“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 2:36-40 (NRSV)
The first five books of the bible, collectively known as the Pentateuch or, in Jewish terms, the Torah, are what Jesus referred to in the verse above. Since opponents of marriage equality consistently refer to a biblical form of marriage, it is worth considering the place of marriage within these books. It is important to note that although there are many references to marriage, and some laws around sexual interactions, there is no definition as such within any of these books. It must be inferred. Therefore, this piece explores the nature of marriage as contained within Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – or the Law.
Genesis sets the scene for the whole bible. It starts with creation, and follows the stories of the patriarchs and their families. Scholars often compare the stories of Genesis to other tales from the Ancient Near East, to understand them in their historical and cultural contexts.
Genesis begins with two accounts of creation. It is the second account, found in Genesis 2:4:15-25, which has been consistently used in the marriage debate to show that the biblical definition of marriage is the union of a man and a woman. In this story, woman is formed from the rib of man while he is asleep. When he wakes, Adam names her and takes her as his own. The writer tells us that ‘for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh’.
Note the writer does not say that they will be married, rather that they will ‘cleave’ to one another. By chapter 3 verse 6, Adam is referred to as Eve’s husband, and in verse 8 Eve is said to be Adam’s wife. Given that Adam and Eve are depicted as the only two people on earth, there would have been no celebrant, witnesses or legal contract, and no forsaking all others. Just Adam and Eve, and in time their children.
After many generations have passed, including Noah and his wife, Abraham and his wife (also his half-sister, or perhaps niece), we see the first story of an engagement of sorts in Genesis 24. Abraham’s servant is sent to procure a wife for his son, Isaac. Rebekah is chosen. She is given jewellery. Her family is propositioned, and given gifts. Rebekah is consulted on the match and chooses to go back to Abraham’s land. All this is predicated on the idea that the one chosen must be from Abraham’s lineage, and willing to go and reside with their family. We are not told about a wedding, or the terms of the engagement, or any other details. In fact, straight after this passage, we are told that Abraham has taken another wife besides Sarah, and that before his death he gives her and all his concubines gifts, and sends them away.
The next marriage story is about Jacob (Isaac and Rebekah’s son). He must work for Laban (Rebekah’s brother) for seven years to earn the hand of Leah (his cousin). He then works another seven years because Rachel (Leah’s sister) is the one he really wanted to marry. He has children with both Rachel and Leah, and with their maids Bilhah and Zilpah. There seems to be no objection in the text to his marrying his cousins, two sisters at the same time, or that he has children with at least four different women of the household.
Next, there is the story of Sechem, who takes Dinah’s virginity (Jacob’s only named daughter), and then wants to marry her. This story has been proposed as potentially consensual or, alternatively, rape, although the text is unclear because this is not the point of the story. Dinah’s brothers agree to the marriage on the condition that the whole of Sechem’s village is circumcised beforehand. While the men of the village are recuperating from the procedure, Dinah’s brothers murder them all and Dinah is taken back to the patriarchal home, never to be mentioned again.
The next story of marriage is Judah and Tamar. Tamar was married first to Er, who died, and then to Onan, who also died. Er and Onan are both sons of Judah. He has one more son, Shelah, who Tamar should be married to when he becomes old enough, according to the law of levirate marriage. Judah fears for the life of his youngest son, and so sends Tamar away. Judah did not fulfil his duty to look after Tamar, and so she dresses as a prostitute and waits for him on the road. Judah visits and impregnates her, unaware of her true identity. When all is revealed, the disgrace of Judah is revealed and Tamar takes her place in the lineage of Jesus. There is no condemnation recorded for Tamar’s actions, only for Judah because he has been a hypocrite and failed to do his duty. Tamar is one of only five women mentioned in the lineage of Jesus, recorded in Matthew’s gospel.
Exodus is the story of how the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt, and wandered in the desert for forty years before reaching the Promised Land. There is just one law in Exodus about marriage. Chapter 22:16-17 says that ‘if a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him he must still pay the bride-price for virgins’. These verses explicitly note that a dowry, or bride-price, is a normal part of marriage negotiations. The groom pays the bride-price to acknowledge the husband’s indebtedness to his wife’s parents. In this passage, the payment of a bride-price for a woman who has been seduced (or raped) is the penalty that ensures some protection for women. For women in this time, a good marriage is the best protection against a life of poverty, but the loss of virginity before a marriage is finalised damages the woman’s chances of making a good match. Therefore, this law discourages men from seducing a woman to force a marriage match.
Leviticus is often considered the law-book. However, the bulk of the laws in this book relate to cultic traditions, or the laws of the priests. The only reference to marriage in Leviticus is in Chapter 21:13 where it says that the priest must marry a virgin from his own people. He is not allowed to marry a widow or a prostitute, and he is not allowed to marry outside of his family line. This is to protect the purity of the priestly lineage. It should be noted that the priests were the ones writing this, so they have a invested interest in keeping power within the family.
