Thursday, August 16, 2012

How the Bible Defines Marriage

There is a graphic that has made its way around various social media sites (example) that purports to describe "How the Bible Defines Marriage."

The graphic manages to oversimplify things, get things wrong, and needlessly complicate things. Let's address the needless complications first.

The Bible is pretty clear on the definition of marriage. Marriage is the union of a man and a woman. There are many passages that illustrate this point - perhaps the easiest is "Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son." (Deuteronomy 7:3)

The situation in which a woman is given to a man is a marriage. There is more to it than that, of course. After all, there are such things as fornication, broadly encompassing adultery, rape, and prostitution, none of which are marriages.

The graphic needlessly complicates things by describing eight scenarios: one in which a man and a woman are shown, and then seven more. All that is needed is that first box of the graphic.

There are, remarkably, three more boxes that likewise show one man and one woman in this graphic. The only difference is that in these three, the people have different clothing/accessories. These are all actually examples of a man/woman marriage, so they aren't really alternatives to the "traditional" case at all.

Three of the remaining four boxes show one man plus more than one woman. There will be more discussion of these below, but these boxes are not really alternatives to the first box, either. Instead, they are instances in which one man is either married to one woman and has some kind of sexual relationship with other women or a man is married more than once. It is not as though there is a three-way knot tied, in which the women are bound to one another and their husband. Instead, the man is married twice (or more times).

The last remaining box is perhaps the creepiest looking, as it illustrates a skeleton plus a man plus a woman. It is a reference to the levirate law. The levirate law did not vary the "man plus woman" model. Instead, it provided for certain widows to be provided automatically with a husband. The very existence of the law presumes and emphasizes that marriages are between a man and a woman.

In short, all that was really needed was one box showing a man and a woman. That's how marriage is defined in the Bible. There is no other definition. There are lots of examples of marriages and other sexual behavior in the Bible, and there are quite a few laws about marriages in the Bible, but there is only one definition.

Now that we've seen that the graphic is needlessly complex, lets address some of its inaccuracies, by examining each block in turn.

First, within the "Man + Woman" block, the graphic states:
- wives subordinate to their husbands
-interfaith marriages forbidden
-marriages generally arranged, not based on romantic love
-bride who could not prove her virginity was stoned to death
The statement regarding subordination is certainly true. The Bible does teach that the man is head.

The only "interfaith marriages forbidden" are those between believers and unbelievers. Thus, for example, there is nothing in the Bible that forbids a Hindu and a Muslim from marrying one another, only one that forbids a Christian marrying a non-Christian.

Saying that marriages were "generally arranged," is probably a misstatement. Generally, marriages involved the father of the bride giving the woman to a man to be his wife. To induce him to give her to be the man's wife, the father was ordinarily given a dowry - a payment. Typically, young men would not have the financial means to give such a payment, and thus their fathers would be involved in making the payment to the fathers of the brides-to-be, to obtain them for their sons.

In such a process, romantic love may or may not play a part. Romantic love is something that would obviously incentivize a young man to work hard to obtain a dowry, or to beg his father to obtain one particular young lady rather than another.

Likewise, romantic love (or lack thereof) is something that would lead a young lady to try to influence her father's decision regarding potential suitors and suitable dowries. In other words, the marriage market was not the supermarket. Except in the case of heartless fathers, their daughters were not simply for sale to the highest bidder.

That said, it was not up to the young woman, and so the young woman's romantic love had only an indirect role. The young man's romantic love might have a greater role, although since sons were supposed to honor their parents, there was certainly a possibility that romantic love would be entirely overlooked.

The final point is the least accurate. The situation referenced is that described in Deuteronomy 22:14-21. In that passage, a man marries a woman and discovers that she was not a virgin. He then goes around telling people about this, to his wife's shame.

In this case, if the parents object they are to produce the evidence of her virginity. Once this is produced, the man is fined heavily and the man is prohibited from ever divorcing the woman (normally the law allowed for divorce).

On the other hand, if the it turns out that the man was right, and the woman was sexually experienced before marriage, then she was to be executed by stoning at the door of her father's house.

So, this was not simply a case that the woman was not a virgin, but that her husband discovered this after marriage and objected to it publicly, and it turned out to be true. There was no requirement that men deal with their disappointment about their wives' lack of virginity in this way. You may recall that when Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, he thought about divorcing her quietly - which would not have invoked this provision of the law (he understandably assumed that she was not a virgin from the fact of pregnancy).

