Marriage in the Bible: Love prevails?

For years, I have privately mused that the Bible is a problematic book. As the holy book for Christians, it … Continued

For years, I have privately mused that the Bible is a problematic book.

As the holy book for Christians, it has been used and misused over time to justify personal prejudices and bigotry, including racism and slavery, sexism, and homophobia.

It’s not that there are not verses and in fact chapters that seem to condone bigotry. I found myself feeling really uneasy about what appears to be a biblical endorsement of racism not unlike that I remember reading about coming from staunch segregationists; in the book of Ezra, in order for a group of Israelites who have survived the Exile to be “at one with God,” they are required to end intermarriage. “Now make confession to the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” (Ezra 10:11ff). The scribe and priest Ezra is actually embarrassed for the “sins” of his people in their turning away from God in many ways, among which is intermarriage with people “not their kind.”

Everyone knows about the scriptures that call homosexuality an “abomination” against God, and again, a sense of uneasiness comes as one tries to reconcile the words of the Bible with the mandate that we are to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” The Bible consistently seems to give direction on how to handle those who are out of the will of God, and few to any of those instructions seem to involve love.

The Bible’s apparent support of slavery was used by many during that dark period in American history to support the institution; to buck ”the word of God” was deemed risky and evidence of one’s heresy.

And so it is not surprising, that in light of the words of Scripture that decry homosexuality, that President Obama and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s support of gay marriage, the words of the Christian holy book are being used once again.

At issue? 1) The definition of marriage, and 2) the role of the president or any public servant in issues that appear to be religious in nature. And, of course, there is the politics of race that is playing a big part in the debates and discussions which have erupted since the president and the NAACP issued their support for gay marriage.

I am not as sure that the Bible defines marriage as being between a man and a woman as much as it defines procreation as being between a man and a woman. In Genesis 1:27, after God created both male and female, God said nothing about marriage, about loving each other or being committed to each other. No, God merely said, “Be fruitful and multiply.” In fact, the whole of Genesis 1 seems to be about the creation of the world, and procreation was at the center of it all.

Nowhere do we see commitment and love as being mandates of men and women being together. In fact, love and commitment are downplayed, trumped in favor of those relationships where offspring could be produced. A reading of the story of Sarai and Abram, later Sarah and Abraham, is heart-wrenching, as a barren Sarai instructs her husband to sleep with her handmaiden, Hagar, so that Abram can have a son. The story is troubling on a number of levels, but the point is that the definition of marriage is clearly not something that is between “one man and one woman.” What the Bible seems to be saying is that sex can be between one man and any woman or many women, so long as children are produced.

The story of Rachel and Leah is equally as troubling. Jacob wants Rachel but is tricked into marrying Leah …and he eventually gets Rachel after having been with Leah for years! Yes, he apparently loves Rachel, but this marriage thing, between one man and one woman, is, again, not apparently valued. Jacob is allowed to have Leah and Rachel …and is encouraged to abandon Leah in favor of Rachel, who, the Bible says, was beautiful.

So, the definition is marriage seems a bit muddled when it comes to the Bible.

Then there is the issue of same-gender relationships in the Bible. Apparently, same-gender relationships were common in biblical times. There was male prostitution as well as female prostitution; young boys were commonly sterilized and used as sexual objects for men of wealth. According to some scholars, what Paul objected to was heterosexual men taking part in same-sex relationships only because they could. Such activity, these scholars say, seemed to be hypocritical; a heterosexual should not engage in same-gender sex because it represented a departure from what he was. In other words, a heterosexual male engaging in same-gender sex was nothing more than lustful behavior. Paul disapproved.

It is worthy to note that only the actions and activities of males are mentioned in the Bible as homosexual; lesbian relationships are not so obvious or evident, and are not criticized as are the male same-sex relationships. And, of course, there is the fact that those who lift up “the word of God” as justification for their homophobia ignore other “words of God” describing other sins that are mentioned only in passing, if at all.

So, there is some ambiguity in the Bible as concerns same-sex issues. Where there is not ambiguity, however, is in the words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Our Founding Fathers put words in these documents which are supposedly the “bible,” if you will, for public servants. Anyone in public office is to act as a politician who takes a vow to protect and defend the Constitution, and that means protecting the civil rights of all Americans.

It seems that President Obama and the NAACP, an organization which, again, exists to protect the rights of people being marginalized and discriminated against, understand the role of the politician as opposed to the pastor. It is not their role to define scripture; it is their role and duty, however, to protect people.

