(Please note: this is really a work in progress. It does not say everything that I would want to say, but indicates the direction of my thinking. I expect to be expanding and refining this argument over time. I also highly recommend N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God, especially for an excellent discussion of monogamy in the last chapter.)
Those who complain about Christians citing “biblical marriage” as a reason for denying marriage to same-sex couples ostensibly have a good point. A Facebook page called: Traditional Biblical Marriage: Trading Women for Money and Other Goods, lists lots of quotes from the Bible (mainly the Old Testament) that show women being (as it says) traded for money and other goods. It shows that the Old Testament men had multiple wives, evidently with God’s blessing. So why would someone who accepts the Bible as somehow authoritative think that God-ordained marriage is one man-one woman? In order to answer that question, we will have to look at several things. In this post I will address how I think one should interpret the Old Testament passages that seem to validate polygamy and buying wives. Next I will look at some of those texts to see what we can learn about marriage. In future posts, I will consider the New Testament texts and, finally, I will take a look at the broader understanding of marriage that we can draw out of the creation stories and the metaphor of God as the bridegroom.
My thesis is this: Throughout the Old Testament, men are judged by how they treat women, in marriages and other relationships. Whenever men break covenant, fail to trust God, etc. poor treatment of women follows.
First: An Excursus on How I Interpret the Bible
I have written elsewhere about my basic method of interpretation more extensively, so here I will only give a brief summary. I take the bible to be “authoritative” in the rich sense laid out by N. T. Wright in Scripture and the Authority of God. I read the Bible to learn about God and the relationship that God has had with God’s people. I read to learn about the mighty acts of God in salvation history, in renewing the world. But I also read to know God and who I am in relationship to God. For me the bible conveys information, but it also allows God to work in and through me, by the power of the Holy Spirit; it allows me to be transformed and renewed. I take the words of scripture very seriously because I believe that it is important to understand why a passage reads one way and not another. Why was this word used and not that word? Why were these stories that ones that were saved and not other stories? In the end, the story of God and God’s people becomes my story, with the climax of the story being the redemptive act of Jesus on the cross and through the resurrection. That is the highlight of history for me.
My job then, is to live in a way that is consistent with this story; to live a kingdom life. And to do that, I have to study the bible in its cultural context, I have to read it devotionally, I have to read it both privately and together with others in the community of faith, both current and historical, I have to use it for worship. Above all I have to ask the Holy Spirit to be at work in me as I read and humbly beg for mercy when I am inevitably wrong about some things.
Leaving aside Genesis one and two for the moment, the model of marriage in Genesis is not one that I would hold up for anyone to imitate. However, I don’t think the point of Genesis is to present heroes for our imitation, but to present fallible human beings to show us the grace of God. Not one of those multiple marriages in Genesis turns out well. Abraham tried to substitute Hagar for Sarah, because he did not trust God to fulfill God’s promise to him. But God made sure he knew that Sarah was just as important to the covenant as Abraham. Then God cared for Hagar and her son. The conflicts that arise out of the two sons – the son of Sarah as the forerunner of the Jewish people and the son of Hagar as the forerunner of the Arab people – are conflicts that have lasted for thousands of years. As another example of how polygamous marriage grows out of the deceit of men and causes generational conflict, see the story of Jacob. In the story of Jacob, the conflicts between Jacob’s four wives are at the root of the conflicts between the tribes of Israel.
In addition to the problems with polygamous marriages, sexual “impurity” crops up as a sign (not a cause, but a sign) of other kinds of moral failure. A passage that gets used and misused extensively is Genesis 19 – the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. I would argue that it is neither a passage about a group of homosexuals, nor just a passage about bad hospitality. The desire of the men of the town to rape the angels is symptomatic of their desires to satisfy their lusts in other ways, indicated by the oppression of the surrounding people. And Lot’s offer to give them his virgin daughters shows his own lack of righteousness (they get back at him later on when they get him drunk and have sex with their father in a cave).
The poor treatment of women in Genesis in other passages – the story of Dinah and Shechem, the way that Laban tricks Jacob into taking both his daughters, and Judah’s treatment of Tamar all show problems with this family that is supposed to carry the covenant. Judah, in particular recognizes that even though Tamar has deceived him and acted as a prostitute, she is “more righteous” than he is because her ingenuity enables the family line that carries the covenant to continue.
