Marriage Definition

This essay was written in response to this meme that is often used to critique the biblical definition of marriage.

An image featuring icons representing male and female stick figures bundle as couples in different types of relationships, like polygamous, councilism, slavery, etc.
Click here for a better view.

Nuclear Family:
Gen 2:23 (NLT) “At last!” the man exclaimed. “This one is bone from my bone, and flesh from my flesh! She will be called ‘woman,’ because she was taken from ‘man.’” 24 This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.

The only definition that qualifies as God’s plan for marriage is Gen 2:24, the rest of them are people doing their own thing. In some cases, these things are allowed by God, like polygamy, but almost every polygamous relationship in the bible involves drama. Paul says for husbands to love their wives like God loves his “wife” (the church). While wives are to love and follow their husbands like the church follows God (Ep 5:21-33, Col 3:18-19). Christ gave his entire being for the church. A man can’t truly give himself 100% to a bunch of different women, because his loyalty will always be divided. This is why in 1 Corinthians 7:4 Paul says that a man gives authority of his body to his wife and the wife gives her body to her husband. There can be no equal exchange of authority over each other’s bodies in polygamy. This is why Jesus points us back to Gen 2:24 in Matt 19:4-6, confirming monogamy as the true and best marriage framework. 1 Timothy 3:1-6 says church leaders should have one wife, which sets an example for the rest of the church.

Stoning the Virgin:
In Deut 22:13-30 Moses reiterated the sexual purity rules in the Moral Purity laws of Leviticus but elaborates on them. Many are disturbed when they see that only a woman is punished for her lack of virginity, never the man. However, this law is not against a lack of virginity but rather initiating a marriage under false pretenses, when looking at the broader context of Deuteronomy 22. Learn more about those verses here.

Polygamy and Concubism:
While polygamy was allowed in the Bible in the Old Testament, it has some restrictions. In the New Covenant, however, men are told to have one wife (1 Tim 3:2), mimicking Christ’s relationship with the one church (body of Christ). Polygamy was allowed in the Old Testament because there was only one group of covenant people (the Israelites) and their goal was to preserve until the Messiah came. In the old covenant, more covenant people are made by making more physical humans through reproduction because this covenant is built on blood relation to Abraham, and one way to ensure that your line carried on was to have more than one wife. However, there were grievous consequences and familial strife caused in these kinds of relationships since they are not the original model set up in Genesis 2:24. This is why in the new covenant making more covenant people is done by sharing the gospel so that people are born-again in the spirit. Therefore marriage is not necessary or valid in fulfilling the great commission. Learn more about Biblical Polygamy here.

Levirate Marriage:
In Deut 25:5-10 we get a definition of Levirate marriage in ancient Israel. In verses 5-6 it says the woman is to marry the brother of the deceased, and the firstborn son of the union would belong to the deceased as an heir. Side note: If he didn’t have a brother then the book of Ruth reveals that she is to marry the closest male relative (Ruth 2:20 and Ruth 3:10-13). It clearly shows in verses 7-10 that the man has a right to refuse marriage. When a man does so, he is subject to public humiliation, not death. The purpose of this marriage was to preserve land inheritance which was a vital part of the economy and needed to be managed in order to fulfill the law regarding the returning of sold ancestral land on the year of Jubilee. Land inheritance was an important part of Israelite culture because they were supposed to make sure that each non-Levite tribe preserved their land allotments in order to keep in accordance with the Jubilee rules regarding the return of sold (more like rented) land after each set of 50 years (Lev 25:8-13, Numb 36:1-12). In addition, the time left before the next Jubilee year governed the price of land (Lev 25:14-28).

Under the principle of “be fruitful and multiply”, it was necessary to make sure everyone was able to make as many babies as possible to preserve the nation and each tribe’s land allotments until the Messiah comes. Many ancient cultures and even modern one’s around the world still value preserving family lineages and heritage through the bloodline. Levirate marriage was an optional marriage practice that would ensure that someone’s lineage would make it to the promise of the land and the Kingdom of the Messiah. In many ancient cultures like this women wanted the honor of having children because it would be considered shameful to not have them, this is why in Deut 25:5-10 it is the woman who shames the man for not allowing her to produce an heir for her deceased human. This implies that in most cases the woman would lose the most if her late husband’s relative rejected her because it is harder for a non-virgin to find a husband than a virgin. Levirate marriage for the woman was a guarantee she would still have a husband and some social and financial security while also becoming a mother.

