We have been told that the Bible defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Therefore any other kind of marriage is wrong, including same sex marriages. However, is that what the Bible really says? Is the Bible open to more than one type of marriage? If so, how many types of marriage might it recognize?
To start with, let's recognize that nowhere does the Bible define marriage as between one man and one woman exclusively. As a matter of fact, the Bible mentions eight different types of marriage that are recognized and approved by God. They are:
Type 1. The standard nuclear family
This is the typical family of a man, one wife and children. According to many, this type of marriage was created because God did not feel that it was good for man to be alone so He created a helpmeet for him.
"And the Lord God said, "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him."1
The King James Version uses the word helpmeet here. The word used for meet is gender neutral. It implies a partnership of two equals, rather than a relationship between persons of unequal status. One who was comparable to him and could help him in taking care of the Garden of Eden.
"Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh."2
This is the main text many people would use in support of "traditional" marriage as between one man and one woman; however there are several differences between modern marriage and the Bible version of it.
First, inter-faith marriages were forbidden.3 Solomon married many foreign women in violation of this command and they end up leading him away from the Lord.4
Second, children of inter-faith marriages were considered illegitimate. They were not allowed to enter the temple even unto the tenth generation.5
Third, all marriages were arranged by family or friends. The bride and groom would have no choice as to who they married. Neither would their marriage result from courtship. The woman would be stuck in the marriage whether it was good or bad. Whether she was loved or abused and beaten didn't matter -- she did not have the right to file for a divorce. Only her husband could do that or another male member of her family.
Fourth, a bride who claimed to be a virgin and wasn't on the night of her wedding was to be taken out and stoned to death by the men of her village.6 There was no such restriction on men who engaged in premarital sex.
Type 2. Levirate Marriage7
This type of marriage is derived from the Latin word levir meaning brother-in-law. The Hebrew word is yibbum. Levirate Marriage involves a woman whose husband dies before they are able to conceive and bear a son. She was required to leave her home, marry her brother-in-law, live with him as his wife, and engage in sexual relations with him. The first son she might produce would be considered to be sired by the deceased husband and treated as the son of her late husband so that his name would not die out.
In the days before details of conception were understood, it was also believed that a woman could conceive any time up to seven years after engaging in intercourse. In Levirate Marriage, if love developed between the brother-in-law and the widow, then it could be quite agreeable to both. If not, then the woman would have to endure being raped by the in-law. (Assuming she didn't have a say in whether or not to have sex.)
In Genesis, we read of a man named Er who is slain by God for wickedness and has no son. His brother Onan is required to go and have sex with Er's wife so she can bear a son for her late husband; however Onan realizes the son won't be treated as his so pulls out at the last moment, spilling his seed on the ground and refusing to do his duty. This he does repeatedly until God finally kills him.8
Note from Mary: Many would consider Onan's act to be a condemnation against masturbation but in reality it is about his greed and selfishness, and has nothing to do with masturbation.
There was a process called halizah whereby a man could refuse to marry the widow in a Levirate Marriage. In that case, the woman would spit in the man's face and take one of his shoes. He would be humiliated from that time forth within his community as "the one without a shoe".9 No such provision was provided for the woman so she could opt out of a Levirate Marriage.
We see this in action in Ruth chapter 4. Ruth is a widow and her mother-in-law tries to find a husband for her. She sends Ruth to Boaz, a close relative, to get him to marry her; however there is a closer relative who has that right first. Boaz approaches the other relative about marrying Ruth himself. He refuses to marry Ruth so his shoe is removed and Boaz then goes on to marry Ruth.
Type 3: A man, one or more wives, and some concubines
In this marriage a man could have numerous concubines in addition to his wives. These women held an even lower station than a wife. A concubine was a secondary wife of inferior rank who could also be a surrogate mother for women incapable of having children themselves. They were also kept for sexual purposes, quite often in a harem. They could be Hebrew girls who were sold into slavery by their fathers. They also might be Gentile captives taken in war, or foreign slaves bought to be concubines. They would usually be brought into an already established household.10
Type 4: A male rapist and his victim
"If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days."11
I don't believe a rape victim should have to marry her rapist and live with him as man and wife. Nor do I claim to know why God thinks she should. However under the Old Testament law, if a man raped an unmarried virgin, then he had to marry her and could never divorce her. He also had to pay her father for having raped his daughter.
