Biblical Marriage – Part 2

Posted by By at 8 August, at 08 : 17 AM Print

Whereas Mitt Romney and the Republican Party have proclaimed “Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman,”

Whereas the Chick-fil-A company supports “the biblical definition of the family unit” and its president prays “God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is about.”

Whereas, the Pennsylvania legislature has unanimously proclaimed 2012 to be “The Year of the Bible,”

Whereas I began writing this series on the day my wife and I were celebrating 34 years of marriage,

Be it resolved: let’s take a look at biblical marriage. Last week we looked at biblical marriage from Adam to Lamech. This week we are going to look at biblical marriages of the Patriarchs -Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

In Genesis 12:11 we read of Father Abraham’s marriage:

When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful to behold; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, that my life may be spared on your account.

Chapter 20:1-3 records almost the same event and circumstances only in the kingdom of Gerar ruled by King Abimelech.

… (Abraham) sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech, king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.

When Pharaoh and Abimelech asked Abraham for permission to add Sarah to their harems, Abraham replied – Yeah, sure, fine by me, she is my sister, have your way. According to Genesis 12:16, Father Abraham even made a buck on it, that is to say, Abraham pimped his wife out.

What’s going on here? In the time of the patriarchs, the status of married women was one of ownership and property rather than “to love and to cherish until death us do part.”  For the patriarchs, the idea of marriage was to collect the whole set, or at least as many as you can, and then show them off to flaunt your wealth and power. Marriage was the Middle East equivalent of the Carlisle car show.

Abraham’s second polygamous wife was Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl. She was given to Abraham by Sarah, his first wife (Genesis 16).  When Hagar got pregnant with Abraham’s child Ishmael, Sarah was insanely jealous and “dealt harshly” with her, so harshly, that the slave girl ran away. According to 16:6 all this was fine by Abraham. “Behold your slave girl is in your (Sarah’s) power; do to her as you please.”

Abraham’s third polygamous wife was Keturah (Genesis 25).  Keturah appears in the Bible in chapter 25 after Sarah has died at the age of 127. According to the Bible, though quite old, Abraham is quite randy and Keturah bears him 6 sons, and then lists all the grandchildren. However, 25:4, lists both the children and grandchildren as Keturah’s children.

Genesis 25:5-6 introduces yet another variation of biblical polygamous marriage – concubines. Concubines are semi-wives in which a man of higher social status semi-marries a woman of lower social or economic (often slave) status. Though married, the children of concubines do not have the same inheritance status as the children of regular wives.  We see this custom reflected in the biblical narrative: “Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines, Abraham gave gifts and while was still living he sent them away from his son Isaac.”

Biblical marriage, as defined by the patriarch Abraham, bears no resemblance to “between one man and one woman, to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live.”

Isaac, the second patriarch, seemed quite content with a monogamous life with Rebekah. He also seemed to love and cherish her throughout his entire life. The problem, at least from the modern perspective, is Rebekah was kin, the daughter of Isaac’s first cousin.

A second problem with holding fast to the ideals of biblical marriage is found in Genesis 26. It seems to be a repeat of the Abrahamic story of  lying to king Abimelech that his wife is his sister. As with his father, biblical marriage is one of property and ownership rights rather and love and commitment.

Isaac and Rebekah had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Both practiced polygamy.

Genesis 26:34 states that Esau had two wives, Judith, the daughter of Beeri the Hittite and Basemath, the daughter of Elon the Hittite.  Genesis 36 lists his wives as “Adah, daughter of Elon the Hittite and Oholibamah daughter of Anah son of Zibeon the Horite, and Basemath, Ishmael’s daughter, sister of Nebaioth. If we assume biblical inerrancy, we do not know why the lists conflict.  We also do not know if Elon of Genesis 26 was Elon of Genesis 36 making Basemath and Adah sisters of half sisters, or if Jacob had two wives named Basemath, one the daughter of Elon in Genesis 26, the other the daughter of Ishmael in Genesis 36. I’ll leave it to the biblical literalists to sort that out.

Jacob, Isaac’s other son, had two polygamous wives – Rachael who was hot and Leah who was not. Biblical polygamy was so pervasive, there were even biblical laws to deal with hot/not hot problem, but only if they both bore sons.

When a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, if they both bear him sons, and the son of the unloved wife is the elder, then, when the day comes for him to divide his property among his sons, he must not treat the sons of the loved wife as his firstborn in preference to his true firstborn, the son of the unloved wife.” (Deuteronomy 21:15ff)

Jacob also seemed to share his grandfather’s penchant for slave-girl wives.

When [Rachel] gave [her husband Jacob] her slave-girl Bilhah as a wife, Jacob lay with her, and she conceived and bore him a son. (Genesis 30)

About all we can conclude about biblical marriage in the time of the patriarchs is 1) marriage was about ownership and 2) polygamy was the norm.

Photo by magro_kr


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- who has written 29 posts for Rock The Capital
The Rev. Timothy Dewald was Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Lebanon Valley College joining the faculty in 1989. He retired in May 2010. In 1993 he won the College's Evelyn J. Knisley award for Inspirational Teaching. In addition to teaching mathematics, Rev. Dewald served the College in 1992 as acting chaplain, taught courses in East Asian religions, a First-Year Seminar on Darwin and evolution, Einstein’s general relativity, and the New Testament, as well as a mathematics and statistics courses. He also served as a parish minister for 23 years. Rev. Dewald graduated from Dickinson College with a degree in political science and religion. He earned a master of divinity degree from Andover Newton Theological School in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1987, he received certification in mathematics from the Pennsylvania State University. - Email Timothy Dewald

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