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
although little about the subject 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
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 so that he or she would not 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 was not ritually defiling at all.4
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
when 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 in
the 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.” Used elsewhere, the word as a noun
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 agendas and replace them with something
far more exquisite. God calls us to live lives of selfless
pleasure focused on our relationship with God.6
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 spouses on
Friday nights. When asked whether sex on the Sabbath was
a distraction, one Adventist pastor 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
Upon their return from exile, faithful Jews established vigorous
codes for keeping the seventh-day Sabbath holy. Rabbinic
codes allowed married people to have sex on Sabbath,9
and they 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 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 a 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
He enforced such vigorous demands about uncleanness in
conjunction with Hebrew worship. Sexuality was holy but had
been 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 Noah’s time and later 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 the 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 being 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 had a “permanent and fateful
impact on the Western Church” regarding 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 evident 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 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 this 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.
So, let’s go back to our question about 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 In 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, Dear Nancy . . . : 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 Jirí 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-andtraining/. 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), 300-321.
17 Hans J. Hillerbrand, A New History of Christianity (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2012), 41.
18 Ibid., 50.
19 Ibid., 51.
Michael W. Campbell is assistant professor of theological-historical
studies, Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, in
Silang, Cavite, Philippines. This article first appeared in the April
2015 issue of Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, www.
MinistryMagazine.org; it has been reprinted with permission and
lightly edited for Elder’s Digest.