Redefining Marriage has Biblical Precedent

wedding-ringsThis past summer at my local church, I led a series on “What is Marriage?” as a Sunday Morning class. We talked about both the biblical and legal definitions of marriage to give greater context to not only to the DOMA and Proposition 8 cases that were before the Supreme Court at the time, but also to the anticipated 2014 Ballot question here in Oregon to rescind the state constitutional restriction of marriage to heterosexual couples.

For the first session, we had a lawyer who is an expert in family law come and talk to our Sunday School class about “what is marriage legally?” You can read about that class here.

For the second session, we looked at what marriage looked like in the Bible. Contrary to popular belief, “biblical marriage” is not simply a man and a woman. We used this graphic as a starting point for our discussion (click to enlarge) although there’s also a rather NSFW video of Betty Bowers explaining the same concept:


As you can see, biblical marriage is pretty varied. As a class, we examined each of these biblical marriages and asked one question:

  1. What  mattered in this relationship?

For each of the biblical marriages (yes, that’s  a plural), we talked about what mattered in the relationship – why was it arranged in that way. Our creative class came up with many values that mattered differently to the different biblical marriages like:

  • Man + Woman (Adam + Eve, etc)
    • Procreation
    • Companionship
    • Cooperative Effort
  • Man + Woman + Concubine
    • Procreation
    • Fulfill a Promise
  • Man + woman + female slaves
    • Property Transfer
  • Man + woman + woman + woman + …
    • Population Control
    • Status and politics
  • Man + brother’s widow
    • Social welfare
    • Compassion
    • Inheritance security

And so on.

Things got really disturbing when we got to the “rapist and their victim” biblical marriage. In Deuteronomy 22, it states that if a man rapes a woman, then the man must marry her and pay the dowry to the woman’s father. While horrifying, what mattered in this marriage is that the woman had one value in this type of society: their virginity before marriage. By taking that from her, the man had ruined her value in society. No one would likely marry her. So, to keep her from being thrown out on the street or killed, then the rapist was to marry her and pay for her as if she was a virgin. It was a (twisted) form of social welfare and property transfer, but what mattered was the future for that woman would be more secure, as traumatic a life as that could be.


In short, there’s a variety of biblical marriages in the Bible. And contrary to what NOM says, not all of them were for procreation. Some were for property transfer, and the rapist/victim above was more for care and concern for the woman–not that she would hopefully bear children. In our modern society and one where octogenarians get married, procreation is not the sole reason for marriage. As we saw in the legal realm last week, reasons for marriage include both love and the benefits a couple gets in society.

What stuck with me from this class was the sentiment that none of these relationships were lifted up as a model to be transmitted across cultural boundaries. In one culture, then a rapist marrying their victim made a certain amount of sense. It wouldn’t in another culture where women were valued differently. Polygany wouldn’t work in societies with more eligible males and less social value on having multiple wives (such as ours). And so on. The breadth of what constituted marriages changed with cultural concerns to care for either the powerful or the powerless, and the biblical record supports that.

And it may be that in cultures after the Bible was compiled, even the agents (male + female) would change, based on “what mattered” to the relationship and to the culture and to the church. Asking “what matters” may be more important than holding this checkered and varied depiction of marriage up to today’s couple and seeing how they fit in to it.

So take a Sunday and teach what the Bible actually depicts as “biblical marriages.” Let the conversation start about “what matters” in these marriages, and hopefully it will end up with a more biblically-aware congregation and a little chuckle in their mind whenever the term “biblical marriage” comes up in ads, conversation, online screed, and from the pulpit.


Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Txcon says

    While I’d agree those are all types of marriages referenced in the bible, where are the NT references? As I understand it, none of those beyond the nuclear definition would be supported by the man : woman : : Christ : church analogy.

    • says

      The NT references are often all I see as a model for “biblical marriage” which ignores the variety of biblical marriages found in the OT. If we are to take the Bible seriously, we must engage the whole of it.