Chapter 18 does contain a list of seventeen laws detailing people with whom you are not to have sexual relations, as well as the admonishment to not sacrifice children to Molech. Chapter 20 has a similar list of unclean sexual relations but none of these is placed directly within the context of marriage. These laws probably would be used to dictate who you can marry, and it is worth noting that the prohibitions in Chapter 20 are not balanced by relationship status. For example, there is a ban on sexual relations with a paternal aunt (father’s brother’s wife) but not a maternal aunt (mother’s brother’s wife). This is because the paternal relations belong to the patrilineal household, but the maternal one’s do not. This indicates that marriage, or at least sexual relations, within the household were banned. Further, the prohibition against marrying your brother’s wife in verse 16, is a direct contradiction of the Levirate laws attested in Genesis (and also in Ruth).
The book of Numbers follows the Israelites as they wander through the desert under the leadership of Moses. It has numerous lists of the tribes of Israel and the way that they are to be ordered while travelling and in the camp. It has very little to say about marriage. There are three main passages in chapters 5, 31 and 36.
The first passage contains a test for unfaithful wives. The suspect wife is taken to the priest by her jealous husband who administers a poison. If the poison has no effect, she is innocent. If it causes pain, then this is the ‘consequences of her sin’. (Num 5:31) It is thought that this ‘test’ works a little like the morning-after pill, and ensures that any potential pregnancy will be aborted, so that any future offspring will legitimately belong to the husband. It should be noted that this passage places no guilt on the husband, whether he is proven right or not. The woman bears all the guilt, regardless of the outcome.
In Numbers 31, all the virgins of a conquered town may be kept as plunder, and taken in marriage. Virgins are presumably acceptable because this ensures again, that the offspring will legitimately belong to the Israelite husband. All other women, men and children are to be put to death.
Lastly, we are told of the daughters of Zelophehad, who petitioned the elders to be counted in the division of Israelite land. Their father had died and cannot take his share, so they ask for his share to be divided amongst them. The initial petition is found in chapter 27, and in chapter 36 we are told that this petition has been granted, on the condition that the daughters marry within the tribe so that the property is maintained within that family line. In this way, throughout the book of Numbers marriage is a process that ensures property rights stay within the male lineage of the family. Women are only important as bearers of legitimate male offspring.
Deuteronomy, literarily a second law, is thought to be written by a different author(s) to the proceeding four books. It is essentially a recap of the story so far, but when we look at marriage customs contained here, we start to see a number of new ideas.
In Deuteronomy, we see the emergence of the idea that people should not marry outside of the tribes of Israel. (Deut 7:3) This is in contrast to earlier traditions that require the stranger to be bought into the family, remembering that the Israelites themselves where once foreigners. (Ex 22:21, 23:9; Lev 19:34) This is evidence of two traditions – endogamy and exogamy – that run throughout the Old Testament. Endogamy, is the requirement of finding a spouse within the tribes of Israel; exogamy is the acceptance of marrying foreigners and bringing them into the household, community and tribe. These varying laws point to multiple authorship and traditions within the Scriptures. The fact that the differing traditions have been recorded and therefore endorsed by the biblical tradition is very important in this debate. It shows us that we need to be very careful about insisting on one definition of marriage as traditional or biblical because there is clear evidence of multiple, and opposing traditions in the text.
This prohibition of exogamy in chapter seven is, however, lessened in chapter 21:10-14. Here, we are told that if you find an enemy woman who is a virgin and attractive, bring her home. Shave her head, trim her nails and take away her clothes. Give her a month to mourn her family, and then you can sleep with her and make her your wife. (Note that here there is no bride-price to be paid, and marriage is legitimised by sexual union). If at this time, you decide you do not like her, send her away – don’t sell her, or treat her like a slave, but you don’t have to put up with her anymore. Even though she probably cannot go home, or find another husband, or have any form of real protection.
In chapter 22:13-30, a man who decides he doesn’t like his wife after sleeping with her, and who has slandered and bad mouthed her, can be challenged by her parents. The stained wedding sheets show proof of her virginity before the marriage, which makes it legitimate. When the parents provide the evidence, the unhappy husband shall be fined and forced to continue to live with her. He is not allowed to divorce her. This prohibition against divorce is for the wife’s protection because her ability to gain a new husband after she has been given a bad name is virtually nil. If the parents fail to provide proof of her virginity, she can be stoned … because her husband doesn’t like her anymore.
Following this passage is the law that states that the man who seduces an engaged woman is to be stoned to death. If it happens in the city, both parties are killed, because she should have cried louder for help. If it happens in the country, only the man shall be killed. If a man rapes a girl who is not engaged, he must pay the bride-price and be wed, and again they are not allowed to divorce.
In chapter 24, a woman who is divorced by her first husband cannot marry him again if her second husband divorces her, or dies. Also, a recently married man must not be sent to war for a year, so that he may stay home and ‘bring happiness to the wife he has married’.
