sons had one wife each. According to the Watchtower Society's chronology, by about the time of the patriarch Abraham's birth some 350 years after the Flood, this standard had changed to one where polygamy and levirate marriage were normal, and were implicitly and explicitly permitted or even demanded by God. Both polygamy and levirate marriage are condemned by Christians as adultery. Thus, God's standard for sexual morality was different in patriarchal times than in the beginning of mankind, and it is different in Christian times.