Type 5: A man, a woman, and her property -- a female slave
This type marriage we encounter in Genesis in the 16th chapter. Abram has been promised a son, but nothing is happening. His wife Sarai remains infertile. So they come up with a plan to have Abram marry Hagar, Sarai's servant, and produce a son by her. The result is the birth of Ishmael. As a servant of Sarai's she would have been considered property and have no say as to whether or not she wanted to marry Abram or have a son by him. Sarai could also dispose of Hagar as she saw fit. This we see when later Sarai becomes jealous and forces Abram to send Hagar and Ishmael away.
Type 6: A male soldier and a female prisoner of war
"When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her."12
According to this, if a soldier goes to battle and sees a captive woman he wants, he should take her into his home. After a month of mourning for her lost family, she would be required to submit to her new owner, the soldier. We see this described in Numbers chapter 31 when the children of Israel are told to go kill all the Midianites, leaving nothing alive. They don't do it, saving the best for themselves especially of the women. Moses makes them kill all the people except for the virgins whom they are allowed to keep and marry.13
Type 7. Polygamy
Under this system, a man would leave his parents and move in with his first wife. Then, as his finances allowed, he would marry as many additional women as he wanted and could support. The new wives would be brought into an already existent household made up of the man, his original wife, plus all other new wives.
The practice is first mentioned in reference to Lamech who had two wives, Adah and Zillah.14 However Esau, Jacob, Ashur, Gideon, Elkanah, King David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijah, and many others were all polygamists. God never seems to mind except in the case of Solomon when the wives lead him away from the Lord. It is also known from history that Herod the Great (73 to 4 BCE) had nine wives. As far as I can find, there are no biblical references to polyandry involving a woman and more than one man. This could be because women were seen as property of the men. Their place was in the home taking care of things while the husband worked. So there's no real chance for a woman to have a job, and support many men herself.
Type 8: A male and female slave
"If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant plainly says, 'I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,' then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever"15
Under Hebrew law, a Hebrew male slave could only serve seven years and then had to be released. If he was married and brought his wife with him into slavery then he could take her with him. However if he were single when he became a slave then the master could give him a wife. After the seven years were served, when the slave left the master, the wife and children didn't get to go with him but remained with the master. The only way for the slave to remain with his wife and family was to refuse to go free and become a slave of his master forever.
What can we draw from all that has been shared here?
First, nowhere in the Bible does it define marriage as between a man and a woman only. Nor is there anything condemning the other types of marriages we have discussed here. As a matter of fact, the only type of sexual contact/unions condemned in scripture has to do with rape, prostitution, pedophilia, idolatry and so on. Also, in the case of Solomon, God was angry because Solomon's wives lead him away from the Lord and the worship of Him.
Second, that polygamy was a part of God's plan, at least in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Jacob, with the help of two wives and two female slaves, had 12 sons who become the 12 tribes of Israel.
Third, Jesus supports marriage by attending a wedding in Cana and turning water into wine when the wine ran out. Running out of wine would have been an embarrassment to the groom. Please note that we are not told what type of marriage was performed in Cana. We don't know if it was a marriage of one man and one woman or if the groom was already married and adding another wife to his family, which was permissible under the laws of that time.
Though some have adduced this to be referring to Jesus supporting marriage between one man and one woman, there is no indication that Jesus disapproved of any other form of marriage. Nowhere does he criticize polygamous marriages, levirate marriages, concubines, etc.
He also doesn't condemn living together necessarily. I find it interesting that in the case of the Samaritan woman who admits to living with a man who is not her husband, Jesus does not tell her to leave him. Instead, He takes it as a chance to reveal Himself to her, and make her into an evangelist who goes and leads the men of the city to Christ. Jesus spends a couple of days in her village teaching the people, saying nothing about the woman or the man she was living with.16
They may well have married at some point later or broken up or even lived together as brother and sister. We are not told. All we do know is Jesus did not condemn them. The only women he tells to go and sin no more are those caught in adultery (where at least one partner is married and therefore being unfaithful to their marriage vows) and then He just tells them to go and sin no more.
