Sex and violence in Genesis

Gordon Wenham, September 2006

Indonesian women at a human right march denounce calls by Muslim groups encouraging polygamy. Genesis highlights the associated relational fallout.

Indonesian women at a human right march denounce calls by Muslim groups encouraging polygamy. Genesis highlights the associated relational fallout.

We recently published an article by Professor Wenham on the contribution of OT narrative to biblical ethics. Here Professor Wenham draws out some lessons about human sexuality from the quite shocking stories in Genesis, particularly the link between sexual sin and violence.

Readers of Genesis will quickly come across a variety of episodes that seem to be marked by irregular sexual behaviour. I say ‘seem to be irregular’, because what we really need to establish is whether these actions contravene biblical law on the one hand or the ethics of the narrator on the other. We must endeavour to avoid reading into the text our own prejudices, and let it speak for itself. In this article we will look briefly at how the narrator portrays bigamy, adultery, premarital sex, surrogate marriage, homosexual practice and incest.


Both Lamech and Jacob are bigamists: the first by choice, the second by trickery. Given that Jacob is the father of all Israel, this could suggest the author approves his marital arrangements, for it is clear that the law tolerates bigamy. Deuteronomy 21:15 begins ‘If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved…’ The law’s concern is to ensure that the eldest son is not displaced as chief heir, if he should be the son of the unloved wife. Clearly the law recognises, by regulating, one of the problems that may arise.

But does toleration of a practice imply approval? The story of Leah and Rachel (Genesis 29:21–30:24) is a vivid portrayal of the tensions and bitterness that can arise between co-wives and half-brothers. Although not questioning the legality of bigamy, these stories are certainly no recommendation for it.

This conclusion is backed up by the account of the creation out of Adam’s rib. The Lord God in his benevolence could have created more than one Eve out of Adam’s ribs, but he chose not to. The narrator draws out the implications for every marriage: ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife.’ (2:24). He holds fast to his wife, (singular) not wives (plural). Genesis 1 and 2 thus set up monogamous heterosexual marriage as the creator’s pattern for human sexuality.

The first to deviate from this pattern is Lamech. The story unequivocally links Lamech to unrestrained violence, as he threatens 77-fold revenge on anyone who assaults him. There is thus an implied connection between bigamy and violence, as is also evident in the treatment of Joseph by his half-brothers: they contemplate murdering him before selling him into foreign slavery.


Abraham Twice Genesis relates how Abraham allowed Sarah to be taken into a royal harem: first, in Egypt, and second in Gerar (12:10–20; 20:1–18). In both cases the kings are very angry with Abraham, for misleading them and allowing them to commit such a serious sin. The Pharaoh was punished with great plagues (foreshadowing those of Exodus), while Abimelech, though he had not touched Sarah, was punished by his other wives becoming infertile. The tone of both episodes exonerates the Pharaoh and Abimelech. But their indignation reinforces the message about the wrongness of extramarital affairs: even the heathen recognise this!

Potiphar’s wife The brazen attempt by Potiphar’s wife to seduce Joseph is dismissed firmly by him and implicitly by the author with the words: ‘How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?’ (39:9).

Premarital sex

Sexual immorality triggers explosive violence in the episode of Dinah and Shechem, found in Genesis 34, as the sons of Jacob sack the city of Shechem in revenge for his treatment of their sister Dinah. This is usually described as the rape of Dinah, though it is not certain whether she was raped or whether she was seduced by Shechem. The author of Genesis makes clear his condemnation of the act by the way he describes it: ‘he saw her, he seized [1] her and lay with her and humiliated her.’ (34:2).

It is clear that the author of Genesis has great sympathy with Dinah and her brothers. His initial description of the deed puts Shechem in a bad light (v.2). Then the brothers are said to be ‘indignant and very angry, because he had done an outrageous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done.’ (v. 7). Finally, after Jacob’s self-centred protest at their revenge, the brothers are given the last word, ‘Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?’ (v.31). This apparent ambivalence has led to a great debate among scholars as to where the author really stands in his moral judgement. [2] Ultimately, though, he does make it clear, in Jacob’s parting words to his sons, that Simeon and Levi went much too far in avenging their sister’s honour: ‘Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath for it is cruel!’ (49:7). So it would seem that the author manages to show both his revulsion at irregular sexual intercourse and the dangerous violence it is liable to, and in this case did, provoke.

Surrogate marriage

Surrogate marriage was a well-recognised practice in the ancient Near East for childless couples. A wife would supply her husband with a girl, perhaps one of her maids if she were wealthy, for her husband to have intercourse with. The child when born would count as the wife’s child. This practice is assumed in the story of Sarah and Hagar in Genesis 16.

