by Kelly M. Wilson
Last week LGBT people and their allies celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage throughout the nation, while opponents of same-sex marriage lamented this as one more step that America has taken away from biblical family values. I started seeing these images pop up on Facebook and Twitter.
For opponents of same-sex marriage, the biblical view of marriage is one man and one woman as depicted in Genesis 1 and 2. But ending the discussion at Genesis 2 ignores the rest of what the Bible has to say about marriage. It is true that Genesis 1 depicts God creating male and female and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. It is also true that Genesis 2 talks about a man leaving his home and clinging to his wife. Ancient creation epics typically begin with a male and female because when you are beginning to populate the world, even the ancients understood that it could not have been Adam and Steve. Although the text says that it began male and female, opponents of same-sex marriage believe that this is binding for all time and can never be redefined to include others even though the biblical text itself neither states nor follows that view. What opponents of same-sex marriage fail to recognize is that there is not one view of marriage in the Bible; there are multiple views. Therefore the images above are either woefully ignorant or willfully misleading. If we want to understand what the Bible says about marriage we need to not only look at the entire Bible, we also need to look at the language and culture in which the Bible was written.
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
First, there is no Hebrew word for marriage in the Old Testament. If your English translation reads “a man married a woman,” the Hebrew reads laqach “to take or to have” a woman (Pressler, 202). Second, in the ancient world this taking or having was a social/economic contract not a moral or religious one. This marriage involved things that we no longer practice. When a man wanted “to take or have” a wife, he needed to pay the father (or closest male relative) a mohar “bride price.” A bride price was money, goods, or services in exchange for the father’s daughter. For example, Jacob worked 7 years for his uncle in order to marry his cousin, Leah and another 7 years to marry his other cousin, Rachel (Genesis 29). And, yes, biblical marriage allows marriage to cousins. Abraham married his half-sister, but Leviticus later forbids it (18:11). This reveals that the Bible itself reflects a change in marriage laws, which is the very thing opponents of same-sex marriage decry. Before David was king he couldn’t afford a bride price to marry King Saul’s daughter, so Saul said that his bride price could be 100 Philistine foreskins (1 Samuel 18:25). It might not be beautiful, but it’s biblical. After the bride price was paid, the woman goes from being a daughter to now being a wife. Third, a man could have more than one wife. In the ancient world, when infant mortality was high and women could not own land, a family needed to ensure that at least one male offspring would live to adulthood and inherit the father’s land. How do you increase your odds? Polygany–having multiple wives. There were two types of wives: a full wife and a concubine. The key difference between the two is that a full wife comes from a landowning family and a bride price is exchanged; this is not the case with a concubine. How many wives (full wife or concubine) could a man have? The answer to that is as many as he could afford. The Bible says that Jacob had 4 (2 full wives and 2 concubines). King Solomon had 1,000 (700 wives and 300 concubines). Finally, it is also important to note that these women were not women by our standards-they were girls. Once a young girl had her period, she was considered of marriageable age. This means that biblical marriage would have been men in their 20s or older and girls in their early or mid-teens.
Comparing marriage today to this brief introduction to biblical marriage already reveals that we have changed the biblical definition of marriage. I would argue that it has changed for the better, and unless you like bride prices, polygany, and child brides, you do too.
Old Testament: There are various types of marriages in the Bible. If a man rapes a woman, his punishment is that he must pay double the bride price and marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). This is biblical marriage.
If soldiers go to war, they can “take women” (marry women) for themselves as spoil. This is often referred to as the law of the captive bride. Moses, God’s prophet, tells the people, “When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife.” (Deut 21:10-11). There are rules, however. The subsequent verses tell you what to do with her hair and nails before you sleep with her. This is biblical marriage.
Capturing wives in your spoils of war happens again in Numbers 31. After the Israelites defeated the Midianites, the Israelites bring back spoils of war, including new wives. Moses is outraged by this, but not for the reason you are thinking. He asks, “Have you allowed all the women to live?” When Moses learns that they had taken both virgins and non-virgins as spoils of war, he commands that every non-virgin be killed and only the virgins should become wives (Num 31:17-18). This is biblical marriage.
If a woman’s husband dies without a male offspring, Deuteronomy 25:5-10 tells us that the brother-in-law must impregnate her to carry on his brother’s line. This is called the law of Levirate marriage. Think about that for a minute. Think about how that would play out in your family. This is biblical marriage.
In Ezra 10, we hear that men are commanded to divorce their foreign wives and abandon their foreign children. They then institute a law prohibiting marriage to foreigners. This is biblical marriage.
New Testament: Many Christians will be tempted to say, “Well that’s the Old Testament. The New Testament is clear on this issue.” Are you sure? Many of these marriage customs are in place when Jesus lived in first century Palestine, and the New Testament mentions them without batting an eyelash.
Levirate marriage is evident when the Sadducees question Jesus about the resurrection. They ask, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married the widow and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her” (Mark 12:18-23). Does Jesus respond with, “We will no longer be making women marry their brother-in-law if their husbands die because that is not the biblical view of marriage”? No. He simply answers their question about the resurrection. Levirate marriage is biblical marriage.
Polygany is evident when 1 Timothy commands that if you are an elder/deacon in the church, then you are only allowed to have one wife (1 Timothy 3:12). What does this imply about the other Christians who are not deacons? Why would this even need to be said if Jesus made it perfectly clear in the Gospels that the only God-ordained type of marriage is one man and one woman? Polygany is biblical marriage. As a matter of fact, the biblical view on polygany changed when it was outlawed approximately 350 years after Jesus lived. I wonder if people were outraged about changing the definition of marriage when polygany was outlawed.
Adding an interesting caveat in the marriage discussion, the apostle Paul encourages Christians not to marry, arguing Christians would be better off without it (1 Thess 3). For Paul, the only reason to get married would be to avoid burning with passion. If you could not control yourself like Paul, then he concedes that you should marry, “for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor 7:9). Think about adding this passage to your wedding vows because this is another biblical view of marriage.
Although it might be easy and sound pious to claim that you just believe what the Bible says about marriage, for those who have read the Bible, it just sounds creepy. So unless you support bride prices, child brides, polygany, captive brides, rapists marrying their rape victims, and widows marrying their brother-in-law, you actually don’t believe in what the Bible says about marriage.
So what should we believe about the Bible and marriage? Hebrew Bible scholar, Carolyn Pressler, provides a way forward in her article on biblical marriage, stating:
“Good biblical interpretation is not a matter of going to particular verses or chapters, tearing them out of context, wadding them up, and shooting them like bullets at others. Good biblical ethical reflection does not seek to identify the forms of Israelite and Greco-Roman social institutions and apply them as binding over our lives. Sound biblical ethical reflection is a matter of responding with all of our best reasoning ability and with humble love to the great story of the God who creates in lavish abundance and who loves all that God creates with welcoming, justice-seeking, life-giving passion” (Pressler, 211).
In this welcoming, justice-seeking, and life-giving spirit, Christians should look at the recent inclusion of same-sex couples into the sacred covenant of marriage as one of the many changes that cultures have made over the last 2500 years to the definition of marriage. And we would do well to recognize that this change–like the other changes to biblical marriage–has made marriage better for us all.
For more information on the biblical view of marriage, please check out Carolyn Pressler’s, “The ‘Biblical View’ of Marriage,” in Engaging the Bible in a Gendered World, K.D. Sakenfeld Festschrift, ed. Linda Day and Carolyn Pressler (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox, 2006). You can click on the photo to puchase the book.