Biblical Marriage

Bruce Bawer at The Dish recounts the multifarious forms of “marriage” cataloged in the Bible:

“Lamech [Noah’s father] married two women, one named Adah, the other Zillah.” (Genesis 4)

“Sarai brought her slave-girl, Hagar the Egyptian, to her husband and gave her to Abram as a a wife.” (Genesis 16)

“When [Rachel] gave [her husband Jacob] her slave-girl Bilhah as a wife, Jacob lay with her, and she conceived and bore him a son.” (Genesis 30)

“Esau took Canaanite women in marriage: Adah daughter of Elon the Hittite and Oholibamah daughter of Anah son of Zibeon the Horite, and Basemath, Ishmael’s daughter, sister of Nebaioth.”  (Genesis 26)

“When a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, if they both bear him sons, and the son of the unloved wife is the elder, then, when the day comes for him to divide his property among his sons, he must not treat the sons of the loved wife as his firstborn in preference to his true firstborn, the son of the unloved wife.” (Deuteronomy 21) [READ THE REST]

Though I haven’t read it yet, I assume this is the same trajectory in the Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire.

  • ben w.

    Yes the OT examples of marriage are certainly “multifarious”, but it’s clear that describing the marital lives of these OT saints should not be understood as a blanket condoning of their behavior. Specifically, Sarah’s giving of Hagar to Abraham is a faithless response to the delay of God’s promise to give Abraham and Sarah a child. The teaching in Deuteronomy is certainly more straight-forward, but I personally don’t flatly apply any OT ethical teaching to my life without running it through the Jesus-NT rubric (food laws, public stoning, punishment of those outside the Church, etc have thus all changed). I take NT ethics to be a clarification and development because of Jesus. Thus, as a Christian and not a Jew, I prioritize the NT ethical teaching, certainly on marriage. NT marriage ethics are not nearly so multifarious, right?

  • Luke Sumner

    This reminds me of a nice little graphic that I saw a few months back on Splonk.

    http://splonk.posterous.com/biblical-marriage

  • http://www.MannsWord.blogspot.com Daniel Mann

    Tony,

    This is a useful and appropriate saying: “If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Likewise, if you are trying to push same-sex marriage, then you are quick to “see” Bible contradictions – loopholes – on the subject.

    What you call contradictions are easily explainable otherwise:

    1. God often permits sinful behavior.
    2. God’s laws seek to regulate this behavior for the sake of His people.
    3. Many of the Biblical portraits are merely realistic accounts of what people do and don’t reflect the will of God.

    Here’s Jesus’ teachings on marriage – Matthew 19:4-8.

    • Jason

      Nope. Matthew 19:4-8 is Jesus’ answer concerning whether or not divorce is permissible. To imply more is to stretch the text beyond its intent. Also, you didn’t go all the way to verse 12, why is that?

  • Charles

    When Tony posts a link to someone else writing the literalists/conservatives in the crowd seem to want to attribute those writings to Tony. They appear to be very sensitive and defensive on quite a few posts. I guess they feel under attack, or are paranoid.

  • Kenton

    So just where is YOUR trajectory going, Tony? ‘Cause honesty, I can’t tell if this is “I think this is the natural progression of understanding marriage and until ALL my polygamous friends have the same rights of marriage as monogamous couples do, then Courtney and I are never going to legally marry” or if this is “I just met some people who are polyamorous and it sure does make me feel uncomfortable.”

    Cause in both of those cases I see a consistency problem for you. Is it something else possibly?

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Kenton, good point. I’m not entirely consistent. This blog is my thoughts-in-progress place. More on the “trajectory” of scripture soon…

  • Carl

    What Ben and Daniel said. Spot on, gents.

  • http://emergentpillage.blogspot.com/ audie

    So, because way back when God sometimes allowed men to marry more than one woman, we today should allow men to marry men?

    Yeah, polygamy is a complication, just like divorce. Still doesn’t negate God’s original plan for marriage as a man and a woman. Not does it negate God’s clear condemnation of all same-sex sexual relationships, even when he allowed polygamy.

