As the storm around the nature of marriage rages, it is not uncommon to hear mention of “the biblical definition of marriage.”

Just what is “the biblical definition of marriage”?

In the Old Testament, a common marriage practice, for those who could afford it, was polygamy:

Abraham had three wives: Sarah, Hagar and Keturah

Jacob (Israel) had four wives: Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah

Saul had two wives: Ahinoam and Rizpah

David had numerous wives, including: Michal, Abigail, Ahinoam of Jezreel, Eglah, Maacah, Abital, Haggith, and Bathsheba

The king of polygamists in the Bible was Solomon:

Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines. (I Kings 11:3)

This is not to mention – Esau with 3 wives; Ashur: 2; Gideon: many; Elkanah: 2; Rehaboam: 3; Abijah: 14; Jehoram, Joash, Ahab, Jeholachin and Belshazzar all with multiple wives.

The Bible acknowledges at times that polygamy caused problems. But, nowhere is the practice condemned. In fact, speaking to David through the prophet Nathan, God is reported to have been the one who actually gave David his many wives:

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. (2 Samuel 12:7,8)

“The biblical definition of marriage” also includes the forced marriage of a woman to her rapist if he is caught. Notice this marriage only takes place if the rapist is caught and only after paying his victim’s father “fifty shekels of silver”:

If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives. (Deuteronomy 22:28,29)

Marriage in the Old Testament includes the marriage of a woman to her brothers-in-law, after the death of her husband, no matter how many marriages this may bring about and no matter the woman’s feelings, until she finally bears a son by one of her brothers-in-law.

When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:5,6)

In “the biblical definition of marriage” a woman is viewed as the property of her husband:

So, after Abram had lived for ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.” (Genesis 16:3)

This traditional view of marriage was enshrined in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in the practice of asking the father of a bride:

“Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?” (BCP p. 565)

There are of course marriages that are forbidden in the Bible. Among forbidden marriages is marriage across racial divides:

For the prophet Ezra, the appropriate form of biblical marriage viewed inter-racial marriage as unacceptable – So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law….Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, ‘You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.’ (Ezra 10:3, 10, 11)

It is also forbidden in “the biblical definition of marriage” for a man to marry a woman who is not a virgin.

If it should be discovered that a woman has married and was not a virgin at the time of her marriage, she is to be stoned to death:

If, however, this charge is true, that evidence of the young woman’s virginity was not found, then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 22:20,21)

And the penalty for being the off-spring of a forbidden marriage was severe:

Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:2)

In debating the force of tradition in any discussion we may want to be cautious about leaping too quickly to use “the biblical definition,” of anything to support our position.

The Bible is a deeply complex book. It is varied in its treatment of most topics. One of the few times the Bible is consistent in its instruction is in the commandment:

You shall love

(Deuteronomy 6:5; 10:12; 11:13; 30:6; Matthew 22:37,38; Mark 12:30-33; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8-10)

What does love look like in the Bible?

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. (I Corinthians 13:4-8)

This might be a good place to begin any discussion about “the biblical definition” of anything.