Rachel Ford recently published an article on the website of the “Friendly” Atheist arguing that the Bible is a morally consistent evil book presenting marriage coherently as a man possessing several wifes as objects to be used and maltreated.
Biblical Marriage Isn’t About One Man and One Woman
Don’t fall out of your seat, but in an interview with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson (below) had even more to say about homosexuality, premarital sex, and the Bible.
Most of it is his usual schtick of sex gives you cooties unless you’re married (presumably to a 15- or 16-year old?) and I won’t bore you with the details. What I do want to draw your attention to, however, is the blatantly false assertion he makes about what “God says” about marriage:
“God says, ‘One woman, one man,’ and everyone says, ‘Oh, that’s old hat, that’s that old Bible stuff,’” he said.
Robertson was kind enough to erase any doubt as to which “God” he might be referring to: naturally, the God of the Bible. And since that God doesn’t grant interviews, the Bible is our only source for what God (allegedly) said.
The problem is that the Bible never claims that God said marriage is a union between one man and one woman.
Christians often turn to the New Testament to justify that claim. Paul writes about marriage in a seemingly singular (and often decidedly disdainful) fashion, such as in 1 Corinthians 7, and Jesus refers to two people when discussing divorce in Mark 10 and Matthew 19 (which is to be expected, presuming a husband doesn’t divorce more than one wife at a time). Despite that, it’s worth noting that nowhere is a clear proscription against polygamy given — Jesus referred to — but did not “correct” — first covenant law, which clearly allowed polygamy. Corinthians — written in a time when Pagan culture had already introduced the concept of monogamy — might use singular language to describe spouses, but it doesn’t actually define marriage as being between one man and one woman. In fact, nowhere does the Bible declare, on behalf of God or anyone else, does it use that precise definition.
So Robertson gets his Bible wrong when he claims to know what “God says.” Even if he had meant to say “the Bible says” one man and one woman, he would have still been wrong.
But “wrong” is too generous. He, in fact, settles on the opposite of what the Bible tells us about marriage. The Bible is full of specific examples of marriage — some of them allegedly directly sanctioned by God — that contradict the fairytale version of marriage that Christians claim as “Biblical” nowadays.
What follows is a list of types of marriage defined in the Bible, often by God. I have purposely avoided examples or marriage in the Bible that were supposed to have ticked God off, so as not to misrepresent the joy that was true Biblical marriage:
- Biblical marriage is a man arranging to buy a girl from her father for an agreed upon purchase price (Genesis 29:18)
- Biblical marriage is a wife “giving” her servant to her husband as a “wife” for sex and procreation, regardless of her maid servant’s wishes (Genesis 16:2-3, Genesis 30:3, Genesis 30:9, etc.)
- Biblical marriage is a raiding party murdering the fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters of a people but saving the young virgins because they want “wives” (i.e. women to capture and legally rape) (Judges 21:10-14)
- Biblical marriage is a raiding party lying in wait to capture more women as “wives” (Judges 21:20-24)
- Biblical marriage is God commanding the massacre of every male and non-virgin, and handing over the virgin women to his followers. Like the 32,000 women counted among the “spoils” in Numbers 31
- Biblical marriage is a victim being forced to marry her rapist with no hope of divorce (but don’t worry — her father is suitably compensated in cash for the trouble, and this is only valid if the woman is not already another man’s property… so relax! No property rights are violated by this arrangement) (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
- Biblical marriage is selling your daughter as a slave to be given to her owner or owner’s son for sexual exploitation as a “wife” (though denied even minimal protections) (Exodus 21:7-11)
- Biblical marriage is one man taking multiple, even hundreds, of wives and concubines (see: David, Solomon, Jacob, Abraham, etc)
- Biblical marriage is a woman as property whose own happiness is inconsequential, but whose property status is absolute (see: David and Michal)
- Biblical marriage is for those who “cannot control themselves” and so must opt away from what is “good for them”: unmarried celibacy (1 Corinthians 7:1-9)
- Biblical marriage is a woman marrying her dead husband’s brother (whether either party wishes it or not) so that she can have a kid in the dead husband’s name (Deuteronomy 25:5). Sometimes, it manifests as a woman seducing her former father-in-law in the guise of a prostitute in order to fulfill her God-ordained obligation (Genesis 38, Judah and Tamar). Sometimes, it manifests as a husband getting struck down by God, for refusing to impregnate his dead brother’s wife (Genesis 38, Onan and Tamar). Even according to the Bible, it doesn’t seem to have been a very happy implementation of the institution
- Biblical marriage is neither partner being able to refrain from sex without the consent of the other (1 Corinthians 7:4-5)
That’s what the Bible actually says about marriage. In fact, when it comes right down to it, Biblical marriage is almost always two or more men deciding between themselves what woman an individual will take as a wife — be it a father selling his daughter into sexual slavery, a husband-to-be arranging with a father an agreement suitable to both parties (irrespective of the wife-to-be’s wishes) on how to dispose of/acquire the female in question, a party of soldiers or raiders murdering a woman’s entire family in order to claim her (sometimes supposedly at the direct command of God), a rapist grabbing an unattached female and at the same time getting himself a new wife, etc.
