Sex: What Does the Bible Says About Gender, Marriage, Fornication, Adultery, Rape, Incest, Homosexuality, Bestiality, and Prostitution?
Christians and non-Christians end up disagreeing about sex, and most everything else, because they start at different places. Christians believe that God created gender, marriage, and sex for His glory and our good. Christians believe that everything begins in the opening chapters of Genesis, which begins, “In the beginning.”
In the Bible, human sexuality begins in the garden of Eden, where God created all things good, including the male, the female, and their sexuality, and told humans to “be fruitful and multiply.” (1) Once sin enters into the world, the way things are is not the way things ought to be. The way the world was before sin is normal and natural, the way the world is since sin is abnormal and unnatural.
Robert Gagnon, a noted theologian on human sexuality, says, “Scripture regards the urge to gratify intensely pleasurable sexual desires as part of God’s good creation. Nevertheless, given their often-insatiable quality, Scripture also recognizes a constant threat to the Creator’s norms.” (2) In plain speak, because of sin, people have problems with their pants.
God Created Gender, Marriage, and Sex
The way gender, marriage, and sex ought to be is found in the first two chapters of Genesis. There we find the world as God made it, before sin corrupted it, including our first human parents: a male named Adam and a female named Eve. God created marriage as a loving covenant relationship for them and that covenant was consummated sexually. Those basic elements constitute marriage as God designed it – one man and one woman in a consummated covenant. Moses records this, (3) Jesus repeats it, (4) and Paul echoes it. (5) According to the Bible, marriage was created by God long before there were any governments, paperwork, or attorneys. He established the family unit as the first building block for cultures and nations which is why Satan wages war on gender, marriage, and family – seeking to break all that God built. One scholar writes:
In the Bible, the appropriate locus of sexuality is the monogamous nuclear family, the ideal human relationship. The creation account of Genesis 2 emphasizes the fundamental nature of such marriage, for God created woman to be the suitable companion to man. The message is reinforced by an interruption in the narrative, a direct aside to the reader: “therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). . . . The Bible considers a strong marital unit essential to societal well-being, with sex cementing the marital bond. The societal interest in conjugal sex is reflected in Deuteronomy’s provision that new bridegrooms be exempt from military campaigns for a year in order to cause the wives to rejoice (Deut 20:7; 24:5). Intact families demand sexual fidelity, and the best way to ensure this is to find sexual satisfaction in marriage: “find joy in the wife of your youth . . . let her breasts satisfy you at all times, be infatuated with love of her always” (Prov 5:18-19).(6)
Thus, from the biblical perspective, the proper context for sex is the “permanent, monogamous relationship called marriage. This perspective is the basic teaching of the Bible in both Old and New Testaments.” (7) Simply stated, the fires of passion are to be contained in the hearth of marriage. At the same time, there is much more in the Bible regarding sex.
The Genesis of Sexual Sin
Tragically, when sin enters the world, sex and marriage are among the first victims, as the rest of Genesis reports. The rebellion that started in Heaven with Satan and demons, came to our first mother and father, as the storyline of the Bible is a wedding followed by a war.
In The Genesis of Sex: Sexual Relationships in the First Book of the Bible, O. Palmer Robertson undertakes a thematic study on such topics as marriage, parenting, and sexual sin. Robertson’s work highlights that Genesis is a painfully honest record of the beauties and tragedies of human intimacies. These passages include:
- The first marriage with Adam and Eve. (8)
- God prearranges marriages between Adam and Eve, (9) and Isaac and Rebekah. (10)
- Romance in marriage is found between Isaac and Rebekah, (11) and Jacob and Rachel. (12)
- The disaster of polygamy is found in the family of Lamech (13) and the family of Jacob. (14)
- Tragic love triangles are seen between Abram and Sarai and Hagar, (15) and between Jacob and Rachel and Leah and the maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah. (16)
- Examples of disobedient marriages between believers and unbelievers is found to be widespread in the days of Noah. (17)
- Esau’s mismatched marriage with Judith and Basemath grieved his parents, Isaac and Rebekah. (18)
- A sad account of a loveless marriage, where Jacob loved his wife Rachel and not his other wife Leah. (19)
- The pain of divorce is evident when Abraham sends off Hagar and Ishmael. (20)
- The occurrence of a second marriage is explained when Abraham marries Keturah after the death of Sarah. (21)
Following the honesty of Genesis, the rest of the Old Testament records sexual sin and its painful consequences.
