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Inheritance, Engagement, and Sex

In the following discussion, the e-mailers' comments are in black and enclosed in greater than and lesser than signs. My responses are in red.

>Hi Gary,

Interesting exchange with the fellow who believes he and his girlfriend are going to get married some day [see the email by “Josh” at Pre-marital Sex Article Comments - 2002].

Since we wrote those articles, I have continued to delve into this subject and I have a little more knowledge on it than I did then. I continue to stand by the lion's share of what we wrote, but I've learned some new things in addition to that.


First of these things is that the Law is not really designed to protect the woman's interests, but those of the child that may be produced. Let me explain this new understanding.

Most, if not all, of the sexual laws of Scripture are given to protect inheritance. No particular sexual laws are given before God's covenant with Abraham, "to your descendants I will give this land" (Gen. 12:7, NASB). It would seem the relation between husband and wife was already considered inviolable at this time, even by the heathen, but again, no specific laws are given at this point other than the "husband and wife" arrangement set forth in the garden of Eden.

After the land had been divided by tribe in Israel, new sexual laws were developed to keep the inheritance of a tribe in the tribe. In Numbers 36:8-9, a new law is given so that women will not marry outside of their tribe in order to preserve the line of inheritance: "Every daughter who comes into possession of an inheritance of any tribe of the sons of Israel shall be wife to one of the family of the tribe of her father, so that the sons of Israel each may possess the inheritance of his fathers. Thus no inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another tribe, for the tribes of the sons of Israel shall each hold to his own inheritance" (NASB).

This is not just an isolated case. All sexual laws can be brought back to having inheritance as its reason.

The man whose wife turned out to be lying about her virginity in Deuteronomy 22:13-21 had a problem: his wife is not a virgin, therefore, she may be pregnant with someone else's child. That child would stand to steal inheritance from his own children with her.

In the rest of that chapter: The man who has sex with an engaged woman may produce an illegitimate child that will steal inheritance away from her future husband's children. If the woman was a willing participant, she would die along with the man, because of her propensity to allow her husband's inheritance to be diffused to her illegitimate children.

Only in the example that the girl is not engaged, are the man and woman allowed to live. And why? Because no inheritance will be stolen that way.

Even the perversions from Leviticus 18, in addition to being contrary to God's design, come back to the basis of inheritance. Incest confuses inheritance in a family; a son receives a son's inheritance from a father, but where does the inheritance come from for a child that is technically a brother to his father? Homosexuality has the potential to end a line of inheritance--no adoption by homosexuals back then! Bestiality can spread disease and do other damage that can end a line of succession. (I mean, who'd want to marry or be married to a man or woman who did something like that? It's just really, really gross!)

So, what I am saying is, the Law doesn't have much at all to do with protecting the woman's rights. It is the rights of the husband's future children that are being protected. That's not to say a woman's sexual rights are not protected in the Scriptures. In the latter chapters of Judges, the whole tribe of Benjamin suffers great loss for having offended a woman's sexual rights through rape (and murder). Mistreatment of women carries a very high price tag in Scripture! But yet, the real object of the sexual laws is protection of inheritance.

The Scriptures were interpreted in a way very similar to an answer the Jews gave Jesus: "We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God" (John 8:41c). To put a little more interpretive gloss around that: we were not born of fornication in that we know who our father is. It's very important to know who your father is, because in Judaism, you're really not a part of society unless you do. Fornication (literally "harlotry" in the Greek) results in a situation in which a child does not know who his father is--or even if he did, he would have no title to any inheritance from him.

Even speaking of harlotry, I recall Judah's harlotry with his daughter-in-law Tamar in Genesis 38. When she was found pregnant by harlotry, Judah called for her death! But when he realized he was the father-in-law, he let her live. We tend to gloss over that as meaning that Judah let her live only out of guilt; as he said himself, "She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah" (Gen. 38:26, NASB). But here's an earth-shattering thought for you: killing her at this stage would not only have killed her, but would have killed the unborn baby as well. Where's the justice in that? It is just ONLY if we understand that it was an inheritance issue. The baby had no guilt from Tamar's harlotry, but would have had guilt had he survived to steal the inheritance, were he (or she) not Judah's own child. When Judah realized the child was his, and would rightfully inherit from him, the issue disappeared and both mother and child were spared.

