What does the Bible declare about marriage?

The Arguments from Authority: The Bible and Church Tradition

3.2.1 Does the Bible support the contention that marriage must be limited to one man and one woman?

When public discourse first considered the possibility of giving legal protection to same-sex unions, most Christian communities were alarmed at this because they judged that the traditional ideal of marriage was under attack.  Dr. Andreas J. Kostenberger, a widely published Protestant theologian, took offense at the very fact that civil discourse was entertaining to give further recognition and protection to same-sex unions at a time when traditional marital unions were in decline.  Here are the words of Dr. Kostenberger explaining himself:

#1  Marriage and the family are institutions under siege today, and only a return to the biblical foundation of these God-given institutions will reverse the decline of marriage and the family in our culture today.

#2  In the book of Genesis, we read that God in the beginning created first a man (Adam) to exercise dominion over his creation and subsequently a woman (Eve) as the man’s “suitable helper” (Gen 2:18, 20). Then, the inspired writer remarks, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV). This verse sets forth the biblical pattern as it was instituted by God at the beginning: one man is united to one woman in matrimony, and the two form one new natural family.

#3  The Bible makes clear that, at the root, marriage and the family are not human conventions based merely on a temporary consensus and time-honored tradition. Instead, Scripture teaches that family was God’s idea and that marriage is a divine, not merely human, institution. The implication of this truth is significant indeed, for this means that humans are not free to renegotiate or redefine marriage and the family in any way they choose but that they are called to preserve and respect what has been divinely instituted ((https://www.frc.org/brochure/the-Bibles-teaching-on-marriage-and-family)).

The passion and the insights that are voiced by Dr. Andreas J. Kostenberger have, at first glance, a certain seductive simplicity and appeal.  Gen 2, as Dr. Kostenberger interprets it, gives us God’s original template for marriage that is binding at all times and in all places. Kostenberger firmly believes that the appeal of  same-sex marriages will disappear as soon as civil society comes to recognize that marriage is a divine institution and that “humans are not free to renegotiate or redefine marriage.”  Here Kostenberger is tacitly declaring that civil institutions are not free to ignore God’s universal template for marriage.

Pealing Back the Hidden Layers in Gen 2

The moment that one begins to examine the details of Gen 2, however, we immediately notice that God is not preoccupied with instituting “marriage.” Rather, the Lord God is preoccupied with creating an extraordinary garden. Then, by way of getting a helper for this enterprise, he fashions out of the clay “adam.”  Nowhere does it say that adam is a male or that “Adam” is his proper name.  The capitalization of “Adam” in English Bibles is thus misleading.  Moreover, if adam was a proper name then we might have expected that this name would be used by others in the book of Genesis. This does not happen.  Rather, the Hebrew term { הָֽאָדָם֙ } means simply “out of the earth.” This being the case, I would suggest that the Hebrew term might better be translated into English as “earthling” which nicely suggests “origins from the earth,” therefore certainly not an extraterrestrial being or an angel (as some have wrongly claimed).

While adam (the earthling) is being trained as a gardener by the Lord God, adam is stricken with loneliness. Seemingly God is immune from “loneliness.” Hence, he doesn’t know exactly how to help adam overcome his loneliness. So he begins to create “from the earth” various birds and animals. After each such creation, he has to bring his latest brainchild to adam to see “what he would name it.”  Clearly here God is using a trial and error method.  Adam names each falcon, lizard, wolf following his own experiences with them.  It would make no sense for the Lord God to name them.  From God’s perspective, he is trying to make a “helpmate for adam” that will dispel his loneliness. This endeavor must go on for months and years. Without actually saying it, the inspired author is suggesting that God is clearly “adam’s servant” in this prolonged enterprise.

