Is it a sin for a man to be married to more than one woman?

Q. Is polygyny [a man having more than one woman] a sin? Is it adultery or lust if you marry the woman and she is not married?

Let me begin by telling a story.  When I was the pastor of a church near a university, we’d often have graduate students from Africa attending.  These were accomplished young adults from good Christian families and strong home churches.  As we got to know them, we’d ask questions like, “Do you have any brothers and sisters?”  Quite often, a student would tell us how many brothers and sisters they had “from my own mother,” and then how many more they had “from my father’s other wives.”

So a man having multiple wives didn’t seem to be a big issue for many even in the contemporary generation of African Christians.  But they were horrified, on the other hand, by the prevalence of divorce among American Christians, and our apparent easy tolerance of it.  “We’d never divorce our wives,” they insisted.  “Any of them.”

The covenant people, including their most exemplary leaders, did not shy away from polygamy, at least in Old Testament times.  Abraham had a wife and a concubine, and took another concubine after his wife died.  Jacob had two wives and two concubines.  David had six wives.  The most extreme case, by far, was Solomon, who had “seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines.” (Most of these wives, however, were from marriage alliances with other kingdoms.)

Polygamy is not forbidden outright in the law of Moses, as it would be if it were always a sin, in and of itself.  Instead, it is regulated to prevent abuses.  In Exodus, Moses commands that if a man marries a second wife, “he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.”  In Deuteronomy, he commands that a man must always give the customary double portion of his inheritance to his firstborn son, even if he has more than one wife and favors another wife above the mother of that son.

Lust—treating another person as an object to gratify our sexual desires, whether in thought or deed—is always a sin.  But there can be polygamy without lust, and lust without polygamy, so the two are not intrinsically connected.

Adultery—a single person having sexual relations with a person who’s married to someone else, or a married person having sexual relations with anyone other than their spouse—is always a sin.  But a man who marries more than one woman is not committing adultery, in this sense, when he has sexual relations with any of his wives.

So I think we have to conclude that polygamy is not inherently sinful, in one sense of the idea of sin.  Nevertheless, just because something isn’t sinful in that sense, this doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing we can do.  Jesus called us to live out the fullest and deepest meaning of the law, and not conform simply to its outward requirements.

I think divorce provides a good analogy.  It, too, was not forbidden outright in the law of Moses, but instead similarly regulated to prevent abuses.  A man who divorced his wife was expected to give her a certificate establishing that she was legally free to remarry, so that she would not be left destitute without the support that women had to depend on from men in that cultural context.

The Pharisees asked Jesus whether divorce should be permitted for any reason a husband might give.  He replied that it should not be allowed at all (except under strictly limited circumstances, at least according to Matthew.)  His argument was, “That was not what God originally intended.”  I’ve discussed in a recent post the exceptional circumstances that I believe regrettably but necessarily justify divorce in some cases (the safety of an abused wife and her children, when a chronic abuser shows no signs of changing).  Apart from such circumstances, however, I believe that God’s intentions are for husbands and wives to be committed to their marriages for life, and to do whatever is necessary to make sure that they become happy and thriving.

The same understanding applies to polygamy.  It is “not what God originally intended.”  At the very beginning of the Bible, God institutes marriage between the first man and the first woman and ordains that “the two be united into one.”  As the Bible continues, polygamy enters human history during the inexorable course of its drift away from God after the fall.  Polygamy starts with Lamech, a descendant of Cain.  He takes double wives as part of his overall program of arrogant self-assertion, which also includes his family forging the first weapons of iron and bronze, and his defiant boasting about killing someone who had merely injured him.

I think we should also find it significant that marriage—specifically monogamy—provides a central metaphor for God’s redemptive work throughout the Bible.  In the Old Testament, the nation of ancient Israel is often spoken of as Yahweh’s “wife” (in Hosea, for example: “In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’ . . . I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion”).  In the New Testament, Paul says that marriage is a picture of the relationship between “Christ and the church,” and in Revelation, the new Jerusalem, where God will dwell with redeemed humanity, descends from heaven “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”

So polygamy, while permitted and regulated in the Bible, and not explicitly forbidden anywhere in it, does not appear to me to express “what God originally intended.”  And in that sense, if we invite or bring another person into a polygamous relationship, we may well be sinning against them in a different sense, by keeping them from the best God has for them.

