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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary


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From the beginning God’s ideal for marriage has been that one man and one woman live together, independent of parents, in lifelong union (Genesis 2:18-24; Matthew 19:4-6). This ideal union is broken only by death, in which case the surviving partner is free to remarry (Romans 7:2-3; 1 Corinthians 7:39; 1 Timothy 5:14).

Polygamy in the Old Testament

The early history of the human race is one of almost total departure from God, so that only a very small minority of people retained any real understanding of God (Genesis 6:1-8; Romans 1:20-27). Polygamy, the practice of having several wives at the same time, became so widespread that even God’s people did not always regard it as wrong (Genesis 25:6; 2 Samuel 5:13; 1 Kings 11:1-3). Inevitably, jealousy and conflict resulted, leading them eventually to recognize that God’s ideal of monogamy was best (Genesis 21:8-10; Genesis 29:21-35; Genesis 30:1-24; Deuteronomy 21:15-17; Judges 8:30-35; Judges 9:1-6; 1 Samuel 1:4-8; 2 Samuel 3:2-5; 1 Kings 11:1-8).

In ancient Israel it was considered a matter of social shame if a wife did not have children (Genesis 16:1; Genesis 30:1; 1 Samuel 1:10-11; Luke 1:7). According to one custom, if a wife was not able to have children, she may have allowed her husband to produce a child by her maidservant. All legal rights over the child belonged to the wife, not the maid (Genesis 16:2; Genesis 30:1-8). (Concerning the case where a married man died without leaving children see WIDOW.)

Marriage customs

Among the ancient Israelites, engagement to marry was almost as binding as marriage. Unfaithfulness within an engagement was considered as bad as adultery (Deuteronomy 22:23-27; Matthew 1:18-20). Parents usually chose the marriage partners for their sons and daughters (Genesis 21:21; Genesis 24:1-4; Genesis 38:6; Ruth 3:1-5), though they may have taken into consideration any preference that a son or daughter indicated (Genesis 24:58-61; Genesis 34:4; Genesis 34:8; Judges 14:2; 1 Samuel 18:20-21).

The custom was for the bridegroom to give some payment or service to the parents of the bride as the price for the daughter he had taken from them (Genesis 29:18; Genesis 29:30; Genesis 34:12; 1 Samuel 18:25). The bride’s parents usually gave a gift to the married couple which, in wealthy families, often consisted of servants or land (Genesis 29:24; Genesis 29:29; Judges 1:15; 1 Kings 9:16).

Both the bridegroom and the bride wore special clothes for the wedding ceremony and the associated festivities (Isaiah 61:10; Jeremiah 2:32; Revelation 19:7-8; Revelation 21:2). The bridegroom had his best man, and the bride her bridesmaids (Psalms 45:14; John 3:29). The bridegroom and his friends went and brought the bride from her father’s house to his own house, where the feast was held (Psalms 45:14-15; Matthew 25:1-13). The wedding feast was a time of great celebration, and all who were invited as guests were given special clothes for the occasion (Matthew 22:1-4; Matthew 22:11-12; John 2:1-11). Festivities sometimes went on for a week (Genesis 29:27; Matthew 9:14-15).

Total union

Whatever the traditions or procedures, marriage is more than a social custom or a legal arrangement. It is also more than a sexual relationship. It is an unselfish giving of each partner to the other in a union that excludes all others. God intends people to have and to enjoy sexual relations, but only as part of a total relationship where a man and a woman commit themselves to each other for life (Matthew 19:5-6; Hebrews 13:4). Divorce is not part of God’s plan for human society (Malachi 2:16; Matthew 5:32; Matthew 19:8-9; see DIVORCE).

Human sexuality is one of God’s gifts to humankind and, like all God’s gifts, it can be properly enjoyed or shamefully abused (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5; 1 Timothy 4:3-4). The Bible encourages a healthy enjoyment of sex within marriage (Proverbs 5:18-19; Ecclesiastes 9:9; Song of Song of Solomon 1:12-13; Song of Solomon 7:6-13; Song of Solomon 8:1-3), but it forbids sexual relations before marriage or with any person other than one’s marriage partner (Leviticus 18:6-18; Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:20-22; Malachi 2:14; Mark 6:18; Romans 7:2; cf. Matthew 5:27-28; see ADULTERY; FORNICATION). It condemns prostitution, incest, bestiality and homosexual practices as perversions. They are sins against one’s own body (Leviticus 18:22-23; Leviticus 19:29; Leviticus 20:14-17; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Corinthians 6:13-18; Revelation 22:15).

In marriage as God intended it, there is an equality between the man and the woman (Genesis 2:23-24). Though there may be physical, emotional and psychological differences between the male and the female, the two complement each other so that each is equipped to do what the other cannot. Together they form a unit, with each dependent on the other (1 Corinthians 7:3-4; 1 Corinthians 11:11-12).

God holds the man ultimately responsible for the household that comes into being through the marriage (Genesis 3:9-12; 1 Corinthians 11:3; cf. Romans 5:12). Husbands have at times thought this responsibility gives them special privileges that allow them to treat their wives as inferiors instead of as equals (Genesis 3:16), but such a state of affairs was not God’s original intention. Sin has spoiled the marriage relationship as it has spoiled everything else in human society. However, because of the exercise of Christian love, Christian marriage ought to achieve marital harmony, even in circumstances where other marriages do not.

Christian love is the sort of self-sacrificing love that Christ exercised – serving others rather than pleasing self. Husband and wife must exercise such love towards each other (Ephesians 5:1-2), though the husband in particular is required to make sacrifices (Ephesians 5:25-29).

Likewise husband and wife must exercise submission to each other (Ephesians 5:21), though the wife in particular is required to recognize the husband’s headship of the family (Ephesians 5:22-24). Where each is prepared to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of the other, the marriage will be enriched (Ephesians 5:33; see HUSBAND; WIFE). It will also be a fitting picture of the relationship between Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:29-32).

Special considerations

Since their relationship with Christ governs all their other relationships, Christians should not marry those who do not share their faith in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 6:14-16; cf. 1 Corinthians 7:39). However, where one partner of a non-Christian marriage later becomes a Christian, the marriage should be maintained. God understands the circumstances, and the Christian should do everything possible to make the marriage work harmoniously (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).

In certain circumstances it may be God’s will for a person not to marry, and this may at times require much self-discipline (Jeremiah 16:2; Matthew 19:121 Corinthians 1:7-8,17,32-35). Even among those who intend to marry, self-discipline is necessary. They must take into consideration the added responsibilities that marriage brings (1 Corinthians 7:32-34), and must not marry hastily, particularly when there is the possibility of increased social and economic hardship (1 Corinthians 7:25-31). But if an unmarried person is constantly aflame with sexual passion, it may be better to marry, lest the temptations prove to be too great (1 Corinthians 7:9; 1 Corinthians 7:36-38; cf. 1 Corinthians 7:5).

While the Christian teaching on marriage is based on principles that the Creator set out for his creatures, it also acknowledges the weaknesses of human nature and the need to deal with them sensibly. Christian morality requires God’s people to uphold his standards when others want to destroy them. At the same time Christian love requires them to give support to those who, having ignored God’s law, are sorry for their sin and need help in rebuilding their lives (John 8:1-11; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 6:1-2).

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Marriage'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. 2004.

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