What the Old Testament teaches us about marriage, sex and relationships

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This is part two, following on from my attempt to set out the framework of Biblical and Systematic Theology.  I said in that post, that to talk properly and pastorally about marriage, sex and relationships that we would need to dig into a little more detail.  So, here goes, an attempt at a summary of what the Bible has to say beginning with the first five books.


Genesis 1-3 Creation and Fall

The Torah is the first five books of the Bible and whilst we associate the word with “Law”, it isn’t just a set of rules but tells the story of creation, Fall, Flood and then the calling of God’s people beginning with Abraham, through slavery in Egypt and then into the Exodus. 

The beginning of the story of marriage is therefore found here in the creation accounts.  God makes man and woman, equal, in his image and commissions them to fill and subdue the earth (Gen 1:26-28). This is fleshed out in Genesis 2 where God makes man first and after placing him in the Garden of Eden, to care for it and commanding him not to eat from one tree, he states that it is not good for man to be alone.  God brings the animals to Adam to be named, none are a suitable helper for him.  So, God makes woman, drawn from man’s side. Adam sings of her as being from his flesh and bone.  She is literally described as “like-and-opposite-to” him. This is where we get the idea of complementarianism from, that men and women are made equal in nature. There is a unity and oneness but there is also a distinction from them.  It’s worth observing that the idea of being a “helper” is not an indication of a lesser status within a hierarchy.

Moses comments that men will leave their parents and cleave to their wives, a new family unity is formed and there is an exclusivity to this.  This is emphasised in the use of the term “one flesh” to describe the relationship.

Sadly, Adam and Eve do not keep God’s command but instead, they eat the forbidden fruit, tempted by the serpent.  In Genesis 3, it is worth observing that whilst the woman is the one spoken to and responding and whilst she acts first, the man is very much present and involved.  The Fall leads to judgement and death. This judgement of death is expressed first through exile from the Garden of Eden, second through physical death to come and third through a changed relationship to creation and to God’s creation mandate now. Whilst the command to multiply, fill and subdue is exclusively blessing in Genesis 1, in Genesis 3, it takes on a different shape. 

Both man and woman will experience, sweat, toil, struggle and pain, whether in the work of subduing the land or filling it through childbirth.  There may well also be at least a hint of struggle, tension and conflict between man and woman as well. 

Genesis 1-3 sets out the intended purpose of marriage and sex.  Man and woman are meant to complement each other and help together in the creation task given them.  Marriage and sex are to do with the command to fill and subdue creation.  However, marriage and sex are affected by the Fall.

Genesis 6 Boundaries

Genesis 6 tells the story of how the sons of God saw and desired the daughters of men. Whilst the author doesn’t offer explicit comment or judgement, the framing of telling suggests a negative assessment.  This is seen first in the way that the language of seeing, desiring, taking echoes the language of Genesis 3 when Eve takes the fruit. It is also seen in the way that the story is tied to God’s assessment of human sin and strife. 

Who the “sons of God” or “sons of gods” are has been long debated.  The choice is between this reflecting spirit beings, probably fallen angels, forming sexual relationships with human women or it being about intermarrying between the godly line of Seth and the ungodly line of Cain. 

Whichever way we read the account; the point is that a boundary has been crossed. God places boundaries around his people, as with the restriction on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and evil for a dual purpose, to protect his people and to protect his purpose.   Sex is bounded.  Genesis 6 provides a teaching basis for arguing that it belongs within the context of marriage and the Torah will go on to define marriage further.

The Law

There are two crucial commandments relating to marriage and families in the Ten Commandments.  The first is the command to honour parents and the second is to not commit adultery. Fascinatingly, the book of Proverbs will spend a lot of time reflecting on these two commandments.   They teach us that marriage is about faithfulness.  There is the faithfulness to each other demonstrated by saying no to adultery but also a faithfulness to God’s covenant and to future generations in the commands concerning parents and children.

The reason that children are to obey their parents is not arbitrary but rooted in the call to parents to pass on God’s covenant and law, teaching their children and grandchildren (see Deuteronomy 6).  This reminds us again that marriage is tied to the creation mandate of filling and subduing God’s world.

The law puts boundaries around sexual activity which emphasis faithfulness in contrast to adultery.  This rules out for example both bestiality and incest (Leviticus 18:7-18).  Note that incest is not just about close physical relationships but any relationship within the close family.  Sex outside of the boundaries of marriage is ruled out. There must be covenant faithfulness. This excludes pre-marital sex as well as sex with other partners (see Deuteronomy 22).  Divorce is permitted but limited and it is clear that it is viewed negatively (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

Prophets (and history)

I’ve followed the Hebrew Scriptures structure of Torah, Prophets, Writings in including the history books together with what we more overtly recognise as prophetic literature.  There’s a close interrelation between the two. 

