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.”


About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 15 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Virginia. View all posts by David D. Flowers

4 responses to “Is Marriage a Covenant? Part II

  • tylertully

    Hi Paul, I appreciate the time and content you’ve put together here. I have two quick questions. 1) Given the fact that Jesus dissuades His followers from taking and giving oaths, how does this gloss your offer that marriage requires or involves giving and taking of oaths? 2) Given the fact that we have so few early Christian examples of marriage ceremonies, and none in the Bible other than say brief mentions of Samson’s wedding feast or the wedding at Cana, since there are no scripts, examples of oaths, or invocations like there are for Baptism (“baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, should that not point us away from the pomp and circumstance of scripted marriage rituals or not?

    • Paul Eddy

      Hey Tyler, Two good questions — here’s my take on them:
      (1) I’ve been persuaded that Jesus’ teaching against oaths in the Sermon is best read against the background of the misuse of oaths within his first-century context. Specifically, I understand Jesus (being the skilled teacher in an orally-dominant culture that he is) as using rhetorical over-statement (i.e., no oaths whatsoever) to make the point that God’s people should not need to make oaths in order for their speech to be trustworthy. I realize that many within the Anabaptist tradition have read this text in a non-hyperbolic fashion. But on exegetical grounds I would have to disagree.

      (2) As I mentioned in my article, I believe there are reasons to think that the relative absence of details regarding marriage ritual in the biblical texts should not be interpreted as the actual absence of marriage rituals within ancient Jewish culture itself. I’ve proposed reasons for why certain biblical texts are best read as equating marriage and covenant. It is in light of that equation that I feel we can responsibly assume that some of the bare minimal ritual requirements for covenant ratification were present in ancient Jewish weddings, even though we lack most of the details. For example, I’ve been persuaded by Hugenberger and others that sexual union was viewed as a (non-verbal) oath-sign. This means there may or may not have been a verbal oath per se, since oath-signs can serve the very same function with or without a verbalized correlate. All that being said, in one important sense I’m with you in questioning the “pomp and circumstance” associated with weddings — namely the fiscal insanity that typifies weddings in our culture today. I appreciate the dialogue.

      • tylertully

        Thanks for the engagement again Paul. I just had a follow up question per #2, and I admit its a little macabre but intriguing. While I wholeheartedly agree that there must have been nuptial ceremonies/ rituals associated with marriage (as there always are in every culture)–not to mention the problem of arguing from silence–I’m curious about covenant ritual in particular. In my understanding, all covenants in the OT and ANE context require not only oaths, per se, or oath tokens, but also cutting/ bleeding (berit). That is to say, a sacrifice, vicarious token (circumcision), or a mutual sucking of blood. Since we do not have evidence of that practice with marriages, would you admit that we do not know whether or not marriages involved blood ritual? Or, per your take, would sexual intercourse with a virgin constitute this ritual? In other words, since covenant ritual includes blood in other avenues (circumcision, the Temple, Noah, maybe Jonathan and David) is it safe to say that since you hold marriage to be a Biblical covenant, that some sort of blood ritual would have been present in the process? Or do you hold that blood ritual is not a part of covenant ceremonies by and large?

        • Paul Eddy

          Thanks for the follow-up Tyler. It is an especially interesting question, as it leads to exploring in a more nuanced way what the minimal requirements are for the making of ancient/biblical covenants. From what I’ve seen on this issue, a blood-sharing or blood-shedding ritual, while very common in ancient covenant ceremonies cross-culturally, was – at least in certain contexts – neither ubiquitous nor necessary. From what I can tell, it seems that the blood ritual is frequently (though not always) serving the purpose of a ritualized self-malediction. In certain cases, it seems that a similar sort of ritualized self-malediction is accomplished through bloodless means. Some have argued, for example, that the ancient gesture of raising the hand in association with oath-taking may function in a self-maledictory manner, i.e., signaling an appeal to the deity to witness and watch over the covenant. Such a pattern of ‘common-but-not-necessary’ blood rituals may well explain why many instances of biblical covenant-making explicitly involve a blood sharing/shedding element, while others seem to substitute an alternative ritual (e.g., the clothing and armor exchange in the David-Jonathan covenant, etc.). Regarding your point about sexual union as a possible blood ceremony: with Hugenberger and others, I have become convinced that sexual intercourse was viewed as a ritualized oath-sign. Given that covenants can apparently, at times, be ratified apart from a blood ceremony, I don’t think we are forced to conclude that the reason intercourse functions as an oath-sign is that it necessarily involves blood. (In fact, physiologically speaking, we know this is not always the case for first intercourse.) That being said, it is interesting that a number of cultures — both ancient and modern — seem to have made this connection.

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