In Genesis 38 Judah cheats Tamar out of this opportunity. She married two of his son, Er, and Onan, but they both died. Onan died because he had a levirate marriage with her but he hated his brother and refused to produce an heir in his name so he refused to get her pregnant. Judah’s third son Shelah was supposed to marry her when he got older, but years later the time came and Judah ignored his promise, this was after his wife died. Tamar took matters into her own hands and disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced Judah. She got pregnant and the people called her out for violating her engagement to Shelah and Judah wanted to burn her alive (it was an easy way to get out of his obligation to wed her to his son). However, when she asked for payment she took his staff as collateral and she revealed this collateral on the day of her execution. This made him feel guilty for neglecting his obligation to her and he agreed to marry her. This shows that it was the woman’s gain to have a Levirate marriage and not something forced upon her.

Abraham’s Failure:
Abraham was told he would have a child with his wife and to have faith that God would heal his barren wife, but he and his wife gave up and he sexually abused Hagar his wife’s maid for a child instead. While concubines are allowed under polygamy rules, Hagar has not purchased as a concubine, she was a slave who served his wife Sarah. Also, this whole situation was caused by Abraham’s fears since God never told him to go to Egypt and lie about his wife in the first place. Hagar was given to them as a parting reparation by Pharaoh for almost sleeping with Abraham’s wife, because of Abraham’s deception. God forgives Abraham’s sin because of their covenant but shows his disapproval of his intercourse with Hagar by letting him know that Ishmael is NOT the promised seed. The situation with Hagar was a product of his and Sarah’s lack of faith in God’s promise because it was Sarah who gave Hagar to him. In Genesis 17, God makes it clear that all of Abraham’s children will be blessed (he promised a blessing for Ishmael in the previous chapter) but only the one that comes from Sarah (his first wife) will be the promised seed. Abraham has 8 children, one with Hagar, one from Sarah, and 6 more after Sarah dies with his new wife Keturah (Gen 25:1-5). God’s promised seed was Isaac (Sarah’s son) and indicated that with the name change of Sarah (Gen 17:15-22) and no one else. This shows that God favors monogamy and even Isaac is monogamous in his marriage. Notice Abraham never took another wife that whole time Sarah was alive and barren? We meet him at age 75 and he was monogamous that whole time. Hagar was just a one-time thing. Even with Abraham’s deceptive habits concerning his wife, God prevents the Pharaoh and King Abimelech from sleeping with Abraham’s wife (Genesis 12:10-20, Gen 20:1-18), God secures his covenant with Abraham to prevent him from screwing it up by actively protecting the sanctity of his marriage. This means God didn’t approve of Abraham giving away his wife, or his abuse of Hagar, yet he shows mercy and stays faithful to his promise.

Marrying the Rapist:
Deut 22:28-29 describes what happens in the case of fornication when the woman is not married or engaged. If they are caught, no one is stoned to death, and the man is required to pay her dowry and marry her. This has to be done with her father’s approval according to Exodus 22:16-17, and if they marry he loses the right to divorce her. Some translations of Deut 22:28-29 say that a woman must marry her rapist, however, most translations including the KJV, are describing fornication (sex before marriage). While the scenario can involve rape, marriage is not forced on the victim. A more in-depth article explaining this can be found here.

