With the accelerating moral degeneration and anarchy in these the last days, considerable confusion and dysfunction now prevails in both the secular society and the churches as to the meaning of, and relationship between, gender rôles, sex, romance and marriage. The Bible is 100 per cent pro-sex, pro-romance and pro-marriage, so much so that Yahweh's relationship to His people is portrayed in these terms. However, there's Yahweh's way of doing these things (which leads to peace, happiness and satisfaction) and man's (which invariably leads to serious physical, emotional and spiritual problems).
A. Israel, the Tanakh and the Surrounding Nations
In ancient Israel, the Middle East and the Greco-Roman world, marriage signified many different social practices of household formation. Marriage is one expression of kinship and fammily patterns, in which typically a man and one or more women cohabit publicly and permanently as a basic social unit. Within most of the societies depicted in the Tanakh (old Testament) and Messianic Scriptures (New Testament), the household created by such a marriage represents the extent of one man's ownership, control and stewardship of people and property. These households interact with each other in the larger society on more or less equal terms - both custom and law respect a man's toqef (authority) to operate within the household and to deal with other households on the basis of the relative social hierarchical position between the men of the households. Furthermore, the married man possesses the privilege of sexual access to to the married women, limited (in the case of Israel) by Yahweh's Torah (Law). The children of such sexual unions belong to the man and are part of the same household, under the same terms. The marriage forms a unit that is social, economic, political, and sexual.
Hebrew has no particular words for 'husband' or 'wife'. The words that are translated as such in the Tanakh (Old Testament) are almost always the same words more frequently translated 'man' and 'woman'. Because of the man's position as marriage and family head, in some Bible translations the Hebrew, ba'al ('lord', 'master') is occasionally translated 'husband' (cp. 1 Pet.3:6). Clearly, both in ancient Israel and in the patriarchal period before it, the divine Torah tavnith (pattern) was that all households were organised around a man with such households including both women and children under the toqef (authority) of the man.
There is no clear evidence for the age at which an Israelite man or woman married or entered households, although it is likely that Israelites were involved in married, sexually active family life in their mid-teens. Likewise, the Tanakh (Old Testament) records no wedding ceremonies that might depict how marriages happened. It is not even known if there were wedding ceremonies in most cases, or if such cocasions occurred only among wealthier families. Women may well have joined households shortly after menstruation and men may have waited several years before forming households of their own because of the economic requirements for founding and maintaining households.
B. The Móhar
Although there is only rare discussion in the Tanakh (Old Testament) of how households were formed, it is not uncommon that a gift (called the móhar) was presented by the prospective husband to his bride's father. In the case of the surrounding pagan nations, entry of women into households was often a negociated transaction (with of without financial ramifications) between the men (the father and husband) of the two households. Thus Shechem offers to give a "marriage present" to Jacob in exchange for his daughter (Gen.34:11-12). David, unable to give either property or money, is permitted to make a gruesome 'settlement' of slain Philistines for Michal, Saul's younger daughter (1 Sam.18:25). The compensation to be paid by one who seduced a virgin may have been considered a marriage present (or bride-price) and legally marry her (Ex.22:16-17/MT 15-16; cp. Dt.22:29). It is important to realise that though treated among the laws concerning property, this does not imply that the bride was so be considered such as she herself could own property (Josh.15:18-19 = Judg.1:14-15). Rather than a purchase price intended to compensate the bride's family for the loss of their daughter and subsequent offspring, the groom's marriage present was merely reciprocation for the dowry, thus completing the exchange as expected in Israel's 'gift economy'.
C. The Dowry
The dowry, by contrast, was a gift by the bride's father to the bride, and was a common practice in ancient Near Eastern societies. It is possible to view the dowry as the daughter's share of the parents' inheritance as she leaves the parental home for her husband's. The dowry may have comprised different household items in addition to other valuables.
Laban gave his maids Zilpah and Bilhah as dowry to Leah and Rachel, respectively, on their marriages to Jacob (Gen.29:24,29). This custom is distinguished from gifts given by the groom to the bride, as in the case of Rebekah (Rivkah), who together with her family was lavished with gifts (Gen.24:53). These gifts may have included a payment of the bride-price to the bride's father.
In some instances, dorwy was used outside the immediate context of marriage. After Leah gave birth to Zebulun, she viewed the birth of her six sons as a dowry from Elohim (God), which she in turn believed would bring her honour from Jacob (Gen.30:20). In 1 Kings 9:16 Pharaoh gave the destroyed city of Gezer to his daughter and her husband Solomon as a dowry. In both these instances, though used figuratively, dowry still captures the essential notion of a gift to the bride.
