The Bible’s Vile Standards of Marriage

Religious fundamentalists object to same-sex marriage as a violation of Biblical standards. But the actual Biblical marriage standards treat women as chattel and let men have multiple wives, along with concubines and sex-slaves, an inconvenient truth that Rev. Howard Bess notes.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

We all have in our mind’s eye the classic image of a preacher raising the Bible in hand and declaring that something is true because it is written in the Bible, the unchallengeable word of God. And, it is not just preachers. Lay people often spout the same attitude.

When commenting on some public issue, devout believers frequently write letters to the editor expressing their confidence in the Bible and its prescription for how that issue must be understood. If it is in the Bible, it must be true.

A sculpture of Mary Magdalene by an unknown Portuguese artists. (Photo credit: Alvesgaspar)

Yet, over the centuries, this attitude has led to advocacy of slavery, segregation of the races, subordination of women and corporal punishment for children. It was only when these Biblical teachings were set aside that justice prevailed.

The latest such challenge to Biblical fundamentalism is the debate about same-sex marriage.  Those who continue to insist on Biblical standards say the Bible should be the final word on who should marry and how.

Many of those Biblical passages are found in the book of Leviticus, which prescribed religious practices of the ancient Israelites dating back several centuries before the birth of Christ. In Leviticus, the place of women and the institution of marriage is set out as a part of the property codes.

Women were property, and men were owners of women. Indeed, a man could own as many women as he could afford. Polygamy was the standard, not monogamy.

Men owned women in three categories: they owned wives; they owned concubines; and they owned slaves. All were available to the owner for his sexual use. Most of the women involved were little more than breeding stock. These standards were prevalent all over the Middle East and reflect Mesopotamian and Babylonian traditions.

Over the ensuing centuries, custom changed. While polygamy was allowed and was common, cultural pressures and standards evolved toward monogamy. One standard did not change, however. Women in Jesus’s day were still seen as property. Marriages were still arranged. A woman had no voice in acquiring a husband. A young woman was provided for marriage for what was deemed the best interests of her father.

During the times of Jesus, the life of many women in a poverty economy was precarious. A man could divorce a woman by declaring his freedom from her. The worst scenario for a woman was to have no owner at all.

Mary Magdalene and other so-called prostitutes who hung around Jesus were not prostitutes in a modern sense. They were vulnerable women who had no owner. Evidently Jesus accepted them and provided them with a level of protection and security. One of the criticisms of Jesus was that he associated with prostitutes.

To his credit, the Apostle Paul declared that in Christ there was no longer slave or free, male or female. In spite of the acceptance by Jesus and the declaration of Paul, the early church embraced and perpetuated patriarchal dominance and female submission.

The Leviticus standard of male ownership of wives continued in most of Christianity until the 20th Century. It now seems incredible that women in the United States did not have the vote until the 19th Amendment was adopted in 1920.

So, I scratch my head when I hear someone declare that we need to return to Biblical standards for marriage.

Diverse Standards 

Around the world and within the United States, the understandings of marriage and marriage practices are hugely diverse. In that diversity, a new question has been inserted in the public discussion. Should two persons of the same sex be allowed to marry?

It is a subject that is never addressed in the Bible. It is a modern question that has evolved over the past 50 years. Because the Bible is a collection of ancient writings, I would not expect any of these writings to address a question that is so recent.

Today’s typical marriage between a man and a woman is clearly outside Biblical standards. Women are as active in choosing a mate as are men. Arranged marriages are no longer the norm. The marriage relationship is seen as a partnership, not an owner/client arrangement. Most Americans, whether religious or not, have happily rejected Biblical marriage.

But is there no standard for marriage that can be embraced in our modern world? I suspect that diversity of understandings eventually will win the day.

The need to formalize the attractions that we have for a loving companion will not go away. I like the simple formula that Darlene and I embraced. Before a small group of witnesses, we stood before a minister and spoke words to one another.

First, I said “I Howard take you Darlene to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health so long as we both shall live. To this I give you my promise.” Darlene responded by making the same promise to me. Thus, we were married.

The Bible’s standards seemed so very irrelevant.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected].

14 comments for “The Bible’s Vile Standards of Marriage

  1. May 29, 2012 at 17:34

    Religion poisons everything.

  2. adrienrain
    May 29, 2012 at 17:18

    I think you mean the SECOND sex, however.

  3. drew
    May 28, 2012 at 23:05

    Another interesting Bible standard:

    “If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her” —– Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NLT

  4. Hillary
    May 28, 2012 at 10:54

    All this religious “Monty Python”type “conversation” can’t be serious.

    Christian, Muslim & Jewish belief in a “Sky Wizard” creator is nonsense.

    Do not think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
    – Matthew 5:17

    When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
    – Galatians 2:14

  5. May 27, 2012 at 20:58

    Mate. This blog site is awesome! How can I make it look like this !

  6. Irene Euchler
    May 27, 2012 at 20:26

    Hi Howard, So glad that you are still preaching even though you are now retired. Love your article and it is so true. Still have a copy of your editoral on gays that was in the Anchorage paper.

  7. Morton Kurzweil
    May 27, 2012 at 19:51

    These same fundamentalists extend the belief in property ownership to include include corporate ownership and the authority of government and labor. It is a short step to divine right of kings and church and the economic control
    of gender, race, religion, and any variation that threatens the control of behavior by those who hold political power.
    It is strange that I Corinthians Ch 13, 13 declares: And now abideth faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity. It is strange that in all the religions which claim descent form Abraham, of all the Names of G-d, that God is not named The Faithful, The Hopeful, or The Charitable. The finest attributes of Man are not qualities of God, but proof of the inalienable rights of Man to govern his own behavior. Something foreign to the understanding of religious orthodoxy.

  8. May 27, 2012 at 15:44

    Rev Bess is exactally right, good writing.
    In reply to “dahoit” he, she or it…needs to realize we live in a modern world with billions of people. There is no longer any space for narowminded mindsets and “marriage” hazs many State privilages.

  9. dahoit
    May 27, 2012 at 12:46

    Please,give this special interest crap a rest,and screw Obomba and all his masters and minions of hypocrisy and metrosexual limbo.
    Some free peoples refuse to validate others sexual confusion and bodily function addictions as Sodom redux.
    Validate yourself,and leave US alone in our convictions,and what one does privately is their own business,and there is absolutely no opposition from US if you leave children alone,hedonists.

    • sulphurdunn
      May 28, 2012 at 10:26

      What does this mean in English?

      • AmadeusMop
        May 28, 2012 at 13:50

        Uh….something to do with child sexual abuse? Maybe?

      • unreligious
        May 29, 2012 at 12:49

        Probably that they are an anti-gay bigot.

        • Bond
          May 30, 2012 at 11:01

          The original post is from a moron.

    • OhB1Knewbie
      May 30, 2012 at 14:22

      So very typical of those who are self assured and comfortable in their ignorance. It would be more biblically accurate to equate the GOP with Sodom than homosexuals, you have to look no further than the bible you claim the hold so dear.

      Ezekiel 16:49-50 (New American Standard Bible)
      49″Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.
      50″Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me Therefore I removed them when I saw it.

      I’ll leave it to you to decide if you think any man (i.e. Lot) who would offer up his virgin daughter to a mob to “do with as you please” should be called righteous. As I said, as far as I can tell the bible would seem to indicate that if anyone should be called sodomites it’s those who vote GOP. That is if you’re serious about what the bible says.

      GOP = Sodomites !

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