This is important here.  In the Ancient Middle East, it is usual to find “gods” functioning as powerful tyrants.  It is normal to find “gods” bent upon thwarting the needs of humans. Gen 2, in contrast, presents the Lord God of Israel as engaged in an open-ended exploration alongside adam.  Thus, while adam was originally created to serve God’s enterprise of gardening, the onset of loneliness reveals that the Lord God is capable of harnessing his creative powers in the service of adam.  From this we can also quickly see that the Baltimore Catechism begins on the wrong foot when it says that God created us “to know him, to love him, and to serve him.” Thus, Gen 2 can assist us in correcting our theology of God at the same time that it liberates us from thinking, along with Dr. Kostenberger, that God’s purpose in Gen 2 is to define marriage.

Reading between the lines of Genesis, one can imagine that only after several thousand failures does God slowly come to the realization that another novel animal or bird is not likely to resolve adam’s loneliness.  A Plan B is needed.  So God puts adam into a deep sleep and pulls “from his side” the female while leaving behind the male.  This demonstrates that adam was made originally as both male and female.  If one looks at Gen 1:27, one finds this:

So God created humankind { הָֽאָדָם֙ } in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them [NRSV].

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them [KJV].

The English of both of these translations obscures the original Hebrew.  In the Hebrew text, God is creating a single entity, the “earthling” adam found in Gen 2.  The English suggests that God created a plurality (Adam and Eve or even a few thousand).  Furthermore, the insertion of “them” into the text at two places further enforces the notion that adam is a plurality. The literal Hebrew, however, reads: “God  shaped adam in (his) image; in the image of God he created, male and female, he created.”  Once we recognize that adam is a single entity and that the image of God is a single entity, we do away with the problem of how Adam could be shaped in the image of God and then Eve could be shaped in the image of God without them being identical twins.  What the Hebrew has in mind is that God’s image is male-female; accordingly, adam’s image is male-female.  This is why I said earlier that adam is not identified as “male.” Nor, as it turns out, is God “male.”  Both have an image which is female and male.  An artistic rendition is found on this page.

Notice also that Gen 1:27 does not find any conflict in speaking of the “image” of God here even though God is sometimes thought of as entirely ethereal and consequently has no “image” whatsoever.  The rabbis discussed this question thoroughly.  They even told the story that after God created adam, the angels could not tell the difference between adam and the Lord-God because they were identical twins.  When God noticed their confusion, he put adam into a deep sleep. Then the angels immediately knew the difference and gave a sigh of relief at discovering that God is One.

Notice also that this reading of Gen 1:27 also does away with the problem created when Gen 2 is read as indicating that Adam was created first and Eve was created much later (as an afterthought).  If that were the case then Gen 1:27 would be inconsistent because Gen 2 makes plain that only Adam was created on the sixth day and only Adam was shaped in the image of God.  You can see how this misreading of the text can easily be used by men to support their claim that Adam has a God-given superiority. Dr. Kostenberger falls into this trap: “Scripture is clear that wives are to submit to their husbands and to serve as their “suitable helpers,” while husbands are to bear the ultimate responsibility for the marriage before God (Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; see also Genesis 2:18, 20)” ((https://www.frc.org/brochure/the-Bibles-teaching-on-marriage-and-family)). Kostenberger illustrates how seemingly insignificant translation errors lend support to ideas of God and ideas of women that cannot be found in Gen 1-3.

Once God separates the female and the male and their bodies are healed, God brings the newly shaped creature that he crafted for adam and presents her to adam.  Adam has to take time to examine her and to get to know her–just as he did for all the other creatures that God presented to adam earlier.  Adam then declares God’s successful handiwork: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman {אִשָּׁ֔ה}, for out of Man this one was taken” (2:23 NRSV).  The precise meaning the text is not completely clear.  However, I risk saying that it could mean, “Yahoo!  You’ve done it.  Here at last is a creature like myself who entirely understands my loneliness and understands exactly what I have been suffering.”

Notice here that the new creature is not welcomed as a cook or a homemaker.  Nor is she honored as someone to share the task of garden maintenance. Nor is she assessed as having lovely breasts and broad hips that will serve well for child-bearing. Companionship with this new creature may involve some or all of this in the future.  For the moment, however, adam names her אִשָּׁ֔ה which means “out of man.”  Here again this is not her proper name but a descriptive name very much like adam which means “out of the clay.”  The English rendering of אִשָּׁ֔ה as “Woman” entirely obscures the meaning of the Hebrew.