When Christian missionaries first went to Africa, they required their converts who had multiple wives to divorce all but one of them.  Later on, it was considered wiser to encourage converts to care faithfully for all of their wives instead, as Exodus commands, but not to allow believers in the future to marry more than one person.

I’m not well acquainted with the contemporary situation in Africa and I would not presume to speak to it.  But I do feel that we here in America, by practicing monogamy by consensus, have been expressing “what God originally intended” at least in that regard.  It would not surprise me, however, if our culture began to accept polygamy.  That seems to be the inevitable next step in our progression away from the ideal for marriage presented at the beginning of the Bible.  But I certainly hope, for all the reasons I’ve given here, that American Christian churches, at least Bible-believing ones, will not start performing marriages of men who already have wives to other women.

William Blake, “Lamech and His Two Wives,” 1795 (Tate Britain). In Blake’s image, Lamech seems distressed that he has killed the “young man” who injured him. The Bible portrays Lamech as arrogantly defiant instead.

Biblically, can an abused wife divorce her husband?

Q. I have a friend who feels that the Bible does not give specific instructions on spousal abuse as grounds for divorce or separation, and so a pastor would be going beyond Scripture if they addressed that. I wonder whether Mosaic law includes something applicable, or whether church tradition might provide some guidance. I believe the Bible would permit divorce if the abuser refused to change. Can you please help us? We both want to know. Would any aspects of the marriage covenant be broken in an abusive relationship? How would you address the Scripture, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands” in this regard? (I believe that submission does not equal tolerating or accepting abuse.)

I think there’s a biblical teaching that’s applicable to this issue in 1 Corinthians, in Paul’s discussion of marriage. There he says:

“If a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”

I take “willing to live with her” to mean far more than just agreeing to reside under the same roof. It certainly means being willing to create together a decent, respectful, honorable life. Not necessarily one built entirely on Christian principles, unfortunately, if the husband is not a believer, but at least one that would be recognizable to the wider society as a marriage that fulfilled its essential purpose of creating flourishing in the lives of both spouses and their children.

Spousal abuse, by contrast, is something that “even pagans do not tolerate,” as Paul says about another issue earlier in the letter. It would be a real shame if the Christian church were the only community in the world that encouraged abused wives to stay with their husbands, whether they changed or not, literally at the risk of being killed. I think we can do a lot better than that, and that the Bible indeed shows us the way.

I would argue that an unrepentant serial abuser has effectively “left” his wife, because he is no longer “willing to live with her” in the most basic sense of a decent and honorable marriage. That being the case, since God has “called us to live in peace,” the believing wife is not bound. She may separate or even divorce for her own safety and protection, and that of her children.

When I was a pastor, in such situations where these measures seemed regretfully necessary, I used to counsel the wife to see the separation as a “loyal protest,” a measure for her own safety first of all, but also a dramatization of the urgency and severity of the problem and its need for immediate redress. Happily in some cases, the separation got through to the husband and he recognized his need to get help. Unfortunately, in other cases the husband never responded and a divorce seemed to be the only way the wife could protect herself and her children from physical harm. I would argue that in these situations the divorce was biblically sanctioned. God has truly called us to live in peace. I would argue that this situation is included, even if not specifically envisioned, in the advice Paul originally gave the Corinthians.

We need to be very careful about this, however. A man or woman in a marriage that is not abusive, but which still has plenty of room for growth, shouldn’t say, “Well, I’m not ‘flourishing’ at this point, so I’m going to conclude that my spouse isn’t doing his or her part to make this the kind of marriage God intended. Since they’ve effectively ‘left’ me, I’m going to call the marriage off.” My advice here is intended specifically for cases where a spouse’s health and even life, and those of any children, are in danger. Short of that, I would encourage spouses to recommit to their marriages and trust God to heal them and help them grow to maturity.

A case can be made from Scripture, for example, that a husband or wife may divorce their spouse if there has been unfaithfulness. But this does not mean that they must do so. (We have in the Bible the example of Hosea, whose wife was unfaithful, but who didn’t say “she has effectively ended the marriage” and divorce her.) I’ve seen some amazing recoveries of marriages from this kind of problem and many others. Four out of five unhappy marriages become happy ones within five years if the couples will stay together.

