Question: This is a serious question. I have teenagers now. What does the bible have to say about masturbation? And is there a difference in teaching between boys and girls? I would really appreciate an honest, biblical answer. Thank you.
Of course this is a serious question but we understand why you felt it necessary to forewarn us. And a serious, honest, Biblical answer is exactly what we would have done our best to provide, even had you not explicitly requested it. We also empathize with you and admire how seriously you are accepting the responsibility of raising children. In today’s cultural climate, it is enormously challenging to raise wholesome teenagers. However, we feel certain that doing so with Biblical help is far easier than without. For this reason, our answer involves you sitting down with each of your children in front of a Bible and studying some Scripture together.
Sex in general can feel awkward to discuss, particularly out of context. Its intensity is irrational and its power mysterious. When sexual relationships form, the process involves ambiguity and risk of rejection. Solo stimulation bypasses all of that for a small, sad, mimicking of sensation. Yet all attempts to rationalize sex, demystify and reduce it to no more than a mutual spasm in the spinal column, as taught in most sex ed. classes at what we call GICs (public schools=government indoctrination camps) have failed to improve male-female relations in America. So, it is with some trepidation that we try to tackle this topic here.
To place this this all in a meaningful context, we turn to the Bible for our starting point. Judah’s son, Onan, gave his name to the practice of masturbation. At first glance, the reason God opposed “onanism” was that it “wasted seed” (Genesis 38:9). However, please don’t miss the concluding phrase of that verse which is the whole point. Onan did not want to be a giver. In this case specifically, he didn’t want to give his late brother’s widow a child in accordance with the Biblical model of levirate marriage which was practiced back then, because the child he would sire and raise would be considered his brother’s offspring, not his. (For a deeper discussion of Levirate marriage and Onan’s reluctance, please listen to this podcast we prepared.
God created us to be givers. That early commandment to be fruitful and multiply, which follows the commandment to cleave to one’s wife, is partly to ensure this. Nothing teaches one to become a giver more than becoming a parent. And we don’t doubt that this you already know, Joanne. Because this need to give is built into our souls, we are usually much more comfortable with giving gifts graciously than receiving them graciously. Receiving charity can corrode the soul and it can make us miserably unhappy. Those living on the generosity of their fellow citizens often become resentful rather than appreciative and patriotic. Activities that make us only takers and not givers diminish us as humans and make us feel less of ourselves; they also demoralize us.
There are really only two activities we can do which help only us and nobody else. Let me tell you about them by exploring one of them in detail.
When one of us (RDL) first heard the phrase, men’s room, soon after immigrating to the U.S. my mind conjured up a big screen television, a comfortable couch, a workbench and set of tools, and a BBQ emitting wonderful smells of cooked meat. That’s my men’s room! Instead, I discovered that the term, like washroom, restroom, and bathroom are really all euphemisms for a room designed for relieving oneself.
Why would a society so comfortable with public expression of so many private things, appear to be so squeamish about the perfectly natural bodily function of voiding one’s bowels? You’ll pardon us, we don’t mean to be vulgar. However, we ask why a society so openly public about every possible variation of sexual pleasure would be so uncomfortable about simply saying, “Excuse me but I have to go and empty my bowels.” Why instead, do people say, “Excuse me but I have to use the washroom.” For what, a shower? Or, “Excuse me, but I need a rest room.” Why? Are you tired?
So uncomfortable are we with so-called ‘bathroom functions’ that we over decorate this smallest room in the house as if to disguise its primary use. Would you like to use our powder room? It has monogramed towels and soap shaped like sea shells.
