Genesis has much more to say about sex and marriage than the creation of woman out of man and the scene at Sodom. Sex and marriage is a theme that can be found throughout the book and the righteous make a lot of mistakes.
The book teaches that sex and marriage are to be enjoyed between one husband and one wife. This may come as a surprise to those who have not studied Genesis carefully because everyone remembers that the patriarchs had multiple wives. Abram not only married Sarai but Sarai gave her servant Hagar to Abram as a wife. Jacob married Leah and Rachel and each of them gave their servant to Jacob as a wife. Thus Jacob had four wives. But this was not God’s original design and we can see why when we see the issues of jealousy between wives, competition for children between them, and so forth.
God’s original design was for marriage between one man and one woman. And he blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over…” (Gen 1:28). The married couple was blessed to have children and be fruitful and was put in the Garden of Eden (meaning fertility). The first poem in the structure of Book One says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen 2:23). And the next verse after this says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). So the original design was that of marriage between one man and one woman. This picture of exclusivity pointed to the relationship the husband and wife as one were to have with our jealous God.
The Book of Genesis on its own terms is very clear about the design of marriage and sex. The third poem in the structure of Book One is a song of revenge by the evil murderer Lamech proclaimed to his two wives. The third part of Book One means to demonstrate the escalation of sin among the seed of the serpent moving from the murderer Cain to the murderer Lamech. It is intentional that Lamech is the first one in Genesis said to have more than one wife. But this is only the beginning. In Book Two the demon possessed kings, the so-called “sons of God,” take harems and breed champion giants. They have many more than two wives. It is instructive that the two situations calling for God’s judgment in Genesis both have a sexual dimension: harems (answered by the flood) and homosexual rape (answered by the sulfur and fire coming down on Sodom & Gomorrah). This is not to say that there are not other issues involved. But the climax of sin includes harems or homosexual rape.
We saw that the first half of Book Six and all of Book Eight are chiasms. In Book Six there are parallel episodes of Abram/Abraham and his sister/wife Sarai/Sarah (Gen 12:10-20 and Gen 20). In the first story Pharaoh took Sarai as his wife, not knowing that she was Abram’s wife. This brought down great plagues on the house of Pharaoh. In the second story Abimelech took Sarah as his wife, not knowing that she was Abraham’s wife. God came to him in a dream and said, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife” (Gen 20:3). God explains to Abimelech that he kept him from “sinning against me” (Gen 20:6) by having sexual relations with her because Abimelech was unaware she was married. That the Gentile Abimelech knew before this that it was wrong to take another man’s wife as his own wife is clear because he tells Abraham, “You have done to me things that ought not to be done” (Gen 20:9).
In the similar story in Book Eight (Gen 26), Isaac told the men of Abimelech’s city that his wife Rebekah was his sister. And Abimelech saw them laughing together and realized, ‘like father, like son’ and he rebuked Isaac saying, “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us” (Gen 26:10) and then told the men of the city that the death penalty would be the sentence for anyone who touches Isaac or Rebekah. The end of this section tells us that Esau took two Canaanite wives who “made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah” (Gen 26:35). The parallel story in the structure of Book Eight is the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah (Gen 34). After raping her like a prostitute, Shechem the Canaanite wanted to marry her. As the sons of Jacob said, “He had done an outrageous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done” (Gen 34:7). Interesting that such a similar phrase appears in Book Six and Eight.
The climax of Book Six (Gen 15:1-16:16 and 17:1-18:15) is complicated by the fact that Abram/Abraham took Hagar the Egyptian as a wife and she gave birth to Ishmael. Later in the book, righteous Lot’s fall becomes complete when his two daughters got pregnant by him. They gave birth to Moab (father of the Moabites) and Ben-ammi (father of the Ammonites). He never should have gone into seclusion so that each could not marry a husband (Gen 19:30ff).
In Book Eight, when Jacob had gone to find a wife among his kinsmen, Esau took one of the daughters of Ishmael as a third wife. The text tells us, “When Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please Isaac his father, Esau went to Ishmael and took as his wife, besides the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth” (Gen 28:8-9). The solution was not to add another wife: Esau should have never married two wives to begin with and most certainly not two Canaanites under the curse. The comment “besides the wives he had” accents this.