This being the case, I don’t think the argument for separation/divorce for the safety of a wife (and children) in an abusive situation should be made on the basis that the husband has “already broken the covenant relationship” through his abuse, so that the marriage is effectively over anyway. I say this because, as just noted, husbands may do other things that arguably break the relationship, such as being unfaithful, but in these cases there may still be hope for the marriage (thought it is certainly in trouble).

I’d rather pursue the lines I sketched out earlier: the wife has a responsibility before God to protect her own life and certainly that of any children, so she must go to a place of safety, and this should be seen as a “loyal protest” whose goal is to wake the husband up to the seriousness of the situation and the immediate need for change.

Finally, I would argue that the biblical admonition “wives submit to your husbands” is not intended to create a power differential in marriage. It does not give the husband “veto power” over any decisions the couple needs to make together, and it does not require a wife to go along with any situation a husband might create, certainly not an abusive one. Paul quite distinctly tells children to obey their parents and servants to obey their masters, but wives to submit to their husbands, so submission definitely means something different from unprotesting compliance.

I would argue that submission means a wife using all of her powers to help her husband become the man God intends him to be, even if this means challenging his plans and actions as a way of pursuing that overall goal. Tolerating abuse is just the opposite of this, and so I don’t see how it can be considered submission.

Was Ruth inviting Boaz to contract a marriage by consummating that marriage?

Q. The notion that Ruth cohabited with Boaz as a way of offering herself in marriage to him does NOT suggest immorality except by 1950’s USA standards–a different culture from that of Ruth or Boaz. If you want to think she just lay down next to him to rest, you are entitled, but my suggestion is that she offered himself to her and he accepted with intentions of consummating a marital contract.

This question was asked in a comment on the last post in my earlier series entitled “Did Ruth seduce Boaz to get him to marry her?

I am aware that one possible interpretation of what was going on that night between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor is that she was inviting him to contract a marriage with her by consummating that marriage.  There is some biblical evidence that marriages were contracted that way in ancient Israel.

Specifically in the case of Levirate marriage, i.e. the closest male relative marrying a widow to carry on the dead husband’s name and line (what Ruth would have been asking Boaz to do), a law in Deuteronomy says, “Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.”  While, as I have argued, the biblical Hebrew phrase “uncover the feet” does not unambiguously refer to sexual relations, the phrase “go in to (a woman)” certainly does.  In this case a widow’s closest male relative is contracting a marriage with her by consummating that marriage.

However, even if this custom does provide the background we need in order to understand what Ruth may have had in mind when she approached Boaz on the threshing floor–if this is how, as I put it, she was “proposing marriage to him . . . honorably, within the customs of this culture”–it is still not the case that the two of them had sex that night.  Rather, Boaz explains to Ruth very clearly that he doesn’t know yet whether he is in a position to marry her, though he will marry her if he can:  “It is true I am a close relative; however, there is a relative closer than I. Remain this night, and when morning comes, if he will redeem you, good; let him redeem you. But if he does not wish to redeem you, then I will redeem you.” (Redeem in this case means to take on the role of the goel or “guardian-redeemer,” which would include marrying Ruth.)

So even if the invitation was to contract the marriage by consummating it, Boaz honorably declines to do both that night until he determines his legal standing. Boaz would not have had sexual relations with Ruth simply on the basis of an intention to marry her if possible.  And for that matter, Ruth would not have actually “cohabited” with him merely as a proposal of marriage for him to consider.  That is certainly not how the ancient Israelite culture functioned; this is rather something we imagine from the vantage point of our own culture.  The offer was first of herself as a wife, with all the responsibilities that would entail for Boaz; only if he could assume all those responsibilities was he entitled to the privileges that came with them.

And all that said, I still question whether this is what was actually going on.  When we consider the full context of the law in Deuteronomy about a widow’s closest male relative “going in to her” to “take her to himself as wife,” we recognize that this happens within the context of extended-family and community sanction. The widow, we are told, “Shall not be married outside the family to a stranger.” In other words, the family is arranging the marriage–the woman is not deciding whom she wants to marry and going off on her own to “propose” to him. This law says further, “If the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders,” who “shall call him and speak to him” to try to get him to fulfill his responsibility. The community oversees the whole process.  Such marriages, in other words, however contracted, were not arranged privately between individuals.

We see precisely this same community dimension in the book of Ruth.  Boaz goes to the city gate, where civil matters are settled, and negotiates with the closer relative, who finally relinquishes his claim to act as guardian-redeemer for Ruth.  Only then, the book tells us explicitly, “Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son.”

