Have you ever encountered this chart? It calls the traditional and Biblical definition of marriage into question by examining eight “definitions” of marriage that are described in the Bible. Its intent is to denigrate traditional marriage, to make supporters of traditional marriage appear bigoted or hypocritical, and to make appeals to the “Biblical definition of marriage” appear ambiguous at best.
Does this meme succeed in its attack on traditional marriage, supporters of traditional marriage, or even the idea that there is such a thing as a “Biblical definition of marriage? We will take each example of marriage in turn, but first I would like to offer the following distinction, a distinction that was not made in the meme itself. There is a large difference between a purely descriptive account of what actually took place and a prescriptive description of what ought to be the case. One needs to be careful of the naturalistic fallacy – mistaking how something is with how it ought to be – and the moralistic fallacy – mistaking how something ought to be with how it actually is. Not all of the forms of marriage mentioned by this meme are problematic, but it would be a mistake to assume that those that are problematic are held up as positive examples.
- Man + Woman = Nuclear family (Gen. 2:24).
This is what is meant by the “Biblical definition of marriage.” While I object to the characterization of the wife as “subordinate” to her husband, the Biblical role of the man is in authority, and wives are called to submit to their husbands. If you think that’s harsh, keep in mind what husbands are called to do for their wives. There are many excellent expositions of this concept. It is not sexist, nor should it count against the Biblical definition of marriage.
Interfaith marriages are forbidden, so that part is accurate, although it would be a mistake to interpret that as essential to the definition of marriage.
Most people today object to the concept of arranged marriages, so apparently the creators of the meme thought it would be damaging to include this aspect. The problem is, arranged marriages are as much cultural as religious – there is no Biblical mandate for them – and are practiced in various places around the world. There is even a growing group of individuals who turn to their parents for assistance with matchmaking, if not for actual arranged marriages.
It is true that a woman could be stoned unless proof of virginity could be produced. This is consistent with the punishment for other sexual sins. In fact, it is interesting to note how there are high penalties for all of the sexual sins. Given the extreme problems that sexual sins cause for the stability of marriage, and consequently for families and society as a whole, it could be that an extreme penalty was needed to ingrain the importance of marital fidelity. Regardless, the penalty for infidelity is not part of the definition of marriage.Most importantly, Genesis 218-24 indicates the standard for marriage that God intended, and Jesus referenced and upheld this standard when he was asked about divorce in Matthew and Mark.
- Man + Wife + Concubines
The mere existence of concubines in scripture does not indicate that having concubines is moral or part of the definition of marriage, and it certainly was never upheld as a moral standard approved by God. Concubines were not wives but more like indentured prostitutes, so it is hard to see how this could affect the definition of marriage in scripture. Excessive wives and concubines were specifically prohibited for kings.
- Man + Woman + Woman’s Property
The situation here is little different than with concubines; instead of being the husband’s property (a concubine) the woman was the wife’s property but used by the husband. God did not condone the practice in scripture.
- Man + Woman + Woman + Woman…
Again, this practice is not condoned in scripture, it was merely a common cultural practice that actually went against God’s plan as originally intended.
- Man + Brother’s Widow (Levirate Marriage)
This is a legitimate form of marriage in scripture (in fact, it’s a legitimate form of marriage today as well). Since the woman’s original husband was dead, her marriage to him was void. The original husband’s brother could then marry her (and actually was expected to marry her, if she had no children). This provided for the continuation of a man’s line after his death, since the first child produced by the new marriage would be counted legally as the dead man’s heir. This also meant the widow had someone to provide for her. So why was this very compassionate form of marriage put on a chart attacking the Biblical definition of marriage?
This is just another version of the nuclear family.
- Rapist + his victim
While it is true that marriage was required after a rape, the phrasing of this chart is backwards: It is not that a woman was required to marry her rapist, but rather that a rapist was required to marry his victim (provided she was not already engaged). Sending a woman away after raping her was considered a disgrace to her greater than the rape itself; other men likely would not marry her, which meant she would have to live as a desolate woman. Imprisoning or killing the rapist would have served little purpose, but forcing the rapist to marry his victim forced him to provide for her and established some semblance of legitimacy for the woman.
This is also another version of the nuclear family.
- Male soldier + Prisoner of war
Soldiers were permitted to marry female prisoners of war, provided they were virgins. The soldiers were required to allow the woman to mourn for her family, and were prohibited from treating the woman as a slave, which would have been common in that time. The woman would thus have been provided for through marriage.
This is yet another version of the nuclear family. Of course, the reason this type of marriage was included was because it offends modern sensibilities to think about marrying prisoners of war. Given that such prisoners were a common reality in context of the Israelite conquest of Canaan (when the permission was originally given), it is difficult to find another more humane way of handling the situation. In most cases the culture the Israelite were fighting was entirely destroyed due to their extreme wickedness, so the women couldn’t go home. Forcing them to provide for themselves would have only heightened their distress, and would have likely resulted in them being slaves. Marriage provided for them in practical ways and enabled them to establish new lives as part of the Israelite community.
- Male slave + Female slave
Slaves were allowed to marry. If people wish to complain about this, imagine the outcry if slaves weren’t allowed to marry. Is it so odd that a slave would be permitted to marry other slaves? It is difficult to see how a slave getting married is offensive or somehow constitutes a new definition of marriage. As for the requirement of sexual submission, that is not supported by the reference the chart supplies.
This is still another version of the nuclear family. I suppose we could continue to multiply examples of the nuclear family (Farmer + Woman, Priest + woman, etc), but what would be the point?
To sum up, we have seen that each of the examples provided in the chart was either a version of the nuclear family with Biblical approval, or a violation of the nuclear family model with no Biblical approval (as descriptive, not prescriptive). Appeals to the “Biblical definition of marriage” are not ambiguous, but rather refer to marriage as God intended “from the beginning,” rather than the various unapproved versions of marriage in scripture.
It is likely that several of the versions of nuclear marriage are included not because they serve as alternate definitions of marriage, but rather merely for the culture shock they create. This culture shock encourages one to disavow Biblical forms of marriage out of a sense of moral superiority. However, several of the types of marriage described are more compassionate than they appear at first to modern Western sensibilities.
Finally, in the context of the same-sex marriage debates today, it is worth noting that all of the Biblical forms of marriage this chart addresses are heterosexual in nature, serving to underscore the traditional, Biblical view of marriage.
“But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”