Biblical marriage isn’t biblical

by Paul Braterman

There are two possible attitudes towards Scripture. One is to regard it as the direct and infallible word of God. This leads to certain problems. The other one, equally compatible with devotion, is to regard it as the recorded writings of men (it almost always is men), however inspired, writing at a specific time and place and constrained by the knowledge and concerns of that time. This invites deeper study of what was at stake for the writers, the unravelling of different narrative strands and voices, and discussion of whatever message the Scriptures may have for our own times. I expect that most readers here will adopt the second approach, while those who adopt the first are not to be dissuaded by mere rational argument, so why am I even discussing it?

Because we need to expose the hypocrisy of those powerful false prophets who, while claiming to be guided exclusively by Scripture, systematically misapply, distort, and even completely misquote the sacred text. That exactly is what Answers in Genesis, like other creationist organisations, does in its online writings, and in its Creation Museum and Ark Encounter.

I have come across four specific areas that concern me (no doubt there are many others):

  • Climate change
  • Abortion
  • Entry into the Ark, and subsequent dispersal
  • Biblical marriage

I have written here before about the lengths to which all the major creationists organisations will go, acting in concert, to downplay the significance of human-caused global warming. Here I want to draw attention to just one of their regular arguments, most recently presented as a refutation of Greta Thunberg’s compilation The Climate Book.

The argument is that God’s promise in Genesis 8:22 should reassure us, so there is no need to be alarmed. Here is what the verse actually says:

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.

We are told that whatever is happening can’t really be all that serious, because of this promise. But if you look at the actual text, it merely says that there will not again be a total disaster on the scale of the Flood. This is a very limited commitment, as spelt out more fully over several verses later on in Genesis 9:9ff [1]. Nothing here to preclude widespread famine (a recurrent theme in the post-Flood world of Genesis), or indeed any degree of devastation, short of total annihilation.

Next, abortion. What does the Bible say about abortion? Absolutely nothing! The creationist organisations cite references to children in the womb and conclude that abortion is murder, from the moment of fertilisation onwards; see e.g.’s article, Abortion: The answer’s in Genesis.

No it isn’t. Various verses are used by creationists to establish that the Bible regards the fetus as a person, but line by line examination of the verses cited shows that they say no such thing. In support of its claim that abortion is murder, with no exceptions for irrelevant details like rape or incest, Answers in Genesis cites a passage, Exodus 21:22-25, that refers to an accidentally induced miscarriage. This is the only place where the Bible says anything at all relevant to abortion. However, the actual text shows the very opposite of what is claimed; causing someone’s wife to miscarry is a mere civil matter, to be settled by paying damages, and this is explicitly contrasted with bodily harm to an actual person, to be punished with an eye for an eye in retaliation. I give the messy details in a footnote [2], for the benefit of those readers interested in such matters.

You may have felt sorry for all those unfortunate people drowned in Noah’s Flood. According to the Creation Museum, you don’t need to, because they’d been told what was coming but didn’t pay attention. Genesis tells us that Noah was a righteous man in his generation, and 2Peter describes him as a preacher of righteousness . Working from this basis, the museum tells us that Noah tried to warn all those wicked people, but they refused to listen. There is even an animatronic Methuselah, whose lifespan overlapped Noah’s, telling visitors about this.

Except the Bible actually tells us the exact opposite. There is no reference whatsoever to Noah warning anyone except, of course, his immediate family. 2Peter does indeed tell us that he was a preacher (I was wrong about that detail in my earlier article), but we are not told what he preached about, or to whom. And quite explicitly, in Matthew 24:38-39 (emphasis added),

For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away

It seems that Noah, like his Babylonian counterpart Utnapishtim, kept his explosive knowledge to himself.

The replica structure comprises a series of timber cross frames, spaced 18 feet on center, that include two 18-inch-deep glulam ribs, which form the building's curved hull.Ark Encounter under construction, showing timber cross frames and wooden cladding panels, from Architect magazine. Fair use claimed.

The Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky, offers visitors the experience of visiting Noah’s Ark, with every impression of authenticity, down to scuff marks on the decks. So that’s how he did it!

It’s a fraud. All the Bible tells us is that the Ark was 300 cubits long by fifty cubits wide by thirty cubits high. Answers in Genesis argues that these overall dimensions do not imply that it was actually shaped like a pencil box. On this narrow point I would agree with them, but on little else. The method of construction, keel and frame, was not developed until around 500 A.D., while Architect magazine says of the actual structure  “From a technical standpoint, of course, the ark is still more a building than a boat. Besides being up on concrete piers, it wouldn’t fare any better in a flood than a typical museum building.” According to Irving Finkel of the British Museum, in his scholarly The Ark before Noah, the proportions of the Ark are based on a boat type used on the Euphrates as late as the nineteenth century. These are built upwards from a platform of woven branches, while the Ark Encounter incorporates over 90 tonnes of steel plating, while its cross-beams are 4 ft diameter spruce logs, which required custom built 21st Century machinery.

One final detail regarding the Ark story. In Genesis. it is immediately followed by a table of genealogies, and then the Tower of Babel episode, starting with the statement (Genesis 11:2) that

And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar [Mesopotamia] and settled there.

But if they had been migrating away from the mountains of Ararat, where the Ark rested, towards Shinar, they would have been coming from the west! The Creation Museum has a simple solution to this problem; truncate the verse displayed to read

It came to pass that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.

and, in the accompanying video, change it  furtherto read “They moved down from the mountains of Ararat.” Problem solved.

Regarding marriage, the Answers in Genesis position has been directly carried over from that of Henry Morris, co-author of The Genesis Flood, foundational text of the 20th to 21st  Century creationist movement, in his 1989 The Long War Against God. As Genesis shows us, man and woman were originally one flesh; therefore marriage is between one man and one woman, polygamy is wrong, and same-sex marriage a violation of God’s law.

Moreover, according to AiG echoing Henry Morris, the women’s liberation movement is misguided because

The God-given relationship between man and woman is expressed most clearly in the comparison with the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:24–25):

Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her .

Ephesians 5 is thought to be a genuine Pauline epistle, so if you really think that Paul was expressing the unchanging will of God, that must be the way God wants it. It is clearly the way that Henry Morris and AiG want it.

Genesis, however, is something else again.

I will stick with the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, since they presumably represent the pinnacle of virtue. Abraham and Sarah (at this point still known as Abram and Sarai) are childless after many years, so Sarai tells Abram to sleep with her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, which he does, begetting a son later called Ishmael. At this point, Abram is 86 years old, while Sarai is 10 years younger. Hagar gets uppity, so Sarai complains to Abram, who tells her to deal with Hagar as she sees fit. Hagar runs away, but the Lord tells her to go back again. In due course Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, and God grants them a child, to be called Isaac. Hagar and Ishmael now get booted out, but Abraham puts in a good word for Ishmael, and God promises look after him. By now Abraham is a hundred years old. In due course, Sarah dies, and Abraham (now aged 137) takes a third wife, Keturah, who bears him six sons. There is also reference (Genesis 25:6) to the children of his concubines, but whether these are in addition to those already mentioned is not clear.

Between Sarah’s death, and Abraham’s marriage to Keturah, he arranges for his son Isaac (40 years old at the time) to marry a relative, to be brought from Abraham’s birthplace in Mesopotamia, and entrusts the matter to his senior servant, Eliezer. The whole thing was arranged without bride or groom ever having seen each other, though the bride (Rebecca) did give her agreement. Rebecca seems to have called the shots in that marriage, but apart from that there was nothing that Answers in Genesis could take exception to. It was Rebecca who tricked Isaac into giving his major blessing to Jacob, rather than to his marginally older twin brother Esau.