Sex in the rest of the Old Testament
After the opening pages of Genesis detail creation, gender, and marriage, the rest of the Old Testament provides numerous case studies of broken sexuality, laws that governed broken sexuality, as well as beautiful pictures of married sexuality as God intended. Examples of broken sexuality would include the men of Sodom, Samson’s womanizing, Solomon’s many wives, and Amnon’s rape of Tamar, among others. Below are also a few examples of sexuality that was also considered sinful among God’s people in the Old Testament:
Having sex prior to marriage was seen as sinful in the Old Testament as God’s established pattern for sex was that it was only to occur after entering into a marriage covenant (Genesis 2:24-25). Elsewhere, the Old Testament condemns those who “play the harlot” (Numbers 25:1), such as Tamar (Genesis 38:12-3). Such activity in the Old Covenant was considered to be a very serious breach of God’s intent (Gen. 38:24; cp. Lev. 21:9; Deut. 22:21).
Adultery is clearly forbidden in the Ten Commandments (Exo. 20:14; Deut. 5:18). One scholar says, “Israel viewed extra-marital sexuality in the severest light, prescribing death for adultery.” (22)
There are a few different cases of rape (or intent to rape) mentioned in the stories of the Old Testament, such as Dinah and Shechem (Gen 34:1-31), the Levite’s concubine (Jdgs 19:1-30), and David’s son Amnon and his half-sister Tamar (2 Sam 13:11-14). The result of all of these was some form of judgment and bloodshed as rape is a horrific evil.
Incest was punishable by death in Israel (Lev. 20:11-12, 14, 17, 19-21). “The Bible defines the parameters of sexual behavior by forbidding intolerable relationships. Sexual relationships may not infringe on another family; they may also not blur the lines in one’s own family through incest. Leviticus 18 and 20 and Deuteronomy 27 detail strong incest prohibitions.” (23)
Like other sexual practices mentioned, homosexual behavior was considered contrary to God’s design for human sexuality. An explicit prohibition against men having sex with men “as with a woman” is found in Leviticus 18:22 (and 20:13), which comes within sanctions in Leviticus that “give a general veto on all non-permissible and especially unnatural sex relationships.” (24)
Bestiality (sex with animals), practiced “to some extent in every ancient rural society and known from Egyptian, Canaanite, and Hittite sources, is condemned in Scripture (Exod. 22:19; Lev. 20:15-16; Deut. 27:21)…in the Edenic narrative the possibility of a sexually bonded liaison with an animal is expressly ruled out (Gen. 2:20). Bestiality rejects the human sexual partner God has ordained in favor of an animal that the Edenic narrative has expressly rejected.” (25)
Paying for sex is forbidden throughout the Old Testament. The pagan religions had male and female prostitutes as part of their worship (Gen 38:21–22; Dt 23:17; Hos 4:14; 1 Kings 15:12; 2 Kings 23:7) which was forbidden for God’s people to participate in (Lv 19:29; 21:9).
The first man to take more than one wife was the godless man Lamech (Genesis 4:19-24). Some of the most famous believers in the Old Testament practiced polygamy which caused misery. The first such instance occurs when Abraham married Hagar in addition to Sarah. (26) The results of this polygamy are truly tragic, as is the case with other instances of adultery and polygamy in Scripture. God’s intention is that each man would have one wife. (27) The Bible describes polygamous relationships, but this honest account does not mean that God approves of such arrangements. Rather, Scripture shows how polygamy is wrought with favoritism, fighting, jealousy, and mistreatment. (28) Once we reach the New Testament, church leaders who serve as the pattern for Christian families are to be “one-woman men.” (29) God never commands polygamy, and it never results in a happy joyful home.
Positive Sexuality in the Old Testament
Despite all the sexual sin, there are positive images of sexual love in the OT. “The most explicit affirmations of sexual pleasure are found in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. Several of the Proverbs, for example, are devoted to the theme of finding true sexual pleasure. This theme is expressed both through warnings against seeking sexual fulfillment outside of marriage and through assertions concerning the delight that the married person should find in one’s spouse. Above all, however, the Song of Songs is significant in this regard. . . . The book is best seen as an extended description of the celebrative dimension of sexuality. This literature is erotic in the positive sense of the term. It celebrates sexual pleasure and eros, the attractiveness that the lover finds in the beloved.” (30)
Throughout the most erotic book in the Bible, the Song of Songs, children are never mentioned, as the entire focus of the book is simply marital passion and pleasure. In poetic form, the book is incredibly frank regarding very intimate aspects of married life.
