Reading Genesis again for our Bible study, I have found this nuance with regards to how the writers use the concept of marriage quite interesting: having sex with someone makes you married.
To unpack what this means, we ought to step back from our 21st Century “culture war” arguments about what marriage means or who gets to be in it.
We also should step back from everything else in scripture that speaks to “biblical marriage”. This handy graphic that went around Facebook can help with that.
We need to strip ourselves down to see what this reveals about our faith. Two reasons:
- This comes from some of the earliest historical writings in our faith
- This comes from our “origin story,” which speaks to who we were before we were Christians, Jews, or even the Hebrew people.
In other words, this is the first word on marriage in the Bible in the literal, historical, and metaphorical sense. Our understanding hinges upon these first moments.
There are many married couples in the scripture before Isaac and Rebekah, but they are the first to “get married” within the context of the text. And what does it say?
Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death. (24:67)
Aside from the creepy oedipal part, the text tells us that in “taking” her, Rebekah becomes his wife.
The same thing happens with his son Jacob.
Jacob works seven years for the hand of Rachel, but Rachel’s dad deceives him:
Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.’ So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (29:21-23)
Boys, those are probably not the words you should use with your future father-in-law: “Give me my wife that I may go in to her”. No dad wants to think about that. Ever.
then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife. So Jacob went in to Rachel also (29:28b and 30a)
Then, when Rachel couldn’t have children, she did this:
So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife; and Jacob went in to her. (30:4)
Of course, the whole sordid affair keeps going. You should really read more about it. But the consistent theme here is that two people are promised, they hook up, and are considered married. No big wedding. No betrothal or engagement rings (though Jacob and Rachel were engaged for 7 years before they were hitched). No mothers-of-the-brides or bridezillas. No pieces of paper. No churches or courthouses.
This is entirely consistent and at the same time entirely alien to our current understanding of marriage. Most importantly, I think it reveals the weakness in our current understanding.
We treat marriage as a contractual binding of two people. This has some benefits, but many more limitations. We see couples as gathering their friends and families to make a promise to stick together. A failure to live up to that promise represents a moral failure. Contracts, when entered into by two consenting adults (not unlike the one Jacob makes with Laban) have parameters and limitations. We can determine who can enter into that contract. We can stipulate the limitations of the contract. We can define what each participant’s role is in the contract. The entire thing can be litigated. And the contract may be broken or nullified for a variety of reasons.
We also treat marriage as the ritualistic participation in a maturation process in which marriage constitutes an inevitable milestone. In this way, we cast life as exhibiting a common script for people that can be matched identically based on personal maturation. We go to school, get jobs, get married, have kids, raise those kids, retire from work, then die. This script, while amusingly quaint, leads us to pairing off, not as a sign of mutual discernment, but as finding a teammate with which we may fulfill the base requirements of adulthood. Naturally, this script is conservative and has a false sheen of “traditional” to it.
If what makes two people married is not a wedding, but sex, then we have another thing to think about. Our conservative friends, in this way, are right in encouraging abstinence, but not for the reasons they normally give. It is not about saving it for marriage, but because you are, in that moment, marrying someone. And you might not want to be with that person forever. In a certain way, whomever we partner with after becomes a participant in adultery.
Here, then, enters the example of Jacob’s four wives, which further sets up our confusion when we try to arrange this understanding back into a legal framework.
What if, instead, we hear in this, Jesus’s much later definition of marriage: unifying as one flesh? What if we define marriage not according to the contract entered into, but in the physical and emotional binding of two people into a single human: in which one pleasure and one pain resides? As in the true unity of two persons is made manifest in every conceivable way.
Perhaps then, marriage is best understood without any official binding, whether before a government or within a church, but in the spiritual unification made one flesh by GOD. Then the church’s place is not to see itself as the agent that binds two people, with all that gatekeeping power that goes with that. It’s place is to affirm and bless what is indeed already taking place: the very expression of GOD’s love in human form.