This is the first installment of a special series TheBlaze is running called “Inside the Bible.” We will be exploring controversial issues as they are framed in the book to better understand their context and meaning. This week’s subject is marriage.
TheBlaze’s Carly Hoilman contributed to this report.
Atheist activists and Biblical critics often delve into the scriptures and rely upon proof texts to make a variety of claims that in their view debunk — or at least cast doubt — upon the holy book. From contentions that its contents condone rape to the notion that the scriptures tout polygamy, there is no shortage of faith-based controversy.
The latest such controversy came in early June, when three professors with intricate knowledge of the Christian scriptures came together to pen an article in the Des Moines Register meant to challenge some traditional perceptions. In short, they sought to refute the claim that the Bible restricts marriage to one man and one woman. But were they correct in their insinuations? That’s just one of the questions we’ll look at in this installment of the series.
Considering the importance that the institution of marriage has to society — and to the contemporary sociopolitical debate — TheBlaze reached out to our expert faith panel to seek their advice on the professors’ claims and, more generally, on issues pertaining marriage. These thinkers and leaders tackled controversial subjects like monogamy, polygamy, rape, divorce, celibacy and a number of other associated subjects.
Below, we tackle these discussions one-by-one:
Does the Bible Speak of Monogamy?
The primary question when considering the Bible and marriage is whether the holy book endorses monogamy — that is, a marriage in which there are only two individuals (traditionally speaking, one man and one woman)? Most of our experts agreed that the book does, indeed, advocate for this type of relationship.
Pastor Phillip Dennis of New Hope Christian Church in Monsey, N.Y., noted that the Bible must be read with a certain frame of mind — one that takes into account its four main parts: creation, fall, redemption and re-creation. He argues that these elements help one to properly understand the entire Bible and, thus, the complex issues within it (like marriage).
For Dennis, it all goes back to the creation story. Genesis, in a sense, is what he believes God wanted for mankind, however the story ended up changing as human beings exercised their free will.
“In the beginning, God created all things good. As part of the good order inherent in the created world, God made man and woman and gave them to each other in monogamous heterosexual marriage for the purpose of mutual love, companionship, partnership in the task of cultivating the world’s potential, and for propagating the race through childbirth,” Dennis explained. “The pattern of creation shows us the way things are meant to be, the way things would be if they were still very good, as they were at the end of the creation account in Genesis.”
Rabbi Aryeh Spero, author of “Push Back: Reclaiming Our American Judeo-Christian Spirit,” added to this notion of a natural connection between men and women, noting that “male and female united brings about completion of the human species, a wholeness derived from the disparate biological and emotional elements found only in male and female, combined to achieve full humanhood.”
This essentially means that, in his view, the united nature of man and woman creates a oneness that is uniquely God-ordained. He noted Biblical references as well of man and woman coming together as one. According to Spero, marriage is more than a mere partnership that exists for business purposes.
He continued: “It is a sacred union between man and woman. The Old/Original Testament, known as Torah, labels it kidushin, which means sanctified. The attachment of male and female is the ultimate and only sanctified human union. It is sanctified because God himself created and thereafter blessed it, as is seen in Genesis. It is an endowment from God and the culmination of His Creation.”
Author R.P. Nettelhorst, too, noted that the Bible is clear in 1 Corinthians 7:1-33 that a husband’s body belongs to a wife and vice versa. In this scripture, he noted that wife is always singular, which is an “apparent assumption of monogamy.”
Continuing with the Genesis theme, Rabbi Moshe Averick, an Orthodox rabbi who has taught theology for more than 30 years, noted that the first two chapters of B’reisheet (Genesis) make it clear that the first human being who was created “with a godly soul and who could be described as being in the ‘image of God’ contained both male and female in one being.” Averick said the brief loneliness that existed for man before woman was created hampered the spirit and soul, as he had no one to share his life with.
“With male and female separate they can now relate and give to someone outside themselves. As one of my teachers put it: The mode is one, the method is two,” he added. “Neither a man alone nor a woman alone reflect the full image of God. The true image of God is only found when a man and woman are united physically and spiritually in marriage.”
Averick continues, explaining the importance of the unity of woman and man: “When they achieve this total unity they reflect Godliness in a number of ways, the most obvious being that they create life itself. In an ultimate sense the joy, love, passion, and ecstasy of the male-female relationship is the experience of oneness and Godliness. The obsessive drive that God planted in human beings to seek out these relationships is an indication of how central marriage is to the whole purpose of our existence.”
These experts clearly agree that man and woman should be united in monogamous relationships with one another and that these values are predicated upon and inherent in the Bible.
So, What About Polygamy?
Many critics point to perceived inconsistencies in the scriptures, singling out polygamy references to claim that the holy book doesn’t limit relationships to two parties. But there may be some elements surrounding the issue in the Bible that atheists and other critics are overlooking.
As Dr. Darrell Bock, a New Testament expert and professor at Dallas Theological Seminary noted, these individuals are not wrong to highlight that polygamy existed in the Bible. But their failure to put it into context is often problematic.