    • Charles

      Here is an observation I think appropriate to insert into this important discussion: I think that because religious fundamentalists refuse to deliberate with others, because they believe they already have a monopoly on revealed truth, political results that are welcoming to all become impossible.

  • Matteo

    I don’t understand where slavery and polygamy are tolerated by God. Not that I support either. The only clear prohibition against polygamy is more of a restriction in Deuteronomy 17 saying the king should not have more than one wife. This is somewhat reflected in 1 Timothy 3 with respect to deacons. Paul’s talk about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 about marriage is based on a specific issue which is vaguely described. Also
    Jesus makes it clear that marriage itself is a temporary, earthly union, albeit important and
    even sacred relationship which provides protection from lust in Matthew 22. If one be truly devoted to Jesus then marriage might not be the best option but Jesus doesn’t seem to be too concerned Matthew 19:12.

    • Scot Miller

      Matteo–

      The Bible was used by Southern Baptists to defend the practice of slavery against the abolitionists (especially Gen. 9:18-27, but also verses like 1 Cor. 7:20-24, Eph. 6:5-9, and Col. 3:22-25, which seem to regulate the practice of slavery). In fact, in the past few years, the Southern Baptist Convention issued a formal apology for their defense of the practice of slavery, which they once held was ordained by God.

      Many people who hear that the Bible was used to defend slavery usually say things like, “But slavery in the Bible was NOTHING like slavery in the American South.” Perhaps. But once someone acknowledges a historical context for the practice of slavery in the Bible, then it’s difficult to say there isn’t also a historical context for, say, homosexuality. The biblical objections to homosexuality may actually be directed to practices where people are exploited or used, and not about loving same-sex couples who express total honesty and respect for each other.

      • Charles

        “The biblical objections to homosexuality may actually be directed to practices where people are exploited or used, and not about loving same-sex couples who express total honesty and respect for each other.”

        Exactly, Scot, exactly! Well said.

      • ben w.

        Scot, I think your position about what these practices “may actually be” is very tenuous and in fact textually unwarranted. Paul’s condemnation of homosexual acts in Romans 1:26-28 is very plainly based on a violation of God’s created order, not a violation of another person’s personal freedoms. Moreover, there are no details given on the nature of these specific acts (in any of the passages), simply that they were same-sex acts.

        If I’m understanding your position on the biblical teaching on slavery correctly, I think it would be better to simply say that the biblical teaching on homosexuality is fairly plain, yet should be rejected as a cultural bygone. I think it’s unfair to the text and the biblical authors to try to re-interpret the biblical passages on human sexuality so radically (now thinking not just you, but other writers and scholars). Are you able to just say that you disagree with Paul on slavery and homosexuality?

        • Zach Lind

          Ben, are you able to say that you disagree with Paul when he, in the NT, clearly permits particular members of the Church to practice polygamy? Since you read the OT through the lens of the NT, I wonder if maybe your lens has a smudge. If the Bible, or the NT in your case, contains no errors and permits a particular lifestyle, how is that lifestyle anything less than acceptable?

          • ben w.

            Zach,

            That would be news to me if Paul “clearly permits particular members of the Church to practice polygamy.” Could you tell me what text you’re referring to and make your case for the clear presentation of polygamy?

        • Zach Lind

          “A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well.” 1 Timothy 3:12

          If the practice of polygamy was morally unacceptable to the author of 1 Timothy, why would this prescription be limited to only deacons? Why not prohibit polygamy for all members of the community, not just the leaders? Seems pretty evident that by making this distinction the author leaves room for or permits non-deacons to have the option to have more than one wife. It leads me to wonder if this prescription isn’t based on any moral value attributed to polygamy but based on a logistical concern that having multiple wives might inhibit the kind of focus and energy that comes with the territory of church leadership. Does this seem reasonable to you?

          • ben w.

            No, I don’t think this passage applies to polygamy. First, even if it did, Paul’s prohibition for the leader doesn’t imply the allowance for the rest. So we shouldn’t say that being given to “drunkenness” and being “quarrelsome” are acceptable characteristics for any follower of Jesus. Even if Paul does have polygamy in view when he prohibits it for leaders (elders & deacons), it can’t be assumed that it’s OK for anyone.

