In this third and final component of my “Biblical Marriage” series, I would like to discuss a few relationships that are within the Bible that can be useful in reframing the conversation about who the Church can endorse or affirm as being in romantic or sexual relationships.

Though it is true that only heterosexual couples are discussed as being “married” in the Bible (however differently marriage was conceived in the first century than today), and only heterosexual sexual intimacy is specifically condoned in the Bible, it is not a given that only heterosexual couples are talked about as being in intimate relationships, whether or not sex is involved. One of the things that makes this conversation tricky is that we do have to do a great deal of reading between the lines of scripture, due to the limited view of sexuality in the first century.

The David and Jonathan friendship/relationship has been talked about the most in this kind of an angle, it seems to me. The two of them are discussed in 1 Samuel 18-20. See what you think about the soul mate and love language the narrator utilizes:

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.  … Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.

Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life. (1 Samuel 18:1-3; 20:17; see also 20:41-42)

I am usually quick to want caution against making too much of the wording an ancient author might use, given how different it might be from our current use of similar language.

But in this case, it does seem to me that we ought to take the opposite approach. Many people, today, have been taught to read passages in the Bible that have even a hint of intimacy between two same-sex people as merely a close platonic relationship. In this way, David and Jonathan become the poster-men for the “men can love each other, platonically” movement. While I am all for such a view of friendships between men, I think we erase some important elements of their dynamics, in this case. What do you think?

The next pair that is often engaged in this conversation is Ruth and Naomi. There are two striking elements of their story that are quite relevant. The first is the language that the narrator uses to describe Ruth’s choices and actions. After we learn that Naomi’s husband and two sons have died, Naomi turns to her daughters-in-law and tells them both to return to their mothers’ homes (in order that they might be married off, again). Orpah cries and obliges; Ruth “clings to” Naomi.

This is the same language, in the Hebrew, used to describe how a man will “cling to” the woman he pairs up with, in Genesis 2:24.

Interestingly enough, people tend to assume that sex is implied by this expression in Genesis, but that it is an indication of just closely bonded women in Ruth. The second noteworthy element of Ruth and Naomi’s story is that beautiful proclamation by Ruth to Naomi, which is often read in heterosexual wedding ceremonies today, not at all ironically.

But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1:16-17, NRSV)

People also tend to focus on the one line about Ruth choosing Naomi’s God as her own, suggesting that it is the most important element of the passage. But what about the other ten lines that are about the commitment between Ruth and Naomi?

This final pair might surprise some folks, as it is something that had only been brought to my attention a few years ago. When the writer of the gospel of John talks about one of Jesus’ male disciples as the “beloved disciple,” he uses common Greek lover/beloved concepts and scenarios. The lover/beloved relationship was typically between two men, as we have in John’s gospel. But I have yet to meet a student or parishioner who does not think of this beloved disciple as standing in for each and every one of Jesus’ followers. From this perspective, Jesus loves all of his disciples, but this way of reading it effectively eradicates anything erotic in the relationship between Jesus and his beloved. Theodore Jennings’ The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Readings in the New Testament is a great resource for understanding more about this scenario.

One of the things that is happening, for many people today, is that we are taught to expect that the Bible is only going to refer to heterosexual couples, when it comes to sexually or romantically intimate relationships. Thus, when we come across a passage that just might be hinting at a same-sex couple, we are well trained to interpret it platonically. We find what we expect to find, instead of being able to see it for what it is.

The reality that our understanding of sexuality today is much more complex and informed than what the writers of biblical stories understood about it is an important element of this overall conversation. It is unfair, it seems to me, to expect writings from the 1st century CE, or earlier, to adequately address matters of sex, sexuality, and/or marriage.

This is the third part of a three part series on Biblical Marriage. Read part one here and part two 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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