Gimme That Old Time Biblical Marriage

The Joys of Biblical Wedlock

Considering how many folks are waxing nostalgic for a good old-fashioned “biblical marriage,” I had to agree how messed up things have become now that we allow just about anyone to “claim” they’re married. Looking back at the actual biblical texts and historical records of biblical times we find a number of great advantages to an old-timey biblical union.

1. It’s arranged for you!¹

Just think: no more pesky Internet dating sites, no more desperate prowling the club scene, no more speed dating, no more “singles group” expeditions to the museum, no more creeping around the supermarket dropping my phone number in somebody’s shopping cart (well, maybe I could still do some of that). [Borowski, Daily Life in Biblical Times]

2. It’s probably to a cousin or clansperson.²

Jacob&Rachel - painting by William Dyce

Jacob&Rachel – painting by William Dyce

Keeping things in the family means less risk of losing property to some loser family; easier to negotiate the marriage contract too. [Korb, Life in Year One]

Of course, that didn’t work out so well at first for first cousins Jacob and Rachel. (Genesis 29)

3. Multiple simultaneous marriages!

Woo hoo…for the man, that is. All he needed was the means to support multiple wives equally and give them equal attention. In Genesis, for example, polygamy was considered normal. The patriarchs, like Abraham, typically had multiple wives and slave wives (Genesis 16:1-6:). Likewise, the 12 sons of Jacob (hence the 12 tribes of Israel and eventually the 12 apostles) were fathered by multiple wives and concubines.

In Exodus 21:10 it is clearly written of the husband: “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.” This is the same rule, by the way, as the Qur’an prescribes for Muslims, such that another wife can only be taken if the two are treated equally. (Muslims are currently cut off at four wives, though Mohammad, PBUH, quite coincidentally, had 12.)3

Now, David, from whom the apocalyptic traveling healer/preacher Jesus, founding figure of Christianity, was descended, did pretty well for himself, notwithstanding a bit of adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. “While the Bible names seven women as David’s spouses, it’s possible that he had more, as well as multiple concubines who may have borne him unaccounted-for children.”4

Meanwhile, his son Solomon outdid David a hundred-fold with “seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines.”

“King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. (1 Kings 11:3)

As the historian Flavius Josephus (see below) makes clear, polygamy was still practiced among the Jews of Jesus’ time.4b

4. Fancy your brother’s wife? You get to marry his widow. Well, “get to” is actually more like “got to.”

A woman whose husband dies has to marry his brother according to the rules of the so-called Levirate 5 (“husband’s brother”) marriage which obligates a man to marry his brother’s widow (Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Genesis 38; Ruth 2-4; also in the first Christian gospel, Mark 12:19: “If a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.”)

 5. Divorce is easy-peasy: just get a “get” (bill of divorce)

A Hebrew in early biblical times could divorce 6 his wife at will and send her from his home. Specifically, the husband was required to write her “a bill of divorce” (sefer keritut), hand it to her, and send her away from his house (Deut. 24:1; cf. Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:8). By the time of Jesus this was a well-established custom,7 but some spoilsports say it was very much misused, and wives were cast aside with little or no justification. Of course if your wife is barren she can be easily divorced but in that case the husband may just be given the wife’s handmaid or slave to procreate with. In Islam it’s even simpler; the guy just says “I divorce thee” three times. [Torstrick].8

6. Get married, get out of the army

If a man has recently married, he must not be sent to war or have any other duty laid on him. For one year he is to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married. (Deuteronomy 24:5)

Of course not every aspect of biblical marriages was so joyous. For example:

7. Interracial marriage. Sorry, no can do.

Ezra 10:2-11 forbids interracial marriage and orders those people of God who already had foreign wives to divorce them immediately.

8. Rape victims were required to marry their rapist

If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered,  he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.” (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

It’s not clear, though, what happens when you simply offer your virgin daughters to the town thugs. Lot, for example, offers his two daughters to be ravished by the men of Sodom rather than giving them the strangers he’s just met — a story virtually identical to the outrageous story that occurs in Judges 19-23 with the Levite’s concubine and the men of Gibeah. This is not a story for the faint-hearted but you can read a fairly droll account in Josephus’s “Jewish Antiquities” 2:8-12.

At 1,144 pages, he makes Tolstoy look like a poseur

At 1,144 pages, he makes Tolstoy look like a poseur

(The tale is wonderfully recounted in plainer English in my friend Rebecca Bradley’s book of bible stories, “The Lateral Truth.”)

Lot, it might be noted for all his righteousness, is not averse to dallying with his own daughters under the guise of a drunken night in the cave: “Come on, let’s get our father drunk, so that we can sleep with him and have children by him” (Genesis 19:31-32) They do such a good job at getting their father inebriated that (supposedly) he does not know what they are doing to him (33,35). It is not recorded whether Lot makes honest women of the daughters by marrying them himself. Meanwhile, Lot’s actual wife became of a pillar of the community.

For its part, the Christian New Testament doesn’t have a lot of good to say about marriage. It seems to be a waste of time and a distraction to the leading Christian “Cheerleader to the Gentiles” in 55 C.E.:

 1Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry… 7 I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:1-9).

Not exactly a stirring testimony to folks getting hitched…but at least biblical marriage gives the men paternity leave. How progressive is that!


I don’t normally get all footnotey on your ass but I thought some readers might like to check things out for themselves. Of course, most of these items could be documented from numerous other sources as well.

1.  Oded Borowski, Daily Life in Biblical Times, 2003. See p 114 “A Day in the Life of the Azuham Family,” for example. (also cited in Korb). See also “Ancient Marriage” in Bible History Online [http://www.bible-history.com/biblestudy/marriage.html]

Sidebar: My good Saudi friend, Shamaq, recounted his own arranged (Muslim) marriage to me one day. He says he “trusted his family to know what sort of girl he would like in both spiritual values and appearance and he was not disappointed. He also mentioned that he was allowed to see her actual unveiled face at that first meeting — known as the shoufa — the only lawful “viewing” of the intended bride prior to signing the marriage contract.” (Riyadh Journal #38)

2.  Scott Korb. Life in Year One. 2010, 64 (“What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine”)

3. In Arabian, as well as Hebrew/Judaic/Mesopotamian cultures, marriage was contracted in accordance with the larger needs of the tribe and was based on the need to form alliances within the tribe and with other tribes. “Muhammad’s wives,” Wikipedia [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad’s_wives]. We could argue that “things are different now” and therefore we shouldn’t have to follow all those pesky biblical customs…but then we’re not really following the Bible are we?

4.  . “The Many Wives of David in the Bible.” About Education. [http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/biblepeople/a/020811-CW-King-Davids-Wives.htm]

4b. Josephus speaks of polygamy as a recognized institution in at least two places: Jewish Antiquities 17:1:2 (14). Jewish War 1:28:4 (562). See also Joyce, George (1933). Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study. Sheed and Ward. p. 560. (sorry about the “b” footnote…it’s just easier than re-numbering everything after the fact)

5. “Levirate Marriage,” Wikipedia [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levirate_marriage]

6. “Divorce,” Jewish Virtual Library [https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0005_0_05269.html]

7.  “Divorce and Matthew 5:32,” Christian Doctrine, 03 November 2010 [http://www.christiandoctrine.com/divorce-and-matthew-5-32]

8.  Rebecca L. Torstrick, Culture and Customs of Israel, 131-32.

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