The biblical author then inserts his own footnote: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24).  This, of course, is not adam’s thought since, in effect, adam has never had any experience of a father or a mother. But the editor is thinking of his readers here and addressing their situation.  Every man knows that his parents are not sufficient to satisfy his longing for human connectedness.  That’s why every man has to go out and find himself a suitable “wife” and to cling to her with all his might.  And where does this longing come from?  It comes from the experience of every male that he is missing his “other half” and has to find her and bond with her. Only when the two become “one flesh” does the longing for human connectedness get dispelled.

Notice that the footnote does not say, “This is to make clear that God wants all marriages for all future generations to bring together one man and one woman.”  Dr. Kostenberger earnestly wants Gen 2 to say this, but, as we see from the text itself, the interests of the sacred text lie elsewhere.  They don’t talk about marriage at all.  Rather they address the matter of loneliness and offer the notion that sexual attraction and the resulting bonding that comes from it can satisfy the human desire for bonding.

The sexual bonding that Gen 2 has in mind cannot be crudely reduced to sexual intercourse, for intercourse, in and of itself, only occupies a small amount of time.  Furthermore, some acts of sex create conflict, shame, or personal injury.  So, Gen 2 never falls into the trap of thinking, as some teenagers are prone to do, that “lots of sex” is able to satisfy loneliness. In the ancient world, sexual intercourse was quite often required of men and women purely due to family and tribal obligations (as we shall shortly illustrate). The same holds true for some partners even today.

Conclusion

Gen 2 says nothing about God establishing a permanent template for marriage. What we know as “marriage” has taken many forms and shapes in the course of history.  This we will see in just a moment.  For the moment, however, it is “the human longing for connectedness” that is the source of all marriages.  Gen 2 makes it clear that God did not deliberately create this longing in adam.  When it shows up, even God is surprised that it should be this way.  God uses his trial and error ingenuity, but it is adam who has to confirm what actually works for him.

So marriage is not exclusively a divine institution as scholars and pastors like Dr. Kostenberger want us to think.  And nowhere does Gen 2 say it is.  In fact, if one reads the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures, there is not one single time or place where Gen 2 is held up as the model and the prototype for any or all of the hundreds of marriages described therein. Thus Kostenberger is sadly wrong when he believes that one size fits all and that marriages were entirely designed by God in Gen 2.  Dr. Kostenberger goes completely haywire when he insists that “humans are not free to renegotiate or redefine marriage and the family in any way.”  What a strange message this is!  It is assuredly not the God speaking and acting in Gen 2 that says anything remotely like this.

In fact, it is just the reverse.  Adam takes the initiative by revealing his loneliness. God responds by taking his loneliness seriously. When God begins his trial and error approach, God brings each of his new creations to adam and counts on him to fairly evaluate each of them one by one. God honors adam’s judgment at every point.  He expects adam to inform him regarding what works and what does not work.  Never, at any point, does God overwhelm adam by insisting that “the koalas I created are just what you need.”  Nor does God downplay adam’s distress.  He never says, “Be a man!  Get a grip on yourself. Master your loneliness or it will master you!”  Furthermore, God does not pull rank and resort to threats by saying, “Get this straight!  I make the rules here.  You don’t. You have to do it my way or else I’m going to give you a taste of my divine wrath.”  Rather, God speaking to me in Gen 2 appears to be saying, “Thanks for revealing your loneliness to me. It is certainly not good that you feel so alone. Let’s see what we can work out together to help resolve this.”

All in all, I have no investment in personally correcting and embarrassing Dr. Kostenberger.  Rather, I want to demonstrate to those Christians who are despairing and suffering from the well-meaning but ill-informed theological judgments of men like Dr. Kostenberger.  And, to those who emphatically believe that Dr. Kostenberger has found the answer to the modern problem of failing marriages, I want to offer them an opportunity to imagine that just maybe the voice of God that they hear inside their heads is not the voice of Lord God that speaks out from the inspired and inspiring narratives of Gen 2.

