Category Archives: Christianity

Is Marriage a Covenant? Part III

Paul Rhodes Eddy is Professor of Biblical & Theological Studies at Bethel University and Teaching Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN.

For those who follow the blog regularly, you know that Paul is currently working on a book entitled Kingdom Sex: Toward a Covenant-Centered Theology of Human Sexuality. The book will be a further development of an extended working paper that is currently available online.

This is the third part of material from his book that he has made available on conjugal (male-female) marriage being a sacred covenant in the sight of God, as revealed throughout Christian history and the entire biblical corpus.

In the first post Is Marriage a Covenant? Part I Paul established that church history is quite favorable to the concept of marriage as a covenant.

In an effort to redefine marriage as set forth by Moses, Jesus, and the apostle Paul (Gen 2:18-24; Matt 19:1-11; Eph 5:25-31), some have questioned whether we can legitimately ground the notion of marriage as a covenant in the Scriptures. Is there a case against marriage as covenant?

In Is Marriage a Covenant? Part II, Paul addressed three common arguments that have led some to this conclusion, in order to present us with a defense for marriage as a covenant to be affirmed and celebrated in the church.

For those who have read the first two installments, you know that I originally did not intend to post a third. However, due to the relentless efforts of some critics to cast a synthetic fog of ambiguity around “biblical” marriage, largely because of the obvious messiness of relationships found in the OT (i.e. polygamy), Paul agreed that a third and final post was necessary.

NOTE: The following is rather thorough for those who have serious questions and concerns regarding “biblical” marriage, particularly why polygamy is seemingly allowed in the OT. If you want to know what’s really going on with marriage in the Bible, and if there is any clear way of knowing God’s intentions for it, I believe that Paul Eddy can help us sort it out.

Is Marriage a Covenant, Part III

In two previous posts, we considered evidence suggesting that the scriptures offer a normative vision of marriage as a covenantal relationship.

In this final post, we will consider two further challenges to this claim:

(1) the presence of polygamy within some of the biblical texts, and (2) the question of whether ancient Israelite/Jewish women were considered to be merely the “property” of their husbands, and thus could not have been authentic covenant partners with their husbands.

Is polygamy in the biblical world incompatible with an understanding of marriage as a covenant relationship?

It might seem that the practice of polygamy – or polygyny to be specific (i.e., polyandry had no place in the Jewish tradition) – within the biblical tradition is evidence against seeing marriage as a covenant within the biblical texts.1

Deuteronomy 21:15-17, for example, provides guidelines for a man who has children by two wives. However, polygynous practice does not undermine our basic claim, as the following considerations suggest.

The first point is this: Although there clearly are problems with polygamy (as we will see below), polygamous marriage in and of itself does not undermine the concept of marriage as a covenant relationship. Rather, polygamy simply represents the condition where one person enters into multiple marriage covenants simultaneously.

Now, some may suppose that the idea of having multiple simultaneous marriage covenants is an oxymoron, and they may point to Genesis 2:24 as biblical evidence of this. Specifically, a modern reader of Gen 2:24 might conclude that the phrase “the two shall become one flesh” is meant to be a defense of monogamy (i.e., “one flesh” = one couple).

For example, E. G. Parrinder argues that taking more than one wife…

“would be sheer adultery. The ‘one flesh’ makes this quite clear. It is not permissible to have two marriage contracts at once, ‘two flesh’ . . . .”

‘They are no more two, but one flesh’, excludes a third party.2

While Parrinder’s concern is understandable, his argument is flawed. The “one flesh” concept expressed in Gen 2:24 is not a reference to monogamy or to sexual union per se. Rather, as we’ve noted previously, it is best understood as referring to a covenant bond of familial community and loyalty, i.e., kinship-by-covenant.3

This being the case, it is possible for someone to have more than one kinship (“one flesh”) marriage relationship at a time, i.e., to enter into more than one marriage covenant simultaneously. As Robert Holst observes regarding the Gen 2:24 notion of one-flesh:

“there is no reason why one man and several wives would not be one flesh [i.e., blood relatives]. To be one flesh means that the man and the woman [or women] who were before marriage unrelated are now a new family unit. This phrase indicates the absolute indissolubility of marriage—not that it is of necessity monogamous.4″

The key point here is this: There is no inherent incompatibility between the practice of polygamy and an understanding of marriage as a covenant.

Now, that being said, it is also the case that the Bible, especially the NT, provides a basis for a critique of polygamy. Simply put: While polygamy is technically compatible with marriage as a covenant relationship, the biblical texts suggest that it is neither God’s original design, nor his ideal, for the marriage covenant.

Several observations substantiate this claim.

(1) While Genesis 1-2 does not explicitly prohibit polygamy, it can be properly read as underpinning monogamous marriage as the primordial ideal fashioned by God. As David Instone-Brewer has pointed out, the Genesis creations texts, along with such texts as the animals entering Noah’s ark two by two (Gen 7:9), came to form “a well-known proof for monogamy.”5 For example, the Qumran community made use of the Genesis creation story (particularly Gen 1) to condemn polygamy (see CD 4:20-5:6; 11QTemple 57:5b-19).6

(2) The OT evidence does not support the claim of wide-spread polygyny within ancient Israel.7 Of the roughly 3,000 men mentioned in the OT, only 33 of them explicitly are said to be involved in polygyny. When marriage is mentioned, the vast majority of men in the OT are said to have a “wife” (in the singular). In actual practice, it seems that monogamy was the common practice in ancient Israel, with polygyny most often appearing to be “the privilege of royalty or a necessity for a childless marriage.”8

(3) Within OT legislation, polygyny is never commanded or explicitly condoned, unlike, for example, the Code of Hammurabi (§§144-148). Deut 21:15-17 does make provision for the rights of the first-born in a polygamous marriage. But even here, the focus is on protection of the children; it is in no way a defense of the institution of polygyny itself.9

(4) Interestingly, there is a critical stream regarding polygyny that runs through the OT. To begin, the two primary cultural reasons for polygyny – i.e., the infertility of a first wife and diplomatic polygyn for the purpose of forging political alliances – are both undercut by the OT. Regarding infertility, the OT instructs Israelites that fertility flows from faithfulness to covenant relationship with Yahweh – both by narrative example (Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah) and by explicit teaching (Exo 23:26; Deut 7:14; 28:4).

