God’s Definition of Marriage? A Meditation on Chickens and Eggs.

This morning, I heard a report on NPR in which Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (“SBC”) Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (“ERLC”) said that

“Southern Baptists must continue to fight for God’s definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman, he said, adding that the institution of marriage is threatened from all sides.”

(Also reported in The Baptist Press)

I have little doubt that most Christians would concur with Land’s understanding of God’s definition of marriage.  But where is that definition found?

The answer is–it isn’t.  At least not in either the Old Testament (“OT”) or the New Testament (“NT”).

There are four uses of the term “marriage” in the King James Version (“KJV”) of the OT, none of which specifies unambiguously a relationship between one man and one woman.  As to the KJV NT, there are sixteen uses of the term.  Again, no unambiguous usage is to be found.

Given that marriage is not in fact defined in the OT and NT, why not?

Well…two possibilities.  Either it’s not that important per se, or “God” (however you define your deity) thinks that important things should be hidden.

The first one now shall later be last, in biblical tradition.  The nice thing about the “hidden things” theory is that we can test it:

Let’s suppose that God buries the important stuff.  Logically, that means we can’t easily find it, and I won’t attempt to do so here.  But by extension, it also means that what is obvious in the scriptures is unimportant.

Since the obvious is easy to find, let’s see what’s unimportant.

Clearly, the Kosher laws would go by the board–OK so far (if you’re a Christian).  But so would the Ten Commandments.  Likewise the Golden Rule, and the two greatest commandments:

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

(Matthew 22:35-40, KJV)

If we extend this to Paul’s letters, First Corinthians 13 becomes unimportant.  Etc., etc., etc.  It seems, from this quick look, that what is important in the OT and NT is in fact not hidden but emphasized.  And for our “what is important is hidden” approach, this is a serious problem.  So if that doesn’t work, there should be some definition in there.

But there isn’t even a prescribed marriage procedure or ceremony anywhere in Jewish or Christian scripture (and given that there are precise instructions in the OT about how to sacrifice animals for sin offerings, you would think there would be–but there isn’t).

Rather, Jewish and Christian doctrines assume the idea of marriage, and go on from there.  Anyone, like Land, who tells you otherwise?  They’re selling something–whether it’s a diamond or an idea.  Marriage, in other words, is a purely human tradition.  And coming back to where we started, that probably means God doesn’t care or, more precisely, that the form of marriage, per se, is unimportant.

Does that mean that it lacks spiritual significance?  Of course not.  Human relationships clearly have spiritual significance in the OT and in the NT, whether they are familial, friendship, communal, or governmental in nature.  But in all cases–save for the Jewish priesthood–those relationships come first, and then receive spiritual aspects.  They are not initially defined and then enacted.  Indeed, even the early Christian church (see Acts) is built by human beings, and is manifestly not the product of commandments.

Thus, we come to our chicken-and-egg problem.  Which came first, marriage or its spiritual significance?  I suppose that if you’re a Creationist, you could honestly say that the spiritual form of marriage came first.

I’m not.  Given that we see some relationships in nature that have some of the characteristics we ascribe to marriage–and they’re not all monogamous or heterosexual–I’m willing to bet that marriage emerged out of adaptive behavior.

At some point, humans (or proto-humans) evolved behavior that correlates strongly with what we think of as marriage.  And at some point after that, they started thinking of it as marriage.  And at some point after that, either God ascribed spiritual significance to this relationship or humans started to believe that [a] God ascribed significance to this relationship.  And that’s why the OT and NT contain rules for how husbands and wives ought to treat each other, but not rules for becoming husbands and wives.  It’s not the form of marriage that’s important, it’s the content.

And that, children, is why God doesn’t define marriage, and how we know that when Richard Land tries to say that [He] does, and that Land even knows what that definition is, he’s not telling the truth.

 

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2 Responses to God’s Definition of Marriage? A Meditation on Chickens and Eggs.

  1. Jnana Hodson says:

    I’m convinced that what the Bible presents is a demonstration (in the Hebrew Bible) that polygamy doesn’t work — somebody’s always being slighted. Instead, there’s an incremental development pointing toward monogamy — a balancing dynamic of two individuals that becomes most fully articulated in Paul. (Yes, I know all the lines quoted to one side of the equation, but also see all the others that are somehow overlooked). Or, to continue with Paul, what happens if a man/woman marriage doesn’t quench the burning?

    Maybe the very point is how unnatural monogamy can be — or how much it mirrors a relationship with one God.

    As for the being fruitful and multiplying, it can be learning (culture) and compassion even more than human offspring.

  2. I won’t say you’re not correct–but marriage is not universally now, nor has it always, been between “one man and one woman.” Some cultures seem to make any one of a number of other arrangements work. Polygamy has worked in some times and places, even in some fairly recent times and places. Not always, but then monogamous 1:1 relationships don’t have the best record, either (take this from someone who spent some time assisting pro se divorce applicants).

    As you say, monogamy may be somewhat unnatural, and it does reflect an idea of voluntary submission, each to the other. From a Christian perspective, I can also see the reflection there of the relationship with God. But that same submission can occur in other arrangements as well.

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