In June 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided that the Constitution gives you the right marry whomever you want. And so the SCOTUS-Five redefined marriage, in an extremely controversial reading of the Constitution, for 328 million Americans. Since that decision, should we even discuss the biblical norm for marriage? Yes.
Whatever the SCOTUS-Five’s far-reaching decision, I don’t believe that the Bible provides no guidance for normative marriage. It does.
I also don’t want to let the world–those outside the kingdom of God–or even segments of the church be confused about what the Bible says, ultimately, about marriage.
I don’t intend, unless called upon, to continue to make this a political issue or culture war nowadays (e.g. we founded this country in part to get away from monarchs, but now we have Five of them sitting on the SCOTUS).
And I don’t want to reopen old wounds, either.
But I can’t remain silent, either, when the Bible is so badly misinterpreted and abused.
First, we must interpret Scripture in its overarching storyline, as a narrative.
We begin at the beginning with (1) the paradise of Eden; and (2) then we look at paradise lost; and (3) finally we move on to paradise regained, to borrow from Milton. That third movement or stage is based on the in-breaking of the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus (but fully regained only at his second coming, which is not the concern of this discussion).
No one has to take these early Genesis accounts literally to see a pattern.
(1) Now we can begin with a brief description of paradise in Genesis.
God made Adam, but it was not good that he should be alone, so God fashioned Eve from Adam’s rib, which shows how closely they are united — not the negative interpretation that says she was subordinate. Adam was made from dirt, not an angelic substance, while Eve came from humankind. To compare the two, who has a superior starting point? Everyone after that comes from human flesh. Poor dusty Adam.
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). God fashioned them so that their bodies have natural coordination for consummating their oneness and for procreating. Only heterosexuality and this anatomical fit can do that.
(2) Then the Fall.
Their paradise was disrupted; things got out of joint. God removed the life of ease. Adam had to sweat to till the ground (Gen. 3:17-19), and Eve’s pain during childbirth was greatly increased. She was said to be subordinated to Adam, but only after the Fall (Gen. 3:16).
After this Fall, marriage, as it met up with the human condition, adapted to its historical context. This is where a skeptical post at another website provides a useful description of how Scripture fit into the less-than-paradise customs of the day.
Yes, polygamy and concubinage happened in the ancient world, so the Bible describes it, though every time it was practiced, household troubles emerged (e.g., Gen. 16; 29:16-35; 30:1-22; 1 Sam. 1:6-7). Kings in the ancient world had many wives and concubines, but Solomon broke divine law (Deut. 17:17) because they led his heart astray from God (1 Kings 11:1-10).
Prostitution occurred back then, but an occasional delight in prostitution was forbidden (Lev. 19:29; Deut 23:17); even the passage that the piece references reveals a comeuppance for the patriarch who degraded himself in that way, before the Law of Moses was given (Gen. 38:24-26). It’s hard to imagine, therefore, that the Bible says prostitution is a form of “evolving marriage.”
The levirate marriage was designed to keep the deceased man’s name alive and inheritance intact (Deut. 25:5-10), a kind of quest to return to Eden — longevity and stewardship over his own land, his mini-Eden. It was a good law — for its own day.
Yes, men had control over their wives back then — i.e., participated in a patriarchy. But recall that Eve was explicitly said to be subordinated to her husband only after the Fall. This means that equality and shared responsibility were lost and went downhill.
So, to wrap up this section, the Bible describes — not necessarily endorses — the customs of the day. Scripture fits into its historical context, and we shouldn’t draw any further conclusions than that, except to say it is clear that humans declined from the standard laid out in the Genesis paradise.
(3) Now let’s look at the marriage norm according to Jesus — paradise regained–the third movement in the narrative.
The Pharisees asked Jesus a question about divorce: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matt. 19:3). The phrase “any and every reason” is another way of saying “any cause.” So the issue of broken marriages prompts the discussion.
Jesus replied that the Edenic model was the norm:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Matt. 19:4-6)
Jesus recognized that humanity had fallen from the norm, so he aimed to remind people what that norm was by referring to Eden. He appealed to the greatest intimacy that a man and woman can experience — one flesh. Since they are one, humans must not separate them. God himself put them together.
The basic, timeless principle: protect and honor womankind as equal before God (cf. Gal. 3:28). Paradise has been regained in that verse in Galatians and in Christ.
To do that, Jesus again hearkens back in that latter passage to the “beginning” in Genesis before the Fall.
Thus, marriage had sacred, stable origins.
To sum up, we have three stages or movements in the biblical description of various marriages: paradise, paradise lost, and paradise regained. Jesus represents paradise regained.
A postmodernist may be too sophisticated for Adam and Eve and the Garden. Then all we need to do for him is to boil down the three narrative movements to one simple truth that is easily understood. It is not an evolving social construct for Jesus; paradise in Genesis guided him.
Here’s how Jesus defines marriage: one man and one woman, living in a covenant of peace and harmony before God.
Saving grace is needed, and a lot more common grace.