Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

We Have Already Redefined Marriage

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(Saints Serge and Bacchus being united by Christ in what many consider a same sex marriage. For more read John Boswell’s controversial and provocative Same-Sex Union in Pre-Modern Europe.)

I’d like to think that by now most folk know that biblical marriage includes rape, abduction, forced pregnancy and surrogacy and polygamy.

I’ve lectured and written on biblical marriage for a while now and I hear the same conversation engaged again and again and I find myself reflecting on the charge that human beings are changing marriage  – like that’s a new thing.

The biblical text bears witness to many ways in which humans have fundamentally changed what is called marriage and God’s response or in many cases, lack thereof.

The “one woman, one man” relationship of Eve and Adam becomes one man and two women in Genesis 4:19, one man and an untold number of prepubescent girl war captives in Numbers 31:18 and in many other texts, e.g. Deut. 21:10ff, Judges 21:10-14, 20ff. The evolution of polygamy (both consensual and forcible) as a human-initiated cultural practice in the scriptures is particularly striking because of God’s lack of condemnation, (and according to Deuteronomy, God’s sanction of abduction or rape-marriage during armed conflicts). God even gives David Saul’s wives (as a coronation present? in 2 Sam 12:8). It is also clear that when inviting individuals and their descendants into eternal covenant relationships with God, that God never required that the matriarchs and patriarchs revert to an Eve-Adam, monogamous pairing.

It appears that God has left it to humanity to decide who are appropriate intimate partners and under what circumstances. In other words, humans invented polygamy and God accepted it. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all accept(ed) polygamy as normative even with texts that in some cases that make its all-too-human innovation clear. The end of polygamy in the West is due more to Roman abhorrence of the practice than to any religious motives among Christians or Jews to get back to the original form of biblical marriage.

Even when Jesus teaches on divorce and refers to the Genesis account in Mt 19 and Mk 10 he does not go so far as to speak directly against polygamy.

While there are some claims that in some contexts polygamy was a culturally appropriate way to form households and families to provide for women and children that would otherwise be without support or resources in those cultures I do not find any merit in those arguments today. I recognize that some communities practice polygamy drawing on sacred texts, but in each broader tradition that I am aware of some portion of the same religious tradition rejects the practice.

The biblical account of Lamech in Gen 4:19 taking two women for himself just as he hit back hard against anyone who even slightly injured or offended him makes it clear that his women were status symbols in that narrative. An argument can be made that the first time humans men changed the definition marriage the ([slightly] more) egalitarian union of Eden became patriarchal and hierarchal. And the world did not end. If it had, perhaps we could have started over without patriarchy and misogyny.

Humanity has reconfigured marriage again and again – from women as property whose consent was not needed to a dizzying array of contemporary practices, some like interracial union in the US only recently legal – accounting for all of the variations would require a book.

By some accounts same gender unions were performed in the Church as far back as the first century. And the world kept spinning. In modernity Denmark legalized same sex marriages more than a quarter of a century ago. And the world keeps spinning.

Recognizing and consecrating same sex unions in civil and sacred discourse is neither new nor earth-shattering.

2 Responses

  1. Karen Pidcock

    If fundalits only read their entire Bible! I had with a smile & gentle voice acknowledge a couple JWs today as Christians, & then simply add i was too, & one who read Scripture with different eye glasses, so didn’t think we’d be able to agree about how we interpret Scripture.

    7 July 2015 at 11:48 pm

  2. Mary Holloway

    Dr. Gafney, don’t ever stop putting the truth out there! Some of us refuse to study to show ourselves approved, and that’s a sad thing, because we can then be fed and swallow any rhetoric that comes down the pipeline!

    8 July 2015 at 3:10 pm

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