There is nothing in the OT law that forbids this custom, but there are clear hints in the text that the author regards it as a mistake. First, the promise of a son to Abraham suggested something unusual would occur, not that Abraham would resort to traditional customs. Second, the wording suggests unseemly haste on Sarah’s part. Third, the way the story is worded harks back to Genesis 3:6 and 3:17, where Adam listened to the voice of his wife, and she took and gave the fruit (cf. Hagar) to him.

In this subtle way the narrator insinuates his disapproval of Sarah’s actions. That it was ill-advised is demonstrated by the strife that breaks out when Hagar conceives. Treated harshly by Sarah, Hagar flees into the wilderness and it takes an angel to coax her back. This would appear to be another episode indicating that sex outside marriage is liable to lead to violence.

Homosexual practice

Whereas biblical law tolerated bigamy or surrogate marriage, homosexual practice conflicts directly with such passages as Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 and features in two episodes in Genesis. The conduct of the later Canaanites in Sodom and Gomorrah appears to be foreshadowed by their forefather Ham, the black sheep of Noah’s family. ‘Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside.’ (Genesis 9:22). What was so disgraceful about seeing Noah naked, that he cursed his youngest son and his descendants? The exact nature of Ham’s offence is elusive. Recently, Nissinen, Wold and Gagnon, [3] have argued that Ham raped his father. To ‘see nakedness’ is used in Leviticus 20:17 to refer to sexual intercourse. Such an interpretation heightens the parallel between the flood story, which concludes with Noah getting drunk and being abused by his son, and the story of Sodom, with Lot the only righteous man to escape from Sodom, being inebriated by his daughters who then have sex with him. On this interpretation Ham’s offence was the homosexual rape of his father, which helps explain the severity of the curse upon his descendants. (Genesis 9:24–27).

Regarding Genesis 19, some modern attempts to play down the sexual aspect of this episode are misguided. The mob, ‘all the men of the city’, demand that Lot bring out his visitors ‘that we may know them’ (v.5). That this was a demand for sexual knowledge is indicated by Lot’s attempt to appease them by offering his virgin daughters instead. The Sodomites defy all the conventions of oriental hospitality in the most flagrant manner imaginable. And their proposed attack takes the most shocking form the Old Testament can conceive of: homosexual gang rape. Lot’s courage in confronting the mob is of no avail: ‘they pressed hard against the man Lot and drew near to break the door down.’ (v.9). Only the intervention of the angels striking the assailants with blindness saved Lot and his family. The link between irregular sex and violence is the explicit theme of this account.


Lot’s daughters So far (except for Genesis 16) it is men who are to blame for the offences discussed, but there are three episodes in Genesis where women take the initiative. Potiphar’s wife, already noted, is one. Another is where Lot’s daughters make him drunk, commit incest with him, [4] and conceive the ancestors of Moab and Ammon (19:30–38). In parallel with Ham, whose deed led to the curse on his descendant Canaan, it would seem likely that Lot’s daughters’ action had similar effects on their descendants.

Tamar Tamar’s antics (Genesis 38) on the other hand, who also committed incest with her father-in-law (20:12), do not seem to attract the narrator’s disapproval. Judah’s duplicity in promising his third son to Tamar in marriage and then reneging on his promise is seen as so disgraceful that Tamar is justified in taking her ingenious measures to ensure her husband’s line survives. As Judah admitted: ‘She is more righteous than I’. Nevertheless, the next comment, ‘he did not know her again’, reinforces the impropriety of their sexual relationship (38:26).


It was the expectation of everyone in OT times to marry. That mankind was created in two sexes shows the centrality of procreation and sexual intercourse to the divine purpose for humanity. The first command given to the human race was ‘Be fruitful and multiply’, a command repeated to Noah three times after the flood, and fruitfulness is described as a blessing: ‘God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”.’ (1:28).

Blessing is the key word in Genesis: all God’s benevolent purposes for the human race are summed up in this term. Among material blessings a large and happy family is probably the most prized as Psalms 37, 112, 127 and 128 suggest.

Zechariah gives a glimpse of Israel’s hopes for family life in his vision of the restored Jerusalem: ‘Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.’ (Zechariah 8:4–5).

Little is said in the Old Testament about personal relationships between the spouses, but the story of Eve’s creation shows just how valued it was. Though this relationship is upset by the fall (3:7,16), it is clearly set down as the ideal model of male-female relationships for all time. Marriage and family life are part of the background of life that everyone took for granted. The storytellers therefore tend to focus on the catastrophes caused by those who flout the creator’s norms for human sexuality. As we have seen, deviation from those norms is often accompanied by violence.

[1] Literally ‘took’.

[2] See G. J. Wenham, Story as Torah, 2000, pp.109–119; R. A. Parry, OT Story and Christian Ethics: the Rape of Dinah as a Case Study, Paternoster, 2004.

[3] See Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 2002, p.67.

[4] Leviticus extends the scope of incest rules much more widely than was typical in the Ancient Near East to lesser degrees of consanguinity and affinity.


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Category: News and Reviews

September, 2006

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