“Biblical” has become a major buzz-word lately, and the issue of how to define marriage is up for major debate. For many, it has turned into an ugly culture war, and even within Christianity there are multiple perspectives all claiming to be “biblical.”
So, let’s take some time to survey what “biblical” marriage actually looks like.
- Genesis 2: one man and one woman (later called Adam and Eve, or “man/human” and “life”)
- Genesis 16: one man, his wife/wives, and wife’s female slave(s)
- Genesis 38:6-10: one dead man, dead man’s brother(s), and one woman
- Exodus 21:4-6: one man, one female-slave, and one male-slave to whom the man gives female-slave to as a wife (of course, the owner gets to keep the female-slave-wife and kids if the male-slave decides he wants freedom more than his family)
- Numbers 31:1-18, Deuteronomy 21:10-14: one man, virgin female POW(s) (man can decide to keep her and force her to submit to him, or he can send her away after he sleeps with her if he doesn’t like her)
- Deuteronomy 22:28-29: one man and rape victim (or, it could be argued, one man and one woman caught having sex without her father’s consent to the relationship; see also Exodus 22:16-17)
- Across the Old Testament: one man, many wives
- Across the Old Testament: one man, his wife/wives, and concubines
What can we take from this?
- Biblical marriage is patriarchal; men own women as property (just like they “owned” slaves, children, and livestock).
- For women, virginity is everything. Premarital sex isn’t a punishable offense, but the loss of property value (virgins were worth more money than non-virgins) for the father is what really matters.
- Biblical marriage is primarily about sexual reproduction for the sake of producing male heirs and building up the family estate. It generally has nothing to do with romantic love (or sexual orientation, for that matter).
- While it can be argued that polygamy was not God’s intent or ideal (i.e. Genesis 2:4, 1 Timothy 3:2, 12, and Titus 1:6), it is irrefutable that God still recognized these other kinds of marriage as marriage and, at times, blessed them as godly family units.
My point with all of this isn’t to try and justify any “liberal” or “immoral” view of sexuality that I want by doing “theological gymnastics” with these texts; my point is that we all pick and choose how to read and apply the Bible in our own lives. Fitting biblical marriage into the 1950’s nuclear family ideal takes just as much “theological gymnastics” as does justifying cohabitation or same-sex marriage. Truly literal biblical marriage is the product of several very different cultures existing many thousands of years ago and adhering to multiple very different ideas about men, women, marriage, family, sexuality, inter-personal relationships, and ownership.
A few easy-to-read resources:
(Disclaimer: The views of these authors, articles, or websites may not always reflect my own, just as my views may not necessarily reflect theirs. My posting of these articles should not be confused for my total and complete endorsement of the authors and their views or those of the websites that feature them.)
Marriage in the Bible
Marriage and families in the Bible
Jennifer Wright Knust on marriage and sexuality in the Bible (NOTE: there are three parts to this)
Sexuality in the Bible
This post is part of a Marriage and Sexuality series.