    • Tom says

      Does your reading of Matthew 22:23-33 (and parallels) presume that Levirate marriage while living is to no longer operative? A plain reading suggests that the Sadducees have misunderstood our post-earthly bodies, not marriage itself.

  2. Thomas Coates says

    I’ve heard an interpretation that the Genesis mention of “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (and therefore the times its mentioned in the NT mean similar, or the authors of the NT interpret differently) is actually not an endorsement of leaving parents, but a neutral explanation or even a lament, as it means that the one who leaves is not honoring their father and mother.
    I’d love to explore feminist, womanist and other interpretations of how the NT addresses marriage, and for what historical purpose (other than the dominant interpretation we keep hearing today, being open enough to realize that the dominant interpretation may or may not be the most well-backed), why was marriage such a big deal in the NT? Was it purely a contrast against larger Roman society? Were there massive problems with marriages failing in NT churches? Is it our interpretation/social location at play? Was it possibly about spreading Christianity through new Christian families (and not just word-of-mouth)?

  3. says

    Everything after Adam and Eve and prior to Christ constitutes a way of life under the curse of sin. Jesus returns us back to what marriage is meant to be from the beginning.

    The OT also blessed war and genocide for the purpose of cleansing the land. Will you argue that’s a viable option for us, too?

    • says

      My very words above indicate that this survey is not meant to be seen as “viable options” for people but to show that “biblical marriages” were very much tied to their social location and the definition of a “biblical marriage” varied based on the situation. Do we recommend that rapists marry their victims? Of course not–instead, we have created the social conditions whereby that option is not viable.

      So the above is not meant to show what kinds of marriages we should be having, but giving biblical precedent for changing what marriage looked like and why it mattered.

      • says

        From the time of the Fall till the time of Christ there was much variance. Sure. But since the time of Christ, a Christian view of marriage has been consistent for the past 2000 years. The reasons why a man and woman might marry have changed (economic, agrarian, romantic love, etc) and may continue to change, but the common denominator has always been the same: one man and one woman. A truly Christian, biblical view of marriage can’t ignore the NT texts that define marriage as what it is today.

        • Zzyzx says

          Paul specified that a Church LEADER should be the husband of one wife. Curious, isn’t it? Many Jews practiced polygamy throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament time. Many Jews even practiced polygamy well into the medieval era. So polygamy would not have been unknown to Paul. Yet he only specified Church leaders there. He never spoke out against polygamy as he did against other unjust relationships. He is, in fact, entirely quiet on the question. It becomes telling that he restricted leaders to something, yet did not reject it for the average church member.

          Not only that, but the Church (especially during the medieval era in the West) has implicitly endorsed the form of marriage that is described above as “man + wife + concubine.” Most commonly in royal settings where the king was unable to have an heir with his wife. He could often have a male child with his mistress/concubine and (keeping in mind the absolute unity of church and state at the time) the Church more often than not ended up recognizing the male child from the mistress/concubine as the legitimate heir. Thus implicitly endorsing a “man + wife + concubine” form of marriage.

          Furthermore, and to return to polygamy, it may shock many commenters here but the UMC allows polygamy. Among other work, my ministry includes various international congregational connections. One branch of the UMC where polygamy has specifically become an issue is in Ghana. This article mentions that the discussion is happening: I haven’t directly participated in the discussions, but I’ve talked with those who have and seen them through my connections. In Ghana polygamy is still a somewhat common cultural occurrence.

          Thus the question has arisen of what the UMC’s position should be in relation to this practice. The official pronouncement, insofar as I have heard and understood, is that a man with multiple wives is allowed to become a member in the UMC. He is not to put away any of his wives (which would basically amount to throwing them out on the street because they often have no other means of financial or social support.) The man is not allowed into a leadership position a la Paul’s words nor is he allowed to take on further wives once he becomes a member.

