Purity culture is and has long been a major part of the evangelical and fundamentalist Christian world view. In brief, proponents of purity culture place a tremendous deal of importance on the idea of sexual purity before marriage with limits on what sexually related activities people who are unmarried engage in as well as an insistence upon female modesty so men don’t become tempted to commit a sexual sin. Those who believe in the tenets of purity culture think that they are doing it based upon what they think the Bible teaches about sexual morality and sex before marriage. To be sure, there are places in the canon which seem to indicate that premarital sex is wrong. The Apostle Paul certainly seemed to believe that sexual expression should be saved for marriage, while also saying that he wished everyone would choose to be like him and eschew both sex and marriage. It is helpful to quickly contextualize Paul’s view as a means of understanding at least some of the reasons why he felt this was important. Paul thought that “the end” was nigh and that Jesus would return in his lifetime thus ushering in the Kindom of God, so there was no reason to get married in his opinion. To Paul, the work of spreading the Gospel was paramount because he believed time was short.
Nearly 2000 years have passed and we still wait for the coming Kindom. While we wait, it would be helpful to understand that the Bible is far from consistent in its condemnation of premarital sex and has varying views of sexual morality. In fact, in some of the Biblical texts, stories of sex out of the bonds of wedlock is actually celebrated as women used their sexuality either to survive in a harsh world – such as Tamar and Ruth did, or to become considered honored as being favored in the eyes of a king, like Esther did. Then there is the highly erotic poetry of the Song of Solomon which I learned in seminary is a celebration of the love between two young unwed lovers and their explicitly expressed sexual desire for one another. This information may come as somewhat of a surprise to people. I certainly didn’t know it back in my days as a Southern Baptist because the Sunday School versions of these texts that I had heard skipped these details or glossed them over, perhaps to sanitize them for adherents of purity culture.
Before getting into the story of Ruth, it is important to contextualize the concept of virginity in the Ancient Near East (ANE) because it was vastly different than our postmodern concept of virginity. A woman’s virginity was important strictly for reasons of inheritance – whose children would receive the inheritance when the father died? If a woman was a virgin when she married, then there would be no questions regarding to whom an inheritance belonged in the event of the family patriarch’s death. If however, there was some dispute over parentage, then the issue of inheritance would be problematic, thus daughters were meant to remain chaste for reasons of familial cohesion rather than reasons of morality invoked by proponents of purity culture.
In the ANE world of the Old Testament, there was little if any concern regarding male sexuality in terms of men having sex outside of marriage, as the story of Judah and Tamar makes clear in Genesis 38. Judah sees Tamar by the side of the road in a veil that she used to hide her face to avoid being recognized by him because he was her father-in-law, but he’d failed to live up to the Levirate marriage set forth in the Hebrew scriptures. Judah assumed that she was a prostitute, and offered her a kid from his flock in exchange for sex, as well as a pledge that would be returned to him by Tamar when the baby goat was taken to her as payment. There was no condemnation of Judah whatsoever for his having engaged in sex outside of marriage, or even for having paid for sex. Meeting his own sexual needs was not a problem for men in his culture. Not so for women.
Later in the story, when Tamar is found to be pregnant, people proclaim that she has “played the whore” and gotten pregnant from her “whoredom” (Gen. 38:24). In their eyes, not knowing what she’d done, she had failed to stay chaste. In reality, Tamar took matters into her own hands because Judah had failed to hold up his end of the Levirate marriage bargain. She used her guile and sexuality to achieve her goal of having a child by Judah. A woman having a child was important for survival in the ANE because that meant she was part of a family group and would have support in their old age. She surreptitiously got Judah to uphold his end of the bargain and had twins as a result. You may recall that her family line becomes very important later…
Likewise, the titular heroine of the Book of Ruth also uses her sexuality to survive after an all too common family tragedy. The story tells of Ruth, a Moabite woman who had been married to an Israelite man who then dies leaving her a widow, which in those days placed women in a truly precarious position. In the Sunday School version of the story we often hear about her choice to accompany Naomi back to Naomi’s homeland in Judah. We learn that this shows her faithfulness not only to Naomi, but also to God. Then we get fast-forwarded to the end of the story with the happy ending of Ruth and Boaz getting married while skipping the middle of the story where we can read about some flirtatious banter between Ruth and Boaz (which is counter-cultural because she is a Moabite and Israelites were not supposed to interact with Moabites, much less flirt and marry them) and some premarital sex.
In seminary I learned that in the ANE “feet” was a euphemism for penis, which makes what happens in Ruth 3 a lot more clear than the English translation does without that significant piece of information. At Naomi’s behest, Ruth gets herself cleaned up, puts on her best clothes, and goes to the threshing floor for a rendezvous with Boaz, waiting until after he has eaten and drank his wine. When he falls asleep she uncovers his, er…feet…and then laid down. He wakes up later and finds her at his “feet” where she remains for the rest of the night. Then to spare her a walk of shame, Boaz has Ruth rise before anyone can recognize her and sends her back to Naomi with six measures of the precious barley that will feed her and her mother-in-law. Later, in chapter 4 Boaz completes a negotiation with someone else who also had a potential claim for Ruth, and then the two marry. So, to recap, Ruth waits until Boaz is groggy with food and wine, then surreptitiously finds him and has sex with him on the threshing floor so that he will then marry her, which he does. It is important to note that both Tamar and Ruth, far from being vilified as sexually immoral, are immortalized in their stories and in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel — see Matthew’s genealogy
These stories highlight the messiness of the Bible, which is far from consistent on a wide range of issues. It also highlights that far from being “Biblical” purity culture is a modern social construct that sees virginity as a moral issue while some Biblical writers saw it from a completely different lens. Purity culture would have us deny our humanity by shaming people for our sexuality, and imposes a harsh moral code upon its adherents which can lead to a great deal of self flagellation and self hatred for having perfectly normal sexual desires. Parents who advocate for purity culture can be overly controlling of their children and shame them for being how God made them. It can also lead to harsh judgments of other people such as sex workers, who may be simply trying to survive the best way they can in a harsh world because of extenuating circumstances.
Sex is wonderful, yet it can be messy because emotions are often involved. It’s not something that many of us can take lightly, but it is also not something to be ashamed of. It should be celebrated, after all neither you nor I would be here without someone having had sex. Kids should learn about their bodies, their sexuality, how to have sex, and the ramifications of engaging in sexual activity from pregnancy to STDs and to the emotions that are often involved. There shouldn’t be one code for boys and men and another harsher code for girls and women as was seen in the example of Judah and Tamar above and among those who hold patriarchal and misogynistic views. Boys and young men should be taught how to treat potential partners with dignity and respect as well as not to engage in boorish behavior with people whom they find attractive like wolf-whistling or telling women to smile. That will go a long way towards ending rape culture thus making women safer which is something we should all want because doing so shows the love of our neighbors.
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