“They are right that polygamy is described in several [Old Testament] texts, but they ignore that it never turns out well with jealousy and divisions resulting and that by the time of the New Testament it is rejected as an option,” Bock told TheBlaze.
Rabbi Spero added that while the Old Testament clearly confined marriage to one man and one woman, it was neutral and silent, in his view, regarding the notion of having more than one spouse. Some of the elements surrounding polygamy, though, were likely cultural, he argues.
“Some biblical figures had more than one wife at a time and kings often did; some biblical figures had mistresses,” he said. “Great as they were, biblical figures lived by some of the cultural norms of their time.”
Providing additional rabbinical views on the matter, Rabbi Averick added: “Within Jewish Law and Torah, polygamy is perfectly acceptable. Abraham and Jacob had more than one wife as did King David. However, polygamy has been forbidden to Torah observant Jews by Rabbinic decree for over a thousand years. Ostensibly this is because, although not inherently immoral, from a practical standpoint it was not working anymore.”
The “Bible Answer Man” Hank Hanegraaff holds a starker viewpoint and claims that polygamy was never part of God’s plan, despite being culturally acceptable at various times in human existence (and, even today, in some cultures). Hanegraaff goes as far as to say that the Bible actually condemns polygamy, noting that this is the case in Deuteronomy 17:17 (it reads, “He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.”)
“The New Testament, in like fashion, says that elders and deacons are called to be the husband of but one wife (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6),” Hanegraaff told TheBlaze. “Just as the requirements for church leaders set the standards of morality and maturity for all believers, so the admonition against polygamy for the kings of Israel demonstrates the danger of this kind of practice.”
Hanegraaff argued that Solomon’s “legacy of faithfulness” was compromised because of non-monogamous behavior. The great king, renowned for his supernatural wisdom, ended his peaceful, prosperous reign in scandal and civil strife.
But could all of this chaos be attributed to polygamy? It would appear so. According to the Bible, Solomon’s wives turned his heart towards pagan gods (1 Kings 11:1–3 reads, “King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. 2 They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. 3 He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.”).
How Does Divorce Fit Into the Discussion?
Divorce is an extremely common phenomenon in today’s world, even among those who embrace Biblical teachings. One wonders what the holy book really says about ending these cherished relationships — and how this can be applied to contemporary society, if at all.
Dennis believes that this also can be traced back to the creation cycle, which ends in a new and perfect creation. Since humankind is still subject to the imperfections of a fallen world, he claims that the Bible permits divorce in certain cases preceding the consummation of history.
“In Jesus’ teaching on marriage in Matthew 19, he allows for divorce in certain circumstances (a temporary concession) but points people back to the original pattern of creation as the universal norm of human marriage: one man and one woman, one flesh,” the pastor said.
Bock elaborated on this point, offering two possible circumstances in which divorce would be permissible. The first is the case of sexual immorality, as specified in Matthew 19. The second circumstance, described in 1 Corinthians 7:15, is the case of unbeliever desertion, meaning that while it is not okay to divorce because one’s spouse is an unbeliever, if that unbelieving spouse leaves, the other spouse is not “bound.”
Bock explained that, depending on the scenario, the possibility of remarriage “is not automatic nor is it advised,” and that God is capable of discerning the hearts of people (Hebrews 13:16).
Does the Bible Address Rape?
Some atheists and Biblical critics have held up the notion that the Bible condones rape. Across the board, TheBlaze’s entire panel of faith experts reject that the criminal act of rape is upheld in any form in the holy book.
Averick addressed Deuteronomy — the book that is most targeted by biblical critics.
“The ‘rape’ that is talked about in Dvarim (Deuteronomy), is obviously not criminal rape; it is talking about a case where a relationship between a young man and woman got out of hand,” he said. “Sexual relationships in a Torah society are strictly forbidden before marriage — dating is only for purposes of marriage in the Orthodox community.”
Averick also pointed out that in Jewish law, women cannot be forced to marry against her will. If a man does not fulfill his duties as a husband, the woman is “entitled to initiate divorce proceedings.” The “rapist,” or fornicator, is not allowed to initiate such proceedings but is obligated to fulfill spousal duties.
This requirement that a “rapist” marry the violated woman, Bock noted, was enacted in order to protect the woman whom he defiled with his sexual advances.
“His act has rendered her unacceptable as a wife for others,” he explained. “So this law was designed to indicate responsibility in the sex act for the person in a patriarchal context where women had little power and where the women if left to the event would be on her own.”
Nettelhorst acknowledged that in a modern context, the situation mentioned in Deuteronomy “sounds awful,” and it was not ideal at the time it occurred either, but the idea was to, again, protect the woman and discourage sexual immorality. By marrying her, the “rapist” was accepting the consequences of his actions, paying her father a restitution and taking on the responsibilities of a husband to provide protection and security.
Spero added that a rape victim could “opt out” of marrying her rapist if she so desired, for, “if not, men could forcibly bring to altar any single woman he desired simply by raping her.”