Similarly, politically motivated polygyny should be out of the question, since the OT warns Israel against political alliances in general (e.g., Deut 17:16; Isa 7; 30:1-7; 31:1-3) and diplomatic polygyny specifically, both by narrative example (I Kings 11:1-10; 16:31-33) and explicit command (Deut 17:17).10

More broadly, when polygyny is mentioned in the OT, there is often an implicit critique of the practice within the narrative, whether for inciting internal disputes within families (e.g., Gen 16:1-8; Gen 30:1; I Sam 1:6) or other reasons (I Sam 11:1-4).11

Critiques of polygyny can be seen in the following instances: (a) The first canonical mention of bigamy (Genesis 4) is that of Lamech who is portrayed as a rebellious man. (b) A number of interpreters have concluded that polygyny seems to be involved in the sin perpetrated by the “sons of God” against the “daughters of men” in Genesis 6:1-4, and (when read in context) this sin is tied to the flooding of the earth. (c) Abraham’s experience of concubinage with Hagar (Gen 16) is shown to be against God’s will and an expression of Abraham taking matters into his own hands rather than trusting God’s promise. This unwise choice of Abraham seems to be tied to God’s choosing circumcision as the sign of the Abrahamic covenant in the following chapter (Gen 17). (d) Throughout the prophets, monogamy is used as a symbol of the covenant union between God and Israel, while, whether explicitly or by inference, polygyny and/or multiple lovers can be seen as a symbol of polytheism and/or idolatry (e.g., Jeremiah 2:2; Ezekiel 16:8-34; Hosea 2:18-20).12

(5) Related to the last point, for both the Jewish and Christian traditions, Yahweh’s unique covenant relationship with Israel (and eventually the church), often expressed throughout scripture in terms of a marriage, becomes in certain key respects an image that norms the ideal human marriage.

While, at times, the Old Testament mentions the idea of Yahweh forming relationships with other nations, “Israel’s singularity as YHWH’s chosen and covenanted people is never seriously threatened; ‘polygyny’ on a theological plane was a far more remote possibility than it was on the mundane level.”13 A number of texts explicitly state that Israel is Yahweh’s singularly unique people from among the nations (e.g., Exo 19:5; Deut 4:19-20; Amos 3:2). This feature of the Yahweh-Israel relationship can be seen as an inspiring analog to – and divine example of – monogamous human marriage.

(6) It has been argued by several OT scholars that the best translation of the original Hebrew in Leviticus 18:18 is something alone these lines: “And you shall not take a second wife as a rival to your first wife, uncovering her nakedness while your first wife is alive.” The argument given is that while the term “sister” is used here in the Hebrew, the phrase itself is best understood as a Hebrew idiom for “to take one in addition to another.”

Translated in this way, it is not simply a prohibition against marrying two biological sisters or, conversely, a mother and her daughter. Rather, it is a prohibition against marrying any two women at the same time. If this is the case, then the Law itself gives an explicit prohibition against polygyny.14

No doubt some have rejected this interpretation due to the fact that the OT assumes polygyny as a given reality, and thus this interpretation appears as unrealistic – even incongruous – idealism. However, at times OT laws do in fact push toward the ideal – i.e., the prohibition against hatred in Lev 19:17. Interpreted as a command against polygyny as an ideal to strive for, Lev 18:18 “can be categorized as a lex imperfecta, a law which prohibits something without thereby rendering it invalid.”15

(7) Beyond these OT considerations, there is Jesus’ perspective on this question. Jesus clearly alludes to God’s design of marriage as one man and one woman joined by God for life, and he explicitly grounds this conviction in the narrative of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 (Matt 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12).16

When the Pharisees ask him why, then, God allowed for divorce in the Law, Jesus answers: “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (Matt 19:8).

Here we notice two things. First, Jesus considers divorce and remarriage (except for proper reasons) to be a case of “adultery” and thus a form of something like serial polygamy. This strongly suggests there is no place for polygamy of any kind in Jesus’ mind. Thus Craig Evans rightly concludes: “lying behind [Jesus’] rejection of divorce is a rejection of polygamy.”17

Second, if we are to follow Jesus’ pattern of interpretation, we can legitimately say that whatever cases of polygyny were tolerated by God in the OT, they were contrary to God’s ideal plan for human marriage, and were only tolerated due to the “hardness” of people’s hearts and the commonness of these practices in the surrounding culture.18

Following Jesus, the Pauline tradition upholds monogamy, thus rejecting polygyny in the process (I Cor 7:1-4; I Tim 3:2; Titus 1:6).19

(8) Finally, the early (proto-)orthodox church followed Jesus in affirming monogamy and rejecting polygyny.20 Once again, the creation texts of Genesis played an important normative role.