          Now of course, as I mentioned before, polygamy has nothing to do with gay marriage. But these examples illustrate a point: There has been no monolithic history for 2,000 years and there still is not. Of course things get even MORE messy when one brings divorce into the issue. The Orthodox Church allows 2 or 3 divorces, if I remember correctly. Catholics do not, but they also have that backdoor loophole of annulment. Protestants vary across the spectrum. The Church’s position on marriage (and by implication divorce) has not been as monolithic as some people would like to think.

          • John says

            Polygamy has nothing to do with gay marriage ONLY when someone is prepared to offer some definition of what they believe marriage to be and what it is not. Jeremy has offered a series of variations found in the OT as examples of ancient practices. You’ve offered medieval examples of ecclesiastical recognition of royal adultery. You’ve offered an instance of culture-bound contemporary practice. You mention Paul (that scripture has also been interpreted to apply to serial marriage and thus forbid divorce and remarriage for clergy). But I don’t see anyone offering any DEFINITION of what they think constitutes marriage. So, what do you consider marriage to be? And what relations are beyond what the church can legitimately recognize as marriage? If the root of marriage is consent, then there is NO distinction between any and all forms of marriage–gay, straight, monogamous, or polygamous. Or is marriage whatever the church in a specific cultural and historical setting says that it is, which is exactly what happens when church and state are commingled, as we saw during the nearly-past era of Christendom.

        • John Handy Bosma says

          Huh? That’s historically inaccurate and departs in serious ways from what Jesus himself said. The NT does not define marriage as you suggest. Moreover, for a few centuries, people have been importing OT interpretations and putting words into Jesus’ mouth and ignoring other things He said — as you do here.

          “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.”

          “Let anyone accept this who can.”

          Jesus gives examples from His day of people who could not.

    • Tom says

      Also, doesn’t the wholesale violent imagery of Revelation justify the eschatological purification of the Earth in the manner of the Old Testament?

  4. Zzyzx says

    It always makes me sigh and wonder when people claim marriage as an unchanging institution. Not just because of those biblical examples you mention, but also because even in the last 2000 years of the Church the understanding of marriage has changed. Marrying for love, for example, is a relatively new concept. For the longest time the Church endorsed marriage as an economical or political contract. Common law marriages were the norm for roughly 1500 years (at least in the West) until the Council of Trent forbid them. But England allowed them until the 1700s. Change.

  5. Lance says

    Another illustration why I always chuckle when I hear the word “biblical”. It means so many things that it is a meaningless term.

  6. says


    I am not a biblical scholar, much less an OT expert. I do, however, think that your desire to lump all the relationships you list above into the category of “marriage” is an overreach. If you are wanting to trade in a particular category that has some analogy to the present, although with very different parameters, I think it is the category of “household” that works better. For instance, in antiquity it would be possible to bring slaves into one’s household through marriage, inheritance, or spoils of war, without the male head of the household automatically marrying those persons in the process (regardless of whether the head of the household took advantage of female slaves obtained in this way via rape or concubinage). It would be like saying that on legitimate contemporary view of marriage is “man + woman + adulterous liaison.” Whether a man or a woman has such a liaison outside of marriage, we would not say that the marriage (in a definitional sense) of the man and the woman includes the adulterous liaison within it.

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that you also seem to exhibit a common fallacy in the way in which people try to “expose” the fallacy of biblical marriage as between a man and a woman. Even in situations reflecting plural marriages in the Old Testament (as with Jacob with Leah and Rachel, for example), the biblical view is still that marriage is between one man and one woman. The point: Leah and Rachel were not married to one another. Each of them was married to Jacob (one man to one woman). Those marriage relationships were between two opposite gendered parties in each circumstance. It is, of course, true that a man like Jacob was not limited to entering into a single marriage contract. But each time he did so, he was initiating a contract with a single woman–not requiring his previous wife (or wives) to enter into that same contract and marry the new woman in question. So if we want to talk about problems with the OT presentation of marriage and our contemporary understanding, we would have to frame it in terms of the OT’s allowance of multiple one man / one woman marriages within the same household rather than saying that the fundamental nature of marriage itself was different (in terms of # of parties, or genders, of those in the marriage). That does change the weight of the critique that you are leveling and that so many others have leveled in the same area.