Traditionally, Christians have derived their marriage and sexuality teaching from the words of Christ and the apostles, but it should be recognized that these New Testament teachings are built on the teachings of the Old Testament.
Sex in the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament
In the New Testament, we find that the design of God in creation for human sexuality is simply assumed, as is what constitutes a violation of God’s design. “Jesus understood the stories about the creation of humans in Gen. 1-2 not merely as descriptive but also as texts that supplied a prescriptive model for subsequent human sexual behavior (Mark 10:6-9; Matt. 19:4-6, 8b). This is clear from his remark ‘From the beginning of creation it was not so’ (cf. Mark 10:6; Matt. 19:8). It is also clear from his back-to-back citations of Gen. 1:27 (‘The Creator “made them male and female”’) and 2:24 (NRSV: ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined [attached, glued] to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’). Jesus did not emphasize the openness of creation to change but rather a binding standard that critiqued all postcreation compromises. Malachi (2:15-16) may be making a similar normative allusion to Gen. 2:24, though there are difficult translation issues: ‘Did he [God] not make [you/them] one? . . . Do not act faithlessly against the wife of your youth. If one hates and divorces . . . , he covers his garment with violence.’” (31)
Ultimately, Jesus intensifies sexual ethics. Contrary to the Jewish context of easy-divorce in his day, Jesus warns that illegitimate divorce and remarriage is adultery (Matt 5:32). This would also preclude polygyny (several wives). “The underlying principle is that having two wives rather than one constitutes adultery. If this applies even when the husband thinks he has dissolved the prior union, then it certainly applies to a union not yet dissolved in the husband’s eyes.” (32) Jesus also included lust as adultery of the heart (Matt 5:28). “Jesus expands the reach of God’s will, from regulating outward behavior to interiorizing the demand as well.” (33) Other issues such as homosexuality (Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9, 1 Tim 1:10; Jude 1:7) and prostitution (1 Cor 6:15-16) are mentioned in the NT as well. The intent for all those in Christ is purity and redemption from sexual sin (1 Cor 6:9-11; Eph 5:3; 1 Pet 4:1-4).
Jesus’ Forgives and Heals Sexual Sin
Jesus brings grace and healing for the sexual brokenness of humanity. In a fallen world, no one perfectly fits the creation design by God human sexuality. Virtually all of us have some degree of sexual brokenness. Because of the work of Christ on the cross, all sexual sin is forgiven for those who are in Christ. Further, Jesus’ resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit offer hope even now to grow and become more sexually healed and whole in Christ. In the New Testament we also learn that human sexuality paints one of the most poignant pictures of God’s relationship with his people. In the Old Testament, Israel is repeatedly portrayed as a wayward lover of God, who had redeemed her. In the New Testament, the church is referred to as Christ’s bride (e.g., Rev 19:7), and Paul explains that the one-flesh union of man and woman mentioned in Genesis is a picture of Christ and his church (Eph 5:31).
In the Bible we find a divinely created pattern for marriage and sex, but we also find it violated repeatedly throughout human history. God does not leave things broken, however, and is always at work redeeming the sin, wounds, and brokenness involved in human sexuality. By way of summary, one scholar offers the following six points for a biblical approach to sex:
- Those functions founded in the unfallen created order that God proclaimed good (Gen. 1:31) may be seen as normative for matters touching theological ethics.
- Sin came as a result of the fall, introducing a distortion of the created order and fostering enmity and alienation where none had previously existed.
- That distortion brought with it not only alienation from God, but also alienation from other human beings (Gen. 4:10-14) and from one’s self (Rom. 7:15-24).
- Sin has also introduced a distortion into all social relationships, including those between men and women (Gen. 3:16).
- Redemption attempts to remove or rectify the alienation introduced by the fall, restoring humankind to fellowship with God (Rom. 5:12-21; Eph. 2:1-22) and with itself (Isa. 2:1-5; Mic. 4:1-7).
- The community of the redeemed is charged with modeling in itself the fruits of redemption and with laboring to bring about the redemption of the world. (34)
God Can Cleanse What Sex Has Stained
As I pastor, I have met with people guilty of every sexual sin mentioned in this chapter. It breaks people, ruins families, affects generations, and is heartbreakingly serious for anyone who loves people. You as well are likely guilty of some of the sins you’ve just read about, and perhaps feel dirty as a result.
