Note: This is the first post in a series where I’ll take a look at what the God in the books of the Bible actually says about marriage. Yes, there will be passages in later books that address some of these issues. Let’s get there when we get there.
The Bible has a lot to say about how men and women should interact, and Genesis is no exception. The characters in these stories are human, so we can’t expect them to always make the right decision. Additionally, it’s only fair to assume that what’s considered acceptable by a certain culture will change over time. Whether that’s because humanity is slowly uncovering the true objective morality, or because a culture’s values change with time (or are just relative), is something I’ll leave to the reader to decide. What we do know from reading Genesis is that, whatever the cause, there has been a shift since the time of Jacob. As a consequence, I don’t think what any human demonstrates as a “good” or “bad” marriage is very interesting, especially 3000 years after the fact. Fortunately there are several instances where the gold standard of moral authority, God, directly intervenes to enforce a norm in marriage. Since God is always good and holy I think it’s safe to say what he does really matters.
Today, the common belief in most Jewish and Christian communities is that marriage consists of one man and one woman. This position, however, is only weakly endorsed in Genesis. The most obvious point in the book comes right from the beginning: God specifically creates Eve for Adam (Gen 2:20-22) and since they were created in his image, this is as close to what we can suppose is God’s intended arrangement. Although God decides everything he’s made is good, he never comments on this special relationship specifically. In other words, we know that Adam and Eve belong together, but what about Adam and Eve and Judy?
The difficulty with this reasoning is that it makes Genesis and the Bible a much more challenging read. Everything that God does creates consequences for the things he doesn’t do. If this logic is applied to another section of Genesis its disagreeableness becomes obvious. For example, we can assume that God tacitly supports polygamy by not killing Jacob, after God killed Onan for another marriage-related matter (Gen. 38:9-10). Since God intervened in at least one instance of someone doing marriage wrong, Jacob must be in the clear. Since God intervened in the Universe and created two people, one man and one woman, there must be no other possible combination. God’s actions best apply to the circumstances in which he acts.
Smiting aside, the rest of Genesis seems to confirm that polygamy is okay by God. At the very least, it’s not discouraged. God gives polygamy a pass by rewarding Jacob and his wives with children (Gen. 29:31; Gen. 30:17; Gen. 30:22). Surely if God wanted to endorse monogamy he would have prevented Rachel from conceiving indefinitely.
Later on we learn that when you marry, you marry the family. God widows Tamar by killing Er (for being wicked) leaving her without a means for inheritance. Onan, Tamar’s brother-in-law, is obligated to sleep with her to produce for her an heir. He refuses and God smites him (Gen. 38:6-10). This could just be a corner case with regard to the covenant (it’s unclear), but if not it appears that enforcement has been severely relaxed in modern times.
Finally, Jacob claims that it’s a sin against God to sleep with another man’s wife (Gen. 39:9). He does this in the face of temptation, so good for him. This one is a little different because it’s Jacob talking and not God, though I think it’s worth noting since it has survived to today.
Clearly, the concept of marriage was very different in the times of Genesis. I’ll revisit this topic again once a few more arguments are presented.