Monday, June 15, 2020

Purity Culture: marriage and sex in the Law (passages in Ex through Deut)

"Purity culture" is the name given to the facet of evangelicalism that encourages sexual purity in the form of modesty, boundaries for sexual activity before marriage, and particularly abstinence before marriage. Joshua Harris's book, "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" is probably the banner piece of culture from this movement which also included purity rings. Many look back on it and point out its damaging effects, particularly on women who felt guilty for not maintaining their purity. I'm not sure exactly what to think about it. It makes sense to me that we should preserve the specialness of sex within marriage. As far as condemning women as worthless if they have sex without being married while giving men a complete pass and even honor for their extramarital exploits, that's obviously completely wrong. But using our common sense, we can see why the stakes for women who have sex outside of marriage are so infinitely much higher than they are for men. Perhaps without saying so, people want to use the idea of purity for women as a tool for their safety against irresponsible men who would love them and leave them. But if that doesn't work, other protective mechanisms must step in and help, not exploit and condemn. So much for purity culture musings. Israelite culture fully subscribed to it under the law. 

What we learn about women
  • Marriage and sex are really closely related here, almost equated. Marriage is the only context where sex can happen, and marriage is prescribed as a solution if eligible people are caught doing it.
  • Incest is forbidden, along with homosexuality, prostitution, and bestiality. Polygamy is not.
  • Generally the laws follow the "two to tango" pattern, both parties are guilty.
  • Punishments are harsh for sexual misbehavior, it's most often punished by death.
  • Divorce is allowed, it can be initiated by men.
What I'm wondering
  • Why is there so much more emphasis on women's virginity here than on men's? Why no tests for men's virginity or faithfulness?
  • Why are the punishments for sexual sin so harsh?
  • Given women's clearly weaker position in society, why are so many of the laws set against them in favor of men?
  • Knowing God intends sex and marriage to go together completely, should purity culture have a place in modern Christianity?
The Rules
 There are a lot of laws having to do with marriage and sex in Exodus through Deuteronomy. As usual, they are scattered and not super-organized, so I'll do my best to talk through them in a thematic way. Overall, I think the main patterns are that marriage must be absolutely pure, partners can't be family, but they also can't be foreigners, and that women are in their culturally typical dependent position in the arrangement.

There is a detailed list in chapter 18 of Leviticus of who a man cannot have sex with. As always, the laws are written by and for men, since women are too busy with their kids and their nests to read or write. Also, most men are too busy with their farms and their military service. The first line is "You must never have sexual relations with a close relative, for I am the Lord." And then it goes on to spell out who all that entails. Plus there are instructions not to have sex with a woman during her period or with other men, or animals. Also the helpful advice, maybe passed down directly from Israel himself who was husband of both Rachel and Leah, "While your wife is living, do not marry her sister and have sexual relations with her, for they would be rivals."

The rules and consequences are directed toward men, women aren't directly addressed, but they are included in the punishments for sin. When it comes to rape, there are specific guidelines for whether women consented and were therefore guilty or not. Punishments for many of these sins are given in chapter 20 and they are mostly death sentences for both parties. Modern readers find this level of punishment clearly ludicrous and unjust. I'll try to make sense of that later in the post. But marrying a sister  only means the couple must be cut off from society (Abraham and Sarah were in this situation). The same punishment happens to a couple who has sex during a menstrual period. Other not so close relatives who become sexual partners bring about disgrace and childlessness. For priests there are more restrictive rules about who they can marry, and who their daughters can marry. Men and women dressing in each other's clothes is also prohibited.

These laws and punishments are linked closely with the idea that Israel must be set apart and different from the other nations they are driving out of the land, who do all these things. But there is the possibility that if Israel sins in this way, the land will "vomit them out" too. Gross. In Deuteronomy 27, similar rules are understood in the curses given on Mount Ebal for those who do not obey God's laws. There are 12 curses that specify different varieties of disobedience, like not honoring father and mother, making idols, and leading a blind person astray. But four of them, a full third, refer to specific types of sexual sin. Three out of those four specify incestual relationships (the other one prohibits bestiality).

One interesting way to think about this is to compare the rules about sex in the law with our modern take. The law places the greatest emphasis on avoiding incest, followed by bestiality, then homosexuality. Polygamy is never mentioned as a problem though. Our modern rules would probably also say that incest and bestiality are the worst kind of sexual problems. It think for us polygamy and homosexuality switch though. We don't talk about polygamy much, but it's obvious to us that it is really wrong, so much so that only people on the fringes of society would consider it. Homosexuality may be a bit inconvenient because of reproductive differences, and prejudice against it, but basically we are fine with it. I would imagine in ancient times homosexuality would have been obviously wrong and at the fringes, while polygamy would have been possibly inconvenient due to rival wives, but basically accepted as no big deal. I just wanted to note that to remind us that our own heebie jeebies about sex may not come from infallible intuitions about right and wrong in these relationships, but from our culture. But is there an infallible right and wrong here? Christians who believe in ultimate right and wrong generally should look for it here, as everywhere. If you think it's all up for discussion, probably you will just land where things feel right to you, based on what your culture is.

Distilled Women
When it comes to infidelity and divorce, we find the most emphatic differences in requirements for men and women about marriage. The requirement of purity for women is absolute. The only places it is mentioned for men (that I can find) is in the tenth commandment, that they may not covet their neighbors wives, and in the commands against paying for sex with prostitutes. But purity for women in marriage is huge, illustrated by three texts.

