“If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins. (Exodus 22:16-17, ESV)
In the culture of Israel a bride-price had to be paid to the father of the bride for her hand in marriage. This could be several year’s wages, as witness Jacob’s working for Laban 7 years for each of his wives Rachel and Leah. As a precaution against irresponsible premarital sex, which treated the woman as if that was all she was worth, as if she was not worthy of a promise and covenant of life-long marriage, a man who got an unmarried woman to sleep with him was required to pay this bride-price to her father and marry her. To do otherwise was to shame her for life. If her father believed this man was not a good husband for his daughter he could refuse the marriage and still require the bride-price. These consequences served as a deterrent to premarital sex.
We can see this as an extension of the command not to commit adultery in that such a readiness to engage in such value-less sex would not bode well for marital faithfulness. The man or woman who cannot discipline his or her sexual desires and is ready to inflict damage all for the satisfaction of a few moments is a foolishness beyond words. But the Law of Moses recognizes that such foolishness abounds and thus provides checks for it. Does the Bible prohibit premarital sex? Of course. It is a denigration of the emotional and social foundation that such sexual intimacy needs to be couched in. It is an indictment of our culture that we no longer recognize that.
Does this mean that if two people do engage in premarital sex that they must marry? Probably not. They may be a good prospect for marriage but they may not be. The reason there is not a one-to-one correspondence from this Old Testament law to our current situation is that there are huge differences in our cultures. In the culture of Moses’ day a marriage was protected by the community and law and sex outside of marriage carried way more cultural shame than it does in our culture. A woman who has engaged in premarital sex today is not necessarily in danger of being unable to marry in the future because of her shameful behavior. Plus, we recognize that the male involved is just as guilty and that it would be an inequality if only the woman bore these consequences. The law in Exodus is a protective one for the woman and her family, a protection that is not required in our culture. Other cultures in our world might be so similar that it would be a law applicable to their situation.
The law of Exodus 22 assumes that premarital sex is wrong but is more focused on the social consequences of engaging in this behavior. It is to our shame that we have made premarital sex of such little consequence in our world. We have lost how special the sexual experience is and how such a precious intimacy must be protected.
Sex must be seen as “an earthly pleasure and a heavenly treasure, a feast and a gift, a delight and an honor and therefore a breathtaking responsibility.” Matthew and Elizabeth Myer Boulton, “The Real Value of Sex” (Christianity Today, May 2013)