So I doubt that Ruth, acting alone (or even with Naomi’s prodding), would really have invited Boaz to enter into a marriage with her on the spot. Instead, as I argue in my earlier series of posts, she was lying down at his feet not “to rest,” but to put herself in a position (literally) where he could symbolically “spread his garment over her,” indicating his willingness to become her guardian-redeemer to the fullest extent he legally could.  Further matters such consummating the marriage would have to wait–as anyone in this culture would have known–until all legal matters were settled.  And then this would have taken place in the home the woman would share with her new husband–never casually one night on a threshing floor.

Why does the Bible say it’s wrong to have sex outside of marriage?

Q.  In the Bible, sex before marriage is considered immoral. It’s called the sin of “fornication.”  But the Bible gives no explanation (that I have seen) of why it’s wrong to have sex before marriage. In 1 Corinthians, for example, Paul calls those who do this “sexually immoral.”  But why, why is it wrong? How could having sex, something that all married couples do regularly, be unclean and immoral before two people are married?

This is an excellent question, because we don’t usually consider the morality of an action to depend on its setting or context.  If something is a good thing to do, such as telling the truth, it should be good for everyone, everywhere to do it.  And if something is wrong, such as striking another person in anger and causing them bodily harm, then it should be wrong for everyone, in every context.  Husbands and wives certainly don’t get an exemption that permits them to engage in domestic violence.

So why does the Bible allow and encourage sex within marriage but say it’s wrong outside of marriage?  Why shouldn’t two people who love each other be able to express it in this way even if they aren’t married?

The Bible actually does give the reason why, in places like the book of Hebrews, where it says, “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.”  But in order to recognize the reason that’s being given here, we need to understand what the Bible means when it uses specific terminology like this.

In the first part of the Bible, in the law of Moses, things are generally considered “common” and “clean.”  But if something is set apart for a special purpose, it becomes “holy” rather than “common.”  And if a person or thing becomes exposed and vulnerable through some breach in its creaturely integrity, that person or thing becomes “unclean.”

“Unclean” doesn’t mean “dirty” or “bad.”  It means that special care and protection is needed, usually involving temporary separation from the community until the breach is repaired.  In the law of Moses things like a skin disease, which breached the integrity of the body’s outer layer, created this kind of ceremonial “uncleanness.”  The example I like to use from modern life is a person who has lost their hair because of chemotherapy treatments.  We usually allow and encourage such a person to stay home or wear a wig until their hair has grown back.  We protect their dignity and preserve a proper sense of who they are by not making them engage others when most of their hair has visibly fallen out.  (Alternatively, I’ve heard of friends and family shaving off their own hair as a gesture of solidarity and identification, so that the person will know that they are loved and unconditionally accepted.  The family and friends are saying, “We know the real you and that’s not affected by superficial considerations.”)

There are two other important biblical terms for us to appreciate.  To treat something holy as if it were common is to “profane” that holy thing.  Jesus spoke of the way the priests “profaned” the sabbath (that is, they treated it as if it were an ordinary working day) because their shifts were scheduled on every day of the week.  (In this case, maintaining continual worship took precedence over sabbath observance for priests whose shifts fell on that day; no individual priests worked seven days a week.)

And to treat something holy as if it were unclean is to “defile” that holy thing.  This is a more serious matter, because in the Bible anything that is made holy—set apart for a special divine purpose—has to be uncompromised in its creaturely integrity.

And this is what the Bible is saying in the book of Hebrews about keeping sex within marriage so that it will be undefiled.  It’s saying that God has made sex “holy,” that is, God has set sex apart for a special reason, and to that end God has limited sex to within marriage.

So what is that reason, and why the limitation?

Is it so that a desire for the pleasure of sex will serve as an incentive for people to commit to marriage?  Well, the pleasure certainly isn’t a disincentive, but pleasure is not the ultimate purpose of sex, and so that’s not the reason why it’s limited to marriage.

Is it so that children who are conceived through sex will be raised in a stable home?  This is another additional benefit of God’s plan, since marriage is meant to provide a stable, loving environment for children, but since procreation is not the ultimate purpose of sex, this is not the real reason, either.