First of all, in Numbers 5, there is a test for unfaithfulness a woman must undergo if her husband suspects her of infidelity, even if he has absolutely no evidence. To me, it is reminiscent of tests for witches from the 17th century, but that probably goes the other way, that they copied from Numbers! She has to drink a potion made of muddy water from the temple floor (temple floors must have been gross, right? All the blood from animal sacrifice!). If she's guilty the water should make her infertile, but if innocent it won't harm her. There is no mention of even the occurrence of a situation where a woman would suspect her husband. But in general, aren't men the ones more likely to cheat? And women more likely to suffer in that situation?

In Deuteronomy 22, a woman's virginity at the time of her marriage can be proven by blood on the sheets of the marital bed, if her husband doubts her. If the husband accuses falsely, he is fined for falsely accusing the woman, and may never divorce her. If he was right according to the sheets, the woman is stoned to death.

A third interesting mention of the importance of a woman's purity comes in Deuteronomy 23. If a woman has been divorced by her husband, and remarries, she cannot remarry her first husband again if the second one divorces her or dies, because she is defiled.

These passages seem to show that despite the law being generally addressed to men as its readers, surprisingly, women are really held accountable for their virginity and purity within marriage more than men are. This is confusing to me. It seems that if the general pattern of the strong helping the weak is to be in place, the men should be the ones we really enforce these laws on. They may have no other consequence of sexual misbehavior in their lives, where women have every motivation to avoid the natural consequences of sex outside of marriage.

Divorce is only mentioned as being initiated by men. It's description is heart-breaking, "Suppose a man marries a woman but she does not please him. Having discovered something wrong with her, he writes her a letter of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house." (Deut 24:1) Doesn't this feel so foreign to our modern American way of thinking about relationships? I'm sure this hierarchical authoritative structure of marriage is not uncommon in the modern world generally, but it feels so cold and cruel here. I think this is a pretty dire characterization of a marriage gone wrong, even for the Bible though. We have the Song of Solomon! And Ruth and Boaz! Hopefully this was a desperate measure for desperate times, one that was not offered to women because they couldn't read or study, because hardly anyone had time to--especially busy mothers, and therefore the law was not written for them? Maybe.

Sex and worship
One more topic to bring in before we try to pull this together and make some sense of it generally. We recently discussed laws about wives taken from among prisoners of war. This situation is legalized in the Torah. But in Numbers 25 we find an episode of Israelite men being seduced by Moabite women and coming under God's judgment. This at first struck me as a bit of a contradiction, but on closer reading, it seems like the crucial factor was that the sex went along with joining the women in worship of Baal. It makes sense that God would take great offense at that kind of sexual behavior. Temple prostitutes and sex-related stuff generally seems to often find its way into pagan religions. This combination is a double sin, and God takes it so seriously that the men involved with Moabite women and Baal worship are executed "in broad daylight." A rather horrifying detail of the event is that a couple composed of Zimri, a son of a family leader from Simeon's tribe, and Cozbi, the daughter of a Moabite leader are caught in the act at just the moment when God's judgment of the whole situation is apparent. They are speared, together. The names just make it that much more intense.

Washed by the cleansing of God's word
So purity, for Israel as a nation in worship of God alone, and sexual purity within marriage, specifically for women, is a big big deal in the law. We've accumulated quite a list of questions in observing these passages. Though we are going through the Bible starting in the Old Testament, Christians need to read it all in light of what Jesus has revealed in the New. Here I think we've got to go to our prime marriage passage in Ephesians to get the needed context. Here's 5:25, "For husbands, this means love your wives just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her whole and clean, washed by the cleansing of God's word. He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead she will be holy and without fault."

The Church as the bride of Christ is a common image in the New Testament, and some places in the old (Hosea and Ezekiel for instance). The Old Testament does not mince any words or ideas about the seriousness of sin in general and God's judgment of it. The New Testament reveals how our impossible task of pleasing God can be accomplished through Christ. If marriage at large is a symbol of God's people united to him in marriage, this goes a long way toward explaining why the ideal of marriage is set at such a high standard, and also why the purity of the wife (the people) is such a big deal. A woman who is impure or unfaithful pretty much gets death, as do God's people who are in sin. But Christ purifies us from our sin, and he purifies his wife too. Ideal religion is participated in by perfect people, ideal marriage involves a perfectly pure wife. Under the OT law, both sinful people in general and impure wives suffer for their faults.

As far as the practical consequences of unfaithfulness and impurity for women, that they may bear children without a father, this could parallel the way people in general, and the fruit of their sin and idolatry, become alienated from their Father in heaven because of their sin.

Now. That holds water for me symbolically. But in specific cases of broken marriages, and specific women who have sex outside of a safe marriage and suffer for it, Christ's mercy should apply. How it went in Israel I'm not sure. I hope mercy was offered to unfaithful women, as it was to all unfaithful people again and again, despite the high standards of the law. I think there's hope that this was true when we consider what we noted above, that Abraham married his sister, and that Israel married women who were sisters, both of which are forbidden in Leviticus. This is a model for at least showing men mercy!

Knowing what we do know now about Christ's love for his people and his deep desire to purify us, I think we can hold to a high standard of sexual purity, with a standing offer of mercy to those who haven't met it. I'm not going to throw purity culture out with the bathwater, I guess. We just need to apply it in the context of New Testament redemption which surpasses Old Testament righteous judgement. 

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