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What Genesis Says About Marriage: It's Not What You Think

04/21/2015 03:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2015

There are many Christians, especially fundamentalists, who remain convinced that the Book of Genesis establishes life-long monogamous marriage between one man and one woman as the sole biblically-approved form of marital union. This is a viewpoint shared by popular writers and even some academics.

To justify this claim, fundamentalists select a few favored verses and disregard the remainder of the text. Thus it is argued that God created man to exercise power and control over the earth and made woman to act as his helpmate. (Genesis 2: 18-20). "Therefore," they argue, "a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and they shall become as one flesh." (Genesis 2: 24).

But is this what Genesis really says about marriage? Or is the claim that this is what Genesis says really nothing more than a selective misuse of a couple of verses? I would propose that a reading of the whole of Genesis, without preconceived ideas of what it "should" say, reveals a very different understanding of marriage.

The author of Genesis does, to be sure, portray at least two monogamous marriages. There is Noah and his wife, and there is also Isaac and Rebecca. We never learn much about Noah's marriage (Genesis 6: 11 - 9: 28). Indeed, we are never told the name of his wife, or the names of his three sons' wives. The men, who are all named, are the center of the story, and the women are mentioned at all only because they are needed to repopulate the earth after the Flood.

Isaac and Rebecca, on the other hand, are fully-developed characters (Genesis 24:10 - 28:5). Rebecca's personality in particular is on vivid display. She is assertive. she was not afraid to speak directly to the emissaries sent to find a wife for Isaac. She was also cunning. Of her two sons, Jacob was her favorite, and she helped him steal the birthright and blessing his father Isaac intended for his brother Esau. And she was quick-witted enough to realize that Esau might kill Jacob for this offense and to send him safely on his way to her brother Laban's home.

But for monogamous marriages in Genesis, this is about all we get, aside from Lot's unfortunate wife (who is turned into a pillar of salt). Abraham, the great patriarch chosen by God to bring into being the Chosen People of Israel had, in contrast, a much more complicated marital history. Abram (as he was originally known) was a wealthy nomad, rich in flocks and herds. The nomadic life, however, is intensely dependent upon favorable weather and when drought and famine struck Canaan Abram and his wife Sarai (as Sarah was then known) were forced to travel to Egypt.

Fearing for his life, Abram instructed Sarai to deny that she was his wife and to pretend to be his sister. Predictably, the Egyptian officials found her attractive and passed her along to Pharaoh. We are not told whether Pharaoh and Sarai were intimate, but we are informed that when she moved to the royal palace, "great plagues" afflicted Egypt (Genesis 12: 17).

Is Genesis here recommending a sexual situational ethic? Is Abram's self-preservation more important than Sarai's sexual integrity? We are horrified at Abram's casual disregard of Sarai's interests. Biblical commentators like to think that nothing happened between Pharaoh and Sarai. But the text is ambiguous and if everything was above-board and innocent, why did God send down plagues and curses on Egypt?

Nor is this the only escapade involving Abraham. Even though God had given Abraham assurances that he would be the father of a mighty nation, he remained unconvinced since Sarah could not conceive or bear children. Encouraged by his wife, Abraham finally took Sarah's maidservant Hagar as a secondary wife for the purpose of having children. And Hagar did conceive and bear a son -- Ishmael, another founder of nations. Only then did Sarah herself finally give birth to Isaac.

Monogamy? Fidelity? Hardly. Yet Abraham is God's instrument, the means by which the nation of Israel was brought into being. Genesis' sexual ethic is clearly more complex than the fundamentalists appreciate.

But even these relationships pale before the complicated tangle of Jacob's marital liaisons. Fleeing the wrath of his brother Esau, Jacob approached the home of Laban, Rebecca's brother. He was immediately smitten by the beauty of Laban's daughter Rachel. Laban, however, switched brides on the wedding night, substituting the less attractive Leah for Jacob's beloved Rachel. Only after agreeing to labor another seven years , did Laban permit Jacob to take Rachel as a second wife.

Rachel and Leah competed with each other for Jacob's affections. Because Jacob favored Rachel, God blessed Leah with easy fertility. For Rachel, childbearing was hard, and she finally died in labor after giving birth to her youngest son, Benjamin. Altogether, Jacob sired twelve sons from four different women -- Rachel, Leah, and their servants Bilhah and Zilpah, respectively.

And the competition did not cease after Leah's death. The twelve brothers carried their grievances over to the next generation and it was because of their resentment of Joseph, another of Rachel's sons, that they threw him into an inescapable pit.

Joseph was eventually rescued by passing slave traders who sold him into bondage in Egypt. Eventually, through a long series of happy coincidences, Joseph rose to become Pharaoh's top administrator and saved his brothers and their father from a killing famine. But this dramatic rescue only came about because of his brothers' earlier acts of treachery and betrayal. From these quarreling brothers, born of a complex set of polygamous relationships, there arose the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

So what can we learn from these texts? First, the Bible is not some grab-bag of convenient verses. It does a disservice to the Bible to wrench a few verses out of context and announce that these verses and not others is "what the Bible says." The Bible is not meant to be read that way. It is a complicated collection of texts, from widely different times and places, and is arranged to stimulate further thought and conversation. There are very few, if any, one-size-fits-all, self-executing Bible verses to be applied literally regardless of context.

And if this is so, it is especially true about marriage and the Book of Genesis. To select out a couple or three verses from a single chapter of Genesis and present these as standing for the "Biblical" meaning of marriage misrepresents the way the Bible should be read. We may in the end decide that monogamy is the best form of marriage. But such a conclusion is not self-evident in Genesis which, after all, sees the polygamous unions of the patriarchs as necessary ingredient for the life of the Chosen People. We should, therefore, be modest in what we think the Bible says about marriage.