The Bible’s view on premarital sex – is the remedy always “get married”?
[June 30, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
Christian women sometimes believe they must marry their boyfriend because he has pressured them into sex before marriage. The reason they believe this is because the Old Testament has a case law saying that if a man has sex with an un-betrothed virgin, he is to marry her. If people in the church become aware that a young couple are having premarital sex (e.g. the girl gets pregnant) they often tell the girl, “You are committing the sin of fornication and you can can stop it if you want to.” But the guy won’t stop, no matter how hard the girl tries to talk him out of it. So she ends up marrying him to stop the sin, because she is afraid of going to hell.
And abusive boyfriends can use this same line to pressure their girlfriends into marriage.
In Deuteronomy 22:23-29 there are three case laws about what to do when a man has sex with an unmarried virgin. Two of the cases deal with a woman who is betrothed, and the third deals with a woman who is not betrothed.
(23) “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, (24) then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 22:-23-24 ESV) [Emphasis added.]
In ancient towns and cities of Israel, houses were close together, there was little traffic noise or other audio distractions like we have today, and the cry or scream of a victim of crime would generally be responded to. In a city like this, if a woman did not cry out in objection to the sex, then the inference is she agreed to have sex with this guy. She bears guilt because she was betrothed to another man. Likewise, the fellow who had sex with her bears guilt because he had “taken his neighbor’s wife” – he had sex with a woman who had been promised to another man.
Of course, we must remember this is case law. Mosaic case law didn’t set out every possible legal case in precise detail; its intent was to set down principles which could be applied with wise common sense to particular situations. Consider a variation to the case above; let’s imagine that an abusive man pressured a betrothed woman into having sex with him ‘in the city’ and she was unable to cry out because he had gagged her, or threatened her life, or intimidated her by some other threat. So she underwent the rape silently without crying out. A reasonable person would not claim “She didn’t cry out, so she must have been complicit.” God didn’t intend case law to be applied in such a wooden way; that kind of rigidity is anathema to the spirit of the Law, and one of the hallmarks of the abusive mentality. Common sense would say it was a case of rape because of the threats and intimidation, and the innocent woman would not be penalised (see below).
(25) “But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. (26) But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offence punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, (27) because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her. (Deuteronomy 22: 25-27 ESV) [Emphasis added.]
Here we have a different case. The woman is still betrothed, but this time the sex happens in the open country where her cries would not be heard, so the woman is given the benefit of the doubt and is not condemned. Only the man is condemned. It is classed as rape, the man is guilty and the woman is innocent.
(28) “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, (29) then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 ESV) [Emphasis added.]
In this third case, the woman is not betrothed; she has no prior commitment to another man, and a fellow ‘seizes her and lies with her’. Commentators are divided about whether this is a case of seduction or rape. The verb in verse 28 contains the idea of grasping but not necessarily that of overpowering. It stands in contrast to verse 25 where a different verb definitely means overpowering. Verse 28 also contains the phrase “they are found out”.
If verse 28 is about seduction it may be another version of the case in Exodus 22 and the father’s veto applies. (Exodus 22:16-17 If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.) The girl’s father had the right to veto the marriage, and if the father vetoed the marriage, the guy who had sex with her still had to pay the bride-price.
If Deuteronomy 22:28 is about rape, does it mean the woman is compelled to marry her rapist? It cannot mean that, when only two verses beforehand the Bible clearly exonerates and gives freedom to victims of rape! We may suppose that the father can veto the marriage (and might well do so at his daughter’s request). Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish Biblical philosopher in the 1st century AD said that the choice whether to marry lay with the woman. The Jewish historian Josephus (also 1st century AD) taught that the father could veto the marriage and, if he did, the man had to pay fifty shekels as compensation for the outrage. (For references, see Appendix 5 of my book Not Under Bondage.)
The law in verses 28-29 did not compel the man and woman to marry, it only compelled the man to pay the high bride-price, and if he married her it forbade him divorcing her later. So it provided the no-longer-virginal woman with husband and breadwinner for the rest of her life – if she were happy to marry the fellow. If she wasn’t willing to marry him, then the fine could have been imposed anyway, even without the marriage. The fine would then render the woman relatively wealthy, which would make her more desirable as a marriage partner to some other man, thus counteracting the negative factor of her no longer being a virgin.
To us it seems bizarre for a virginal, un-betrothed woman to marry the man who had forcefully taken her virginity. However we need to bear in mind that the woman might have considerable difficulty in finding another husband in a society where virginity was much more highly prized than it is today. Some women were willing to marry the man who violated them, as we see from the story of Tamar and Amnon (2 Sam 13:16).
If such a marriage took place, the man was forbidden from ever divorcing the woman. By his lack of sexual restraint, the man could find himself married to the woman for the rest of his life. This law probably acted as something of a deterrent to illicit sex. But as with all of God’s laws, we must interpret it in conjunction with other laws dealing with the same subject. Although the man was forbidden from divorcing her “all his days”, we cannot take this to mean that divorce was prohibited if abuse, adultery or desertion arose in the course of the marriage, for these are the three grounds for disciplinary divorce (see Not Under Bondage). Even Rabbinic Judaism recognized the right of such a husband to divorce his wife if she were unchaste after the marriage (Mishnah, Ket. 3.5). The prohibition on the man divorcing his wife was there to guarantee the wife’s long-term security. A man who had not restrained his impulses before marriage could be quite likely to be impulsive after marriage as well. The prohibition on divorce was to restrain such a man from immorally and unjustly discarding his wife. The prohibition was never meant to condemn the wife to the inescapable tyranny of an abusive husband!
Bottom line: If a couple are having sex before marriage, the best solution is not necessarily for the couple to get married. Like any sin, fornication can be renounced and repented of, and the guilt can be cleansed by Christ. If the man insists on having sex against the woman’s wishes (= rape) the church should support the woman and discipline the man, assist the woman to get protection from him, and if she wishes, make a statement and have him charged with rape. To marry the man one has had pre-marital sex with is not always wise, and it’s never wise if he’s showing red flags of being an abuser.
[June 30, 2022: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to June 30, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to June 30, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to June 30, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (June 30, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]