Marriage Equality and the Bible: Why All Forms of Marriage in the Old Testament are Not Equal


The only form of marriage that existed before the fall was between one man and one woman. The narrative trajectory of the Old Testament shows that all other versions were the result of sin.

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Equality can sometimes be a good thing. For example, it was nice when your brother or sister didn’t get a bigger piece of cake than you did. And it’s nice when two friends care about each other with equal affection. And it’s nice when you pull the left oar and right oar of a rowboat with equal strength as you try to cross a lake on a windless day.

Equality has become a buzzword among those who support same-sex marriage. The idea is that different forms of unions (for example, same-sex and opposite-sex) should have equal legal status as marriage.

While there are good secular/rational/natural arguments against same-sex marriage, people of faith also make arguments based on their religious beliefs, and especially on what the Bible says.  As a result, proponents of same-sex marriage sometimes resort to the Bible as well. One particular aspect of the Bible that proponents often cite in support of their position is the variety of marital forms found in the Old Testament.

For example, in 2001, Bruce Robinson published an article on the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance website entitled “Marriages & family forms: opposite and same-sex, in ancient times and now.” The article identifies and discusses the eight different marital arrangements found in the Old Testament and presents them in the following handy chart:

OT Marriage Chart

Robinson argues that, given the diversity of marital arrangements in the Old Testament, and the fact that “there do not appear to be any passages in the Bible that condemn any of the above forms of marriages or family structures,” there was no such thing as a “biblical marriage.” That is to say, there was no standard concept of marriage in the Bible. For Robinson, the implication is that one cannot describe same-sex unions as a deviation from a biblical norm, as many opponents of same-sex marriage are wont to do.

Robinson’s article and the chart it contains have been referred to and used by various other authors on the web, though Robinson notes that the chart is not his own and that the creator of the chart is unknown. And, of course, Robinson is not alone in using the apparent absence of a standard form of marriage in the Old Testament in support of redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships.

For example, at the 2013 Covenant Conference of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, Amy Plantinga Pauw, Professor of Doctrinal Theology at Louisville Seminary, presented an argument in favor of redefining marriage to include same-sex unions in a talk entitled “It’s Time.” Pauw argued:

there is no single, unchanging biblical view of marriage. This is clear as soon as we start reading the Bible. Biological procreation was of supreme importance for ancient Israel because their very survival as a people depended on it—which is why you get…the acceptance of polygamy, the insistence that a man marry his brother’s widow, an extreme worry about “wasting” male seed. Those are biblical ways of thinking about marriage and sexual activity that Jews and Christians don’t regard as normative anymore.

While it is certainly true that marriage takes various forms in the Old Testament, and that no direct condemnations of these various forms are ever made, Robinson, Pauw, and those of like mind are missing or ignoring or dismissing one very important interpretive feature of the Old Testament: its narrative trajectory.

Much of the Old Testament is chronologically organized. For example, Genesis through Kings move from the creation of the world to the exile of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah cover some of that same chronology and move it forward into the period following the return from exile. And there are chronological markers in many of the prophetic books that allow one to fit them into the broader chronology.

Biblical chronology begins with the creation of the world. In the first chapter of Genesis, God creates the entire universe and all of its inhabitants, declaring that what has been made is good. This implies that there is a moral order to the world (that is, that the things God has created are acting or functioning in the way that He wants them to). In the second chapter of Genesis, God creates a man and a woman, establishes the “(one) man + (one) woman” marital form, and gives the man and the woman a basic moral framework to live by: not eating from the tree of knowledge is right, and eating from the tree of knowledge is wrong.

In the third chapter of Genesis, the man and woman do the wrong thing and eat from the tree of knowledge. This moral failure changes everything. It changes the human heart and mind, and it changes how the world works. For example, after the moral failure there will be social tensions (Genesis 3:12, 15), reproductive difficulties (Genesis 3:16), disruption of the male/female relationship (Genesis 3:16), and death (Genesis 3:17-19).

The Bible presents the history of the world as involving its creation (the pre-fall world), its fall, and its continuation as a fallen world (the post-fall world). In other words, the Bible understands the world to have been made in a certain way, to have fallen apart in a certain way, and to continue on in a certain fallen way.

