There is no doubt in my mind that “in the beginning” God had a very definite view of marriage. In Genesis 2 the woman is taken out of the man’s side (as his equal). There is no mention of a marriage between Adam and Eve because, according to Adam, she was already “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” but, when Moses collated the patriarchal oral and written records into the book of Genesis around 1440 BC, he added the explanation, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
Almost 1,500 years later, when asked about divorce, Jesus reaffirmed God’s original plan for marriage, “that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?”
That being said, it’s important to realise that throughout the Bible marriage is not viewed as an unchanging institution but rather as different arrangements that changed over the centuries. For example, primitive peoples like Abraham (2000 BC or older) were endogamous. That is, they married within their own specific ethnic group. Abraham married his half-sister and together became the parents of an entire nation that eventually gave the Messiah to the world.
Other families were polygamous like King David who had at least eight wives. When he committed adultery with Bathsheba, God spoke to David through Nathan the prophet saying, “I also gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these!” (2 Samuel 12:8) – by implication, more stuff and more wives!
Pastor Ken Wilson in his book, A Letter To My Congregation, writes “For the entire biblical period, family elders, often for economic reasons, selected marriage partners for their children. Today, this might be viewed as inconsistent with the consent necessary for legitimate marriage. The practice of “child marriage” was allowed in the biblical era. It was common for older men to marry younger women, including minors by today’s standards (Joseph and Mary may have been such a couple). Today, this would be regarded as criminal abuse. During and after the biblical era women were regarded as property. This perspective is reflected in some biblical texts. Today, this would be considered slavery rather than marriage.”
The word “marriage” is found only 47 times in the entire Bible although it’s clear from Luke 17:27 that marriage was widespread even before the times of Noah’s flood.
The first reference to marriage is in Genesis 29:26 where Laban tells Jacob, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one.” David’s prize for killing Goliath was for Saul to give him great wealth and “also give him his daughter in marriage and [to] exempt his family from taxes.” 2 Chronicles 18:1 records how “Jehoshaphat had great wealth and honor, and he allied himself with Ahab by marriage.” Among the many nations there was no king like Solomon: “He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women” of whom he married at least 300 (Nehemiah 13:26).
Weddings are only mentioned 19 times in the Bible – the first time in 1 Kings 9:15-19 (and it wasn’t a pleasant wedding ceremony either). Jesus’ first miracle was performed at a wedding celebration where He turned water into wine. Weddings featured frequently in His teachings as a symbol of the celebration of being united with our Lord in the eternal ages where “those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage.” In other words, marriage will have served its purpose and no longer exist.
While “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Hebrews 13:4), it’s interesting to note that the two most prevalent characters in the New Testament – Jesus and Paul – did not view marriage as the most important thing. Both men were single and highlighted the single and celibate life as the best way to live even though marriage was expected of rabbis. When he was teaching about marriage and divorce Jesus’ disciples observed, “it is better not to marry” and Jesus didn’t disagree.
I encourage you to read 1 Corinthians chapter 7 and gain insight into some of Paul’s teaching on singleness and marriage. He writes, “I wish that all of you were as I am” (i.e. single) but then gives concession to those who can’t handle that way of living: “if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” How different this is to much of the teaching and attitudes amongst today’s Christians and churches, where marriage is viewed as the highest goal to attain while single people often feel second-class and incomplete.
When Christie and I announced our engagement in 1994 someone said to me, “that’s so good, now you will be compete.” I quickly reminded them that I “have been made complete in Christ” (Colossians 2:10). A lasting marriage is not two incomplete people coming together trying to fulfill their needs in another person but rather two complete people complimenting each other. It’s not ½ + ½ = 1 but rather 1 x 1 = 1 (one flesh and one in Christ). I used to get so tired of people (older ladies were the worst) saying to me at weddings, “you’ll be next!” I used to get them back at funerals!
Marriage has had to be handled differently in diverse situations and cultures over the centuries. Consider that in the first century slaves weren’t allowed to marry, but they would often enter relationships in which children were born. We know from Scripture that some of these slaves became Christians and joined church communities. The New Testament doesn’t address these de facto relationships at all so it appears not to have been a big deal.
Polygamy has also been a big issue over the years as Christian missionaries spread the gospel amongst polygamous peoples. Attempts to break up these families have had many harmful consequences. Consider the cases in PNG in the fifties and sixties where a directive was given to men with many wives that they could only have one. Some of the men then killed the wives they liked the least so they could obey the missionaries and have just one wife. I think a higher law comes into play in situations like this.
Christians and churches need great wisdom in this day and age too. Families come into our churches and sometime later we find out the couple are not married. We should not be guilty of breaking up such families but rather allow the Holy Spirit time to do His work whatever that may be. The Lord is incredibly gracious and patient in His dealings with us all and I am so grateful. We need to show great grace to all people in any type of relationship as they journey towards Jesus. People who are hard and fast on the letter of the law only serve to repel people from a God who loves them. The letter kills but the Spirit gives life!