Many of the Tanakh (Old Testament) texts, especially in the Pentateuch, depict households with one man and multiple adult women. This marriage pattern is polygyny, a type of polygamy in which there are multiple women. It is not known if polygynous households were the norm in Israel or if they occurred only among the weathier households, such as those that are more frequently represented in the extant literature. When polygyny did occur, it is likely that the women were of different ages. The household may have begun with one man and one woman, adding other women as the financial resources of the household expanded. Women's life expectancy was much shorter than that of men, and pregnancy was among the leading causes of death for Israelite women (e.g. Rachel in giving birth to Benjamin). In this situation, some argue, polygyny became a way to maintain the supply of women in the household as well as to increase its fertility. If the man of the household outlived the first wife by many years, then there may have been a great age difference between the man of the household and subsequent wives, as is believed to have occurred with Abraham and Keturah (Gen.25:1) and also Joseph and Mary.
E. Marriage as Metaphor
The Tanakh (Old Testament) uses marriage to describe Yahweh's relationship with the people of Israel. In Hosea 1-3 and Ezekiel 16 the images contain vivid charges of betrayal and accounts of sexual violence. Separating from Yahweh is condemned (Mal.2:10-16) with Isaiah 62:4-5 depicting the beauty of His marriage to the people using polygynous imagery.
F. Marriage in the Roman Empire
To understand how marriage customs have come to be the way they are in Christendom today, it is important to have a clear understanding of the Roman cultural influences in both both later Judaism and incipient Christianity as converts were made in the Roman Empire.
Marriage in the Roman and Greek world, unlike all other civilisations that admitted polygyny, was strictly monogamous (albeit it highly promiscuous), an institution that may have arisen out of the egalitarianism of the democratic and republican political systems of the city-states. The influence of Roman culture on Christianity as it spread west is well attested, in consequence of which Roman Christianity in its first centuries gradually moved away from the biblical model to a monogamy-only one. Several centuries later, European Judaism, forced by diaspora in the West, followed the Christian example for political reasons in the year 1000.
In the Roman Empire, the age of lawful consent to a marriage was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Most Roman women seem to have married in their late teens to early twenties, but noble women married younger than those of the lower classes, and an aristocratic girl was expected to be virgin until her first marriage.
Early Roman law recognised three kinds of marriage:
Patricians always married by confarreatio, while plebeians (the common people) married by coemptio or usus: in the latter, a woman could avoid her husband's legal control simply by being absent from their shared home for three consecutive nights, once a year. Among élite families of the early Republic, manus marriage was the norm, as in the Torah; the bride passed from the manus ('hand') of her father to the manus of her husband, remaining under one or another form of male potestas (power).
- 1. Confarreatio, symbolised by the sharing of spelt bread (panis farreus);
- 2. Coemptio, 'by purchase'; and by
- 3. Usus (habitual cohabitation).
By the time of Julius Caesar, manus marriage was largely abandoned in favour of 'free' marriage; when a wife moved into her husband's home, she remained under her father's lawful authority; but she did not conduct her daily life under his direct scrutiny and her husband had no legal power over her. This was one of the factors in the independence Roman women enjoyed, relative to those of many other ancient cultures and up to the modern period. Free marriage usually involved two citizens of equal or near-equal status, or a citizen and a person who held Latin rights. In the later Imperial period and with official permission, soldier-citizens and non-citizens could marry. So total was the law's separation of property that gifts between spouses were recognised as conditional loans; if a couple divorced or even lived apart, the giver could reclaim the gift.
Following the collapse of the Republic, laws pertaining to marriage, parenting, and adultery were part of Augustus' program to restore the mos maiorum (traditional social norms), while consolidating his power as princeps and paterfamilias of the Roman state. Marriage and remarriage had become less frequent; and the citizen birth-rate had fallen, particularly among the wealthier, more leisured classes. Augustan law pertaining to marriage and family life encouraged marriage and having children, and punished adultery as a crime. The new legislation formalised and enforced what had been considered a traditional, moral duty to family and the State; all men between 25 and 60 years of age, and all women between 20 and 50 were to marry and have children, or pay extra tax in proportion to their wealth. Members of the upper classes thus faced had most to lose. Citizens who had already produced three children, and freed persons who had produced four, were exempt. Marriages between senators and freed women, and slaves and citizens, were declared legally void. Children born to such liaisons were illegitimate, non-citizen and unable to inherit. A married woman who bore three children or more could be granted legal independence under the ius liberorum. These laws were badly received; they were modified in AD 9 by the Lex Papia Poppaea eventually they were nearly all repealed or fell into disuse under Constantine and later emperors, including the Roman Catholic Emperor Justinian who, in the 6th century AD, was responsible for finally forbidding polygyny to laymen in the Roman Empire. Prior to this, not only were Catholic clergy married but it was not uncommon for many of them to have 'secondary wives' too.