Even in our modern society, being illegitimate deprives a child of a meaningful inheritance. An illegitimate child loses the inheritance of having the right last name, of having a family tradition, and certainly, loses any claim to whatever monetary inheritance his biological father could have afforded him, save through a palimony suit.

This makes pre-marital sex a much more horrible sin than people realize. While there is a sin committed between the consenting partners (at the very least, she is "humbled" or "violated", Deut. 22:29), an even more serious sin is committed against those who are unable to give consent to the act, namely the children that could be produced.

Engagement and Sex

That having been said, there is no word anywhere in Scripture that specifically forbids engaged people from having sex. Leviticus 18 and Deuteronomy 22 are quite exhaustive in their examples of what is forbidden; but there is no example of sex between engaged people specifically forbidden by Scripture. I was somewhat surprised to learn recently that this is more common knowledge than I had thought. As a result, I want to address this. It is a Biblical fact, but one must be careful about what license we draw from it.

The only reason I can see for this not being prohibited is that, in light of the fact that the sexual laws primarily protect inheritance, inheritance was in fact protected under an engagement, in that the child would know who his father was.

In Jewish culture at the time of Christ, it is reported that any children produced during an engagement were considered to be legitimate. And let's not forget something: Mary and Joseph were engaged, not actually married, when Jesus was born. Luke 2:4-5 reads, "Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child."

Of course there was no sex involved in the production of Jesus, but the point I'm referring to is that, despite the absence of marriage, the engagement was in place and the child was considered to be legitimate. When they took Jesus to the temple to present Him to the Lord, no one voiced any objection to the fact they were merely engaged, and the Scripture even notes that they had done "everything according to the law of the Lord" (Luke 2:39) at the temple. And of course the Jewish religious authorities would have to be assuming that there was sex during the engagement to produce the child.

That having been said, there is a world of difference between engagement in those times and the usual view of engagement people have today. Before one can even consider the question of having sex during engagement, one must consider whether the engagement they have is equivalent to Biblical engagement.

Here are three details to consider about Biblical engagement:

1) A woman you are engaged to, Biblically, is already considered to be your wife.

In Deuteronomy 22:23-24, a man who lies with a virgin engaged to a man is stoned "because he has violated his neighbor's wife" (NASB). They were not married yet, but she was considered to be his wife!

Similarly, in the New Testament, even though Mary and Joseph were only engaged at the time of the trip to Bethlehem, we read in Matthew 1:24 that Joseph "took Mary as his wife" (NASB) before then.

Another Old Testament example: the wording of Deuteronomy 24:1 is not accidental nor repetitive, but clarifying: "When a man takes a wife and marries her..." She's already his "wife" when he marries her.

Something that we have a little bit of error around, owing to some unpurged parts of our Roman Catholic doctrinal heritage, is the notion that relationship begins with a ceremony. For instance, your relationship with God begins at your baptism in Catholicism. Baptists and some other evangelicals at least know that's not true; they are baptized because a relationship already exists with God, and Scripture bears this out. (A particularly good example is Acts 10:47, when Peter calls for water because the existence of a relationship with God, the giving of the Holy Spirit, is already evident with the Gentiles.)

Similarly, Catholicism holds that you become husband and wife at your wedding. Au contraire! Biblically speaking, both baptism and a wedding are important recognitions of a relationship that already exists, not the creation of a new relationship. (I don't know any Baptists or other evangelicals who recognize this about marriage, but I trust you can see the logic of it.)

So, quite a bit of responsibility and commitment exists in a Biblical engagement that frankly is absent from most engagements today.

2) An engagement is a public act of choosing a person to be your spouse. Like it or not, you are not engaged until such an engagement is publicly known. The engagement ring is a way we do this today, and many of us follow that up with an announcement in the newspaper. Just "knowing you are going to get married" is not enough. You must let others know you are engaged as well. Don't forget that every sexual law in Deuteronomy 22:23-29 is based on public knowledge of whether someone is engaged or not. If only you and your "bride to be" know, you are not Biblically engaged.

