In Part 1 of this short series, I addressed the question of What Does the Bible Say About Premarital Sex? If you didn’t read that post, I encourage you to go there first. The conclusion we drew from a series of stories and passages is that God intends sex to occur within marriage.
But in today’s post, Part 2, let’s look at some exceptions to that sequence within Scripture and whether the typical biblical example still applies in our time and culture.
A Few Exceptions
Are there biblical exceptions to the sequence of get married and then have sex? Yes, there are.
For instance, among the Law of Moses is this passage:
If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins.Exodus 22:16-17
Premarital sex is not given the same harsh punishment as adultery (death), and the wording of the passage even sounds like, “We expect this will happen.” But having sex before marriage is still considered an offense that requires correcting course and making amends. It’s missing the mark, which is one definition of sin.
Some also point to Ruth’s “seduction” of Boaz as an exception to the sequence of sex-then-marriage. In particular, the following passage:
When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet! “Who are you?” he asked. “I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.”Ruth 3:7-14
“The Lord bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character. Although it is true that I am a guardian-redeemer of our family, there is another who is more closely related than I. Stay here for the night, and in the morning if he wants to do his duty as your guardian-redeemer, good; let him redeem you. But if he is not willing, as surely as the Lord lives I will do it. Lie here until morning.”
So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before anyone could be recognized; and he said, “No one must know that a woman came to the threshing floor.”
Certain scholars have suggested that “feet” is a euphemism for genitals; that is, that Ruth got really close to Boaz’s man-part. It does seem like actual feet would be a weird place to lie down, and Boaz’s reaction would be more understandable if he wakes up in the dark with an erection and a woman giving it to him. However, there’s insufficient reason to conclude that feet = penis.
What’s more curious is all the other behavior here: Why is she going to him at night? Why wait until he’s “in good spirits,” perhaps meaning he was slightly inebriated from the drink he’d had? Why be under the same garment? Why hide that she’d been there?
But I’ve looked at the arguments for and against from biblical scholars on both sides, as well as deep diving into the text itself, and I’m less inclined these days to believe they engaged in premarital sex. The evidence that they did is circumstantial at best, and other scriptures make it seem less likely, such as Boaz referring to Ruth as “a woman of noble character (3:11; see also 2:9, 2:22, 4:13).
Even if they did, this passage is descriptive, not prescriptive. We are told the story of Ruth, who embraced God and became part of God’s plan for a messiah, but that doesn’t mean that she always acted in keeping with God’s commands. The Bible is honest about God’s worshipers, sharing both their faith and their failings. Maybe this was a failing that God turned to good. Maybe a sexual encounter never happened at all. Regardless, this example isn’t nearly enough to conclude that God is okay with premarital sex.
Marriage Then and Now
Another objection raised is that people in biblical times slept together and then got married, because there are several examples of couples who were together but didn’t have a ceremony or license.
Let’s look at the first full description we have of a man securing a wife—the story of Isaac and Rebekah. The marriage goes like this:
Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.Genesis 24:67 (ESV)
But if you read the whole chapter, you see that a servant negotiated for Rebekah and paid a “bride price,” a seemingly official act. (By the way, if you’re squirming at the idea of a “bride price,” by custom, some or even all of that became the property of the woman herself, thus giving her some means of her own.) Also, Rebekah was asked if she would go with Isaac and thus had a choice in the matter—her verbal consent being the equivalent of a marriage promise. This isn’t a wedding as we know it, but in the context of their culture, there’s a definable moment when these two agree to be with one another and then consummate the marriage.
We can’t go through every marriage in the Bible here, but this pattern continues—husband and wife going from betrothal to marriage with some kind of recognition between the couple and from witnesses. Moreover, the New Testament references several weddings: A Wedding Song from Psalms, King Solomon’s Wedding, Jeremiah’s Prophecy on God’s Bride, Jesus’s First Miracle at a Wedding, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
Marriage covenants have also been around a long time. The Istanbul Archaeology Museum houses a 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet on which a marriage contract is recorded.
And look at this verse from Malachi:
You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.Malachi 2:14
And the Levitical Law recorded in Deuteronomy shows that God’s people expected virginity up to the date of marriage.
So yes, engagements and weddings haven’t been consistent throughout history. But the examples we have all indicate that there was an oath exchanged and communally recognized—basically, a marriage.
Who Can Wait That Long?
As stated in my last post, I’d once rationalized that abstaining until marriage was an outdated expectation. Bible times and cultures were quite different, and both women and men tended to marry younger. When you have large families, shorter life spans, and no long-term education before entering an occupation, why wait?
Indeed, women in biblical times likely married in their teen years, but so did most men. Some men married when older, but often due to financial reasons or the loss of a prior wife.
Yet, I struggled to make excuses when I came to this passage:
Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her. Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.”Genesis 29:18-21
Go online and search for the age of Jacob at this time, and you’ll find varied answers, all the way up to age 84. I strongly doubt he was that old, but he was at least 17 years of age. And he waited for seven years before having sex, or he wouldn’t say, “My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.”
He was obviously expected to hold out until married … and he did. He was at least 24, and I’d barely turned 25 when I married. Moreover, I hadn’t dated my husband for seven eager years, but rather six months. (I’m not encouraging a six-month courtship—just telling y’all what happened.)
Undoubtedly, Jacob had self-control I didn’t display. But should have.
What’s Your View of the Bible?
If you read the Bible, front to back, Old Testament and New, all the varied stories, you really can’t walk away with the belief that sex outside of marriage was encourage or condoned by God’s people.
But believing that the prohibition of premarital sex still applies depends a great deal on your view of the Bible. Does it convey an accurate view of God and His will? Are its ethical commands based primarily on cultural understandings or messages from God? Are its moral principles timeless?
Personally, I believe that Word of God is the word of God. Yes, we have to use our noggins when we read, interpret, and meditate on Scripture. Not everything is literal (like your wife’s eyes are not doves – Song of Songs 4:1), but Scripture is true (she has beautiful eyes, right?).
If you also believe that Scripture is true, then read and think deeply about this passage:
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.1 Thessalonians 4:3-7
Please stick with me for the final installment in this 3-part series. Next time, we’ll talk about falling short, forgiveness and redemption, and maintaining sexual integrity, whether single or married.