Back in May, I wrote a post about what the Hebrew Bible says about marriage and how we should respond to the Bible's message. Much to my surprise, that post has gotten, by far, the most hits of any post I have ever put on this blog. Almost all of those hits have come from people who searched Google for something like, "What is the biblical definition of marriage?"
So, as a public service, I offer an analysis of some of the biblical passages that are sometimes offered as evidence of a biblical definition of marriage. As I stated in my earlier post, I do not present this as a way of promoting what marriage "ought to be." The Bible's understanding of marriage is very different from that of the modern world. Marriage has changed many times throughout the centuries. Those who seek to enforce "biblical marriage" today are ignoring thousands of years of history and change.
The man named all the cattle, birds of the sky, and wild animals, but no match was found for a man. Adonai God cast a deep sleep upon the man and he slept. God took one of his ribs and closed the flesh in its place. Adonai God fashioned the rib that God had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man. The man said, "This time [God has brought me] bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. I will call this one 'woman,' since she was taken from 'man.'" That is why a man leaves his mother and father and attaches himself to his woman so they will be one flesh. (Genesis 2:21-24)
This is the most common passage offered as evidence of a biblical definition of marriage, although, usually only the last verse is cited. When you read the whole story, though, it is clear that this passage is not about marriage.
This story is an etiology, a story that explains how the world came to be the way it is. The purpose of the story is to explain why human beings appear in two different forms, male and female. God determined that the man needed a match, a partner who was his equal. (The common translation "helper" or "helpmeet" is incorrect. The word ezer means "strength" or "power" in Biblical Hebrew, not "help.") God had to fashion a new being for the man from the man's own body, since none of the newly created animals could match him. That being was named "woman" (ishah) because she was taken from "man" (ish).
The story also explains why men seek out women and why "he attaches himself to his woman to form one flesh" (I'll leave it to your imagination to figure out what that's talking about). The story explains that this desire to connect bodies is an impulse that overrides even a man's attachment to his parents.
This passage does not define anything. Rather, it is an explanation of why the world is as we see it. There are two kinds of human beings who are made out of the same stuff and, because of that, they are attracted to each other in sexual union.
It is interesting that this, of all verses, is used to suggest that human beings should only partner with people who are unlike themselves, when the clear meaning is that the man and woman are right for each other because they are the same. Also, the passage makes no reference to having children. It cannot be argued from this verse that the sole purpose of sexual union is procreation.
Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17
You are not to murder, you are not to commit adultery, you are not to steal, and you are not to give false witness regarding your neighbor.
This verse (which appears both in Exodus and Deuteronomy) contains four of the Ten Commandments, including the prohibition on adultery. The problem for us is that the Bible's definition of adultery is different from ours. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, adultery is defined as sex between a man and a woman who is married or betrothed to someone else. (This is best exemplified by Deuteronomy 22:22). Nowhere does the Hebrew Bible prohibit a married man from having sex with an unmarried woman, except that he may be required to marry her and/or pay a dowery to her father (Exodus 22:15). (Remember that polygamy is normal and accepted in the culture of ancient Israel). The only definition of marriage that we can glean from this is that marriage affords the husband exclusive sexual rights to his wife, but not the other way around.
May Adonai cut off the person who [marries a non-Israelite woman] from all living descendants, from the Tent of Jacob, and from making offerings to Adonai of Hosts…If you ask why, it is because Adonai has witnessed you and the wife of your youth with whom you have broken faith even though she is your partner and the woman to whom you are covenanted. Did not the One make everything and the remnant of the breath of life is His? What does the One desire but the seed of God? So be careful with your life and do not break faith with the wife of your youth, says Adonai the God of Israel, for I despise divorce and covering yourself with lawlessness like a garment, says Adonai of Hosts, so be careful with your life and do not break faith.
Again, most people leave out the first part of the passage that makes the rest of it sensible. In context, the passage is talking about a man who has sought a second wife who is a non-Israelite and neglected or divorced his Israelite wife. The relationship to the first wife is referred to as a covenant because that is what it is—an agreement in which both parties have obligations to each other. Covenant, though, does not necessarily mean "holy." There are plenty of "unholy" covenants in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Genesis 21:32, I Samuel 11:1, Obadiah 7).
That is about as far as you can go in finding a definition of marriage here. Marriage is a covenant, a mutual agreement between two parties. There is no suggestion that marriage is an arrangement exclusively between "one man and one woman." In fact, the passage presupposes that a man might take a second wife while keeping the first. There are plenty of polygamous men in the Hebrew Bible and having many wives is generally considered a sign of prestige in the Hebrew Bible (for example, Jacob and David). Only Solomon is criticized for his many wives and that is because they led him to worship foreign gods, not because of their large number.
