Sex in the Ten Commandments

A conversation with my sister has prompted me to write this. I have intended to write this for quite a while now. What do the placements of the two mentions of human sexuality in the Ten Commandments tell us about how the ancient Israelites viewed sexuality? To start, allow me to list off the ten as they appear in Exodus 20: 1-17
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 1) you shall have no other gods before me.
2) You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
3) You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
4) Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
5) Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
6) You shall not murder.
7) You shall not commit adultery.
8) You shall not steal.
9) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10) You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The numbers I put there are not the verse numbers, but are numbers to indicate the number of the commandment. So, we first see “adultery” as the seventh commandment. I’m not really one to define words, but it bears noting that “adultery” is defined as “voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a person who is not his or her spouse.” That’s from Oxford. Note, that is does not say “Thou shall not commit fornication” or “Thou shall not have unmarried sexual intercourse.” Now, before someone thinks that I am trying to say that fornication is just fine according to the Ten Commandments, we have to consider the Second Testament passages that say fornication is bad. I’m not going to list those out. My view on the reason “adultery” is used in these texts, based on the assumption that the received text is true to the original, is that the same concept applied whether or not the female was married or not. Why does the female matter? Because married or unmarried, the concept of “adultery” remains the same because in the ancient world, and even today to a certain degree, she was property. I firmly believe that this commandment is there to protect a man’s property.

Indeed, the tenth commandment supports that. Do not covet your neighbors house, wife, slaves, donkeys, it says. A house is obviously property. A slave is obviously property. A donkey is obviously property. It doesn’t take a genius to determine that the wife being lumped into that commandment is a direct way of saying that she it property and really not much more. So I don’t think these commandments are really there to prevent sexual relations. They are there to prevent a man’s property from being defiled. The word “Adultery” can apply in both situations because prior to marriage the woman is the property of the father (this is still true today, to a certain degree, with the old custom of asking the father permission to marry) and after marriage she is the property of the husband. We see that today in the changing of names, a very visible representation of property changing hands. There is some additional First Testament support for this idea of property transfer. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 reads “If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.” So even if the the man defiles the virgin, it can become OK if he just pays off her dad and takes her in as his property. He literally buys the young woman from her father. The ancient concept of a dowery is the same as well. You want the father’s property, so you bring something over to buy it.

So, we can talk today about how the Ten Commandments talk about not having sex before or outside of marriage, they do. But just remember, they don’t do it because they’re worried about pregnancy or because the sex itself is bad. They’re doing it because sex defiles, damages, another man’s property and how dare you defile his property.


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