As a biblical scholar and proponent of marriage equality, I am fond of discussing what the Bible does and does not say about marriage with anyone who will listen. It is also worth noting that I have not always been comfortable with same-sex relationships, and when I was not it was because of what I thought the Bible said on the topic. So allow me to shine a light on three key issues that I think are important to this overall conversation. I will address one issue per blog post.

The first issue is regarding the passages that people tend to claim are behind the idea of “Biblical marriage” today. There are three that consistently show up: Matthew 19:4-6, Ephesians 5:31-32, and Genesis 2:24. If you take a closer look at all three of these passages, I think you will find that they were not necessarily intended to define what marriage is supposed to look like, or at least not in the way they are often applied in this conversation. The Matthean passage is interesting in that it is nestled within a larger conversation about divorce – whether or not men were allowed to divorce their wives, women could not initiate a divorce – and not about Jesus setting out to define marriage. Additionally, in the next eight verses Jesus affirms the choice to make oneself a eunuch for the Kingdom, for anyone who could accept it. Finally, 19:4-6 is quoting Genesis 1:26 and 2:24, which do not necessarily have anything to do with marriage! (More on that below.)

The Ephesians passage is similarly tricky. Notice that I did not include 5:33, and I do not hear people who affirm “Biblical marriage” include it either. Ephesians 5:33 is the final verse in the chapter, so it does seem a bit odd to arbitrarily leave it out. But when you see that it makes it clear that there is not equality between a husband and a wife, but that marriage is a hierarchical relationship, people’s choice to omit it makes some sense. But that does not mean that 5:31-32 can be separated from it, however much we might want them to be.

Additionally, 5:22-30 say that a woman is to be submissive to her husband as she is to Christ. If you think about this for a moment, this biblical passage sets up husbands to be revered as Christ is. Regardless of the initial intent behind this passage, I’m not sure that this is an idea we want to endorse in practice, today. The Genesis verse typically drawn upon is 2:24, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Notice the difference in the meaning if it says, as the Hebrew allows, “clings to his woman,” instead of “clings to his wife.” The difference is subtle, but I hope you will pause to think about it.

“Woman” implies that the passage is simply about two people pairing up; “wife” makes marriage specifically a part of the picture. Would it surprise you to learn that every English translation renders this verse to reflect that a marriage has taken place? In fact, there is no mention of marriage in Genesis 1, 2, or 3. If we read Genesis 2 carefully, we will see that the Hebrew people seemed to be talking about this general pattern for humans: that when we grow up we strike out on our own, pair up with someone else, and start our own families.

In other words, this story could perhaps be understood as offering comfort to parents who are sad to watch their children fly the coop. It could also be a way of helping the timid among us out the door. It is because our English translations all call the woman “wife” in Genesis 2:24 that we have been taught to think of this verse as defining marriage in a particular way. In fact, if you continue into chapter 3 of Genesis, the same thing happens. References to “his wife” or “her husband” could (and perhaps should) be translated as “his woman” and “her man.” Both of the Matthew 19 and Ephesians 5 passages refer to Genesis 2:24 as being specifically about marriage, even though Genesis itself does not make this clear. I hope you will take a moment to reflect on all that has been lost, or gained, in all of these translations and interpretations.

In Pt. 2 I will discuss the flip side of the “Biblical marriage” idea: what marriage actually looks like in the Bible. In Pt. 3 I will discuss elements of the Bible that perhaps ought to be brought to bear on this conversation, especially for those seeking to embrace a stance of Biblical Obedience.

 

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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