Pronatalism: The Sexual Morality of the Hebrew Testament

December 22, 2011

So let’s talk about sexuality.  If we are going to have something to say about God’s will regarding homosexuality, we are going to need a fuller and deeper view of ALL human sexuality.  It is hit-and-run moralizing for our only statement about sexuality to be a declaration that homosexuality is contrary to the will of God, and for our only support of that declaration to be five ambiguous Bible verses.

One way to formulate a sexual morality is to follow the guidance of the Hebrew Bible, which contains many passages that provide instruction about appropriate sexual conduct.

This instruction begins with Genesis 1:26-28 that concludes with God saying “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

The Hebrew Bible instructs us that marriage is the normal condition of men and women, that adultery is a profound sin, and that same-sex sexual activity is also wrong.  It is tempting to wrap our arms around this advice, and many do, but some of the guidance offered in the same passages is much less comfortable.  We are instructed, for example, to practice levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) – the insistence that a man marry his brother’s widow.   How can we follow Old Testament sexual morality and not embrace levirate marriage?

More troubling (I hope not just for me) is the recognition that these Old Testament teachings allow polygyny (allowing men to have more than one wife) and concubinage (keeping women for sexual congress outside the bonds of marriage).

There is a consistent logic that holds this guidance together.  The sexual ethics of the Old Testament have been described as “pronatalist,” that is, as deliberately encouraging all practices that will maximize births.  Writes Gene McAfee, “All sexual behavior that did not produce legitimate Israelite offspring to the holy commonwealth was, in varying degrees, censured or controlled (Metzger and Coogan, eds., Oxford Companion to the Bible, Oxford University Press, p 690).

Specifically on homosexuality, this logic makes sense of forbidding same-sex sexual practices – that they do not promote births –, but is this a logic we want to embrace, with all that comes with it?

The Old Testament pronatalist logic also includes a pronounced double standard.  Only women are expected to be virgins at the time of marriage.  Women are regularly held to be ritually unclean at certain times.  A woman found not to be a virgin at the time of her marriage could be stoned.  In general, punishments are more severe for women than for men, and there are many more restrictions placed on women than on men.  Do we want to embrace this double standard, too?

More broadly, how comfortable are we with a pronatalist sexual ethic in a world with seven billion human beings and the number still rising rapidly? Is it responsible behavior to frame our entire approach to sexuality on a principal injunction to “be fruitful and increase in number?”  Is this what we want to take as the taproot for knowing God’s will in sexual matters?

Where might we turn for an alternative?  Should we follow, instead, the guidance of the New Testament? Wouldn’t that be a better basis for a sexual morality?  The problem is that it is very difficult to construct a sexual morality out of these Scriptures.   Less is said, and rather little of it in the four Gospels.  Worse, what is said is difficult to knit into a consistent viewpoint.  Some passages reach back to the Old Testament teachings.  Some passages counsel avoidance of sex altogether (1 Corinthians 7:1) or emphasize its sinful character, while others encourage full participation in sexual activity in the context of the family.

How does any of this square with Jesus’s two great commandments “to love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind,” and “to love your neighbor as yourself”?  It is difficult to say.  A consistent, broad teaching about sexuality stemming from the new covenant (rather than pronatalism) is difficult to discern.  It isn’t only homosexuality that is murky if we try to rely solely on the specific texts of the New Testament.

So now where do we turn for a sexual morality?

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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