Opponents of marriage equality frequently use so-called evidence from the Bible to argue that same-sex marriage is “unnatural,” “immoral,” or any number of harmful (and incorrect) adjectives. But a group of Biblical scholars have come forward to say that, despite what some misguided conservatives think, the religious text doesn’t prove anything about the definition of marriage.
In an op-ed for the Altoona Herald, Robert R. Cargill, Hector Avalos, and Kenneth Atkinson, — all biblical scholars — list all the ways in which the Bible describes marriage as something other than an exclusively heterosexual, monogamous institution:
… we wish to clarify that the biblical texts do not support the frequent claim that marriage between one man and one woman is the only type of marriage deemed acceptable by the Bible’s authors.
The fact that marriage is not defined as only that between one man and one woman is reflected in the entry on “marriage” in the authoritative Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000): “Marriage is one expression of kinship family patterns in which typically a man and at least one woman cohabitate publicly and permanently as a basic social unit” (p. 861).
This dictionary definition forms the basis of their claim. They say that the use of the phrase “at least one woman” is the clearest sanction of polygamy, which comes as no surprise to those who have read the Bible. In many cases, men with multiple wives were actually “highly blessed,” as evidenced by some of the deeply disturbing Biblical passages you may already be familiar with:
In fact, there were a variety of unions and family configurations that were permissible in the cultures that produced the Bible, and these ranged from monogamy (Titus 1:6) to those where rape victims were forced to marry their rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) and to those Levirate marriage commands obligating a man to marry his brother’s widow regardless of the living brother’s marital status (Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Genesis 38; Ruth 2-4). Others insisted that celibacy was the preferred option (1 Corinthians 7:8; 28).
A different argument is that the Bible doesn’t advocate too strongly for lifelong marriage at all, illustrated by readings of the Bible that interpret acceptance of divorce and remarriage, along with some more antiquated guidelines:
In fact, during a discussion of marriage in Matthew 19:12, Jesus even encourages those who can to castrate themselves “for the kingdom” and live a life of celibacy.
Ezra 10:2-11 forbids interracial marriage and orders those people of God who already had foreign wives to divorce them immediately.
In this piece, the writers elaborate on a concept that should be addressed more explicitly in the marriage equality debate: while the Bible doesn’t necessarily endorse same-sex marriage or relationships (though some contest this opinion — David and Jonathan, anyone?), neither does it state that the only virtuous marriages are those between one man and one woman.
Since this is the philosophy that propels much anti-gay rhetoric from the religious right, it’s crucial to reiterate that their most sacred piece of evidence doesn’t actually support their position at all.
Thankfully the authors of this particular piece don’t stop there, but remind us of the greater, more important notion that religion has no place in politics:
Accordingly, we must guard against attempting to use ancient texts to regulate modern ethics and morals, especially those ancient texts whose endorsements of other social institutions, such as slavery, would be universally condemned today, even by the most adherent of Christians.
(Image via Shutterstock — Thanks to Alan for the link!)