The ultimate purpose of sex is intimacy.  The Bible explains this at its very beginning, in the book of Genesis, when it says that “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  It’s sometimes hard for us to appreciate today how revolutionary this statement was in its day.  In ancient cultures (as in some modern ones) blood relations were supreme.  Primary loyalty was owed to one’s family and clan of origin. When a man married, his wife was simply added to the clan as a junior member, and both had to be careful to obey his parents and the other senior members of the clan.

But God’s plan was that husband and wife would create a whole new family of their own, with their primary loyalty being to one another.  They would be “one flesh”—they would belong to one another more than they belonged to their blood relatives.  And this would be established, affirmed, and celebrated through the act of sex, in which the two, for a time, would literally join their bodies together.  The Bible is describing this ideal situation of intimacy when it says that the first couple “were both naked, and they felt no shame.”

So sex was something that already existed (in the animal kingdom, for example), but among humans God made it holy, that is, God set it apart for a special purpose, as the joyful and triumphant expression of the new oneness between husband and wife.

So how does having sex outside of marriage make this holy thing “unclean,” that is, something that makes a person exposed and vulnerable?  Since the ultimate purpose of sex is intimacy, when you make love with someone, you don’t just reveal your body to them.  You inevitably expose your soul—your hopes, dreams, fears, your deepest and most powerful thoughts and emotions.  And God wants this kind of exposure to happen within the protection of an unconditionally committed lifelong relationship, because only within the safety and security of such a relationship can two people help each other explore and work out all the powerful, complicated, and potentially beautiful things they have inside.

In other words, sex for people is actually something that is intrinsically holy.  In other cases God chose things that could just as easily be common to serve holy purposes, and in those cases there could be exceptions to their exclusive use for holy purposes.  Jesus cited the example of David and his men eating the bread that was reserved for the priests to justify his work of healing on the Sabbath.  Bread is just bread, and Saturday is just Saturday, until God chooses to set them apart for other purposes, and sometimes even higher considerations can intervene.

But sex is never just sex.  It always involves the exposure of heart, soul, and body to another person, and God means for that to happen in a context of safety, security, and lifetime commitment—within marriage.  That’s why Paul says in another of his letters, 1 Thessalonians, that if we have sex with another person not in this “holy and honorable” way, but in the “passion of lust,” we sin against and defraud that other person.  In other words, we take something from them that we’re not entitled to:  we take their intimate self-disclosure without providing the security and protection they deserve and require.

These are the reasons that the Bible gives for why sex is to be reserved for marriage.  Now I realize that someone who doesn’t believe in God or in the teachings of the Bible, at least to the extent of believing that God considers some things common and has set other things apart as holy, may not agree with these reasons.  They may feel, in fact, that there are times when sex is just sex and they may believe that there’s nothing wrong with that.  I can’t convince someone otherwise if they don’t share this biblical view of God’s creative purposes.  But for those who do share it, I hope that I have been able to explain here why the Bible teaches what it does about God setting aside sex for a special purpose within marriage.

Does submission mean that the husband gets his way?

Q.  I’m about to be married and I want to follow the Bible’s instructions for wives, including submitting to my husband.  I’ve heard this means that if we can’t agree, I need to let him have his way.  Is that right?

Actually, as I understand the implications of the Bible’s full counsel to husbands and wives, the concept of submission does not apply primarily to decision-making, and it does not mean that the wife must always defer to the husband.

Here’s why I say that.  In the Genesis creation account, God makes one thing after another and declares each one “good.”  At the end, God declares the whole creation “very good.”  But then God finds something that is “not good”:  the man is alone, without the kind of “helper” he needs.  The Hebrew word often translated as “helper” in English Bibles actually refers to a strong ally who comes to someone’s side in times of crisis or need.  It most often refers to God, as in the psalm that begins, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains–where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

So if it had really been all right for a man to do whatever he wanted, no matter what his wife thought, there would have been no reason for God to create woman in the first place.  But it is “not good” for a man to be “alone” in this sense.

Other Scriptures support this understanding.  For example, when Paul wanted Philemon to make the important decision about whether to grant freedom to his runaway slave Onesimus, Paul wrote not just to Philemon, but also to his wife Apphia.  Paul wanted Apphia to help influence Philemon to do the right thing, as a full participant in the decision.

What, then, does submission mean?  Here’s how I explain it in my study guide to Paul’s Prison Letters, as I’m discussing Paul’s counsel to husbands and wives in Colossians:

* * * * *

Both here in Colossians and in his very similar teaching in Ephesians, Paul stresses that the new life will be lived out essentially in basic human relationships: between wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters.

