Marriage: Its Evolution From Biblical Times To Today

Marriage: Its Evolution From Biblical Times To Today January 12, 2018

Marriage certainly has evolved since Biblical times. Let’s see how…


The most common verse in the Bible that’s quoted in support of opposite-sex marriage is probably Genesis 2:24, which the King James version translates as a rather beautiful passage:

“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”

However, this isn’t a good description of a typical marriage today.

When Genesis 2 was written, there were no marriage licenses. There were no members of the clergy or lay persons to solemnize marriages. The government did not register marriages.

Marriage in ancient times was more like a woman and a man deciding to live together and be subsequently recognized as a couple by their families of origin and their friends.

In spite of this passage, many religious conservatives currently look down upon a couple who is “just living together” as a relationship that is very much inferior to a “real” marriage.

In biblical times, there was no concept of sexual orientation: that is, a person could be attracted exclusively to persons of the opposite sex (heterosexual); or exclusively to the same sex (homosexual); or to both sexes, typically to different degrees (bisexual).

These concepts were only understood late in the 19th century CE. Thus, there was no mention of same-sex marriage in the Bible.

Some theologians interpret this passage in Genesis as implying that only opposite-sex marriages were allowed in biblical times and thus same-sex marriages should not be permitted today.

Others interpret the verse as a merely a comment on marriage as it was organized up in ancient times.

Marriage, as described in the Bible, was not restricted to one woman and one man. It often took the form of one man with multiple wives, and even with one or more concubines and/or slaves.

In Genesis 4:19, Lamech became the first polygamist listed in the Bible when he took two wives.

Other polygamous marriages involved: Esau (3 wives); Jacob: 2; Ashur: 2; Elkanah: 2; Rehaboam: 3; and Abijah: 14!

David, Gideon, Jehoram, Joash, Ahab, Jeholachin, and Belshazzar had an unknown number of multiple wives. Solomon appears to hold the record with 700 wives of royal birth, as well as 300 concubines!

In a polygamous marriage, concubines had a lower status than a wife. However, their children often had equal rights with the wife’s/wives’ children.

Marriage in biblical times, in comparison to today

Today, marriages are often looked upon as true partnerships where both parties are considered of equal authority and contribute equally to family decisions. However in Genesis 3:16: God said to Eve in the Garden of Eden:

“… thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” (Emphasis not in the original)

The Hebrew word for “marriage” literally meant for the man to “become the master of the woman.”

This is assumed by many conservative Jews and Christians as the pattern for all future marriages, including today’s: The husband leads and the wife follows.

Other examples of a lack of equality were:

  • Exodus 20:17 lists the last of the Ten Commandments states”

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.”

“Servant” in this verse refers to a slave. The neighbor’s wife is clearly regarded here as equivalent to any other piece of property or “thing” owned by the husband.

  • Exodus 21:4 states that a slave owner could assign any of his female slaves sexually to his male slaves.
  • Deuteronomy 21:10-13 states that if a soldier captured a woman during wartime, after waiting for a month, he could rape her. They would then be considered to be married.
  • Deuteronomy 22:28-29 states that a woman who has been raped must marry her rapist if that is what he desired. He simply paid her father fifty shekels of silver as her purchase price.
  • Deuteronomy 2:5-10 states that if a woman is widowed and does not have a son, she must marry her former brother-in-law if that is what he wanted. This was called a levirate marriage.

Some biblical marriages were of extremely short duration

Deuteronomy 22:13-21 explains how a husband can have his new wife executed if she is found to not be a “maid” — that is, a virgin. She would be brought to the door of her father’s house and the men of the city would stone her to death. However, the parents of the bride could “prove” that their daughter was a virgin if they could produce a bedsheet stained with her blood. If the groom was caught in a lie then he had to pay his father-in-law 100 shekels of silver, and he would not be able to divorce her in the future. [Author’s comment: I suspect that quite a few chickens and sheep lost their lives during ancient times providing the blood to be used as evidence of the bride’s virginity.]

Ambiguous references in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) that refer to bishops, elders, and deacons

1 Timothy 3:2 is translated in the King James Version as:

“A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach;

1 Timothy 3:12 is translated as:

“Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.”

In English, these passages clearly state that a bishop or deacon must be a male who is currently married to only one wife. Conceivably, he could have been married before, divorced, and remarried.

Titus 1:6 refers to elders in the church in the same way. It is translated:

“If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.

Unfortunately, these passages are ambiguous, in their original Greek. The Greek refers to a “mia” wife man. “Mia” can be translated in three ways:

  • a “one-wife man:” This is the most common interpretation. It refers to a man that is currently married to only one wife. That is, elders and deacons must be male, married, and currently have only one wife.
  • a “wife man” This refers to a man who is married, perhaps to one woman or perhaps to multiple women.
  • a “first wife man:” This refers to a man who married a woman and never divorced her.

The passages’ English translation reinforce the belief that the type of polygamous marriages mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures is no longer accepted in Christian circles, at least for church officials.


Wikipedia. 2017. Concubinage.

Shipley T. Man & Woman in Biblical Law.

The views presented on this blog are an extension of those presented on the Religious Tolerance website. The purpose of all articles is to compare the full range of beliefs and actions by people who are members of various faith groups within Christianity and other world religions, individuals who are NOT Affiliated with a faith group (NOTAs), and secularists.

Browse Our Archives