Biblical Marriage: It Isn’t What We Think It Is

Abraham and His Family Leave Ur by Jozsef Molnar 1850

Abraham and His Family Leave Ur by Jozsef Molnar 1850

Love and marriage, love and marriage

Go together like a horse and carriage

This I tell you brother

You can’t have one without the other.

The above words of a popular song from the 1955 television production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town may describe our modern concept of marriage, but they do not reflect how the Bible describes marriage. Biblical marriage is not what we think it is.

Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments concerning the definition of marriage as the union between one man and one woman. Those arguments echoed the same claims that have been dominant in communities and states across the country for the past several years.

The debate about marriage equality often centers on an appeal to the Bible. Unfortunately, such appeals often reflect a lack of biblical literacy on the part of those who use that complex collection of texts as an authority to enact modern social policy.

Many politicians have made a career out of using the Bible to justify opposition to hot-button topics such as same-sex marriage or abortion. Former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (Republican-Minnesota), for example, told a crowd of evangelicals recently that Americans cannot “retreat from our values and fail to make the case on issues like marriage because it is one man, one woman – because God said it is.” Sorry, Michele, but to such a statement, I have to say “Show me the text!” Bachmann and her like-minded colleagues use a strategy called “proof-texting” to appeal to their base. Politicians who use the Bible are not necessarily interested in the truth or in the complexity of the Bible. They are looking for one ancient sound bite to convince people what they already believe. I suspect that anyone who argues that the Bible speaks plainly on one issue, especially on something as complicated as marriage, has not taken the time to read past the second chapter of Genesis. Even a cursory reading of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) demonstrates that marriage was not understood or practiced in any way related to the modern idealism we have superimposed on this text.

As we gear up for another round of public debates, we expect some of the loudest voices to come from religious – especially Christian – communities. And although the number of Christian proponents of same-sex marriage is growing, I expect many Christians will stand opposed to same-sex marriage. To justify their position, some Christians will claim that history is on their side.

I know that marriage carries the long-established definition of a relationship between one man and one woman, but marriage as it is articulated in the Bible bears little resemblance to what we now have in 21st century Western civilization. Marriage has been just as fluid in its evolutionary process as the rest of society. The history of marriage defined as one man and one woman depends greatly on where one begins the narrative; the same holds true for the procreation arguments being sufficient reasons to sustain the existing matrimonial standard.

The primary purpose of marriage to which the Bible refers is procreation, and at least one child had better be a male heir! Sexual compatibility, mutuality, intimacy and certainly sexual faithfulness, at least for men, were neither values nor concerns of ancient biblical marriage.

Clearly, marriage has evolved since the days when the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets walked the earth. Five thousand years ago, the dissolution of a marriage could result in the perception that a woman could not bear children. It has been some fifty years since marriage was premised on procreation in the United States. It was in 1965, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that marriage is not based on procreation. The case involved a Connecticut law that prohibited the use of contraceptives. The Supreme Court invalidated the law on the grounds that it violated the “right to marital privacy.”

There are all kinds of relationships that qualify for marriage in the Bible, and thus would count as “biblical marriage,” and they represent quite a striking range of options. They include polygyny in which a man has more than one wife or concubine, simultaneously; open marriage for the man, since he can have access to the female slaves or servants in the house; marriage that forces a woman to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29); and levirate marriage, wherein a childless widow must marry the brother of her deceased husband. Those are just a few of the examples from the Hebrew Bible.

And what about Jesus’ thoughts on marriage? He encouraged people to leave their wives, children, parents and families in order to follow him (Luke 18:28-30); urged his followers to reject their families (Luke 14:26); and challenged conventional notions of family (Matthew 10:34-39, not to mention prohibiting divorce (Mark 10:10-12). Additionally, Jesus threw down the gauntlet in Matthew 19:10-12, wherein he discusses men being made eunuchs or making themselves such for the sake of the kingdom: “Let anyone accept this who can.” It is all there in the Good Book.

And Paul of Tarsus, the author of the earliest Christian writings, states in I Corinthians 7 that he endorses equality between husband and wife in a marriage. This idea is later refuted in Ephesians 5 when the writer (not Paul) endorses a return to the patriarchal ideal of men ruling over their wives. I think most people are simply unaware of the range of possibilities that qualify as “biblical marriage,” regardless of which part of the Bible they read.

Another point I would like to clarify is that, aside from that one section in I Corinthians 7, marriage is discussed in terms of the woman as the property of the man. This view of women explains why or how so many biblical stories show wives being treated as less than fully human, but I do hope that people who love the Bible can admit that this is an element of it that we ought not to continue to endorse. And remember, until fairly recent history in the Christian marriage ceremony in many churches a woman was still “given” in marriage to her husband as if she were a piece of chattel property.

Marriage in the Bible was much more about property rights, ensuring paternity of offspring, succession, political alliances and tribal stability than it was about companionship, mutual support and affection as we think of marriage today. The patriarchs of the Jewish tradition often had sex with multiple women, usually, but not always, for the purpose of procreation. Many of the women in the Bible who were slaves, or servants, or handmaids were reportedly “given” by the legal or primary wife to her husband for the purposes of securing children. The notion of consent, particularly for women, in matters of marriage or sexual intercourse was not a relevant moral norm in most of scripture.