Rebecca realises that Jacob had better stay out of Esau’s way for a while, and manipulates Isaac into telling him to visit his uncle Laban back in Haran in Mesopotamia, and marry one of his daughters. We all know what happens next. Jacob sees Rachel, it’s a love match, but Laban makes Jacob work tending his flocks for seven years, as bride price. When the seven years are up, Laban does a bait and switch, and Jacob finds himself in bed with Rachael’s older sister, Leah. Paying off the bride price for Rachel takes another seven years, before he can have her, at which point he is married to both.

Both Rachel (when she initially had difficulty conceiving) and Leah (when she was past childbearing) gave their handmaids, originally provided to them by their father Laban, for Jacob to sleep with. No moral problems here of course, since the handmaids were the wives’ property, legitimately acquired. Adding together the handmaids and his wives, Jacob ended up with twelve sons, roughly [3] corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel, Israel being a synonym for Jacob. So now we can add, once again, the forced concubinage of female slaves to our concept of Biblical marriage, along with bigamy.

So, to date, biblical marriage includes bigamy, fathers selling their daughters, and female slaves being impregnated in accord with their owners’ wishes.

There is yet more to come, again involving Jacob’s immediate family, casting further light on woman’s biblical role. If a married man were to die childless, according to biblical rules it would then become the duty of his nearest adult male relative to sleep with the widow, the offspring to be considered as children of the man who had died, in order to keep his inheritance alive. This was, after all, the woman’s function. If the relative refuses to do his duty, the widow then publicly shames him in open court by untying his shoelaces, before she is free to remarry according to her wishes. This (the shoelace ceremony, though not the rest of it) is still embodied in Jewish family law. The practice, known as levirate (brother-in-law) marriage, is behind the life-and-death drama of Genesis 38 (where Jacob’s son Judah is tricked into doing his duty and impregnating Tamar) as well as the idyll of the Book of Ruth, set ten generations later, in which Ruth seduces her late husband’s kinsman. The male relative’s duty, and the shaming ceremony, are specified in detail in Deuteronomy, so you can’t get much more biblical than that.

Happily, our morality is not biblical. Fathers do not have the right to sell their daughters. Monogamy is almost universal. Wives do not have slave girls who can be ordered to get impregnated on their behalf. We do not poke people’s eyes out as punishment. And most of us (I hope) do not really think that wives are duty bound to “submit to their husbands,” let alone “in everything.”

There is, however, one bit of biblical morality that I would strongly advocate. The bit in Exodus, and again in Deuteronomy, where it tells you not to bear false witness. And that’s one bit that Answers in Genesis and the like violate shamelessly. So next time you come across any of the creationist organisations quoting Scripture, check out what the text actually says, because whether or not you trust Scripture, you certainly can’t trust their use of it.

I thank Emma Frances Bloomfield, John Crooks, the Rev. Michael Roberts, and Susan and William Trollinger for helpful discussions.

1] An example of the repeated near-duplications in the Flood narrative, now almost universally regarded by biblical scholars as the merging of two separate accounts.

2] The article I cited is by Jonathan Sarfati, among the most erudite and logical proponents of creationism. He refers to Psalm 139:13–16, a beautiful passage. In Sarfati’s chosen translation:

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

Here we have a celebration of the process by which a person comes into being within the womb. The very opposite of the claim that the fertilised egg is already the equivalent of a person.

Next, like other creationist antiabortionists, he cites Jeremiah 1:5:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.

Similar language is used about special individuals throughout the Bible. But again, this celebrates the process of formation of the person, and God’s knowledge of his future role. No help here for the anti-abortionist.

Central to Sarfati’s argument is Genesis 25:21–22, where the word ben, meaning “child” or “son,” is applied to the fetus. From this, he claims that the fetus should be as fully protected as a fully formed person. However, there is a direct biblical refutation of such an interpretation, in the case considered in Exodus 21:22-25:

When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

I’m not sure how many would agree with such penalties, but that’s not the issue here. The miscarried fetus is described as “her children”, using the word yeled that describes a child after birth. The point is that despite the use of this word a clear distinction is made between merely causing a miscarriage (settled by paying compensation), and bodily harm or killing.

3] Only roughly, because the descendants of one son (Levi) did not have lands of their own, while Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, were both granted their own territory.