N. T. Wright summarizes the situation:

The heart of early Christianity was the belief that in Jesus of Nazareth the creator God had dealt with the rebellion and corruption of the present creation, particularly of the humans who were supposed to be in charge of it, and had opened up the new and living way into a new and living creation in which the original intention would now be fulfilled. And that is why, despite the centuries of apparently unrebuked polygamy in the Old Testament, the New Testament assumes on every page that monogamy is now mandatory for the followers of Jesus – and made possible, though as the disciples recognized still difficult (Matthew 19:10), by the victory of Jesus on the cross and the power of his Spirit.21

In biblical times, were women considered to be the “property” of their husbands, and, if so, is this incompatible with a view of marriage as a covenant relationship between husband and wife?

Some have suggested that, in biblical times, wives – like slaves, animals, and land – were merely the “property” of their husbands, and that this calls into question an understanding of marriage as an authentic covenant relationship.22

I offer two lines of response to this objection.

(1) First, let us grant for the moment the claim that wives were considered to be merely the “property” of their husbands, that husbands “owned” wives the way that they owned animals and land. Even if this is how ancient Israelites understood marriage, there is no reason to think that this is somehow necessarily incompatible with the understanding of marriage as a covenant between husband and wife. Here’s why.

The paradigmatic example of an authentic covenant relationship in the OT is the covenant between Yahweh and his people Israel. However, Yahweh is not simple viewed as Israel’s covenant partner. Yahweh is also understood to be the Creator, King and Lord over all things, including Israel. In fact, Yahweh explicitly claims that he owns the “whole earth,” and that Israel is his “possession” (Exodus 19:5).

This is clear ownership and property language. And yet, this very passage in Exodus sets the context for Yahweh to enter into covenant relationship with Israel in chapters 19-24. Clearly, ancient Israelites had no sense of incompatibility between property/ownership and covenant relationship. In fact, the covenant between Yahweh and Israel provides the very paradigm by which these ideas are integrated.

As it turns out, the same holds true for Christians who are clearly portrayed as participants within the New Covenant, on one hand, and, at the same time, are referred to as God’s “possession” (Eph 1:14; Phil 3:12) and are said to have been “bought with a price” (I Cor 6:20). In fact, the early Christians easily and naturally integrated their self-conceptions as “slaves” of Jesus with their sense of being partners with him in the New Covenant. None of this divine “ownership” language within the NT is ever seen as a threat to full participation in an authentic covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

(2) My final line of response, however, will be to question the very claim that I granted for the sake of the argument above. Many have claimed that women in biblical times were simply treated as property, as “chattel,” that was transferred (by purchase) from their fathers to their husbands upon marriage. The impression that is given here is of women in biblical times as having virtually no autonomy, no inherently recognized worth, and virtually no power or influence with regard to their daily lives and social roles.

I don’t have the space here to offer an in-depth response to this common caricature about women in ancient times. But suffice to say that an increasing number of scholarly studies – from classicists to OT and NT specialists, from gender archaeologists to social theorists to third-wave feminists – are calling into question this widely generalized and problematic historical construct.

These more balanced assessments, while not denying the ways in which male dominance cast its long shadow over the ancient world, nonetheless include recognition of women’s agency and influence in important sectors of daily life.23

Gender archaeologist Carol Meyers argues that “patriarchy” is “a Western, constructed concept, not a ‘social law’ or an immutable feature of all societies,” and she goes so far as to claim that “it no longer provides a valid heuristic formulation for representing Israelite society.” Instead, she has proposed that we adopt the more complex and nuanced concept of “heterarchy.”24

More specifically, a number of scholars have shown that the notion of husbands merely “owning” wives as mere non-agental “property” in the biblical world is fraught with problems.25

John Goldingay summarizes the OT evidence by saying: “As there is no suggestion in Genesis 1-2 that men have authority over women, or husbands over wives, so there is no suggestion of the idea that wives are their husband’s property . . . . Neither is there much evidence elsewhere in the First Testament for the idea that wives are their husband’s property, while there is much evidence for the opposite.”26

Two main factors have led some to conclude that a wives-as-chattel model is at work in the OT:

(1) the practice of giving the bride’s parents mohar, which some translate in an unnuanced fashion as “bride price”; and (2) the use of the word ba’al for husband, which can be translated as “lord” or “owner.” What do we say about these two phenomena? First, as a number of scholars has pointed out, mohar, which only occurs three times in the OT (Gen 34:12; Exo 22:16; I Sam 18:25), is better translated as “marriage present,” or even “compensation gift.”27

As Roland de Vaux explains: “The mohar appears less as the price paid for the woman than as a compensation paid to the family of the fiancé and, in spite of the external resemblance, the two are morally different: the future husband acquires a right over the woman, but the woman herself is not merchandise.”28

De Vaux’s conclusion fits with the fact that it was not uncommon within the ancient Mesopotamian world for this money to be given to the bride as part of her dowry.29 With regard to use of ba’al, Christopher Wright points out that, while its use in the context of marriage “undoubtedly signaled the authority of the husband, there are good grounds for doubting that it also signified his ownership of her person.”30 This conclusion is supported by simple observations such as the fact that a husband could not sell his wife, as he could mere possessions and property which he owned.31

In conclusion, we find that neither the phenomenon of polygamy nor the status of wives poses a threat to the biblical understanding of marriage as a covenant relationship.

To the contrary, and as we noted in the prior posts, the biblical vision of marriage fits well with an understanding of marriage as a covenant. Among other factors, this is demonstrated in the fact that, unlike the case with regard to many tribal societies (e.g., early Arabia), the act of marriage in the Bible is understood to create a kinship-by-covenant bond between the wife and husband (Gen 2:23-24), thus between the wife and her husband’s family.32

Paul Rhodes Eddy

Thanks to Paul for sharing his well-researched perspective.

D.D. Flowers, 2014.

_______________

1 E.g., this is raised as a potential problem in T. Tully, “Stutzman, Sex and Secular Marriage” (Feb. 17, 2014), http://thejesusevent.com/2014/02/17/stutzman-sex-and-secular-marriage/.

2 E. G. Parrinder, The Bible and Polygamy (London: SPCK, 1958), 48.

3 Walter Brueggemann, “Of the Same Flesh and Bone (GN 2, 23a),” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 32 (1970), 540; Frank Moore Cross, “Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel,” in From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 7-8; Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), 71.

4 Robert Holst, “Polygamy and the Bible,” International Review of Missions 56 (1967), 207. Similarly, William Loader notes that within ancient Judaism, “the few who could afford polygyny might see their relationship to each of their wives in the light of Gen 2:24.” The New Testament on Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 53.

5 David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 138-40.

6 For discussion, see Michael L. Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 60.

7 The world-wide statistics on polygamy are interesting. According to the Ethnographic Atlas, of the 1,231 societies from around the world noted, 186 were monogamous; 453 had occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny; and a mere 4 practiced polyandry. See J. Patrick Gray, ed., “Ethnographic Atlas Codebook,” World Cultures 10/1 (1998), 86-136. As Gordon Hugenberger (Marriage as a Covenant: Biblical Law and Ethics as Developed from Malachi [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998] 106, n. 95) notes, the attempt of some scholars to extrapolate from either contemporary Palestinian settings or alternative ANE contexts to estimated polygyny rates within ancient Israel is not without its problems.

8 Elaine June Adler, “The Background for the Metaphor of Covenant as Marriage in the Hebrew Bible” (PhD dissertation., University of California at Berkeley, 1990), 57-58 (referencing Plautz, “Monogamie und Polygamie”). See Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 80. This aligns with Hugenberger’s (Marriage as a Covenant, 108) observation that, within ancient Mesopotamia, polygyny was largely practiced “in the exceptional circumstance that one’s wife [proved] to be infertile” or struck with illness. As evidence of this pattern, a number of Nuzi marriage contracts forbid bigyny unless the wife is found to be infertile. See J. Mervin Breneman, “Nuzi Marriage Tablets” (PhD dissertation, Brandeis University, 1971), contracts 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 101.

9 See John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, vol. 3: Israel’s Life (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 379, 380.

10 As 11QTemple 57:17-19 reveals, the Qumran community apparently took their interpretation of Deut 17:17 to the point of requiring monogamous marriage for the king.

11 Goldingay (Old Testament Theology, III, 380) notes that the OT’s “descriptions of polygamous relationships can be read as deliberately drawing attention to the trouble they involve.” See also Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant, 111, n. 104; Craig Evans, “Genesis in the New Testament,” in The Book of Genesis: Composition, Reception, and Interpretation, ed. Craig A. Evans, Joel H. Lohr, and David l. Petersen (Boston: Brill, 2012), 474. Following this pattern, the post-biblical book of Sirach (26:5-6; 28:15; 37:11) notes that rivalry between wives can create serious problems for husbands who avail themselves of polygyny.

12 It should be noted that it is problematic to use the fact that the OT presents Yahweh as ending up in what amounts to a polygynous marriage to the “sisters” Israel and Judah (Jer 3:6-11; Ezek 16:44-63; 23:1-49) as divine justification for polygyny, since this state of affairs is not one that Yahweh set out to achieve, but rather was thrust upon him as the unfortunate consequence of national sin that led to the tragic division of God’s people. Incidentally, there is no reason to think that the Levirate law of the OT necessarily requires, let alone promotes, polygamy. On this point, see Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant, 114-5; Ron du Preez, “Does Levirate Law Promote Polygamy?,” in To Understand the Scriptures: Essays in Honor of William H. Shea, ed. David Merling (Berrien Springs, MI: Siegfried H. Horn Archaeological Museum of Andrews University, 1997), 273-89.

13 Adler, “Background for the Metaphor of Covenant as Marriage in the Hebrew Bible,” 60.

14 Scholars who argue for this translation include: Angelo Tosato, “The Law of Leviticus 18:18: A Rexamination,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 46 (1984), 199-214; Walter Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 189; Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant, 115-8; Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 193-98; Ronald A. G. Du Preez, Polygamy in the Bible (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1993), 74-9; René Gehring, The Biblical “One Flesh” Theology of Marriage as Constituted in Genesis 2:24 (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 70-1. This is not merely a theoretical translation debate among contemporary academics. As Lawrence Schiffman notes, the Karaites used Lev 18:18 as an argument against polygamy. See “Laws Pertaining to Women in the Temple Scroll,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls: Forty Years of Research, eds. D, Dimant and U. Rappaport (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1992), 217.

15 Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant, 118.

16 For a discussion of the background to Jesus’ teaching on divorce and its implications for monogamy and polygamy, see Evans, “Genesis in the New Testament,” 470-81; David Instone Brewer, “Jesus’ Old Testament Basis for Monogamy,” in The Old Testament in the New Testament: Essays in Honour of J. L. North, ed. Steve Moyise (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 75-105.

17 Evans, “Genesis in the New Testament,” 481. Similarly, see Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 249-50; W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988-97), III, 18 (viz. Matt 19:9). Contra Holst, “Polygamy and the Bible,” 207-9.

18 David Daube notes Rabbinic opinion that the OT allowance for polygamy was a divine concession to human hard-heartedness. David Daube, “Concessions to Sinfulness in Jewish Law,” Journal of Jewish Studies 10 (1959), 6.

19 The Greek phrasing of I Tim 3:2 (along with Titus 1:6) and its interpretation have been a point of debate for some time. The phrase reads literally as a “one-man woman.” As William Mounce (Pastoral Epistles [Nashville: Nelson, 2000], 171) observes, the anti-polygamy interpretation “is the most natural understanding of . . . one-woman.” However, regardless of whether polygamy was the sole focus of this passage or not, as George Knight (The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992], 158) points out, “polygamy . . . is certainly ruled out by the sense of the phrase.” Similarly, see C. H. Dodd, “New Testament Translation Problems II,” Biblical Theology 28 (1977), 115; Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 171; Towner, Letters to Timothy and Titus, 251.

