Simplistic assumptions and familiar slogans become so comfortable and comforting that we just cannot let them go.
Each one of us as individuals grows up believing that everyone acts and believes as we do. Or that they should.
And we assume that what we believe has always been true; which, of course, has NEVER been true – for anyone, of any time.
We cherish our familiar truths – and tend to strike out in a visceral way to anyone who might reject, diminish or threaten our favorite beliefs.
One of humanity’s greatest mistakes is confusing ignorance for wisdom, or even worse, for ‘faith’.
“The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” is one of those astoundingly Zen-like proclamations (unique to modern Christianity, I am sure) that convinces unbelievers of two things immediately; first, that evolution must be true and, second, that there appear to be among us a few who have been developmentally by-passed for a millennia or two.
I value and respect the Bible, but to expect clear-cut analysis relevant to contemporary public policy just seems ludicrous.
For example, what does the Bible tell us of urban design? The role of technology in our daily lives? Mass transit? Public education? Immigration? Corporate law and ethics? Definitions of citizenship? Consumer product safety?
The Bible does have much to say about appropriate punishment for crimes (primarily restitution), humane treatment of animals (Proverbs 12:10, Deuteronomy 22:10; 25:4), forgiveness of debt (Deuteronomy 15:1) and fair business dealings (James 5:4, Jeremiah 22:13, Leviticus 19.35.36, Proverbs 20:10).
Any family, business or nation who wishes to call itself ‘Christian’ or ‘Biblical’ should take these simple and direct guidelines as, at the very least, minimum policy reference points.
But one of the areas where Biblical ignorance (as opposed to wisdom or insight) tends to prevail is in the discussion of the Biblical ‘definition’ of marriage.
You would think that such a foundational building block of virtually every culture around the world and across history would be clearly defined – or at least manifested in the lives of the Bible’s central characters.
If there is anything that has been standard knowledge across the millennia, it is that stable domestic relationships are the core of any stable society.
If we are to take the New Testament as a model for the modern family, it is an odd reference point indeed; Jesus never married, nor did Paul.
Peter had a wife (or at least a mother-in-law, Matthew 8:14). No children of disciples are mentioned or even referred to. No New Testament disciple’s wives are named.
Besides never marrying (in a strongly family centered culture) Jesus was rejected and essentially ostracized by both his family and hometown (Matthew 13:57, Luke 4:24).
Paul even tells his followers that it is best NOT to marry (1 Corinthians 7:1).
The Old Testament is essentially an extended testimonial to the privilege, if not right, of polygamy; most men had many children – most women only had a few.
The maternal death rate was extremely high, and what we now call ‘blended families’ were common.
Jesus’ family was almost certainly one of these ‘blended families’ – his father, Joseph, according to most scholars, was far older than the (early) teen-age Mary, and, like most husbands far older than their wives, had children from a previous marriage. (One piece of evidence for this traditional belief is the prevalence of a heavily bearded Joseph featured in Nativity sets. Joseph is clearly NOT a teenager).
In fact Mary and Joseph almost certainly had what virtually every one in that culture had; an arranged marriage – yet another aspect of ‘traditional marriage’ few among us would yearn for.
Abraham (and Moses, and David and many others), like most Patriarchs in, and outside of, the Bible had multiple wives (Abraham had at least two; Sarah and Keturah, see Genesis 25:1, besides Hagar) and ‘many children’ (see Genesis 25:6) (can you imagine having so many children, you don’t even bother to count them?).
And ‘wives’ taken (or given) in battle, conquest or tribute is so common in the Bible that it is barely noticeable (Deuteronomy 21:10-13, Judges 21:10-12, Isaiah 13:16).
Even the Ten Commandments treat women as property on a par with donkeys and furniture (Exodus 20:17, Deuteronomy 5:21).
It’s difficult to see even Adam and Eve as having anything other than an ‘arranged marriage’ – we read virtually nothing of their attraction to each other.