Clearly there is a deep-seated discomfort with publicly acknowledging our need to relieve ourselves. And therein lies the clue. It is called ‘relieving oneself’ and not ‘relieving society’ or ‘relieving the world.’ Going to the bathroom is one of the very few human activities that in no way benefits, helps, (or relieves) anyone else other than the person going to the restroom. Unlike cow or horse manure, human waste can’t even be used for agricultural fertilizer without extensive treatment to remove pathogens. Truly, going to the ‘john’ does nothing at all for anyone else. One could say that necessary though it is, it remains one of the few utterly selfish things that each of us does. Not surprisingly, our souls are embarrassed by it. Not because it is a bodily function, which is indeed perfectly natural, but because it does nothing for anyone else but ourselves. We feel subconsciously uncomfortable at doing things that benefit only ourselves.
This is one reason that the Bible (Deuteronomy 23:13) insists that even soldiers in battle bury their excrement. Leaving our excrement out in plain view is demoralizing because it distracts us from the selfless natures we all possess and which are particularly needed by soldiers.
Masturbation is the other human activity that brings no benefit to anyone else. Most people would be fairly comfortable saying something like, “Please pick me up after eight as I still have to shower, shave and get dressed.” But almost nobody would comfortably say, “Pick me up after eight, as I want to empty my bowels and masturbate.” These are the two activities that help nobody else. As such, they embarrass us.
Pretty much everything else we do helps others even if we are the primary beneficiaries. Eating an ice-cream benefits the store that sold it to us. Showering benefits the people alongside of whom we may sit during the day, and so on. Voiding one’s bowels is unavoidable but masturbation isn’t.
That God created us to be givers not takers is the main problem with masturbation. What is more, it is precisely in the sexual area that God created us to be givers. We don’t think that it is outside the ability of a teenager to understand these points if explained sensitively and with an open Bible in front of parent and child. A husband’s own enjoyment of his sexual relationship with his wife is inextricably tied to the joy he brings to her. His pleasure is enhanced by knowing that he has brought ecstasy to his wife. Some women occasionally “fake” that joy so as not to deprive their husbands of that pleasure.
The relevant Biblical verse discusses the obligation of a husband to ‘cheer’ his wife in Deuteronomy 24:5. That King James translation of the Hebrew vesimach with the word ’cheer’ as a verb, is quaintly accurate because the verse is discussing the husband’s obligation to bring his wife to climactic fulfillment. The Hebrew text does not mean that the husband should just enjoy sexual pleasure together with his wife but rather that he, the husband, carries the responsibility of bringing joy to his wife. Indeed, he should cheer her.
Both the words and the Hebrew grammatical structure of the verse all indicate that “his wife” is the object of the phrase. God wants him to be focused on her pleasure. No more powerful avenue to his own intense sensual pleasure exists for a man than for him to bring his wife physical pleasure. Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that this sexual dynamic created by God is to teach a man, who has no natural yearning to care for a child, that giving to someone else is pleasurable. How perfect it is that the process of conceiving a child includes introducing a man to the idea that focusing on the needs of another person is the best way to personal fulfillment. How perfect is that preparation for becoming a father.
We think that your children, boys and girls, will be able to understand this Biblical approach and may even find it a refreshing change from some of the superstitious and fire-and-brimstone approaches to masturbation that they may have anticipated. Masturbation is an activity that turns us into takers only. Over time, like all taking, it can corrode the soul, diminish us as human beings, and make us feel demoralized. Though we are well aware of them, others are more qualified than we are to warn of the issues surrounding pornography and addiction concerns. And misguided programs, such as that advocated in 1994 by then Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, to ‘normalize’ masturbation aren’t helpful.
Ever since “Not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) God’s plan is for humans to connect and bond. Sex is part of God’s plan for men and women to be drawn towards one another and to form families. By contrast, popular culture focuses on individual fulfillment rather than fulfillment through family connection. For this reason, sensational news accounts lately have been full of sex robots and other means to masturbate creatively, if we might misuse that word. Thus, the question with which you will leave your children is this: Ultimately, do you want your sexuality to define your aloneness or your connectedness when the time is right?
We congratulate you on taking your parenting so responsibly and not evading the potentially awkward conversations that are a part of being a parent. We pray that you succeed in raising your teenagers to become adults who will build successful and happy marriages themselves in time.
Sincerely, honestly and Biblically,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin