Marriage in the Bible
MARRIAGE The Bible often refers to marriage—in stories, in the law of Moses, and in metaphors. The biblical usages reflect the practices of marriage in the ancient Near East and the Graeco-Roman world.
Marriage in the Bible
The Bible begins and ends with marriage (Gen 2:24; Rev 22:20). In between, marriage is a frequent topic.
• There are stories of marriages and married couples (e.g., Gen 3:1–4:2; 12:1–18:15; 21:1–14; 24:1–25:28; 29:1–30:24; Ruth).
There are rules concerning
• getting married (Deut 22:13–21; 22:28–29; 25:5–10);
• being married (Exod 21:10; Deut 21:15–17; Eph 5:21–33; Col 3:18–19; 1 Pet 3:1–7);
• violating marriage (Exod 20:14; Deut 22:1–27; Matt 5:27–28); and
• ending marriage (Deut 24:1–4; Matt 5:31–32; 19:3–8; 1 Cor 7:12–16).
There are also passages where marriage is used as a metaphor.
• Christ is likened to a bridegroom and His followers are the wedding guests (Matt 9:14–15; 22:1–14; 25:1–13).
• Marriage of a man and a woman is an image of God and His people (Hos 1:2–3:5; Jer 2:1–4:4)
• or Christ and His church (John 3:28–30; 2 Cor 11:1–3; Rev 19:7–9; 21:2; 22:17–20).
While stories and metaphors that describe the mutual love of a married couple or the children born to them are easily understood, accounts of arranged marriages, endogamy (marrying relatives), or polygamy are not. This is because our social context differs from the social contexts in which the Bible was written. In order to understand marriage in the Bible, therefore, we need to be familiar with marriage in the ancient Near East as well as in the Graeco-Roman world.
Most Old Testament texts about marriage reflect Israelite agrarian society in the early Iron Age. Families lived off the produce of the earth. Men, women, and children worked the land, to process its yield, in order to survive. The family property was owned and managed by the male head of the household, who would pass it down to his sons. Sons would remain in their parents’ household, marrying women from outside the immediate family and raising their children on their father’s land (Wright, God’s People, 53–58). Children contributed to the household labor pool, learned how to manage the family farm, and some inherited it upon the death of the family patriarch. In order to keep the property intact, the father would leave most of the inheritance to his oldest son (Deut 22:17).
The Bible’s first marriage story assumes an agricultural context. Adam is a farmer and Eve is the woman who bears his children (Gen 3:16–19; 4:1–2, 25). They share a life of hard work, and the woman may even be subject to the patriarch’s authority. Their marriage is summarized in Gen 2:24: a man seeks a wife from outside his parents’ household and the two start a new family unit.
The general Old Testament practice was for parents to arrange marriages for their children. The parents of a son had a significant stake in deciding who would enter their household and mother their grandchildren. Their role in securing wives for their sons can be seen in stories about the marriages of Ishmael (Gen 21:21), Isaac (Gen 24:1–9), and Er (Gen 38:6). When a man chose his own wife—as with Jacob, Shechem, and Samson—his parents still had an interest in his choice (Gen 28:1–5; 34:4; Judg 14:1–3).
Women’s family members were equally interested in finding good husbands for them. For example, Abraham’s servant deals not only with Isaac’s future wife Rebekah but also with her brother Laban and her father Bethuel (Gen 24:15–61). When Jacob falls in love with Rachel, he must arrange the marriage with her father Laban (Gen 29:15–20). It is worth noting that Jacob must compensate Laban before he can marry Rachel (Gen 17; see also Gen 34:12; Exod 22:16–17; Deut 22:29). Laban will lose Rachel’s contribution to his household economy, while Jacob will gain her labor and her child-bearing potential. Consequently, Jacob needs to pay his future father-in-law a bride-price (Perdue, “Israelite Family,” 184). For her part, Rachel will bring material assets to the marriage, including her maidservant Bilhah (Gen 29:29; see also Gen 24:59–61; Josh 15:18–19). A wife retained control over the property she brought to the marriage. If she lost her husband through death or divorce, it would serve as her economic safety net (Perdue, “Israelite Family,” 184).
The marriages of Isaac and Jacob illustrate another feature of ancient Israelite marriage: endogamy. A young man or woman was expected to marry a member of his or her extended family. Rebekah is Isaac’s first cousin once removed. Leah and Rachel are Jacob’s first cousins on his mother’s side and second cousins once removed on his father’s side. The advantage for husbands like Isaac and Jacob is that, unlike Esau (Gen 27:46), they are not bringing strange women into their fathers’ households. Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel will be used to family customs and relationships, and other adults in the household will be inclined to treat them as family members (Meyers, “Family in Israel,” 36).
Endogamy also benefited the fathers of daughters, like Bethuel and Laban. If a man died without sons, his daughters would inherit his property. If those daughters had married strangers, his property would go to the sons of strangers. However, if his daughters had married their cousins, the property would stay in the family (Perdue, “Israelite Family,” 183).
In the stories of the patriarchs, the practice of endogamy thus keeps the promised land for the members of Abraham’s family. This is why Abraham and Isaac are anxious to find wives for their sons among the descendants of Abraham’s father Terah (Gen 24:1–9; 28:1–5). Indeed, Abraham’s own wife Sarah is his half-sister, a daughter of Terah (Gen 20:12).
Not only is it important for the promised land to belong to Israel, it is also necessary for the portion allotted to a particular tribe to remain within that tribe. In Numbers 27:1–12, for example, the five daughters of Zelophehad inherit his property. In Num 36:1–13 Moses commands them to make endogamous marriages so that Zelophehad’s property stays within the tribe of his clan.
The concern for endogamous marriage reached a peak after the Babylonian Exile (Neh 10:30; 13:3, 23–30; Ezra 9:1–10:44), when the Judaeans who resettled Jerusalem made it a priority to maintain their ethnic identity and religious practices. Priests were especially required not to “marry out,” so that they and their sons would not introduce foreign innovations into temple worship (Ezra 10:18–44).
Marriage gave a man exclusive reproductive rights with his wife. If these rights were honored, then his property would pass to his biological children. It was important, therefore, for a man to marry a virgin so that the paternity of his first child would be certain. This made it necessary for a father to guard the virginity of his daughters so that he could see them safely married. A family’s honor thus depended on the patriarch’s ability to control the sexual activity of his female dependents, including wives, daughters, and unmarried sisters (Yee, “Hosea,” 301–02).
Old Testament law reflects the significance of male reproductive rights and family honor. For example, Deuteronomy 22:13–21 imposed a severe penalty on a bride whose husband discovered that she was not a virgin. She was stoned to death because she had besmirched her father’s honor and violated the reproductive rights of her future husband. The adultery prohibition also functioned to guard a husband’s reproductive rights and family honor. If a woman who was either married or betrothed to a husband were to have sex with any other man, both she and the man were put to death (Exod 20:14; Lev 18:20; 20:10; Deut 22:22–24). The story of David and Bathsheba demonstrates the importance of a husband’s reproductive rights (2 Sam 11:1–27). After David has sex with Bathsheba, her pregnancy threatens to expose him to Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, the man whose rights he has violated. He therefore tries to deceive Uriah, and finally has him killed.
The law also addresses rape. If the woman was married, the rapist had violated the rights of her husband. The law pronounced her innocent and the rapist was executed (Deut 22:25–27). If she was a virgin, the rapist had violated the rights of her father, ruining his chances of arranging a suitable marriage for her (Deut 22:28–29). Therefore, the rapist was required to pay the father an extravagant bride-price and marry the woman (Frymer-Kensky, “Virginity,” 92). When Shechem rapes Dinah, he acts responsibly by offering her father, Jacob, a bride-price so that he can marry her (Gen 34:1–12). Amnon, however, by refusing to marry his half-sister Tamar, has made her ineligible for marriage to any other man in her social class. Her brother Absalom becomes responsible for her and for the defense of the family’s honor (2 Sam 13:1–20).
Once married, couples were expected to produce children. This was especially important for men with property, who needed adult sons to inherit their land and goods. Due to the high mortality rate for infants as well as for women in childbirth, the birth of a son and his survival into adulthood was by no means guaranteed. Some men therefore practiced polygamy in order to ensure at least one male heir. Some Old Testament polygamists include Esau (Gen 26:34; 36:1–5), Jacob (Gen 29:21–30), Gideon (Judg 8:30–31), and Elkanah (1 Sam 1:1–2).
The Bible indicates that favoritism was a common problem in polygamous marriages. Jacob, for example, clearly favored Rachel (Gen 29:30), and Elkanah gave special attention to Hannah (1 Sam 1:4–8). A polygamist who was partial to one wife tended to disregard the rights of his other wives and their children. Therefore, the law included two statutes that restricted the consequences of favoritism.
• A firstborn son had rights of inheritance even if his father disliked his mother (Deut 21:15–17).