There is a bigger picture here, though. The passage in Malachi has to be understood as part of a metaphor that appears in many of the prophetic books of the Bible. The prophets repeatedly compare the covenant between God and Israel to the covenant between a husband and wife. This passage is unusual only in that the usual gender roles are reversed. Here, Israel is in the role of the metaphorical husband, not the wife. The image of a man abandoning his Israelite wife for a non-Israelite woman is a metaphor for Israel abandoning God and worshipping foreign gods. Marriage and divorce are not the real subject here, rather, the subject is loyalty to God and apostasy.
Also, this passage, in its original context, is not a prohibition of divorce. Divorce was an accepted and regulated act in the Hebrew Bible (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4). The meaning of "I despise divorce" should be understood in the context of the passage—God despises the abandonment of an Israelite wife for a non-Israelite. It is considered an act of lawlessness.
In the Greek Scriptures (New Testament), Jesus says that Moses allowed divorce only as a regrettable concession to human nature (Matthew 19:3-6, Mark 10:2-9). This was a minority view among the early rabbis, but the majority favored a liberal interpretation in which a man could divorce his wife for any reason, but he would be required then to provide for her upkeep. Whether divorce is regrettable or not, it clearly is permitted in the Hebrew Bible.
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding…
A rabbi may not be the best person to ask for an explanation of a passage from the Greek Scriptures (New Testament), but this passage comes up so often as a supposed source of a "biblical definition of marriage" that it has to be mentioned. I am not going to look at every passage in the Greek Scriptures that refers to marriage because, frankly, I have no great knowledge of it. I offer this as a non-Christian looking with scholarly interest at a Christian text.
This passage is mentioned at many Christian wedding ceremonies for one reason: It is the only place in the Jewish or Christian Bible that even mentions a wedding ceremony. Jesus was invited to a wedding and, in a metaphor for redemption, he performed there the miracle of turning water into wine. He observed that the wine steward served the inferior wine first and saved the good wine for later. The purpose of the story is to offer "the first sign" of Jesus' divinity. Just as Jesus miraculously transformed ordinary water into the drink of celebration on the third day, he eventually will miraculously transform sin into redemption on the third day after the crucifixion. The comment about the "good wine" serves to reinforce the redemption message—after this inferior world comes a world that is better.
The wedding is just the background for the story. It is a metaphor for the heavenly banquet that will accompany the world's redemption. To claim that this story offers anything like a "definition of marriage" would be like claiming that the parable of the bags of gold in Matthew is a lesson on finance.
A better passage to cite for the Greek Scriptures' attitude toward marriage might be I Corinthians 7:1, in which Paul advises that "It is well for a man not to touch a woman." Paul and the early church, it could be argued, were skeptical of marriage. Since they believed that the messianic redemption of the world was soon at hand, they thought it best for men not to distract themselves with the physical pleasures of marriage and to focus instead on God. This is a break from rabbinic Judaism which actually requires men in different professions to satisfy the sexual needs of their wives accordingly (B. Ketubot 61b).
What Does It Mean?
If a person wanted to offer an honest, historical definition of marriage based on the Hebrew Bible, it might be something like this:
Biblical marriage is a mutual agreement between two families to have the son of one family acquire a woman of the other family as a wife, perhaps among his other wives. Marriage can also be coerced, as in the case of military conquest (Deuteronomy 21:10-14) or rape (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). It can also be effected when a man is required to marry the childless widow of his dead brother (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Marriage gives the man exclusive sexual rights to the woman and marriage can be ended unilaterally if the man divorces his wife.
Doesn't sound too appealing, does it? Over time, the definition of marriage has changed for Jews and for Christians in a process that has sometimes been purposeful and intentional, and sometimes has just been a response to changing social mores.
The rabbis of the Talmud intentionally changed the ground rules for marriage when they instituted the Ketubah (marriage contract) to prevent men from leaving their wives destitute following a divorce. Judaism and Christianity both gradually adopted a standard of monogamy from about the 7th to the 10th centuries. The acceptance of marriage as an institution in which men and women have equal rights did not appear until the 19th and 20th centuries. Marriage has changed.
In our own times, most western societies recognize a distinction between religious marriage and civil marriage. Marriages solemnized under religious authorities today in the United States are becoming less prevalent. Many people today choose only a civil marriage, an arrangement that is generally accepted by society as a whole.
Given that different religions in our society do not agree among themselves on a single definition of marriage, it makes sense that the standards for civil marriage need not conform to the standards of any one religion. What the Bible says about marriage may be important for different Christian and Jewish communities. It need not be decisive, though, for choosing a societal standard for civil marriage.
We should ask, "What standard for marriage would recognize the loving and committed relationships that society wishes to promote?" "What standard would create the greatest happiness and fulfillment for society as a whole?" Those, in the end, are better questions for determining a standard for civil marriage than the question, "What does the Bible say?"
Other Posts on This Topic:
What Does the Bible Say about Marriage? What Should We Say?