Marriage, Same-sex Marriage, and the Bible

July 4, 2015 § 4 Comments

Caring, as is often the case, more for “institutions” and principles than for real people, Conservative Christians have decried the recent decision from the Supreme Court to declare same-sex marriage legal throughout the land. My mostly accidental exposure to their rhetoric for their opposition suggests arguments along two lines: a history-tradition argument that marriage has always been between one man and one woman and there must be good reasons for that, and a biblical argument that starts with Adam and Eve, not with Adam and Steve, etc. I have heard the two sets of arguments put together in talk about the constancy of God’s will.

However, God’s will has been anything but constant over the millennia recorded in the Bible. There is no one biblical ethic on marriage, sex, and family life. There may be a traditional ethic on sex and family in the history of the church, but that tradition rests on a rather narrow selection of texts in the Bible. As with virtually every aspect of biblical interpretation, everybody inevitably picks and chooses what they think supports their position.

For the accepted forms of family life have changed at key moments in the life of the biblical tradition. Some examples:

  • First, the Hebrew Bible takes polygamy for granted. All the patriarchs had more than one wife. Furthermore, you can see a tension manifest in their marital relationships in which the tradition is seeking to impose patriarchal patterns over what were obviously more matriarchal—or at lease matrilocal—realities in these marriages. Sarah, in particular, has a power in the relationship that is uncharacteristic of patriarchal marriages. She does what she wants, most of the time, and, significantly, Abraham is buried in Sarah’s tomb, not the other way around. Some have made the case, by which I am swayed myself, that she, and possibly also at least one of Isaac’s wives, were priestesses who enjoyed some of the prerogatives bestowed on priestesses in some of the current ancient Mesopotamian cultures This provides the only believable explanation I have ever read of Sarah’s and relations with Pharaoh and Abimelech and Rebekah’s relations with Abimelech again.
  • Who can you marry? The book of Judges, which covers the period during which the newly formed people of Israel settled in the highlands of Palestine, is full of both women and men who were murdered or sacrificed over changing patterns of family, including most famously, the story of Samson and Delilah. These stories often reveal divisions over marrying out of the covenant, and specifically, of marrying Philistines. Interestingly, most scholars think that Delilah was a priestess of Astarte, so Abram could marry such a priestess, but not Samson.
  • Marrying out of the covenant. The book of Ezra recounts how the priest Ezra joined the small community of Jews who had returned to Israel from Babylon after they had been encouraged to do so by Cyrus of Persia and he found that they had been marrying the locals. Ezra made all the men who had done so divorce their wives. This is when it first became against Jewish law to marry outside the covenant.
  • Divorce. Divorce was allowed under the instructions of Torah, but, at least by the time of Jesus, Jews disagreed over who could “sue” for divorce and why. Jesus himself gives perhaps contradictory answers virtually back-to-back, saying first, “What God has joined together, let not man (sic) separate” (Matthew 19:6); then allowing a man to divorce his wife for adultery (Matthew 19:9).
  • Jesus and women. Jesus was unusually egalitarian toward women under the law in general, and the early tradition followed him—for a while. All the gospels give women the credit for understanding the resurrection first, even though women were not allowed to be witnesses under the law. A small group of female supporters traveled with him throughout his career. And women consistently outperform men when it comes to confessing his status. But the later tradition abandoned Jesus’ embrace of women.
  • Paul’s accommodation with Hellenistic culture. Paul starts out agreeing with Jesus, declaring in an early letter that, in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, no master or slave, no male or female—in other words, that in the new covenant, women and men are equal. But then he begins to backpedal. The feminist theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza tracks this drift in her groundbreaking book In Memory of Her. Paul and whoever wrote some of the later letters attributed to him (Colossians and Ephesians) and 1 Peter end up declaring instead that the husband is the ruler of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the church. The pressures of Hellenistic culture on his formerly-pagan converts combined with his jettison of Torah evidently forced him to accommodate existing patriarchal patterns in family life.
  • Polygamy in the later tradition. At no point in the scriptural tradition does God forbid polygamy or declare that marriage is between ONE man and ONE woman. Jewish culture evolved to espouse this arrangement as a matter of cultural tradition (though the Rabbinical tradition may have developed biblical arguments against polygamy—I don’t know it well enough to say). In other words, the religious tradition has come to take monogamy for granted without a clear biblical foundation.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with same-sex marriage. I am not arguing that the Bible supports or even allows same-sex marriage. I personally think that such a thing is essentially inconceivable. The real question is not what the Bible says about same-sex marriage, but what authority we give to the Bible on such matters in the first place.

