Why people are ambivalent about Biblical Law: and why we should be too

In a recent article for the Huffington Post Esther J. Hamori, an associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary, makes an excellent case for why the Bible cannot simplistically be applied to American politics (or any civil politics, for that matter). As Hamori points out, the Bible relays so many different instructions regarding marriage and related cultural issues that it is simply impossible to be dogmatic on the application of these instructions to modern society.

Hamori describes a number of laws and marital arrangements in the Old Testament, noting especially the seeming approval of polygamy among the patriarchs. I do not agree with everything Hamori says her, but I do take her overall point seriously:

Each of these biblical standards for marriage — polygamy, marriage within the family, reproduction with a late husband’s closest kin, prohibitions against intermarriage — were seen as vital in some historical contexts as reflected in the Bible, and not in others. In times and places where marriage to a first cousin was the ideal, the Bible says such marriages are blessed by God. When polygamy was the cultural norm, that too is said to be blessed (as God blesses Jacob’s marriages with the sisters Rachel and Leah, as well as with their slaves; Genesis 30). Kinship and property are important factors in many biblical marriages; one element that rarely figures into biblical standards for marriage, however, is love.

Marriage in the Bible is also not restricted to couples who can reproduce together biologically. Some biblical couples do not have children; others use a surrogate, such as Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 16), Jacob and Rachel, and Jacob and Leah (Genesis 30). In the latter two cases, each sister explicitly claims her surrogate’s babies as her own, and all are presented as given by God.

To be sure, conservatives might quibble that the Bible tolerates polygamy but does not approve it, somewhat like divorce. But that’s the whole problem. If God tolerated and even blessed polygamy among the patriarchs and kings of Israel, is it really such a disaster if America tolerates certain practices that are fundamentally immoral? The issue of divorce is even more problematic for those who want to see the direct application of biblical morality to American politics. Jesus makes it quite clear that divorce is immoral except in cases of adultery, and yet the Mosaic Law allowed divorce for much less significant reasons. If Israel’s law had to be relaxed because of the “hardness” of human hearts, how much more that of America?

That said, Hamori stretches her case somewhat when she argues that marriage in the Bible is not necessarily between one man and one woman. As she concludes her article,

Marriage in the Bible is not restricted to one man and one woman. The biblical models for marriage include a range of relationships and combinations, and these evolve with the culture.

But this characterization is misleading. Presumably when Hamori makes this claim she is thinking of polygamy. But polygamy, say in the case of Jacob, does not refer to the marriage of one man and four women, as if Leah, Rachel et. al. were also married to one another. Rather, what polygamy means is that Jacob had four different marriages at one time. He was married to four different women. Yet he married each woman at a different time, and each marriage was still that of one man and one woman. Any other interpretation leads to absurdity.

Similarly, Hamori is misleading insofar as she implies that marriage in the Bible is ever anything other than something between a man and a woman, as if it can be between two women, or two men. The spectrum of toleration in Scripture is simply not that broad.

That said, I actually agree with Hamori’s overall point. As I have argued repeatedly on this blog, Christians should not base their case for traditional marriage primarily on the Bible. Hamori writes,

This does not mean that anything goes; it’s simply what we see in the biblical texts themselves. It does not mean that there are no standards; there were always incest taboos, for example, but what counts as incest is culturally dictated, and our society does not embrace many biblical perspectives on this (e.g., the ideal of marrying one’s first cousin). It does not mean that God is a pushover; it shows, if anything, a God who will engage people in the world in which they live.

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Yet that is precisely why I think marriage cannot be redefined to include homosexual relationships. There are certain standards to which human beings should always hold (i.e., rape is wrong and should be prohibited by public law) no matter how much culture changes. One such standard is the idea that marriage is of concern to civil government primarily because it involves the procreation and raising of children, and this means that marriage should never be redefined so as to take the government’s focus off that purpose. As Hamori points out, the Bible does not talk about marriage primarily as an institution regulating mutual affirmations of love. At least as far as the state is concerned, marriage is much more practical than that.

It would be a great tragedy if our country transformed the institution of marriage in a way that caused harm to our own social fabric simply because we want to be affirming of particular loving relationships. It would be just as tragic if we abandoned traditional marriage simply because we want to avoid legislating the revelation of one religion. Thankfully, there is no need to take either of these steps, because the purpose of marriage is not primarily about either love or the Bible. Hamori does us a service by reminding us of this point.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 2, 2012, in Law, Marriage and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Why people are ambivalent about Biblical Law: and why we should be too.

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