There is something wrong with a nation which purports to believe in liberty, but which doles it out in bits and pieces to those whom it deems worthy. If the religious sector cannot fulfill the religious dictate to “love one another” and to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” it is not the role of the nation to supercede or take over the religious task of teaching love; the state cannot legislate moral behavior. But the state can and must legislate adherence to the law. Reinhold Niebuhr says in “Moral Man and Immoral Society” that the state follows a “rational ethic,” and says that that ethic “seeks to bring the needs of others into equal consideration with those of the self.”

All of the hoopla that has erupted since the president, and now, the NAACP, have come out in support of gay marriage, seems to be gleefully concentrating on the possible division in the African-American community, as a black man, and an historically black civil rights institution, seem to be going against the Bible.

But in the end, both President Obama and the NAACP seem to be on point in terms of understanding the difference between religion and politics, and seem to be clear in their understanding that public servants have a duty to serve all of the people, not just some.

As unpopular as that might make them, it seems that they have done the right thing.

Smith, a Yale Divinity School graduate, is author of “Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives,” and is a winner of the 2009 National Best Books Award.

Susan K. Smith
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  • mobilemavy

    Somehow, we just knew you would embrace homosexuals. Of course, if you didn’t, you couldn’t write for WAPO.

  • thebump

    Marriage in its very nature is the union of the two naturally distinct and complementary sexes as husband and wife. That universal truth is rooted in natural law and the most basic facts of life. It transcends societies, faiths, ideologies, traditions, creeds, languages, cultures, races, colors, nationalities, and legal systems. Politicians have no more power to change it than they may repeal the law of gravity.

    Kinda like a sandwich. You can have the bread, or you can have the filling, but without both it ain’t a sandwich. And no amount of political mumbo-jumbo or legal hocus-pocus will ever make it what it ain’t.

  • csintala79

    Marriage is not necessary for procreation. It is not part of “natural law.” Marriage as we in the West perceive it is not even universal among men. Love between a couple is not dependent on marriage. The institution of marriage is primarily associated with bequeathing property, i.e., it is a means of designating heirs. A secular example of the materialistic nature of marriage is found regarding the marriage relationship, up until recently, of nobles. Kings, Queens, Dukes, etc. usually had lovers. Who these lovers were was common knowledge. It was in these elicit relationships that love was found. The “legal” marriage was to establish coalitions and other political and trade relationships, not to establish loving relations between the spouses. Also up until recently marriage among the 99% was not that common. It wasn’t until the 19th Century that surnames (family name) became common for commoners. Recent demographics show that fewer and fewer people are choosing marriage. Marriage, as with religious affiliation, is becoming passé; both are becoming irrelevant. Pre-nups speak to the real nature of marriage.

  • mikestech

    “I am not as sure that the Bible defines marriage as being between a man and a woman as much as it defines procreation as being between a man and a woman.”

    Maybe you should ask….I dunno…Jesus, for his thoughts. In Matthew 19, on the topic of MARRIAGE:

    “He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”

  • HeyBuddy

    It’s not like your bias isn’t showing huh? Phrases and statements that include “seems” , and “seems to”, show your attempt to advance your non-objective analysis. Consider that the majority of the non- Christian world is opposed to gay,same sex anything, and that any victory acheived by the same sex movement is temporary, as the world continues to move toward the expansion and dominance of no tolerance religion(s).

  • energon

    If as a species, we had a clear understanding of the nature of Love, I doubt there would be any problem. Unfortunately, evolution has left us with nothing but biology as guide and not much of one at that?


    Oh no. I met my current wife later in life, when due to medical reasons, she had already had a hysterectomy.

    I guess our marriage isn’t “sanctified” by the christians as we will not be reproducing unless either one of us can achieve parthenogenisis.

    Luckily, we’re both atheists and we don’t have to listen to any of that christian Stone Age hoodoo mumbo-jumbo.

    There is so little room for love and friendship and companionship is christianity. EVERYTHING is a problem for those poor humanoids.


    Biology is the best guide if you can be honest with yourself. At least you know it isn’t some paleolithic garbage attributed to a make-believe sky-daddy.

  • PhilyJimi

    Marriage is a business contract. The fathers of women used to pimp out their daughters in order to get something in return. It is a business/political deal used to gain wealth and assure heirs get what is property of the family.

  • QuietMuze227

    Of course this is an issue for Christians, but shouldn’t common sense prevail. The civil union of marriage is one of love and practicality. If a marriage ends because the couple in no longer in love, they still have to go to court to divide the marital assets (this makes it civil). The difficulty with not recognizing same sex civil unions is that these same assets become state property in the event that one of the partners passes away. The surviving partner can potentially lose the rights to assets that they have invested in over the entire course of the relationship. What is fair about that? If these so called conservatives would just use logic instead of beating us over the head with what the bible says about homosexuality, maybe more of them could just “come out” and be who they really are rather than succumbing to all of their scandals.

