This episode is the first in a two-part series about marriage. We will look at some of the things the Bible has to say about marriage. In this segment, we’ll look at what the Old Testament says. In the next segment, we’ll look at what the New Testament says.
The Biblical Basis for Marriage
Many Christians view something said near the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis chapter 2, as the basis for marriage.
In the first part of Genesis, God created the world and everything in it, and God created Adam. God realized it was not good for Adam to be alone, so God created a companion for Adam. The way Genesis describes it, God caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep, took a rib out of Adam, and from this rib made another human being called “woman.” Then it says, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cling to his wife, and they shall be one flesh.”
This is interpreted by many Christians as being the basis of marriage, the institution of marriage. But, there’s something very interesting about this. In the phrase “shall cling to his wife,” the word wife is not actually in there. Literally it reads, “a man shall cling to his woman.” The word wife is a product of translation into English. There is no “wife” in the Bible. It’s “his woman.” The phrase “his woman” just gets translated into English as “his wife.”
Interestingly enough, that’s true throughout both the Old and New Testaments for both wife and husband. There is no word in the Bible, in either Greek or Hebrew, for “wife” or “husband.” Throughout the Bible, the words “wife” and “husband” are a product of translation into English. What we see as wife in the Bible is actually “his woman,” and what we see as husband in the Bible is actually “her man.”
I’m not trying to split hairs here, but at least to me, there is somewhat of a difference between “wife” and “his woman,” and there is somewhat of a difference between “husband” and “her man.” In biblical usage, what we call “wife” is really “his woman,” and what we call “husband” is really “her man.” And this goes the other way, too. When a woman says, “my husband,” what she’s really saying is “my man,” and when a man says “my wife,” what he’s really saying is “my woman.” This is seen by many Christians as the biblical basis for marriage, the basis for the pairing off of a man and a woman.
A man has “his” woman. A woman has “her” man.
The Meaning of “And They Shall Be One Flesh”
Let’s think about something else. Let’s go back for a minute to the account in Genesis 2 where God saw it was not good for Adam to be alone. Remember, God caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep, took a rib out of him, and from that rib made the woman. After that, it says God brought the woman to Adam, and when Adam saw her he said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.”
This is interesting. Part of the man was taken out, and from that part, the woman was made. Think about what that means. The man, Adam, had a part taken out of him. In a sense, he was no longer whole afterwards. A part of him was missing. And, in the same way, the woman was made from only a part of what used to be a whole human being. So what does this mean? It means that neither man nor woman is whole, separately. A man and a woman are two parts that fit together to make a whole.
After all, part of Adam was taken out, and from that the woman was made. You can think of it like when the part of Adam was taken out, he was incomplete, something was missing. And since the woman was made from just part of Adam, she is incomplete, too. Both woman and man, separately, are incomplete.
That’s why it says a man shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh. Together they form a whole. Together they are complete. Part of Adam was taken out when the woman was made, but when Adam and the woman are together, that part is back, so to speak, and the two are one. That’s why they are referred to as one flesh. Together they are complete, as Adam was in the beginning. But separately they are not complete.
And that is the biblical basis for the attraction between a man and a woman, that thing that happens naturally that a man and a woman pair off together. That is seen as the basis for why women are attracted to men and men are attracted to women—they see in the opposite gender the part in them that is missing. It is when a man and woman are together that they form a whole. When they are together they are one flesh, complete.
Polygamy in the Old Testament
Interestingly enough, though, this pairing off in the Bible does not mean one and only one. Having more than one wife was common in the Old Testament. Many men of the Old Testament had more than one wife–Jacob, David, Solomon, Gideon, just to name a few. Some had many, many wives at the same time.
No one knows how many wives Gideon had, but he must have had a number of wives, because we are told he had 70 sons. The number of daughters he had is not given. In the Bible, Solomon holds the record, as far as we know, for the number of wives. He had 700 wives.
It’s interesting that the practice of having multiple wives is not commented on in the Old Testament. The Old Testament doesn’t come out and advocate it, but neither does it condemn it. It’s just presented as being there. Many men had multiple wives back then. It’s certainly not seen as wrong in the Old Testament to have more than one wife.
The question naturally arises whether women had more than one husband. We don’t know. That subject is not mentioned in the Old Testament. It’s possible some women had more than one husband, or maybe not. We don’t know. It’s not mentioned.
What Is a Concubine?
Related to the issue of having more than one wife in the Old Testament is the issue of concubines. Concubines were apparently common in Old Testament times. Major figures of the Old Testament like Abraham, Jacob, David, Gideon, and Solomon, all had concubines.
A concubine is a woman with whom a man has sex, but she’s not his wife. In the Old Testament, sometimes concubines live in the household and bear children to these men, but sometimes concubines do not live in the household and do not bear children.