3.2.2 A Test Case: Matthew Vines, a Fervent Believer Wrestling with Loneliness

Matthew Vines grew up in an Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Kirkwood, Missouri.  When he slowly came to the realization that he had a homosexual orientation, he was horrified by the fact that his Presbyterian church offered him no route whereby he might gain God’s blessing for his sexuality.  Here is the message he received from his church:

We affirm God’s design for the two sexes — male and female — and believe that each is a glorious gift from God.  Our sexuality is meant to be offered back to Him.  For some, this means joining in a one-man, one-woman marriage — for procreation, union and mutual delight.  For others, this means celibacy which allows for undivided devotion to Christ.  Sexual expression is designed for the marital relationship, and homosexual lust[i] and behavior are among the sexual sins that are outside God’s created intent and desire for us.

Vines, at the age of 21, realized that his divine salvation relied upon his willingness to accept God’s plan that sexual intimacy was exclusively reserved to heterosexual partners bound together in marriage.  Since Vines knew that he was not attracted to women, he faced the bleak prospect of trying “reparative therapies”[ii] and praying to God for a miracle that would “transform his sexual appetites.”[iii]  Should these options fail, he knew full well that he would be forced to maintain a lifelong celibacy, even though he honestly recognized that he was not naturally inclined in this direction either.

Shaken by these bleak prospects for his future, Vines deliberately interrupted his college studies at Harvard (2008-2010) because he knew that he had to consult with biblical experts and come to a deeper understanding of why God opposes homosexuality and why God has no blessing to give to men like himself.

After his father approved of his six-page summation of his biblical research, Vines took his discoveries and presented them to the elders in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in his home town.  He met privately with many of the church members as well.  And here is what he discovered:

Despite my best efforts and the support of my family and some of our friends, our broader church community proved unreceptive to my message.  Months of grueling, emotionally draining conversations with church leaders and members produced next to nothing in terms of progress.  So eventually I left, dejected and depressed, but also determined to make change.  Several months later, I found a church in town that was brave enough to offer me a public platform to speak about the issue. . . .[iv]

Matthew Vines’ entire family deciding to leave their local church as well.  They didn’t do this in anger or in frustration.  They did it because they wanted to express, first and foremost, their solidarity with their son or with their brother.  They also did this, I would conjecture, because they were increasingly suspicious, thanks to the insights of their son, that there might be something drastically mistaken in the traditional Bible interpretations and that the “anti-gay gospel” was indeed destructive to the spiritual and psychological well-being of Matthew.  By extension, they might have conjectured that if the “anti-gay gospel” is poisonous to their son, it would follow, as the night follows the day, that this “gospel” might be toxic to other youths[v] wrestling with their sexual orientation as well.  Here is how Vines expresses this in his own words:

Could it be true?  Could it really be that this holiest of books, which contains some of the most beautiful writings and inspiring stories known to mankind, along with the unparalleled teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, also happens to require the emotional and spiritual destruction of sexual minorities?  For any of us who learned to love the Jesus who called the little children to him, whose highest law was that of love, and who was a fierce defender of the downtrodden and the outcast, this simply did not seem possible.[vi]

Thus, the suspicion was that the teachings of Jesus invalidate the “anti-gay gospel” and that, in the case of homosexuality, false teaching has distorted the biblical texts such that “Scripture is used to manipulate.  God is used as a weapon.”[vii]

Matthew Vines use of Scriptures is quite sophisticated.  Vines is not only casting doubt on the “anti-gay gospel” and the texts used to support it, he is also discovering overlooked texts that construct a solid basis for an eventual acceptance of homosexual unions.  Here is an excellent example:

In the first two chapters of Genesis, God creates the heavens and the earth, plants, animals, man, and everything in the earth.  And He declares everything in creation to be either good or very good — except for one thing.  In Genesis 2:18, God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone.  I will make a helper suitable for him.”  And yes, the suitable helper or partner that God makes for Adam is Eve, a woman.  And a woman is a suitable partner for the vast majority of men — for straight men.  But for gay men, that isn’t the case.  For them, a woman is not a suitable partner.  And in all of the ways that a woman is a suitable partner for straight men—for gay men, it’s another gay man[viii] who is a suitable partner.