            But I don’t believe polygamy is in view at all in this passage. There are at least 2 other possibilities: “one woman” = no divorce; and “one woman” = being a “one-woman man” (ie, faithfulness in marriage). Both of these seem much more likely because 1) polygamy was not prevalent in 1st century Judaism, and 2) polygamy is not discussed anywhere else in the NT, while divorce and marital fidelity are. My take for a while now has been that leaders being the husband of “one wife” means that leaders should be a faithful husband, a “one-woman” man. Again, this isn’t spelled-out for leaders because they’re called to something different, but because they will lead and be examples for the rest, they should excel in these virtues.

            Two other quick reasons I don’t think the NT (anywhere) teaches polygamy. 1) The Christian Church at large has NEVER understood the NT to allow for polygamy. The Church has debated a lot for centuries now, but polygamy has never been a significant discussion. 2) Paul in Eph 5 writes about the mysterious union of husband and wife being like that of Christ and the Church. This is an exclusive relationship between two parties, not many “Churches”, but One Church. This display of Christ and His Church that is found in marriage is destroyed by polygamy; and it would render Paul’s analogy meaningless.

            So I do take all the teaching of Jesus and the apostles to be authoritative; and I aim to align my life with that ethical teaching as best as I can understand it, by God’s grace.

          • Zach Lind

            “Even if Paul does have polygamy in view when he prohibits it for leaders (elders & deacons), it can’t be assumed that it’s OK for anyone.”

            Why not? Seems like a reasonable assumption. If the author finds the practice of polygamy to be equal to drunkenness or being quarrelsome, why would they not just say, “All men who enter into marriage must only do so with but one wife.”?

            I’d say it’s much more of a stretch to relegate the phrase “one wife” to mean no infidelity or being a one-woman man. If Paul wanted to say that, why wouldn’t he just say “If you are a married, don’t commit adultery.” Or since this issue is taken care of in the 10 Commandments, why even go into it at all? It would be as if Paul instructed all deacons to not commit murder. Duh.

            And just to be clear, I’m not claiming that the NT “teaches” polygamy. I’m merely pointing out that one could make a strong case that it is permitted for some. So it’s of little consequence, in my opinion, how little polygamy is talked about in the NT or how prevalent polygamy was in 1st century Judaism or how the tradition has viewed this issue. The tradition has been wrong at times, right?

            And to your last point, the metaphor Paul uses for marriage and the church really has nothing to do with this issue. He’s using a metaphor!! The use of this metaphor doesn’t in any way disallow marriage to more than one wife. If we’re going to turn metaphors into literal prescriptions then this is gonna make Christianity a lot more interesting!! Besides, wasn’t it Paul who said that it would be better to remain single since Christ’s return was right around the corner? ;)

  • Matteo Masiello

    I agree too.

  • Jim W

    “The biblical objections to pedophilia may actually be directed to practices where children are exploited or used, and not about loving (grandfatherly/beloved uncle-types and kindergarteners) couples who express total honesty and respect for each other.”
    Keep stretching, Charles and Scot. You’ll talk your way out of any pet sin you want to.

    • Todd

      I’m not much a proof-texter, but where in the Bible exactly are there objections to pedophilia? I suspect most married men in the Bible would appear to us as pedophiles, given the very young ages at which women were married to usually older men 2000+ years ago. Scholars suspect Mary was around 12 years old when she and Joseph were betrothed.

    • Charles

      “Keep stretching, Charles and Scot. You’ll talk your way out of any pet sin you want to.” What sin, which sin do you think I’m talking myself out of? Are you now God’s voice of authority on sin and my way of thinking? Do you have a monopoly on revealed truth?

      • Jim W

        I’m no authority, Charles, but the Bible is plain enough that I know certain things are sin, no matter how much I may want to deny that fact. God has declared that certain behaviors are sin. You can deny that all you want, but it’s still a fact and down in your heart you know it. All I did was substitute something you personally find morally repugnant with the original statement. It still works. Today, you claim that pedophilia isn’t equal to homosexuality. What about tomorrow?
        I can make a far stronger argument for allowing slavery than you can for homosexuality. Yet, you would probably call me a racist and a bigot for even thinking such a thought. Even though I’m against slavery. I find it morally horrifying. Yet, I can find plenty of Biblical evidence for allowing it. Unless… I read the entire Bible and see it as a unified whole-one complete story. Taken in context, the Bible doesn’t condone slavery, nor polygamy, nor pedophilia, and not even homosexuality, no matter how far you want to stretch.

