Let’s talk about Biblical marriage

Both houses of Congress recently passed the Respect for Marriage Act, with many Republicans joining with Democrats to pass the bill that will protect the right of same-sex couples to marry. Prior to it being voted on in the House of Representatives, conservative Republican congresswoman Vicky Hartzler gave an impassioned speech on the House floor that led to her crying as she said, “This is yet another step toward the Democrats’ goal of dismantling the traditional family, silencing voices of faith and permanently undoing our country’s God-woven foundation. I hope and pray that my colleagues will find the courage to join me in opposing this misguided and dangerous bill.” Representative Hartzler was one of many conservative voices decrying the measure. I saw evangelicals on Twitter saying that only God gets to define marriage, and others bemoaning the supposed loss of their religious liberty should the bill pass. Let’s briefly look at their claims about traditional families, religious freedom and the nation’s “God-woven” foundation, before moving onto look at examples of what Biblical marriage actually is.

To start with, and it amazes me that this still has to be said in 2022, the United States of America was founded as a secular nation with secular founding documents. Yes there were Christians among the so-called Founding Fathers, but they in no way were attempting to set up a Christian nation. James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, was adamant that the state should have no part in supporting any particular religion. The First Amendment says that, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Thomas Jefferson described the First Amendment as erecting “a wall of separation between church and state,” in a letter to the Danbury, CT Baptist Association in 1802. According to Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, (1) “The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” This clause not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. It also prohibits the government from unduly preferring religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion.” This fact makes Hartzler’s argument about silencing voices of faith completely moot. What she and others like her have been demanding is preferential treatment for their version of Christianity, which is not at all what “freedom of religion,” means as the First Amendment and legal scholars have shown. In legal terms, she has no legs to stand on and she’s ignoring the myriad voices of people of faith who are in favor of the legislation. She is free to maintain her bigotry and to wield the Bible as a weapon against those whom she dislikes, but she is not free to codify that bigotry into law. Conservative Christians are not being silenced about their views on LGBTQIA people. They are simply being made to follow the Constitution rather than being given special religious privileges to force everyone else to live by their rules.

Representative Hartzler may be surprised to learn that her view of “traditional families” was dismantled a long, long time ago, but it was not the Democrats who did it. Rather, it was Jesus of Nazareth who started that process. In Matthew 12:46-50 the author wrote that while Jesus was speaking to a crowd inside a home, his mother and brothers arrived wishing to speak with him. Someone lets him know that they are there, and rather than inviting them in, he says, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother. In so saying, Jesus was dismantling the commonly held notions of what a family was in Jewish Palestine during the Roman occupation, and claiming that family was made up of people who chose to follow God’s will rather than kinship ties. In other words, family can be chosen, and the so-called nuclear family is not the gold standard according to Jesus despite what James Dobson’s proponents have to say on the matter.

Now let us examine some instances of marriage found in the Bible to see if they line up with what conservative evangelical Christians claim – that is Biblical marriage is between one man and one woman. To begin, I want to call attention to Abraham, the primary patriarch of the Israelites in the Torah. When I was growing up in Sunday School, we would sing a song about Father Abraham and his many sons (it was supercessionist nonsense, but I digress). What I did not learn was that Abraham, whose former name was Abram, had married Sarai, and Sarai it turns out was his half-sister. They shared the same father but had different mothers as Abraham told Abimelech in Genesis 20:12. (2) Abraham marrying Sarah is an example of Biblical marriage. He also fathered a son with Hagar, a slave Sarai gave to him as a wife because she was barren. Is that what conservative Christians think we should do – marry a half-sibling, or take a second wife?