20 E.g., Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 134; Tertullian, To His Wife, 2; Basil of Caesarea, Letter 188 (To Amphilochius, concerning the Canons), 4; Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1, 10. Frequently, the Genesis 2 creation text is appealed to for support.

21 See Wright’s insightful essay, “Case Study: Monogamy,” in his Scripture and the Authority of God, 174-200 (here pp. 191-2, emphasis in text).

22 E.g., Abel Isaksson, Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple (Lund: Gleerup, 1965), 27-34; Tully, “Stutzman, Sex and Secular Marriage.”

23 For a succinct summary of some of this recent research, see Carol L. Meyers, “Was Ancient Israel a Patriarchal Society?,” Journal of Biblical Literature 133 (2014), 8-27. See also Carol Meyers, Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, III, 354-7; Richard P. Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), esp. ch. 5; idem, “Pater Familias, Mater Familias, and the Gendered Semantics of the Roman Household,” Classical Philology 94 (1999), 182-97; Suzanne Dixon, The Roman Family (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Sarah Milledge Nelson, Gender in Archaeology: Analyzing Power and Prestige, 2nd ed. (Walnut Creek, CA: Sage, 2004 [1997]), esp. ch. 10 (see section on “Agency”); Suzanne M. Spencer-Wood,” “Feminist Gender Research in Classical Archaeology,” in Women in Antiquity: Theoretical Approaches to Gender and Archaeology, ed. S. M. Nelson (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2007), 265-300 (esp. 282-84); Daniel I. Block, “Marriage and Family in Ancient Israel,” in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, ed. Ken M. Campbell (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 41-3; David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 180-4.

24 Meyers, “Ancient Israel a Patriarchal Society?,” 26, 27.

25 See Grace I. Emmerson, “Women in Ancient Israel,” in The World of Ancient Israel: Sociological, Anthropological, and Political Perspectives, ed. R. E. Clements (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 371-94 (see esp. 382-3); Christopher J. H. Wright, God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land, and Property in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 183-221; Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, III, 355-6.

26 Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, III, 355.

27 Emmerson, “Women in Ancient Israel,” 382; Wright, God’s People in God’s Land, 194.

28 Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (New York: McGraw Hill, 1965), 27.

29 John Van Seters, “Jacob’s Marriages and Ancient Near East Customs: A Reexamination,” Harvard Theological Review 62 (1969), 392.

30 Wright, God’s People in God’s Land, 196.

31 Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, trans. J. W. Doberstein (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), III, 106.

32 Cross, “Kinship and Covenant,” 7-8. On the non-kinship transfer for marriages in early Arabia, see W. Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (Boston: Beacon, 1903), 76-7, 86-7, 122). In this sense, the biblical pattern is similar to that of Athens and early Rome, where wives gained full rights within the husband’s kinship group. See Stephanie Coontz, Marriage: A History (New York: Penguin, 2005), 81.


Theo Graff Podcast Interview

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by my friend T.C. Moore on his Theo Graff Podcast–a “Jesus-centered, hip-hop flavored, geeky, theological, Kingdom exploration” broadcast.

The podcast is fairly new, but T.C. has already interviewed some interesting folks, including my friends Jessica Kelley and Greg Boyd.

T.C. asks questions ranging from my own faith pilgrimage to what it means to embrace an “Anabaptist spirit” that is offering a hopeful Kingdom vision of the future, particularly in a post-Christendom age.

Give my interview a listen when you have some time.

In the second half of the podcast I talk about a book on Anabaptism that I’m working on with Tyler Tully. Also, I give a challenge for cynic saints who are stuck in their faith, even angry with the church. Enjoy and be blessed!

For more on what is mentioned in the interview, check out the following:

D.D. Flowers, 2014.


It’s Time to Brag on the Bride of Christ

The church is not perfect. Never has been. Never will be. Not in this life.

That’s why I’m not surprised when folks go through a period of disillusionment with the church, even reveling in bitterness and cynicism. I’ve written two popular posts on this here and here.

As I’ve written before, experiencing a season of cynicism can actually bring forth a renewed vision of the church and a deeper commitment to the gospel if we are willing to let the Spirit transform our hearts. I’ve been there.

Are you upset at the hypocrisy and nominalism in the church? Are you tired of judgmental Christians who look more like the Pharisees than the Messiah from Nazareth? Fed up? Angry? Cynical? I get it. I really do.

So if this describes you, please allow me to speak very candidly.

I understand the cyclone of cynicism has blown through your life. But hear me… please. There is simply no excuse for isolating yourself from the saints and making yourself at home in your storm of bitterness.

Consider this before making any more slanderous attacks against Jesus’ fiancé.

In Acts 9 the very pious Saul of Tarsus, who had been “breathing out murderous threats” against the church, meets Jesus on his way to persecuting God’s people. All of this in the name of God. For the “love” of God.

Here is how Jesus responds to Saul’s words and actions in vs. 4-5:

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.

Clearly, the language of the church being the body and bride of Christ are more than mere metaphors (1 Cor 12:27; Rev 21:9). Instead, they are ontological facts. It’s a mysterious new reality set forth in Scripture. I’m afraid that for many in the church this has become nothing more than theological jargon.

The words of Jesus to Saul are a sobering reminder that the church is not only the physical representation of Christ on the earth (i.e., what the church does she does as his ambassadors), but also that what is done to/against the church is done to/against Christ, the glorious bridegroom.

