Earlier, I wrote about the hypocrisy of treating an unmarried couple differently in order to signify disapproval for premarital sex. Here’s the Facebook quote that spawned it all:
“Shacking up and having a baby is not ‘cute’. Speak plainly and biblically about the soul-damning seriousness of fornication.”
I pointed out before that stigmatizing a family or relationship based on its origins is a hypocritical justification of prejudice, not some elevated level of holiness and biblical virtue. But I’d also like to focus on the second sentence, referencing the “soul-damning seriousness” of “fornication”.
Let’s start with a definition. Why is this individual using the term “fornication”? Apparently what they have in mind is premarital cohabitation….so….are these the same things?
Common definition of “fornication”….with a special link for the KIDS definition! What fun!
This is what people generally mean when they talk about fornication. Most people don’t know that “fornication” originally described prostitution: the Latin fornix was a reference to the domed back-alley arches where Roman prostitutes typically plied their trade. A “fornicator” was someone who, in the vernacular, “did it under an arch”.
As it turns out, this usage is a surprisingly accurate translation of the original term, at least as it’s used in the Old Testament. The Old Testament doesn’t actually use any Hebrew word to reference premarital sex itself. It uses “laying with” and “knowing” as euphemisms for the actual act, but it only uses two words that actually denote inherently sinful actions: זָנָה, zanah, meaning “harlotry”, and נָאַף, na’aph, meaning “adultery”. The latter is used exclusively in reference to the breaking of the marriage covenant; the former is used either in reference to prostitution itself or as a slang reference to wanton promiscuity (e.g., “playing the harlot”).
Likewise, the New Testament has two terms. The first is μοιχεύω, moicheuō, paralleling the Old Testament’s na’aph to indicate adultery. But the other one, πορνεία, porneia, is a nonspecific reference to any form of sex-that-is-sinful; it can be used to discuss incest, prostitution, bestiality, and so on. Its nonspecificity means it doesn’t really tell us anything about which things are sinful, only the attitude we should have toward certain types of sin. For definitions, the Old Testament is far more useful.
So where does that leave us? Contrary to the belief exemplified by the quote at the beginning of this post, the Bible never describes the “soul-damning seriousness” of shacking up and having a kid. It’s pretty hard to “speak plainly and biblically” about something the Bible never mentions….unless, of course, you’re merely interested in reinforcing hypocritical stereotypes.
In fact, the entire Old Testament only once describes what can unequivocally be labeled premarital sex (what modern Christians inaccurately refer to as fornication).
“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.” (Exodus 22:16-17)
If I’m being honest….this seems incredibly underwhelming. For something Catholicism terms a mortal sin and what conservatives decry as the worst things a dating couple can do, premarital sex doesn’t seem as censured in the Old Testament. Where are the stonings? I mean, seriously. If kids are being stoned for a rebellious attitude but “fornication” just means you need to get married….well, sheesh.
Plus, this passage needs to be viewed in its historical context. In this culture, marriageability was the most valuable thing a woman could have. This law provided that if a guy tried to hit-and-split, he could be required to make restitution for the very real disadvantage he had placed the girl in, either monetarily or by marrying the girl. Indeed, all the preceding verses are about restitution for damages done; this passage establishes protection for the woman’s rights in that culture. Obviously, our culture isn’t exactly a parallel here, so these provisions aren’t explicitly applicable.
What’s the conclusion? Waxing eloquent about how soul-damningly sinful a couple must be because they’ve slept together isn’t biblical and it doesn’t accomplish anything. It’s just another way to make an idol out of the Victorian ideal of “modest chastity” American conservatives so vigorously insist upon.
If anything, it shows not only pride, but prurience. This intense, self-aggrandizing, fascinated, scandalized, near-crazed interest in the sexual goings-on of other people has more in common with the Pharisee of Luke 18 (“God, I thank you that I am not like other men: extortioners, unjust, adulterers”) than the tax collector. It’s not their business. It almost seems as though the thought of ferreting out and denouncing sexual sin sates some base concupiscence toward uncovering scandal and lasciviousness.
One final caveat, though: this doesn’t mean premarital sex is a good idea. In fact, I’d argue there’s still a very good rationale for saying it’s quite wrong. But that’s a topic for another post.