This is the sixth post in a series. I highly encourage that you read those previous posts before reading this one. The preface is here. The guidelines are here. A discussion of relevant Hebrew Bible texts is here. A study of Romans 1:26-27 is here. A Study of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 can be found here.
Having studied the relevant passages that have traditionally been the directly relevant ones in regards to homosexual practice, we now must do more difficult work. It has been relatively straightforward to show that the Scriptures do not unequivocally condemn homosexuality or homosexual practice. It is something else to suggest that Christians should embrace homosexuality, homosexual practice, or homosexuals themselves, because, as many argue, that this may have consequences for, or even undermine, the Biblical ideal of marriage and sexuality. So, making no attempt to be exhaustive, we now turn to a study of marriage in the scripture.
It used to amuse me, but now I find it a bit sad when I hear people use the phrase “biblical marriage.” Really, to call for “biblical” anything is courting a war of words that the people who usually use phrases like that are doomed to lose. The reason is, that like most ideals or practices, there simply isn’t one “biblical” form of marriage. The Bible is full of much teaching, and many examples of marriage that look much different than the ones we are used to. While this doesn’t mean that there isn’t one form of marriage we should endorse, it certainly means two things: 1) that we shouldn’t simply run around, shouting things like “biblical marriage,” that may sound good in a sound bite, but when scrutinized, make us look foolish… and 2) that unless we bother to take the time and study the scriptures that we claim to follow, we remain just as ignorant as others about the scriptures.
Various Types of Marriage in the Scriptures:
Heterosexual, Monogamous Marriage:
Hebrew Bible Instruction: In Genesis 2:22-24, the scripture reads: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
New Testament Instruction: In Mark 10:8, Jesus calls back to mind the teaching from Genesis and adds to it, “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”
Biblical Example(s): Adam and Eve, Isaac and Rebekah, Gomer and Hosea, Priscilla and Aquilla
Commentary: The Genesis passage is not meant to explain how we should act in marriage, but rather to explain how we got to where we are and describe how marriage started. If Adam and Eve were the only example of correct marriage, “biblical” men should only take mates that have been cloned from their ribs.
Jesus is talking about divorce, and the importance of staying together once married. He cites the first marriage, because of what it says about unity. If Jesus had meant “one flesh” to be taken as prescriptive rather than descriptive, he might have told the caught in adultery that she should go back to one of the men who she had slept with, and be his wife, rather than telling her, “so and sin no more.”
While the Scripture never says anything negative about one man and one woman being married, the verses that define marriage as only between one man and one women simply don’t exist. Which we will see below.
Hebrew Bible Instruction: Deuteronomy 7:3 states, “Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods.”
New Testament Instruction: Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Biblical Example(s): Moses and Zipporah, Ruth and Boaz, Esther and Ahasuerus
Commentary: While many have condemned the Bible for this verse, saying that the Bible forbids interracial marriage, in reality, this verse is not about race at all. This verse (as Paul does in 2 Corinthians 6) critiques marrying those who will take your faith away from God. This reality of life, that our spouses deeply influence our actions, causes Moses to instruct those who are joining with God on a mission to save the world, that if they want to remain faithful, they should marry those who have the same goal. While Israel did become somewhat xenophobic, the Marriages of Moses and Zipporah, Ruth and Boaz, and Esther and Ahasuerus prove that God is not opposed to interracial marriage on the basis of race, and can use these marriages quite successfully to further God’s goal of love.
Rape and Marriage:
Hebrew Bible Instruction: Deuteronomy 22:28-29′ “If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.”
New Testament Instruction: Not mentioned.
Biblical Example(s): Dinah and Shechem. Kinda.
Commentary: Deuteronomy states that a man that rapes a woman who is not engaged must marry her. Understandably, this scandalizes us. However, as with any engagement with the past, it is unfair, even in this case, to judge those in the past by our standards. Then, if a woman was raped, she was unfit for marriage. She was likely unable to make any living for herself other than prostitution. She would likely die childless and in poverty. So, Moses commands that if a man rapes a woman, rather than collecting a dowry, he would instead have to pay $. He would be forced to marry her and never divorce, ensuring that she would be taken care of for her whole life. And the fact that towns were much smaller than they are today would shame this man into treating her well, lest he bring further shame on himself. Now, no sane person would call this a good solution, but it is at least understandable why Moses would command that the man have to pay and never stop paying, and how this would serve as a deterrent to rape, rather than simply condemning raped women to loneliness childlessness, or prostitution. The only Biblical example of this is Dinah and Shechem. Shechem rapes Dinah, tries to marry her, but her brothers kill his whole village instead. So it is clear that the Scripture calls foul on the whole rape-as-a-plan-for-marriage deal.
Hebrew Bible Instruction: None.
New Testament Instruction: None.
Biblical Example(s): Abraham and Hagar, Jacob and Bilhah and Zilpah, The Levite and his Concubine, David and his Concubines, and Solomon and his Concubines.
Commentary: There is no explicit instruction about concubines given in the scripture. It is simply taken for granted in the culture in which the Scripture was given. And there is some confusion as to what concubine refers to as well. The word that is translated as concubine, is likely better translated as “second wife,” with the distinction between first and second wives being that first wives (and their children) have rights of name and inheritance, while second wives do not. The scripture does make it clear that you take more wives, you should not neglect any of them. Like Abraham did… like the Levite did… And you should also not let them affect your faith because you have to many… like Solomon did…
Hebrew Bible Instruction: Deuteronomy 25:5-6, “When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.”