Therefore, we must be carefully aware of the aims in our criticisms.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Do we seek to build up, or to tear down (2 Cor 13:10)? Saul became Paul. His very identity changed. He moved from tearing down to building up. What about you? Are you helping or hurting?

We need prophetic voices in the church, no doubt. But it’s a problem when every social networker and savvy blogger thinks they’re a prophet.

Have you noticed what happens when the majority thinks they’re a prophet? We end up lacking the edification of apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

You may win some loyal fans and followers, but at what cost?

I admit that I’ve grown weary of the constant flow of criticisms (many of them unfounded) against the church from within by those who profess Christ as their Lord. It’s time to change the channel. We have to do better.

Whether you’re in an intentional community, a house church, or a larger organized fellowship, don’t give up meeting with the church (Heb 10:24-26).

Detach yourself from that which feeds your cynicism. Repent of the individualism that threatens the bond of Christian community. Reimagine the church with others. Get involved with broken people who need your real presence. For it is there you will find restoration for your own soul.

Trust not in blog posts and Facebook statuses to change the world. Instead, get involved in your local church. Bless the body of Christ. Be the hands and feet of Christ to your neighbors. Don’t wait. Do it now.

I pray you will find encouragement in the following video. Listen to the talented Greg Denie brag on the body of Christ… just to say thanks.

Are you walking with Christ in community? What are you doing to build up the Bride of Christ? Stand with her today in word and deed.

D.D. Flowers, 2014.


Is Marriage a Covenant? Part II

Paul Rhodes Eddy is Professor of Biblical & Theological Studies at Bethel University and Teaching Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN.

Paul is currently working on a book entitled Kingdom Sex: Toward a Covenant-Centered Theology of Human Sexuality. The book will be a further development of an extended working paper that is currently available online.

This is the second part of material from his book that he has made available on conjugal marriage being a sacred covenant in the sight of God, as revealed throughout Christian history and the entire biblical corpus.

In the first post Is Marriage a Covenant? Part I Paul established that church history is quite favorable to the concept of marriage as a covenant.

So what about the Bible? In an effort to redefine marriage as set forth by Moses, Jesus, and the apostle Paul (Gen 2:18-24; Matt 19:1-11; Eph 5:25-31), some have questioned whether we can legitimately ground the notion of marriage as a covenant in the Scriptures. Is there a case against marriage as covenant?

In Is Marriage a Covenant? Part II, Paul Eddy will address three common arguments that have led to this conclusion, in order to present us with a defense for marriage as a covenant to be affirmed and celebrated in the church.

Is Marriage a Covenant? Part II

1) “There is no clear statement in the Bible that marriage is a covenant. For example, the Hebrew term for covenant (berith) is not found in Gen 2:18-25, the paradigmatic explanation of God’s design of marriage. Nor does Jesus or Paul ever call marriage a covenant.”

Here we must beware what some modern linguists refer to as the “word-thing fallacy,” which mistakenly assumes that if the word for something isn’t present, then neither is the concept.1

Frequently the concept and essence of a thing is present apart from the explicit terminology. (A classic biblical example is the fact that the term “Trinity” does not appear in the New Testament, while the seedling essence of this concept, which led to its later flowering within the church’s dogma, certainly is.) This is precisely the case with marriage and covenant in Genesis 2:18-25.2

To begin, we must remember that what a covenant, by definition, does is create, by promise and oath, a kinship-like bond (“kinship-in-law,” so to speak) where before none existed. As Walter Brueggemann demonstrated decades ago, understood in its ancient cultural context, the phrase “This is now bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” in Gen 2:23 functions as a covenant formula that creates kinship.3

The renown OT scholar Frank Moore Cross explains: “In Israel, contrary to many primitive band or tribal societies, the legal compact of marriage introduced the bride into the kinship group or family. This is the proper understanding of Genesis 2:24 . . . . [W]hat is asserted is that the covenant of marriage establishes kinship bonds of the first rank between spouses.”4

2) “The texts often cited as evidence that marriage is called a covenant – e.g., Malachi 2:14; Proverbs 2:17; Ezekiel 16:8 – are better interpreted in other ways. For example, such texts are better understood as using the ancient marriage relationship merely as a metaphor for the covenant that God has with Israel.”5

Traditionally, at least three OT passages have been recognized as equating marriage with covenant:

(1) Mal 2:14 – “the Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant”; (2) Prov 2:17 – “[the adulteress] who forsakes the partner of her youth and forgets her sacred covenant”; (3) Ezek 16:8 – “I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine.”

Some scholars have argued that other things are going on in these passages. Given our limited space, we can’t enter into anything like an extended exploration of the details of these arguments. Suffice to say that just such an extended study has been done.

In his book, Marriage as a Covenant, Gordon Hugenberger explored virtually every possible argument that has been made against the common interpretation of these passages (with a focus on Mal 2:14).

Hugenberger’s conclusions have shown them to be questionable at best, and often less than that. The force of his arguments can be seen by the effect his book has had on this field of study.

For example, Michael Lawler, who is otherwise very willing to express skepticism with regard to related issues, nonetheless concludes that Hugenberger has successfully demonstrated that Mal 2:14 “portrays marriage as a solemn covenant.”6

And what of the claim that the OT prophets use the marriage covenant as merely a metaphor for the covenant that God shared with Israel?

First, this argument begins unraveling if it turns out that ancient Israelites did consider marriage to be a covenantal relationship (and evidence to this effect is discussed below).

Additionally, this thesis hinges on the developmental argument that ancient Israelite marriage was originally non-covenantal, that it was used by the prophets merely as a metaphor for the actual covenant between Yahweh and Israel, and that this metaphorical usage was later retrojected in a reified form back onto marriage, thus eventually turning it into a covenant much later.