3) Another thing that did concern me about engagement today versus engagement in Biblical times was whether the two were really equivalent in the sense of the ease of termination. It is maintained by some scholars that engagement in Bible times could not be terminated apart from a certificate of divorce being granted. That would make today's engagement easier to get out of and therefore not equivalent to the engagement in Scripture.

The problem is, I do not see this rule in Scripture. In fact, when Joseph learned Mary, the woman he was engaged to, was with child, not wanting to disgrace her, he wanted to send send her away secretly (see Matthew 1:19). While the footnote in my NASB says that is the equivalent of divorcing her, that's not actually what the text says. You could not possibly divorce her secretly. A certificate of divorce was a public act, just like an engagement was (and is) a public act.

(Further, it may even be harder in a sense to get out of an engagement today, because a certificate of divorce at that time bore with it no financial responsibility; whereas today, the engaged man stands to lose at least the financial value of the engagement ring, which can be pretty pricey!)

Another thing that apparently was culturally true in ancient Jewish times (according to those crazy unnamed scholars again) was that the engagement was always exactly one year long. People today may get engaged and remain engaged for a number of years before actually getting married. While this seems on the surface to produce an non-equivalency between Biblical engagement and today's engagement, once again, the Bible itself does not pronounce any "one year" rule so this really does not create a difference. (In a few moments I will discuss an apparent seven year engagement found in Scripture!)

So the equivalency between Biblical engagement and today's engagement holds, given that the engagement is public and both parties treat it as being as sacrosanct as marriage itself. In other words, there can be no "sowing wild oats" while you are engaged. You are, in effect, already man and wife in terms of commitment toward one another, but without benefit of having had the marriage ceremony.

Noting that there is an absence of a law against engaged people having sex, it still cannot be said that engaged people engaging in sex would be a Biblical norm.

In a sense, you could say that Jacob and Rachel were engaged for seven years, because Jacob labored for Laban for seven years on the promise of receiving Rachel's hand in marriage. Please understand that the "engagement" is not actually pronounced in Scripture, but I think my derivation of an engagement here is legitimate.

In Genesis 29:21, after the seven year engagement, Jacob says to Laban, "Give me my wife, for my time is completed, that I may go in to her." (Note, Jacob refers to Rachel as his wife, which he would not have done were he not actually engaged. Furthermore, this demonstrates again that the current Catholic-based norm in our society of the engaged woman not being a wife until actual marriage is not Biblical.)

Obviously, Jacob and Rachel had not had sex during their engagement. And evidently Jacob was enthusiastic enough about having sex with her that he didn't even notice it was Rachel's sister Leah that he actually "went into" (v. 23) until the next morning (v. 25)! (Yes, it was evening and it was dark, but wouldn't it have been nice to have a little pillow talk before or after? I guess the seven year wait built up a lot of anticipation for Jacob!)

And then there's that other incident in Deuteronomy 22, of the man who discovers his wife is not a virgin, to consider. Her parents are challenged to produce the "evidence of my daughter's virginity" (Deut. 22:17), which consists of a garment that they spread before the elders of the city.

What's that all about? Well, again, referring to "scholars" in this case both religious and secular, today's custom of seeing the groom kiss the bride is a greatly toned-down version of the old custom, which was supposedly to witness the groom and bride having their first act of copulation! The garment presented was under the bride during that first act, and is blood-stained from her hymen tearing--if in fact she was a virgin. That is, according to some scholars, the evidence of the daughter's virginity.

To be honest, the scholarly interpretation of this seems to be a little cooked up because the Jews were quite touchy about witnessing one another's nakedness according to the Law; but in the absence of better information, let's assume that this is the truth.

Making these two assumptions, that Jacob and Rachel were engaged and sexless for seven years, and that the scholars are right about the "evidence of virginity", we cannot maintain that engaged people having sex was a Biblical norm or ideal.


So here is the somewhat self-conflicting summation:

1) There is no specific law against engaged people having sex.

2) The laws about an engaged woman having sex with another man would be unnecessary, in fact, if engaged people were prohibited from having sex, because you'd simply stone both engaged people to death if the woman became pregnant. But such a law is absent from Scripture.

