Themed Study

Women in the Bible

“Biblical Marriage” – Study Guide

Theme: “Biblical Marriage”

Deuteronomy 21:15-17, Deuteronomy 24, 1 Corinthians 7

Today, when someone invokes the idea of “biblical marriage,” they are usually referring to the marriage of a man and a woman, who will hopefully have some children and maybe a dog. The problem with the idea of “biblical marriage” comes when we moralize a single model of marriage. The marital arrangements in the Bible do not, themselves, prescribe what anyone should do; they are practical matters of fact.

Scripture puts forth many different models of marriage. If the creation story of man and woman in the Garden of Eden was meant as a template, it was not very effective because almost all the stories afterward undermine it. Heterosexual monogamy is not the norm in either the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament. The figures in these stories had different goals for marriage than we might today.

Marriage in the Hebrew Bible

In the marriage stories we studied earlier in this course, we have seen that marriage in the Hebrew Bible is not the formalization of a romantic relationship. Rather, it is a brokered agreement between families for what they hope will be a fruitful domestic and economic union. The father has the power to determine marital matches and thereby to control the family line.

Returning to the story of Sarah and Hagar in Genesis 16, we see an early example of this value in action. The most important goal for Sarah and Abraham’s marriage is that Abraham have a son. This is far more important to them than monogamy. In fact, the story makes no mention of monogamy as a value. Thus, this “biblical marriage” is between a man, a woman, and the woman’s enslaved servant.

With Tamar in Genesis 38, we saw a completely different model of marriage in terms of its shape, but the values were the same. Er dies before he and Tamar can have a child. The most important goal of the story becomes producing a male heir for Er. After all, as the eldest son, Er is the last generation in his family’s line of descent. This kind of “biblical marriage” is, ideally, between a (dead) man, a woman, and however many of the man’s brothers are necessary to produce a son. In Tamar’s story, the formula is even stranger: a (dead) man, a woman, and the dead man’s father.

True, there is romance in certain biblical stories. Dr. Lin reminds us, though, that the romance is always about chastity (on the part of the woman, not the man), which goes back to preserving a pure line. The numbers of people in the marriage ecosystem and their relationships can be quite different, but the goal is always the same: keep the family going through the production of sons.

New Testament

Some may be surprised to learn that ancient Christians would not have understood the idea of having a wedding in a church. Marriage and religion were interrelated only in how they directed your behavior; the actual wedding ceremony had nothing to do with the Church. Weddings were civic affairs in the Greco-Roman world until the medieval period at the earliest. Marriage did not formally become a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church until the Council of Trent in 1563.

Like the figures in the Hebrew Bible, people in the Greco Roman world wanted to make sure that their lineage was preserved. Since only males could inherit property, male heirs were crucial to preserving a family through the generations.

The apostle Paul, who wrote so many letters in the New Testament and to whom many others are attributed, was Jewish, but he espoused a Greco Roman understanding of sexuality. Passions like anger and sexuality were aspects of oneself to be mastered, not something one should ever give in to.

With this in mind, Paul’s advice to the Corinthians becomes clearer: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor 7:8-9). Dr. Lin says that in this way, marriage for Paul is like a haircut in that it tends to a periodic need. Marriage helps exorcise passion in a safe way.

At the same time, marriage can be distracting. People become preoccupied with sex or with the needs of their spouse. Paul’s advice comes in the context of his expectations of Jesus’ prompt return. Why bother with marriage when “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31)? It will only take away from the urgent task of prayer and caring for one another as a communal whole. Marriage, for Paul’s context, should be unnecessary for the majority of people.

As for Paul’s beautiful “Love is patient; love is kind” passage: he is not teaching the Corinthians about romantic love (1 Cor 13:4-13). Rather, he is teaching them how to order their communal life, especially in the context of each person’s spiritual gifts. Paul believes in the deep love of God: both our love for God and God’s love for us. But Paul is not interested in the distractions and potential passions of romantic love.

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One Note

  1. Olive Grant

    Biblical Marriage: Marriage in the Bible/ New testament had different goals of a marriage than today.
    Marriage in the Hebrew Bible: This wasn’t based on a romantic relationship, but a brokered agreement between two families, in which they hope will bring children, proper household and ecomomic stability. The father has the power to choose for his daughter, to control family line. Sarah/Hagar, value in actions. In Sarah/Abraham’s marriage, the important goal was for Sarah and Abraham to have a son, more in important tha momogamy. The marriage was between man/woman and Sarah’s slave Hagar.(gen 16).
    Tamar(totally different) Tamar’s husband Er, died before they had a child. It was iportant to have a male heir for Er, being the eldest son to carry on the line. traditionally the dead man’s brother would marry his wife to bear that son, but in Tamar’s strange story that didn’t happen, instead the formula was (dead) man, a woman, and dead man’s father. Dr. Lin, reminds us that the romance is always chastity( part of the woman)by preserving a pur line. The amount of people in the marriage and their relationships might be different, but have the same goal(preserving) keep the family line in tact with a male heir.
    New Testament: Ancient christian didn’t have wedding in church. Marriage/religion were interrelated only in the way we control our behavior.Marriage in the Greco-Roman world were civic affair until medievil times. Marriage became a formal sacrament in the catholic church at the council of Trent 1563. They too wanted to preserve their lineage.Only male heirs in the Greco/roman world could inhert family property, it was important for them to preserve the future generations.
    Paul wrote in his many letters in the New Testament, many others, was Jewish, his adice on understanding of sexuality. He said it’s a passion driven(anger) and it was something that you have to learn to control and not let it take control of you. Paul was quite clear to the Corinthians “to the unmarried and widow’s I say that it is well with them to stay unmarried as he was” and if they ca’t practice self-control, then get married, it’d better to be married than living in sin.(1cor 7:8-9). Dr. lin stated “marriage for Paul is like a haircut in that it tends to a periodic need” marriage helps to control passion in a saf way.
    On the other hand marriage could be distracting , because partner get caught up in sex and the need of the spouse. Paul ‘s advice comes in the context of his expectation that Jesus is coming back soon.why bother with marriage, when the end is so near? this is only keeping us back fro the urgent task of prayer and caring for each other as on community . Paul thinks marriage is not for everyone. As for Paul beautiful “love is patient, love is kind” Paul was not teaching about romantic love, rather he was teaching about communial life, especially each individual’s spiritual gifts. the deep love of God. he love us and we must love him too.