And the same is true for lesbian women.  For them, it is another lesbian woman who is a suitable partner.  But the necessary consequence of the traditional teaching on homosexuality is that, even though gay people have suitable partners, they must reject them, and they must live alone for their whole lives, without a spouse or a family of their own.

We are now declaring good the very first thing in Scripture that God declared not good: for the man to be forced to be alone.  And the fruit that this teaching has borne has been deeply wounding and destructive.[ix]

Conclusion

Notice how Vines begins by carefully examining the text of Gen 1-3.  He isolates God’s declaration, “It is not good for a man to be alone,” as his key concern.  But then he shows that the “anti-gay gospel” frustrates God’s declaration in two ways:

  1. Gay people know very well that God has created for them “suitable partners,” yet the “anti-gay gospel” declares that same-sex partners are everywhere and always unsuitable;
  2. Likewise, the “anti-gay gospel” declares that gays must embrace lifelong celibacy; yet, in so doing, they frustrate God’s declaration that “it is not good for a man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).

This double failure on the part of the “anti-gay gospel” is “deeply wounding and destructive.”  The unspoken complaint here is that following the gospel of life should lead to peace, joy, and understanding; hence, quite clearly the “anti-gay gospel” is not the gospel of life even though Matthew’s church declares that it is the one and only Gospel.

3.2.3 Does the Bible support the contention that marriage rules never change?

Many Christians imagine that biblical inspiration takes hold when God overrides the human faculties of an author such that they write what God wants them to write—nothing more and nothing less. With this understanding, Christians had good reason to imagine that the Bible had a coherent unity and that a single author, the Lord God, expresses himself on every page.  Hence, whether you begin with Genesis or with the Book of Revelations, there is unity of thought and unity of purpose from beginning to end.

Today educated Christians recognize that the books of the Bible were composed at different times by different authors and that there is no overall unity of thought and expression in the Bible. Even the linguistic differences demonstrate that various books were written by different persons.  Mark’s Gospel, for instance, reveals a limited vocabulary and a rough master of Greek grammar. In contrast, Luke’s Gospel has a polished Greek appropriate to someone who was a master wordsmith.

When it comes to marriage, it is no secret that the divine norms governing marriage changed during the twelve hundred years that span the books of the Bible. Going further, it would be absurd to suggest that once the canon of the NT was fixed that nothing more needed to be decided upon or legislated. The writings of the Church Fathers and the decrees of local Synods and Ecumenical Councils expanded upon the NT norms precisely because they were aware that the NT had no exhaustive and systematic norms for sexuality. Hence, the bishops had to sort out the inconsistencies of the Bible and to respond to new questions and new situations of life that were never addressed in the Bible or that were addressed but only partially and inadequately.

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote a brilliant treatise in 1845 entitled, “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.”  Newman’s great masterpiece was the last work he completed before coming into communion with Rome. It is a magisterial defense of the idea that the Church’s comprehension of divine revelation enlarges and expands as it encounters different cultures and new social situations. He argues quite brilliantly (using a multitude of case studies) to reinforce the notion that the Bible cannot interpret itself and that, when every Christian is left to their own private interpretation, there cannot be any unity of understanding or of practice.  In the end, he comes to this conclusion: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be  perfect is to have changed often” ((Chapter 1, Section 1, Part 7)).  Click here to explore how Newman’s thesis was embraced by the Fathers of Vatican II.

Some Catholics are distressed to find out that there are inconsistencies in the revealed laws of God in the Bible and further inconsistencies in the marriage legislation of Church Synods. In many ways this is so because their priests and religious teachers are fond to glamorize the Church hierarchy by insisting that there is in the Catholic Church a chain of transmission whereby the one true faith that Jesus taught to his apostles has been passed on through an unbroken line of Catholic bishops down to the present time. This enforces the notion that the faith passed on is “always the same” (semper eadem).  Anyone who has studied church history or the development of doctrine knows that “faith” was passed on but the expression of that faith is quite another thing.  In point of fact, marriage laws changed at different times and in different places along with everything else.  Others, like Cardinal Newman, are quite aware that if God just kept repeating himself by issuing identical instructions on marriage over a period of twelve hundred years, this would create the distinct impression that God is indifferent to or ignorant of human experience and cultural changes.