G. Marriage in the Early Western (Roman Catholic) Church
The evolution of Western (Roman Catholic) Christian marriage practices and attitudes, particularly among the clergy, was very erratic and inconsistent. What is known comes largely from the rulings of various Catholic Councils:
By as late as the 15th century, just prior to the Reformation, and not withstanding the various rulings over the centuries, as many as 50 per cent of the priests were still married. Only following Martin Luther did the Catholic Council of Trent (1545-63) insist that celibacy and virginity were superior to marriage, probably for political reasons, as Luther had already permitted one Protestant German prince to practice polygyny, and for political reasons also subsequently reversed his position and ruled for monogamy-only as his earlier action was losing him support.
- 306 - Council of Elvira, Spain, decree #43: a priest who sleeps with his wife the night before Mass will lose his job;
- 325 - Council of Nicea: decreed that after ordination a priest could not marry. Proclaimed the Nicene Creed;
- 352 - Council of Laodicea: women are not to be ordained. This suggests that before this time there was some kind of ordination of women;
- 385 - Pope Siricius left his wife in order to become pope. Decreed that priests may no longer sleep with their wives.
- 401 - Augustine wrote, Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of a man downwards as the caresses of a woman.
- 567 - 2nd Council of Tours: any cleric found in bed with his wife would be excommunicated for a year and reduced to the lay state;
- 580 - Pope Pelagius II: his policy was not to bother married priests as long as they did not hand over church property to wives or children;
- 590-604 - Pope Gregory the Great said that all sexual desire is sinful in itself (meaning that sexual desire is intrinsically evil).
- France: documents show that the majority of priests were married.
- Boniface reported to the pope that in Germany almost no bishop or priest was celibate.
H. The New Testament Period and Western Civilisation
In spite of the Roman (and earlier, Greek) influence on Judea during the early Messianic Period, marriage practice in the the time of Messiah (Yah'shua) and the apostles remained much as it had been in the Tanakh (Old Testament). The New Testament records a wedding ceremony in Cana (John 2) and there are a number of parables by Yah'shua (Jesus) about weddings. The average age at marriage had probably increased by this time, perhaps into the early 20's (at least for men), but there is little direct
evidence for age at marriage of any New Testament figures.
The Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) portray a relatively large number of single persons, although it cannot be determined if they were persons who had never married, had been previously married, or lived apart from spouses. Paul's marital status remains uncertain but as a trained leader in the sect of Pharisees it would almost certainly have been impossible for him not to have been married at some point. The fact that he later advises people considering marriage to remain single like himself (1 Cor.7:8) is almost certainly because of the times when persecution made family life dangerous or impossible. Likewise, Peter is known to have been married on account of mention being made of his mother-in-law (Mk.1:20). Whether, perhaps like Paul, he was a widower, divorcee or his wife remained at home is not known.
Attempts made by liberal scholars to compare the household codes described in the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) with contemporary Greco-Roman culture rest on a false assumption commonly made by Western Christians - Protestant as well as Catholic and Eastern Orthodox - that the Messianic Community (Church) abandoned the written marriage laws of the Torah and (at the very least outside Palestine) imitated the practices of the Romans and Greeks. However, a cursory examination of these codes - encouraging wives to submit to husbands, continuing patterns of male headship, etc., were, for the most part, areas of commonality between the Torah and the diverse social patterns found throughout the Roman Empire (Col.3:18-4:1; Eph.5:21-6:9; 1 Pet.2:11-3:12; 1 Tim.2:8-15; 5:1-2; 6:1-2; Tit.2:1-10; 3.1). These New Testament codes privilege marriage in exactly the same way as in the Tanakh (Old Testament), with the Torah (Law) frequently referenced in upholding the apostolic teaching.
Though there can be no doubt that Roman culture significantly influenced Messianic Israel (the 'Church') in moving away from Torah marriage to monogamy-only over the first three centuries, the Catholic claim that the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) created a new (unstated) 'rule' banning polygyny altogether cannot be substantiated. On one occasion the apostle Paul rebukes a Corinthian believer who is living in sexual immorality with "his father's wife" (1 Cor.5:1, NIV), a term used not to describe the man's mother (for which the word 'mother' exists in both Hebrew and Greek) but a polygynous wife of his father (Lev.18:8), who could not be his mother but rather his 'father's wife'. This is the same sin of Reuben who slept with his father Jacob's wife, Bilhah (Gen.35:21-22), or Absalom who slept with his father David's concubines, albeit both crimes were connected to an attempted 'political' power-grab rather than for lust's sake, for which reason Reuben lost his firstborn rights and Absalom met an untimely end. More likely, the Corinthian's behaviour was linked to the surrounding pagan promiscuity which was a plague on the first believers there who had converted from such a background.