David and Solomon

Whilst David is known as the righteous king and Solomon for his wisdom, it’s important to bel clear that the Old Testament does not set either of them up as examples to be followed when it comes to sex, marriage and relationships.

Both men acquire many wives for themselves, against God’s instruction and this has a lasting and damaging impact, so that whilst polygamy may have been tolerated, we should neither treat this as encouraged or condoned.  In that sense I’m even wary of saying that it was allowed.  It is explicitly stated that Solomon’s polygamy led to sin as Solomon was drawn into idolatry.  Here, we see that the Scripture writers are beginning to draw a direct link between sexual unfaithfulness and spiritual unfaithfulness.

Meanwhile, there are a number of sad and sobering consequences to David’s relationships and marriages.  First, there’s the back and forth as his first wife, Michal is treated as a bargaining chip and a power status symbol. Tragically, this bit of the story finishes with barrenness and Michal despising David.  The most terrible example in David’s life of course is his sin against Bathsheba.  Notice that I consider it to be sin “against” not just sin “with”.  Bathsheba is very much passive in the story, she is seen, summoned, taken.  Many exegetes have legitimately argued that the sin described better fits the modern definition of rape than adultery.  Certainly, Bathsheba is defiled by David.  The consequence is grievous evil, judgement and conflict within the family.  David’s sin is followed by his son, Amnon’s rape of his half-sister. 

The prophetic picture of the unfaithful wife

Ezekiel 18 compares Jerusalem to an unfaithful wife.The prophet Hosea enacts a story where he marries a prostitute who proves unfaithful to him leading to unloved and illegitimate children.  The story represents how God has been treated by Israel.  God loves his people faithfully but they are unfaithful to him. 

It’s in the prophetic literature that we begin to see the image of God’s relationship to his people represented in marriage.  So, rules about adultery, divorce, polygamy etc have more than just an ethical dimension but speak theologically too about our worship of and witness to the living God.

Writings (and Wisdom)

The last part of the Hebrew Scriptures corresponds with the wisdom section of our Old Testament (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs).  It also includes Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles.

This means that in the Hebrew Scriptures, Ezra’s dealings with those who married outside of God’s people, against the instructions in Deuteronomy 7 comes close to the conclusion of the canon.  This reminds us again that marital and sexual faithfulness are closely aligned with spiritual faithfulness to Yahweh.


As mentioned earlier, the book of Proverbs picks up particularly on two of the Ten Commandments, “honour your parents” and “do not commit adultery.”  This reminds us of the role that marriage plays in nurturing and growing the next generation, in response to the creation mandate to fill and subdie.  It also points again to the importance of faithfulness.

Adultery and unfaithfulness is picked up on specifically in the words of Proverbs 6:32:

The one who commits adultery[l] lacks sense; whoever does so destroys himself.

However, the theme is there throughout the book and especially in the early stages.  Proverbs 5 and 7 warn about the dangers of seduction. Folly and wisdom are both portrayed as women that invite you in but lady folly is clearly the seductress offering illicit sex.  Meanwhile, we are told that finding a good and godly wife is a good thing (Proverbs 18:22) and if you are wondering what such a good wife might be like, then Proverbs 31:1-31 perhaps offers some answers. Notice that the Proverbs 31 wife doesn’t quite fit some of our stereotypical expectations of religious conservatism.

Song of Songs

The Song is a love story, possibly penned by Solomon himself, certainly telling the story of his love for his beloved.  Whether or not we should primarily treat this as wisdom about relationships or metaphorical/typological about God and his people/Christ and the Church is hotly debated.  My view is that both are possible.  The Song is first and foremost pointing us to God and his people, it’s about the spiritual marriage we find fulfilled through Christ and his Church. 

However, through that lens, we have much to learn about human relationships too, especially if they are meant to reflect and point to that spiritual relationship.  The big take away, given the sensual nature of the language is that relationships are about love, that intimacy, particularly sexual intimacy is a good thing, a gift from God. 

Where does this get us?

The Old Testament enables us to say some important things about sex, relationships and marriage.  We are pointed to these things as good gifts from God. We are reminded that these good gifts come with a purpose and we discover that they can only be enjoyed in line with the maker/giver’s instructions.  We learn that healthy, faithful, intimate relationships are the product of wisdom and that there is great benefit in them.  Sadly, we are reminded that too often, human relationships fail to live up to that exalted standard resulting in great pain. 

The Old Testament is already showing us that our human relationships are meant to mirror Christ’s love for the Church so that we both learn from that example and through our marriages point back to him.

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