A joint editorial by the academics Hector Avalos, Robert R. Cargill and Kenneth Atkinson appeared in the Des Moines Register this summer pointing out the fallacy in the statement that the Bible clearly states that marriage must only occur between “one man and one woman.” The piece, which went offline from the Register not long after its publication, read:
The fact that marriage is not defined as only that between one man and one woman is reflected in the entry on “marriage” in the authoritative Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000): “Marriage is one expression of kinship family patterns in which typically a man and at least one woman cohabitate publicly and permanently as a basic social unit” (p. 861). The phrase “at least one woman” recognizes that polygamy was not only allowed, but some polygamous biblical figures (e.g., Abraham, Jacob) were highly blessed. In 2 Samuel 12:8, the author says that it was God who gave David multiple wives: “I gave you your masterâ€™s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom. … And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more” (Revised Standard Version).
In fact, there were a variety of unions and family configurations that were permissible in the cultures that produced the Bible, and these ranged from monogamy (Titus 1:6) to those where rape victims were forced to marry their rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) and to those Levirate marriage commands obligating a man to marry his brother’s widow regardless of the living brotherâ€™s marital status (Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Genesis 38; Ruth 2-4). Others insisted that celibacy was the preferred option (1 Corinthians 7:8; 28).
Although some may view Jesus’ interpretation of Genesis 2:24 in Matthew 19:3-10 as an endorsement of monogamy, Jesus and other Jewish interpreters conceded that there were also non-monogamous understandings of this passage in ancient Judaism, including those allowing divorce and remarriage. In fact, during a discussion of marriage in Matthew 19:12, Jesus even encourages those who can to castrate themselves “for the kingdom” and live a life of celibacy.
Ezra 10:2-11 forbids interracial marriage and orders those people of God who already had foreign wives to divorce them immediately.
So, while it is not accurate to state that biblical texts would allow marriages between people of the same sex, it is equally incorrect to declare that a “one-man-and-one-woman” marriage is the only allowable type of marriage deemed legitimate in biblical texts. This is not only our modern, academic opinion. This view of the multiple definitions of “biblical” marriage has been acknowledged by some of the most prominent names in Christianity. For example, the famed Reformationist Martin Luther wrote a letter in 1524 in which he commented on polygamy as follows: “I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not oppose the Holy Scriptures.” Accordingly, we must guard against attempting to use ancient texts to regulate modern ethics and morals, especially those ancient texts whose endorsements of other social institutions, such as slavery, would be universally condemned today, even by the most adherent of Christians.
Avalos, Cargill and Atkinson are professors at Iowa State University, University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa, respectively. Writing this piece was Avalos’ idea — he hoped to put together an educated breakdown of the way the Bible defines marriage. Speaking with the Huffington Post shortly after the publication of the editorial, co-author Cargill said that while this information is obvious to scholars, many are afraid to give voice to it because of fear of backlash. To corroborate his statements, before the piece went down at the Register, the comments were replete with vitriol.
But Cargill and his co-authors refuse to budge: “Most people aren’t dumb, they want to make an informed decision. If scholars aren’t talking to them, they have to rely on talk show hosts and pundits, and that’s not the most reliable source of information.”
Indeed. As Meredith Bennett-Smith writes at the Huffington Post:
Many politicians have made a career out of using the Bible to justify opposition to hot-button topics like same-sex marriage or abortion. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), for example, told a crowd of evangelicals in April that Americans cannot “retreat from our values and fail to make the case on issues like marriage — because it is one man, one woman — because God said it is.”
“Politicians who use the Bible aren’t necessarily interested in the truth or the complexity of the Bible,” he said. “They are looking for one ancient sound bite to convince people what they already believe.”
Anyone who argues that “the Bible speaks plainly on one issue, especially something as complicated as marriage … haven’t take the time to read all of it,” he added.
Header image by Ryk Neethling.