This 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:
- 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)
- Cooperative Effort
- Man + Woman + Concubine
- Fulfill a Promise
- Man + woman + female slaves
- Property Transfer
- Man + woman + woman + woman + …
- Population Control
- Status and politics
- Man + brother’s widow
- Social welfare
- 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.