In the first part of this series, I briefly discussed the three passages that people tend to assume clearly define “Biblical Marriage” for us today. In this blog post I will discuss what it is that I, as a biblical scholar, think of when I hear “biblical marriage.” For me this label includes all examples of marriage in the Bible.

I think you will find that these two pictures are strikingly different.

The kinds of relationships that we find in the Bible include polygymy (more than one wife or concubine, simultaneously, a practice necessary to create the twelve tribes of Israel), open marriage for the man (since he can have access to the female slaves or servants in the house, in addition to his wives and concubines), forcing a woman to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) and levirate marriage (wherein a childless widow must marry the brother of her deceased husband). Those are just a few of the examples from the Hebrew Bible. None of these cases are specifically “blessed” or denounced by God, thus, in my way of thinking and reading, they all “count” as “biblical marriage.”

What we see in the Newer Testament includes Jesus claiming that men can leave their wives and children in order to follow him (Luke 18:28-30), in addition to him somewhat throwing the gauntlet in Matthew 19:10-12, where he discusses men being made eunuchs or making themselves such for the sake of the kingdom: “Let anyone accept this who can.”

Paul, the man who got the Christian movement started, says in 1 Corinthians 7 that he wished that everyone was as he was, which he clarifies later as being celibate. He is often quoted in his comment about it being “better to marry than to burn.” The “burning” there is that of passions, and in Paul’s context, passions themselves were bad. His comment is perhaps best to be read as, “If you’ve got passions then you better marry – that will neutralize those passions for you.”

In the same chapter, Paul’s letter endorses equality between husband and wife in a marriage. This idea is later countered in Ephesians 5 when the writer endorses a return to the patriarchal ideal of men ruling over their wives. I think most people are simply unaware of the range of possibilities that qualify, regardless of which testament of the Bible we look to.

The second point I would like to clarify is that, aside from that one moment in 1 Corinthians 7, marriage is discussed in the Bible in terms of the woman as the property of the man.

I say this with a fairly literal sense intended. It does explain why or how so many biblical stories show wives being treated as less than fully human, usually not having their own voice in stories, but I do hope that people who love the Bible can admit that this is an element of it that we ought not to continue to endorse.

Third, when people say that the “Bible says homosexuality/gay marriage is a sin,” I know that they believe that the Bible says this, since I used to think so, too. But it does not, nor could it, since there was no such term or category of human sexual orientation in biblical times. There are passages such as the Sodom story (Genesis 19), which depicts every male in the town gathering to gang rape some visitors. The issue there is not “gay sex,” but rather that these men were just plain cruel to outsiders. That scene would have been no less offensive if Lot had succeeded in giving the men his two virgin daughters to do to them as they pleased.

That story is about cruelty.

It does concern me that mature adults can read this story and confuse the message of wanting to harm/shame some people with consensual sex. There are other passages people turn to, such as Leviticus 18:22, and focus on men having sex as an abomination. But they do not take into account why.

Just as in Genesis 38, where Onan is struck dead for avoiding getting his sister-in-law pregnant by pulling out early, the issue in Leviticus 18:22 is about the people of Israel needing to grow in numbers. Any wasting of semen was not to be tolerated and thus was an abomination, i.e “something we don’t do around here.” None of those situations are talking about two same-sex people in loving relationships.

Finally, there is no specific place where “God Himself” establishes marriage as a holy institution. Genesis 2:24 is talking about the fact that humans do have an urge to leave home and start their own families. The “and cling to his wife” phrase can (and perhaps ought to) be translated as “cling to his woman.” We read into this passage the idea of marriage, mainly due to the translations we are reading. So, that verse is not about what God established in marriage.

One can read Ephesians 5:21-33, where marriages are discussed as representing the head/body hierarchy of Christ to the Church, as God making marriage holy. Whatever your level of sacrament for marriage, one might challenge the level of submission that is required of the wives in Ephesians 5 as being something other than holy.

When I hear someone say she only believes in “biblical marriage,” my knee jerk reaction is to want to ask her which version she is referring to.

I also find myself wanting to remind her that love is never discussed as foundational to marriage (1 Corinthians 13 is addressed to the community, not couples). Thus, while same-sex marriage is not endorsed in the bible, neither is a loving, mutually agreed upon union of a man and woman. I am so glad that we have evolved to include the latter in our general understanding of what a marriage can look like; I look forward to the day when we can agree on the former, as well.

Read part 1 of “Biblical Marriage: I do not think it means what you think it means” here and stay tuned for part 3!

Purchase Dr. Jennifer Bird’s book, Permission Granted – Taking the Bible Into Your Own Hands here

Dr. Jennifer Bird

Growing up in Roanoke, Virginia, former Associate Professor of Religion Jennifer G. Bird has recently become a Portland, OR transplant. All of her speaking and teaching about the bible touch on matters related to gender, sexuality and power, especially from the letters of the New Testament. Her first book, Abuse, Power and Fearful Obedience: Reconsidering 1 Peter’s Commands to Wives, was recently assigned at Yale & Harvard Divinity Schools.

Her undergraduate degree is a BS in Mathematics, with an Education Minor, from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (1994). With an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary (2001), she began PhD work in New Testament and Early Christianity at Baylor University and finished that degree from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee (2007).

Her post-baccalaureate teaching experience began in her final year at Princeton Theological Seminary, TAing for Biblical Hebrew, and included TA positions for Vanderbilt faculty or full teaching responsibilities for Koine Greek throughout PhD coursework and writing. Her most recent position was for six years at Greensboro College in Greensboro, North Carolina, with some adjuct work at University of North Carolina-Greensboro and Guilford College. While writing and speaking on both coasts, Jennifer is currently doing adjunct work at University of Portland and Portland Community College.
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