During a classroom discussion about the sanctity of the Sabbath, a participant raised an issue: “I am struggling with a sin,” he confessed. “I am tempted to have sex with my wife on Sabbath.”
The topic is not uncommon, and it raises a diversity of opinions,1 although little has been published.2
What does the Bible say on the subject? We shall consider the question by reviewing (1) the leading argument used against sex on Sabbath; (2) the biblical view of sexuality; (3) perversion of the biblical view; and (4) concluding observations.
The leading argument against engaging in sex on Sabbath is based on Isaiah 58:13: “If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day” (KJV). Since sex is pleasurable, scriptural injunction against engaging in intercourse on Sabbath is seen as obvious.3
The context of Isaiah 58 refers to Sabbath on the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement was a day devoted to self-examination, judgment, and cleansing. Every individual was supposed to participate lest he or she be “cut off” (Lev. 23:29). There is no textual evidence to indicate that sex was forbidden on the Sabbath or the Day of Atonement. Rene Gehring argues that in the Hebrew Bible, sexual intercourse within marriage is not ritually defiling at all.4 He considers it a fallacy to use related passages like Exodus 19 to suggest that sex within marriage was forbidden. Even if sex within marriage did cause “ritual defilement,” Roy Gane makes the point that such “ritual defilement” only applied while the Shekinah glory was in the temple.5 Thus, within an Old Testament context, sexual pleasure is positive.
This leads back to a study of the word pleasure as found in Isaiah 58:13. It is the same Hebrew word found in verse 3 that warns against exploitation. The word is also translated (NIPS Jewish Bible) as “business pleasure” (or one’s own “business interests”). Isaiah 58:13 refers to the Sabbath as a “delight” (NIV). The word delight in Hebrew is ‘oneg, meaning “exquisite delight.” The word as a noun, used elsewhere, only applies with regard to kings and queens in their royal palaces (Isa. 13:22).
Thus, the implication of Isaiah 58:13 is that God wants us to lay aside our own agenda and replace it with something far more exquisite. God calls us to live a life of selfless pleasure focused on our relationship with God.6 The notion that the Sabbath forbids joyous pleasure during the Sabbath hours is basically a misreading of the original text. As Nancy Van Pelt observes, “If this text actually meant to forbid sex because it is pleasurable, then any pleasure including singing hymns, reading the Bible, or eating should also be forbidden. Isaiah was talking about my seeking my own selfish pleasure. If sex is nothing more than ‘my pleasure,’ it is selfish and therefore wrong not only on the Sabbath but on every other day of the week as well.”7
Another significant argument against sex on Sabbath is that it is distracting. For this reason, some Adventist ministers boast that they sleep in separate beds from their spouse on Friday nights. One Adventist scholar, when asked whether sex on the Sabbath is a distraction, replied with another question: “Is it really less distracting when your spouse does not have sex with you?” Those present nodded in agreement that, of course, it was far less distracting to have sex rather than to be left thinking about it. As Richard Davidson observes, “If those who have sexual intercourse understand how much it teaches us about the deepest levels of intimacy, then such intimacy on the horizontal level actually helps us to grasp the nature of intimacy God wants us to have with His creatures. Far from being ‘distracting’ from intimacy with God, sexual intercourse practiced as God intended it leads us to a deeper understanding of intimacy with Him.”8
Biblical view of sexuality
Faithful Jews, upon the return from exile, established vigorous codes for keeping the seventh-day Sabbath holy. Rabbinic codes allowed married people to have sex on Sabbath,9 and even described it as a special “Sabbath blessing.” Sabbath was considered the bride, and Friday evening was the time of connubial consummation. Even the wife living apart from her husband was granted the privilege of having relations with him on Friday night.10 A refusal on the part of the husband was grounds for the wife to take her husband to the rabbinic court for abandonment.11
God created Adam and Eve and made the marriage relationship holy. During the same Creation week, He “made the Sabbath day holy.” These two holy institutions belong together. Sabbath and sexual intercourse were blended together from the very first Sabbath in history.12 Sexual relations as God intended, and as later expressed by Solomon, are described as this “flame of Yahweh” that helps human beings better understand God.13 In God’s original design, sex was intended as the ultimate way for a man and woman, in holy matrimony, to experience the deepest level of intimacy.14 Adventist ethicist Duane Covrig argues that the Sabbath and marriage are the only institutions that fulfill all six of Jonathan Haidt’s six innate moral foundations (care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity). This rich pairing indicates that the Sabbath is a “tool to help all six areas get reinforced in the life of humans.”15
Such a beautiful gift has been distorted and perverted. God’s concern about sexual perversions, especially as associated with pagan rites and rituals, was one of the reasons why God enforced such vigorous demands about uncleanness in conjunction with Hebrew worship. Sexuality was something holy but was perverted by other pagan rites and rituals. The perversion of sex was the ancient sin that contributed to the destruction of the human race during the time of Noah and later again with Sodom and Gomorrah. Sexual perversion is a sign of the final days of earth’s history (see Matt. 24:38). Satan clearly wants to distort and pervert such a beautiful gift that God bestowed upon the human race.
