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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What to Say to Your Friends about Same-sex Marriage, Pt. 2 -- A Closer Look at the Bible and Same-sex Marriage

(The features of this article are about the history of marriage in the West; Eastern customs are another matter)

When was the last time you heard anyone actually ask the intended's father for her hand in marriage?  Even better, if asked and denied, did it really make any difference?  The wedding would surely have gone ahead without the father's permission.

This quaint courtesy is a holdover from the days when father's actually controlled the destiny of their daughters (and sons, for that matter).  Marriage only recently has become the business of the couple alone.  In the days of the Patriarchs, in and out of the Old Testament, the father arranged for husbands for his daughters, and unless there was a need for a special alliance outside the immediate family, the bride usually was a first cousin, even a half-sister. The purpose of marriage was to continue the name of the father through his sons, and provide assistance for the family business and protection in old age.

Another quaint custom not often heard of these days is the "hope chest."  Young women would store away items for their household, such as linens, trousseau, and other finery, for their new home with their (hoped for) husband.  This was the final remnant of the "dowry" that figured into ancient and early modern marriages.      Marriageable women would show their desirability as a marriage choice by the contents of their dowry.  Since most women were covered from head to toe, and little opportunities for getting to known them were available, the dowry served instead.  

A man could have several wives and concubines. (Jacob married two sisters, Leah and Rachel, and Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.)  Women were only permitted one husband at a time.  In the case where a young married woman became a widow, the brother of the dead husband was bound to marry his sister-in-law, or be humiliated by the community.  This is known as Levirate marriage.

Divorce was easy and only the husband's prerogative.  All the Old Testament husband had to do was find something "unclean" in his wife and he could write a bill of divorcement and she was kicked out of the house. What his unclean thing was, is not known.  In Jesus's day, the two central rabbis, had differing opinions. Hillel said that offering burnt toast was a sufficient cause for divorce;  Shammai said it must be a serious offence like adultery.

Even the marriage ceremony is a modern invention.  Several stories in the Old Testament emphasize that the husband simply takes the bride into his tent, verifies her virginity, has sexual intercourse, and she lives with his family from then on.  There was no religious ceremony involved.  

In the West, it was not until the reign of Caesar Justinian, A.D. 527-565, that laws regulating marriage were put in place.  Contracts were drawn up between families according to Roman law, and courts would decide the legality of certain marriages and divorces.  The lower classes basically practiced "common law" marriages, because they had little or no property to fight over.

Until the ninth century marriages did not involve the church. Up until the twelfth century there were blessings and prayers during a ceremony that may or may not have been related to a church. Then priests asked that an agreement be made in their presence. It was only then that religion was added to the ceremony.  It became a sacrament in the 16th century by action of the Council of Trent. 

Until the late 19th century and early 20th century, marriage was more of a necessity than it is today.  Men don't need women to run a household, or bear them children for labor on the farm, or to obtain a dowry.  Women don't need husbands to provide for their livelihood, or for bearing children, or for status in society. Marriage these days is for none of the reasons of yore.  

So marriage today is quite different from marriage in Bible times.  It has evolved from being strictly an agreement between family patriarchs, involving a man and one or more wives, to a free will decision between two consenting adults.  And in the case of several states, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington—as well as the District of Columbia, marriage is legal between two people of the same sex.

Although marriage has usually been between a man and one or more women, it has normally been an opposite sex institution.  There have been cultures where women were able to marry more than one man, and where people of the same sex were allowed to marry.  (For a cursory history of accepted same-sex unions, see It is not possible to say with authority, as many try to, that marriage has always been between one man and one woman, or even opposite sexes.  

All of this is to say that marriage is always evolving.  There was even a time when incest was considered appropriate, where sons and daughters were forced to marry even those who were strangers, where marriage was for the convenience of the father at the expense of the daughter, where love had nothing to do with it.  There is likely no period before our own in which any of us would have liked to live under their marriage laws or customs.  It took us centuries, even millennia, to arrive where men and women are free to choose their partners. Well, that is, if you are heterosexual.  If you are not you are still subjected to rules that no one else wants to live under.  For that reason alone, all people should be afforded the ability to marry the one of their own choosing.  

(For a biblical argument in favor of same-sex marriage, see

TOMORROW: Jesus on Marriage

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