Nonsensical quips like “it’s Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” reveals the simplistic and mistaken application of Scripture to the understanding of marriage. Claiming that the biblical traditional marriage is only between one man and one woman signifies an unsophisticated comprehension of the Bible, its history, and the social context from which the text arose. What we understand to be a traditional marriage, as defined by Western culture, does not have scriptural roots and is incongruent with what is actually written in the Bible. In fact, one would be hard press to find any modern-day Christian, who in practice would actually abide by how the Bible constructs marriage.
The biblical understanding of marriage originally meant male ownership of women who existed for his sexual pleasure and their reproduction abilities. Once “married,” a woman’s property and her body became the possession of her new husband. Not surprisingly, sexual activities such as prostitution, adultery, and incest were topics regulated under the category of property law. Participating in such acts concerned the trespass of another man’s rights to his own property, not any violation of trust created within a mutually giving and vulnerable familial relationship. Intercourse with a woman who belonged to another man fell under thievery of the other man’s rights to his woman’s body and his right to legitimate offspring.
Patriarchy defined the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) as an offense that can only be transgressed by women. The only time a man could be accused of adultery was if he trespassed on another man’s “property,” hence violating another man’s rights (Leviticus 20:10). Ever wonder why the woman who was brought to Jesus, “caught in the very act of adultery” (John 8:3–11) was alone? After all, if she was caught in the very act, one would expect there to be another person in the room. But she and she alone was brought to Jesus because only she had sinned. Her sexual partner’s marital status was irrelevant because patriarchy allowed him to engage in multiple sexual relationships.
Men could have as many sexual partners as they could afford. Polygamy and concubinage were the biblical norm with no explicit prohibition of these practices in the biblical text. Marriage was neither required in the biblical text nor universally accepted throughout Western Christendom as a prerequisite for sex. A man during biblical times could engage in sex with whomever he chose: concubines (1 Kings 11:3), war booty (Deuteronomy 21:10–14), sexual slaves (Genesis 16:2), and occasional prostitutes (Genesis 38:15). If our society repudiates concepts like polygamy, concubinage, and sexual slavery, then it must reject the Bible’s construct of marriage.
As the head of the household, men (who usually married between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four) had nearly unlimited rights over wives and children. A woman became available for men’s possession soon after she reached puberty; that is, when she became physically able to produce children. Hopefully, most today would agree that children, and the vast majority of teenagers, lack the maturity at such an early stage in their lives to enter into a marriage as through they were adults. Yet the biblical model for sexual relationships includes adult males taking girls into their bedchambers, as did King David (1 Kings 1:1–3). If our society repudiates male ownership of women’s bodies and male adult-female child sexual encounters, then it must reject the Bible’s construct of marriage.
There are many other ways in which the Bible cannot be a literal reference point or guidebook for modern-day marriages. Because the main purpose for biblical marriages was reproduction, the man could dissolve his marriage if his woman failed to bear him heirs. In fact, a man could divorce his wife for whatever reason (whim?) he could justify (Deuteronomy 24:1). If our society repudiates male-centered divorces that leave women destitute (unless her father retook ownership of her or she became self-sufficient through prostitution), then it must reject the Bible’s construct of marriage.
In addition to 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 given 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 also 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. If our society repudiates the concept that the purpose of marriage is for women to provide men with legitimate heirs, then it must reject the Bible’s construct of marriage.
Biblical marriage was considered valid only if the bride was a virgin. If she was not, then she was to be executed (Deuteronomy 22:13–21). Marriage could take place only if the spouses were believers (Ezra 9:12). And if the husband were to die before having children, then his brother was required to acquire his brother’s property, 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” (Deuteronomy 25:5–10). If our society repudiates concepts like the execution of nonvirgins, marriage only within the same faith tradition, and forcing brothers to have sex with their dead sibling’s wife (and widows to sleep with their dead husband’s brother), then it must reject the Bible’s construct of marriage.
During feudal times, marriage among the aristocracy was an arrangement designed to protect the lands and wealth of nobility. Because the poor lacked land and wealth, little attention was paid to the sacredness of common-law marriage among the serfs or to any claim they might have to sexual rights. Female serfs were always vulnerable to the feudal common practice known as droit du seigneur (master’s right). The lords of the manor reserved for themselves the jus primae noctis, the right to deflower the bride of peasants residing on their lands. Economically marginalized women (married or single) were always vulnerable, to be used as sexual objects by young men of privilege for their sexual education. This practice survived in Christian America during the nineteenth century, as black female slaves were expected to satisfy their Christian masters’ sexual desires. Because all blacks were seen as chattel, even if two slaves chose to unite before God in holy matrimony, the civil and legal system refused to acknowledge any validity to the union.