        • Scot Miller

          Jim–

          Southern Baptists said the same kind of thing about slavery (“The Bible plainly and clearly says that slavery is God’s will”) that you say about homosexuality (“The Bible plainly and clearly says that homosexuality is a sin”). And as you admit, there is clearly more biblical support for the practice of slavery than there is for the abolition of slavery, and more explicit condemnation of homosexuality than there is acceptance of homosexuality. However, slavery is fundamentally immoral, in part because it treats an autonomous human being as a thing, and object. It is dehumanizing. The fact that the Bible tolerates slavery says more about the historical context of the Bible than it does of God’s eternal plan for the subjugation of the children of Ham in the story of Noah. Homosexuality is as morally neutral as heterosexuality; what makes a homosexual or heterosexual act immoral depends on whether the other is being used exclusively as an object. The biblical objections to homosexuality are actually directed to behavior that dehumanizes the object of sexual desire, not homosexuality as we understand it in the 21st century.

          And for what it’s worth, those who advocated the abolition of slavery and those who advocate the acceptance of homosexuality do so for biblical reasons, too: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, [there is no longer straight or gay]; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

        • Todd

          So you still haven’t told us where the Bible condemns pedophilia. Care to inform us where?

          • Jim W

            Todd, ever heard of the Old testament? Little book called Leviticus.

          • Todd

            Well you still haven’t given me a chapter and verse. Though if we’re going OT, Numbers 31:18 leads one to believe that it’s quite acceptable to “save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” (NIV) when taking vengeance upon Midianites. The OT also doesn’t seem to have any problem with polygamy.

            It seems like you’re picking and choosing your Bible-based sexual ethics!

  • Scot Miller

    Jim –

    I’m not sure whom you are quoting, but I didn’t say anything of the kind. There is a huge difference between pedophilia (or rape) and homosexuality. It is absolutely impossible for rape or pedophilia to be honest or show any respect for the autonomy of a person, since these acts violate the autonomy of the victims. Children (and/or animals) can’t freely consent to having sex, so to have sex with children (and/or animals) is prima facie immoral. Moreover, like sex between a teacher and a student or a boss and a subordinate, sex between and adult and child is inherently unbalanced and exploits the person without power; it is impossible for these relationships to be entirely free and honest, which makes them wrong. Likewise, the victim of rape doesn’t consent… which is why married women can be raped by their husbands. Marriage doesn’t make forced sex morally permissible.

    The same rules apply to heterosexuals and homosexuals when it comes to sexual morality: so long as the relationship respects the autonomy and freedom of the other, and so long as the relationship is voluntary and not coerced, the relationship is morally permissible. (And instead of allowing all sorts of sexual immorality, this conception of sexual ethics actually makes lots of things immoral, or likely to be immoral. For example, sex with multiple partners may be morally problematic, especially since it is more likely that one is using another person as a means to one’s end rather than treating that person with respect. Can I truly have multiple sexual partners and respect the fundamental humanity of each of them? Am I not just using them?)

    So your analogy between pedophilia and homosexuality fails in just about every conceivable way. Sorry.

    • Jim W

      Not an analogy. Just a substitution. You (not necessarily you the person, Scott, but your “group”) do all you can to downplay the seriousness of sin. God has declared that certain behaviors are sin. You can deny that all you want, but it’s still a fact and down in your heart you know it. All I did was substitute something you personally find morally repugnant with the original statement. It still works. Today, you claim that pedophilia isn’t equal to homosexuality. What about tomorrow?

      • Scot Miller

        Jim–

        Gosh, I didn’t know I was in a “group”. Cool. Do they have t-shirts or membership cards or secret handshakes?

