Sunday, January 30, 2011

Partner Swapping in the Pentateuch

Equating modern, socially-constructed ethical norms with those of the Bible, most fundamentalists fail to realize the extent to which they impose their own values on the biblical texts. The seventh commandment of the Ten Commandments reads,

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

The modern Evangelical fundamentalist reads this as follows:

Wives do not cheat on your husbands, and husbands do not cheat on your wives.

However, this is not how adultery is understood in the Pentateuch and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Pentateuch the sexual roles of man and woman are profoundly sexist. A woman is the property of the man—her father or her husband—and subordinate, lacking equal entitlement. The command against coveting (Exodus 20:17 and Deuteronomy 5:21) parallels “wife/woman” to “field” indicating the two key possessions that are to be respected and honored as a man’s possession. Where a man is permitted to have more than one wife (e.g. Exodus 21:7ff and Deuteronomy 21:15ff), for a woman to have more than one husband would be adultery. Old Testament scholar Brueggemann (p. 192) states the following:

…adultery [in the Old Testament] committed by a man is not adultery if with an unmarried woman. The act is only adultery if it is committed with the wife of another man, whereby the affront is fundamentally against the husband of the woman, for in the act the relationship of the other man is disrupted, and he is subject to social shaming (Lev. 20:10; Jer. 5:8; 7:9; 9:2; 29:23) … In the cases of Leviticus 21:9 and Deuteronomy 22:21, the violation of the “father’s house” is at stake, so that even the woman’s action is defined by the impact upon male prestige (italics mine).

Similarly, Everett Fox in his Schocken Bible: Volume I states,

The definition [of adultery] used here is the classic biblical one: a married woman and a man, married or not (p. 950).

The woman, be she a daughter or a wife, is male capital, male property. Hence, the “sin” of adultery in the male-dominated, patriarchal world of the Hebrew Scriptures relates to the shame and property theft that appropriation of another man’s female capital or property entail. If there is no shame brought to a man, if there is no theft of another landed Israelite’s female capital, then there is no adultery. A man is hence enabled to take on other women. He can take females as booty of war (Deut 20:14), from his deceased brother’s wife (Deut 25:5-10), purchased from a poor father (Exodus 21:7ff), or at his own volition (Deut 21:15).

Fortunately, Occidental cultures have largely moved away from the understanding that women are property. Despite biblical injunctions against practical egalitarian gender rights, women in the West can vote, they can hold jobs and earn a private income, they can own property, and they can think for themselves. Women are no longer seen as the property of their husbands; they are seen as equal partners (not a “weaker vessel”) in marriage. Thank the gods (or whoever you wish to thank) not even Evangelicals accept the sexual ethics of the Bible in this regard (though they indiscriminately accept patriarchally-based prohibitions against homosexuality). Moving on, though, I think there is an enormous loophole in the Mosaic Law worth flushing out: partner or couple swapping.

Noting as we have above that adultery is a sin against the married woman’s husband because it brings shame and is considered a form of theft, a significant loop hole can be found in the Mosaic Law. What if a man willingly allows his wife, his property, to be appropriated by another man? What if two landed Israelite men decide to trade wives and forgo the shame and the theft that others might feel in the same situation? If two men willingly give up their honor and property rights, is it still adultery for their wives, with their knowledge, to sleep with another man?

Now, before some of my fundamentalist readers jump to the conclusion that I am advocating partner swapping, I would like to say that if you wish to make that conclusion, it is probably a reflection more of your own desires than anything I am trying to say. My goal is simply to show what a wholesale acceptance of “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” approach would lead to: women as male capital and possibly an allowance for consensual partner swapping.

My personal take on relationship structures, etc. is not germane to this post. I would like to show fundamentalists how removed from the Bible their sexual ethics actually are. So many fundamentalists say, “Without the Bible, or God, we would have no ethics.” Poppycock: you have an ethical system that makes adultery a gender-neutral sin and you accept this in spite of the Bible. Think on this. Contrary to the claims of fundamentalists, the Bible is anything but a clear and unambiguous moral guide or ethical casebook.

Brueggmann, Walter. Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2002

Fox, Everett. The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books, 1995.


Tess B. said...

My personal definition of "sin", as well as my moral guide, is anything that one does purposely that could potentially cause harm to another person. Even in cases where there is full consent amongst all parties, there is still, quite often, a great potential for harm to the parties involved.

One example might be that a group of friends agrees to get together and experiment with recreational drugs. All are consenting adults and know the risks involved. They all may very well leave the evening completely unscathed by the event. However, there is also the chance that someone could overdose or that someone could have an accident while driving under the influence. In any case, one can't simply weigh the potential harm that such activities would cause only to the consenting participants, but also to any friends, family members, or other loved ones that may be harmed by their decisions.

While I feel this is true for sexual morality, it's simply just a general rule I guide myself by.

Peter said...

Hello Tess,

I think a good distinction here is concern over long-term and short-term effects. With greater moral maturity comes greater concern for long-term effects—both positive and negative. So, though there may not be an immediate short-term harm from a behavior, there might be long-term. And, of course, we can only work with what we have. It might be shown that coffee drinking increases the risk of colon cancer by 300% (not true by any means) in which event the short-term benefits of coffee should be weighed against the long-term. But, we do not know that coffee has adverse long-term effects for most people (it may even have health benefits), so in the mean time coffee is consumed. How cautious should one be?

I appreciate your use of “sin” in quotations. I frankly rejection the concept of sin, and I consider it (the concept) to be a great moral evil. This does not mean that I reject the notion of right and wrong or even the idea of evil. However, I find that “sin” as an arbitrary standard (e.g., “don’t eat shellfish,” “no sex prior to marriage,” “men can’t wear silk,” etc.) tends toward psycho-social unrest as it promotes out-group hostilities, dishonesty (“I never masturbate”), shame and guilt, vicious cycles, and arbitrary atonements or penance.

Oh, I’d like to go further on this. I do believe in morality and ethics. I find as a non-believer that I am a far better ethicist than when I was a fundamentalist. Maybe more later as time permits.