Conquest Marriage:
As for soldiers taking slave women and such, these were not things God told them they must do but rather things that were allowed to do. In the ancient world, it was common for women to actually dress up and look their best during the war in order to marry theirs conquers. The purpose was survival so that they and their children could be protected from living in a desolate wasteland with no army or men to protect the city from wild animals and maintain infrastructure with physical labor. Imagine being a single widow in a city with no men. There is no modern construction equipment to close the gap in physical prowess between the sexes, so it would be difficult to rebuild the city’s walls, not to mention how dangerous it is. In addition, one would have to fight lions and bears to defend your family which is normally the men’s job. Likewise, you aren’t trained in men’s jobs like metallurgy, lumberjacking, or sailing/fishing in order to keep special exports going for the local economy. Even if you could sail, who will watch the children while you are at sea? You are the last line of defense for your children. If you have teenagers, their survival chances increase but if they are young children they are more likely to die without a guardian. That means avoiding risky behaviors like fighting predators, sailing, and building massive structures. Men did these things because men are more expendable and did risky jobs. It makes sense in the face of this circumstance to marry your conquerors. Most women wanted to live a soft life, and the best way to guarantee that was to marry a man to take on hardship. More on Israelite Conquest here.

The Sin of the Being the Tempter:
There were some cases where these allowances would have been used to preserve a non-Israelite nation that had a blessing from Abraham like the Midianites. In Deut 20:10-18, they were told not to make peace with local Canaanite nations and to wipe them out in order to avoid copying their practices. Meanwhile, for non-Canaanite nations that were further away, they could offer peace and subjection and only were to fight if that nation refused to submit. The Canaanites were explicitly being judged by God and those that didn’t flee from the land would have been executed. In Numbers 31:9-20 Moses scolds the Israelites for letting all of the women live after defeating the Midianites and then he told them to take out the children and only leave virgins alive as captives. Why is that? Their sin of seducing Israel into worshiping idols in Numbers 25, in order to help Moab and Ammon was a serious offense and they inherited Canaan’s punishment. The virgin women were women and girls that hadn’t learned the pagan sex practices of the other women yet, so God preserved that remnant of Midian because they are related to Abraham (Gen 25:1-4). Learn more about why this happened here.

Slave Wives:
There is a difference between men and women in liability and risk expressed in the work/slavery customs. As stated above men were more expendable so they were the ones that fought in the war and dealt with more risky life choices (like theft) that could end up in debt slavery, or death. Meanwhile, women because they produce children they are less expendable, so they are given a certain amount of social protection. Slave women had slightly different rules from men regarding the 6-year limit on Hebrew slaves. Slave women were not liable to be sold for theft like men (Ex 22:3) but were usually sold by their parents, which is why she goes back to her father when her term is up. This is based on the social protection rules mentioned earlier. Deut 15 and Jeremiah 34 say that if a slave wife is unmarried after six years then she would be free like the men. Meanwhile, Exodus 21 explains that if a slave woman marries the owner or his son, then she becomes a non-slave wife instantly. If she divorces a free husband, then she maintains her freedom even though she started as a slave (Ex 21:11). If a slave man leaves his slave wife, she stays with her master until the 6-year term of her contract is up and goes back to her father since that is the default for unmarried slaves. The males on the other hand have to choose between freedom and staying permanently when married to a slave woman given to them by the master (Ex 21:4-6). For men selling themselves as slaves was a voluntary act and had a term limit, meanwhile, marriage was supposed to be a lifelong commitment (unless there was a contract breach), since the 6-year term limit on each slave could have been different, the debt obligation came first. If these rules weren’t in place men could trade their wives in for another every six years, and women could rack up a lot of debt and then skip out on it by simply marrying. More info on slavery in the bible here.

Adopting Gentile practices:
Israel adopted some practices from other nations at that time and since the Israelites couldn’t even keep God’s law as it was, he made certain allowances before Jesus came for things like polygamy. In some cases it was explicitly labeled as sin, in other cases, God allowed it but there were still consequences of their actions. Similarly, God allowed Gentile nations to worship idols and such in ignorance since they were not in covenant with God, but the world is expected to submit to Christ the Messiah now that he has come (Acts 17:30). In some cases, the Israelite leaders abused God’s laws and used them out of context to oppress the poor (Deut 24:14-15, Amos 2:6-7, Jeremiah 34:8-21), discriminate against foreigners (Ex 22:21-24, Lev 19:33-34, Deut 27:19), and even abandoned their wives for other women through illegitimate divorce practices (Malachi 2:10-17). Jesus made it clear in Matthew 19:3-9 that while, divorce was allowed under Mosaic Law, under very specific conditions (Deut 24:1, Ex 21:10-11), it was a concession, because of man’s hard hearts. Jesus said this because Jews of his time reinterpreted God’s law about things like divorce by adopting Gentile practices. The Talmud said things like, one could divorce their wife for burned food or to trade her in for a better-looking wife.

