When we talk about what the Bible says concerning marriage, we have to understand there is much we tend to take for granted. If we are not careful, we will impose our cultural assumptions on the text and fail to really grasp how marriage was perceived and practiced in the ancient Near East. If we want to understand how the Bible defines marriage, there are things we have to unlearn first.
Modern Cultural Assumptions About Marriage
While renting a car for our honeymoon, my wife and I had a memorable conversation with a young Indian woman. Honestly, we were hoping to get some sort of discount or upgrade when we casually mentioned to the lady at the rental desk it was our wedding day. She congratulated us and asked, “Is it a love marriage?” In her culture, most marriages were arranged. She contrasted arranged marriages with “love marriages.”
Because of our cultural assumptions, most of us would never think to ask such a question. We simply assume marriage is supposed to follow a period of two people:
- finding one another attractive and interesting
- developing an emotional bond
- freely choosing to spend their lives together
In our individualistic culture, we tend to believe marriage is primarily about personal choice and personal happiness. But the Biblical authors do not prioritize the same things we do.
The people in the Bible—Abraham, Moses, David, and even Paul—had very different ideas about marriage. It doesn’t mean our emphasis on personal choice and happiness is sinful. It just means our priorities are very different than those of ancient Near Eastern people.
The Bible’s Cultural Assumptions About Marriage
Because theirs was a collectivist culture, marriages were built upon values like community, status, honor, and even survival. These values and priorities are evident in the Law of Moses. Because of this, many of the biblical laws concerning marriage seem very strange to us:
- fathers were responsible for arranging their daughters’ marriages, accepting or rejecting the bride-price (Exodus 22:16-17)
- wedding night bedsheets were used as a legal defense against accusations of premarital sex (Deuteronomy 22:13-19)
- a man was obligated to marry his brother’s widow if the brother died childless (Deuteronomy 25:5-10)
Jacob is a rare example of a man who married because he “fell in love” with a particular woman (Genesis 29). But Jacob’s pursuit of Rachel is portrayed in a negative light. After seven years, Jacob said to his father-in-law, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to lie with her” (verse 21). Tim Keller writes, “Imagine saying to a father even today, ‘I can’t wait to have sex with your daughter. Give her to me now!’ The narrator is showing us a man overwhelmed with emotional and sexual longing for one woman” (Counterfeit Gods).
Later in the story, even though he was tricked, Jacob should have loved and cherished Leah. However, he continually prioritized his desire for Rachel over his duty to Leah. Modern readers tend to sympathize with Jacob’s misplaced priorities. But ancient readers probably sympathized with Leah. God also sympathized with Leah (Genesis 29:31).
When we read Bible stories about ancient marriages (e.g. Boaz and Ruth, Solomon and the Shulamite woman, Joseph and Mary), we should always challenge our cultural assumptions and not read them as if they were modern love stories.
Unintended Consequences of Our Assumptions
The ancient perspective on marriage had inherent shortcomings. A woman, for instance, had very little say about who she married or whether or not her husband divorced her. There was an assumption (which often did not materialize) that her husband or father would protect her interests.
It’s easy to see some of the shortcomings and inherent problems with ancient assumptions about marriage. But we must open our eyes to the problems we cause with our modern assumptions. Our modern prioritization of personal happiness, radical individualism, and over-sexualization seem to be at the root of things like:
- unrealistic expectations about the happiness and fulfillment marriage will provide.
- justification of divorce when marriage “isn’t making us happy” anymore.
- cohabitating outside of marriage, because the same happiness seems achievable without a covenant.
- affirmation of same-sex marriage as a means of experiencing personal happiness.
The solution is not simply to remind people about the Bible’s rules concerning marriage. We must also recognize how our modern priorities and assumptions have consequences.
How Christians Should Think About Marriage
I don’t believe the answer is to trade “love marriages” for arranged marriages. We would simply be trading one set of problems for another. The answer is to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
The Good News of Jesus Christ, rather than fairy tales about marrying to live “happily ever after,” should shape our thinking. We need to recognize that the primary purpose of Christian marriage is for a man and woman to embody the love, care, selflessness, respect, and submission of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:22-33). It would also help if we realized marriage has collective, not just personal, implications. My marriage does not just belong to me and my wife, but to God, our families, and the church (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:13-14; 12:27; Ephesians 4:25).
In very practical terms, I would suggest we strive to…
- embrace a more Christ-centered (less self-centered) view of marriage.
- shift our emphasis from “marrying the person you love” to “loving the person you marry.”
- develop more realistic expectations about marriage.
If we marry, we should marry for the sake of God’s kingdom. If we remain single, we should remain single for the sake of God’s kingdom (Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35). As followers of Jesus, we must learn to anchor our hope and joy in the promise of God’s reign. If we anchor them in anything else, we set ourselves up for disappointment and even sin.
I love you and God loves you,