Also in Book Eight, Jacob married Leah and Rachel (Gen 29:1-30) and this caused all kinds of jealousy issues even to the extent that they each gave their servant to Jacob as additional wives. It is instructive that Isaac had sent Jacob to find in Laban’s house “a wife from there” not wives (Gen 28:6). Of course, the stress is on the instruction not to take a wife from among the Canaanite women. In any case, the author of Genesis wants the reader to compare Abraham’s servant who went to find Isaac a wife and Jacob when he went to find a wife. Jacob wanted Rachel because of her looks instead of praying to God for direction on whom to take as a wife. And as a result of this mess, Jacob ended up with two wives and then four.
The sex and marriage then continues in the epilogue of Book Eight. There we see Rachel die during childbirth and Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn and the son of Leah, “went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine” (Gen 35:22). Bilhah was Rachel’s servant and this will keep Bilhah from replacing Rachel in the affection of Jacob. Reuben did this for his mother Leah (I am not implying that she knew anything about it ahead of time, nor am I implying that this excuses his sexual sin, I am simply explaining the situation).
Book Ten resumes this theme as Judah sleeps with his daughter-in-law thinking that she is a prostitute (Gen 38), Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph (Gen 39:7) and even includes the theme in the concluding poem as Jacob cursed Reuben in the blessing, “unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it – he went up to my couch” (Gen 49:4). They have knowledge of sexual ethics (language of defiled). Also Joseph’s response to Potiphar’s wife shows this: “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (39:9). But even though they know right and wrong the explicit episode with Judah shows they did not always do the right. In this story, Judah took a Canaanite wife and had three sons. Judah took Tamar as the wife of his first son. But his son was so wicked that God struck him down. So Tamar became the wife of Judah’s second son who wasted his semen on the ground because he knew that if he had a child it would not be considered his own. And God struck him down. Judah, afraid the same would happen to the youngest son, sent Tamar away pretending to need to wait for him to grow up. Eventually Judah himself slept with her, not knowing it was her, and she gave birth to twins. She was accused of adultery until it was discovered that the father was Judah himself. The story has a number of similarities with the daughters of Lot narrative.
So the Book of Genesis teaches (through precept and example) that God intends for sex and marriage to be between one husband and one wife for all of humanity and that His people should only marry those not under the curse of Canaan. The consequences of the patriarch’s failure to keep this design would last for the rest of the history of Israel. And a sign of sin reaching its height is harems or homosexual rape. Of course, people will try to excuse behavior that does not fit God’s intention of sex and marriage between one husband and wife by arguing that the episode at Sodom does not have to do with homosexual behavior but homosexual rape. But such an argument has missed the overall message of Genesis on this theme that marriage should be between one man and one woman.
It is worth noting that marriage is a gift of God’s common grace to all of humanity. God defines marriage for all peoples (not just His people) as between one man and one woman. Israel and the nations broke the covenant of creation whenever they allowed variations from this pattern. While this common grace institution was something Canaanites could enjoy, the people of God were prohibited from marrying Canaanites under the curse. Later laws in Scripture would build on this principle by prohibiting believers from marrying any unbeliever. For example, in the New Testament (though the regulation was much older) believers are told to marry in the Lord (1 Cor 7:39, i.e., only marry other believers). There are other laws that would be spelled out in the Torah including regulations about marrying close relatives (including prohibiting marriages between some relationships that are not blood relationships). In the New Testament, for example, Paul rebukes the fornication among the Corinthians not even found among the Gentiles – a son marrying his step-mother (1 Cor 5). The most serious violations of this creation ordinance, short of harems and homosexual rape, are things even the Gentiles know are wrong, and are called things which quite simply ought not to be done (cf. Gen 20:9, 34:7 and Rom 1:28) or things that are contrary to nature, which we have called the covenant of creation (cf. Rom 1:26). Such things include marrying your step-mother, all homosexual behavior, marrying another man’s wife, and heterosexual rape. This is why it is so surprising that Christians are debating homosexual marriage, something that even the Gentiles should know is wrong.