Marriage By The Book

Yet another culture war has erupted on Facebook over marriage equality. Or the gay agenda, depending on how you view it. Proponents of Biblical marriage have been posting their quips and quotes meant to prove that God intended for marriage to be between a man and a woman all the way back in Genesis, and argue that we must follow this model in order to survive as a nation.

My own views on this issue are pretty complicated, mainly because I did not grow up in the church. In fact, my first time to read through the entire Bible (a weird habit of mine I do every year with a different translation) was before I started really attending Church. When I did start going to Church, I was a bit surprised by how some people interpreted various scriptures. But not because I was learning something new about the scriptures, unfortunately.

My surprise came from seeing how many ideas people added to their interpretation of scriptures that were based mostly on their person feelings and not what the scriptures actually said.

Coming at the scriptures with a fresh mind with no one to tell me what they “really” said gave me a different picture of what I was reading. One that I am thankful for to this day.

Genesis 2:23-24 is probably one of the most often quoted verses in defense of “Biblical Marriage.” It is also a very odd choice in that it makes one of the worst scriptures to use in defending “what God intended for marriage.” Let’s take a look at it:

The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Of course, this is also the first mention of marriage in the Bible, so I can understand why many quote it. But what is missing here? What really important statement does it need to have to indicate that God had a plan for marriage?

How about something like “thus saith the LORD“?

That is the problem with this passage – verse 23 is Adam talking and verse 24 is the writer of Genesis (whether you think it is Moses or a Babylonian Exile or whoever) talking. In fact, going by this verse alone (as some do) only proves that marriage is a social condition that was created by humans. Verse 23 is giving a reason why Adam felt connected to Eve (which begs the question of if it still applies today, since none of us had our wives yanked from our side), but not a command from God for who should marry who. Verse 24 is giving a reason why someone would marry, but still no command from God declaring His intentions for anything. Or even a statement from God where He defines anything.

Of course, many will then skip back to Genesis 1:27-28:

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

So what is missing here? How about anything pertaining to hard and fast rules for marriage? Or any mention of marriage itself for that matter? Verse 27 is basically telling why God created two genders (He needed to replicate His image in a created being, but had to have two genders in order to do it). Verse 28 is basically a command to have kids and rule the Earth – but nothing about marriage, love, commitment, or anything we associate with marriage other than having offspring. Let’s face it – if you are creating the first humans on Earth, do you start with the “correct definition of marriage” or the “birds and the bees”?

Well, whatever your feelings are – God started with the birds and the bees.

Of course, then some point to Genesis 2:20-22 as proof that God wants marriage between a man and a woman, because woman was created to be man’s helper. The problem is that the word translated here as “helper” (ezer) has its roots in two words that mean to rescue, to save”, and ”strength”; while the word for suitable (kenegdo) does not indicate any kind of subordination of the woman or marriage relationship of any kind. A Mother, Aunt, Neighbor, Teacher, or any other strong female helper in your life could fit into this scripture and there would be nothing weird about it. If Genesis 2:20-22 was intended to be about marriage… there would be some weirdness. Especially in later verses that use ezer to refer to non-marriage relationships.

Then, of course, we come to Matthew 19:3-9, where Jesus clearly said that marriage must be between a man and a woman every time. Or did He?

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Again – what is explicitly missing here? No one is asking Jesus who can or should get married. They are asking Him about a situation where a man that was already married to a woman wants to get a divorce, and Jesus gives them a reason why that situation is not acceptable. Jesus is just answering what was asked of Him, nothing more. To say otherwise would be comparable to me walking up to a pizza buffet and asking if there were any healthy pizza options on the buffet and then then going back to my table and telling my eating companions that they told me that I can never eat cheese again. You can’t just inject an answer into a situation when re-telling it later just because you think it is related.

“Now wait a minute” you might say “Jesus clearly said ‘what God has put together’ – so it is what God defines because it says He put it together that way!” That is mostly correct – God holds people to the vows that they take before him… even if those vows had nothing to do with what God commanded them to do. Remember good ‘ole Saul from the OT? He was always taking oaths before God that had no connection to any commandments from God, but then getting punished by God for not following through with them. Why is that? Did God ever make a commandment about killing your children for eating honey? No. The problem was that he made a vow to God to kill anyone that ate food and then broke it. This is how God views vows that we take before Him – no matter how good or crazy. Once we make those vows before Him, it is as if He put them together. So Jesus is saying that because you took the vow before God, it is as if He put it together and therefore you can’t break it.

But that still doesn’t change the fact that Jesus was referring to divorce as it pertains to a married heterosexual couple. The question of the definition of marriage was not asked of Him, nor did He say anything that directly impacts it. You have to take an implication out of that scripture to make it about the definition of marriage. How many cults have been created based on implications in scripture? A slippery slope to step out on.

So what we really see in the Bible at best is that humans decided to define marriage in Genesis. Maybe later on Jesus confirmed that God said part of that (Matthew 19:5), but it was still just a reason for getting married and not a definition of what it should look like. You can read implications of what God wanted into that, but I would caution you to do so with humility as you don’t want to get in the business of assuming you know everything about the mind of God.

Add to this the etymology of the word “marriage” itself. The first appearance of the word was around 1250 A.D. – well after Genesis was written. It is based on older words of other languages that ultimately trace back to the Latin word marītāre. This would place the timeline at about 800-700 B.C. as the beginnings of the word that we are saying originated in Genesis. So our dates are off if we say that there has been an unchangeable definition of the word “marriage” since the beginning of time (or the time the Bible was written if you do not subscribe to Young Earth Creationism). Of course the concept of what we now call marriage has been around for as long as there have been humans, but concepts are different that words.

The point I am getting at is that the term “marriage” is our current English word for a socially-constructed concept that is defined by the culture we currently live in. Another important concept to consider is that not all cultures define this concept the same. And I am not just talking polygyny or even polyandry. In some cultures it is common for two or more males and two or more females to be married in group marriage (and not all of the relationships within these groups are heterosexual or one-sidedly monogamous). Many people like to talk like the concept of “marriage” is an absolute idea that can not be changed. But that is just not so when you take a global perspective on the issue. Of course, you might not care about all of this because these are not Christians practicing these marriage arrangements, or you could even say that they have no bearing on how a Christian should view marriage – and I would agree. But there are some out there that claim that marriage has always been between a man and at least one woman in every culture everywhere and because it is universal worldwide we can not change that definition. This is not a logically correct argument.

Even when you look at the history of the term just here in the United States – we used to not let biracial couples marry. At a certain point in history, we redefined marriage… and there is nothing saying that it is incorrect to do it again. Or for that matter that we have to redefine it again if we don’t want to. We have redefined marriage when needed and not redefined it when needed also. But to say that we never did therefore we never can is historically inaccurate.

It is also important to note that many of the cultures that practice group marriage never fell apart because of it, and many cultures that practiced strict adherence to monogamous heterosexual marriage still fell apart despite it. The notion that a nation will stand or fall based on it’s definition of marriage is not supported by historical cultural study.

metamodern-faith-avatarNone of this is meant to change your mind on marriage equality issues nor should it. But it should make you realize that you might have to change your reasoning for why you are against it. You can’t claim it is what God wants unless you also point out that your claim is based on an implication from several scriptures that is not directly there, and therefore you want to base societal norms on your interpretations of implications. It sounds scary to say it that way, and I doubt few will be that honest, but that is basically what it is. Sorry for the blunt card.

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