In fact they are so far from the prototypical couple that Jewish tradition holds that Adam had a first ‘wife’, Lilith, who did not work out.
‘Traditional marriage’ in the Bible is virtually always of convenience or expediency, with the wife treated as interchangeable property.
Jesus is generally commended for the inclusion of women in his ministry – and his respect for women in general – but that was not necessarily true of his followers.
The Jews of that era were often unfairly criticized for their attitudes toward women, but look at some of these ‘Christian’ statements:
Woman is a temple built over a sewer. –Tertullian, “the father of Latin Christianity” (c160-225)
…to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. … Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good. –Saint Albertus Magnus, Dominican theologian, 13th century
The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes. – Martin Luther, Reformer (1483-1546)
Do not any longer contend for mastery, for power, money, or praise. Be content to be a private, insignificant person, known and loved by God and me. . . . Of what importance is your character to mankind, if you was buried just now Or if you had never lived, what loss would it be to the cause of God. –John Wesley, founder of Methodist movement (1703-1791), letter to his wife, July 15, 1774
In spite of this, the first church in Europe (Philippi) was founded by a financially independent (and apparently single) woman (Acts 16:14).
Of the extremely few couples named in the New Testament, Ananias and Saphira, did not end well (Acts 5:1-10). And Paul’s friends, Priscilla and Aquila were Greeks and led one of Christianity’s first churches, and, it is implied, it was Priscilla who did most of the leading (Timothy 4:19).
The most common term in the Bible for a man getting married is that he does (or should) ‘take’ a wife with all the force and obvious lack of female choice or assent inherent in such a term.
Even one of the greatest love stories of the Bible, Jacob and Rachel, also involves her sister, Leah, and two female servants who also bear him children (Genesis 30:5-9).
Jacob working for 14 years for his love of Rachel is usually portrayed as one of the ultimate ‘romantic’ stories – but would any of us actually like the institution of ‘working for a wife’?
I hate to ruin a good story, but would any woman really consider it ‘romantic’ to share her husband with three other women?
Laban’s ‘deception’ we tend to forget, was based on his determination to uphold ‘traditional marriage’ (that the elder sister should marry first) (Genesis 29:26).
Genesis 29:9-12 also tells us that Jacob and Rachael were cousins. But marrying close family members was also ‘traditional’ – Abraham, after all, in the custom of his day, married his own sister (Genesis 20:12).
Matthew 22:25 tells us a story, apparently common, of seven brothers all married to the same woman. The underlying question, of course, was how to uphold ‘traditional marriage’.
Monogamous marriage has never been easy (see Matthew 19:4-5) in fact the disciples said that if divorce were not easy, it would be better not to marry (Matthew 19:10).
What we might call ‘shared mothering’ or even ‘group marriage’ were extremely common in Biblical times; a high maternal death rate made it acceptable if not essential.
With bride-prices, child-brides, arranged marriages, polygamy, marriage to close relatives, kidnapping, rape and women being bartered, sold or sacrificed in the Bible, (Judges 19:22-29 don’t even begin to claim monogamy as anything like traditional.
It would be easy to make the case that ‘traditional marriage’ is an extremely modern development. In fact it is modernity (especially health care, but also educational and career opportunities for women) that has made monogamy practical – or even possible.
The call for a man to leave his parents and cleave to his wife (Genesis 2:24) has been held up as a difficult to uphold ideal, perhaps not possible, or even practical until now.
I support monogamy; just don’t call it ‘traditional’ or ‘Biblical’.
Morf Morford considers himself a free-range Christian who is convinced that God expects far more of us than we can ever imagine, but somehow thinks God knows more than we do. To pay his bills, he’s been a teacher for adults (including those in his local county jail) in a variety of setting including Tribal colleges, vocational schools and at the university level in the People’s Republic of China. Within an academic context, he also writes an irreverent ESL blog and for the Burnside Writers Collective. As he’s getting older, he finds himself less tolerant of pettiness and dairy products.
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