Sometimes the Israelites wanted things that God warned them would be bad but allowed them to have them because they insisted they could handle it, like monarchy for example. Originally the Israelites had a democratic judicial governing system, where they elected the judicial leaders and tribal legislators (from among the elders). This system was proposed to Moses by Jethro in Ex18:13 in this system they even had a female ruler named Deborah (called the “Mother of Israel”). However they wanted a King because other nations around them had kings, so God allowed them to have a King as a concession for their misdirected faith in human leaders. God has Samuel warned about the problems with a monarchy but they wanted one and he let them have it (1 Samuel chapter 8). They got King Saul as their first king, which eventually lead to the failure of the nation, proving God right about monarchies and trust in men.

Throughout the old testament, the prophets use the analogy of marriage to represent Israel’s covenant relationship with God. Often times it’s used to compare idolatry to adultery. Worshiping idols was cheating on God because they made a covenant to him and him alone. Like Ezekiel 23, where Ezekiel compares Israel and Judah to two adulterous sisters. One notable book that does this is Hosea. In Hosea 1-3, Hosea becomes a living metaphor who marries a promiscuous woman that abandons him for other men. However, instead of divorcing her or having her killed for catching her in adultery, he takes her back and forgives her at God’s request. Then God says just like this he is going to take back Israel after the exile, forgiving them of their idolatry and restoring them as his “wife”. This is where the New Testament picks up the analogy referring to the church (the body of believers in Christ) as the bride of Christ, and Paul says for husbands to love their wives like God loves his “wife” (the church). While wives are to love and follow their husbands like the church follows God (Ep 5:21-33, Col 3:18-19). In Ep 4:4-6, Paul says the Body of Christ is one body untied by one spirit, to serve one God, so if the analogy is to work then, one woman is to be dedicated to one man and vice versa like it says in Gen 2:24.

New Testament:
In the New Covenant, we now have the Holy Spirit on the inside making us living temples of God’s presence, which means we should live holy lives avoiding sexual sin (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). The Holy Spirit helps us overcome sin (Galatians 5:16, Galatians 6:7-9). In the old covenant, they did not have the holy spirit so God allowed certain practices under strict supervision by the Torah. Moses and Jeremiah said the solution to man’s inability to keep God’s law was to get our hearts “circumcised” or softened (Deut 30:6, Jer 4:4). Ezekiel told us this would happen when God poured out his spirit on us (Ez 36:25-27) and Joel reveals what this would look like in Joel 2:28-32. This even happens on Pentecost (Shavuot) 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus in Acts 2:16-21, and Paul ensures us that this was the heart circumcision Moses was talking about (Rom 2:29, Col 2:11).

In the New Covenant, marriage is not considered a requirement since we don’t make new kingdom members by making babies but rather by sharing the gospel. Therefore preservation of tribal land allotment and the existence of a specific people is not the goal polygamy is not necessary. Jesus confirmed the option of being a eunuch in Matt 19:11-12 when talking about people who were made eunuchs, born eunuchs, or made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom. In the Torah, castration was frowned upon (Deut 23:1) but in the new we are free. Paul was a celibate eunuch and even encouraged being celibate in his letter to the Corinthians when talking about marriage (1 Corinthians 7). However he never required it, and even suggested getting married if a person can’t control their sexual desires. He recommends celibacy so that Christians could focus on the work of the Kingdom because single people could focus on the Lord’s work without the distractions of familial obligations.

Jesus defined marriage in Matt 19:4-6 and he quotes Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. He says, “4 “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’[Gen 1:27]” 5 And he said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’[Gen 2:24] 6 Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” So this is the only marriage definition endorsed by Christ himself.