by Dr Meg Warner, Theologian, Lecturer and Member of General Synod
In all of the excitement about that sermon, some of the striking aspects of the royal wedding were perhaps slightly overlooked. The world watched an American divorcée marry into the Royal Family, with its full approval. Yes, some of them looked decidedly uncomfortable, but that was more about the preaching of the first black Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church than about the bride. She herself entered Windsor Chapel alone, with no man to support her for most of the long walk down the aisle – just some winningly emotional children. It looked more like a coronation than a wedding. And Meghan’s mother, also alone, won more admiration for her composure than she did sympathy for her solitariness.
Even fifty years ago none of this would have been thinkable.
Prior to the wedding, Harry and Meghan lived together in Nottingham Cottage at Kensington Palace, and spoke openly about their camping holidays. That wouldn’t have been thinkable fifty years ago either. And that got me thinking about the Scriptures and sex before marriage.
It is clear in the Scriptures that sex before marriage is considered a Bad Thing. God, however, doesn’t have much to say on the matter, and it seems apparent that the antipathy toward sexual activity between unmarried people is essentially cultural. In other words, while it is taken for granted in most places in the Scriptures that women should not have sex before they are married (eg. Deut 22:20-21), this is less reflective of divine viewpoint than it is adoptive of prevalent community attitudes. I should add that there is nothing in the Old Testament, at least, prohibiting unmarried men from engaging in sexual activity with unmarried women. (The Old Testament just happens to be my field, but it also has far more discussion of sexuality than the New.)
In order to understand what the Scriptures have to say about sexual activity on the part of unmarried women, and what community views the Scriptures are adopting, you need to know a little about the status of women in biblical times. In order to function in society each woman needed to ‘belong’ to a man. A woman needed to be the daughter or wife or (in extremis) sister of a man in order to have any kind of life or security. And I say ‘belong’ advisedly. Women were in a very real sense the property of the men to whom they belonged. A vital part of any marriage negotiation was the ‘mohar’ or ‘bride price’ that a prospective groom would pay to the bride’s father (eg. 1 Sam 18:25). Each of the provisions in the Torah about sexual activity on the part of an unmarried woman is prompted, at least in part, by concerns about this mohar (or about the deal that a husband is getting in exchange). So, for example, Exodus says that if a man seduces an unmarried woman he must marry her (after giving her father the mohar). In other words, if a man has sex with an unmarried woman, thereby rendering her unmarriageable, he must pay the price that her father could have expected from a prospective suitor, and if her father refuses to give her to him in marriage he must pay the mohar regardless (Exod 21:16-17). Deuteronomy adds that if the seduction is violent the girl’s father has no choice in the matter – he must give his daughter in marriage to her abuser, but the abuser must pay the girl’s father 50 silver shekels and will never be permitted to divorce her (Deut 22:28). We can’t imagine this being great for the girl, but the girl’s father gets the mohar and the whole family – including the girl – is protected from the shame and burden of future divorce.
On the other side of the bargain, if a man alleges that his wife was not a virgin when he married her, and her family is unable to provide proof of her virginity, the woman is to be taken to the entrance of her father’s house and stoned to death (because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house, Deut 22:20-21). And if this sounds to you like pretty clear evidence that God isn’t in favour of sex before marriage, remember that the woman in question is now married, and that the problem is that her husband hasn’t got what he paid for.
Even Leviticus’ incest laws (Leviticus 18 and 20) appear to be predicated upon the issue of bride price. Where a man commits incest the problem is arguably not so much the closeness of the relationship as the fact that he has trespassed on the property rights of another man. Disturbing support for this is found in the fact that Leviticus has no prohibition on sexual activity between a man and his daughters.
If we, today, look to the Scriptures for guidance about ethics (and I’m convinced we should), then we need to be aware, too, of the cultural milieu that formed them, and also of how ethics changed and developed, even in biblical times, with the surrounding culture. Change is happening in our culture, too, as Meghan and Harry have amply demonstrated.
Perhaps our interpretation and application of Scriptures should change and develop with it? Of course, they already do. We no longer marry girls off to their rapists or stone them to death for ‘prostituting themselves in the fathers’ houses’. Imagine preaching either of those things post-#metoo!
We need to get more honest and intentional about the fact that we are all ‘revisionists’. Only then will we be able truly to be faithful to the Scriptures.