However, this thesis begs the question of where the original covenantal roots lie by assuming that the initial impetus derived from the Sinai covenant between Yahweh and Israel (itself presumably drawn from the political realm of ancient suzerainty-vassal treaty-covenants). A number of scholars have made precisely the opposite developmental case.

For example, Elaine Adler argues that “the use of [a covenant] formula to express the legal relationship between YHWH and Israel finds its origins in family law, and thus the recitation of this expression would have evoked the quasi-familial, or even matrimonial nature of the covenant.”7 This observation aligns with Mark S. Smith’s contention that family, not political treaty, is the basic ground of ANE covenantal thought.8

Following along similar lines, Seock-Tae Sohn’s research has led him to conclude that “the origin and background of the [YHWH-Israel] covenant were the marriage practices of the people of Israel.”9 This claim raises the issue of evidence regarding the covenantal nature of ancient Israelite marriage, and so to this contested question we now turn.

3)“A covenant, by definition, requires an oath, but there is no evidence that ancient Israelite betrothals or marriages included an oath. In fact, there is no mention in the Bible of ceremonies or oaths necessary for a marriage covenant.”10

With a wide consensus of scholars today, we can agree that at the heart of the ancient notion of covenant is an oath.11 Thus, Hugenberger’s definition provides a useful guide: “A covenant, in its normal sense, is an elected, as opposed to natural [i.e., biological], relationship of obligation under oath.”12

This means we can expect to find a wide range of ancient human associations falling under the umbrella of “covenant” (berith) relationship within the OT, and we do – from political treaties (Gen 21:22-34; 26:26-31), to personal/familial relationships (Gen 31:43-55), to intimate friendships (I Sam 18:1-4; 20:8-17), to marriage (Mal 2:14).

But is there evidence of a marriage oath in the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) world? Skeptics argue in the negative based on observations such as extant ancient marriage documents do not contain an oath, and the Bible itself never explicitly mentions an oath spoken by a couple at their wedding. In fact, they claim, marriage ceremonial elements in general are missing from the Bible.

But are such observations – and/or the implications drawn from them – on track? Many scholars think not. It has been pointed out that the extant ancient marriage documents, much like our current marriage certificates, have a narrowly defined purpose: namely to function as durable written proof of the marriage for the purpose of dealing with legal and economic issues.13

The purpose of a marriage certificate is not to record the verbatim marriage vows of the couple. Rather, living witnesses (both divine and human) to the actual ceremony and the verbal pronouncements made there serve that function.14 Thus, it is quite likely that ANE marriages, including the ancient Israelites, did include the recitation of traditional verbal formulas (verba solemnia).15

What about the paucity of explicit references to ceremonial details of marriage covenant in the biblical texts? As members of any given culture know, there is little need to explicitly mention the details of what is assumed to be commonly shared assumptions and knowledge among cultural insiders. This is even more so the case for an ancient orally-dominant cultures where the phenomena of traditional referentiality and highly context-dependent communication patterns enable a remarkably economical use of language.16

For example, as Menahem Haran notes: “The phrase KRT Bĕrît (‘cut a covenant’), or similar wording, already entails in itself the details of ceremonial activity [i.e., the cutting of an animal and walking between the pieces as a non-verbal, self-maledictory oath] without any further need to highlight them explicitly.”17

The fact is that we have very little detailed information about marriage ceremonies well into the Christian tradition itself.18 All of that being said, a number of scholars have pointed out that the OT does refer, however elliptically and off-handedly, to some aspects of ancient marriage ceremonies (e.g., feasts, etc.).19

Finally, there is the problem of contemporary scholars who are unfamiliar with the range of possible oaths and oath-signs (i.e., non-verbal acts that function as an oath), and thus miss seeing their presence in the Bible. A classic case of this involves our topic at hand: the presence of an oath in the biblical understanding of marriage.

As Hugenberger has effectively demonstrated, there is good evidence to suggest that the act of sexual union was understood to function as an oath-sign between the marriage partners.20

But an oath requires the presence/involvement of the divine. Is there any evidence of involvement of the gods/God in ANE – and later Greco-Roman – marriages? It appears that the answer is ‘Yes.’ Extant documents concerning Mesopotamian marriages include temple rituals involving the gods.21 By Romans times, we find multiple gods involved in marriages in various ways.22

Within the Jewish tradition, the fact that the primordial marriage in Genesis 2 was seen as a creative act of Yahweh provides an even stronger basis for seeing divine involvement in the marriage covenant.

With the teachings of Jesus, based upon Genesis 2, God’s involvement in marriage is strongly emphasized: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt 19:6-7).

There is no mere “secular business arrangement” here.23 This is the language of covenant relationship.

Paul Rhodes Eddy

Thanks for reading! Feel free to address Paul in your comments. He would be happy to respond to any thoughts or questions you might have.

D.D. Flowers, 2014.

