By Miguel De La Torre
Many Christians today speak about the traditional biblical marriage, but if truth be known, the traditional marriage is not a biblical concept. In fact, it would be hard to find a modern-day Christian who would actually abide by a truly biblical marriage in practice, as the biblical understanding of marriage meant male ownership of women who existed for sexual pleasure.
Upon marriage, a woman’s property and her body became the possession of her new husband. As the head of the household, men (usually between the ages of 18 and 24) had nearly unlimited rights over wives and children.
A woman became available for men’s possession soon after she reached puberty (usually 11 to 13 years old), that is, when she became physically able to produce children. Today we call such sexual arrangements statutory rape. The biblical model for sexual relationships includes adult males taking girls into their bedchambers, as King David did in 1 Kings 1:1-3.
Throughout the Hebrew text it is taken for granted that women (as well as children) are the possessions of men. The focus of the text does not seriously consider or concentrate upon the women’s status, but their identity is formed by their sexual relationship to the man: virgin daughter, betrothed bride, married woman, mother, barren wife or widow.
Her dignity and worth as one created in the image of God is subordinated to the needs and desires of men. As chattel, women are often equated with a house or livestock (Dt. 20:5-7), as demonstrated in the last commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, wife, slave, ox or donkey” (Ex. 20:17).
Because women are excluded from being the subject of this command, the woman — like a house, slave, ox or donkey — is reduced to an object: just another possession, another piece of property that belonged to the man, and thus should not be coveted by another man.
There are many ways in which the Bible cannot be a literal reference point or guidebook to modern-day marriages. Because the biblical understanding of the purpose for marriage has been reproduction, marriage could be dissolved by the man if his wife failed to bear his heirs.
Besides reproduction, marriage within a patriarchal order also served political and economic means. Marriages during antiquity mainly focused on codifying economic responsibilities and obligations.
Little attention was paid to how the couple felt about each other. Wives were chosen from good families not only to secure the legitimacy of a man’s children, but to strengthen political and economic alliances between families, clans, tribes and kingdoms. To ensure that any offspring were the legitimate heirs, the woman was restricted to just one sex partner, her husband.
Biblical marriages were endogamous — that is, they occurred within the same extended family or clan — unlike the modern Western concept of exogamous, where unions occur between outsiders.
Men could have as many sexual partners as they could afford. The great patriarchs of the faith, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Judah, had multiple wives and/or concubines, and delighted themselves with the occasional prostitute (Gen. 38:15). King Solomon alone was recorded to have had over 700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).
The book of Leviticus, in giving instructions to men wishing to own a harem, provides only one prohibition, which is not to “own” sisters (Lev. 18:18). The Hebrew Bible is clear that men could have multiple sex partners. Wives ensured legitimate heirs; all other sex partners existed for the pleasures of the flesh.
A woman, on the other hand, was limited to just one sex partner who ruled over her — unless, of course, she was a prostitute.
Biblical marriage was considered valid only if the bride was a virgin. If she was not, then she needed to be executed (Dt. 22:13-21).
Marriages could only take place if the spouses were believers (Ezra 9:12). And if the husband were to die before having children, then his brother was required to marry the widow. If he refused, he had to forfeit one of his sandals, be spit on by the widow, and change his name to “House of the Unshoed” (Dt. 25:5-10).
As much as we do not want to admit it, marriage is an evolving institution; a social construct that has been changing for the better since biblical times. Those who claim that the biblical model for marriage is one husband and one wife apparently haven’t read the Bible or examined the well-documented sources describing life in antiquity.
The sooner we move away from the myth of the so-called traditional biblical marriage, the better prepared we will be to discuss what constitutes a family in the 21st century.