Throughout the Bible, some dozen words are used to speak of sin in terms of staining our soul, defiling us, and causing us to be filthy or unclean. (35) The effect of sin, particularly sins committed against us, is that we feel dirty. This explains why rape victims often take a shower after their assault, as both their body and soul long for cleansing.
Perhaps the most common cause of defilement in Scripture is sexual sin. Genesis 34:5 speaks of a young woman named Dinah who was raped and thus “defiled.” First Chronicles 5:1 speaks of incest between a stepmother and her adult stepson and that “he [Reuben] defiled his father’s [Jacob’s] couch.” Referring to adultery, Numbers 5:27 says, ”she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband.” Speaking of prostitution, which includes stripping and exchanging sexual favors for gifts, Leviticus 21:14 names such women among the “defiled.”
As a Christian, our identity must only be marked by what Jesus Christ has done for us; it is no longer marked by what has been done by or to us. To explain this, the Bible uses concepts such as atonement, cleansing, and a purifying fountain:
- “For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins.” (36)
- “I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me.” (37)
- “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.” (38)
On the cross, Jesus dealt with the sin that has stained our soul. Jesus both forgave our sins at the cross, and cleanses us from all of the sins that we have committed, and all of the sins that have been committed against us. In Christ we are new, clean, and able to live new, clean lives. God loves you and is always there to help you.
This is my story. Before I met Jesus or my wife Grace, I was sexually active. My sin was no better than yours, or anyone else’s. Early in our relationship while dating in high school, my now wife Grace and I also crossed lines given by God to protect us. As a result, we hurt God, one another, and ourselves. In college, I met Jesus and started to learn what the Bible said about sexuality. God provided some godly older men as role models and mentors. They helped me better understand the wisdom of God’s design for marital intimacy and fidelity. Grace and I repented of our prior sins to God and one another, forgave one another, met with our pastor to build a healthy relationship, and have been faithfully married since August 15, 1992. It took some time for us to overcome the pains we carried from our past. I am happy to report that the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, along with the cleansing from sin and renewing of the mind in the Spirit, are very real for those who really apply them.
God is very good, and when He was done making everyone and everything it was all “very good”. To be sure, you can find people who will want to explain away what God says, and that kind of thing is where all the trouble started when Satan showed up to declare war on gender, marriage, sex, family, and legacy. Satan is still a liar, and he lies a lot about sex because we enjoy it a lot. My hope for you is nothing less than God’s best, and any sexuality outside of faithful heterosexual marriage is not best because it’s not according to God’s design. God cannot bless what defies what He decrees. Many people think they are the exception to God’s rules, but after decades as a pastor dealing with broken, addicted, abused, and ashamed people it has become only increasingly clear to me year after year that God’s way is the best way for everyone.
(1) Gen. 1:28.
(2) Robert A. J. Gagnon, “Sexuality,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 739.
(3) Gen. 2:24.
(4) Mark 10:6–8.
(5) Eph. 5:31.
(6) Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “Sex and Sexuality,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1144.
(7) Stanley Grenz, Sexual Ethics: A Biblical Perspective (Dallas: Word, 1990), 82.
(8) Gen. 2:18-25.
(9) Gen. 2:18-25.
(10) Gen. 24:1–67.
(11) Gen. 24:67.
(12) Gen. 29:20.
(13) Gen. 4:18-24.
(14) Gen. 29:14–29.
(15) Gen. 16:1-16.
(16) Gen. 29:31–30:24.
(17) Gen. 6:1–2.
(18) Gen. 26:34–35.
(19) Gen. 29:31.
(20) Gen. 21:8–14.
(21) Gen. 23:1–2 and 25:1.
(22) Frymer-Kensky, “Sex,” 1144.
(23) Frymer-Kensky, “Sex,” 1145.
(24) Martin Noth, Leviticus, rev. ed., Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), 136.
(25) Williams, “Sexuality,” 731.
(26) Gen. 16:3.
(27) Gen. 2:18; Matt. 19:4-6.
(28) Gen. 25:28, 27:1–45, 35:22, 38:18–28; 2 Sam. 3:2–5, 13:1–29, 15:1–18:33; I Kings 11:1–4.
(29) 1 Tim. 3:2, 12.
(30) Grenz, Sexual Ethics, 70–71.
(31) Gagnon, “Sexuality,” 740.
(32) Ibid., 741.
(34) Williams, “Sexuality,” 727.
(35) Psalm 106:39; Prov. 30:11–12; Mark 7:20.
(36) Lev. 16:30.
(37) Jer. 33:8.
(38) Zech. 13:1.