____________________
1 This fallacy was originally applied to biblical studies by James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 206-62. See also Anthony C. Thiselton, “Semantics and Biblical Interpretation,” in New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods, ed. I. H. Marshall (Grad Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 75-104; Stanley E. Porter, “The Concept of Covenant in Paul,” in The Concept of Covenant in the Second Temple Period, eds. S. E. Porter and J. C. R. de Roo (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 269-85.
2 Despite the reservations of some, that Genesis 2:18-25 is, in fact, about marriage is demonstrated (apart from other internal considerations) by ANE parallels. E.g., see Bernard F. Batto, “The Institution of Marriage in Genesis 2 and in Atrahasis,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 62 (2000), 621-31.
3 Walter Brueggemann, “Of the Same Flesh and Bone (GN 2, 23a),” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 32 (1970), 532-42. Similarly, André LaCocque points out that the phrase functions as “a formula of kinship.” André LaCocque The Trial of Innocence: Adam, Eve, and the Yahwist (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2006), 121.
4 Frank Moore Cross, “Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel,” in From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 7-8. See also the extensive argument for marriage in Genesis 2 as a covenant in Gordon P. Hugenberger, Marriage as Covenant: Biblical Law and Ethics as Developed from Malachi (Boston: Brill, 1994; reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).
5 F. C. Fensham, “The Marriage Metaphor in Hosea for the Covenant Relationship between the Lord and his People (Hos 1:2-9),” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 12 (1984), 71-79; Milgrom, Cult and Conscience, 134-6; Tully, “Stutzman, Sex, and Secular Marriage.”
6 Lawler, “Marriage as Covenant in the Catholic Tradition,” 75.
7 Elaine June Adler, “The Background for the Metaphor of Covenant as Marriage in the Hebrew Bible” (PhD Diss., University of California at Berkeley, 1990), 120. Adler argues forcefully that marriage was seen as a covenant in ancient Israel (pp. 296-308). Intriguingly, Jacob Milgrom – a strong advocate for the opposite perspective – was on her dissertation committee and officially signed off on her thesis!
8 Mark S. Smith, “‘Your People Shall Be My People’: Family and Covenant in Ruth 1:16-17,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69 (2007), 242-58. See also Cross, “Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel.” This observation also forces a reconsideration of how we view OT “love” language. In the early 1960s, William Moran (“The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25 [1963], 77-87) made the case that Deuteronony’s “love” language should be seen a rooted in political suzerainty-vassal treaties, and a scholarly consensus followed. But in light of the shift toward family-oriented understandings of covenant, viewing things with a monochromatic political lens requires reassessment. See e.g., Susan Ackerman, “The Personal is Political: Covenant and Affectionate Love (’ĀHĒB, ’AHĂBÂ) in the Hebrew Bible,” Vetus Testamentum 52 (2002), 437-58.
9 Seock-Tae Sohn, “‘I Will Be Your God and You Will Be My People’: The Origin and Background of the Covenant Formula,” in Ki Baruch Hu: Ancient Near Eastern, Biblical, and Judaic Studies in Honor of Baruch A. Levine, eds. R. Chazan, W. W. Hallo, and L. H. Schiffman (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 355-72 (here p. 368).
10 Milgrom, Cult and Conscience, 134; Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20, 278; Tully, “Stutzman, Sex, and Secular Marriage.”
11 E.g., Cross, “Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel,” 8; D. J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1981), 141; Scott Hahn, Kinship by Covenant (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 28; Gene Tucker, “Covenant Forms and Contract Forms,” Vetus Testamentum 15 (1965), 487-503; Daniel C. Lane, “The Meaning and Use of Berith in the Old Testament” (PhD diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2000), 314.
12 Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant, 9.
13 For a feel of the overwhelmingly legal-economic concerns dealt with in ancient marriage contracts, see the examples of Aramaic papyri from Elephantine in James B. Prichard, ed., The Ancient Near East, vol. I: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), 170-72.
14 Eva von Dassow, “Introducing the Witnesses in Neo-Babylonian Documents,” in Chazan, et al., eds, Ki Baruch Hu, 3-21.
15 E.g., Samuel Greengus, “The Old Babylonian Marriage Contract,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 89 (1969), 505-32; idem, “Old Babylonian Marriage Ceremonies and Rite,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 20 (1966), 55-72; Haymin Tadmor, “Treaty and Oath in the Ancient Near East: A Historian’s Approach,” in Humanizing America’s Iconic Book: Society of Biblical Literature Centennial Addresses 1980, eds. G. M. Tucker and D. A. Knight (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982), 139; Menahem Haran, “The Bĕrît ‘Covenant’: Its Nature and Ceremonial Background,” in Tehillah le-Moshe: Biblical and Judaic Studies in Honor of Moshe Greenberg, eds. M. Cogan, B. L. Eichler, and J. H. Tigay (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 203-19; Adler, “Background for the Metaphor of Covenant as Marriage,” 111-24; Norbert Lofink and Erich Zenger, The God of Israel and the Nations, trans. E. R. Kalin (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2000), 86. Mordechai Friedman has made a case for identifying an ancient Israelite bridal verbal response in Hosea 2:17. See Friedman, “Israel’s Response in Hosea 2:17b: ‘You are My Husband,’” Journal of Biblical Literature 99 (1980), 199-204.
16 John Miles Foley, Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 6-13; idem, How to Read an Oral Poem (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 59-65, 130-33; E. J. Bakker, “Activation and Preservation: The Interdependence of Text and Performance in an Oral Tradition,” Oral Tradition 8 (1993) 5-20; D. Tannen, “Relative Focus on Involvement in Oral and Written Discourse,” in Literacy, Language, and Learning: The Nature and Consequences of Reading and Writing, eds. D. R. Olson, N. Torrance, and A. Hildyard (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 124-47.
17 Haran, “Bĕrît ‘Covenant’,” 208.
18 See Kenneth Stevenson, Nuptial Blessing: A Study of Christian Marriage Rites (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).
19 E.g., Loren Wade, “Marriage and Covenant: Reflections on the Theology of Marriage,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 13/2 (2002), 80-81.
20 Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant, 185-279. Also Hahn, Kinship by Covenant, 5-6, 52-54.
21 E.g., see Greengus, “Old Babylonian Marriage Ceremonies and Rituals,” 58, 61.
22 Karen K. Hersch, “Gods of the Roman Wedding,” in The Roman Wedding: Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), ch. 4.
23 Tully, “Stutzman, Sex, and Secular Marriage.”


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