Debunking "Biblical Marriage": Why the Bible Can't Dictate Today's Sexual Morals
Washington Post, February 8, 2011
Part I: Biblical Marriage
Lately, biblical interpretation has become the frontline in a heated battle to determine what God really thinks about sex and marriage. As a biblical scholar, historian and Baptist pastor, however, I find this debate to be misguided and destructive. The Bible is simply too complicated and too contradictory to serve as a guide to sexual morals. Treating the Bible as a rulebook impoverishes the biblical witness and short-circuits our ability to speak honestly about sex. Since the Bible never offers anything like a straightforward set of teachings about marriage, desire, or God's perspective on the human body, the only way to pretend that it does is to refuse to read it.
If we do take the time to read the Bible, we are likely to discover that the biblical writers do not agree with us, whatever version of sexual morality we are seeking to promote. Written more than 2,000 years ago at a significant historical and cultural distance, the Bible gathers together a diverse collection of ancient books, edited over time, not a coherent, divinely inspired set of instructions that can easily be applied. Tracing even a few, limited topics from one biblical book to another can make the point: If one book forbids marriage between foreigners and Israelites, the next depicts such marriages as a source of blessing, not only to Israel but to all of humankind. If one insists that women are saved by childbearing, the next recommends that women avoid childbearing altogether in order to devote themselves more fully to God. If one suggests that sex with a relative, the wife of another man, or with a male lover will certainly lead to the nation's downfall, the next depicts heroic kings engaging in precisely these forms of sex. And these are just a few examples. Is it any wonder, then, that the Bible has failed to settle current debates about what a divinely sanctioned sexual morality might look like? Perhaps it is time to stop pretending that it can.
The Bible can, however, invite further reflection about what means to have a body, to be human, and to love one another. I first learned this principle from my mother, who read biblical stories to me every day before school. Waiting for the school bus, we would open the pages of our oversize picture Bible and read all about Abraham, Moses, Jesus and just about everything in between. Instead of trying to make the Bible dictate morality to us, we asked questions about the stories we encountered, guessing at what they might mean. Thanks to my mom, by the age of nine I already knew that the Bible is filled with curious, contradictory and sometimes troubling stories. I sometimes wonder how a lesson taught to me when I was a little girl can seem so elusive to adult purveyors of "biblical morals" today. Loving the Bible means reading it and reading it means that our preconceived notions about its teachings will be overturned.
Let's begin with an easy target: "biblical marriage." Despite frequent claims to the contrary, not a single biblical book endorses marriage between one man and one woman for the purposes of procreation. Directed at men, the laws attributed to Moses assume that Israelites will marry as many wives as they can reasonably support. By contrast, when Jesus speaks about marriage, he largely warns against it, presenting family life as a distracting waste of time. The apostle Paul follows suit, teaching that celibacy is the best choice for Jesus' followers. He recommends marriage only as a concession to those unable to keep their sexual impulses in check. Later New Testament writers do sanction marriage, but not for the sake of procreation and romantic love. Instead, marriage is portrayed as a venue for testing the fitness of male church leaders, who are told to love their wives and to be kind to their slaves. Wives, children and slaves, however, must obey the men in charge, no matter what, and this in a culture where the sexual access of masters to their slaves was simply presupposed. Biblical books never speak to marriage as currently practiced in the US and what they do say is totally contradictory.
Since the Bible won't solve the marriage debate, perhaps we could at least discern God's opinion about sexuality from its pages, and on this basis decide what God wants for our sexual lives. Yet, as we will see next, the Bible rarely supports current notions of sexuality.
Tomorrow: Part II, Biblical Sexuality
Jennifer Wright Knust is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Boston University and has received fellowships and awards from the American Association of University Women, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. An ordained American Baptist pastor, she holds a doctorate in Religion from Columbia University and a Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York. She is the author of Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire.