Biblical Marriage and Cultural Dynamics
How does the institution of marriage get defined? Better yet, why do we define the institution of marriage the way we do? For generations Western society has defined marriage as a covenant or contract between two people who happen to be male and female. This definition is said to have biblical roots, but does the Bible have one consistent vision of marriage?
We know that polygamy was practiced in ancient Israel. Abraham had at least two wives, David had several, and Solomon had many wives and concubines. But the time we get to the New Testament age (first century CE), it does appear that in Jewish circles monogamy was standard practice. It does seem that things change over time, but even if there is no “biblical pattern” for marriage, is there nothing that we can learn about marriage in all its complexity from our reading of the Scriptures that are treasured by Jew and Christian?
It is my intent to write a study guide that seeks to discern insights from Scripture relating to marriage. While this is not a book on gay marriage or marriage equality, my belief is that these texts can apply equally to heterosexual and same-sex marriages. Passages like Genesis 2, in which God looks at his creation, and discerns that the man he created was lonely, and God created a companion fit for him. What is the message of that passage? Then there’s a passage like 1 Corinthians 7, where it appears that Paul prefers the single state to the married state, but if one doesn’t have the gift, it is better to marry than to burn (with lust?).
As we begin this journey (and I will be trying out ideas for the book on this blog), I thought the story of the marriages of Jacob might be instructive.
In this story, Isaac and Rebecca decide that it would be better if Jacob found a wife among their clan, rather than from within the Canaanite community (Genesis28:1-5). As the story goes, Jacob meets Rachel, the daughter of Laban, the brother of Rebecca. Apparently it’s okay to marry first cousins in “biblical times.” He falls in love and seeks her hand in marriage. Laban agrees to the transaction (yes this was a transaction), though Jacob is going to have to work for seven years before he can marry his beloved. Now, that seems rather long, doesn’t it? Would you wait seven years to get married?
Jacob works the seven years, and then on the wedding day, Laban sends in his daughter to Jacob’s tent. The “happy couple” consummates the marriage. Then the next morning, to his surprise, Jacob wakes up and finds that the woman with whom he has shared a bed isn’t his beloved Rachel, but is instead her older sister – Leah. Jacob is furious. He’s been tricked – which is a reversal of fortune since it’s usually Jacob who is the trickster – and he won’t stand for being taken advantage of.
What is interesting about this story is Laban’s response to Jacob. Laban simply says to his nephew and now son-in-law: This is not done in our country – giving the younger before the first-born. Now Jacob will receive Rachel as his wife, but Rachel will be his second wife. He might love her more than he loves Leah, which is the cause of tension going forward, but the point that Laban makes is that community standards will prevail. These might not be Jacob’s standards, but they are Laban’s, and he’s going to enforce them.
What is the implication of this story for us? Obviously, we will likely find abhorrent the idea that one must purchase a spouse, even if that means working for seven years. We might want to side with Leah, who gets married, but remains unloved. She has lovely eyes, but Rachel has the good figure. Could it be that the way we understand marriage evolves over time. Definitions differ from one community to another. In many cultures, polygamy is still acceptable. In Africa the practice of polygamy has been a major concern for churches. If they demand that converts become monogamous, then there will be women who are abandoned. Is this just? Is it necessary? At least in the near term?
In Laban’s mind – in his community – you won’t find younger daughters getting married before the older one. It’s simply not done.
In the United States, which is where I live, it wasn’t that long ago that many states had on their books laws that prohibited inter-racial marriage. This simply wasn’t allowed. Those laws have long been repealed and for the most part society has welcomed inter-racial marriage. Today the issue is gay marriage or marriage equality. The response of some in our society is a bit like that of Laban – we just do that kind of thing in our community. But, while Jacob acquiesced to Laban’s rules, apparently this wasn’t the rule in his own community. At least he wasn’t aware of the tradition of Laban’s country.
There is much in this story about deception – Jacob was a deceiver, got deceived, and will deceive again. There is also the cultural dynamics present. Even though it does appear that Jacob and Rachel loved each other, Laban wasn’t as concerned about their affection for each other as he was in making sure the oldest daughter didn’t get pushed aside. I’m not sure that Laban was as concerned about Leah’s feelings, as he was about making sure he got his money’s worth. If it appeared that Leah wasn’t marriage material, he would lose his investment. In the end Jacob agrees to work off the debt to receive Rachel’s hand, but there appears to be no love for Leah in his heart.
What is interesting is that as the story continues, God sees Leah’s plight and blesses her with children, even as Rachel finds it difficult to have children. Blessings come in different ways in the biblical story.
The question that this story poses for us is how we should read these stories and the way in which they speak to marriage customs. How do we separate out what was cultural and what is relevant going forward into the present?