• A man could not favor a second, beloved wife at the expense of a first wife (Exod 21:10). A man who took a second wife had to contribute equally to the support of both wives. This included giving them both the opportunity to conceive children. Presumably, then, only very wealthy men could afford to support more than one wife and her children.
Wealthy and influential families often used marriages to form alliances with other prominent families. This was especially true of royal families. For example, David’s marriages to Saul’s daughter Michal and to Abigail, the widow of a wealthy Judahite landowner, seem like clear bids for influence and property (1 Sam 18:17–29; 25:2–42; Levenson and Halpern, “David’s Marriages,” 507–511).
Later royal marriages are intended to cement political ties between nations:
• David to Maacah of Geshur (2 Sam 3:3)
• Solomon to Pharaoh’s daughter (1 Kgs 9:16)
• Ahab to Jezebel of Phoenicia (1 Kgs 16:31)
• Jehoram of Judah to Athaliah of Israel (2 Kgs 8:26)
Psalm 45 was probably commissioned for such a royal wedding. It describes a handsome king, his bride who must forget her people, and their expected offspring. Kings in particular had the political incentive and necessary resources to marry several wives. The wealthy king Solomon is said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kgs 11:3).
A man’s reproductive rights with his wife were terminated either by his death or by his choosing to end the marriage in divorce. In either case, the woman was free to marry another man. An exception, however, applied to childless widows. If a married man died before producing an heir, he left the succession in limbo. It is here that the practice of levirate marriage came into play.
Levirate Marriage. It was the duty of the nearest male relative of a deceased man to marry the childless widow and to father her children. Her firstborn son would then be acknowledged as the son of her deceased husband and would inherit his property. This practice is known as levirate marriage (from “levir,” Latin for “husband’s brother”). It is codified in Deut 25:5–10 and enforced with strong sanctions. Boaz enters into a levirate marriage with his kinsman’s widow, Ruth. Their son Obed then stands to inherit the property of Ruth’s deceased father-in-law Elimelech (Ruth 4:10). Judah’s son Onan similarly enters into a levirate marriage with his brother Er’s widow Tamar (Gen 38:8–10). Onan’s duty to father his brother’s children is so important that God punishes his negligence with death.
Divorce. If a man was not pleased with his wife, the law allowed him to divorce her. In the certificate of divorce, he publicly relinquished his reproductive rights, thus enabling her to remarry (Deut 24:1–2). A divorced wife retained her pre-marital property in addition to any divorce settlement as agreed between her husband and her father. If a divorced woman remarried and her second husband also divorced her, the first husband was not permitted to remarry her (Deut 24:3–4). Since he had already renounced his rights, he could not reclaim them and so profit from any divorce settlement from her second marriage (Frymer-Kensky, “Deuteronomy,” 65).
Divorce was always the prerogative of the husband, never of the wife. A husband had little incentive to divorce his wife indiscriminately, however, since he stood to lose the value of his wife’s labor and reproductive capacity along with the resources she had brought into the marriage—not to mention the bride-price he had given to her father.
There were only two cases in which a man was forbidden to divorce his wife: if upon their marriage he had falsely accused her of not being a virgin (Deut 22:19) and if he had raped her before their marriage (Deut 22:29). These laws protected the interests of the woman’s father (and, incidentally, those of the woman as well).
The Song of Songs
Although the Bible sometimes refers to love between husbands and wives (e.g., Gen 24:67; 29:18–20; 1 Sam 18:28), it does not give details of their sexual relationships. Husbands “know” (Gen 4:1 NRSV) or “go in to” (Gen 29:23, 30 NRSV) their wives, thereby producing children. The one exception is the Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon), a lengthy erotic dialogue between young lovers. The Song is interpreted in different ways. Since the publication of Budde’s article “Das Hohelied” in 1898, many Christians have regarded the Song as a wedding song. More recently, however, it has been argued that it resembles Egyptian love songs composed for entertainment on festive occasions (Fox, Song of Songs, 247–9). Although the Song refers to marriage (e.g., Song 3:6–11; 4:8–12), its subject is not marriage per se (Fox, Song of Songs, 232, 314). It emphasizes the lovers’ delight in each other’s bodies (4:1–7; 5:10–16; 6:4–10; 7:1–9) and their idyllic trysts (1:16–17; 2:8–17; 6:11–12; 7:10–8:5).
