Not long ago, the central question people had in approaching the Bible was: “Is it true?” Now, the question has increasingly been: “Is it good?” To appeal to a “Biblical definition of marriage” must seem—to many—to be disingenuous. A casual reading of the Bible reveals multiple examples that contradict the whole idea of “one man and one woman.” It seems almost as if the people of the “tWorld,” the world of tradition, are imposing artificial values on those in the “iWorld,” the world of the individual.
But does the Bible contradict itself on the subject of marriage (or any subject)? Is the Bible “good”—does it offer a consistently meaningful portrait of marriage? To help answer these questions, we can look at a series of “street-level” questions about the Bible’s definition of marriage.
WHAT ABOUT POLYGAMY?
What kinds of marriages are described in the Bible? A variety, really. Let’s name a few:
- Polygamy—one man, many wives
- Levirite marriage—a brother marries his deceased brother’s widow (Genesis 38:6-10)
- A man, woman, female slaves (Genesis 16)
- A man, his wives, and some concubines (Judges 19)
- Man and female prisoners of war (Deuteronomy 21:11-14)
- Rapist and his victim (22:28-29)
All of these are “Biblical” definitions of marriage, right? So why are Christians so quick to insist that marriage is simply “one man and one woman?”
First, let’s remember that when Moses recorded the creation story, he was already writing in a culture that was seeking to re-define marriage as, well, many of the examples above. Even if other forms of marriage existed, the Bible describes heterosexual monogamy as God’s original design.
Second, we should note that the Bible describes many things that it never prescribes. In fact, there are some practices that the Bible describes in a way that goes against the culture of the day. Some years ago Robert Alter—professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkely—published an influential work called The Art of Biblical Narrative. Though not a believer, Alter sees great literary value in the text of the Hebrew Old Testament. Alter points out that when we read the Old Testament (and here he particularly focuses on the family conflicts in Genesis), we find that polygamous relationships never work out for the family system. So, he says, the Bible often describes things in a way that is culturally subversive, showing the way(s) that going against God’s design ultimately leads to destruction. So polygamy might be said to be more of a “cautionary tale” than an example to follow.
Third, while it must seem barbaric for women to marry foreign soldiers or (worse) their attackers, we must remember that such proscriptions were given to a primitive, agrarian society. Without such provisions, women may have been further victimized. No; it’s not pleasant, but in a way this may have served as a means of protecting women from an even worse fate. And let’s also keep in mind that these commands existed only for ancient Israel, and are not operative today. Why not? This leads us to our next question:
WHAT ABOUT THE LAW?
The Old Testament indeed does contain commands against same-sex behavior (Leviticus 18:22). But wait—the Bible also contains several other laws that Christians don’t follow:
- Don’t eat shellfish (Leviticus 11:9-12)
- Don’t harvest from corners of fields (Leviticus 19:9)
- Don’t mix fabrics (Leviticus 19:19)
No Christian practices these laws today. Why pick and choose which laws to follow and which ones to ignore?
First, the design of marriage comes from the text of Genesis, and—as we noted earlier—this pre-dates the giving of a single law. So even if the law was never written, the Bible would still emphasize heterosexual marriage.
Second, Jesus is both the fulfillment (Matthew 5:17) and end of the law (Romans 10:4). This means that if Jesus fulfills the law on my behalf, then I don’t fulfill the law by trying to follow it on my own. Instead, I fulfill the law by following Jesus. What this means is that, for the Christian, it would be inconsistent to follow both Jesus and the law. In fact, this was the central problem of the Galatian church, where some were trying to insist that to be a “true” Christian you had to follow the teachings of the Jewish law, including circumcision. Paul tells them that yes, “the law was our guardian until Christ came,” meaning that the law’s purpose was to reveal sin and righteousness before the arrival of Jesus. But once Jesus arrived, “we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith” (Galatians 3:24-25). So no; Christians don’t “pick and choose” which laws to follow. Christians follow Jesus, which also includes adhering to God’s design for marriage (see our last question, below).