Though provision was made for divorce in the Torah, Yah'shua (Jesus) says that Moses only "suffered" (KJV) or reluctantly permitted it because of the hardness of peoples' hearts. This means that Moses did not command divorce, but regulated an existing practice, and the form of the law in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is best understood in this sense. Therefore under the Old Covenant, divorce was certainly practiced, a form of contract was given to the wife, and thereafter she was free to remarry.
The grounds for divorce here are referred to in such general terms that no precise interpretation can be given. Shortly before the time of Messiah, the school of Shammai interpreted 'erwat davar (occuring elsewhere only in Dt.23:14 - 'nakedness of a thing' or "some uncleanness" - KJV) as 'unfaithfulness' only, while the school of Hillel extended it to anything unpleasing to the husband. Yah'shua (Jesus) and the apostles seem to endorse the Shammai interpretation.
There are two situations in the Old Covenant in which divorce is forbidden:
On two exceptional occasions divorce was insisted on. These were when the returned exiles had married pagan wives in Babylon (Ezra 9-10; Neh.13:23ff.) and in Malachi 2:10-16 some had put away their Israelite wives so as to marry pagans.
- 1. When a man has falsely accused his wife of pre-marital unfaithfulness (Dt.22:13-19); and
- 2. When a man has seduced and had relations with a girl, and her father has compelled him to marry her (Dt.22:28-29; Ex.22:16-17).
In the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) a much different response to divorce is given. In the Gospels Yah'shua (Jesus) equates divorce and adultery (Mt.5:31-32; 19:3-9; Mk.10:2.12; Lk.16:18). Paul permits divorce when the spouse initiating the separation is not a believer, but insists that believers should not instigate divorce (1 Cor.7:1-16). Paul also allows remarriage of widows (1 Cor.7:39), but remains silent about the remarriage of divorced believers.
The Messianic Evangelical position has always been that there are no grounds for divorce save in the case of adultery which gives the man the legal right to divorce his wife (and vice versa) but is not under obligation to do so if repentance and reconcilliation can be effected. Indeed, forgiveness with reconcilliation is regarded as the 'higher path' for believers, with one constraint, namely, that adultery not be repeated a second time (Jn.8:1ff.).
Adultery (Heb.na'af = 'a woman who breaks wedlock') is defined biblically as:
J. The Complexities of Modern Society Considered
- 1. A married man fornicating with another married woman (whether betrothed or fully married);
- 2. A betrothed (as opposed to 'engaged') or fully married woman fornicating with either another married or unmarried man.
Because of the complexity of the many kinds of relationships in today's sexually promiscuous society, plus the general ignorance and controversy about the biblical teaching on multiple marriages, and therefore the very real confusion in the churches and messianic assemblies as to what 'marriage' and 'adultery' actually are, numerous articles have been prepared on this website that address the many complicated issues such as:
- 1. Same-sex liasons;
- 2. Domestic violence and abuse;
- 3. The marital status of someone who may be 'legally dead' according to New Covenant Torah (e.g. because of murder, pedophilia, incest, bestiality, kidnapping, witchcraft, etc.) - see the 25 Death Penalties;
- 4. The difference between adultery and vow-breaking (e.g. a single woman can never commit adultery according to Torah whereas a single man can because of Torah's plural marriage regulations);
- 5. Establishing who the legal partners are before Elohim (God) where there have been multiple sexual liasons and offspring (whose welfare is of prime consideration);
- 6. The implications of transgenderism;
- 7. The doctrinal problems associated with Bible translations and their denominational biases;
- 8. When to divorce or separate for a while (to allow time for reconcilliation); etc.
It is not always possible to form general rules for, or be dogmatic in, every situation where grace is necessarily factored into the overall equation, precisely because the Scriptures leave some matters open and also because considerable discernment is required on the part of those in the Messianic Community (Church) holding offenders to account (like Pastors). Also vital is the willingness on the part of those offended to forgive or not. Because sex and marriage are so sacred, it is important that the hightest standards are maintained (in a world where there are almost none any more), and where no specific rulings are given in the Davar (Word), a sound knowledge of the true divine scriptural tavnith or pattern becomes essential. Judgments therefore require great wisdom, sensitivity and pastoral skill. This website aims to assist in providing these.