Any human father who rules his children with an iron fist and imposes upon them rules and practices that are harsh and outmoded, would be deemed as an abusive and incompetent parent.  “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”  “Children are to be seen and not heard.”  “Never praise your child; it only makes them proud.”  “Father knows best.”   One of my boyfriends in grade school told me of how his father would strip him naked, hang him by his wrists in the basement, and whip him with a leather belt.  Needless to say, I saw this as extreme.  If I had known of the discipline advised by God in Deut 21:18-21, I would have thought that God himself was an inept parent.  Here is the key text:

18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. 20 They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid [NIV].

Our analysis of Gen 2 above illustrated how God is no stranger to human interaction and that he adapts his initiative to fit the situation.  The same thing must be said regarding the writings of the Church Fathers and the decrees of Church Synods. If all the bishops and synods issued identical instructions on marriage over a period of twenty hundred years, this would create the impression that the bishops were either out-of-touch or completely indifferent to human experience.  Again, as Newman came to understand, “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”  That being the case, let’s go on to examine a case study that will illustrate Newman’s thesis.

3.2.4. A Test Case: The Strange Case of Levirate Marriages

In many societies, both ancient and modern, levirate marriage was practiced.

Among the Hebrews, a levirate marriage is literally a “marriage with a brother-in-law.” The word levirate, which has nothing to do with the tribe of Levi, comes from the Latin word levir, “a husband’s brother.” In ancient times, if a man died without a child, it was common for the man’s unmarried brother to marry the widow in order to provide an heir for the deceased.  A widow would marry a brother-in-law, and the first son produced in that union was considered the legal descendant of her dead husband.

We see a couple of examples in the Bible of levirate marriage. The first is the story of Tamar and Onan in Genesis 38. Tamar had been married to Er, a son of Judah. Er died, leaving Tamar childless (Genesis 38:6–7). Judah’s solution was to follow the standard procedure of levirate marriage: he told Er’s brother Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother” (28:8).

Onan was more than willing to sleep with Tamar, but, unfortunately, he had no desire to have a child with her: “Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother” (28:9). In other words, Onan was taking selfish advantage of levirate marriage. He wanted sex with his sister-in-law, but he purposefully avoided impregnating her. Onan was aware that, if Tamar became pregnant, her child would claim a portion in the family inheritance.  Thus, the inheritance coming to Onan would be diluted. God intervened on behalf of Tamar.  God called Onan’s actions “wicked” and killed him (28:10).

Then, Judah said to his daughter‑in‑law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up” ‑‑for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers (28:11).  So Tamar agreed to wait.  When Shelah is grown (age 12?), Judah fails to keep his promise.  Years go by.  Then Tamar decided to take a bold step outside the Law.  She disguises herself as a “temple prostitute” and uses this ruse to get the offspring that is her right from the father of Shelah.  Three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter‑in‑law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned” (38:24).  Tamar then confesses to her ruse.   Hearing her story, Judah responds, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (38:26).  Thus she is exonerated by her father-in-law who confesses that he blocked her from access to his eligible sons.  This narrative is revealing.  It demonstrates that there are circumstances whereby a widow can, in desperation, seduce her father-in-law.  It also demonstrates that Levirate marriage was practiced long before it was included in the Deuteronomic Code.  Thus, even God adjusts his Divine Law to take into account those circumstances when “incest” is not only permitted, it is required.

Some seven hundred years later, the book of Deuteronomy was found in the temple (2 Kings 22–23).  The purpose of this book was to consolidate the temple in Jerusalem as the exclusive place to worship the Lord God and to insure that the direction of the temple was entirely in the hands of the Aronide priests. At this time, it appears that the books of Moses were lost.  Thus the book of Deuteronomy with its description of the laws given to Moses is presumably the sole witness to God’s revelation on Mt. Sinai. The discovery of this book may have given rise to the Deuteronomic Reform or, quite possible, the book itself might have been created by the reformers.  For details, click here.

