An appreciation of the biblical concern with the establishment of a holy people—the “children of Abraham,” variously understood—reveals the relationship between sexuality and such related issues as virginity, pre‐ and extramarital sexual behavior, marriage, polygyny, concubinage, adultery, and homosexuality.

Sexual Behavior in the Hebrew Bible.

The paradigmatic biblical statement on sexuality and sexual behavior is found in Genesis 1.26–28, the creation of human beings in God's image as male and female with the duty to “be fruitful and multiply,” and it reflects the vigorous pronatalist worldview that characterized most of the period of the composition of the Hebrew Bible. From the call of Abraham in Genesis 12 to the death of Joseph in Genesis 50, the combined promises of land, heir, and many descendants provide the scaffolding by which the history of earliest Israel is erected (Gen. 12.2; 13.16; 22.17; 24.60; etc.). Israel shared this desire for offspring with its ancient Near Eastern neighbors, as evidenced in the fourteenth‐century BCE Ugaritic epic of Kirta. The threat of the extinction of one's biological line is a commonplace in ancient Near Eastern treaty curses, and was appropriated directly by biblical writers (Deut. 28.18, 32; Josh. 6.26; Ps. 109.13; etc.).

All sexual behavior that did not produce legitimate Israelite offspring to the holy commonwealth was, in varying degrees, censured or controlled, and there was a concomitant double standard with regard to sexual behavior. Premarital virginity, for example, was incumbent only upon females; there is no indication that males were expected to be virgins at marriage, and there is no provision in the Hebrew Bible for lifelong virginity. If a husband accused his wife of not having been a virgin at the time of her marriage, and if his charges were substantiated, the woman was stoned. If, on the other hand, the man's charges were refuted, he was merely flogged and fined (Deut. 22.13–21).

Marriage was regarded as the normal estate of adults by the biblical writers, although in actuality the closing of the Israelite frontier and concomitant laws granting patrimony to the firstborn son would almost certainly have deprived some sons and daughters of the economic resources necessary to establish families of their own. Such unmarried sons were shunted into military, bureaucratic, or clerical careers (e.g., the landless Levites). Some unmarried women may have found a social role among the temple functionaries termed qādēš/qĕdēšâ (literally, “set apart,” but usually translated “sacred prostitute” on the basis of such passages as Gen. 38.21–22 and Deut. 23.18). There is no direct evidence, however, that the wages of such persons were derived from sexual activity (see Prostitution).

The function of marriage in the Hebrew Bible was (a) social (the regulation of sexual behavior, especially of women); (b) psychological and emotional (to provide companionship for the partners); (c) economic (through family agrarian and artisan enterprises); (d) religious (since the majority of festivals centered on household participation); and, most important, (e) theological (through the procreation, legitimation, and socialization of children, the basis of the people of God). In the majority of biblical writings, children were the supreme example of divine favor (Gen. 12.2; Deut. 28.9–11; Ps. 127.3–5), and childlessness was understood to be a curse (Gen. 15.2, Deut. 28.18, 30).

Endogamy was prescribed (Exod. 34.15–16; Deut. 7.3–6; Josh. 23.11–13), but intermarriage was routine in actuality, especially by kings. The Samson cycle (Judg. 13–16) vividly illustrated the perceived danger of exogamy. Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 9–10; Neh. 10.28–30) attempted to restore ethnic endogamy after the exile, but by Hellenistic times intermarriage was again recorded as a practice among diaspora Jews (Acts 16.1–3; 24.24).

The conviction that procreation is an unqualified good is also reflected in three well‐known institutions regulating sexual behavior: polygyny, concubinage, and levirate marriage.

Polygyny seems to have been practiced since the earliest periods of Israelite history, but was probably never statistically prevalent due to the relative affluence necessary to support more than one wife; note Jacob's fourteen‐year indenture for his two wives and two concubines (Gen. 29.20–29). Both David and Solomon practiced polygyny on a grand scale (1 Sam. 25.39–43; 27.3; 2 Sam. 3.2–5), although the Deuteronomic theologians admonished even royalty to refrain from the practice because of its religiously adulterating possibilities (Deut. 17.17; cf. 1 Kings 11.1–7).

Although concubines did not enjoy the same rights as a wife, they were socially and legally recognized in ancient Israel. A concubine's children did not share the rights of a wife's children, unless, like Hagar, sexual contact with the concubine was for the explicit purpose of producing heirs, in which case the children became the wife's children (Gen. 21.14; 25.5–6). Wives and concubines of a deposed or conquered king were considered war booty (2 Sam. 12.8; 1 Kings 20.3). Thus, Absalom's public intercourse with David's concubines during the latter's flight from Jerusalem was considered treasonous (2 Sam. 16.20–22), and Adonijah's request for the concubine Abishag amounted to insurrection (1 Kings 2.13–25).