My point is that, if God inspired all of Holy Scripture as conservative Christians claim, then he (sic) changed his mind a lot when it came to whom you could marry. Faithful religionists in the Bible are more or less constantly struggling with the question of whom you are allowed to marry. Furthermore, this conflict has come with a lot of pain and even sometimes blood. Both Jesus and Paul suggest, in f act, that it would really be better not to marry at all, Jesus because of the coming trials of the endtimes, and Paul for the same reason, plus the problems of being “yoked to unbelievers”.

There is no coherent testimony on who you can marry in the Bible and I think this makes the Bible an unreliable foundation for religious testimony on marriage today. If you insist on a God-inspired biblical foundation for a definition of marriage, you have to pick and choose which passages you’re using to back yourself up, and you have to gloss over the implications of an evident evolution in God’s own thinking on the matter.


§ 4 Responses to Marriage, Same-sex Marriage, and the Bible

  • treegestalt says:

    There’s the question of what Jesus meant by ‘what God has joined together.’

    That clearly doesn’t mean either a state ceremony or a religious ceremony, though either or neither might result. The Quaker form of marriage, where the Meeting on the occasion simply confirms, ~’Yup, God has joined them two all right!’ But even that could be mistaken, witness the guy I saw at another who kept going on about their lovely Quaker marriage certificate & the fact that his officially-joined wife had determined that he was too much of a jerk to put up with anymore, and left.

    You might well say that God joined me & my first wife as a manifestation of bad karma — while Anne is a prime example of a divine gift. Not believing in Eternal Punishment, I’d say it was God who joined me to Anne. Leaving my first wife proved inconvenient for both of us — but we clearly hadn’t been ‘joined’ for a long time.

  • Jnana Hodson says:

    Read the polygamy passages closely and you’ll see one wife embodies the “be fruitful and multiply” model of Genesis 1 while the other wife is the “suitable helpmeet” of Genesis 2-3. Note, too, that the “helpmeet” is always the beloved wife — and that the polygamy never really works, just look at Leah’s rivalry and plight as a starting point.
    Leap ahead to St. Paul’s admonition of “better to marry than to burn” and ask what happens when the desire — the burn — is for one of your own sex.
    The traditional Christian interpretation seems to skate over these points.

  • Don Badgley says:

    Marriage in the United states requires a license and therefore belongs entirely to the State. Thus the pastor says, “by the authority vested in me by the state.” Absent this license there is no marriage and so the authority of the faith community is limited to its own designs. The recent SCOTUS ruling speaks only to the state and has no impact on the faith community’s own prerogatives. Scripture is hardly a source for one to base such decisions. My own marriage invoked Divine assistance and that is the only Source I trust for me and my wife. Is there a reason same gender couples cannot rely on the same Source? I perceive none.

    • Gene Hillman says:

      I have long thought the state should have no role in marriage for any of us. The state should confine it self to civil union. Marriage is a matter for the church and/or society. The two would often occur together but that is not necessary. Civil union would not be a second class marriage in this system. It is what everyone would have if they want a legal basis for their relationship.
      As to the Bible, the Hebrew Bible contains many cultural injunctions presented as God’s will. Jesus reduced these to love of God, and love of one’s neighbor (when pressed he included a despised Samaritan as neighbor). He never took a position on LGBT. The only reference to LGBT in the New Testament is in Paul and the translation of porneia is shaky, and in any case Paul was rejecting practices of the dominant culture (he wasn’t too happy about marriage either).
      In the Beattles’ paraphrase of Mark 12:30-31 “All you need is love.”

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