Prior to becoming king, David son of Jesse, slew the Philistine warrior Goliath and thus found favor with King Saul. He also developed a special bond with Saul’s son Jonathan. How special a bond was it? Many Biblical scholars believe that the two were lovers because of the language in the story of their relationship. In 1 Samuel 18:1 it says that “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” That is truly lofty language bespeaking a depth of devotion far deeper than mere friendship in my opinion. How deep was that love? According to Rabbi Mike Harvey,* David and Jonathan should be understood as having been married. In a social media exchange with me, he stated that in ancient Israel, there were three things that constituted a marriage – a gift, a vow, and a blessing – all three of which Rabbi Harvey noted are present in 1 Samuel 18.(3) Another Rabbi that I follow agrees that David and Jonathan were lovers (4) because in 2 Samuel 1:26 it says that after Jonathan’s death David proclaimed that his love for Jonathan surpassed that of love for women. Neither the marriage nor the loving relationship are condemned in the text, so I’m not sure why conservative Christians care about gay marriage. After all, no one is going to force a Christian to marry someone of the same gender, or to marry a Transgender person.

King Solomon was the son of the aforementioned King David and Bathsheba whom David had raped. He known as the wisest person of his time. Solomon was the Israelite King during the united monarchy and the first temple was built during his reign. In 1 Kings 10:6-8 the Queen of Sheba extols Solomon’s virtues as a wise king and proclaims, “Happy are your wives!” How many wives did Solomon have? According to 1 Kings 11:3 he had among his wives “700 princesses and three hundred concubines.” It wasn’t the number of women he married and had sex with that got him in trouble. Rather it was the fact that he allowed those women to continue worshiping other gods and even facilitated them in so doing. Does Representative Hartzler know about this particular example of Biblical marriage? Should everyone have hundreds of wives and concubines?

The above examples are from the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament. The New Testament does have passages that Christians interpret as saying that marriage should be between one man and one woman. Jesus quoting from the Torah says that a man leaves his father and mother to become one flesh with his wife in Matthew 19:4-6 and in Mark 10:6-8 for example. Yet, marriage was not of primary importance for everyone in the New Testament in the way that it is for fundamentalists, evangelicals, and traditionalist Catholics. Jesus himself never married according to the Gospel accounts, which was unusual for a Jewish man of that time period. Nor did the Apostle Paul who stated that if he had his wish no one would get married in 1 Corinthians 7:7. Then, after explaining what marriage should look like specifically FOR CHRISTIANS, Paul goes on to say to unmarried Christians that it is better to be celibate and unmarried, unless one is not practicing sexual self control for he believed it is better to marry than be “aflame with passion.” – 1 Corinthians 7:9 The important point here for our purposes is that these instructions were contextual to a time and place and were instructions solely for other Christians and not the entire city of Corinth, and definitely not for all of the citizens of the United States.

As the above Biblical examples show, there is a lot of variation on the theme of marriage in the Bible, and I didn’t remotely cover them all. The type of Biblical marriage that Christian conservatives are trying to force on everyone else is clearly not the only Biblical view of marriage. Nor is a religious marriage the only way to get married in this country. One can be just as married by going to see a judge or justice of the peace as one can by going to a church in the eyes of the law. For that matter, one can also be just as married by going to a non-Christian religious setting and getting married by a rabbi, an imam, or an interfaith minister. Allowing gay marriage is not leading to the destruction of traditional families, nor is it taking away anyone’s religious freedom. Legislating against gay marriage as was done with the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 however does violate the religious freedom, or freedom from religion, of millions of others. The Biblical instructions regarding marriage only pertain to the adherents of Judaism and Christianity and should not be foisted upon others. Doing so violates the civil and human rights of everyone who doesn’t fall under those particular faiths. It’s also important to remember that not all Jews interpret the Hebrew Bible the same way, nor do all Christians interpret their Bible in the same was as the Rep. Hartzlers of the world do either so it is completely absurd for conservative Christians to make proclamations in the name of Biblical marriage or anything else for that matter in a secular country. As a theologian, I am incredibly grateful for the First Amendment and do not feel that it in any way limits my religious freedom. Would that conservative Christians think likewise.

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*https://www.rabbimichaelharvey.com/

(1) https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/establishment_clause

(2) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+20%3A12&version=NRSVUE

(3) https://twitter.com/CruzControl72/status/1597997722325647360

(4) https://twitter.com/TheRaDR/status/1276279569000148994

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