Israel’s prophets used marriage between man and woman as a metaphor for the relationship between God and His people. This was especially true of Hosea and Jeremiah, who prophesied against Israel’s idolatry. Both prophets compared the love of a husband for his wife with the love of God for His people. They also likened a wife’s adulterous relationship with another man to Israel’s idolatrous worship of other gods (Hos 1:2–2:23; Jer 2:1–4:4). Hosea not only made the comparisons but also lived them out by marrying a “wife of whoredom” (Hos 1:2–3 NRSV). He was optimistic that God, like a loving husband, would restore His relationship with His unfaithful people (Hos 2:14–23). Jeremiah, on the other hand, remarked that God would be within His rights to “divorce” them (Jer 3:1).
Hosea 3:1–5 introduces another comparison: the royal and religious institutions that mediate between Israel and God are like the intercourse between a husband and wife. Israel will temporarily live without these these mediators, just as the prophet’s adulterous wife must learn to live exclusively with her husband.
Marriage in the Graeco-Roman world was not much different from marriage in the ancient Near East. It still served the social function of maintaining family property and passing it down from father to son. Men held authority over their families, including wives, children, and slaves (Verner, Household, 30). However, Roman law, however, allowed both for a husband to divorce his wife and a wife to divorce her husband. Jewish law upheld only the husband’s right to divorce his wife (Deut 24:1–2). Levirate marriage and polygamy, while still legal among Jews, were not commonly practiced (Verner, Household, 46).
Jesus and Marriage
Jesus is reported to have reinterpreted three Old Testament teachings concerning marriage.
Adultery. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses the law forbidding adultery (Exod 20:14 in Matt 5:27–30). Jesus extends the principle of the law so that a man who simply desires another man’s wife has already committed adultery with her.
Divorce. Jesus also reinterprets the law allowing divorce (Deut 24:1–2). Paul is the earliest New Testament writer to record this teaching (1 Cor 7:11): “the husband should not divorce his wife” (NRSV). According to Mark 10:2–9 and Matt 19:3–8, Jesus issued this ruling in a legal dispute with some Pharisees, who themselves disagreed over the interpretation of Deut 24:1–2. For Jesus, however, the precedent is not Deut 24:1–2 but God’s earlier pronouncement in Gen 2:24: “they become one flesh” (NRSV). Divorce and remarriage, therefore, lead to adultery (Mark 10:11; Matt 5:31–32; 19:9; Luke 16:18).
Paul and Mark’s Gospel book extend the prohibition of divorce to wives (1 Cor 7:10; Mark 10:12). In addition, Paul gave his opinion that a believer should not initiate divorce proceedings against an unbelieving spouse. In Paul’s view, such a marriage should end only at the initiative of the unbelieving spouse (1 Cor 7:12–16). Paul does not articulate an explicit rule for remarriage in this case.
Although Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include Jesus’ teachings on divorce, each Gospel offers a slightly different account. In Mark’s version, Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees ends with the conclusion that people should not separate what God has joined (Mark 10:2–9). Jesus then teaches his disciples that divorce and remarriage lead to adultery (Mark 10:10–12). The fact that Mark’s account applies this rule to both men and women is significant. It not only accounts for a woman’s ability to divorce her husband, it also reinterprets the Old Testament definition of adultery. The laws in Exod 20:14; Lev 18:20; 20:10; and Deut 22:22–24 regard adultery as an offense by the adulterous couple against the woman’s husband. Mark 10:11–12, however, makes it equally possible for a husband to commit adultery against his wife.
Luke does not report Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees. He does, however, include a version of the teaching about remarriage and adultery. In this teaching—also directed at the Pharisees—a man commits adultery either if he divorces his wife and marries another woman or if he marries a divorced woman (Luke 16:18).
Matthew’s Gospel includes two teachings on divorce. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:31–32). Jesus delivers the teaching that also appears in Luke 16:18. Later, Matthew includes the dispute with the Pharisees found in Mark (Matt 19:3–9). The ruling that a man who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, given to the disciples in Mark 10:11–12, is announced to the Pharisees in Matt 19:9. Unlike Mark, Matthew does not specify that the man commits adultery against his wife, nor does he extend the rule to women who divorce their husbands. Furthermore, Matthew adds an interesting exception to Jesus’ rule: remarriage leads to adultery unless the woman was divorced because of “unchastity (πορνεÎ¯α, porneia)” (Matt 5:32; 19:9 NRSV). The interpretation hangs on the meaning of porneia, a noun that can describe various kinds of sexual deviance. If it refers to adultery, then the saying seems to allow men to divorce unfaithful wives, an exception with which one school of Pharisees would have agreed (Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage, 175). On the other hand, porneia might refer to a marriage that violates one of the laws against incest (Lev 18:1–18). Such marriages were not uncommon in the Graeco-Roman world. In that case, the teaching in Matthew permits divorce only for persons married to their close relations. Matthew’s logic can also lead to the conclusion that the husband who divorces an adulterous wife is not responsible for her adultery, because she already committed adultery before he divorced her.
