s155e98, Somerton Park 15/3/98 Lent 3

"We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty three thousand fell in a single day ..." 1 Cor 10.8

My guess is that they weren't observing Lent at the time! :-)

I suspect that there could not be a more explicit reference to the abhorrence that God has for sexual relationships outside marriage than this, and the lengths God is prepared to go to stamp it out. How wrong would we be! St Paul assumes his readers know the incident involved, so he doesn't need to spell out what he means by sexual immorality. However I suggest that if we don't know the incident he is referring to, and we don't actually take the time to read the account of what St Paul is talking about, then we may well get the whole message wrong.

The text "the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play" is a direct quotation from Exodus 32.6. This is the incident of the Golden Calf which Aaron made while Moses was talking with God on the mountain. There is in fact no reference in Exodus chapter 32 to sexual impropriety in the play or the revelry in which the Israelites were indulging. There is no question that the sin was anything but the idolatrous worship of the Golden Calf. Yet I suspect that the reference to "play" was the basis for the old prohibition of dancing in some Churches. You may recall that it was here the Levites came to the fore for the first time - it was they who killed the 3000 of their brothers, friends and neighbours for their apostasy. There is no reference to any form of sexual impropriety.

You may have noticed that the Levites only killed 3000 (vs 28), though verse 35 adds that the "Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf - the one that Aaron made". So there may have actually been more, but the account in Exodus doesn't mention an actual figure - specifically the 23,000 that St Paul mentions.

Because of this omission of the actual number, it is thought that he may be referring to another incident related in the book Numbers (ch 25). This happened just after Balaam blessed the tribes of Israel (much to the displeasure of Balak). Here, "while Israel was staying in Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor and the Lord's anger was kindled against Israel ... and ... those that died by the plague were twenty four thousand." These are direct quotations from verses 1-3 and 9. But again it is clear that the primary sin was not the sexual activity, but it was used to bring about apostasy. Perhaps St Paul confused the 3,000 and the 24,000 and wrote 23,000.

The history of the idolatry of Israel "whoring after other gods", is so long and ingrained in the Old Testament literature we have to be very careful that we who don't have that prophetic background so instilled in us as St Paul did, mistake his meaning completely. The people of Israel spent so much of their existence chasing after the gods of the nations round about them, that the prophet Hosea is commanded to take "a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom". (1.2) This is precisely because God felt this is what he had himself done, in being Israel's husband. The graphic language of Ezekiel chapters 16 and 23 make plain that the use of words which are sexual in connotation are regularly used as pejorative terms for apostasy. To make it plain, perhaps just one example (and a rather tame one at that) from Isaiah: (1.21) "How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her - but now murderers!"

Some may argue that St Paul must have meant sexual, because he had already condemned idolatry in verse 7 - why would he do it again in verse 8. But not so. There were four classic ways that Israel turned from God. They were to make their own idols (like the golden calf), adopt the idols of the surrounding nations (like Israel at Shittim), put the Lord to the test (as at Meribah) and endlessly complaining against God and Moses his anointed. The whole passage is about turning from God.

St Paul takes over these four directly. "Do not become idolaters as some of them did" ... "We must not indulge in sexual immorality" ... "We must not put Christ to the test" ..."And do not complain .."

This fear of idolatry goes a long way in explaining St Paul's rather ambivalent attitude to believers and unbelievers who are married, detailed in chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians. He counsels staying married in the hope that the believer will bring the unbeliever to faith (vs 16). However should the unbelieving partner separate, the believer "is not bound" - which commentators take to mean the prohibition of divorce does not apply here. Presumably then the partners are permitted to remarry. St Paul so fears the possible bad influence of the unbelieving partner, in line with what I have been saying, that in his second letter to the Corinthians he counsels against believers and unbelievers ever getting married. (6.14)

Since the reading from 1 Corinthians 10 uses the term sexual immorality, sometimes translated fornication, I think I need to say some words about fornication - mutually consenting sexual intimacy between unmarried persons outside marriage - which is its strict definition (SOED) - lest we think that God hates this.

In 1 Corinthians 6.18 St Paul says "Shun fornication" but this is in the context of being united with a prostitute - again this is not just mutually consenting sexual intimacy between unmarried persons outside marriage. Significantly for me, it is explained as a sin against, not primarily God, but "the body itself ... a temple of the Holy Spirit within you". For completeness, the word in Greek for fornication in 6.18 is precisely the same as the one for sexual immorality in 10.8.

I personally heartily agree with St Paul when he sets promiscuous sexual activity (and I choose my words carefully - again I am talking about something different from fornication) as a sin against one's body and affirms that one's "body is a temple of the Holy Spirit". So often promiscuous sexual activity comes from trying to prove to oneself or to others one's manhood or womanhood. We really have no need to try to prove to anyone anything. We make others or our own perceptions of ourselves our "god".

But I do not find any justification in the Bible for the generally held belief that sexual intimacy between consenting couples before marriage is the greatest sin, and persons who have done so are consigned to hell. Indeed I would actually go further than this and say that I don't think it is a sin. I think that we as the Church tread on very dangerous ground morally, categorising an activity engaged in out of love, as inherently sinful simply because we deem it premature. I could well imagine people resenting having to repent of the most beautiful activity they had ever undertaken in their lives, and would only serve to reinforce a (seemingly common) perception of just how out of touch the Church is. I am well aware however that not all sexual activity is engaged in out of love, either before or after marriage, and that much of the Church's teachings over the years are inspired by wishing to protect people from hurt. Would that it was possible to do this! And yet no. If we do not grieve, we can hardly love.

One of the first questions the Bishop puts to those who are to ordained is "Will you instruct ... and teach nothing ... except what you are convinced may be proved by the scriptures." (AAPB p 611) The more I experience my ministry the more I find people assume what the Bible says about some things, when in fact it does not. I can well imagine someone preaching a sermon on the text "We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty three thousand fell in a single day ..." and completely miss the point that St Paul wasn't talking about sexual morality at all. He would be horrified himself to think that his words are so misunderstood.

I care for you far more than to do that to you, because God cares for you far more than that.




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