One of my namesakes is a woman who spent decades trapped in a miserable marriage. Her story is one of the reasons I often refer to the 1950’s as “the decade of lies.” Society forced her to lie, pretending that her husband was a good father, that he would never hurt anyone, that they were happy together. She had nowhere she could go, and no resources to enable her to leave, and of course divorce was nearly unheard of at the time.
After her first husband died, my namesake had a brilliantly happy, but very brief, second marriage, which was tragically cut short with her second husband’s death from cancer. And yet she never gave up hope, and she shared that hope with others. Specifically she shared it with my mother, who was mourning the end to her own first marriage. My namesake’s perseverance when all seemed dark shone like a beacon, and I was named for her in the hopes that I would share her perseverance, but not her history.
Mom also spent my childhood (as her mother had done for her) drumming into me that I needed to be able to be independent. She learned early that disasters do not arrive on schedule. I grew up on stories (not just from my mother) of women who suffered because they lacked the tools to be independent, whether those tools were money, connections, education or simply the right to own property in their own name. Having been named after one of those women, to say that my view of “traditional marriage” (when that phrase implies a lack of equality between partners) is negative, is a stunning understatement. I know too many stories of those battered and abused (physically and otherwise) by this system to view it as a cultural value or a folksy tradition.
And when people refer to “Biblical marriage” as something to be aspired to, my reaction is stronger. When I read the Bible I do not find it filled with marriages that function as good examples to the modern-day world. The majority of marriages in the Bible were not anything like what we experience in first-world countries today. The women did not choose their own husbands and many had no ability to own property, decide their own futures, or leave abusive situations. Polygamy and concubinage were rampant in Biblical times, and women were married off very young. Judges chapter 19 is only one Biblical example of how little women were valued in that culture. If you ever wondered what would have happened to Lot’s daughters if the angels hadn’t stopped him…. (Go ahead, read it, I’ll wait.)
But that’s not the only terrible example. Abraham pretended that Sarah was his sister so she could flirt with his customers to improve his business deals, at least twice. King David’s life is filled with troubling marriage narratives, Bathsheba’s being the most memorable, and Abigail perhaps the most positive (though she clearly had no choice in her husbands). Ruth married Boaz quite openly as the best option to avoid starving to death. Dinah, Joseph’s little sister, was married off to her rapist and then her wedding feast became a massacre. Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, had to resort to seducing Judah under false pretenses in order to receive her economic rights as a widow. The heroes of the Bible, the people we look up to as spiritual examples, are very often flawed and broken in the more earthly aspects of their lives.
There are vanishingly few marriages of the Bible which, if we met them today, we would still call good examples. Mary and Joseph had a relationship built on trust (after a little angelic intervention). Hannah’s husband Elkanah loved her dearly, despite her barrenness. Zipporah saved Moses’ life, and he had a good relationship with his father-in-law, though we know little else about their marriage. Many other marriages we know very little about; though the people in them may be good people (Aquilla and Priscilla) we know little or nothing about their unions.
If my marriage were Biblical, how would it be different? My husband would make all medical decisions for me, as my grandfather did for my grandmother. We still have the paintings of shrunken heads she made, in an effort at therapy, because he wouldn’t let her see a psychiatrist. My husband is, thank God, not a violent or abusive man, but if he were, and our marriage were Biblical, no one would ever be able to step in on my behalf, and I would not be allowed to leave. Obviously I would not have had any choice in who or when I married, that would have been decided for me and I’d be informed when convenient.
There are certainly verses in the Bible which can tell us what a good marriage should look like. Ephesians 5:21 and following tells spouses (both spouses!) to be subject to one another. And while Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 can be applied to friendships as well as marriage, the theme of interdependence, rather than dependence, is shown again. Jesus exhorts us again and again to love one another as God has loved us- that is to say, wholly and sacrificially. Yet mutual interdependence is not a theme that appears often in conversations about “Biblical marriage.”
I was married in a Christian church, I was raised in the church and am now a pastor; my husband shares my faith and was also raised a Christian. Yet, we both give thanks that our marriage is not “Biblical.” We are full and equal partners. I do not aspire to follow in the marital footsteps of Dinah and Abigail and Bathsheba, I don’t want to share their history. But perhaps, if greater blessings even than I have now are heaped upon me by God, I will grow to share some of their perseverance.