What Does the Bible Say About Celibacy?
In an increasingly sexual culture, abstinence is an issue that certainly doesn’t get much attention from mainstream media. Bock stated that celibacy — the choice to remain single and sexually inactive — though an acceptable way to live, is “actually irrelevant to the definition of marriage.”
Surprised? From a strictly Old Testament perspective, celibacy is not even an option for individuals, according to Averick.
“A man who does not marry is not considered to be a full human being,” the rabbi said. “He is considered to be spiritually stunted. Sexual relations between husband and wife increase holiness and Godliness and build a deeper relationship with God.”
Hanegraaff tackled this contentious issue as well — and with a stance that Catholic theology would certainly disagree with, as a vow of celibacy is valued among clergy in the church. The Bible expert, like some of the others we spoke with, rejects the claim that the holy book corroborates this practice.
Noting that some might use Matthew 19:12 to claim that Jesus even encourages those who can to castrate themselves “for the kingdom” and live a life of celibacy, Hanegraaff took an opposing view.
“Nothing … could be further from the truth,” he said of critics’ assessments, stating the Jesus uses hyperbolic logic to “make a rigorous point about divorce, much like when he said, ‘If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell’ (Matthew 5:30, NIV).”
“He is not condoning self-mutilation, but simply teaching about the seriousness of sin,” he added (here’s more about the Catholic view).
Matthew 19:12 reads, “For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Does the Bible Permit Mixed Marriages?
There is speculation among Bible critics as to whether or not the Old Testament prohibits intermarriage among different cultures. To this, Spero asserted that this was never an issue of race, but rather of cultures outside of the Jewish religion.
“Biblically, there was never a prohibition against marrying a woman from another race,” he said. “Moses married Tziporah, a black woman; and soldiers who brought back women after war could marry these women from other nations if they converted.”
The examples didn’t end there, though. Spero also noted that King David was a descendant of Ruth, a Moabite woman. Plus, Joshua married Rahab, a Canaanite and he explained that “many great rabbis during the Talmudic period trace their lineage to ancestry of outside races.”
It is true, however, that the Jews were urged not to marry individuals of a different culture who cause them to stray from their faith.
“In a period when foreign influences were undercutting Israel, Ezra prohibited mixed marriages, in part because it often led to the adoption of idolatry in a polytheistic context,” Bock explained.
Is Levirate Marriage a Biblical Mandate?
First and foremost, you might be asking yourself, “What in the world is Levirate marriage?” According to the American Heritage Dictionary it is “the practice of marrying the widow of one’s childless brother to maintain his line, as required by ancient Hebrew law.”
So how exactly does this apply to the Bible? Nettelhorst further described Levirate marriage, its definition and the context.
“The Mosaic legislation [laws of Moses] specifies that should a man die without having a son, his brother or next closest relative was required to marry his widow, what is called Levirite marriage,” he said. “The first son born from that relationship would then carry on the dead man’s name and would inherit his property.”
While this might seem odd in today’s modern paradigm, there was another purpose for this sort of marriage, he argues: The protection of women. Much like the rape provisions, Nettelhorst argues that women would essentially be helpless in the culture of the time if widowed. Considering their standing, they would have been destitute, so the provision presumably offered females backing and afforded them some much-needed assistance.
“Notice the destitution of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi at the beginning of the book of Ruth,” Nettelhorst continued. “Notice also in Genesis 38 the desperation of Tamar — and her decision to take matters into her own hand – when her father-in-law failed to take care of her properly by seeing to it that she got a Levirite marriage.”
Understanding the issue is one thing, but the natural question that comes next is: Does this apply to modern men and women? Averick’s rabbinic answer: “Levirate marriages have been banned by Rabbinic decree since the Talmudic era.”
“Here, again, we must consider the difference between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be,'” Hanegraaff added, “Moses works within the constraints of his own ancient near eastern culture, wherein the practice of Levirate marriage was commonplace.”
Hanegraaff pointed out that even within the Mosaic Levirate law one could still work things out in another way, giving the example of Boaz and Ruth.
So What Do We Make of All of This?
While atheist activists and other Biblical critics have harsh rebukes for the Bible, citing many of the aforementioned issues in their critiques, it seems there are explanations from both Jewish and Christian perspectives that help to better frame how, through a faith and culture lens, the book should be read.
In the eyes of the scholars and faith leaders we spoke with, context is key. They contend that anecdotal examples, without framing, have led readers astray.
“Not everything biblical characters do or say necessarily are to be emulated,” Nettelhorst said.
And Averick, from a Jewish perspective, notes that simply reading the text without understanding its intended meaning and central components is haphazard.
“In short, in order to understand how the Jewish people have understood, lived, and practiced the Torah, one must come prepared with a large body of knowledge, experience, and training before examining the text,” he said.
Again, context is apparently key. In the end, though, disagreements, even among people of the same faith, surround these subjects (i.e. the Catholic vow of celibacy), these explanations help us to better frame and understand critiques and rationale surrounding complex societal and historical issues.