Although the legislation concerning levirate marriage (Deut. 25.5–10) specifies the brother of the deceased as bearer of the responsibility to marry his widowed sister‐in‐law, the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 indicates that the responsibility to the widow rested with the dead man's family, not merely with his brother (v. 26). Further, “to preserve the name” refers to the dead man's property, not merely to his nominal existence, as is clear from the account in Ruth 4. Josephus is probably correct, then, in seeing the purpose of levirate marriage to be threefold: to continue a lineage, to prevent the alienation of family property, and to provide for the social and economic welfare of widows (Ant. 4.8.254). Levirate marriage was at least known (if not actually practiced) into the Hellenistic period (cf. Matt. 22.22–33).

All sexual behavior that did not contribute to the biblical notion of “the children of Israel” was proscribed. Homosexuality, bestiality, contraception, and masturbation were all prohibited, directly or by inference. Adultery—sexual activity between a married woman and a man of any marital status—is consistently condemned in the biblical writings (Exod. 20.14, 17; Lev. 18.20, 20.10; Num. 5.11–31; Deut. 22.22–29; Matt. 5.32). Sexual activity by an unmarried woman, whether for hire or not, was termed Prostitution (the same Hebrew words, zānâ and its derivatives, are also translated as “to fornicate,” “to be a harlot, a whore”) and the response ranged from toleration (in the case of Rahab, Josh. 2) to burning (in the case of a priest's daughter, Lev. 21.9; cf. Gen. 38.24). Harlotry as a metaphor for spiritual unfaithfulness was used by the prophets to denounce Israel's apostasy.

A conspicuous exception to the dominant sexual ideology of the Bible is the Song of Solomon. The Song's frank erotic imagery, its indifference to social proprieties such as marriage and reproduction, and its lack of overtly religious sentiments have forced generations of exegetes to allegorize its sensuality to bring it into harmony with the social control of sexuality sought by most biblical authors.

Sexual Behavior in the Greco‐Roman Period.

Beginning in the later books of the Hebrew Bible and continuing through the New Testament, there is a general decline in the value of sexuality and a tendency toward exaggerating its sinfulness. This shift in attitude resulted less from the influence of apocalyptic religious thought than from the Greco‐Roman cultural hegemony of the third century BCE to the second century CE. Philo (ca. 20 BCE–ca. 50 CE) interpreted the Septuagint's reordering of the Ten Commandments to place adultery at the top of the list of sins against one's neighbor, before murder and theft (Exod. 20.13–15: LXX; Deut. 5.17–19: LXX), to indicate that adultery was the most serious of all sins (De Dec. 121, 131). Philo also condemned any expression of sexuality, even within marriage, that was not for the purpose of procreation (Spec. Leg. 3.32–36).

The Essenes at Qumran, who believed that they were living on the eve of the final eschatological battle between “the children of light and the children of darkness,” considered themselves especially susceptible to pollution from sexual contact (1QM 7.4–7), and so some of them, according to statements of Philo (Apol. 14–17), Josephus (War 2.8.120–21; Ant. 18.1.21) and other ancient sources, renounced marriage and reproduction. The paucity of juvenile and female skeletons in the Qumran cemetery lends credence to these statements.

Early Christian attitudes toward sexuality arose from this background of Hellenistic asceticism, Jewish apocalypticism, and ethics inherited from the Hebrew Bible. Adultery and homosexuality are forbidden, for example (e.g., Rom. 1.26–27; 1 Tim. 1.10), and other sexual activities are proscribed, such as fornication by males as well as females (1 Cor. 6.9). We find in the synoptic Gospels antimarital and antifamilial sentiments attributed to Jesus (Matt. 8.21–22; 10.34–37; 19.10–12; Luke 8.19–21; 11.27–28), and Paul unambiguously counseled the Corinthian Christians that marriage represented a compromise of the spiritual life, the highest degree of which was attainable only by celibates like Paul (1 Cor. 7.1, 7–9; cf. Matt. 19.10–12; Rev. 14.4).

New Testament endorsement of marital sexuality and family life is clearest in the Deutero‐Pauline and pastoral letters, where the patriarchal household current in the Mediterranean world of the first century CE (with such modifications as premarital chastity for males) was assumed as the Christian norm (Eph. 5.22–24; 1 Tim. 2.15; 4.1–4; 5.14; cf. Heb. 13.4). The tension between sexual renunciation and full participation in married life was not decisively resolved in early Christianity, however, as both apocryphal and patristic writings attest (e.g., Acts of Paul and Thecla; Tertullian, Exhort. Chast. 3; Jerome, Jov. 1.40).

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Gene McAfee