When a friend of mine who is an Old Testament scholar gets asked by congregations to offer an adult study on "biblical marriage," his reply is regularly and succinctly the same: "You actually don't want me to do that."
He knows, you see, that such requests usually come from more conservative congregations who hope and expect him to confirm their views about marriage. The difficulty is that such assumptions often derive more from 19th century Victorianism than they do the Bible.
Indeed, if you want to find a contemporary model that exemplifies the understanding of marriage expressed in the Bible, you need look no further than Netflix's Emmy-award winning political drama, House of Cards. While I realize that Frank and Claire Underwood -- the scheming, ruthless, and fairly amoral couple at the center of the series -- hardly seem paragons of biblical virtue, hear me out.
Here's the thing: Influenced by contemporary notions of love and family, we find it easy to forget that marriage in the ancient world -- the world in which the Bible was written -- was far more a legal, rather than romantic, affair. Marriage, in other words, was a contract entered into by two parties in order to guarantee the security and future of their households. And so marriage partners were just that, partners committed to advancing their shared fortunes at any cost.
Witness, for instance, the peculiar behavior of Abraham and Sarah who, not just once, but actually twice, conspire to deceive a local political leader about their relationship. Fearing that, first, the Pharaoh of Egypt (ch. 12) and, later, the king of Gerar (ch. 20) will desire Sarah and potentially kill Abraham to possess her, Abraham and Sarah agree to tell these kings that she is his sister rather than his wife. In other words, both agree that it would be better for their long-term security if these kings have their way with Sarah rather than kill Abraham and end any hope of establishing their line of descendants. In each account, the rulers fall for it, not only sparing Abraham's life but treating him well for Sarah's sake.
Interestingly, when the sham falls apart -- because the Lord intervenes to keep the rulers from consummating their desires with Sarah -- it is the duped kings rather than the Lord who are upset with Abraham. They feel deceived, even used, but there is no evidence of remorse on the part of Abraham and Sarah, only weak excuses contrived to preserve their hides and, more importantly, the possibility of having descendants and furthering their.
Sound familiar? Abraham and Sarah are committed to pursuing their ambitions no matter the price. Similarly, Claire and Frank are completely aligned in their pursuit of power. So while Claire may not enjoy the prospect of Frank sleeping with journalist Zoe Barnes, she nevertheless sees the value of it and therefore not only consents to it, but also discusses with him the developments of his illicit, but sanctioned, relationship.
Does this chillingly pragmatic approach to marriage make their relationship a sham? Not at all, according to the show's creator, Beau Willimon, who in a 2014 interview with USA Today said, "What's extraordinary about Frank and Claire is there is deep love and mutual respect, but the way they achieve this is by operating on a completely different set of rules than the rest of us typically do." Surprisingly, those rules may be more similar to those found in the Bible than in modern-day America.
Which isn't to say that all is smooth sailing in such relationships. When Claire feels left out of Frank's plotting, she vents her frustration by taking up with photographer Adam Galloway. When she reconciles with Frank and that dalliance proves threatening, however, she is not above destroying her former lover. In a similar fashion, while Sarah initially despairs of bearing children and urges Abraham to have a child with her slave Hagar, she later resents and abuses Hagar (ch. 16). Life as ambitious partners is not without emotional ups and downs!
But it is a partnership. And that's what's central -- two people who are willing to do just about anything to advance their shared future. So while the relationship between Frank and Claire Underwood has often been compared to that of Shakespeare's Lord and Lady Macbeth, as you watch the next season, you might also be reminded of Abraham and Sarah. Or, for that matter Isaac and Rebekah, or Jacob and Rachel (and Leah!), or David and Michal (and Abigail and Bathsheba and...). Well, you get the idea.
Christians and Jews have been reading the Scriptures for moral guidance for millennia. But rather than expecting to lift precepts directly from the Bible's pages, we may need to read it -- as I've argued before -- "sideways," looking for general principles that may be exemplified by specific rules, but also may be contradicted and correct. All of which makes offering pronouncements about what constitutes biblical marriage a rather dicey venture, as the Bible's portrayal of marriage as a legal contract differs markedly from some of our own conceptions.
If any of this makes you uncomfortable, perhaps it's worth remembering that the world from which the Bible came could little afford the luxury of romantic love. People forged relationships based on pragmatic calculation, common interests, and shared ambition because the world they inhabited was unpredictable, even hostile, and offered precious few promises of survival. Kind of like the world of political intrigue and power depicted in House of Cards. Enjoy season three!