Biblical Marriage?

I have my share of concerns about the way some Christians view marriage and whether or not it’s really biblical, but that’s not what this blog post is about. Vorjack over at “Unreasonable Faith” has challenged the familiar appeal that Christians sometimes make to “biblical marriage” in their rejection of same-sex unions. He claims that this appeal is defective because marriage doesn’t just mean one thing in the Bible, it means eight different things. He writes,

Here’s a summary:
1.Polygynous Marriage
Probably the most common form of marriage in the bible, it is where a man has more than one wife.
2.Levirate Marriage
When a woman was widowed without a son, it became the responsibility of the brother-in-law or a close male relative to take her in and impregnate her. If the resulting child was a son, he would be considered the heir of her late husband. See Ruth, and the story of Onan (Gen. 38:6-10).
3.A man, a woman and her property — a female slave
The famous “handmaiden” sketch, as preformed by Abraham (Gen. 16:1-6) and Jacob (Gen. 30:4-5).
4.A man, one or more wives, and some concubines
The definition of a concubine varies from culture to culture, but they tended to be live-in mistresses. Concubines were tied to their “husband,” but had a lower status than a wife. Their children were not usually  heirs, so they were safe outlets for sex without risking the line of succession. To see how badly a concubine could be treated, see the famous story of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19:1-30).
5.A male soldier and a female prisoner of war
Women could be taken as booty from a successful campaign and forced to become wives or concubines. Deuteronomy 21:11-14 describes the process.
6.A male rapist and his victim
Deuteronomy 22:28-29 describes how an unmarried woman who had been raped must marry her attacker.
7.A male and female slave
A female slave could be married to a male slave without consent, presumably to produce more slaves.
and of course …
8.Monogamous, heterosexual marriage
What you might think of as the standard form of marriage, provided you think of arranged marriages as the standard. Also remember that inter-faith or cross-ethnic marriage were forbidden for large chunks of biblical history.
The important thing to realize here is that none of these models are described as better than any other. All appear to have been accepted.
So there you go. The next time someone says that we need to stick with biblical marriage in this country, you can ask them which of the eight kinds they would prefer, and why.

Someone who’s unwilling to be a cheerleader for skepticism but who actually a) knows enough to know whether or not the claims being made align with the facts and b) recognises poor reasoning when they see it, isn’t going to be impressed by this. But the reality is, material like this more often than not appears on websites or blogs where the visitors are likely to be vistors to the site because of their hostility to Christianity, and will be gleefully received as ammunition without much effort being taken to check its reliability. I’m sure similar things happen at some Chistian websites too. I should say, too, that It is possible that Vorjack isn’t trying to be dishonest. He is merely reproducing material from another source – albeit with some additions of his own. I doubt that he is deliberately lying. I still say, however, that when you’re in a position to produce material to a large audience and peddle it as fact, you have a responsibility to exercise some care. This certainly wasn’t done in this case.

OK, here we go. This is the short version of what I found objectionable about the claims posted:

Error 1: False multiplication of types of marriage

This first error has to do with the “poor reasoning” that I referred to above. Even to somebody who has never read a single word from the Bible, one flaw in this attempt to find eight different understandings of marriage should be glaringly obvious. Let me use my own examples to show why:

Here in Dunedin, New Zealand, there are many quite different understandings of marriage. Some people get married right after they first meet, caught up in a whirlwind romance. Other people live together for quite a while, years in fact, and then get legally married later. Some men get married, but keep a couple of other partners on the side. Some women get married a second time after their first husband has died. Each of these involves a different concept of marriage. So the next time time someone says “I’m getting married!” Don’t presume to know what they’re talking about. To clarify, just ask which of the many means of “marriage” she is talking about.

The muddle-headed thinking in that kind of reasoning would be pretty clear right away – as it’s clear in Vorjack’s reasoning. The above reasoning mistakenly conflates the circumstances under which people might enter marriage with what marriage is. have another rlook at the examples he uses. There’s no reason to think that in the case of say, a Levrite marriage, when a husband marries his dead brother’s wife, he is entering into something fundamentally different from what a young man and woman enter into when they become engaged and get married. Yet each of these sets of circumstances is counted as a different understanding of what marriage is. This dubious multiplication of concepts alone is what makes the list appears long. Perhaps Vorjack objects to the reasons for marriage in some of these cases. Fine, he is entitled to do so, but that doesn’t alter the meaning of marriage in any of the examples listed. Moreover, it’s simply never explained why a monogamous heterosexual marriage involving a woman who has a servant (as in the case of Abraham and Sarah) should be counted as an extra type of marriage.

Error 2: False equalisation of the virtue of polygyny and monogamy.

If there are different understandings of marriage presented in the list Vorjack offers, there are two: Marriage where one man and woman are involved (as in the cases listed at 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8), and marriage where a man and more than one woman are involved (as in the minority report above, cases 1 and 4). What I want to draw attention to in this second objection is this: “The important thing to realize here is that none of these models are described as better than any other. All appear to have been accepted.”

