This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.
“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” Genesis 1:28
A tremendous weight of Christian sexual ethics, not to mention environmental ethics, rests on this one line from scripture. Let me suggest that it provides an important key to both Israelite sexual ethics and later Christian thought. First, Old Testament sexual ethics depends on a particular reading of God’s will: God want’s the people of Israel to have children – lot’s and lot’s of children. Second, New Testament ethics considers the end to be accomplished. Procreation may be a blessing but is not, in itself, virtuous.
“So Numerous and Strong”
Sexual ethics in Genesis and Leviticus can seem somewhat arbitrary to modern ears. It becomes clearer once you recognize two fundamental premises of Israelite culture, one theological and one scientific.
Theologically, God had commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Moreover, God had promised Abraham offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven (Genesis 26:4). The Israelites thought God was invested in their becoming a great and populous people, capable of out-competing their neighbors and ruling the Holy Land. This was a promise God made to the people and a promise the people made to God. Thus they felt a moral obligation, for the sake of obedience, to take a spouse and produce many children. Procreation was considered both virtuous and obligatory.
Scientifically, the Israelites had a different picture of how children happened. Along with the Greeks and most cultures around the world until the 19th century, they thought that the father planted a seed within the mother. We now know that fertilized eggs come from a fusion of male and female gametes in most animals and plants. The sperm and egg come together to make a genetically new organism which begins as a single celled “zygote” (in the mother’s fallopian tube for humans). We now know that this zygote, and not the father’s semen, is analogous to the plant seed. Ancient biologists and doctors, however, thought the form of the baby came entirely from the father. The mother only contributed food and shelter. That gave semen a moral weight, for which there was no female parallel.
Israelite sexual ethics, as seen in Leviticus and throughout the Old Testament, reflects a call to purity, certainly, but it also contains very practical advice for not wasting semen. The goal was to ensure every drop was directed to increasing the size of the community. That meant that semen was intended for the production of certifiable offspring – legitimate heirs by a wife or recognizable members of the clan by a concubine or slave.
Intercourse between men was prohibited (Lev. 18:22, 20:13), but no parallel needed to be drawn between women, because no sperm was at stake. Intercourse with animals was prohibited, lest the men waste seed or the women be corrupted (Lev. 18:23, 20:15-16). Intercourse with a menstruating woman was prohibited (Lev. 20:18). There is no mention of masturbation, though in the story of Onan (Gen. 38) God punishes Onan for stopping intercourse and spilling his seed on the ground.
That same story emphasizes an odd dichotomy between rules against a man marrying his brother’s wife (Lev. 18:16; 20:21) and injunctions that he must marry his brother’s widow (Levirite marriage; Gen. 38:8; Deut. 25:5-10). This caused stress at the time of Jesus (Matt. 22:24) and later to Henry VIII, who married his brother’s widow (Catherine of Aragon) and was subsequently without heir, the penalty mentioned in Leviticus. I would suggest this is easily resolved if we note that the important aspect was to provide an heir for your dead brother. In an age where men have multiple wives, it insures that every man (with the wealth to marry) ends up with someone to inherit their wealth. Such concerns only apply after his death.
The command to procreate also explains the importance of knowing who the father is. The child produced from a father’s seed is the offspring of the father, but only incidentally of the mother . Israelite ethics are set up to insure that the men have as many offspring as possible and that any women who might be bearing the children of non-Israelite men are removed.
Other proposals have been suggested to explain all these rules, but the virtue of procreation seems the simplest and most straightforward.
(Just to be clear, this is not modern Jewish ethics! It is Israelite Ethics from around 500 BC.)
Christians have a different take, or should have a different take. According to tradition, neither Jesus nor Paul had a wife or children. This means they did not see procreation as required. Nor should we, following Jesus, feel obligated to have children. Nor is it a communal requirement. God is capable of rising up followers from the very stones of the earth; propagation is not necessary for preserving the church.
If you read Genesis 1:28 carefully, you will see that God issued a command with a condition. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” Mission accomplished; humans have covered the face of the earth and we have subdued it. We exercise dominion and the command has been fulfilled.
Does this mean procreation is immoral? No. I still believe many, if not most, Christians are called to marry and have children. The ability and opportunity to have children are blessings. That said, there is a time and place. If procreation is not inherently virtuous, then sometimes it might be a vice. In a world with so many starving people, social and economic justice questions must arise. Can this new person be fed without taking food away from others? Will this new person upset the balance of society?
This is not an argument for abortion. In that case, I believe the person is already present; we are asking how we should treat it. I am making an argument for contraception. If procreation is no longer a matter of obedience – for we have fulfilled the command; if procreation is no longer a matter of purity – for the New Covenant does away with purity; then sex should be allowed to serve love at times where procreation is not called for.
It would be a mistake, as modern Christians, to feel bound by the Israelite law. As with every other opportunity in the New Covenant, we must work out with God the right thing to do. We cannot assume that more children is always better.