Some have tried to infer that because Jesus, his mother, disciples and friends were all there, that the Cana wedding was Jesus' own wedding, possibly to Mary Magdalene. They note Jesus is referred to as a rabbi and a rabbi had to be married; however, Jesus would also need to have been ordained by a recognized body of Jewish leaders to have the title rabbi under Jewish law.
In rare cases, however, when someone had a good understanding of the scriptures and laws and were able to expound and teach them, the honorific title of rabbi would be given them. Thus Jesus would qualify. Also Jesus was ordained by God at His baptism and engaged to His bride, the church, which was forming even while He was still here, and whose marriage will be consummated at the wedding supper of the Lamb at the second coming of Christ. So, in either case, Jesus is a rabbi.
Fourth, John the Baptist, in criticizing Herod's marriage to Herodias, made the criticism on the basis that she was already married to Herod's brother Philip who was still alive. Therefore she should be with her husband, not with Herod according to the law. The fact that it was a polyandrous marriage doesn't seem to bother John the Baptist at all.17
Fifth, many will say that Jesus said a man should leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife and they would become one flesh. He also says what God has joined together let no man break asunder.18
Here Jesus is answering a question on whether or not it was legal for a man to divorce his wife for any reason. His reply is no -- except for adultery. He is not necessarily establishing one man-one woman as the only possible kind of marriage.
The verse does not exclude Jesus' support for other types of family structure, like same-sex unions, marriages and families. Polygamy, though less common in the first century CE, was still practiced in Jesus' day. We also know that same-sex unions and marriages were performed by the church, and gays were welcomed for almost the first 400 years of church history and, in some cases, up till the time of the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation in the 1600's.
So then, the next time someone wants to talk about Biblical marriage and what the Bible says about it, ask them what kind of Biblical marriage they are talking about. When they look at you like you are crazy, you can explain to them what the Bible actually says about Biblical marriage. As with the clobber verses used to condemn gays, the church has taken certain scriptures to twist and make them say something they don't say in an effort to condemn gays and deny us our right to be married and express our love to our partners just as heterosexual couples can.
Let's take back the Bible for what it, in fact, actually says.
Let me further stir up the pot here by saying that nowhere in the Bible is a wedding ceremony, as we know it today, mentioned. Also, there is no place where it says a priest, minister, judge or someone else had to officiate at the wedding in order for it to be legal. As a matter of fact, as far as I can tell, if you had sex with a women, you were considered married to her. No exchange of vows, or promising to submit, love, and cherish until death do us part. The only place a wedding is mentioned in the Bible is in the teachings of Jesus, and He refers to a feast, not a wedding ceremony.
As for priests, all they ever did, biblically speaking, was to offer sacrifices for the people, and teach. There is no mention of priests ever performing wedding ceremonies in the Bible.
It is my understanding that, in Bible times, the parents of a boy and girl would gather somewhere and sign a contract pledging their son and daughter to marry each other. This was considered legally binding and could only be broken by a bill of divorcement. There would have been several witnesses to this signing to verify it as a legal document and marriage.
There would be a great feast and time of celebration lasting seven days. Later, after the groom had saved up enough money to provide a home for his bride, he would come and carry her off to the new home he had built for her.
Again, the bridegroom and bride would have no say in the matter, and might not even be present at the signing of the contract, or could have been too young to have understood and consented to the contract. All would have been decided by the parents, and the children (groom and bride) would just have to live with the consequences of that decision.
That is how I understand marriage worked in Bible times.
I would love to hear others' comments and thoughts on what I have shared here.
God Bless You,
Brother Lawrence Damien CoS CAM
1. Genesis 2:18
2. Genesis 2:24
3. Exodus 34:12-16, Deuteronomy 7:1-4
4. I Kings 11:1-4
5. Deuteronomy 23:1-3
6. Deuteronomy 22:13-21
7. Deuteronomy 25:5
8. Genesis 38:6-10
9. Deuteronomy 25:9-10
10. Examples of concubines Genesis 22:24,35:22, 36:12, 2 Chronicles 11:21
11. Deuteronomy 22:28-29
12. Deuteronomy 21:10-14
13. Numbers 31:1-18
14. Genesis 4:19
15. Exodus 21:4-6
16. John 4:1-42
17. Mark 6:16-29
18. Matthew 19:3-6, Mark 10:2-9
by Brother Lawrence Damien CoS CAM
Edited by Pat Brush