3) While there is no specific law against engaged people having sex, it would appear not to be the Biblical norm. Therefore, regardless of the absence of a specific law, it is better if engaged people refrain from sex.

4) If refraining from sex seems impossible, it may be permissible (but not as good) to have sex while engaged, however, see points 5 and 6!

5) If you want to engage in the liberty that *may* be present in this lack of specific commandment, you'd sure better have a truly Biblically-modeled engagement with complete commitment to one another and no touching or thinking about touching anyone else.

6) One last thing; regardless of the Law or the culture of that time, we are no longer in that culture. Even if early Judaism looked favorably on children conceived during an engagement, our modern world, and especially our modern church, tinged as it is by the Greek dualism thanks to the RCC, does not. If the engaged woman becomes pregnant by the engaged man in today's ecclesiastical environment, you can expect to be looked down upon by your church and you can expect your opportunities for Christian service to evaporate into thin air.


So, can engaged people have sex and not sin? I have to admit, it's Biblically possible, given that a Biblical level of commitment is there. But is it wise to do so in our culture? No, it isn't, it is very risky. It could finish your Christian service and devastate your Christian witness to your unbelieving friends.

My reason for writing these things, and having researched these things, is that as you know Gary, I'm engaged now. I knew these things before the engagement and we of course did not have sex before the engagement. We discussed it again, frankly, once engaged, and made an informed decision. But I was surprised when, shortly thereafter, a youth pastor from another church confronted my fiancÚ with the absence of a Biblical command against engaged people having sex and asked why we had decided not to have sex in light of that. The existence of the information was not a surprise to either of us, since we had discussed it, but I felt some level of confidence that it was not so generally known.

So, people are armed with this information and are more than willing to tempt others by sharing it. I present the above so that people may make an informed decision by weighing both sides of the Scripture on it. I can't in all honesty say that having sex while engaged is definitely a sin, which I am sure surprises you. I'm sorry for surprising you, but I would not do it were it not for a conviction to present the whole counsel of the Word.

While I can't say it is a sin, I also can't say that having sex while engaged is a really wise idea because you can see the great potential for trouble. In a sense I am speaking of pleasing man in addition to God. Still, the scriptural qualifications of a pastor, for instance, includes having the respect of people inside and outside of the church, so it is not without Biblical warrant to warn against it on that basis, and to warn against the potential a person would have for limiting or even destroying their Christian service and witness.

In any case, I hope I have presented something balanced that people can make decisions on instead of possibly only hearing "one side" of the story from someone like this youth pastor I mentioned.

As for the fellow who wrote in to you, I commend him for proceeding toward marriage, because it would seem from Scripture that an act of premarital sex demands an act of marriage as well. And Biblically, he may indeed have the liberty to have sex while engaged. However, when one has a liberty, one also has a responsibility. It's got to be a Biblical engagement, at minimum a publicly known engagement and 100%, totally committed, with an actual marriage in plain view (the wedding date set!). And even then, our liberties have consequences attached. All choices do. I have presented these consequences for them to weigh, if you want to post this.

It is very difficult, after having had sex in an engagement, to refrain from it afterward, and may even be unadvisable based on the greatly heightened propensity to be tempted by someone else. Paul warns about prolonged sexual abstinence among married couples on the basis that it can lead them to be tempted through their lack of self control (1Cor. 7:5). Well, I'm afraid that a couple that has had sex has already exhibited that lack of self control, and trying to be abstinent afterward could lead to sexual temptation for either or both that might destroy the relationship before it gets to marriage. It's arguably better in this circumstance to give in to sex occasionally and stay together rather than commit the sin of growing apart and repeating this cycle with someone else. I'm not saying this to encourage sin, but in light of the lack of solid Biblical evidence that "engaged sex" really is sin, I do know that a couple that has had sex leaving one another is definite sin and against the commandment of God delivered in Deuteronomy 22--they can never divorce.

I think it's better to encourage them to do as well as they can in light of their situation, but to be especially sure they make the wedding happen and follow through on their relationship.