There are many significant changes in Deuteronomy.  For example, the law reveals a special concern for the poor, for widows and the fatherless.  All Israelites are brothers and sisters, and each will answer to God for his treatment of “his neighbor.” Now, for the first time, God calls his people to take care that the stranger who lives among you is treated fairly. The stranger is often mentioned in tandem with the concern for the widow and the orphan. Furthermore, there is a specific commandment to love the stranger. These things, of course, are some of the themes that distinguished Jesus’ teaching. The Deuteronomic Reform, therefore, envisions a leap forward into the kind of Judaism that finds full development in the Acts of the Apostles.

Our special concern is changes in marriage law.  It would appear that the death of a brother in an extended household would often result in his widow being neglected or even expelled from the family. This occasioned great suffering for the widow.  The introduction of Levirate marriages was thus an act of compassion (some would say an act of justice) toward the widow. Once a widow had a son, her place in the family was secured and she had access to a portion of the family inheritance.

God’s purpose for levirate marriage is clearly stated: “The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel” (Deut 25:6). An unmarried brother of the deceased man bore a responsibility to marry his sister-in-law: God called it “the duty of a brother-in-law” (Deut 25:5).  This is clearly an “exception” to the previous divine command that God delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife: it is your brother’s nakedness” (Lev 18:16).

Notice that levirate marriage was a marital bond not born out of free choice and of growing affection but out of duty.  Deut 25:7-10 hints how this new ruling was oftentimes resisted by the brother-in-law.  The law then describes the measured steps to be taken whereby this resistance was to be overcome:

7 However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.” 8 Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” 9 his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” 10 That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.

The social pressure on the brother-in-law was enormous.  The village elders were intent upon providing for the widow from the resources of the family into which she married in the first place.  If that family failed to care for her out of obligation and if the widow’s parents were unwilling to allow her to return home, then the community would be burdened by another charity case.  Hence the husband’s brother had to be constrained to marry as an obligation to the deceased and as an economic and social safety net for the widow. The public shaming involved in allowing the widow to remove his sandal and to spit in his face is also unprecedented because it gives a powerless woman the right to shame a powerful man due to his stubbornness and his unwillingness to make provisions for his brother’s widow.

Conclusion

Notice that levirate marriage presumes that polygamy is socially acceptable and divinely authorized.  For this reason, Jews everywhere have long ago abandoned levirate marriage, and even the most devout Jews in the Hassidic quarters of Jerusalem are not anxious for its return—despite the fact that Deut 25:5 makes it clear that levirate marriage is God’s will.  In Mishnah and in Talmud we learn how the discussions of the rabbis sought to remove the necessity of Levirate marriage and to provide alternatives.

At the risk of overlooking exceptions, I would hazard the following general conclusions:

#1  No religious community can expect to be alive and to continue to thrive if it mindlessly imposes upon its participants a rigid conformity to practices that were understood as divinely authorized in the past but, more often than not, cause resentment and unnecessary suffering.  Test cases: the religious anti-slavery movement and the recent redefining the fate of those children who die without baptism.

#2  The Bible and the study of church history allow us to see a huge landscape whereupon religious communities, sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly, change their minds in order to keep pace with the living voice of God.  Test case: Peter describes his own conversion saying, “You know it is against our laws for a Jewish man to enter a Gentile home like this or to associate with you [Gentiles]. But God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean” (Act 10:28).

#3  Prophets and teachers serve to keep alive the quest for holiness in  changing cultural and historical conditions.  Tradition is always a guide, but some elements in any tradition invariably become an obstacle and present a disservice to the living God.  Not to be willing to change is the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit because it venerates the demands of the past so completely as to be incapable of heeding the voice of the living God.  “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb 4:7).

Test case: Current discussions on whether polygamy (as a matter of justice) needs to be allowed in the case of those African converts to Christianity where polygamy has been an abiding part of their social fabric ((https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygamy_in_Christianity &  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1981/02/of-sex-and-the-catholic-church/305451/)).