Before marriage was elevated to a sacrament during the Council of Trent (1563), it was not regarded as sacred. The ideas that marriage had to be licensed by the state or sanctioned by the church are modern innovations to the biblical tradition. Before that time, a simple proclamation of intent to marry, spoken anywhere, was sufficient for the couple to be considered husband and wife. Marriage was mainly a civil arrangement, not officiated by clergy.
As Eurocentric societies moved from feudalism toward capitalism, traditional marriage was again redefined. The woman’s virginity prior to marriage and fidelity during marriage were important for the wealthy because this guaranteed that the man’s earthly possessions would be inherited by a legitimate heir. Because the poor had no wealth requiring protection, there was no legal or civil need for an official marriage. In addition, the concept of the male as exclusive breadwinner was (and continues to be) unheard of among the poor. Although women of class were excluded from the workforce until about the mid-twentieth century, poor women and women of color always were expected to work, mostly in domestic roles, to help financially support their family.
After the Second World War, society underwent radical changes—changes whose roots stretch back to the start of the century with movements emphasizing “Negro” rights and women’s suffrage. The demise of the Eurocentric colonial system globally with the rise of nationalistic movements in Third World nations, and domestically the rise of liberation movements (black, women’s, gay) contributed to major transformations in the definition of a traditional family. In the twentieth century, marriage partners increasingly chose to enter into the relationships, rather than allowing families to decide for them. The fundamental reasons for marrying shifted from the political or economical to the emotional; specifically, marriage became an act of and commitment to love.
This means marriage has always been evolving, from an understanding of marriage along the lines of property rights, to marriage as a means for procreation, to a family-dominated arrangement designed to protect wealth, to the more recent response to attraction, love, and mutual respect. The question for us now is if we can find in the biblical text a same gender loving covenant-relationship that can serve as the basis for our modern construction of the traditional marriage. I believe the answer is yes. An example can be found in the story of David and Jonathan. According to the biblical text:
The soul of Jonathan’s was knitted with the soul of David, for Jonathan loved him more than his own soul . . . Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him more than his own soul . . . Saul spoke to his son Jonathan and all his servants to have David killed. But Saul’s son Jonathan exceedingly delighted himself in David. So Jonathan told David, “My father Saul is seeking to kill you so please be watchful, especially this morning. Stay in some secret place and hide . . . Saul’s anger glowed against Jonathan. And he said to him, “You son of a rebellious perversion. Don’t I know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your shame, and to the shame of the nakedness of your mother? As long as the son of Jesse lives on this earth, you shall not be established, you or your kingdom.” . . . Then Jonathan rose from the table in the heat of anger . . . he grieved for David and how his father had shamed him . . . In the morning Jonathan went out [to where David was hiding] . . . And there they kissed each other, and they wept with each other with David weeping more. And then they left [for the last time, swearing to be faithful to the covenant they made. Some time later, when David learned of Jonathan’s death in battle, he laments:] “I am distressed over you my brother Jonathan, you were very dear to me, your love more wonderful than the love for a woman.” (1 Samuel 18:1, 3; 19:1–2, 30–31, 34–35, 40–42; 2 Samuel 1:26 – translated by author).
Prior to this account concerning the parting between Jonathan and David, we are told that David was a very handsome man with beautiful eyes (1 Samuel 16:12). Interestingly, we are told earlier that Saul, Jonathan father, was also very handsome, the most handsome man throughout all the land of Israel (1 Samuel 9:1–2). We are first introduced to both Saul and David with a description of their stunning good looks. These two beauties developed a relationship with each other. David became Saul’s armor-bearer, who besides carrying Saul’s spear would also entertain Saul with his music making; in return, Saul grew to love David (1 Samuel 16:21). We know that in several ancient cultures, such as Greece, a pederastic relationship between the adult warrior and his beautiful younger war companion was common. Perhaps, as expected, similar relationships existed among the Israelites. Saul’s anger toward his son Jonathan could have been partly fueled by jealousy now that David loved a younger man. Was Saul upset that his own son supplanted his relationship with David?
In a matter-of-fact way, the biblical writer informs us that David and Jonathan wept and kissed during their final farewell, an outpouring of love not witnessed when David departs from his wife. There is a reference to their entering a covenant (marriage?) of love, one that is greater than that of a woman’s love. And then there’s Saul strange comment to Jonathan of choosing David to his shame and then referencing his mother’s nakedness. Such a negative sexual reference, at least in Saul’s mind, indicates his suspicion that something sexually “indecent” was taking place between his son and David.
Our modern definition of the traditional marriage based on love, trust, vulnerability, and commitment is neither traditional nor biblical – just the latest manifestation in the evolution of marriage. What we call the traditional marriage (one man and one woman) is quite a modern invention, dating from about the seventeenth century. The error of the today’s church has been to confuse this modern concept as some historical or biblical norm. That said – same gender marriages (David and Jonathan) have as much biblical validity as heterosexual marriages (Adam and Eve).
This op-ed is derived from my book A Lily Among the Thorns: Toward a New Christian Sexual Ethics.