Sex relations by mutual agreement between two persons not married to each other. The Biblical term is not limited to such promiscuous sex conduct between single persons only. The Bible speaks of fornication in a general way, whether committed by single or by married persons; but it also uses the term adultery.
When God performed the first human marriage he said. “That is why a man will leave his father and his mother and he must stick to his wife and they must become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24) Here the standard set for man and woman was monogamy, and promiscuous sex relationship was ruled out. Also, no divorce and remarriage to another was anticipated.
In patriarchal society God’s faithful servants hated fornication, whether between single, engaged or married persons, and it was considered a sin against God.—Gen. 34:1, 2, 6, 7, 31; 38:24-26; 39:7-9.
UNDER THE LAW
Under the Mosaic law, a man committing fornication with an unengaged girl was required to marry the girl and to pay her father the purchase price for brides (fifty silver shekels), and he could not divorce her all his days. Even if her father refused to give him the girl in marriage, the man had to pay the purchase price to the father. (Ex. 22:16, 17; Deut. 22:28, 29) However, if the girl was engaged, the man was to be stoned to death. If the girl screamed when she was attacked, she was not to be punished, but if she failed to scream (thereby indicating consent) she was also put to death.—Deut. 22:23-27.
The sanctity of marriage was emphasized by the law that punished with death a girl who married under the false pretense of being a virgin, having committed fornication secretly. If her husband falsely charged her with such a crime, it was considered as bringing great reproach on her father’s house. For his slanderous action, the man was to be “disciplined” by the judges, perhaps by beating, and fined one hundred silver shekels, the money then being given to the father. (Deut. 22:13-21) Prostitution of a priest’s daughter brought disgrace on his sacred office. She was to be killed, then burned as something detestable. (Lev. 21:9; see also Leviticus 19:29.) Fornication between married persons (adultery) was a violation of the seventh commandment and merited the death penalty for both parties.—Ex. 20:14; Deut. 5:18; 22:22.
If a man committed fornication with a servant girl who had been designated for another man, but who had not been redeemed or freed, punishment was to take place, but they were not to be put to death. (Lev. 19:20-22) Evidently this was because the woman was not yet free and in full control of her actions, as a free engaged girl would be. The redemption price had not yet been paid, or at least not fully paid, and she was still a bondservant to her master.
When the mercenary prophet Balaam could not bring a curse upon Israel by divination, he found a way to bring them under God’s displeasure by appealing to wrong desire for sexual relations. By means of the women of Moab he seduced them into practicing the filthy phallic worship of the Baal of Peor, for which 24,000 of the sons of Israel died.—Num. 25:1-9; 1 Cor. 10:8 (possibly 1,000 heads of the people were killed and hung on stakes [Num. 25:4] and the rest destroyed by the sword or the plague).
FORBIDDEN TO CHRISTIANS
Jesus Christ restored God’s original standard of monogamy (Matt. 5:32; 19:9) and he showed the wickedness of fornication by classing it with wicked reasonings, murders, thieving, false testimony and blasphemy, pointing out that these come from within a man, from his heart, and defile him. (Matt. 15:19, 20; Mark 7:21-23) Later, the governing body of the Christian congregation, comprised of the apostles and older men in Jerusalem, wrote to Christians in 49 C.E., warning them against fornication, and placing it alongside idolatry and the eating of blood.—Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25.
The apostle Paul points out that fornication is one of the works of the flesh, the opposite of the fruitage of the spirit of God, and warns that the practice of fleshly works will prevent an individual from inheriting the Kingdom. (Gal. 5:19-21) He counsels that the Christian should deaden his body “as respects fornication, . . . which is idolatry.” (Col. 3:5) In fact, he warns that it should not be a topic of conversation among Christians, who should be holy, just as the Israelites were not to use the names of the pagan gods of the nations surrounding them.—Eph. 5:3; Ex. 23:13.
Fornication is an offense for which an individual may be expelled (disfellowshiped) from the Christian congregation. (1 Cor. 5:9-13; Heb. 12:15, 16) The apostle explains that a Christian committing fornication sins against his own body, using reproductive members for a perverted purpose. He is greatly affected spiritually in an adverse way, brings defilement into God’s congregation and lays himself open to the danger of deadly venereal diseases. (1 Cor. 6:18, 19) He encroaches on the rights of his Christian brothers (1 Thess. 4:3-7) by (1) bringing uncleanness and disgraceful folly, with reproach, into the congregation (Heb. 12:15, 16), (2) depriving the one with whom he commits fornication of a clean moral standing and of the right of being clean in order to enter into a pure, clean marriage, (3) depriving his own family of a clean moral record, as well as wronging the parents, husband or fiancé of the one with whom he commits fornication. He disregards, not man, whose laws may or may not condone fornication, but God, who will exact punishment for his sin.—1 Thess. 4:8.
Jehovah God spoke of the nation of Israel in covenant relationship to him as a “wife.” (Isa. 54:5, 6) When the nation became unfaithful to him, ignoring him and turning to other nations such as Egypt and Assyria for help and entering into alliances with them, Israel was like an unfaithful wife, an adulteress, a prostitute, one carrying on fornication promiscuously. (Ezek. 16:15, 25-29) Likewise Christians, in a dedicated relationship to God, or professing such relationship, if unfaithful by engaging in false worship or by being friends of the world, are called adulteresses.—Jas. 4:4.
Babylon the Great, described in the Bible book of Revelation as a harlot, therefore symbolically represents something religious. Her various sects, “Christian” and pagan, have claimed to be organizations of true worship. But she has consorted with the rulers of this world for power and material gain, and with her “the kings of the earth committed fornication.” Her unclean, filthy course of fornication has been detestable in God’s sight and has caused great bloodshed and distress in the earth. (Rev. 17:1-6; 18:3) For her course she will suffer the judgment of God on those practicing fornication, namely, destruction.—Rev. 17:16; 18:8, 9.