Moving on to the second box, the graphic lists "man + wives + concubines." The practice of concubinage is described in the Bible, but never endorsed. For example, while concubinage is mentioned in Genesis, in the law it is never described or regulated.

The next box is "man + woman + woman's property." The graphic cites Genesis 16 for the idea that "man could acquire his wife's property including her slaves." This is a strange claim, given

Genesis 16:3
And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.


Genesis 16:6 But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid is in thine hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face.

That doesn't seem very close to the graphic's description, at all. Moreover, note that this is an example of Abram entering into a second marriage. This, as with other polygamous marriages, is described but not endorsed.

The next box is "man + woman + woman + woman ... ." The Bible does describe many instances of polygamy (and specifically polygany). These, however, are examples of one man being married multiple times - not of a 700-1000 way marriage (in the case of Solomon). While the law does regulate polygamous men, it does not endorse polygamy. Indeed, "husband of one wife" is a requirement for elders and deacons in the New Testament, making it clear that monogamy is the moral requirement.

Continuing counter-clockwise, the next box is "male slave + female slave." It is true that the law provided for slaves to marry one another, and provided that the arrangement of this marriage was at the will of the slaves' master.

The next box is "male soldier + prisoner of war." Actually this is misleading, because "prisoner of war" is not an accurate description of a non-combatant woman captured during war. There was a specific provision whereby in certain cases women of conquered countries could be taken as wives, rather than being killed off or sold into slavery with the rest of the people of their nation. There were specific regulations of this practice, some of which are actually quite interesting.

The next box is "rapist + his victim." The passage cited for this Deuteronomy 22:28-29, which states:

Deuteronomy 22:28-29
If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.

Standing by itself, one might think that this referred to a situation of rape. There is, however, a parallel provision of the law in Exodus:

Exodus 22:16-17
And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins.

This parallel passages suggests that Deuteronomy passage is referring to a seducer, not a rapist per se. Moreover, the Exodus passage makes it clear that the father still has the right to refuse his daughter to the seducer. If the father has the right to refuse in the case of seduction, much more in rape as well. Thus, while a father is given a right to insist on the marriage (and the dowry being paid), the father is not forced to give his daughter up.

It should be noted that while "lay hold on her" does sound like physical violence, it can just mean what it literally says. When, a few verses earlier, the law refers to the case of the rape of a betrothed woman, a different word (translated "force") is used. It's certainly broad enough to include rape, though. Whether it is intended to refer to rape, or not, the other parallel passage makes it clear that the marriage to the man is not automatic, but depends on the consent of the girl's father (as with all marriages where the daughter is still under her father's authority). In any case, the man must pay the dowry. The point of the law is, of course, about protecting a now unmarriageable woman (given that there was generally an expectation that a woman would be a virgin at marriage).

Incidentally, that's the same reason for the dowry - namely so that in case the man fails to continue to care for the girl (by divorcing her, for example), the patriarch of her family will have at least some means to maintain her. The point of the dowry is not to quantize the value of the woman, but to protect her against the case of divorce, both as a bond and as an insurance policy.

The final box of the graphic illustrates (somewhat eerily) a levirate marriage. The levirate law was designed to protect widows who had no son to provide for them. These women were entitled to have one of their husband's kinsmen marry and provide for them. The graphic is wrong to call the man her "brother-in-law." There is no brother-in-law after the death of a spouse. Moreover, the nearest male kinsman might be a cousin, rather than a brother. The point of this marriage was to provide for the welfare of the otherwise helpless widow.

The graphic says, "must submit sexually to her new husband," but both husbands and wives have that mutual obligation. In fact, the law regulates polygamy in certain cases by specifically requiring the husband to continue to feed, clothe, and fulfill his first wife's "duty of marriage" as he had done before. The New Testament explains more clearly:

1 Corinthians 7:4
The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.

More could be said on this topic, but won't for now.

Finally, as noted above, the chart is incomplete. For example, there is no example of "man + female slave," which is a situation provided for in the law. Likewise, there is no discussion on the marriage limitations imposed on inheriting girls (girls in families that have no sons must marry within their own tribe). Furthermore, there is no discussion of the extensive rules prohibiting various types of incest, or of many of the rules related divorce, including the prohibition on leap-frog marriages (re-marriage to a woman you previously divorced unless she has remained single).

In other words, the Bible says a lot more about marriage than what appears on the graphic, what appears on the graphic is not completely accurate, and the graphic needlessly complicates the issue of how the Bible defines marriage, in that the Bible defines it - at a fundamental level - as the permanent union of a man and a woman.


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