Levirate Marriage. Jesus makes one brief comment on the law concerning levirate marriage (Deut 25:5–10). It does not pertain to the dead after their resurrection, he says. There is no marriage in the afterlife (Mark 12:18–25; Matt 22:23–30; Luke 20:27–35). Jesus apparently never married. In Matthew 19:10–12, He seems to advocate the single life for any of His followers who are able to remain celibate.
Paul seems not to have married, either. Like Jesus, he advocated celibacy (1 Cor 7:8). He reasoned that if Jesus is coming again soon, believers who are able may choose not to marry and thus devote themselves fully to ministry. Their first priority is to please God (1 Cor 7:25–35). However, Paul conceded that it is not wrong to marry. In fact, those who cannot control their sexual desires should go ahead and get married (1 Cor 7:6–9, 36–38). Once they are married, a couple should have sex. They are not so spiritual that they do not need to satisfy their physical needs (1 Cor 7:1–5).
Codes of behavior for husbands, wives, children, and slaves are articulated in Eph 5:21–6:9; Col 3:18–4:1; and 1 Pet 2:18–3:7. These codes reflect contemporary practice in Graeco-Roman society, in which all family members were subordinate to the male head of the household. In order for Christian households to conform to the social standard, a wife is told in these codes to be subject to her husband’s authority (Eph 5:22; Col 3:18; 1 Pet 3:1). Husbands, however, are warned not to abuse this authority (Eph 5:25; Col 3:19; 1 Pet 3:7). They are to treat their wives with love, consideration, and respect. The code in Ephesians underscores these injunctions with an illustration: Christ loves and cares for the church (Eph 5:25–27, 29). He is the head of the church, and the church submits to his authority (Eph 5:23–24).
The New Testament compares the arrival of the prophesied Messiah to a wedding. Each event ends a long period of waiting. Jesus compared Himself to the bridegroom and His followers to the wedding guests in different ways:
• Jesus explains why His disciples do not fast by saying that wedding guests celebrate by feasting (Mark 2:18–20; Matt 9:14–15; and Luke 5:33–35).
• The parable of the Wedding Feast addresses both those who refuse God’s invitation and those who accept it but do not adhere to His standards (Matt 22:1–14).
• The parable of the Ten Virgins suggests that Jesus’ second coming might be delayed. Therefore, His followers should be prepared (Matt 25:1–13).
John’s gospel also uses a marriage metaphor (John 3:28–30). John the Baptist likens Jesus to a bridegroom and himself to the bridegroom’s friend—Jesus is the Messiah, John is the forerunner who rejoices in the Messiah’s presence. John’s following will decrease, but Jesus will gain followers, just as a bridegroom gains children.
The analogy seems to be continued in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:1–42). The story reminds us of Old Testament scenes in which the meeting of a man and a woman at a well leads to a marriage (Gen 24:1–67; 29:1–20; Exod 2:15–22). Jesus and the woman do not get married, of course, but the Samaritans who now believe in Jesus increase His following, as in the Baptist’s saying (John 4:39–41; 3:30).
Paul uses a marriage metaphor in 2 Cor 11:1–3. He too portrays the Messiah (Christ) as a bridegroom and His followers (Paul’s Corinthian converts) as a bride. But Paul’s converts have been persuaded by teachings that contradict his own (2 Cor 11:4). He illustrates his anxiety by comparing the wait for Christ’s coming to a period of betrothal. Just as a father desires to keep his daughter a virgin until she is married to her husband, so Paul desires to keep his converts faithful. Their following “another Jesus” is like a betrothed daughter accepting the advances of another man.
In the visions of Revelation, the relationship between Christ and His followers is finally consummated with a wedding. The bride is clothed in fine linen, the invited guests have assembled, the bride is joined to her husband, and the marriage feast begins (Rev 19:7–9; 21:2). The community of righteous believers will finally, joyfully unite with Christ. In the meantime, the bride—the church—joins the Spirit, the author, and the audience of Revelation in saying, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:17–20 NRSV).
McWhirter, J. (2016). Marriage. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.