Marriage in the Old Testament

For more on a Christian perspective of marriage, see: What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage by Paul Tripp; God, Marriage, and Family by Andreas Kostenberger; and Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas

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Is marriage by accident or by design? Is it simply an evolutionary sociological development or was it intended by God from the foundation of the world? Your answer to this question will shape your approach to marriage. From the Old Testament, we learn that marriage is an institution established by God’s grace for our good.

Marriage is instituted by God in creation and corrupted by the Fall. In Genesis 1, God establishes distinct gender roles (1:27) and an expectation of procreation (1:28). Then, He sets up marriage as the means through which these gender roles are to play out for the purpose of procreation to the glory of God.

Marriage is God’s idea (2:18). The fact that marriage is established at creation means that marriage is universal. But this universal institution is corrupted by a universal fall. Now, fallen man has to figure out how to live in fallen marriages in a fallen world.

Marriage is guided and protected by the Law. God provides external regulations to help direct broken people in broken relationships. The Law guides the institution of marriage in a fallen world while mitigating the impact of the fall on the institution of marriage.

The Law reveals that Israel values the wrong erotic objects. Though Adam & Eve were naked in the garden and unashamed, now shame and sexual immorality are a consistent challenge to sexual faithfulness. To protect Israel from the wrong erotic objects, the Law forbids several things:

  • The Law forbids incest—incest is the wrong erotic object because it results in broken family trust and medical instability
  • The Law forbids bestiality—bestiality is the wrong erotic object because it is a declaration that the helpmate declared by God to be suitable for man (Genesis 2:18-25) is passed over for those who were deemed to be unsuitable (2:19-20)
  • The Law forbids adultery—Adultery is the wrong erotic object because God intended for sexual union to occur only in marriage
  • The Law forbids homosexuality—Homosexuality is the wrong erotic object because God is very clear that sexual union is only intended to be between a man and a woman in the context of marriage (Genesis 2:24-25)

The Law not only forbids certain practices, but it also creates a fence of protection around the institution of marriage:

  • The Law protects monogamy by outlawing adultery, rape and polygamy
  • The Law protects virginity by forbidding premarital sex
  • The Law protects family lines by instituting the practice of Levirate marriage where the closest male relative must marry and impregnate a widow to continue the brother’s family line
  • The Law protects ethnic identity by preventing Israel from marrying people outside of Israel in a way that might cause them to compromise spiritually

Marriage is modeled in the Wisdom Literature. The book of Proverbs repeatedly affirms the ideal of marriage. This culminates in the final chapter of the book, Proverbs 31, which lays out the ideal woman that a man should look for as a wife. There is a repeated warning in the book against adultery, and multiple warnings against a quarrelsome wife.

The Song of Solomon models the sexual side of marriage. The book establishes that, if we are to engage the whole context of marriage, we must deal with the sexual side of it. It clearly legitimates erotic love between a man and woman within the context of marriage. Song of Solomon shows us how to enjoy God’s gift of erotic love.

Marriage is revealed as broken in the Historical Narratives. The patriarchal, ethnic institution of marriage intended for Israel now exists in broken form. Instead of reflecting the glory of God, Israel’s marriages reflect the cultures around them (in a lot of ways, the same is true of the Church today, but that’s another post for another day).

The narratives also demonstrate Israel’s approach to marriage. If we didn’t have the Old Testament text, we couldn’t understand how Israel lived out marriage. For Israel, the patriarchy laid out by God is corrupted into an extreme patriarchy which often culminated in polygamy or sexual sin. The brokenness of marriage which Israel saw on a daily basis should have directed their hearts to a Messianic Hope that could not only redeem them from the institution of marriage but also redeem them from their sins.

Marriage is used as a metaphor to illustrate the relationship of Israel to God in the Prophets. Most commonly, this analogy plays out in the form of adultery—the marital unfaithfulness of a spouse representing the spiritual unfaithfulness of Israel. This is best seen in the book of Hosea where God directs the prophet to marry a known prostitute who repeatedly cheats on him. Despite her unfaithfulness and despite the shame that he would receive for not divorcing her in this honor culture, Hosea continues to take her back. So, God uses the marriage metaphor repeatedly in the prophets to demonstrate His covenant faithfulness amidst Israel’s covenant failures.

The Old Testament is very formative in shaping our understanding of marriage. Marriage is instituted by God at creation and corrupted by the Fall. Marriage is guided and protected by the Law. Marriage is modeled in the Wisdom Literature. Marriage is revealed as broken in the Historical Narratives. And marriage is used as a metaphor of Israel’s relationship to God in the Prophets. From the Old Testament, we learn that marriage is an ethnic, patriarchal institution for Israel rooted as much in self preservation as in pleasing God.

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For more on a Christian perspective of marriage, see: What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage by Paul Tripp; God, Marriage, and Family by Andreas Kostenberger; and Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas

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4 thoughts on “Marriage in the Old Testament

  1. This is the BEST answer I’ve seen, yet! Why do people ask why God ‘allowed’ polygamy? He gave us free will and continually asks us to return to Him.

  2. you have written:
    The Law protects monogamy by outlawing adultery, rape and polygamy
    Where in the bible does it say that polygamy is out lawed?

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