These relationships, he explains, have become radically transformed because they’ve been carried into a new realm. People who, from an earthly perspective, are slaves and masters must recognize that together they have become fellow servants of a “Master in heaven.” Husbands and wives have become brothers and sisters in the faith who “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” as Paul writes in Ephesians, just before discussing the husband-wife relationship. Children are to obey their parents because this “pleases the Lord,” as Paul writes here in Colossians, and their parents are to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord,” as he says in Ephesians. In other words, both children and parents are now accountable to God for how they relate to one another. So the character of these relationships has changed: no longer does one person attempt to dominate the other; rather, the participants show each other respect and consideration before God.

However, the nature of these relationships remains essentially the same. One person in the relationship is still entrusted with leadership responsibility, while the other person respects that leadership and cooperates with it. The coming age has not yet fully arrived, and so these ongoing responsibilities must be honored. A situation described in 1 Timothy illustrates this principle well. Some slaves in first-century Asia Minor who were followers of Jesus thought that the arrival of the coming age meant that they no longer needed to respect their masters. But Paul explains that these slaves should actually “serve them even better,” since they are now “dear to them as fellow believers” and devoted to their welfare.

In other words, relationships of the present age are transformed by the approach of the coming age not by a change in the responsibilities that people have towards one another, but by a change in the spirit in which these responsibilities are carried out. And so Paul tells husbands not to “be harsh” with their wives, he tells parents not to “embitter” their children, and he tells masters to provide their slaves with what is “right and fair.” For their part, he tells children and slaves to “obey” their parents and masters, and he tells wives to “submit” to their husbands.

What Paul says here about obedience and submission is often misunderstood. These concepts don’t describe the process by which it’s decided what the people in a relationship will do. Specifically, they don’t imply that husbands, parents, and employers make decisions all by themselves and that wives, (growing) children, and employees have to follow them without asking any questions or providing any input. As Paul describes these relationships, it’s clear that no one has this kind of arbitrary power. Rather, obedience and submission describe a trusting, respectful attitude that leads to a response of support and cooperation.

Paul uses two different terms here, obedience and submission, and the distinction between them points to an important difference between the husband-wife relationship and the other two relationships he describes. Obedience, which Paul asks of children and slaves, implies a recognized duty to support and cooperate with another person’s leadership, while submission, which Paul asks of wives, suggests a voluntary decision to honor and respect a leader who has been given responsibility for one’s welfare and who is devoted to that task.

* * * * *

I hope these reflections are helpful to you, and I wish you every happiness in your marriage!

How can a man “commit adultery in his heart” with a woman if they’re both single?

Q. Jesus said that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  But what if neither one is married?  How could that be adultery?  And I don’t think many married couples would be together if there weren’t some lust involved.

The saying of Jesus that you’re asking about comes from the part of the Sermon on the Mount where he’s showing that legalistic interpretations of the law of Moses are contrary to its true spirit and intentions.  The Pharisees taught that so long as you didn’t literally break a commandment, you were still law-abiding if you did anything just short of it.  For example, you could lose your temper and beat somebody up terribly, but so long as you didn’t kill them, you wouldn’t have broken the commandment that says, “You shall not murder.”

Jesus teaches, by contrast, that the desire, intention, and attempt to commit an action are all of one piece with the action itself.  The commandment against murder is actually meant to warn us away from hatred, bitterness, and assault, not just actual murder.  Jesus taught an inward righteousness whose goal was to be “perfect . . . as your heavenly Father is perfect,” in thought, word, and deed.

The first two examples that Jesus chooses to illustrate this teaching come from the Ten Commandments:  “You shall not murder” and “you shall not commit adultery.”  The Ten Commandments themselves were not meant to be interpreted legalistically.  That is, their meaning was not supposed to be limited to a strict literal reading, as if they were forbidding only the specific named practices.  Rather, they were all provided as examples of the kinds of things that God does and doesn’t want us to do.  We are supposed to determine from them, by inference and analogy, many other kinds of things that we should and shouldn’t do.

This principle is illustrated right within the Ten Commandments themselves, when the last one says not to covet your neighbor’s wife, or his house or land, or any of his servants, his ox or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.  In other words, specific examples are given to illustrate a principle that is meant to be applied generally.  As I write in my Deuteronomy-Hebrews study guide, “The Ten Commandments are a brief but powerful moral code because they teach general principles through specific rules that can be applied to a wide range of contexts. The literal application of these rules is narrow, but they all provoke reflection on their underlying principles, and these can speak to a broad variety of situations.”