  • SimonTemplar

    The author claims that it is not love that is the primary biblical reason for marriage but rather procreation. I would agree with this. Funny then that the author tries to find in the Bible’s purpose for marriage a justification for same sex marriage. After all, she has already established that procreation is the Bible’s main emphasis in that regard and since couples of the same sex can not procreate, there seems to be no biblical basis for that kind of union. The author has also already established for us that the Bible warns against the homosexual lifestyle.

    She has confirmed that many have INCORRECTLY tried to use the Bible to justify abominable practices such as the type of slavery which existed in America and the British colonies. That type of slavery was not advocated in scripture. But these examples work against the author’s argument as well, since the only way one can argue FOR same sex unions from biblical scripture is to twist the scriptures in the same way that american slavers used to twist it. That doesn’t seem like a winning argument.

    If the author wants to find our modern understanding of “love” (that is feelings of romantic attraction) as a justification for marriage she might better look to the pagan cultures. She is likely to find support for same sex marriage there as well.

  • PhilyJimi

    If you have a problem with certain human beings that were created homosexual by their creator, take up the issue with the manufacture.

    As far as living in America where we don’t allow the majority to tell a minority they don’t have the same rights as everyone else. If the majority feels for their private religious reasons the minority should be denied a right everyone else enjoys that is simply unconstitutional at the most basic level. Whatever some 2000 year old book of a redeemer zombie god says about this means nothing in the eyes of US law.

  • longjohns

    I don’t really understand your arguments. You provide no reconciliation of the celebration of bigotry, slavery, genocide (not mentioned in this post), pre-marital sex (punishment is death) or anything else mentioned in the Bible. You merely avoided the issue by talking about the Constitution instead and gives a waffle on how things aren’t clear in the Bible. The Bible is clear, even if you forget the Old Testament where the Jews are the Chosen people, Jesus compared Gentles to dogs.

    What is lacking here is the courage to recognize that Jesus Christ was an enlightened human being who gave us many many valuable ideas. We as a society is much much better for those teachings. We need more of them in a more complex modern world. Drop the old what-did-God-say thing. What was said didn’t come from God, they came from a Jewish tribe bent on conquering their environment like Genghis Khan in the Old Testament and they came from an enlightened human being 2000 years ago dealing with the issues of his day. In that sense, follow the path that Jesus followed–break the nonsensical traditions and formulate a better, newer set of teachings for the world of today and tomorrow.

  • dcrswm

    How about government just gets out of marriage. Then christians can go get married at a curch that refuses to marry gay people….of course that “Marriage Certificate” wont mean jack and you will need to go to a court to get a civil union certificate if you want tax breaks.

  • dcrswm

    You ever notice how the christian commentors are the least christian people on the thread?

  • Catken1

    “The author claims that it is not love that is the primary biblical reason for marriage but rather procreation. I would agree with this.”

    So you married not because you loved your wife but because she was fertile and you wanted babies from her?
    Do you think a stud arrangement without love is more moral or more “marriage” than decades-long devotion in a couple without children?

    “If the author wants to find our modern understanding of “love” (that is feelings of romantic attraction) as a justification for marriage she might better look to the pagan cultures. She is likely to find support for same sex marriage there as well.”

    So why are you permitted to deny Pagans their religious freedom to live their faith as they see fit? Why is it OK to force them to live by Biblical law, but not permitted to take away your marriage because it doesn’t conform to, say, Sharia law?

    Her point is that the Bible’s view of marriage is not a healthy one, or a “normal” view from most modern perspectives, and that therefore using the Bible to decide what form of marriage is acceptable in CIVIL society is doubly unreasonable.

  • Catken1

    “Politicians have no more power to change it than they may repeal the law of gravity. ”

    Then you needn’t worry about laws legalizing gay marriage, because they won’t really exist, will they?
    Just a hint – if they really were against natural law, there wouldn’t be any, nor any movement asking for them. How many advocacy groups do you see asking for gravity to be repealed? How many people do you see floating off into space because they decide to?

  • globalone

    Not sure how the author missed the creation of Eve or God’s fundamental concept regarding marriage.

    First, the Bible begins and ends with a wedding.

    Second, Eve was created of Adam’s side (from the Hebrew “sidon” – which has been poorly translated into “rib” for whatever reason). Which means that God’s qualities were, in essence, split between Adam and Eve. Which leads us to . . . .

    Third, God states that “the two will become one flesh.” God’s qualities cannot synch into one flesh when you have man/man or woman/woman joining together.

    Non-hetero relationships only work, fundamentally, if man and woman were created the same. While some would like to believe that is the case, it is simply not true.

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