Servants' News

February 1996

Laws About Sexual Relations Between People Not Married to Each Other

Modern court rooms spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars trying to determine who was at fault in disputed sexual situations. Did the man force the woman? Did the man seduce the woman? Did the woman seduce the man? Did one or both of the parties promise to marry the other then later refuse? Is someone simply trying to use the incident to extort money from the other? Courts examine the evidence of psychological evaluations, testimony of friends, "character witnesses," etc. Yet when all is said and done, most sexual acts are performed privately by two individuals and they are the only ones who really know what happened—in court, it is his word against hers.

The Eternal, in his wisdom, gave laws governing how these situations should be consistently handled. Righteous people, knowing the law, could avoid situations that might lead to trouble. In order to understand these laws, we also need to understand a few important points about how society operated during that time.

  1. Nobody "performed weddings." You can search from Genesis to Revelation and never find a priest or minister performing a wedding. There are feasts after the wedding, but the example we find is: "Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent; and he took Rebekah and she became his wife, and he loved her..." (Gen 24:67).
  2. Betrothal was an important agreement. Once two people were promised to each other (usually by parents), the marriage was considered a fact—not yet consummated.
  3. People could become slaves for up to seven years if they became poor by financial mismanagement or could not pay a judgement against them (Lev 25:47, Ex 22:3).
  4. Men could have more than one wife. While numerous scriptures show that this is not an optimal condition, it was allowed by the Eternal. Hence, a married man involved in another sexual relationship could be required to take on the woman as a second wife. Hence, the marital status of the man was not as important as the marital status of the woman.
  5. Kidnapping received the death penalty (Ex 21:16). A man who forcibly abducted or detained a woman would be executed before any sex-related issues came to trial.

This table (note: need tables capable browser to view properly) summarizes the Biblical instructions in dealing with a sexual relationship between a man and a women when there are no other provable crimes.
Free Woman Slave Woman
Sex with an un-betrothed woman: The man must pay the "bride price," but the woman's father decides if the marriage will take place. If they marry, he may never divorce her. (Ex 22:16-17; Deut 22:28-29.) This discourages uncommitted sex (the couple could be "stuck" for life) as well as sex with the intent to force a marriage (the father could say "no", but the man would still have to pay). Her master may take her to be his wife without anyone's consent. If he does, he must treat her as a full wife or let her go. If he does not take her, he must deal with her like a free daughter (Ex 21:7-11). Since there was no one to protect a slave woman from the unrighteous sexual advances of her master, the law emphasizes his duty to treat her as his wife, not his whore.
Sex with a betrothed woman by a man other than her fiancee If the event took place in the country where no one could hear the woman scream, the man is put to death. If it takes place in the city, man and woman are put to death (Deut 22:23-27). From this law men must realize that they should never be alone with a betrothed woman in the country. If she seduces him or lies about him, he could die for it. In the city, both are at risk. The man must offer a public offering. An inquiry was made with possible additional punishment, but there was no death penalty (Lev 19:20-22). This prevents a woman from being put to death if her master forces her to be a prostitute. It discourages customers who would not want public offerings or inquiries. If slave women were exempt from death but men were not, men could be falsely condemned too easily.
Sex with a married woman If a man and married woman (slave or free) are discovered committing adultery, both are put to death (Deut 22:22). Those discovering the act will hear the woman scream if she is resisting. If there are no witnesses, nothing is done. Married women will not have the physical evidence that a virgin would.

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