Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Biblical Marriage part I: What the Bible actually says about marriage in the Hebrew scriptures

There is a lot of popular rhetoric surrounding the idea of "Biblical marriage" which tends to be some sort of idealized concept of one man + one woman = marriage. But in reality, it is a little more nuanced than that.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but rather an exploration of the many types of "marriage" in the Bible.

In Hebrew scripture, we don't see a ceremony in which there is one groom in a tuxedo and one bride in a white dress and both say "I do" and the "Love is patient, love is kind" text is read and Canon in D is played. Then the couple goes on a honeymoon and both are miraculously virgins on their wedding night and they live happily ever after in their own home. This is a highly Americanized version of what it is to be married. It is an outrage that this is held up as "biblical marriage" and hijacked and co-opted by a certain facet of Christianity that is used to deny happiness and rights to others, particularly those who identify as members of the LGBTQ community.

What does the Bible actually say about marriage?

In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were each other's only spouses, but that changes pretty quickly. In Genesis 4:19, “Lamech took two wives; the name of one was Adah and the name of the other Zillah." This is noted in my study Bible with the subheading, “the beginning of civilization.”

 Abraham/Abram is held up to be one of the great patriarchs of the faith, and that he and his wife Sarah/Sarai bore a son, Isaac, after a covenant that God made with Abraham to be the father of many generations.  Yet we ignore an important part of their marriage. Sarah was unable to conceive a child, so Abraham “went in to Hagar and she conceived” (Gen 16:4).  Hagar was the servant of Sarah, and Sarah didn’t much care for this, so she sent Hagar and her son Ishmael out into the wilderness to die.

Another example of “biblical marriage” is the story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah in Genesis 29. Jacob says to the sisters’ father, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel” (verse 18) yet when it came time for the wedding, it was Leah who was given. Jacob serves another seven years, then “Laban gave him (Jacob) his daughter Rachel as a wife” (verse 28).  

Poor Dinah is another victim of “biblical marriage.”  She is raped by Shechem (Gen 34:2) and is used in a game of property and acquiring of land (Gen 34:10) and her male relatives avenge her rape by telling Shechem and his relatives that they must be circumcised and join the tribe (Gen 34:15-17), it is only then that Shechem can marry Dinah and maintain some semblance of honor for her. And this marriage spawns horrible violence (Gen 34:25).

There are lots of laws prescribed pertaining to marriage. As prescribed in Leviticus, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” (Lev 20:10) There is also an extensive description of how priests should detect whether or not a woman was unfaithful to her husband in Numbers 5:11-31.  She could not be stoned to death without a witness, but she must undergo an ordeal of curses and drinking of bitter substances with the command, “now may this water that brings the curse enter your bowels and make your womb discharge, your uterus drop!” (verse 22).  

Women are the spoils of war in Deuteronomy, “suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry” (Deut 21:11), it is permissible to marry her after she “shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband” (Deut 21:13). Also, if you have multiple wives, but like the younger one more than the older one, you cannot discriminate when you dole out inheritance to their sons (Deut 21:16).  If a woman is accused of not being a virgin by her husband, and her family cannot produce evidence of her virginity, “they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death” (Deut 22:21). Also, if a woman’s husband died and she does not have a male heir, she is automatically to marry her brother in law (Deut 25:5-10). 

So biblical marriage, if we actually read the Bible, can include multiple wives, sleeping around with others in order to get a male heir if your wife is infertile, women as property to be obtained through 14 years of servitude, rape and avenging of rape by forced circumcision and maintaining "honor" through forced marriage, adultery is punishable by death, unfaithful women are cursed  by priests, and women are the spoils of war and are passed around among brothers in the same family. Sign me up for that!  

Bonus, the "ideal wife" as held up in Proverbs 31:10-31 can spin wool, plants a vineyard, wears clothing that is purple that she makes for herself, and she is pleasant and happy all the time. 

So those of you who are in biblical marriages, get cracking on those vineyards. 

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