Are Marriages Made in Heaven, or Hell?
Those who pray for a “biblically based” marriage might want to take a closer look at Scripture.
By John D. Spalding and Kristina Robb-Dover
We were talking the other day about a couple that recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Family and friends at the party incessantly cooed things like, “Sixty years, that’s so sweet!” and the minister extolled the devoted octogenarians as a shining example of how God blesses a marriage based on the Bible. Asked what the secret was to a successful marriage, the dear old fellow raised a shaky finger, smiled, and said, “Love!”
The question on our minds, however, was: “Who spiked the punch bowl with crazy pills?” If these two old folks are like any normal couple we know, then they’ve been through hell, accumulating more baggage over all those years than a Samsonite outlet store. Sixty years of living together is indeed an accomplishment worth celebrating, but let’s be honest about what should really be honored here—the miracle that these two people didn’t kill each other.
Don’t get us wrong. We’re all for marriage. We are both married—though not to each other—and we take that whole “till death do us part” thing seriously. (So seriously, in fact, that the realization we’ve vowed to spend the rest of our days with our other halves, as much as we love them, sometimes causes our heads to spin and leaves us gasping for air.) No, our beef with conjugal life is that we Americans tend to idealize it. Despite astronomical divorce rates, we have this notion of a “traditional” marriage—in which two people marry for love and to fulfill their individual lives—that didn’t even exist until some 200 years ago. Before that, marriages were mostly arranged for political and economic advantage. And since when do marriage and family have anything to do with bliss? Basically, all Greek tragedy is about loved ones fighting and slaying each other. It was with little exaggeration that the playwright Strindberg depicted marriage as “the dance of death.”
No, marriage is not for the weak. One of our favorite hearty couples in literature are Ma and Pa Joad, from Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” He’s a nasty old coot and, Steinbeck writes, she “only survived because she was as mean as her husband was. And she held her own with a shrill, ferocious religiosity that was as lecherous and savage as anything Grandpa could offer.” Want an example? “Once after a meeting, while she was still speaking in tongues,” Steinbeck writes, “she fired both barrels of a shotgun at her husband, ripping off one of his buttocks. And after that he admired her, and did not try to torture her, as children torture bugs.”
Our churches tend to foster unrealistic, idealized conceptions of conjugal life as a fairy tale full of romance and unlimited sex without guilt. Many young churchgoers acquire the strange notion that life actually does not begin at conception, but rather, at marriage; until they walk down that aisle and say “I do,” they’re stuck in limbo just waiting for real life to happen.
But the myth we’d most like to dispel is the Christian notion of a “biblically based” marriage. True, there are plenty of teachings in Scripture that can be applied in married life—e.g., “do unto others,” is a good one—but most marital unions portrayed in the Bible are pretty twisted by contemporary standards, far more Ozzy and Sharon than Ozzie and Harriet.
Take, for instance, Abraham and Sarah—the couple that squeezed out a kid at an age that most people are pushing up daisies. The early part of their marriage resembled the movie “Indecent Proposal,” with Abraham pawning Sarah off first to one rich and powerful man, Pharaoh, and then to another, Abimelech. Poor Sarah had to go along with the hoax, pretending to be Abraham’s “sister.” And Lord only knows what ran through Sarah’s mind when her husband announced he’d cut off the foreskin of his penis because God told him to.
Then there’s the story of the arranged marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. It begins when Rebekah gets picked up at the local watering hole by a guy who thinks she is cute—cute enough, that is, for his boss to marry her. Proving the old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished,” Rebekah unsuspectingly gives a drink to a thirsty stranger, only to wind up betrothed to Isaac, a man she’s never met. Rebekah eventually gets her revenge, however, when she helps her favorite son, Jacob, steal the blessing that Isaac had originally intended for his favorite son, Esau.
While there are many biblical examples of dysfunctional marriage, perhaps the most extreme is that of the prophet Hosea, who was commanded by God to “go marry a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom.” So Hosea finds and marries a hooker and they have three kids, each of whom is given a name that sounds like a four-letter word and means something really, really bad, involving death and destruction.
As the debate about gay marriage heated up in recent years, preachers and politicians, including George Bush, have called for a return to a biblical standard for marriage, possibly enforced with an amendment to the Constitution. The Presidential Prayer Team urged believers to "Pray for the President as he seeks wisdom on how to legally codify the definition of marriage. Pray that it will be according to Biblical principles. With many forces insisting on variant definitions of marriage, pray that God's Word and His standards will be honored by our government."
A satirist wondered what kinds of stipulations such an amendment might include, and he or she came up with the following list, which has been posted anonymously in various forms throughout the Internet:
1. Because Jacob and David each had more than one wife, marriage in the United States of America shall consist of a union between one man and one or more women (Gen 29:17-28; II Sam 3:2-5).
2. Just as Rehoboam, David, and Solomon all kept concubines, a married man shall also have a right to take concubines in addition to his wife or wives (II Sam 5:13; I Kings 11:3; II Chron 11:21).
3. A marriage shall be considered valid only if the wife is a virgin. If the wife is found not to be a virgin, “they shall take her to the door of her father’s house and her fellow citizens shall stone her to death” (Deut 22:13-21).
4. When Moses said, "Every one of you must put to death those of his people who have committed themselves to the Baal of Peor," he was forbidding the marriage of a believer to a nonbeliever (Gen. 24:3; Neh. 10:30).
5. Since marriage is for life, neither the U.S. Constitution nor any state law shall permit divorce (Deut 22:19; Mark 10:9-12).
6. If a married man dies childless, the widow must not marry a stranger outside of the family. Instead, the dead man’s brother must marry the widow. If the brother refuses to marry the widow or refuses to give her children, the law shall fine him one sandal, and he will be forced to go about wearing one shoe for the rest of his days (Deut. 25:5-10; Gen. 38:6-10).
7. If there are no acceptable men to be found, a woman shall get her father drunk and have sex with him in order to have children and carry on the family name (Gen 19:31-36).
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was Back to the Basics. Kristina Robb-Dover is a chaplain at Emory University Hospital and is preparing for ordination in the Presbyterian Church. Her last article for SoMA was The Good Death.
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