Wives could “give” their female slaves to their husbands for the purpose of sexual intercourse either as co-wives in polygamous marriages or as concubines. Concubines were women engaged in sexual relationships with men whom they did not marry. Both of these practices are commonplace in the Bible. Sarah, for instance, is reported to have “given” her maid servant, Hagar, to Abraham “as a wife” so that God’s promise of offspring could be fulfilled (Genesis. 16:3). Abraham is not said to have married Hagar. Apparently he and Sarah had separate property, because Hagar remained her slave. So he slept with Sarah’s slave and made her pregnant. And then when that caused trouble between Sarah and her slave, he washed his hands of Hagar and let Sarah mistreat her. Hagar was supposed to put up with this graciously, but she was made of fiercer stuff than that, and one really has to root for her in this rather sick family situation.

Other notorious polygamous marriages in the Hebrew Bible include such biblical heroes as Esau, Moses, Jacob, Gideon, King David, and King Solomon, the latter reportedly having had 600 wives and 300 concubines! I would dare say that such arrangements would be incongruent with the thinking and beliefs of most people in contemporary Western civilization. We should look a little closer at King Solomon and his 300 concubines or sex slaves. In I Kings 11:3 it states: “He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.” Led him astray! That is all the Bible says about this situation? How about abducting 300 people and keeping them imprisoned for sex? I think that a settled gay marriage is rather healthier than imprisoning 300 people in your house to have sex with at your whim.

Many prominent Biblical patriarchs had concubines, often in addition to their wives. Perhaps the most notorious concubine is the unnamed woman of Judges 19 who belonged to a Levite. She was offered up to a hostile crowd of brutes to save the Levite man from harm. The crowd gang-raped her and upon returning to their home, the Levite cut her body into twelve pieces and sent the pieces out to the twelve tribes of Israel as a warning of the depravity of the current age. No better example exists of how cultural context defines moral norms than the fact that this passage purports to tell the story of the moral breech of the code of hospitality that resulted in the attack on the Levite rather than the horror of a man offering up his sexual partner (or common-law wife) to be gang-raped all night to the point of death and then cutting her body into pieces to serve as a warning to his kinfolk.

While I do not think this experience happens very much today, in biblical marriage you might have to cut your wife’s hand off if she defends you too vigorously. That is correct. Suppose you are at a bar and this big intimidating goon starts smashing in your face. And further suppose that your wife loves you and wants to stop this guy from giving you a concussion. So suppose she reaches down and stops him by grabbing his testicles. Does the Bible reward her for loyalty and bravery and fast thinking?

Not on your life! Now you have to cut off her hand. I mean, you have to. You are not allowed to have a moment of weakness and think about how pretty her fingers are. Off with it, up to the wrist. It says so in Deuteronomy 25:11-12:11, and I quote:  If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals,  you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.” As I said earlier, biblical marriage is not what we think it is!

Further, when people say that the Bible says that homosexuality/gay marriage is a sin, I know they truly believe that the Bible says this, but in reality, it does not. There are passages such as the Sodom story (Genesis 19), which depicts every male in the town gathering to gang rape some visitors. The issue here is hospitality, not gay sex. These men were just plain cruel to outsiders. There are other passages people turn to, such as Leviticus 18:22, and focus on men having sex with each other as an abomination. But they do not take into account the why for this abomination. Just as in Genesis 38, where Onan is struck dead by God for avoiding making his sister-in-law pregnant by coitus interruptus, (pulling out early) and spilling his semen on the ground, the issue is about the people of Israel needing to grow in numbers. Any wasting of semen was not to be tolerated and thus was an abomination. As much as some would like it, neither of these situations is talking about two same-sex people in a loving relationship.

Finally, there is no specific place in the Bible where God establishes marriage as a holy institution. In fact, one could make the case for the Bible – and especially Paul – not even approving of marriage at all! In I Corinthians 7:8, he writes: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.” So contrary to the notion that the Bible authorizes only a single kind of marriage, of which it approves, actually it much prefers believers to die out in a single generation. Only the weak and the unbiblical get married.

And as for getting married biblically, one can do that in all kinds of imaginative ways: take two wives and someone else’s sex slave as Abraham did, or 300 sex slaves as King Solomon did (not to mention the 600 wives), or your brother’s widow in addition to your own wife. And remember, if your sex slave runs away because you are cruel to the person, the Bible (Philemon) says that other people have the duty to return the slave to you, i.e. basically imposes the duty of trafficking slaves back to sadistic sex maniacs who exploit them. But if the owner is nice and a good Christian, he might consider letting the sex slave go. But he does not have to. I repeat: Biblical marriage is not what we think it is.

When I hear people say that they only believe in “biblical marriage,” my knee-jerk reaction is to remind them that love is never discussed as foundational to marriage in the Bible. Thus, while same-sex marriage is not endorsed in the Bible, neither is a loving, mutually agreed upon union of a man and woman. But I will take the kind of marriage whose underpinning is love and mutual respect – whether it be same-sex or between a man and a woman – over a “biblical marriage” anytime! As the song says: “They go together like a horse and carriage.”

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