‘Cultural’ and ‘Essential’ Features of Marriage
Consider the narrative of Jacob’s marriage to Rachel (the daughter of Laban, his uncle on his mother’s side):
15 Laban said to him, “Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be.” 16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful. 18 Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.” 19 Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” 20 So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her. 21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to lie with her.” 22 So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. 23 But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her. 24 And Laban gave his servant girl Zilpah to his daughter as her maidservant. 25 When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?” 26 Laban replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. 27 Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.” (Gen 29:15-27, NIV)
What features are ‘cultural’, what are ‘essential’ — which might vary and which might we say would be necessary features of marriage. Eg: marriage between relatives, daughters under the authority of their fathers, polygamy, love consummation as the ‘seal’ of marriage.
The Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England affirm that, “It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word.” (Article XXXIV, ‘Of the Traditions of the Church’)
The difference between what is variable and what is non-variable is what is ‘against God’s word’. So we need to be looking there, and to do that we will start with outlining a ‘biblical theology’ of marriage.
Developing a ‘Biblical Theology’ of Marriage
Biblical theology “follows the movement and process of God’s revelation in the Bible ... by which revelation unfolds and moves toward the goal which is God’s final revelation of his purposes in Jesus Christ” (Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom: A Christian Interpretation of the Old Testament [Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1981] 40).
One classic way of doing this is to look at God’s people’s experience of God’s blessing, which in the Old Testament is basically a matter of Israel’s geo-political history of rise and fall.
But the same can be done with marriage. The Old Testament begins with a marriage. In Genesis 2:23, the newly-formed Eve is brought to Adam, after which we read in 2:24 words applying what has just happened to this first human couple to all future marriages:
24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24, NIV)
But sexuality is the first victim of the Fall. Immediately after they have fallen for the serpent’s temptation, we read,
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. (Gen 3:7)
Furthermore the text signals the significance of this earlier on. In Genesis 2:25 we read, “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.”
But then immediately after this, in 3:1, we read, “The serpent was more crafty than any other creature the Lord had made.”
And this is important, because he Hebrew word here for crafty is ārum, but the Hebrew for ‘naked’ is arumim. They look and sound very similar in Hebrew, and so there is a play on the words. It is as if we had said the couple were nude but the serpent was shrewd.
In other words, the corruption of human sexuality is central to the narrative of the Fall. And this has implications for the development of scripture.
From the Garden to the Harem
If we look at salvation history in terms of geo-political blessing, the high point of the Old Testament comes in the reign of Solomon, the Golden Age when “Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree” (1 Ki 4:25).
Ironically, however, if we look at that same history in terms of the development of marriage, Solomon’s reign is something of an historic low, as 1 Kings 11:1-6 comprehensively explains:
King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. 2 They were from nations about which the LORD had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. 3 He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. 4 As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. 5 He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. 6 So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD; he did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done. (1 Kings 11:1-6, NIV)
The descent begins, however, early on. In Genesis 4, the narrative of Cain’s line finishes with the person of Lamech, who is not just the first recorded polygamist but a thoroughly unpleasant character who revels in his reputation for violence:
23 Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. 24 If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” (Gen 4:23-24, NIV)
And whilst the polygamy of the patriarchs is taken for granted, far from being depicted in terms of success or blessing, the accompanying marital strife is laid out for all to see.
And in this connection, we may make an interesting observation about Job. Whilst Job is pictured as having received God’s blessing in superlative terms — at the beginning of the book he has seven sons, three daughters, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and a large number of servants — we only read of one wife (1:2-3, cf 2:9-10).
And at the end of his story, where his blessing is restored many-fold, there is still no mention of any increase in his complement of spouses!
Thus whilst polygamy may have been a widespread practice, there is nothing to suggest it was an idealized goal. On the contrary, Solomon’s polygamy is connected to his downfall.
We may also plausibly argue that the Song of Songs, which is directly linked to Solomon, contains a critique of his profligacy in the marriage area.
At the beginning of the Song, the girl, who is the chief voice throughout, speaks of her own body metaphorically as a vineyard:
6 Do not stare at me because I am dark, because I am darkened by the sun. My mother’s sons were angry with me and made me take care of the vineyards; my own vineyard I have neglected.
This vineyard metaphor remerges at the end of the Song. In 8:12, the girl declares “my own vineyard is mine to give”. But notice how from v 11 she contrasts this with the ‘vineyard policy’ of Solomon:
11 Solomon had a vineyard in Baal Hamon; he let out his vineyard to tenants. Each was to bring for its fruit a thousand shekels of silver. 12 But my own vineyard is mine to give; the thousand shekels are for you, O Solomon, and two hundred are for those who tend its fruit.
Solomon is a vineyard rentier. He has vineyards in abundance — so many he has no use for them or their fruit and rents them out to others.