New Testament Instruction: no instruction
Biblical Example(s): Judah and Tamar
Commentary: The idea is this: your culture tells you that getting married and having children is essentially the biggest blessing you can get, and if you were a women, essentially your only worth. This idea was not started by the Bible, but it was considered true in the cultures where the Bible sprang into. As such, if a women was barren, she considered her life not worth living and cursed (Sarah, Naomi, Hannah, etc..). So in order to preserve a male’s name and assure that his widow did not fade into obscurity and poverty, the levirate marriage was instituted. A man’s brother takes care of his sister-in-law, sleeps with her until she has a child, and then raises the child as if it was the child of his brother. This strikes us as bizarre and wrong, but that is because we are imperialistic and judgmental towards the “other” who lived in the past and clearly care more about our nice, neat morality than God did about the poor widows of old.
Hebrew Bible Instruction: Exodus 21:10, “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.”
New Testament Instruction: 1 Timothy 3:2,12 and Titus 1:6 , Elders (and Deacons) “must be above reproach, married only once…”
Biblical Example(s): Lamech (and his two wives), Abraham (and Sarah and Hagar), Jacob (and Rachel, Leah, Zilphah, and Bilhah), David (and his 18+ wives/concubines), and Solomon (and his 1000+ wives and concubines)
Commentary: No Hebrew Bible mandates for or against, other than the ones listed with concubines. Take care of them, don’t neglect them if you have more than one, and don’t have too many or ones that cause you to fall from God. Solomon might have had trouble keeping the last few of those rules. However, the New Testament make a move regarding wives. Paul teaches that men who want to be leaders should only have one wife, indicating that those in church leadership at least, perhaps due to the extra commitment, should not be married to more than one person.
Hebrew Bible Instruction: No direct mention.
New Testament Instruction: Matthew 19:12, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” and 1 Corinthians 7:8-9 “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”
Biblical Example(s): Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul
Commentary: Celibacy in the Hebrew Bible is rare. It is reserved for people who consider themselves stricken (Jephthah’s daughter or for those who are already considered outcasts (Jeremiah). However, Jesus makes an interesting move in his teachings about celibacy. In this context, Jesus speaks of eunuchs, who are those who don’t (or can’t) have sex because they usually have been relieved of the necessary tools. Jesus claims that some are born that way (which may have been astounding to Jews whose Rabbis sometimes taught celibacy as a sin), Jesus claims that some are made eunuchs by others (as in some royal cases for personal servants), and some who have chosen it for themselves for the kingdom of God. In other words, Jesus suggests that there are those who act like eunuchs (no sex) in order to serve God. Paul supports this when he suggests that he wish everyone was celibate (Paul says this, not God), but that if you are too hormonal, go ahead and get married because it is better than sex outside of marriage.
Conclusion: The scriptures do not clearly teach one particular way of being married. The scriptures validate marriage, and while I didn’t get into this, the scripture validates sex within the context of marriage over sex outside of marriage. Scripture seems to react to cultural forms of marriage by introducing boundaries and guidelines for the already-existing forms of marriage of the day. The exception being that the scripture validates celibacy and raises it up to equality with marriage, and the scripture seems to indicate that those who want to be leaders in the church should not be married to more than one person. However, that is a far cry from suggesting that there is only one form of “Biblical marriage.”
King David was considered a man after God’s own heart, even though he had numerous wives and never thought it was bad, and never repented from it.
Jacob, the father of the 12 tribes of Israel, had 4 wives. He never repented from it, nor did he see anything wrong with it, nor do we see God correcting him for it, and yet God used those 12 children to create a nation that was “God’s” to assist in righting the world.
David and Solomon, both commended in the New Testament and regarded as Israel’s greatest kings, both had concubines, and were not rejected by God, even though they were warned not to have too many.
And Jesus was celibate and suggests that how we are born affects our sexuality.
There are things that the Bible (and its culture) took for granted that we simply find abhorrent. And things that we have outlawed that the Bible did not. If we look to the Bible for an airtight case about what is and isn’t marriage, we won’t find it. What we will find, is that the Scripture is more concerned about how we treat each other, and injecting the law of love into whatever cultural forms of marriage that the society takes. In the New Testament, however, we do see Jesus claiming that God is the one who joins people in marriage, and that we should be careful about separating them as a result. This leads me to believe that Jesus suggests that marriage is a spiritual union as well, not just a sexual and emotional one. As such, God’s people must act according to their faith in these matters, regardless of what the society around us is doing. If the church believes that marriage is between a man and a woman only, then they should not allow the government to tell them what marriage is or who they can or can’t marry.
Alternatively, if the church believes that the clear teaching of scripture about what marriage is isn’t really that clear and seems to be in flux, then perhaps it desires to offer marriage to those of the same gender. And as such, it should not allow a government to tell them that they cannot marry two people of the same sex. The church is not bound to its culture or its government, but it can get out in front of it and lead the way to a more loving, just society. Whatever way God leads you, don’t let your country get in the way.
Jump to part 7, A few notes about gender in the Bible, here.