|Tobias and Sarah sleep|
In the civil sphere, debates about “biblical marriage” are largely irrelevant, since marriage is not just a religious issue but a human one, existing before governments, religions, or eHarmony. A democratic society has rational, non-sectarian reasons to recognize and regulate marriage as the exclusive and lifelong partnership of one man and one woman, a union of complementary genders who alone are biologically capable, in principle, of producing society’s next citizens.
Yet this “gotcha” point is made by self-described progressive Christians (Catholics included) to debunk the idea of a biblically consistent Judeo-Christian sexual ethic. The argument has merit; we admit that the Bible paints a varied marital picture, including the polygamy and concubinage of Israel’s patriarchs and kings, as well as the view of women as negotiated property.
But Sacred Scripture should never be read as a flat document in which all texts demand equal moral weight, as if implicitly endorsing the peccadillos of Israel’s heroes. Rather, we must read the Bible within the narrative framework of creation, fall, and redemption. Jesus even provides this interpretive key in his exchange with the Pharisees, who sought to entrap him with a question about divorce: “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19:3)
From their question, we assume that the Pharisees had gotten wind of Jesus’ insistence on the necessary permanence of marriage; thus, they were baiting him into openly contradicting Moses, whose moral commands did permit men to divorce their wives for virtually any reason. What better way to discredit the Nazarene teacher than to pit him against Israel’s colossal lawgiver?
Jesus, as usual, answers one question with another: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, `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. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
When his critics appeal to Moses, Jesus dismisses these divorce laws as a concession to human weakness, pointing them to the Father’s design, prior to Moses, of the indissoluble marital bond: “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” This original marital design is precisely what Jesus came to redeem and elevate.
Jesus’ appeal to marriage in “the beginning” also illumines Genesis chapter two, often called the second creation story. In this account, the man is created first, and for the first time God sees something is “not good”—that the man “should be alone.” And so God creates woman from his side, a sign of egalitarian partnership, and he reacts ecstatically, “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” followed by a verse that seems partly out of place: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
Herein lies the quirk: Father and mother? Adam has no father or mother! Exactly. This original marriage was not just about them, but is the prototype of what marriage is; though the image would be wounded through sin just a chapter later, and distorted in the unraveling parade of the patriarchs’ marital dysfunction, often to a level that would make Jerry Springer blush.
The Scriptures portray this mess as is, with no comment needed; marriage’s glory has been marred but not destroyed. Glimpses would remain in the witness of Ruth and Boaz and Tobias and Sarah, who preserve the wounded image until the redemption of Christ the bridegroom, who in fidelity and love for his bride the Church reclaimed marriage’s sacramental luster.
So while marriage’s meaning is not solely dependent upon the biblical text, don’t buy the false assertion that Scripture offers no cohesive vision of marriage; we just have to view the text through the proper lens of creation, fall, and redemption; the lens provided by Jesus himself.