        I don’t think I’m downplaying the seriousness of sin, but I am questioning what counts as “sin.” I would argue that “sin” is anything that breaks or violates someone’s relationship with God, with nature, with other human beings, and with oneself. By that definition, many more things become sinful (like worshiping one’s interpretation of the Bible, or going to church, since these things can disrupt my relationship with God, others, etc.). But there isn’t a plausible reason why homosexuality should be considered a “sin.” I’ve already specified what makes pedophilia immoral, but can’t think of any reason why homosexuality per se is immoral.

        You claim, “God has declared that certain behaviors are sin.” Does God have any rational moral reasons that homosexuality is a sin? I think I’ve stated plausible reasons why pedophilia is a sin and why homosexuality is not a sin. My hunch is that the Bible’s statements about the wrongfulness of homosexuality are more like the Bible’s position about the acceptability of slavery: culturally conditioned positions, not eternal moral truths.

  • Chris

    “The same rules apply to heterosexuals and homosexuals when it comes to sexual morality:”

    Rules? What rules? Whose rules?

    “so long as the relationship respects the autonomy and freedom of the other, and so long as the relationship is voluntary and not coerced, the relationship is morally permissible.”

    Sounds fairly arbitrary, and full of exceptions. “morally permissible?” Whose giving their permission? You? The majority?

    “(And instead of allowing all sorts of sexual immorality, this conception of sexual ethics actually makes lots of things immoral, or likely to be immoral. For example, sex with multiple partners may be morally problematic, especially since it is more likely that one is using another person as a means to one’s end rather than treating that person with respect.”

    What? Who says? Multiple partners can’t be mutually consenting? “*likely* to be immoral?” “*May be* morally problematic?” So then you’re not really sure. That’s preposterous. You’ve imposed some arbitrary moral standard based on your particular threshold and expect everyone to uphold it as normative. Wow!

    “Can I truly have multiple sexual partners and respect the fundamental humanity of each of them?”

    Yes, I can. People do it all the time. Muslims do it all the time. Do we all fall outside of your sacred standard?

    The arrogance.

    • Scot Miller

      Chris–

      I suppose I should have been more clear about my position. My moral position on sexual ethics (and probably most of my moral thinking) is deeply influenced by Kant’s categorical imperative and virtue ethics. For me, this means that moral values are objective (i.e., rooted in reason and in what leads to human flourishing), but not absolute (i.e., not applicable universally in every situation without exception). In my judgment, the only plausible candidates for “moral absolutes” would be very narrow, specific judgments, like “Rape is immoral.” I can’t conceive of any possible situation in which rape would be morally permissible. So moral values are not “arbitrary,” but are objective and can be discovered by reason to be universalizable (i.e., applicable to everyone). The values of honesty and respect for persons are not “arbitrary,” but rational moral values which lead to human flourishing.

      What kinds of moral “rules” are consistent with reason and virtue? The kinds of general moral principles which may apply differently in different situations. Consider this analogy: Health is an objective value, but how does the value of health apply to someone with diabetes and someone who does not have diabetes? Insulin is good for a diabetic’s health, but insulin is bad for someone without diabetes. The value of health is objective, but the particular use of insulin can be good or bad depending on the concrete situations of different persons.

      So I’m neither a moral relativist nor a moral absolutist. I’m more of a pluralistic moral objectivist (if that makes any sense). If I sounded like I was creating some absolute, arbitrary standard, then I didn’t explain myself very well.

      Is it possible for people to have multiple sexual partners and still show them respect (i.e., not use them as objects)? Yes, if everyone involved is fully informed and honest with themselves and with each other, if the relations are purely voluntary, and if the human dignity of each person is respected. However, since most people have expectations of monogamy, and since it would be easier to use people without being in a committed relationship, most people won’t be polyamorous. But whether someone is heterosexual or homosexual, monogamous or polyamorous, the same kind of respect for persons (i.e., honesty, no coercion, etc.) applies.

      I think my problem was that I was sounding more like Kant than I should have. Kant did have an absolutist ethical theory, and spoke with authority about “human reason,” which I think is a huge mistake. Why privilege 19th century European reason as somehow normative of “reason” as such? So let me be clear, I think we can still talk about ethics objectively, but not absolutely.

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