Consider, then, the eight marital forms in light of the pre- and post-fall structure of the history of the world. The only marital arrangement found in the ideal, pre-fall world is the man + woman arrangement. That is to say, the only marital arrangement that God establishes as part of how He wants and intends the created order to work is the man + woman arrangement. All of the other marital arrangements emerge after the world has fallen. Moreover, they emerge as a direct result of the fallen characteristics of the fallen world.

For example, social tensions led to power differences among males and their amassing of females and children as projections of their power and virility (Judges 10:3-5; 12:8-10, 13-15; 2 Samuel 3:2-5), to power differences among females and their competition for males and reproductive success (Genesis 29:31-30:24; 1 Samuel 1:1-20), to warfare and the acquisition of females by males during wartime (Numbers 31), and to slavery and the control of the marital/sexual lives of male and female slaves (Exodus 21:4).

Reproductive difficulties led to the creation of alternative reproductive strategies such as levirate marriage (Genesis 38) and polygyny (Genesis 29:31-30:24). The disruption of the male/female relationship led to the objectification of females by males as reproductive commodities (Judges 21), to the objectification of females by males as social commodities (Genesis 28:6-9), to the objectification of females by males as political commodities (1 Samuel 18:17-29; 25:44; 2 Samuel 3:12-16), to the objectification of fertile females by infertile females as reproductive surrogates to gain the love and respect of a man (Genesis 16; 29:31-30:24), to the sexual abuse of females by males (Judges 19:25-26), and to the use of power by males to acquire females (2 Samuel 11). And death itself, another result of the fall, led to the creation of levirate marriage (Genesis 38).

In sum, the narrative trajectory of the Old Testament shows that not all marital arrangements were equal. Only the male + female arrangement was part of how God designed the world to run in its ideal, unfallen, state. All other forms found in the textual record, as well as the degradation of the male + female arrangement, emerged in the fallen world as consequences of the world’s and human beings’ fallen qualities. The male + female form of marriage was, therefore, the normative form from which all other forms deviated and devolved. Thus, the variety of marital forms in the Old Testament cannot be used to support the notion that alternative forms of marriage, such as same-sex unions, do not deviate from a biblical norm.

Moreover, while the seven post-fall marital arrangements are deviations from the pre-fall male + female standard, they are nonetheless all, like the standard form, heterosexual forms of marriage. They are all, therefore, formal deviations from the standard (for example, from male + female to male + females). A same-sex marital form, however, would be a material deviation from the standard (with a male substituted for a female, or a female substituted for a male).

While formal deviations from the standard emerge in the fallen world of the Old Testament, a material deviation never does. It was not considered a viable, material form of marriage, even in the fallen world. Thus, while the variety of marital forms in the Old Testament cannot be used to support the notion that same-sex marriage does not deviate from a biblical norm, the common and exclusively heterosexual character of the various forms of marriage found in the Old Testament (together with the prohibition and condemnation of homosexual behavior itself in Lev 18:22 and 20:13) rules out the possibility of support even further.

Of course, having said all of that, in order to accept the preceding line of argumentation as valid, one has to believe that there was, in fact, a fall. That is, one has to believe that the Bible is right when it says that the world was made in a certain way, that it fell apart in certain ways, and that we now inhabit a fallen world. In other words, one has to believe in a before and after picture of the history of the world.

And to believe that, one must also believe that, at some point in our hominid ancestry, we had human forebears who were capable of moral reasoning, that these morally capable human beings encountered God, that this God gave those human beings a moral framework to live by, that those human beings made a moral choice that was wrong, and that this moral failure changed the human heart and mind, and the way the world works ever after.

Such a primordial scenario is something the secular world does not generally accept. It is not surprising, then, that many who use the chart shown above (or similar arguments) in support of same-sex unions have overlooked the disconnect that exists between the chart, which seems to suggest that the various forms of marriage found in the Bible are all equal, and the larger, foundational arc of the scriptural narrative, which shows that the forms are not all equal.

Curiously, this primordial scenario is something that an increasing swath of the religious world is coming to disbelieve or disregard too. Consequently, the use of the pre-fall/post-fall narrative trajectory of the Old Testament as a foundational way to think about marriage and sexuality, and about many other things as well, is eroding and disappearing, from both secular and religious thought, with far-reaching consequences. But that would be the subject for another essay. Or a book. Or prayer.

Richard Whitekettle holds a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Yale University. He is Professor of Religion at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

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