The commandment against adultery, therefore, is not meant to show  just  that a person who is married shouldn’t have sexual relations with someone else they’re not married to.  Rather, it shows more generally that sexual relations should take place only between a husband and wife within marriage.  This general application would also rule out sexual activity between two people who aren’t married.  And Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount shows that there should also not be the desire, intention, or attempt on their part to have sexual relations—even through that long, lingering look.  This teaching also shows that any use of pornography is not in keeping with God’s intentions.

But how, then, would anyone get married “if there weren’t some lust involved”?  I think it’s important to distinguish between sexual attraction and lust. I believe that people can experience a pure sexual attraction for another person that is actually expressing a deep admiration for everything about them—their body, yes, but also their character, personality, passions, abilities, and even the depth of their Christian commitment.  Feeling this kind of attraction can be a sign that perhaps you should think and pray carefully about marrying this person.

Lust, on the other hand, is a shallow, self-indulgent desire.  It wants simply to consume something of another person based on their most superficial characteristics.  Someone who’s attracted to you in that way isn’t paying you much of a compliment (they hardly know you) and it’s not time to think about marrying them.

Put simply, without that sexual spark in a marriage, it’s going to be a long 50 years.  But that spark is supposed to be ignited when everything about one person finds companionship, challenge, help, and mystery in everything about another person.  If it’s simply a mating instinct, there’s a whole lot more both people could discover about themselves, each other, and God’s purposes for their lives by waiting before mating.

Did Boaz already have another wife when he married Ruth?

Q. I see that you are posting about Ruth on your blog.  I have two questions for your, a little more in depth.  Here goes:

1) Having translated the book of Ruth, I’m curious about the poetic lines that Ruth recites to Naomi when she makes her pledge in chapter 2.  I’m wondering if you know where these words come from in Hebrew culture?  Given the marriage themes in the book, I have wondered if they might have been part of the ancient Israelite marital vows or something similar.  The poetry absolutely stands out there.  Any insight on this?

2) I have also heard the theory that Boaz was already married when this story happened, and that he probably took Ruth as a second wife (or perhaps more).  I think this view is based on the fact that Boaz seems to be a wealthy and presumably middle-aged man.  What are your thoughts about this?

That’s all.  I am enjoying your blog!

Thanks for your kind words and for following up on my recent posts with these questions.  Let me begin with the one about Boaz.

While it’s possible that Boaz did have another wife (in this culture, this wouldn’t have kept him from marrying Ruth), it doesn’t say anywhere in the book that he did, so we shouldn’t assume this.  What we do know about Boaz, as we’re told when we first meet him, is that he’s a “man of standing,” prosperous and influential.  As I explain in my Joshua-Judges-Ruth study guide:

“To get enough money to live on, Naomi is selling the portion of the fields around Bethlehem that belonged to her late husband Elimelek. The hope is that, as the law intends, a goel (family guardian) will ‘redeem’ this property, buying it from Naomi, but also on her behalf, so that she has both the money from the sale and the field’s produce year by year. The other family guardian is initially willing to make this sacrifice. But when he learns he must also marry Ruth and give her children in her late husband’s name, he backs out, explaining, ‘I might endanger my own estate.’ (He can’t afford to part with the money for the property and then divide his remaining worth among his current children and those Ruth will have in the future.) But Boaz is a ‘man of standing’ who’s in an adequate position to help out financially in this way.”

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, "Ruth in Boaz's Field," 1828
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, “Ruth in Boaz’s Field,” 1828

This explains why Boaz is the right husband for Ruth.  If he did have another wife, which is possible (although again, not mentioned in the book, so we should not assume it), this would raise the further question of polygamy.  We need to appreciate that in this culture, women were dependent on male relatives for provision and protection. So the commandment in the law of Moses for a close relative to marry a widow, even if he was already married himself, was a compassionate provision for her needs and those of her current and future children and dependents.  (Naomi, an older widow herself, is one of Ruth’s dependents, and so Ruth’s proposal to Boaz, as I noted in this post, is also an act of compassion to her.) 

I’ll answer your question about Ruth’s poetic promise to Naomi in my next post.