If you had asked me twenty years ago about same sex marriage in church, I would have opposed it. The reason I would have given was that I thought it was against what the Bible taught. But twenty years ago I didn’t have a theology degree, I hadn’t seriously studied the Bible history, culture and translation issues. I can see looking back that some of what I thought and believed was quite superficial.
Eight types of marriage in the Bible.
I used to believe that Biblical questions of marriage were settled by the Genesis story of creation, particularly the second chapter, but God has so much more to say than that. We should not mistake God’s first words on a subject with everything the Bible has to say about that subject. Studying the Bible seriously meant finding out that there are many different types of ‘Biblical Marriage’. There are actually eight different types of marriage in the Bible.
For a start, there is the
1) nuclear family of one man and one woman
It is actually quite difficult to find examples of this in the Bible. It can even be argued that in Genesis chapter 2 that Adam and Eve were not actually married. Certainly there is nothing like a marriage ceremony, although verses 24, 25 do use the word wife. Marriages involve making promises, as the Church of England house of bishops reminded us in their infamous document about mixed sex civil partnerships, there are no promises here.
This form of marriage was quite different from what we see today. Marriage was a property transfer; the woman went from being owned by her father to being the property of her husband. It was a hierarchical and patriarchal relationship, where the man was the head of the house and the wife and any other women in the house had to obey him.
There were arranged marriages, such as Isaac and Rebekah. This is told in Genesis chapter 24. Abraham sent his servant off to his family to find a suitable bride for his son Isaac. Rebekah arrived on a camel after a long journey. There was no ‘You must be tired, have a rest’ or ‘I’ll arrange a meal for you’. Not even, ‘Hello, I’m Isaac, I’m going to be your husband.’ Instead it was straight off the camel and into his dead mother’s tent for sex. The point where they consummated the ‘relationship’ was considered the point when she became his property.
What is far more common in the Bible is polygamy.
2) a man and several wives
This is the most common type of marriage found in the Bible. Based on reading the Bible alone, anyone would conclude that this was the preferred form of Biblical marriage. David and Solomon had hundreds of wives and this large number of wives was seen as a sign of God’s blessing on them. It seemed like the more wives the better.
3) A man and his dead brother’s wife (Levirate marriage).
Levirate marriage is described in Genesis 38.6 – 10. This is where if a man died without children, his brother had to marry the widow and have children with her in his dead brother’s name. This was enforced polygamy. The idea behind it was that if a man had died without heirs to carry on the family name, then he would be forever written out of the family genealogy. In a way it would be like losing eternal life, from a Jewish perspective.
Similarly, if a woman was barren then the husband would not have heirs to perpetuate his name.
There were also forced marriages such as:
4) a rapist and his victim Genesis 38.6 – 10.
If a man raped a woman, he was forced to marry her. She could refuse, but if she did, nobody else was likely to marry her, so how was she to live? In Biblical times it was impossible for a woman to live independently. Unless she came from a rich family, essentially her choices were to starve or go into sex work.
From a modern perspective this is shocking and would be seen as an anti-women law, but in Biblical times this was seen as a way of making sure that a woman was provided for, for the rest of her life. By contemporary standards forcing a woman to marry her rapist would be seen as the last thing she could be expected to want. In a patriarchal society this may have been the only survival option open to her.
In some cases it would have been possible, in a situation where a father refused permission for a man to marry his daughter, that if he raped the daughter then the father could not refuse permission to marry her because the law required it.
5) male soldiers and female prisoners of war.
This is mandated in Numbers 31. 1 – 18 and Deuteronomy 21. 11 – 14
Women who taken as trophies of war were forced to marry the conquering soldiers. They did not have the option to refuse. Again it could be argued that if these women did not have a man to provide for them that they would be destitute and starve. Marriage was just a way of sharing out the responsibility for providing for the women taken as war trophies.
We could use a modern lens to look at this and see what would amount to a war crime, by contemporary standards. Seeing it through the standards and norms of the time could allow a more humane interpretation of providing for the women and children.
6) a male slave and female slave.
This is shown in Exodus 21.4. Slaves were property and owners could force them to get married. A female slave was then subject to having sex with her husband as well as her master. This was often done as a reward to a favoured, usually male, slave or for the breeding of the next generation of slaves to replenish the workforce. Women were considered to be property and this type marriage was simply seen as a property transfer of assets.
7) a man and a woman and the woman’s property such as female slaves
This can be found in Genesis chapter 16. If a woman had any property, for example if she was a widow and had property from her first marriage, then when she remarried everything became the property of her new husband. A woman would not have had a concubine, but she may have had servant women or slave women and they became the property of the new husband as well. This meant that the husband has sexual rights over all the women who came as collateral to the marriage.
Children were property too. Sons were the most valued, but there was little distinction between sons born to a wife and those born to women the father was not married to. All that really mattered was paternity.
We can see this emphasis on paternity in
8) a man and a wife (wives) and concubines
We can see this in the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 16.1 – 4. At that point Sarah has been barren and unable to provide an heir for Abraham. Genesis 16.4 describes ‘Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.’
This same situation is seen in the story of Jacob. He had two wives, Rachel and Leah, but also had children by their slave girls Zilpah and Bilhal. This lengthy story is told in Genesis 29.31 to 30.24, giving birth to twelve sons and one daughter.
Culture and tradition
Having a large household was expensive, so by the time of the New Testament, when the Jewish people lived under Roman occupation, few could afford to have more than one wife and all the extra children. Times were hard and one wife only became the norm due to economic necessity. It also fitted in with the culture of the Roman occupiers, where monogamy was the usual form of marriage.
In 1 Timothy 3 we are told the qualities that are needed for someone to be a bishop in the early church and in verse 2 it includes the condition that he be ‘the husband of but one wife’. That simple verse, however, could be understood in more than one way. If a bishop was only allowed one wife – was it to be understood as one at a time or only one in total?
These were times when many women died in childbirth. If a man’s wife died and he married again, would this rule him out of high office in the church? There was a time when that question was the really hot button controversy in the church. Eventually it seems to have been settled on ‘one at a time only’.
In the new Christian faith, marriage did not have the importance that it had in the Jewish faith. There are many reasons for this, such as an expectation that the world would end soon, but also a different understanding of eternal life. For followers of Jesus eternal life was no longer seen through being part of a family tree, but as being part of the eternal life promised by Christ. Marriage ended in death. This matter was addressed by Jesus in Matthew chapter 22 verses 23 – 32.
Paul urged everyone to remain single if they could. If they couldn’t then they could get married, but being single was the higher calling. Marriage was a concession for this life alone, once we die then marriage is no more.
A broad view of marriage
Marriage in the Bible does not conform to the pattern that is preached in many Christian churches. The idea that marriage in only for ne man and one woman does not stand up to scrutiny. By the end of the first book of the Bible we have seen six different types of marriage alone.
There were certain priorities for marriage in Biblical times, principally having children and being part of the unbroken family lineage.