The levirate law, that a man may marry his brother’s widow is outlined in chapter 25. The explanation is that the purpose of this law is that the dead man’s property is maintained within the family line. This passage tells us that the man can decline to marry the widow, but first he will be talked to by the elders, and then she is allowed to spit at him in the town square so that everyone knows how he has disgraced the family line.
What Does This Mean?
These passages point to what a biblical marriage might look like. In the beginning, there was no law or legal construction of marriage. Rather, Adam and Eve cleave to each other and become one flesh. The word to cleave (dabaq) is the same one used in the story of Ruth and Naomi. It is also often used to talk of people cleaving or clinging to God and his commands. (Deut 10:20, Deut 30:20, Josh 22:5, 2 Kin 18:6, Ps 119:31). It is the same word that Sechem uses about Dinah, in the story in Genesis. This word is about people drawing as close as possible to another, or to God. It encourages us to think about loved ones coming together in a house-hold, or family-type relationship. Therefore, biblical marriage is about forming a family.
Marriage is also about sex. In Genesis, Adam and Eve become one flesh. They are united in a shared act that produces intimacy, and intimacy encourages us to look after each other. The list of prohibited sexual partners in Leviticus, with their repeated references to nakedness, suggests that this intimacy should be protected and valued. It also indicates that sexual attraction and activities were occurring outside of approved marriage relationships, and that this threatened the well-being of the whole household. This is true today as well. Infidelity undermines the trust and commitment between partners. It interferes with the stability of the connection, and therefore the family.
The laws related to virgins and inheritance suggests that marriage is about procreation, not for the sake of the children, but for the preservation of inheritance and property within the household, and tribe. The woman becomes the property of her husband at the time of the engagement, and any transgression towards her is against the value of his property. Similarly, the levirate laws, and the case of Zelophehad’s daughters, show us the importance of land being retained within the family, even if the patriarch dies without a male next of kin. Property is important because it allows the tribe to provide food for all its members. The Israelites of bible times were subsistence farmers, and everyone in the family contributed to the sowing, growing, reaping and preparation of food. There were different roles, but they were all interconnected. Therefore, marriage is about protecting the household’s food supply.
The latter books see the development of laws designed to protect women from being cast off by a dissatisfied husband. The inclusion of these laws shows us that some men were not looking after women with integrity. Israel was a patriarchal society, where the men held all the power and authority. Only men can issue a certificate of divorce, and only men were involved in the arrangement of a marriage. This left the women in a vulnerable position. The laws of Israel consistently insist on justice and mercy for the poor and oppressed. In this way, the laws against divorce (Deut 22-24) were designed to protect women from being cast off, because of ‘the hardness of men’s hearts’ (Matt 19:8). Exodus 21:10-11 gives us a clear indication of the biblical basis for marriage, ironically by providing the just reasons for a woman to seek a divorce. It says:
‘If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing or marital rights of the first wife. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.’
The Israelites of the biblical time understood that marriage was about providing food, clothing and intimacy. This provision was true if you had one wife or twenty. The failure to provide these things broke the covenant or promise of marriage, and allowed the woman to seek to find shelter, safety and provision elsewhere. The bible does not insist on one man and one woman, it does not insist on the biological production of children, and it does not provide a template for what marriage should look like. Rather, it concentrates on prohibiting acts that leave individuals vulnerable and alone. Within this understanding, marriage can be promoted as holding to the biblical ideals of providing intimacy, protection and support for all members of the household, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Within the text we see changes to the marriage act – endogamy vs exogamy, no divorce for any reason to divorce under some conditions, inheritance for only men vs inheritance for some women.
There have been many other changes since the end of the writing of the scriptures. All of these laws were developed within a patriarchal society that gave men authority over women’s lives. That has changed. Women and men are now equal under the law, and our laws reflect this. In these stories, the man mostly chose his wife. That has changed. Now, women and men together have to consent to marriage. A number of these laws implicitly endorse polygamy. That has changed. We now only recognise the union of two people. In many of these marriages, the bride was a young girl. That has changed. We now insist that all parties to a marriage are legal adults. In these stories, it is the men who automatically inherit property and wealth. That has changed. Now men and women are equal in terms of inheritance laws. In all these stories, there is assumed heteronormativity. That has changed. Now, families are made up of all sorts of combinations of age, race, and gender. To insist on one ‘biblical’ definition is to be ignorant of what the Bible in fact describes.
Marriage has a long and ancient tradition, but we must not be blind to the historic ideas that underlay it. Marriage has always been contextual, and has changed to fit the circumstances of society. Therefore, in following this tradition, we should change the marriage laws to fit our society, and to include any two consenting adults, regardless of gender.
There are some things that shouldn’t change, however. The biblical text focusses on joining together, having sexual relations, and the protection of the tribe through strict property rights and inheritances. What this means is that our current laws are not biblical, because they fail to provide property protection for same-sex families. Wouldn’t it be good if the law were changed to fit this biblical picture of marriage?