What does the Bible say about marriage? Jesus said, “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Mark 10:8). Sounds like today’s conservative position, with no restrictions against interracial marriage and no allowance for same-sex marriage.
But the Bible says much about marriage, and things get muddier when we look at the big picture.
Interracial Marriage. Deut. 7:3 says, “Do not intermarry with [those in the Canaanite tribes]. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons.” King Solomon got into trouble for violating this rule and marrying foreign wives (1 Kings 11).
So the Bible says that marriage is with someone of your own tribe.
Concubine Sex. King Solomon famously had 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). Four of Jacobs 12 sons were from servants of his two wives, and Abraham’s first child was from his wife’s slave. Frankly, I’m unclear on the difference between wives and concubines, though one source emphasizes the similarity—concubines had similar privileges and their children had similar rights.
So the Bible legitimates sex with and children from concubines.
Rape. Courtship rituals vary by society, but here’s an unusual approach: “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her” (Deut. 22:28–9).
So the Bible says that if you see a woman and don’t want to go through that whole getting-permission thing, you can rape and then marry her.
Captured Women. “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” (Num. 31:17–18 and see also Deut. 21:11) I don’t know what we’re talking about here—whether it’s wife, concubine, or sex slave.
So the Bible says that capturing women (virgins only, please) is a reasonable way to get a bedmate. It doesn’t much matter whether the woman is on board with the project or not.
Slave Marriage. Exodus 21:4 says that a male Jewish slave can be released, but any wife given to him by his master (and her children) remain the master’s property.
So the Bible says that ownership trumps marriage.
Levirate Marriage. Say a man is married but dies before he has any children. Who inherits his stuff? To solve this problem, the Bible demands that another brother must marry this sister-in-law, with the firstborn child considered the dead brother’s heir. The Bible does more than simply document a curious Jewish custom; God enforces it with the death penalty (Gen. 38:8–10).
So the Bible says that getting children as heirs for a deceased brother is more important than having your own children.
Polygamy. Abraham had two wives. Jacob had two (or four, depending on how you count them). Solomon had 700.
God said to David, “I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.” (2 Sam. 12:8). God has his complaints about David, but polygamy isn’t one of them.
So the Bible says that marriage is between a man and one or more women.
Apologists like to excuse the Bible’s craziness with its many variations on marriage by saying that it simply reflects the culture of the time. It applied then, but it doesn’t apply now. I can accept that—just do the same when the Bible says, “A man shall not lie down with a man.” Put that into the same bin as levirate marriage, polygamy, or killing everyone in a tribe except the hot women that are kept for your pleasure.
Today’s Christian enthusiasm for marriage certainly wasn’t mirrored by the early church. Here’s what Paul says: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor. 7:1). So much for the celebrated role of procreation.
Paul said, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry” (1 Cor. 7:8–9). In other words, marriage is the second best option.
Paul also rejects divorce (7:10–11). Those Christians concerned about the purity of marriage might want to look at their own house to see if they’re following the rules. (You could say that Paul rejected marriage only because he thought the end was near. This might help reinterpret his curious views on marriage, but of course his being dramatically wrong raises a whole new set of problems.)
Marriage wasn’t even a Christian sacrament until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. This wasn’t a popular move among civil authorities of the time, because it granted the church the power to decide which marriages were legal and which not—and therefore decide which contracts (often based on marriages) were valid and which not. When the Pope didn’t like an alliance, he could just annul the appropriate marriage.
The argument that the Bible and the Church make a clear and unambiguous declaration that marriage is between a man and a woman is in tatters. Sure, let’s celebrate marriage, but let’s not delude ourselves about how recent our view of marriage is.
Photo credit: patries71
- The first post in this series is here: Homosexuality v. Christianity
- “Is polygamy OK?” Skeptics Annotated Bible.
- Justin, “What I Believe,” gcn blog.
- “Levirate Marriage,” Wikipedia.
- Good infographic showing the many biblical definitions of marriage at “You Want the Biblical View of Marriage?”
- Good cartoon showing conservatives loading up Jesus with their message. Makes you wonder, WWJD?