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What Is the Biblical “Definition of Marriage”?

The real question is, “What are the biblical definitions of marriage?”

[Jesus] said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”
—Matthew 19:8-9

We can derive two things from this passage.

Jesus Knew What Happened Before the Torah

Jesus says that He knows the nature and purpose of marriage before there was even a Torahfirst five books of the Bible. No one other than God can remember that far back. Since Christians believe that Jesus is God incarnate, this is no surprise to us, but it was a surprise to the people He was speaking to, because it was a round-about assertion of His deity.

Given that Jesus is God, specifically the member of the Trinity who appears in human form, the Eastern Orthodox interpret all anthropomorphic”in the form of a human” appearances of God in the Old Testament as personal appearances of Jesus. In theological technical language, this means that they interpret all theophaniesappearances of God in human form as christophaniesappearances of Jesus, because if Jesus is God in human form, then God in human form is Jesus, which is kind of obvious when you put it that way. It explains how Moses could be talking to God face to face.

Peter, James, and John saw Jesus dictating the Torah to Moses at the TransfigurationMatthew 17:3, Mark 9:4, Luke 9:30. Therefore, Jesus knew what was in the beginning before He put a provision for divorce in the Torah.

I know what you are thinking, but it does not contradict or invalidate the Jewish view, because no one is saying that God did not speak to Moses from the burning bush or that God did not give Moses the Law on Mount Sinai. Everyone agrees that God did those things. The Orthodox are only only putting a finer point on it, in light of the Transfiguration. The difference between the Jewish and the Orthodox view is not whether God did it, but whether Jesus is God—which difference exists outside of this context anyway.

Jesus also does not mean that Moses made it up, He just means that Moses was the one who conveyed the message.

Marriage Has Changed

In essence, Jesus said that God’s original intention was for marriage to last until death, but He changed it so that marriage could also end in divorce. Which is big a relief to those of us who occasionally make bad decisions! There were more changes to the “definition of marriage” within the Bible, but in this context, Jesus is only speaking of divorce. Here are the others:

Weddings in the Bible

Did you ever realize that there are no weddings in the Bible?

Quite often the clergy presiding over a wedding may hold a black book, but it is either a prayer book containing the wedding ceremony, or a Bible that conceals the paper with the ceremony printed on it. It seems like the wedding ceremony is coming straight out of the Bible, but it isn’t, and no one says that it is. While the Bible does not describe any weddings, it contains a lot of wedding receptions (that is, wedding feasts), such as the one that follows the wedding at Cana in John 2 or the one that follows marriage of the Lamb in Revelation. The New Testament contains instructions for baptism and Communion, but no instructions for weddings. That is because in the early centuries of the church, most Christians were not legally able to marry under Roman law. Marriage ceremonies developed later.

There is no place in the Bible where two people stand next to each other in front of witnesses, exchange tokens of their commitment, and make pledges of their love and support for each other.

Except maybe in 1 Samuel 18:1-5. Oh, but that can’t be, because it involves two men, David and Jonathan. After all, David married several women, though his first wife hated him. However, when Jonathan was killed in battle, David said that he had loved Jonathan more than his wives2 Samuel 1:26. Other people can fight over what that means, I won’t.

Arranged Marriage, Purchased Wives, and Romance

Today in the United States, people marry each other for various unsavory reasons, such as money, status, and power, but most often because they love each other and want to live a common life.

In Genesis, people married the ones who were chosen for them, whether it was God, their mother, their father, or a deputized servant who did the choosing. Jacob managed to marry the woman he loved, but he had to earn her, and he could only do it after he married the woman his father-in-law had chosen for him.

For the people in the ancient church who were legally permitted to marry, marriages were still arranged—Saint Augustine was in love with a certain woman with whom he had a son, but they weren’t married. After they both converted to Christianity, they broke up, and he married the woman his mother had picked out for him.

This custom of arranged marriage continued in the western world. In about 1595, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. Juliet was obligated to marry the man her father had approved for her, but she loved Romeo, and they were secretly married, but it didn’t work out for them. The conflict between the marriage that was supposed to be and the marriage that actually was led to their deaths.

If this had taken place today, Romeo and Juliet would have been a very short play. Juliet would have said, “No, Dad. I can’t. Romeo and I have already eloped.” Dad would have been angry, but that would have been the end of it.

How Marriage Has Changed

God intended marriage to be between one man and one woman, except in Genesis 4:19 and other passages, and only for procreation, except in Genesis 2. In 1 Samuel 18:1-5, it looks for all the world like a same-sex marriage, but who am I to say that? There are legions of scholars who will explain that David and Jonathan were just good friends who started their friendship with a public ceremony and were loyal to each other until death.

When I was growing up, my mother explained to me that in many states, she would have been my father’s personal property under the law. She didn’t seem particularly scandalized by that. Today, married people are equals.

Some people today think that marriage is just a religious ceremony or a certificate from the government congratulating them on their love, and they say they don’t need it. It is true that they don’t need a wedding, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need a marriage. You can have a wedding without a marriage or a marriage without a wedding. You can have your friends and family gather around and proclaim your love for each other without getting legally married, and you can go to the courthouse and get married without having a wedding.

In my state, that’s $30 for the marriage license and $50 to go to the next room to have it solemnized, and you can do it in less than an hour unless there is a line.

So far as the law is concerned, marriage is a legal status that makes the spouses legal relatives, giving them rights, obligations, privileges, and advantages that they need in such a close relationship, but would not otherwise have.

A wedding is a fancy ceremony that most often happens at the same time that a marriage begins. Haven’t you noticed that, on the whole, the fancier the wedding, the shorter the marriage?

In all ages and places, people have also lived in marriage-like relationships that sometimes almost carried the same social and legal import.

The “Definition or Marriage” Changed and We All Survived

Marriage has changed a lot, even just within Genesis, and none of those changes have caused the end of civilization, the destruction of the world, the imprisonment of clergy, the abandonment of children, or even fire and brimstone raining down from the sky. None of them has forced Jesus to return against His will. If Suzie goes to Vegas, hires an Elvis impersonator, and marries a deadbeat, or if Ed marries Fred in the First Pretentious Church downtown, there’s no reason to worry. It has nothing to do with you.

The only marriage you need to worry about is the one you are in.