Test case:  Despite the fact that homosexual acts were traditionally harshly punished within both civil and church societies, the majorities of citizens in the USA, Ireland, and Australia have recently seen fit to sanction and protect same-sex marriages.  Christians now are sorely divided on this issue.

#1  Some Christians believe that God in the bible only sanctions marriage between one man and one woman.   One the basis of the study done above, we can now agree that this is a misreading of the evidence of the bible.  When the bible is rightfully examined, it reveals that God has mandated at least eight different forms of marriage at one time or another (Remember the chart above).  Christians today can continue to imagine that God only sanctions marriage between one man and one woman; however, this belief can no longer be founded exclusively (a) on biblical texts such as Gen 2 and (b) on the presumption that the divine laws governing marriage within the bible never change.

#2  Some Christians believe that their church laws regarding marriage have never changed.  One the basis of the study done above, we can now agree that this is a misreading of the evidence of their denominational church history.  When their history is carefully examined, it will reveal that their church laws have periodically changed in order to update their service to the living God.

Consider how, in times past, marriages that crossed denominational lines were outlawed, then tolerated under certain special circumstances, and then finally approved with joy.  Consider also, how prejudices against former slaves or against “primitive” races prompted churches to legislate against inter-racial marriages.   Consider, also, how such legislation was eventually changed to tolerate such inter-racial marriages in certain circumstances.  Then, consider how your church’s legislation gradually moved toward a full and joyful acceptance of inter-racial marriages.  Examine how and when something akin to levirate marriage or polygamy were practiced within your denominational history.

Finally, consider to what extent the legislation in your denomination was influenced by civil legislation on the criminality of homosexual acts and by the psychological analysis of homosexuality as a “mental disorder.”  In the last thirty years, however, consider how members of your Christian denomination have come to personally experience in their families, in their parishes, and in their Netflix choices instances wherein same-sex unions manifest something of the self-sacrificing love and the permanence of affection traditionally associated with God’s covenant with his people as enshrined in the theology of marriage.   No matter where you stand on this issue today, consider what responsibility you and your denomination have to  reexamine the unnecessary suffering and combative factionalism imposed by things as they now stand.  What responsibility do you and your denomination have now to bring “peace, justice, and love” as the balm for healing your present denominational divisions so as to make “living faith” a possibility for future generations.

One Reply to “What does the Bible declare about marriage?”

  1. I very much enjoyed creating this learning segment.

    You will notice that I have provided readers with extended analysis of key issues and key biblical texts. Thus, the reader is brought into a deep learning modality where momentous discoveries can take place. Here is where the dialogue can flourish.

    If there are no biblical case studies, it becomes a battle of authorities—my authorities against your authorities. This cannot be negotiated since both sides have already decided that their authorities are reliable while my authorities are regarded as defective or heretical. When one enters into case studies, however, the appeal to authorities disappears and the interpretation of the common texts begins.

    I begin with Dr. Kostenberger deliberately. Dr. Kostenberger is an outsider. This allows Catholics to agree or disagree with him more easily. Then I go deep into Gen 2 which is the prime text used by Dr. Kostenberger. Step by step, I show how mistaken translations favor misreading of Gen 2. In the end, I turn Gen 2 into a surprising rebuttal of Dr. Kostenberger. I show that he has entirely missed the meaning of the Hebrew text and that, when understood correctly, a different God emerges who listens deeply to the suffering of adam.

    Then, I go into Matthew Vines and allow a contemporary to give voice to his fears of loneliness–which is theme of Gen 2. But then I have to deal with the key issue of whether God changes his mind and gives different people at different times different rules for marriage.

    I use the Levirate Marriage as a case study of how the divine law gets changed and why. Once there is a single instance of God changing his mind, this give rise to the possibility that God could change him mind regarding lots of other things—same-sex unions for instance.

    Then I use Cardinal Newman to give voice to the germinal idea that a changing tradition is more faithful and more compassionate than a static semper eadem tradition. This is a big jump for fundamentalists. That’s why I save it for last.

    Fraternally in Christ,
    Aaron

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