But the girl has one ‘vineyard’ — and here we must put inverted commas round the word, for the vineyard here is her body — yet though this ‘vineyard’ may have suffered neglect, it is hers to give as a gift, and she gives it to the one person she loves.
From the Garden to the Temple
So when it comes to the national practice of marriage in Israel, we observe a kind of ‘Rake’s Progress’ — from early innocence to kingly abandon.
At the same time, however, there is throughout the Old Testament a strongly ‘spiritualized’ view of marriage as concerning God’s relationship with Israel.
This is first alluded to directly in negative terms. From Exodus 34:15 onwards, spiritual unfaithfulness is depicted in terms of prostitution:
15 “Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. 16 And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same. (Exodus 34:15-16, NIV)
And throughout the Old Testament, Israel’s relationship with God often gets the same treatment. The book to read is Raymond Ortlund, God’s Unfaithful Wife: A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery (IVP 2003)
So, for example, the whole book of Hosea is built around the point made in 1:2
2 When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord.”
(Notice, incidentally, the message this has for those who believe ‘God’s plan for your life’ means lots of wonderful blessings will come to you. It ain’t necessarily so.)
This theme is developed further in the words of judgement pronounced in the frank language of 2:2
2 “Rebuke your mother, rebuke her, for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband. Let her remove the adulterous look from her face and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts.
And yet the very idea of unfaithfulness presumes the possibility of faithfulness, and so we read how judgement will be followed by restoration:
14 “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. 15 There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. 16 “In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master [Baal].’ 17 I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips; no longer will their names be invoked. [...] 19 I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. 20 I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord. (Hos 2:14-17, 19-20)
This promise of a restored marriage between God and Israel is also found in Isaiah. In 54:6-8 we read,
6 The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God. 7 “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. 8 In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer.
And in 62:4–5 we read this:
4 No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the Lord will take delight in you, and your land will be married. 5 As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.
Isaiah also, incidentally, contains a famous section which is a love-song for the Lord’s vineyard (5:1-7). It begins,
1 I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well.
And then in v 7 we read,
7 The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
We may well detect echoes here of the imagery of the Song of Solomon.
Perhaps the most telling, and the most graphic, depiction of the marital relationship between the Lord and Israel, however, comes in the book of Ezekiel, where we read this in chapter 16.
First, we read how God rescued Israel like a foundling baby girl:
4 On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. 5 No one looked on you with pity or had compassion enough to do any of these things for you. Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised. 6 Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, “Live!” 7 I made you grow like a plant of the field. You grew up and developed and became the most beautiful of jewels.
Then we read of this girl reaching sexual maturity
Your breasts were formed and your hair grew, you who were naked and bare. 8 Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love ...
The word ‘love’ here is specifically sexual. In 23:17 the scene has shifted to Israel and the Babylonians:
17 Then the Babylonians came to her, to the bed of love, and in their lust they defiled her.
But at this early stage in Ezekiel, maturity is responded to by God entering into a marital covenant. In 16:8b, we go on to read,
... I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness.
The imagery here parallels that of the book of Ruth, specifically where the pleasantly-merry Boaz wakes up to discover a woman sleeping at his feet:
7 When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. 8 In the middle of the night something startled the man, and he turned and discovered a woman lying at his feet. 9 “Who are you?” he asked. “I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer.” (Ruth 3:7-9)
And then we read that God adds to the gesture a covenant oath:
I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine.
After that, things go well for a while as God enhances the beauty of his new bride:
9 I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. 10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put leather sandals on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 13 So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was fine flour, honey and olive oil. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. 14 And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign Lord.
But then things start to go wrong,
15 But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute. You lavished your favors on anyone who passed by and your beauty became his.
And once again are back to the theme of whoredom and judgement.
And just as with Israel’s geo-political history, although the return from Exile brings a partial restoration, the promises of the prophets seemed unfulfilled at the end of the Scriptural narrative.
What is marriage?
From ‘the story so far’, however, we can discern two important things. First, marriage is defined by sex and covenant.
And important part of this covenant relationship is specifically sexual exclusivity. You can have other friends, but when it comes to the marriage relationship, sexual unfaithfulness is the deal-breaker. Hence the Ten Commandments include the command not to commit adultery, and the penalty for adultery is death (Lev 20:10).
Meanwhile the existence of the marriage itself is defined by a binding covenant, as we have seen in Ezekiel. This covenant may be revoked — it is possible to divorce, but even at this stage, divorce is subject to divine dispproval.
In Malachi 2 comes this judgement which I think is as clear as any of the judgements on other aspects of social injustice elsewhere in the prophets:
13 Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. 15 Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. 16 “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,” says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith. (Mal 2:13-16)
The second thing we discern is that the relationship between the Creator, Redeemer God and his created, redeemed people is, in a sense, ‘marital’.
When we come into the New Testament, we see this developed further in the relationship between Christ and the Church.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: