Continuing this series of posts following the recent debate with James White on “What Is Biblical Marriage?“, I wanted to focus this time on the question itself.
“Biblical Marriage”, as the title says, was always a contract between 2 men: The father of the man and the father of the woman.
In other words, the woman had little say in the matter and the arrangement was essentially another word for slavery. The man owned the woman. She was his property. She existed to serve him and to enlarge his legacy.
This is perhaps why there are no Hebrew words for “Husband”, “Wife” or “Marriage”. Those words got added into our English translations of the Scripture at a later date to soften the language.
Because the word “Husband” is actually the common Hebrew word “Man”, and “Wife” is the word for “Woman” and “Marriage” is the phrase “To take.”
So, if you read in your Bible that a husband married a wife, it should actually read more like: “the man took the woman for himself.”[NOTE: Special thanks to the amazing scholarship of Dr. Jennifer Bird on this topic]
This is also why you will never read anywhere in the Bible that a “woman took a man” since that’s not how it worked. A woman could not take a man. A woman could only be taken, and the sexual connotations of that are not accidental.
The marriage process in ancient Biblical times wasn’t sacred or religious in nature. You didn’t need to call the priest or rent out the tabernacle or the Temple for a ceremony.
In fact, you wouldn’t involve the religious community at all. Because, as I said above, marriage in Biblical times was always a contract between 2 men who haggled over the price of the woman who was purchased for the use of the man.
As David Bentley Hart puts it:
“There was no concept of sacramental marriage in either Old or New Testament, however. Marriage consisted in a father consenting to give his daughter to a certain man (which is why the father still walks his daughter down the aisle and the BCP used to ask “Who gives this woman to be wed?”), followed by a feast and (the most important part) consummation. That was it.
“Later in history, a blessing was added, and slowly the church inserted itself into the proceedings, first by allowing very respectable people to pronounce their vows publicly during a eucharist, then by demanding the right to solemnize vows for anyone who wanted to be in good standing with the church, and finally in the early modern period demanding that solemnization become necessary for “sacramental” marriage.
“But in the Bible marriage was still: “Here’s my daughter, here’s a dowry paid to you so that you’ll take her off my hands, the bedroom’s that way.”
Simply put, Biblical marriage was like buying something from your neighbor’s garage sale. And I’m sorry for how that sounds, but it’s a perfectly accurate description of how things were.
On the Christian side, marriage wasn’t made a sacrament until the 1500s. Meaning, prior to that time, Christians didn’t think about marriage as something the Church had to bless or regulate or define. It was merely an arrangement between two families that took place in someone’s home without involving the pastor, the priest, the bishop or any Christian leader.
So, Biblical Marriage isn’t what many Christian leaders want you to think it was. It wasn’t beautiful. It wasn’t sacred or holy. It wasn’t defined by religious texts. It was a secular business deal.
This is why you won’t find any instructions in the Bible for how to perform a marriage ceremony. It’s why you won’t read any stories about the beautiful wedding of Abraham and Sarah, or Jacob and Rachel, or any other Biblical character. It’s usually a single sentence: “Moses took Zipporah as his woman.” That’s it.
Because marriage wasn’t much more than that. A man took a woman and she became his. She had his children. She belonged to him. Not much more to say about it than that.
So, don’t you think it’s more than a little ironic that Christians today who are freaking out about people challenging their definition of marriage want to appeal to “Biblical Marriage” as the ideal example of what marriage should be?
Let’s be honest, Biblical Marriage was quite frankly a little barbaric. Women had no voice. Men had all the power. Divorce was at the man’s whim. Marriage was little more than domestic slavery.
Now, while you and I might recoil in horror over these things, the truth is, many of those “Biblical Christians” would probably nod their head and affirm that most of those details about “Biblical Marriage” weren’t really all that bad.
Why? Because, to them, these things were God-ordained and acceptable by virtue of the fact that they are found in the Bible, which is the inerrant and infallible Word of God.
So, whereas I might look at those examples and say, “Yes, people in Biblical times did believe this was how God wanted things to be,” there are Biblical Literalists who would take it an extra step and say, “People in Biblical Times believed this was from God, and therefore it must have been from God….because, hey, look, it’s written down in the Bible.”
There’s a difference between realizing that people in the Bible believed certain things without assuming they were actually being directed by God.
For example, is it a coincidence that a Patriarchal society worships a God who is male and gives commands that favor men? Is it a shock that a male-dominated community believes in a God who provides an adultery test that ends in a miscarriage, or a provision for soldiers to take young girls captive as sex slaves?
No, it’s entirely obvious that the God being described in this way mirrors the mindset of those people at that time. So, for us in 2023 to turn back to Leviticus and impose those primitive ideas about God on people today is not only absurd, it’s downright barbaric.
What’s more, this nonsensical desire to force everyone to return to a “Biblical” standard of living is quite troubling to me. Especially when you realize that Jewish Rabbis and other practicing Jews don’t run around trying to get everyone to return to living under a Biblical standard.
So, why are so many Christians doing this?
Because they’ve made the Bible their idol and they desperately want to use it to control the rest of us in any way possible. They want us to dress Biblically, legislate Biblically, and discriminate Biblically. They want us to replace the Constitution with the Bible – especially the stuff they read in Leviticus – except for the bits about shrimp, lobster, and bacon cheeseburgers, obviously. I mean, we have to draw the line somewhere, right?
As I’ve said on numerous occasions, many things are “Biblical” like:
When I say these things are “Biblical” I mean that people have in the past – and even today – use the Bible to justify all of those things.
So, yes, those things are Biblical. But, none of those things are Christlike.
And that’s the point. We’re called to follow Christ, not the Bible.
In fact, please understand this: the Bible does not tell us to follow the Bible. The Bible tells us to follow Christ.
But, Biblical Christians follow the Bible. They do not, in fact, attempt to follow Christ.
Yes, okay, perhaps they do affirm some things that Jesus said, but only to the degree that Jesus seems to follow the Bible. Beyond that, they’re not very interested in things like caring for the poor, turning the other cheek, loving their enemies, laying down their weapons, and all that hippie Jesus, Sermon on the Mount stuff.
For now, let’s just leave it at this: Biblical Marriages were not anything to aspire to and certainly more oppressive than what the followers of Christ should ever participate in today.
Women are not the property of men. Wives are not slaves of their husbands. Anyone trying to get you to return to the Biblical standard of marriage is trying to subjugate women and take us back to near stone-age practices of a male-dominant society.
I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want is a more Biblical world.
But I do hope that one day we might all decide we want to live in a Christlike world where everyone is loved, accepted, affirmed and empowered to be exactly who they were created to be.
In our next post we’ll take a look at why we can’t find any beautiful love language in the Bible between married couples but find shockingly intimate professions of soul-completing devotion from some unexpected sources.
Until next time…
Keith Giles is the best-selling author of the Jesus Un series. He has appeared on CNN, USA Today, BuzzFeed, and John Fugelsang’s “Tell Me Everything.” His latest book, SOLA MYSTERIUM: Celebrating the Beautiful Uncertainty of Everything is available now on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.