by Doug Ward

Our culture today aptly can be described as "sex-saturated." We face a constant media bombardment of sexual innuendoes and images, which creates a special challenge for those who strive for chastity and self-control.


In battling with sexual and other temptations, we know that we can turn for help to Jesus, our high priest, who "in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15). We also can draw strength from the examples of those who have gone before us, people like Joseph the son of Jacob.


As we read in Gen 37 and 39, Joseph in his youth was sold into slavery but quickly rose to a position of responsibility in the household of Potiphar, captain of the guard of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Although separated from his family and alone in a strange land, Joseph remained faithful to Potiphar and to God, steadfastly resisting the advances of Potiphar's wife (Gen 39:1-12). Rejecting her attempts to seduce him, Joseph asked, "How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?" (v. 10).


Joseph's virtue has long been admired and celebrated among the people of God. This was particularly true during the Second Temple period. For example, the book of Fourth Maccabees (first century A.D.) praises Joseph as one who was able "by mental effort" to attain mastery over his emotions and desires (4 Macc 2:1-5).


Joseph's strength of character receives special emphasis in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a fictional work from the first or second century B.C. that pictures the deathbed advice of the sons of Jacob to their descendants. The Testaments give a highly dramatized account of Joseph's conflict with Potiphar's wife, portraying his victory over temptation as the defining episode of his life. In the Testament of Joseph, Joseph describes how Potiphar's wife tried to lure him into adultery by (1) giving him gifts; (2) offering to follow his God; (3) offering to poison her husband; (4) threatening to kill herself; (5) disrobing in his presence.1 Joseph follows a regimen of prayer and fasting to thwart these temptations.


While Joseph urges his children to emulate his example of self-mastery, his older brother Reuben warns against giving in to lust, as Reuben had done with Bilhah (Gen 35:22). "Flee, therefore, fornication, my children," Reuben cautions (T. Reuben 5:5).


These words attributed to Reuben remind us of the apostle Paul's exhortation in 1 Cor 6:18: "Flee from sexual immorality." Here Paul may well have been quoting the Testament of Reuben. In any case, scholars agree that Paul had Joseph's example in mind as he wrote to early Christians in Corinth, given the topics he addresses in verses 12-20.2


Although Paul does not say explicitly what prompted his remarks in 1 Cor 6:12-20, we can identify the main issues from what he does say. Apparently some Corinthian Christians had been visiting prostitutes and believed this practice was not a problem (see 6:17). They may have reasoned that sex is a natural function, like eating and drinking. Since Paul was advocating flexibility in some dietary matters (see chapter 10), shouldn't such flexibility also be appropriate in sexual matters? After all, our physical bodies are temporary (6:13).


Paul gives a forceful reply in 1 Cor 6, making a strong case that sexual morality is a critical issue. In his argument, Paul makes several points based on scriptural themes.


First, God is the Redeemer and Master of his people and so ordains how they should live. When God freed the Israelites from Egypt, they exchanged masters. No longer slaves to Pharaoh, they became God's treasured possession (Exod 19:5). At Sinai, they received instruction in how to live as God's redeemed community. Similarly, Christians are "bought with a price" (1 Cor 6:20), redeemed through the blood of Jesus. As Jesus was resurrected, so God will resurrect and transform our bodies (see v. 14 and 1 Cor 15). As a result, our bodies belong to God and are to be used to serve and glorify him (vv. 13, 19-20).


Second, God's relationship with his people is an intimate marriage relationship. The prophets describe Israel as God's bride (Jer 2:2; Ezek 16; Isa 54:1-8), and the Torah calls upon Israel to "hold fast" or "cleave" to God (Deut 10:20;11:22) as a husband and wife cleave together in marriage (Gen 2:24). Similarly, the Christian community is pictured in the New Testament as the bride of Christ (Rev 19:7; Eph 5:22-33). Christians are "joined to the Lord", united to Christ with "one spirit" (1 Cor 6:17).


Third, prostitution compromises that exclusive relationship. In the Hebrew Scriptures the act of turning away from the true God toward other gods is described as a kind of spiritual prostitution (Deut 31:16; Judges 2:17; 8:27,33; 1 Chron 5:25; Hosea 4:12; 5:4). Moreover, the literal prostitution that was part of Canaanite worship was one thing that led Israel to idolatry (Num 25, e.g.). In the Greek Septuagint translation, the word porneia is used for both physical prostitution and unfaithfulness to God.


Paul also identifies a connection between prostitution and unfaithfulness to God. In 1 Cor 6:15-18 he argues, based on Gen 2:24, that sexual immorality (again porneia in Greek) is an especially harmful sin because it creates a lasting "one flesh" bond that is incompatible with the exclusive union between believers and Christ. According to Paul, a person who makes such an inappropriate, irreversible bond "sins against his own body." Earlier in 1 Cor 6, he states that those who practice sexual immorality will not inherit the kingdom of God (vv. 9-10).


Pauline scholar Brian S. Rosner3 observes that Paul's exhortation in I Cor 6:12-20 "places him in line with the best of Israel's prophets." Most notably, Paul follows in the footsteps of the prophet Hosea. At God's direction Hosea takes back his wife Gomer, who had left him for a life of prostitution. After paying to redeem Gomer from servitude, Hosea forbids her from engaging in prostitution again (Hosea 3:1-3). Similarly, Paul urges Christians, who have been "bought with a price," to "flee sexual immorality."


Paul's argument in 1 Cor 6 makes clear that sexual morality is a serious matter indeed, one that affects the health and future of our relationship with God. Having studied it, we are now in a position to better understand why porneia is a "sin against God," as Joseph said in Gen 39:10, and why ancient writers portrayed Joseph's resistance to Potiphar's wife as an epic confrontation. Joseph and Paul also give us extra encouragement to continue our own battles for sexual purity, given how much is at stake in the outcome.


1The Testament of Reuben (4:9-10) adds that Potiphar's wife "summoned magicians, and offered him love potions."


2On this point, see Brian S. Rosner's Paul, Scripture, and Ethics: A study of 1 Corinthians 5-7, Baker Books, 1994, pp. 137-143.


3Paul, Scripture, and Ethics, p. 137.

Issue 30


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