The Bible and marriage, sex and family life

August 12, 2010

The recent court decision overturning Proposition 8’s ban on same sex marriage in California pulls the issue back onto the front burner of social and religious commentary. Most religious commentary—or at least the loudest and most amplified by public media—has opposed same sex marriage and vigorously promoted a traditional marriage between men and women (sic: one never says “women and men” in these circles, or any circles, for that matter). These folks argue from the standpoint of both tradition (this is the way it’s been for all of human history) and biblical testimony. I think it’s fair to say that neither the Bible nor Jesus envision marriage between men or between women; to the contrary, if Jesus or biblical writers could have envisioned same sex marriage, I am sure they would have condemned it. For biblically based Christians, then, it would seem that the matter is settled.

However, like many other very important social issues, the evolution of social conscience on marriage is challenging biblical authority itself—over our choices as individuals, over our social mores, and over social policy in a pluralistic society. Examples of changes in social conscience that have moved beyond biblical testimony abound: slavery, the place of women in the family and in the religious community, and even marriage itself.

For there is no one ‘biblical testimony’ on marriage. In the roughly fifteen hundred years during which many editors and writers labored to gather the library we now call the Bible, the institution of marriage and these writers’ religious attitudes towards marriage have morphed several times. In the case of Paul alone (or Paul and the post-Pauline disciples who published in his name), we can see some significant shift from one letter to another. Writing at the far end of this trajectory from the ancient traditions about the patriarchs or the stories of domestic violence in Judges, Paul lives in a completely different world than those earlier traditionists.

And it is a trajectory, of sorts. It’s not a gradual refinement of a single religious principle or structure for the institution of marriage. The evolution of marriage forms and attitudes in the Bible is rather punctuated, lurching at times quite radically from one form to a new one. Most disconcertingly, the lurch almost always takes place offline, out of sight, not clearly visible in the pages of one of the Bible’s books. Sometimes you can see the struggle at work, see the issues at play, identify the players and their stake in the issue. But you almost never get to see the community making the decision. The one sharp exception is Ezra, whose book describes how he forced men to divorce their ‘foreign’ wives—women they had married from the communities they found already settled in old Israel when they returned from exile in Babylon—and decreed that marrying outside the congregation of Israel was illegal.

Furthermore, it’s worth observing that accepted forms of family life and sexuality have changed at key moments in the life of the tradition and these changes have led to conflict, and sometimes to violence. The book of Judges is full of women and men who were murdered or sacrificed over changing patterns of family.

So this post begins a series on the punctuated evolution of biblical testimony on marriage, family and sex. I see at least seven forms of marriage or sets of teachings on marriage to explore. After the biblical canon was settled and no new biblical testimony was forthcoming, the institution of marriage continued to evolve in Western Christendom, and we’ll end with some comments on this history. In the next post, I’ll start with the first two forms of marriage described and sanctioned in the Bible, practiced by the patriarchs and matriarchs of ancient Israel.

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