Marriage, allegory and the rewriting of history

A long standing legal truism is that January is a good month for divorce lawyers.  After the long Christmas and New Year break, when couples have been forced to spend more time together than usual, it is the time when couples start to think about divorce.  So there is an irony that this is a time when the church is thinking about marriage. 

2020 should have been the year that the Methodist Conference made its decision about whether, as a denomination, to allow Methodist churches to register for same sex marriages and their ministers to perform these weddings.  Due to Covid 19 they were unable to finish their national consultation process so it will be this year’s 2021 conference that will have to decide.  It is expected that this year’s conference will make the decision to go ahead.       The 2019 Marriage and Relationships report (methodist.org.uk)

2021 is also the year when the Church of England enacts its Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process.  The materials were published (  Living in Love and Faith | The Church of England  ) in November and once this year’s process has happened, the Next Steps group (  Living in Love and Faith next steps | The Church of England ) will work out what to do next. 

While the Methodists are explicitly deciding about same sex marriage, the Church of England is aiming for a much broader process.  The best laid plans of church leadership can often go awry, due to factors beyond their control.  Nobody could have anticipated the intervention of a new virus, but the actions of other Christian groups should have been easier to predict.

Almost immediately after the publication of the LLF materials a video was released by the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC).  This had clearly been pre-recorded before the materials had been released and took a view that ‘the Bible is a love story because the Bible is all about marriage’.  There was talk of schism and red lines, but it was the closing down of debate that caused the strongest reaction.

Is marriage really the most important aspect of the Bible and the Christian faith?

Although I can endorse the idea that the Bible tells a story of God’s love for humanity, I think it tells a bigger story than that.  That story has usually been told in four parts – the creation, the fall, the redemption brought about by Christ and the Second Coming at the end of the world. 

There is no marriage in the kingdom of heaven (see Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22 and Luke 20).  Marriage is a concession for this life and it ends at death.  It is not a heavenly aspiration that we look forward to at the end of all things.

And this is where allegory comes in.  In the days of the early church, literal readings of Scripture were considered superficial at best and heretical at worst.  As the church made new converts among gentiles the only scriptures available to them were the Hebrew scriptures as the New Testament scriptures were still being written.  As new gentile converts read the Hebrew scriptures there was much to learn about God and the history of the Jewish people, but a literal reading made no mention of Jesus.  So different ways of reading scripture developed.  One way was looking for prophesies that pointed to the coming of the Christ.  These still have a place in our liturgies, especially around advent, when the prophesies are read in church as we wait for the coming of the Messiah.   Allegorical readings developed which sought to look deeper into the texts and find meanings that are not apparent on a literal reading.

In the Song of Songs there is material that, on a literal reading, speaks of the love and sexual desire of a man and a woman. The literal reading shows positive endorsement of healthy love and sexual desire.  It is the early Christian writer Origen who is credited with being the first to develop the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs.  He treated it as an allegory of the relation between the soul and God. Later developments gave the interpretation of Christ as the bridegroom and the church as the bride of Christ.  This allegorical way of thinking can be found in later New Testament writing, such as Revelation 19’s image of the marriage of the lamb.

These interpretations only date from New Testament times and are a way of reconciling the lack of explicit mention of Jesus in Hebrew scriptures with the knowledge of the fundamental importance of the Hebrew scriptures to the people of God.  Yet these ideas are absent from Jewish understanding prior to this time.  These interpretations have not ‘been there from the beginning’, but are later ideas that are being read back into scripture.  This is particularly true for the interpretation of Genesis chapter 2.

Genesis 2 is the scripture often cited for the divine origin of marriage.  A selective reading of this describes how God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner’ (verse 18), then describes in verse 22 how God created woman and brought her to Adam – ‘And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.’  The implication being that God intended a woman to be Adam’s partner and that a male – female bond was the divine intent and anything else would be contrary to God’s plan for humanity. 

Jumping from verse 18 to verse 22 misses out some important points.  I reproduce the full NRSV text at the end of this blog. 

God did not impose a partner on Adam.  God presented the created animals first.  Only when these had been rejected by Adam did God go to the next level and create a woman from Adam’s body.  Adam recognised her because she was the same as him.  Not because she was different.  God gave Adam a choice and did not impose a woman on him as his helper.  Once we see that the person who would become Adam’s partner was Adam’s choice rather than part of a divine plan from the beginning then marriage becomes about choice not imposition.

Marriage has never been the only place for procreation either.  We see throughout the Hebrew Scriptures that men would have not only multiple wives but would have legitimate children with women they were not married to, such as concubines, female slaves etc.  Sexual activity in Biblical times was not confined to marriage only.  Many of the greatest figures of the Old Testament would have been in breach of the Church of England’s Issues in Human Sexuality standard.

It is time to stop rewriting history.  Marriage as a divine institution was not the way that marriage was understood in Biblical times.  Marriage was not a higher calling, but a concession to those who could not be celibate. To use Genesis chapter 2 as a divine template for the ‘one and only’ permissible type of marriage ignores the reality of the Biblical text itself.  In a church that recognises not only divorce, but remarriage in church and the use of contraception it is time to stop using marriage as a weapon and instead look to where the Spirit of God in acting and focus on supporting loving couples in healthy God filled relationships.  We need to let God decide whose committed loving relationships will be blessed. 

Genesis chapter 2, verses 18 to 25.

18 Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner’ 19So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
   and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
   for out of Man this one was taken.’
24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.