sexual ethics in the judeo-christian tradition

by Robert Brow   (web site -

One good result of the President Clinton affair is that sexual ethics are being discussed in a hundred million homes. Is there any explanation for the fifty- fifty divide in moral evaluation? Is it more or less a Republican/Democratic mindset? Is it that fifty percent of the population know they are no better?

This is a longish exploration of the Judeo-Christian sexual tradition, and "some who might be offended" should move on to another article.

Our morality was rooted in the ten categories of moral judgment in Exodus 20:1-17. Of these, only one related to sexual behaviour, and it has no specific content. "You shall not commit adultery" does not tell us how adultery is to be defined. In Jewish patriarchy a man was free to take additional wives, or concubines, or a prostitute without being condemned as adulterous. If his brother died childless, an already married man was expected to take the widow and raise up heirs for the family (see Matthew 23:23-32; Mark 12:18-27). Each of these kinds of behaviour would be condemned as grossly adulterous among Christians.

Adultery occurred when a man had intercourse with the wife of another man, and the law was that both the man and the woman were to be put to death (Deuteronomy 22:22). A similar tradition continues to this day in Arabia, where a man is free to take additional wives (especially if he is a Sheik), have sex with foreign women, and use prostitutes when he chooses. Adultery is limited to having sexual intercourse with the wife of another local Arab, and that is punishable by the death penalty. In western countries adultery is no longer a criminal offence.

In Leviticus 20:10-16 judges are given a list of seven kinds of sexual behaviour for which they were to assign the death penalty. These were presumably viewed as implications of the seventh commandment. The first of these picks up the Middle Eastern definition of adultery. "If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death." Sexual intercourse with the wife of one's father, or one's daughter-in-law, or one's mother-in-law also resulted in capital punishment.

But then three other kinds of behaviour are listed which involve illicit sexual penetration. In cases of buggery both males were subject to capital punishment. Where a male penetrated an animal or a woman allowed herself to be mounted by an animal both the person involved and the animal were to be put to death.

It is possible that Paul's argument in Romans 1:24-27 is that the seven kinds of sexual behaviour, which required the death penalty by Jewish law, were now viewed as acceptable and even desirable in the final decline of Greek civilization in his day. In the ancient world foreigners were humiliated by buggery, but the decline of Greek civilization had already begun in the time of Socrates when it was often accepted that students should willingly submit to anal penetration by their teacher. The sexual penetration of animals is still approved in some countries, and it may be more common than is thought in North America.

It is significant that President Clinton has not engaged in any of the seven abominations which are listed in Leviticus 20:10-16. In his defence he makes a distinction which was common among Baptist (and other evangelical) young people before birth control changed the situation. It was acceptable in the back of a car to neck and hug and grope and touch sexual organs as long as there was no penetration which could result in an unwanted pregnancy. These days anything is permissible as long as the danger of AIDS is avoided by wearing a condom. Apparently President Clinton refused Monica's invitation to sexual penetration.

He is however condemned by some for being unfaithful to his wife. That again was never an issue in Jewish and Arab patriarchy. Nor was it an issue in the bourgeois culture of Brussels, Belgium where I was raised. Among my uncles and relatives it was assumed that after the first flush of romance a man could discreetly have a mistress. His wife expected him to be home for dinner every day, and to hold her arm to attend all public functions, but what he did outside was not questioned unless money and paternity and inheritance was involved. We might wonder if Hillary expected more than this?

A major condemnation is that Clinton lied concerning his sexual behaviour. But in the Jewish tradition the commandment was, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour." In the New Testament this prohibition was extended to malicious gossip. Satanic lies are those that lyingly accuse the innocent. This says nothing about telling lies in war. In the last war both sides used massive deception, camouflage, misinformation, etc., without breaking the ninth commandment. The no-holds-barred fight between the Republicans and Democrats is as close as you can get to war without actually using a gun. In the politics of any country it is hard to find a statement about the opposition which is totally true.

In the New Testament we are told to put away "falsehood, [and] let all of us speak the truth to our neighbour, for we are members of one another" (Ephesians 4:25). This refers to the atmosphere of trust that is necessary for civility in a family, local church, or community. It cannot be extended to telling the absolute truth in all circumstances. When someone has intruded or extended their welcome, it is polite to say "Oh, not at all, we are so glad you came." When a man is asked "do you have prostate cancer" it might be necessary to tell the truth if marriage was in view, but "that is none of your business" is the appropriate answer.

The idea of putting someone on oath to force a revealing of private sexual behaviour is nowhere in view in the Bible. Pierre Trudeau got it right when he said the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation. A large part of public sympathy for Clinton is not that his private behavior is approved,  but that people are nauseated by the inhumanity of his enemies first trumpeting his sexual behavior, then humiliating him by immediately putting it on the Internet. As I write this the details are being broadcast on television. Yuck.

The ten categories of moral judgment are given as absolutes. It is never right to commit idolatry, dishonour parents, murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or adopt a covetous greedy lifestyle. Some of these absolutes need to be made into laws against murder, stealing, and false witness, libel, and slander. But it is by no means obvious that our evangelical good news is in any way helped by joining the gleeful exposing of sexual wrongdoing by the grand inquisitor of our day.

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