WHAT ABOUT WOMEN AND SLAVES?
Some simply acknowledge that the Bible does, indeed, contain strong language concerning homosexuals. But perhaps we should adopt what Robert Webb calls a “trajectory hermeneutic.” Don’t mind the scholarly language—Webb is saying that the Bible takes a hard stance on many moral issues, but the Bible also establishes a loving God. Webb says that in time, the love of God would supplant the strict rules of primitive culture. So, says Webb, the Bible contains language that (1) oppresses women and (2) endorses slavery. But we can trace a moral “trajectory,” that in the future we might come to recognize women as equals and slavery as immoral. Webb concludes that it’s time we do the same thing for homosexuals.
Before you dismiss Webb’s remarks as intellectual jargon, I’ll point out that this same argument often surfaces in non-religious publications, such as Lisa Miller’s 2008 piece for Newsweek:
“The Bible endorses slavery, a practice that Americans now universally consider shameful and barbaric. It recommends the death penalty for adulterers (and in Leviticus, for men who have sex with men, for that matter). It provides conceptual shelter for anti-Semites. A mature view of scriptural authority requires us, as we have in the past, to move beyond literalism. The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it’s impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours.”
Do we need to follow the Bible’s “trajectory?” Absolutely not. The flaw in this reasoning is twofold. First, let’s talk about women. Yes; the Bible occasionally describes women in a less than enlightened manner. But the Bible also ascribes dignity and worth to women unlike any other religion of its day—perhaps even today. Jesus himself treated women with unprecedented care. So we needn’t see a “trajectory” to our understanding of women’s rights; the Bible already embeds the value and worth of women into its pages. Second, the Bible never endorses slavery in the sense we might be thinking. In the Bible, slavery was probably closer to indentured servitude: you might pay off a debt by volunteering to be someone’s servant for a period of time. And unlike the slavery of other ancient cultures, the Bible placed high value on preserving these servants’ rights. As just one example, the Biblical law commanded that the master who injured his servant had to let him go free (Exodus 21:26-27). One Jewish commentator points out:
“This law-the protection of slaves from maltreatment by their masters-is found nowhere else in the entire existing corpus of ancient Near Eastern legislation. It represents a qualitative transformation in social and human values and expresses itself once again in the provisions of [Exodus 21:26-27].”
Further, when William Wilberforce worked toward abolishing slavery in the eighteenth century, he did so through a literal interpretation of the Bible.
If we have no need for an ethical trajectory for women or slaves, why would we expect to find one for homosexuality?
WHAT ABOUT JESUS?
Finally, we might be tempted to simply “follow Jesus,” and didn’t Jesus preach a message of love and tolerance? Jesus never mentioned homosexuality so much as once in his ministry—so why should we?
It’s true that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality during his ministry. But Jesus also affirmed God’s original design for marriage. When challenged by the religious leaders of his day, Jesus quotes the creation story (Genesis 2:24), saying that God “made them male and female” and “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matthew 19:25). So Jesus affirms the design for heterosexual marriage.
Even if we choose to disagree with the pages of Scripture, we can’t claim that Scripture is inconsistent. Christianity would see this unity—connecting more than 1500 years of literary tradition—as consistent with the idea that the Bible originates not from cultural ideals, but a God whose design transcends all cultures, all peoples, for all time.
 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, pp. 9-11. Alter also makes a key focus the law of primogeniture—that the firstborn sons would receive a disproportionate amount of family blessings. Alter says that much of Genesis is about the “reversal of primogeniture,” meaning once again that Genesis is meant to be seen as culturally subversive.
 Robert Webb, Women, Slaves, and Homosexuals.
 Lisa Miller, “Gay Marriage: Our Mutual Joy,” Newsweek Magazine, December 5, 2008, http://www.newsweek.com/gay-marriage-our-mutual-joy-83287
 Nahum M Sarna, ‘Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary Series: Exodus’, 1991, note on Exodus 21:21-27, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’