Leviticus has several texts that the LGTB movement calls “clobber” passages, having to do with improper sexual relationships. And many people argue that since we no longer follow all the laws in Leviticus, and these laws are culturally conditioned, we no longer need to uphold the laws that deal with sexual misconduct. See for example Leviticus 18:4-24. This passage begins with a list of all those relatives that you are not supposed to have sexual relations with: your father, your mother, your father’s wife, your sister, your father’s daughter, your mother’s daughter, your son’s daughter, your daughter’s daughter, your father’s sister, your mother’s sister, your father’s brother’s wife, your son’s wife, your brother’s wife, both a woman and her daughter, your wife’s sister (unless your wife dies), a menstruating women, your kinsman’s wife—all of this through verse 20. Verse 21 forbids offering your children as a sacrifice to Molech, and then we have the famous passage in verse 22: You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. Continuing in verse 23 the people are forbidden to have sexual relations with any animal. And verse 24 is the point of the whole thing: Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. In other words, these are the typical practices of those who are not the people of God, particularly the sacrifice of children, lying with a male as with a woman and having sexual relations with animals.
If we are going to say that Leviticus, and in particular the text prohibiting homosexual relationships, no longer has cultural relevance, instead of citing the laws having to do with what kind of cloth can be woven together, we should look at the actually literary context of the passage. Do we tend to accept or throw out the other laws having to do with sexual relations? Why or why not? Let’s look again: The list of sexual prohibitions in verses 4-20 are, in a sense, very practical for keeping the peace in families and tribes and for keeping genetic diversity within the community. Actually, for the most part, we still see the validity of most of them. The list of prohibitions in 21-24 have to do with keeping yourselves separate from the nations around you. You are called to be different. You are called to holiness, to be holy as God is holy. The only one of those prohibitions that is currently being called into question is the one about lying with a man as with a woman. We are still on board with prohibition of child sacrifice and sexual relations with animals. In the context of Leviticus, in the context of being called to holiness, if we are going to take seriously sexual holiness, we might not want to totally discard Leviticus. (I will discuss Jesus approach to this in the next post.)
In Deuteronomy we are introduced to the concept of Levirate marriage – a man must take his brother’s wife if his brother dies. This is not a recipe for the normative view of marriage but a protection for the women who could not survive without a family. Any children the brother had with the woman were technically children of the dead brother. This meant that the child would inherit the dead man’s property and thus his mother would be cared for. We may not like this way of doing things but at the time it made sense.
Probably the most atrocious example of women (and children) being abused is found in Judges 19-21. I won’t go into it here, but please note that the final line of the book shows the cause of the abuse: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” If we want to know the consequences on society of doing what is right in our own eyes, this story from Judges tells us what to expect.
On to the multiple marriages of the Kings . . .
The women around David are foils in displaying parts of his character. Michal, the daughter of Saul shows that David is taking not only the spirit and the Kingship from Saul, but has taken the love of his children as well. David cares nothing for Michal as anything but the daughter of the king; someone he needed in order to further his political ambitions. When David takes Bathsheba in adultery, once again this is indicative of his sinful nature, not a suggestion that taking multiple wives is a good thing. The wives and concubines of David become pawns in the succession narrative; when Absalom sleeps with the women, he is declaring that he is king, he is usurping the power of his father. Later on, Adonijah tries to take control of the throne by taking control of the last woman to sleep with David (at least that is how Solomon sees it!). And certainly the multiple wives of Solomon are a bad influence on him, leading him astray by causing him to worship other gods.
In summary, alternatives to monogamous marriage do show up in the Hebrew Scriptures. And even “monogamous” marriages are not always models for emulation. I know that some religious traditions argue that multiple wives are encouraged by the Hebrew Scriptures, but by my reading of them, they emphatically do not encourage us to think that multiple wives are a good thing. The practice always leads to conflict. And even further than that, both polygamy and poor treatment of women both in and out of marriage is almost always either a cause or a symptom of men straying from the covenant and straying from trust in and worship of God.
In the next installment – New Testament passages regarding marriage.