Perversion of biblical view
Another perversion came within Hellenistic thinking that denigrated the human body. Early Christian thinkers viewed the soul as trapped inside the body. This concept of the separation of body from soul, a distinctive feature of Platonism, caught on in the early Christian church. It destroyed the meaning of the seventh-day Sabbath and introduced new and unbiblical anthropological teachings such as the idea that the body and soul were separate.16 Through the influence of a series of thinkers, the early Christian church adopted such views with very little resistance.
The early church fathers discussed sex at great length. Tertullian embraced a rigid asceticism that included fasting and celibacy. It is said that Origen “had himself castrated in order to avoid all temptations of the ‘flesh’ and to be able to engage in spiritual conversation with women but not be erotically aroused.”17 Augustine, in his autobiography, described his sexual misconduct to emphasize the dramatic nature of his conversion. As perhaps the most influential thinker in early Christianity, Augustine left a “permanent and fateful impact on the Western Church” about human sexuality.18 He believed that since all human cultures hide private body parts, “humans are deeply ashamed about their sexuality.” The separation of body and soul was evidence when the body took over the rational capacity of the mind to subjugate the body. He thus argued that sex constantly reminds people of their rebellion against God. The human body symbolizes the fact that “[s]exuality and the Christian faith . . . [are] incompatible.”19
The lasting impact of Platonism and, in particular, Augustine can be seen in their view of Christian sexuality. All sexual urges must be repressed. This view of Christian sexuality had a direct correlation to ecclesiology as monks retreated to outposts and caves. Those who denied themselves of sexual pleasure and became celibate were perceived as more spiritual and thus more deserving of church office. All of this contributed to a theology that moved away from the biblical view of sexuality, similar to the seventh-day Sabbath. Such beauty was lost during the Dark Ages.
The topic of sex on Sabbath is a deeply personal decision that should be prayerfully discussed between a husband and wife. For some married couples, this may be something that they choose “by mutual consent” (1 Cor. 7:5, NIV) to forgo during the hours of the seventh-day Sabbath in order to maintain their spiritual focus. This is admirable, but for others this may be yet more distracting.
For those married couples who do engage in sexual relations on Sabbath, such a view has deep roots in the original Creation. A view of sexuality that embraces the whole person connects sex with Creation as God’s beautiful gift to humanity. Satan has distorted such a gift. Whether that distortion comes from the view that sex is self-centered pleasure and therefore needs to be suppressed or from the view of today’s mass media that sex has nothing to do with morality and is at the will and wish of the indulger, Satan is behind every such attempt to rob this precious gift of God’s original design.
Back to our question of sex on Sabbath. The principle the apostle Paul conveyed in another context may apply here as well: “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (Rom. 14:3, ESV).
1 Within less than 24 hours, a social media discussion between pastors about whether sex was permissible on Sabbath resulted in over 100 comments with the majority in favor.
2 Gina Spivey Brown and Loretta Parker Spivey, “Sex on Sabbath?” Adventist Review, September 1996, 19; Martin Weber, Adventist Hot Potatoes (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1991), 86, 87.
3 Nancy L. Van Pelt with Madlyn Lewis Hamblin, DearNancy . . . : A Trusted Advisor Gives Straight Answers to Questions About Marriage, Sex, and Parenting (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2005), 56.
4 Rene Gehring, “Is Sexuality Impure? An Alternate Interpretation of Leviticus 15:18,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 24, no. 2 (2013): 75–115.
5 Roy Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 305–314.
6 Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, A Sense of the Supernatural: Interpretation of Dreams and Paranormal Experiences (n.p.: Gal Einai Institute, 2008), 70fn.15.
8 Email from Richard M. Davidson to the author, December 27, 2014.
9 Marva J. Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1989), 192.
10 Kethuboth 5:9, 65b.
11 I am indebted to Alex Golovenko for these insights.
12 Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 52.
14 I am indebted to Jiří Moskala for this insight.
15 Duane Covrig, AIIAS Lecture, October 22, 2014; see also his blog post “The Sabbath as Moral Healing and Training,” Adventist Ethics, October 31, 2013, http://www.adventistethics.com/the-sabbath -as-moral-healing-and-training/. Covrig furthermore notes that he disagrees with the evolutionary premise but that his identification of these six moral values is helpful for identifying the significance of the seventh-day Sabbath.
16 Sigve K. Tonstad, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2009), 300–21.
17 Hans J. Hillerbrand, A New History of Christianity (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2012), 41.
18 Ibid., 50.
19 Ibid., 51.