The Undefiled Marriage Bed

Exploring Hebrews 13:4

Hebrews 13:4

  • KJV: Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.
  • NIV: Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
  • NASB: Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge.

I believe it no exaggeration to claim Hebrews 13:4 as the single most pivotal verse in God’s Word on sexuality in marriage. It offers specific instruction amid a context of instruction; this isn’t wisdom literature or storytelling. The author plainly states, “Do this.” What’s more, he offers substantiation for his instruction with a level of precision that portrays further instruction. The author plainly states, “Do this; here’s how.”

Instruction

The verse is divided into three components, and the first two are instructive, stating that (1) all should honor marriage, and (2) the marriage bed should stay undefiled (unsoiled, ceremonially pure).

The first statement is broad but very clear. Honor is by its very nature abstract but it’s no new concept to the Hebrews; even the commandments spoke of honor. Despite their intangibility, honor and dishonor are easy to pick out of a lineup. Ironically, many of the ancient scholars who have helped to form the church’s position on marriage and sexuality have ignored this need.

Many have seen marriage as a disqualifying factor. St. Jerome even went so far as to claim marriage’s only redeeming value was that its role in procreation produced chaste virgins who might not repeat their parents’ mistakes (his exact words: “I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins.”). The instruction from Hebrews 13:4 is clear, and recognition of such disobedience comes easily despite its abstract nature.

The second statement is more concrete yet quantification comes with far more difficulty than with the first. The concept of something being defiled was no more foreign to the Hebrews than the concept of honor. The Law offered many examples of defiled things. In fact, it specified all of them.

Defilement was a black-and-white concept with some things being defiled and others not. There was no middle ground; any defilement defiled the whole thing. A little leaven, as Jesus said. Unlike honor, defilement was a very fixed, concrete concept.

However, defilement wasn’t necessarily instinctively recognizable. Where honor and dishonor shone plainly even to the uninitiated, defiled things have to be defined explicitly. There was nothing obvious about eating a pig or a goat that made one clean and another not. These things were exhaustively listed in detail within the Law. They had to be. Who would guess that eating a locust was clean but touching your wife a day after her period was not? So when we consider this second instruction, it should come as no surprise that the author would quantify the possible defilements.

Where honor and dishonor shone plainly even to the uninitiated, defiled things have to be defined explicitly.

Substantiation

The third part of this verse offers in plain English – well, Greek – an explanation of what defiles the marriage bed. This is clear because of the particle de used in an adversative way. This juxtaposes the third statement against the second (and possibly the first), communicating a two-way antithetical relationship between the phrases.

In essence, this expresses contrasting truth from the second statement to the third (God will not judge an undefiled marriage bed) and contrasting truth from the third statement to the first (a defiled marriage bed is one containing adultery or fornication/whoremongering/sexual immorality). This latter contrast denotes the much-needed quantification of defilers of the marriage bed: a marriage bed remains undefiled so long as it doesn’t contain the two named elements.

Defilement

So what are these defiling qualities? What exactly is the proscription? Well, the Greek words used are moichos and pornos.

The first term, moichos, is consistently translated as “adulterers”. The New Testament uses this word with some regularity, and even across translations the word is predictable. It’s very clearly “adulterers”, and adultery is the sexual unfaithfulness of a married person. That is, engaging in any sexual act in which your sexual partner is not your spouse. Pretty cut-and-dry, I’d say.

The second term, pornos, is less consistent across translations, but even this is not mysterious. Despite the KJV citing it as whoremongers in this verse, it translates pornos as “fornicators” elsewhere. Actually, they’re even etymologically rooted in the same concept. After all, prostitution is one form of fornication. The KJV is only needlessly narrowing the scope in this instance.

What I find more concerning is the NIV’s approach. Rather than calling a spade a spade, the modernizing of the language seems to broaden the scope but in truth it only dilutes it. “Sexual immorality” is a broad label, but it’s foggy in its specificity. What is immoral? It leaves too much room for interpretation, and needlessly so. There is little debate on the meaning of pornos (though certain NT contexts use it more broadly), but “fornication” sounds old-fashioned, so maybe that’s why they nixed it.

At any rate, fornication is the perfect complement to adultery, meaning voluntary sexual activity engaged in by an unmarried person. By combining this with adultery, the author bans all sexual activity wherein your sexual partner is not your current spouse.

There’s no wiggle room, no interpretive workaround, no revisionist claims of “well, we’re both married, just not to each other.”

The line is clearly drawn: defilement occurs when you engage in sexual activity with a partner other than your spouse.

Symbolism

Bottom line, the marriage bed is only defiled by having a sexual partner other than your spouse.

The only remotely ambiguous term used here is “bed”, which is itself a completely clear symbol. The bed signifies the sexual intimacy within a marriage, an intimacy we now know is only defiled in two ways. And these two ways are easily combined into one in modern English.

Bottom line, the marriage bed is only defiled by having a sexual partner other than your spouse.

About Phil (244 Articles)
Philip Osgood is a Christian husband, father, and writer who considers himself a passable video game player, fiction reader, camping and hiking enthusiast, welder, computer guy, and fitness aficionado, though real experts in each field might just die of laughter to hear him claim it. He has been called snarky, cynical, intelligent, eccentric, creative, logical, and Steve for some reason. Phil and his beautiful wife Clara live in Texas with their children in a house with a dog but no white picket fence. He does own a titanium spork from ThinkGeek, though, so he must be alright.