That this statement can be put out there as obviously correct and without controversy is simply baffling. Has Vorjack just posted this without even checking what has been written on the subject? Has he read and addressed the scholarly treatments of the subject of biblical polygyny that reach a different conclusion – that monogamy is treated in the Bible as superior? It does not appear that he has.

Part of the difficulty in responding to claims like this is that it requires almost no effort to make the claim: Just assert without evidence that the Bible never suggests that monogamy is more proper than polygamy. No argument or defence involved, it’s just a claim. When someone makes a claim without argument or evidence, it should really be sufficient to simply ignore it. But in order to show that the claim is actually not true (even though no effort was made to show that it is true), one needs to delve into the evidence, which obviously takes more time than simply making an assertion.

Given this reality, I’m not about to offer a lengthy account of the biblical portrait of what marriage is meant to be. The best that any reader could do, I think, is refer to the excellent treatment of the subject by Walter Kaiser in his widely praised work, Towards Old Testament Ethics.

In the online preview of the book (see the link above), have a look through chapter 12, “Holiness in marriage and Sex.” There, this highly accomplished and acclaimed scholar of Old Testament literature and language gives careful consideration to the claim that the Old Testament treats polygamy as normal and as acceptable as monogamous marriage. What he offers there is a convincing demonstration that the claim presented by Vorjack as fact is anything but fact, and that the normative model of marriage (that is, the model that serves as the one that people ought to follow) in the Old Testament is clearly the monogamous union of a man and a woman. Unlike Vorjack, actually do the research on this one.

Error 3: Simple misrepresentation of biblical material

Vorjack says of polygyny that it is “probably the most common form of marriage in the bible.” He doesn’t cite any source for this claim, and although his blog post included a link to religioustolerance.org, the page he links to doesn’t make that claim. There’s a good reason he cites no source. The claim is simply a fabrication, and due to the lack of citation it appears that Vorjack has simply created the claim himself. I’m reluctant to call anyone a liar, so instead I’m left just wondering – where did he get this claim? There’s absolutely no evidence that this claim is correct.

The site also includes the claim that the Bible requires a woman who has been raped to “marry her attacker.” That this claim is simply reproduced as factual suggests, once again, that Vorjack has simply not spent any time investigating it. In fact this false claim has received many able responses. The fact is that the passage he cites actually doesn’t make reference to rape at all. Rather than reproduce any of the responses that have been offered, I’ll link to a recent version of that response by Matt Flannagan over at M and M.

The site contains the further claim that in Old Testament law, a slave (bear in mind that “slavery” in the Old Testament was a temporary arrangement for debt repayment with a maximum time limit at which point the debt was forgiven) could be forced to marry another slave again his or her will. The site that Vorjack borrowed this claim from says:

Exodus 21:4 indicates that a slave owner could assign one of his female slaves to one of his male slaves as a wife. There is no indication that women were consulted during this type of transaction. The arrangement would probably involve rape in most cases. In the times of the Hebrew Scriptures, Israelite women who were sold into slavery by their fathers were slaves forever. Men, and women who became slaves by another route, were limited to serving as slaves for seven years. When a male slave left his owner, the marriage would normally be terminated; his wife would stay behind, with any children that she had. He could elect to stay a slave if he wished.

Combine this claim with the claim for Vorjack, and we are being told that two slaves could be forced to marry without consent, and then when the term of service for one for them was up, they were effectively divorced – “normally.” Added to the mix is the rather gratuitous claim that rape was “probably” involved. Just how well does all of this stand up to scrutiny? Let’s break it down.

Were the slaves forced to marry? Let’s look at the evidence. Is there anything in Exodus to imply this? The writer says that “there is no indication” that the women were consulted. This, however, is merely an argument from silence, since there is also “no indication” that the man was consulted either. The inference is being drawn from “If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters…” Very few details are given at all.

What we then learn is that when the male servant leaves the service of his creditor – his debt is paid – he does not get to take his wife with him. Vorjack infers that this is a dissolution of the marriage. But is it? It does not appear so. Just because the man’s debt has been paid does not automatically mean that the woman’s debt has been paid, allowing her to leave as well. Nothing here prevents the two from remaining married, but like the man, the woman cannot leave until she has paid her debt, or until the maximum period of labour (six years) is up. On the seventh year debts are forgiven and servants released.

The comment that rape was “probably” involved is simply spun out of thin air. It is mere fiction, nowhere implied in Exodus 21, so there’s not much to say in order to rebut it.

In fairness to Vorjack and the crowd at “Unreasonable Faith,” they are not the only ones who have simply reproduced the claims made by religioustolerance without any attempt to critically evaluate them. It gets posted on various sites where bloggers throw it out as a challenge to those who claim to get thier view of marriage from the Bible. Perhaps his problem is not outright dishonesty, but rather something like highly motivated credulity (still, this wouldn’t explain the fabricated claim that polygamy was the most common form of biblical marriage).

Also to be fair, the site owners do warn the unwary by calling their site “unreasonable faith.” It would be horribly misleading if they had called it something like “reasonable unbelief” with claims like these ones on display!

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