The Biblical Norm for MarriageBy James Arlandson
A piece was recently posted claiming that the Bible does not establish normative marriage. The author describes various marriages and customs mentioned in the Bible, like polygamy, endogamy, levirate marriage, arranged ones, and men who "delighted themselves with an occasional prostitute."
Thus, biblical marriage is an evolving social construct that does not offer clear instructions for us today as to what marriage is.
The author concludes: "The sooner we move away from the myth of the so-called traditional biblical marriage, the better prepared we will be to discuss what constitutes a family in the 21st century."
This interpretation is a form of hyper-skepticism, which currently takes the form of postmodernism. It says textual meaning is unstable and cannot be nailed down. Culturally or in the bigger picture, traditions and certainties should be overthrown.
So, are we to draw the further conclusion, left unstated in the piece, that if marriage is a social construct that has no stable meaning, we are permitted to redefine it today -- to include same-sex couples, perhaps? If the author did not intend that conclusion, it's still a plausible reading, given the current marriage debate. Never mind the subtle shift from marriage to family in that quotation from his article.
Whatever the far-reaching conclusion, I don't believe that the Bible provides no guidance for normative marriage. It does.
We must interpret Scripture in its overarching storyline, as a narrative. We begin first with the paradise of Eden, and then look at paradise lost, and finally move on to paradise regained, to borrow from Milton. That third movement or stage is based on the in-breaking of the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus (but fully regained only at his second coming, which is not the concern of this rejoinder).
First, a brief description of paradise.
God made Adam, but it was not good that he should be alone, so God fashioned Eve from Adam's rib, which shows how closely they are united -- not the negative interpretation that says she was subordinate. Adam was made from dirt, not an angelic substance, while Eve came from humankind. To compare the two, who has a superior starting point? Everyone after that comes from human flesh. Poor dusty Adam.
"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). God fashioned them so that their bodies have natural coordination for consummating their oneness and for procreating. Only heterosexuality and this anatomical fit can do that.
Then the fall.
Their paradise was disrupted; things got out of joint. God removed the life of ease. Adam had to sweat to till the ground (Gen. 3:17-19), and Eve's pain during childbirth was greatly increased. She was said to be subordinated to Adam, but only after the fall (Gen. 3:16).
After this fall, marriage, as it met up with the human condition, adapted to its historical context. This is where the posted piece provides a useful description of how Scripture fit into the less-than-paradise customs of the day.
Yes, polygamy and concubinage happened in the ancient world, so the Bible describes it, though every time it was practiced, household troubles emerged (e.g., Gen. 16; 29:16-35; 30:1-22; 1 Sam. 1:6-7). Kings in the ancient world had many wives and concubines, but Solomon broke divine law (Deut. 17:17) because they led his heart astray from God (1 Kings 11:1-10).
Prostitution occurred back then, but an occasional delight in prostitution was forbidden (Lev. 19:29; Deut 23:17); even the passage that the piece references reveals a comeuppance for the patriarch who degraded himself in that way, before the Law of Moses was given (Gen. 38:24-26). It's hard to imagine, therefore, that the Bible says prostitution is a form of "evolving marriage."
The levirate marriage was designed to keep the deceased man's name alive and inheritance intact (Deut. 25:5-10), a kind of quest to return to Eden -- longevity and stewardship over his own land, his mini-Eden. It was a good law -- for its own day.
Yes, men had control over their wives back then -- i.e., participate in a patriarchy. But recall that Eve was explicitly said to be subordinated to her husband only after the fall. This means that equality and shared responsibility were lost and went downhill.
Finally, divorce happened among mere mortals. And Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife, if she became displeasing to him because he found something indecent in her (Deut. 24:1). Teachers of the law and Pharisees in the time of Jesus debated what the indecent thing was. A strict interpretation focused on "indecent" and interpreted it as sexual misconduct (School of Shammai). A free interpretation focused on what displeased the husband and said any cause (note those two words) would suffice for a divorce (School of Hillel).
So, to wrap up this section, the Bible describes -- not necessarily endorses -- the customs of the day. Scripture fits into its historical context, and we shouldn't draw any further conclusions than that, except to say it is clear that humans declined from the standard laid out in the Genesis paradise.
Now let's look at the marriage norm according to Jesus -- paradise regained.
The Pharisees asked Jesus a question about divorce: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" (Matt. 19:3). The phrase "any and every reason" is another way of saying "any cause." So the issue of broken marriages prompts the discussion.
Jesus replied that the Edenic model was the norm:
Jesus recognized that humanity had fallen from the norm, so he aimed to remind people what that norm was by referring to Eden. He appealed to the greatest intimacy that a man and woman can experience -- one flesh. Since they are one, humans must not separate them. God himself put them together.
But what about Moses's concession that allowed divorce? Jesus replied that it was just that -- a concession:
Thus, Jesus interpreted "any cause" strictly: sexual misconduct, adultery. (In my view, he would not endorse the no-fault, easy divorce today because of "incompatibility.") Nonetheless, God understands human weakness (hardness of heart) after the fall and allows divorce. But Jesus put restrictions on it, so a woman in his day would not live an insecure life, anxiously wondering when her husband would find "any cause" at all to divorce her and send her back to her father's house while the husband found a new wife. Jesus thus undermined patriarchy, or the husband's absolute control.
The basic, timeless principle: protect and honor womankind as equal before God (cf. Gal. 3:28).
To do that, Jesus again hearkens back in that latter passage to the "beginning" in Genesis before the fall. Marriage had sacred, stable origins.
To sum up, we have three stages or movements in the biblical description of various marriages: paradise, paradise lost, and paradise regained. Jesus represents paradise regained.
A postmodernist may be too sophisticated for Adam and Eve and the Garden. Then all we need to do for him is to boil down the three narrative movements to one simple truth that is easily understood.
Here's how Jesus would define marriage: one man and one woman living in a covenant of peace and harmony before God.
It is not an evolving social construct for him; paradise in Genesis guided him.
The sooner we return to this clear, non-mythical (i.e., down-to-earth) biblical norm for marriage, the better-prepared we will be to discuss what constitutes true marriage (and family) in the twenty-first century.
James M. Arlandson has written a book, Women, Class and Society in Early Christianity: Models from Luke-Acts. He has also written an article, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Christian: Women, Wealth, and Social Freedom," in A Feminist Companion to the Book of Acts.
FOLLOW US ON