And one final thing. The fact that he was asking about sex reveals for a certainty that he is unsure about whether they should be doing what they are doing. It is a true Biblical principle that if you are not sure about anything, simply don't do it. If it violates your conscience, if you do not have faith that it is a good thing, if you cannot be thankful to God for something you do, it's wrong for you whether or not it is really a Biblical sin.

Romans 14:22-23 says, "The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin."

If one can't have faith that they are doing the "right thing" in having sex while engaged, then they are definitely not doing the right thing if they do so, because you have to have an unfaithful attitude of rebellion to do something that you don't know is right in God's sight.

Sorry for seeming to "straddle the fence", Gary, but you can see that engagement does throw a wrench into things that we didn't really consider completely in our original articles on the subject. Probably because neither of us ever dreamed of being engaged at the time, we didn't notice that there does seem to be a difference. My advice would be that abstinence is a lot less risky and the better way to go, but I'm afraid I have to shy away in the case of engaged people from a black-and-white statement that it's definitely sin, because the Bible just doesn't come out and say so--and it normally does on important matters like sin!

God bless,
Reese Currie

Director’s Response

Thanks Reese. In regards to your first point, the importance of inheritance, I do think you are correct there. There is definitely an emphasis on the issue of inheritance in Scripture.

But in regards to sex and engagement, I'm not so sure. Since I've never been even close to being engaged, this is not an issue I have thought of much. But it makes me uncomfortable to give Christians yet another "excuse" to engage in pre-marital sex. And it seems to me that an engagement in Biblical times was much more binding than today's engagements. I would think that broken engagements are a lot more common today than back then. And that would be a significant difference.

But you do make a good point that Biblically, being engaged is *almost* like being married. Whether this would give an engaged couple license to engage in sex or not though is difficult to say. But I will say, if an engagement is sort of like being married but not completely, then maybe an engaged couple could *sort of* have sex but not really.

IOW, we discuss in our article the issue of what constitutes forbidden sexual acts outside of marriage and came up with a rather restrictive standard. But maybe once someone is engaged, this standard is a lot more lax, but it would still be wise to not "go all the way." Just a thought.

That said, I assume you were so detailed in your email as you wanted me to post it. I will as soon as I am able.

God bless,
Gary Z.


>Hi Gary,<

>>IOW, we discuss in our articles the issue of forbidden sexual acts outside of marriage and came up with a rather restrictive standard. But maybe once someone is engaged, this standard is a lot more lax, but it would still be wise to not "go all the way." Just a thought.<<

>I think this statement perfectly sums up both your thoughts and mine on the matter. We may differ somewhat in the road to the conclusion, but the same conclusion is reached by both of us.

This thought on engagement may clear up another conundrum that we discussed before, which is, how to reconcile Leviticus 15:18 with not defiling the marriage bed.

[Lev 15:18] ‘Also, when a woman lies with a man, and there is an emission of semen, they shall bathe in water, and be unclean until evening (NKJV).

My earlier comments on this included this statement, "Technically speaking, the woman in the passage is not even specified as being a wife, but I sure don't want to open that can of worms today! Suffice it to say that looking upon the nakedness of a person not your wife is a sin!" (The article is at Masturbation). Well, perhaps the whole seeming permissiveness surrounding engagement explains that passage.

Anyway, Gary, I try to be very careful in writing about these things because of passages like Jude 4, "For certain people wormed their way in, the ones having been marked out long ago for this judgment, godless [ones], perverting the grace of our God into flagrant sexual immorality and denying our only Master, God, and Lord-Jesus Christ [or, the only Master God and our Lord Jesus Christ]" (ALT).

I think you know that I'm not godless after all these years, and I'm certainly not wanting to support anything that is sexual immorality and cringe at the very concept of possibly denying Jesus with anything I comment on. I have simply learned from some rather in-depth study on the topic that perhaps not everything we traditionally think of as sexual immorality really can be defined as such Scripturally. That having been said, if a person has any doubt at all about whether any sexual action is moral, that's too much doubt and the activity should be abstained from.

God bless,
Reese Currie<

Thanks Reese. Good comments. I already posted your previous email. I add your comments here as a follow-up.

For a follow-up to the above discussion, see On Marriage, Sex, and Inheritance.

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