Marriage according to the Bible isn’t love and romance and butterflies in the pit of your stomach. It’s very, very far from it. You have to wonder whether Robertson ever reads the book he holds in such high esteem.
My answer follows.
How about this: the Bible does NOT speak with one voice but many conflicting ones?
Apparently anti-theists are utterly unable to grasp this basic result of historical critical scholarship as soon as ethical problems are addressed.
Jesus taught us to love our enemies, one of the psalmists taught us we should pray for the violent and atrocious death of their children .
No rational person can agree that both statements are consistent with each other.
The only ones who do this are Christian fundamentalists and English-speaking anti-theists, who interestingly enough most often turn out to be former fundies.
You’re light years away from a scientific study of religionS (which form an extraordinarily DIVERSE phenomenon).
What’s more I also strongly doubt it is meaningful to judge ancient texts according to our modern enlightened standards. After all, the fact that most writings of ancient Greek philosophers are full of scientific mistakes isn’t a reason to mock them, is it? So why should it be any different when morality is concerned?
Fortunately, the responses weren’t aggressive at all.
Two things. I think the anti-theists (as you call them) know that the Bible comes from many sources, but they argue as if it is one voice because Christian fundamentalists insist that the Bible is of one voice.
Second, it is Christian fundamentalists that insist that the Bible conveys immutable timeless moral laws. (I presume that some Muslims do the same with the Koran). So to pluck a Biblical moral lesson and to ask if it is still true, is to challenge the idea that the Bible provides these timeless immutable moral lessons.
To which I replied:
Thanks for your thoughtful answer, Rob.
As a progressive Christian, I also use this kind of arguments against fundies or generally Conservative Evangelicals. I certainly don’t believe that everything found in the Bible is “timeless and immutable”, although one can find such truths within its pages (like in other Wisdom Traditions).
But I find that most anti-theists present things as if showing that one book in the Bible contains wicked stuff attributed to God is sufficient for concluding that the entire Bible is hopelessly evil.
Worryingly enough, Nazi historians and scholars during the Third Reich used precisely the same tactic for showing that Judaism is irremediably wicked and egregious. They picked and chose the very worst passages in Jewish writings and interpreted them in the worst possible light.
For Reason’s sake , one has to be very careful. Going about this scientifically requires making a distinction between the incredibly diverse religious sects, movements and ideas out there and steering clear from overgeneralizations, binary thinking and prejudices.
I’d be delighted if anti-theists were to begin to act like that but they’d probably choose a new name pretty soon then 🙂
In hindsight I realize I should have directly emphasized that the authors of the old Testament itself don’t agree with each others about women and love.
I consider it extremely hard (if not impossible) to seriously argue that the author of the erotic and romantic “Song of Songs” just saw women as camels to be exploited.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for your love is better than wine.” Song of Songs 1:2
“As a lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.” Song of Songs 2:2
“He brought me to the banquet hall. His banner over me is love.” Song of Songs 2:4
“Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples; For I am faint with love. “Song of Songs 2:5
“My beloved spoke, and said to me, “Rise up, my love, my beautiful one, and come away. “Song of Songs 2:10
“The fig tree ripens her green figs. The vines are in blossom. They give forth their fragrance. Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.” Song of Songs 2:13
“Behold, you are beautiful, my love. Behold, you are beautiful. Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is as a flock of goats, that descend from Mount Gilead. “Song of Songs 4:1
“You are all beautiful, my love. There is no spot in you. “Song of Songs 4:7
“How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine! The fragrance of your perfumes than all manner of spices!” Song of Songs 4:10
“I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride. I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk. Eat, friends! Drink, yes, drink abundantly, beloved.” Song of Songs 5:1
“I was asleep, but my heart was awake. It is the voice of my beloved who knocks: “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled; for my head is filled with dew, and my hair with the dampness of the night.” Song of Songs 5:2
“Let’s go early up to the vineyards. Let’s see whether the vine has budded, its blossom is open, and the pomegranates are in flower. There I will give you my love. “Song of Songs 7:12
“Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm; for love is strong as death. Jealousy is as cruel as Sheol. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a very flame of Yahweh. Many waters can’t quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man would give all the wealth of his house for love, he would be utterly scorned.” Song of Songs 8:6,7