Wednesday 13 June 2012

Were the Patriarchs really married ?

“Marriage as created by God is an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman that is entered into for life …”

So says the St Matthias Day Statement from the Church of England Evangelical Council and the Church of England’s official response to Government proposals for same-sex marriage.  The Archbishop of York agrees.  “Marriage is marriage is marriage” he states, and “neither the State nor the Church, or any religious group can change the essential nature of marriage”.

But that evokes a curious question in my mind – in that case, were some of the most prominent marriages in the Old Testament really marriages at all?
The question arises, of course, because most of the famous marriages in the Old Testament were not ‘an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman’.  Therefore, according to the CofE and the Archbishop, they were not marriages at all.

Let’s take Jacob for example.  He worked for Laban for 7 years to ‘earn’ the hand of Rachel in marriage.  But when Laban deceived him and married him off to her sister Leah, he worked for another 7 years to get the bride he really wanted as well.  He married two sisters, and it didn’t stop there - he also had children with Rachel and Leah’s servants.  Were these marriages in the sight of God?  These ‘marriages’ were not exclusive relationships between one man and one woman as created by God.   And what about the children which resulted?  Even if we accept Jacob’s first marriage to Leah as the one that really counts, that means that 5 of the tribes of Israel were born outside of wedlock, as a result of nothing less than institutionalised adultery.
Perhaps Jacob can be forgiven because at least he came before the Law was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai.  Surely this pivotal point in God’s relationship with humanity would put all that straight.  Indeed it did include some regulations on divorce, but no definitive statement or definition which would put the matter rest once and for all.

Then there were David and Solomon, both heroic Kings of the Old Testament, and both of whom were married many times over.  David appears to have had at least 8 wives (and many more concubines) and yet he wrote some of the Bible’s most moving Psalms extolling the Word of God.  Could these really be marriages?  Apparently not, according to the Evangelical Council!  Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines according to 1 Kings 11 and the only rebuke which Scripture offers is that many of them were foreigners.
Indeed the relationship between David and Solomon is problematic in the extreme as Solomon was David and Bathsheba’s child - and we all know how that relationship began.  David committed adultery with Bathsheba (Uriah’s wife) and then had him killed in battle when Bathsheba found she was pregnant.  Surely David and Bathsheba’s marriage could not be valid in the sight of God – nor could Israel or the Levites make it a ‘marriage’ because “marriage is marriage is marriage” and “neither the State nor Church can change it” from that which was “created by God” as “an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman that is entered into for life”.

So what is the point of all this?   Am I really advocating polygamy as a Biblically valid form of marriage?  Or arguing that we should re-define marriage to be more ‘biblical’ in this sense?
No – I am not!

What this does show however, is the limitation of trying to give eternal status to our current definition of marriage and claim that it is, and has always been the created will of God.
In fact, there is no normative example of marriage in Scripture that ends the story once and for all.  Even Adam and Eve cannot be claimed as such, as their story is meant to be figurative rather than literal.  (Otherwise we open up yet another can of worms as we have to concede that their children must have married each other, thereby opening up the possibility of incestual marriage as well!)

If ‘marriage is marriage is marriage’, and cannot be any different to our current definition, then most of the people in the Bible were not married, their children were born out of wedlock, and all sexual activity in those ‘non-marriages’ could not have been blessed by God because they were sinful, pure and simple.
The alternative is to recognise that our understanding of marriage has changed over the centuries and continues to change.  Whether it is the slow transition to monogamy, or the marriage of slaves, or interracial marriage, or the continual tension between marriage and divorce, we have continually amended our understanding of what does and does not constitute marriage in the sight of God.

In these areas the church universal has never been unanimous in its attitudes or practise, and if we want to look biblically at marriage (which I hope we do) we have to recognise that God appears to have been far more willing to embrace different forms of marriage than the church of today. 
We also need to delve much deeper into Paul’s ultimate paradigm for marriage.  The marriage of Christ and his bride, the Church is a marriage which is not dependant on gender or sex, and which is expressed in the substance of the relationship, rather than the correctness of the formula (one man + one woman = Marriage).

In the end, all definitions and understandings of marriage through history have been temporary and will remain temporary this side of eternity.  It was Jesus himself that said, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage.  But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage… for they are like the angels.” (Luke 20:34&35).
It is time we acknowledged the temporal nature of our limited understanding and looked for marriages which are life-giving relationships based on the vows and promises which the marriage partners make to each other, rather than the gender of the partners. 
When the woman at the well challenged Jesus on the correct place to worship God, he told her that the time was coming when God’s true worshippers would not be tied to one place, but would worship God ‘in Spirit and in Truth’.

Once again, perhaps, we need to look beyond our limited views and disagreements to marriages which are grounded ‘in Spirit and in Truth’.  For there we will find God.


  1. Thank you Benny for this interesting and informative post.
    The Anglican hierarchy seem rather desperate in the timing of their recent statements. The struggle continues...

  2. It takes an evangelical to show conservative evangelicals, Archbishops and CEEC, using the bible as your source, how misguided their exegesis of the bible is and their understanding of history AND their awareness of God's continuing activity in creation and evolution. Thanks, Benny!

  3. An excellent post, Benny.