Were Old Testament Sexual Regulations Unreasonable?

It is commonly charged that certain documents of the Old Testament are unbalanced in terms of sexual matters? This allegation reflects a misunderstanding of the sacred text. This week’s Question addresses this matter.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

“In the preparation for receiving the Law from Mt. Sinai, Moses commanded all married Israelites to abstain from sexual relations for three days (Ex. 19:15)? Why was that? Could not some interpret this as an unhealthy attitude toward sex?”

Some critics who are always anxious to involve the Scriptures in difficulty have so charged, but the allegation will not stand under careful scrutiny.

The Bible presents a very exalted and lovely picture of the sexual relationship between a husband and wife. Actually, we should be reminded that the sexual design is from God — not Satan? It has a purpose. It is not an accident of evolutionary development.

Sexual desire is an integral part of the human make-up (Gen. 3:16), and a loving marriage relationship is the sacredly ordained environment of fulfillment (1 Cor. 7:1-2).

According to Hebrew law, a newly married man was freed from military or business duties for an entire year, so that he could “cheer up his wife which he has taken” (Deut. 24:5). The book of Song of Solomon is quite vivid in detailing the physical bliss of marital love.

In the New Testament, the marriage bed is considered honorable (Heb. 13:4). Paul plainly sets out the mutual responsibilities of both husband and wife, to fulfill their conjugal obligations (1 Cor. 7:3-5).

Legitimate sexual relationships are never disdained in the Bible. But here are some facts that must be borne in mind in addressing certain “sexual” regulations mentioned in the scriptures.

Seemingly Strange Sexual Regulations

Some Old Testament sexual regulations, even between a husband and wife, were designed to inoculate the Hebrews against pagan concepts and fertility rites that were woven into the fabric of heathen religion.

For example, God is never represented as a literal sexual being, but among heathen peoples, the gods frequently consorted with one another sexually. In the Babylonian “creation” document called Enuma Elish, the “male” and “female” waters co-mingled in order to bring forth life.

It must be recognized that in the literature of the Bible, God attempts to train his people for a higher spiritual level of existence (heavenly). Thus the Lord has initiated a program of interaction with humanity. He has communicated with mankind by means of the spoken word through prophets in ancient times or a written message (the Scriptures) today.

Jehovah expects worship and service on man’s part to be directed heavenward. No sexual activity is to be entwined with sacred worship.

Sexual relationships, biblically viewed, are a part of man’s earthly existence (cf. Mt. 22:30). For this reason, certain Old Testament regulations forced a separation between sexual activity and religious activity.

This did not suggest that physical intimacy was tainted. Rather it should be kept in its appropriate place.

And so, as noted already, the laws of the Mosaic regime constituted what professor J.E. Hartley has characterized as:

“a strong polemic against paganism, which constantly associated sexual intercourse at the cultic center with guaranteed fertility (cf. Hosea 4:12ff).In contrast, Israel’s fields and flocks were productive as a result of the gracious blessing of God upon the people in response to their covenant faithfulness (cf. Leviticus 26:3-13)” (721).

Some of the sexual ordinances of the Old Testament (e.g., those in Leviticus 15), had health implications (e.g., the prevention of contagious maladies). Also, it contained ceremonial reminders that were designed to nullify adverse psychological conditioning that could break down resistance to idolatrous practices.

Viewed in their proper perspective, therefore, the Old Testament restrictions relative to certain sexual liberties were not unreasonable at all. Those who criticize the Old Testament in this regard, simply don’t understand it.

  • Hartley, J. E. 1979. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia — Revised. G.W. Bromiley, Ed. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.