    Were I to go on, I would argue that the OT gives a uniformly negative appraisal of the consequences of both plural marriage and concubinage, with the available examples being numerous–Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, etc. That is, the nation of Israel suffered in various ways each time its leaders chose to engage in such relationships—and that, in this we see a progressive move toward monogamous, heterosexual marriage that finds its fulfillment in the profound, mystical analogy of husband and wife as akin to Christ and his Church. But that is a line of argument for another day.

    • Zzyzx says

      It’s actually not an overreach. Ancient Hebrew has no specific work for marriage. The most commonly used word is “to take.” This is a word that is also used when God commands Israel to take the spoils of war, a city, or when anyone is told to take just about anything.

      So, just suppose for a moment, that marriage really was viewed as nothing more than a social institution between/among consenting adults in OT times? (Keeping in mind, of course, that such institutions exist with the agreement of community and with God as a witness.) To my mind, it certainly seems to cast a new light on what marriage MAY mean. Especially when so many people want to claim ONE Biblical witness of what marriage is and act as if the issue is completely simple and not nuanced at all.

      Now, you mentioned the “trajectory” of marriage as the NT then showing the peak of our understanding of marriage. That’s certainly a theologically respectable position. However, the narrative of marriage as being more socially defined and changeable (while keeping God as a witnessing party) also fits the narrative. But, as you said, that may be another line of argument for another day!

  7. John Handy Bosma says

    Three basic points I think could help your position:

    1. I get the sense you have allowed yourself to fall into a trap. The Bible does not “define” marriage, either conceptually or operationally. I’m not sure why you say it does. One can assemble a list of examples to show that the assertion of one-man, one-woman is false, as you’ve done, but you and others are letting people get away with the false assertion that marriage is defined in the Bible. No, it isn’t. It’s a bad move by your side, because the examples of marriage covered in the Bible don’t include same sex couples we know of. That wouldn’t be an issue for your position if you note that the Bible doesn’t define marriage, because it would let you focus on explicit exceptions to the teaching while pointing out that nowhere in the Bible is marriage said to be only between a man and a woman. You win the argument then, because LGBT fall into the explicit list of categories of exception to the teaching Jesus Himself enumerated. I tire of conservative scholars getting away with the unchallenged assertion that the Bible “defines” marriage as one man and woman. I’m tired of people who favor LGBT conceding ground by repeating the falsehood that the Bible “defines” marriage, limiting themselves to quibbles over the boundaries. It is not a winning position; it just plays on traditionalists’ ground.

    2. In His discussion of eunuchs in Matthew, Jesus explicitly recognizes that there are exceptions to the teaching that men should marry women. He gives three categories of exception, but nowhere says this is an exhaustive enumeration or that the only persons exempted are eunuchs. He notes this teaching does not apply to all, and that some cannot. It should be clear that LGBT fall into these categories of exception. Certainly that is true for T’s, whose experiences match Jesus words almost exactly. “Have been so from birth, have been made … by others. Have made themselves for the Kingdom of Heaven.” Again, that’s born, made by others, made by self. If you can’t follow the teaching, Jesus doesn’t say don’t marry. He leaves it open. Now it should be clear that in terms of explicit approval to marry, transgender have as much permission from the Buble to marry as any living person. Are we really going to argue that’s okay, but people born LGB can’t marry? Sorry, I tire of conservative scholars getting away with the unchallenged assertion that the NT teaches marriage as one man, one woman for life, no exceptions. Jesus said otherwise.

    3. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the terms husband and wife are also undefined in the Bible.

    There are lots of other precedent arguments to be made; I think you’re playing on traditionalists’ ground. That tradition, of course, isn’t based in what the Bible actually says, but instead is based on a history of bigotry by people who have adulterated what the NT actually says.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *