The Old Testament describes three types of peoples who are called to celibacy: priests preparing for sacrifice, people preparing to receive a message from God, and soldiers preparing for battle. Oftentimes, discussions on the merits and Scriptural basis for celibacy look at the New Testament evidence, or the temporary celibacy of the Old Testament priests. But I want to focus on a different group, instead: the soldiers on military campaign.
The practice of military celibacy is necessary to make sense out of a fascinating incident that occurs while David is on the run from King Saul (1 Samuel 21:1-6):
Then came David to Nob to Ahim′elech the priest; and Ahim′elech came to meet David trembling, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” And David said to Ahim′elech the priest, “The king has charged me with a matter, and said to me, ‘Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what have you at hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.” And the priest answered David, “I have no common bread at hand, but there is holy bread; if only the young men have kept themselves from women.” And David answered the priest, “Of a truth women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition; the vessels of the young men are holy, even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?” So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.
In other words, the sacred Bread of the Presence (a prefigurement of the Eucharist) was reserved for those who were spiritually prepared to receive it, and this preparation required a period of celibacy. David’s men, being on a military expedition, had also been committed to a time of celibacy: the soldier and the priest were united in serving the Lord through this sacrifice of celibacy.
Years later, when David is King, this practice of military celibacy will be relevant again. After King David impregnated Bathsheba, the wife of his soldier Uriah, he tries to cover up their affair by luring Uriah away from battle, and convincing him to return to his wife for the evening. His designs are thwarted by Uriah’s faithfulness to his men and to God (2 Samuel 11:6-11):
So David sent word to Jo′ab, “Send me Uri′ah the Hittite.” And Jo′ab sent Uri′ah to David. When Uri′ah came to him, David asked how Jo′ab was doing, and how the people fared, and how the war prospered. Then David said to Uri′ah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” And Uri′ah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uri′ah slept at the door of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, “Uri′ah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uri′ah, “Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?” Uri′ah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths; and my lord Jo′ab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.”
Uriah’s faithfulness serves as a sharp contrast to David’s own unfaithfulness. Not only is King David guilty of adultery, but with the wife of one of his own soldiers, and in the midst of a military campaign, at a time when celibacy was called for.
So what’s going on? Why were soldiers required to be celibate? We know from elsewhere in the Old Testament that soldiers at war were required to be sanctified (Joshua 3:5, 7:13), and we know that the process of sanctification required a temporary celibacy (Exodus 19:14-15). In other words, celibacy is a way to spiritually prepare for combat, just as much as it is a spiritual preparation for the offering of the Temple sacrifice. In this sense, we’re looking at something that’s a lot like fasting: a spiritual sacrifice to draw you closer to God.
This is a different lens through which we can understand the celibacy. Normally, when we talk about the Old Testament prefigurements of celibacy, we point to the Old Testament priests. For example, that’s the parallel that Pope Siricius points out as a basis for clerical celibacy in his Directa Decretal to the Spanish bishop Himerius back in 385. And particularly when we’re talking about clerical celibacy, it makes sense to look there.
But this other line of Scriptural evidence — military celibacy — has serious implications for Christian laity, not just clergy and religious. After all, the Old Testament soldiers are a prefigurement of all Christians, since all of us are on a military campaign against the forces of darkness (Ephesians 6:10-20):
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
The soldiers of the Old Testament, who prefigured you and me, periodically abstained from sex in order to devote themselves in a particular way to the Lord and to preparing battle. So, too, even if you’re not called to lifelong celibacy, indeed even if you’re married, you might consider at temporary celibacy. St. Paul lays out some basic parameters in his advice for married couples in 1 Corinthians 7:5-8:
Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control. I say this by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
So if you’re married, don’t impose this sexual fast on your spouse against their will, and don’t continue it if it’s bearing bad fruit (leading one or both of you into lust). But if you two can agree, and if you can maintain self-control, this is a great way to devote yourselves to prayer in a special way.