Question: Does the OT prohibit premarital sex?

Concerning premarital sex, many people only refer to the New Testament.  Are there any Old Testament laws prohibiting premarital sex?  I’m sure God held Moses’ people to the same standards we have today.

Answer: Does the OT prohibit premarital sex?

God discourages premarital sex in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament written by Moses). Several passages in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy show that God did not intend his people to engage in premarital sex. It does not please God; he clearly discourages premarital sex.

Exodus 22 explains that premarital sex is not God’s design. Anyone man who engaged in premarital sex is required to pay the woman’s dowry and marry her.

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)

Premarital sex was discouraged for several reasons:

  1. It usurped the authority of the father to arrange the marriage contract.
  2. It diminished the potential value of the bride price.
  3. It prevented the husband from being assured that his first child was indeed his offspring.

This law regulated illicit premarital sex by imposing a forced marriage on the culprit and/or a fine equal to the bride price for a virgin. In this way the father would be spared the embarrassment and loss of revenue when negotiating a contract for a daughter who is no longer a virgin.1

Leviticus 19 describes the requirement of a guilt offering if a man engages in premarital sex with a slave woman. The requirement of a guilt offering indicates this act of premarital sex is strictly prohibited.

If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free;but he shall bring his compensation to the LORD, to the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering.And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the LORD for his sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven for the sin that he has committed. (Leviticus 19:20–22 ESV)

Deuteronomy 22:14 calls a woman who has engaged in premarital sex to be improper and deserving of a bad reputation.

And accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her evidence of virginity,’ (Deuteronomy 22:14 ESV)

Deuteronomy 22:23-29 strongly condemns two specific instance of premarital sex. The first involved two consenting individuals, and the punishment for both parties is death. The second involved rape. The victim is not guilty; guilt falls only on the assailant.

“If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

“But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her. (Deuteronomy 22:23–27 ESV)

Song of Solomon is probably the most explicit reference to the prohibition of any type of physical intimacy prior to marriage. These verses repeat God’s disdain and prohibition of premarital sex.

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases. (Song 2:7 ESV)

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases. (Song 3:5 ESV)

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases. (Song 8:4 ESV)

Even though the prohibition of premarital sex may appear more explicit in the New Testament, it has always been God’s design since creation for physical intimacy and sexual conduct to only occur in the marriage bed. God’s designed sex to be enjoyed by a man and woman only in marriage, and this standard was always in place during the time of the Old Testament.

  1. John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 100. ↩︎