It was sort of like what we today would call an affair, but it was done out in the open. They didn’t try to hide it. But most interestingly of all, the Old Testament does not condemn the practice. As Solomon is said to have the record for number of wives, so is he said to have the record for concubines. He had 300. So concubine is not just another word for wife. They were two separate things.
Arranged Marriages in the Old Testament
What part did love play in marriage in the Old Testament? Many people say love played no part. They say marriages back then were arranged by the parents. Sometime back when a child was very young the parents decided who the child would marry. These marriages were supposedly arranged for practical reasons like keeping land in a certain family, adding land some other family had, or forming alliances between families.
The Bible reports instances of arranged marriages. Probably the best known arranged marriage is that of Isaac and Rebecca in Genesis 24. Abraham was living in a foreign land, and he didn’t want his son Isaac to marry a woman there, and so he sent one of his servants back to his home country to find a suitable wife for Isaac. The servant chose a girl named Rebecca. Her family agreed that she should go back with this servant and marry Abraham’s son. It’s interesting that Rebecca’s family knew nothing about Abraham or his son. They knew nothing about the man they were sending her to marry, and they knew nothing about his family. They only knew that the family was very rich, and that apparently was enough.
But anyway, Rebecca agreed to the marriage. She went back with the servant and apparently married Isaac the same day she arrived. She met him and married him the same day.
It’s interesting that it says Isaac “loved” her. I guess we would say it was “love at first sight.”
So the Bible does talk about arranged marriages, and it does not condemn them. But it also indicates that many times love did play a part in choosing a wife. There are marriages in the Bible that were not arranged by parents. An example is the marriage of Jacob and Rachel. The Bible tells us that Jacob wanted to marry Rachel because she was very beautiful and he loved her. So here is an example of a marriage in the Old Testament apparently based on love.
The Old Testament also gives other examples of arranged marriages not based on love. Think about Jacob. Remember, Jacob wanted to marry Rachel. He asked her father Laban if he could marry her, and they struck a deal that if Jacob would work for Laban for 7 years, he could marry Rachel. Jacob worked the seven years, but Laban tricked Jacob and gave him Rachel’s sister Leah to marry instead. He didn’t realize until it was too late that it was Leah and not Rachel. He was tricked into marrying Leah, but he stayed with her, worked another seven years for Laban, and finally married Rachel, too.
Marriage Within Families in the Old Testament
This shows something else about marriage in the Old Testament. Marriages within the same family were common. Jacob and Rachel were first cousins, but they were also husband and wife. Jacob’s father, Isaac, had also married a cousin. Abraham himself married his half-sister. And so marriage among family, even fairly close family, was apparently common in Old Testament times.
Sex as the Marriage Ceremony in the Old Testament
It sometimes surprises people to learn that marriage in the Old Testament was apparently not seen in any way as a religious thing. There is no indication of a religious ceremony for marriage. There is no indication of a religious ceremony for marriage performed by a priest or religious official. Basically, the way you married someone in the Old Testament was to have sex with them. That constituted the “marriage ceremony.” Now of course, just because you had sex with someone didn’t mean you had married them, but the way their marriage rite was constructed, which was a civil thing and not a religious thing, the having sex was what made the marriage. There was no religious ceremony that made the marriage.
We see that in the story of Jacob and Rachel’s sister, Leah. Jacob went to Laban, Rachel and Leah’s father, and told him he had worked the seven years they agreed on for him to marry Rachel, and now he wanted to marry her. Laban agreed, but he tricked Jacob.
Here’s how the Bible puts it: “And Jacob said unto Laban, ‘Give me my woman, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in unto her.’ And Laban gathered together all the men of the place, and made a feast. And it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him, and he went in unto her. And it came to pass, that in the morning, behold it was Leah, and Jacob said to Laban, ‘What is this thou has done unto me?’
This illustrates how at least some marriages were done back then. The man asked for the father’s permission to marry the daughter, and when the father gave the permission, a big feast for the men was held. The bride was brought to the groom’s tent, he went in and had sex with her, and when that was done, they were married.
In this case, with Jacob, they had the feast, but Laban slipped Leah into the tent instead of Rachel. Jacob went in and had sex with Leah, but he didn’t know it was her. It wasn’t until the next morning, I guess when it got light enough for him to see her, that he realized it was Leah and not Rachel. But he had had sex with Leah, so he had technically “married” her, so she was his wife. But of course eventually, he also got Rachel. Then he had both of the sisters as wives.
Adultery in the Old Testament
There is no indication in the Old Testament that a wedding was a religious thing. But even so, the sanctity of that woman being “his woman” and that man being “her man” was recognized in religious law. Adultery, which means someone else having sex with “his woman” or “her man,” was seen as a very serious thing. A prohibition of adultery is one of the Ten Commandments. In the Old Testament, adultery was punishable by death. If you were caught in adultery, you were stoned to death.
Adultery was absolutely prohibited. Not respecting the boundary of “his woman” or “her man” was punishable by death.
However, remember earlier, we talked about concubines. Having a concubine was not considered adultery. Even though the man was married to another woman or even a number of other women, having sex with a concubine did not constitute adultery.
So how was the line drawn between a concubine and an adulterous relationship? We don’t know. Technically, a woman who had sex with a man who was married to another woman committed adultery, but of course many men had multiple wives, and so if you were his wife, even though he had other wives, having sex with him was not adultery. And, if you were his concubine, having sex with him, even though he had wives, was not adultery. So what were the particulars about a concubine. What kind of official thing made you a concubine and not an adultress? We don’t know. The Old Testament doesn’t tell us how the relationship of a man and a concubine was established, exactly what the relationship consisted of, or how long it lasted.
But here’s a place you have to be careful. Just as with many things in the Bible and many things from ancient history, people assume things. Much of what you hear about concubines is peoples’ assumptions. In actuality, concubines in the Bible and in the ancient world are something we know very little about. We know that men sometimes had other women besides their wives, women with whom they had sex and some sort of relationship, and these women are called concubines, but we don’t know the particulars about it.
The most important thing to take away from this is that the concept of a man having just one wife for the rest of his life and having sex with no one else was not the norm in the Old Testament. A man could have multiple wives as well as concubines. In the same way, could a woman be a concubine to more than one man? We can’t know for sure. That’s not addressed.
Divorce in the Old Testament
What about divorce in the Old Testament? Well, here’s what it says about divorce in Deuteronomy. “When a man has taken a wife, and married her, and it comes to pass that she find no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, then let him write her a bill of divorcement and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife, her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife.”
Divorce is allowed in the Old Testament. A man who wants to can divorce his wife by writing out a divorce decree and sending her away. But if she then marries another man, and if that man divorces her or dies, her first husband can never marry her again. Some biblical scholars surmise that this particular twist to it was devised because there was a problem with men, on a whim, divorcing a wife and then later wanting her back.
Divorce was usually allowed, but there were conditions under which a man could not divorce a wife. If a man married a woman and then claimed she was not a virgin when he married her, and if that claim was later found to be false, he could never divorce her. But the woman could divorce him if she so chose.
Another instance where divorce was not allowed is found in Deuteronomy 22. This is a very interesting law. If a man raped a young woman who was engaged to another man, and if it was inside the city, the penalty was death for both because it was assumed that had the woman not wanted to have sex with him, she would have screamed, and since they were in the city, someone would have heard it and come to her rescue. Technically this was seen not as rape, but as adultery. However, if a man raped a young woman who was not engaged to another man, he had to pay a fine to her father and then he had to marry her, and he could never divorce her. This was not seen as adultery, because the woman was not married. Adultery was only with a married woman.
And this relates to what we saw in the account of Laban tricking Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. Jacob went in to Leah, thinking it was Rachel, and had sex with her. At that point they were married. What made the marriage “official” was when the marriage was consummated by sex. In this law about raping an unengaged girl and then having to marry her, we see overtones about having sex being tantamount to marrying.
But, if you had sex with someone you were not always considered married to them. There are many instances in the Old Testament where people had sex but were not considered married and were not required to marry. While sex may have been the way the marriage was made official, having sex with someone did not necessarily mean you were considered married to them.
This law about raping an engaged woman compared to raping an unengaged woman illustrates that when a couple became engaged, they were, for all practical purposes, considered to be married. Although they might be very young and not live together, in fact they might not even know each other, they were considered married in the eyes of society, in the sense of one belonging to the other. Their marriage would not be consummated until they were older and made it all official by having sex, but still, they were seen to belong to each other when they were engaged.
That’s marriage in the Old Testament. There’s a lot in there that might be surprising.
We saw how marriage was not in any way considered a religious thing. No kind of religious ceremony is mentioned in connection to people getting married. We saw how marriage might be based on love, but many times it was based on more practical reasons, and it was not uncommon to become engaged to someone before you even met them. We saw how marriage within a family was common, even marriage among half siblings and first cousins. We saw how it was common in the Old Testament to have more than one wife. We saw how some Old Testament figures had many, many wives, even hundreds. We saw how there was another category of women–concubines–that were not wives but had a sexual relationship with a man on an ongoing basis.
We saw how although marriage was not a religious thing in Old Testament society, the sanctity of marriage was, for we saw how the religion prohibited adultery and prescribed a penalty of death for it. And finally, we saw that divorce was allowed in the Old Testament, and that it was usually fairly easy for a man to divorce his wife, but under some conditions, divorce was not permitted.
It’s quite a bit different from how we think of marriage today. Next week, we’ll look at marriage in the New Testament.