This post carries a trigger warning for very disturbing historical information.
While commonly considered a euphemism for sexual intercourse, in actuality the term “to touch” did not refer to a married couple enjoying sex together. Instead, the phrase describes what a man did to the object of his desire: penetrating another solely for his sexual gratification.
Now, as soon as he came into Egypt, it happened to Abram as he supposed it would; for the fame of his wife’s beauty was greatly talked of; for which reason Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, would not be satisfied with what was reported of her, but would needs see her himself, and was preparing to enjoy (haptō) her; but God put a stop to his unjust inclinations, by sending upon him a distemper, and a sedition against his government.
And when he inquired of the priests how he might be freed from these calamities, they told him that this his miserable condition was derived from the wrath of God, upon account of his inclinations to abuse the stranger’s wife.
In Greco-Roman culture, the male head of a household was free to seek sex for pleasure with his male and female slaves, prostitutes, or any unmarried woman. He reserved sex with his wife primarily for procreation.
For this is what living with a woman as one’s wife mean: to have children by her and to introduce the sons to the members of the clan and of the [city], and to betroth the daughters to husbands as one’s own.
Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.”
Greco-Romans expected wives to assent to their husband’s extramarital affairs with good will.
In contrast, Paul wrote, “The wife over her own body does not have authority, but the husband [does]. And likewise, the husband also over his own body does not have authority, but the wife [does].”
The sexual abuse of slaves occurred so rampantly that Jewish rabbis ruled that female slaves must have been released by the age of three in order to marry as virgins. Otherwise, they were “amenable to the accusation of non-virginity” (m. Ketuboth 1:2).
These religious leaders believed that enough time would pass for the bodies of such women to return to a state as if they had never been violated. They took for granted that a female slave in a Greco-Roman household experienced rape by the age of three.
Within the Jewish community, rabbis applied the obligations of a man to a slave whom he married to both partners (Exod 21:10–11). They reasoned that if slaves and war captives had material and conjugal rights, then so should all men and women (m. Ketuboth 5:6–8).
However, Paul went beyond legalistic accounting to a focus on pleasing each other.
Consequently, the idea that wives possessed jurisdiction (exousiazō) over their husbands’ bodies was revolutionary in Paul’s time. Few Greco-Romans could have conceived that a man’s body belonged to his wife.
This implied a full right of both partners to initiate sex within marriage, as well as an expectation of monogamy.
Paul then wrote, “Do not continuously deprive one another, except when agreeing for a time, in order to devote yourselves to prayer, and may again be together in order that Satan might not tempt you on account of your lack of self-control.”
Many translations omit that Paul employed a verb form (present active imperative) to forbid a continual or habitual depriving one’s spouse of sexual relations, not an occasional refusal.
Imagine a thirty year-old man, accustomed to satisfying his sexual desire at will, suddenly being expected to limit himself to his teenage wife. Making an important distinction, Paul wrote of an obligation to give—not the license to demand—physical love.
He expected both marriage partners to concentrate upon how to please each other in their sexual relationship and in other areas of life (1 Cor 7:32–34).
Image via Wikimedia Commons
[Related posts include Eve Acquires a Man (Gen 4:1); Sons of God or Sons of the Gods? (Gen 6:1–2); Kings as Sons of the Gods (Gen 6:1–2 cont.); Taking Wives for Themselves (Gen 6:1–2 cont.); Limiting Human Life Spans (Gen 6:3); Nephilim in the Land (Gen 6:4); God Grieves (Gen 6:5–6); Guilty of Misconduct (Jude 8); and Ancient Literature]
[Click here to go to Women and Marriage Throughout Redemptive History; or to Chapter 1: A Tale of Two Brothers (Genesis 4:1‒16)]
Roy E. Ciampa, “Revisiting the Euphemism in 1 Corinthians 7.1,” JSNT 31, no. 3 (2009): 325–38, 325, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0142064X08101527.
 Ciampa, “Revisiting the Euphemism in 1 Corinthians 7.1,” 327, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0142064X08101527. You can access examples here.
Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews (trans. William Whiston; The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus; Auburn and Buffalo, NY: John E. Beardsley, 1895), 1.163, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0146%3Abook%3D1%3Awhiston%20chapter%3D8.
 Ciampa, “Revisiting the Euphemism in 1 Corinthians 7.1,” 326, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0142064X08101527.
Demosthenes, Demosthenes with an English Translation (ed. Norman W. DeWitt and Norman J. DeWitt; Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1949), 59.122, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0080%3Aspeech%3D59%3Asection%3D122.
Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 71.
S. M. Baugh, “Cultic Prostitution in New Testament Ephesus: A Reappraisal,” JETS 42, no. 3 (1999): 443–60, 456, http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/42/42-3/42-3-pp443-460_JETS.pdf.
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 280–1.
Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 175.
Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Rev. Ed. (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 311.
 Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 280–1.