Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Biblical Definition of Marriage

In the debate the other night, both VP candidates agreed that they do not support gay marriage in terms of legal definitions, but both agreed (or seemed to) that the government should not limit any civil rights of gay couples. This is a step forward, since our government (in theory, at least) is based on the separation of church and state. I was really surprised and encouraged to hear Sarah Palin say that she does not advocate limiting any civil rights for gay couples, particularly considering how she supported a bill to deny hospital visitations (which she later was advised was unconstitutional). Palin said clearly at the debate that she would not prevent visitation rights to gay couples, but of course, she also did not say she would do anything to guarantee them, which is the government's most important job.

However, both candidates said they believe (not as a matter of public policy, but personally) that marriage should be between one man and one woman. Biden said that it was a matter for each individual religion to decide and did not identify where his personal convictions come from. We can deduce from the activities of her church, however, that Palin bases her belief on the Bible.

Since I am currently teaching the Bible, I can't help but bring up what is meant by a biblical definition of marriage. This article offers some important points that anyone seeking a biblical definition of marriage would need to address. (Numbers 3, 5 and 6 are particularly instructive.)

If one were to construct an amendment to the Constitution based on a literal reading of the Bible it might well contain the following stipulations:

1. Marriage in the United States shall consist of a union between one man and one or more women. (Gen 29:17-28; II Sam 3:2-5)

2. Marriage shall not impede a man's right to take concubines, in addition to his wife or wives. (II Sam 5:13; I Kings 11:3; II Chron 11:21)

3. A marriage shall be considered valid only if the wife is a virgin. If the wife is not a virgin, she shall be executed. (Deut 22:13-21)

4. Marriage of a believer and a non-believer shall be forbidden. (Gen 24:3; Num 25:1-9; Ezra 9:12; Neh 10:30)

5. Since marriage is for life, neither this Constitution nor the constitution of any State, nor any state or federal law, shall be construed to permit divorce. (Deut 22:19; Mark 10:9)

6. If a married man dies without children, his brother shall marry the widow. If he refuses to marry his brother's widow or deliberately does not give her children, he shall pay a fine of one shoe, and be otherwise punished in a manner to be determined by law. (Gen. 38:6-10; Deut 25:5-10)

7. In lieu of marriage, if there are no acceptable men in your town, it is required that you get your dad drunk and have sex with him (even if he had previously offered you up as a sex toy to men young and old), tag-teaming with any sisters you may have. Of course, this rule applies only if you are female. (Gen 19:31-36)

Obviously, the question of marriage has changed drastically over the years, and the bible is no better at guiding us in this issue than in the issue of slavery, which it clearly condones. It is much better to look at the spirit of the bible here than take these laws literally. In replacing ten (and hundreds more) commandments with two, Jesus meant to offer not laws but guiding principles, which would help us to work out complex issues for ourselves rather than relying on laws that were written for people who needed them but which no longer apply. The prohibitions on shell fish and mixed fabrics, for instance, hold little sway for us today, and the word used for them (translated in KJV as 'abomination') is the same word used for homosexuality. The spirit of all the laws - Hebrew and Christian - is summed up in the two Jesus chooses: place your ego second in order to discover the ultimate reality, and let non-judgmental compassion be the guiding principle in all your dealings with other humans.

In this light, I have such a hard time denying any right or name or responsibility or legal status or religious blessing to any loving couple. It is so difficult to find love in this world. Why would we not celebrate that every time it happens? Granted, the text does say in Genesis 2:24 (and again quoted or paraphrased at Matthew 19:3-9 and Mark 10:2-12, for example) that "a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and they will become one flesh." Ironically, each time Jesus referenced the Genesis passage, he was not talking about gay marriage. He was condemning divorce. If we really want to protect the biblical definition of marriage legally, we should demand that the Supreme Court outlaw divorce, not gay marriage.

Love is the great miracle, regardless of to whom it happens or how. Common sense and experience (though clearly not the Bible) dictate that monogamy is the most stable relationship in modern society because it is the only type that can last (unless you have been raised with a ploygamous consciousness, like certain sects of the Mormon or Islamic communities). But again, this is not a Biblical law, but a practical application of a spiritual principle - putting the ego second and actively caring for those around us. Surely Jesus, who hung out with thieves and prostitutes, would see that love is a miracle worth celebrating no matter where it may occur.


Andrew said...

Not sure where to start but I must begin by stating that your suggested "amendment to the Constitution based on a literal reading of the Bible" is oversimplified, inaccurate, and does not adequately take into consideration the context of the verses cited. A literal reading must consider both the context of the individual verse as well as the light shed upon these verses by other verses addressing the same or similar matters - what the reformers refer to as "letting scripture interpret scripture".

For example, the Bible does not outlaw divorce under all circumstances but instead allows for it in particular cases (see Matthew 5:31-32; 19:9).

You have cited Mark 10:9 where it is said, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder (KJV)." If we let scripture interpret scripture then we find that a man who commits adultery breaks the contract of his marriage and effectively separates himself from his wife by being joined (literally) with another. In such cases the Bible does permit the wife to divorce her husband.

Jesus sheds further light on how we are to interpret "adultery" stating that any man that looks upon a woman lustfully commits adultery in his heart (Matthew 5:27-28). This is why pastors today have argued that women are justified in divorcing a husband addicted to pornography.

Also notice that Jesus' addressing of "adultery" does not nullify the Old Testament commandment but instead extends and clarifies it to be certain that it addresses the condition of the heart, the motives, the thoughts, etc. - not just the physical act.

On a different note, the decalogue (ten commandments) is summed up in the New Testament by the command to love God and neighbor - not replaced by these two commands. There are numerous instances where the particular ten commandments of the Old Testament (worshiping one God, abstaining from idols, keeping the Sabbath, etc.) are reaffirmed either implicity or explicitly - not lessened or replaced.

I have more to say but this will suffice for now...

Andrew said...

Skimmed the post over again.
Still disturbed and concerned.
Will attempt to write more later.

Anonymous said...

Leslie McFall has an interesting way to deal with the so-called exception clause in Matthew 19:9 that some hold allows for divorce and remarriage in the case of marriage unfaithfulness.

He has written a 43 page paper that reviews the changes in the Greek made by Erasmus that effect the way Matthew 19:9 has been translated. I reviewed McFall's paper at Except For Fornication Clause of Matthew 19:9. I would love to hear some feedback on this position.

I also wrote an article on the most popular scriptural reasons that people give for Divorce and Remarriage.

the Young Mrs. Weber said...

Interesting note, Deuteronomy 25, (the bit about a fine of one shoe) is actually much more significant. It would mean that the widow would inherit her husband's full estate, where it would normally go to his brothers. So it's more of a tax of all of his inheritance (and is apparently very shameful as well), than a tax of one shoe.