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Barack Obama's presidency

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The Bible's Odd Idea of Marriage

By The Rev. Howard Bess
July 2, 2009

Editor’s Note: In the battle over gay marriage, opponents often describe marriage as “a sacred institution” with the religious implication that one must follow God’s dictates as expressed in the Bible or some other holy book.

But the Bible has some odd ideas about how marriage should work – including a requirement that a dead man’s brother must procreate with the widow (if there was no son) or face having a sandal removed – as Baptist minister Howard Bess recalls:

“Marriage is a cultural thing.” So began a very good sermon that I recently heard by the Rev. Diane O’Connell at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Anchorage, Alaska.

My mind was set in rapid motion as I considered the raging arguments that are now taking place all over the country. What is marriage? How should we codify marriage in the laws of our land?

The discussions become very sticky when our gay friends enter the debate and ask for equal treatment under the law. The exchanges become very heated when a participant demands that we turn to the Bible for answers that will once and for all settle the issues.

Many well-meaning people want us to set aside the reality that the United States was built on a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution with a Bill of Rights. On the issue of marriage the Bible, so they say, should be our ultimate authority.

I remain unmoved from my historic Baptist roots, and I too give a special place to the messages that are found in the Bible. When I feel it is appropriate, I do not hesitate to quote generously from the Bible writings.

I treasure the contents of the Bible and honor those who authored its words. The writers were special people and typically wrote in difficult times that required strong opinions and vigorous debate. The wisdom found in the Bible has been fundamental in the development of western culture.

When vigorous debate develops in the public square, it is foolish to reject or ridicule the wisdom and teachings that are found in the Bible.

There is nothing stupid or un-American when people bring their Bibles to the public square where we discuss marriage and the challenge to include fully our gay brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews and neighbors in our legal family structures.

However, in the marriage debate I insist that not just isolated portions of the Bible be allowed in the debate, but that the whole Bible be brought to the table.

Since it is rare that Bible believers have read the whole Bible, I am taking space to quote an extended passage from Deuteronomy 25:5-10.
“When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.

“But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’

“Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying ‘I have no desire to marry her,’ then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal from his foot, spit in his face, and declare ‘This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’

“Throughout Israel his family will be known as ‘the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.’”

The custom that is described seems very strange to us in 2009. In ancient Israel it was not strange, but a part of a system that was used to define property rights and to maintain social order.
My point in repeating this passage from Deuteronomy is to illustrate that the Bible does not have a single set of rules for marriage that can be applied to a modern society. An honest student of the Bible can trace the changing understanding of marriage among the Israelites and identify the reason for the changes.

I could have pointed out that Israelites were polygamous and men fathered children with the slave girls they owned. Abraham married his sister. Women had no rights and were considered property. Wealthy men accumulated wives and concubines, not for love but for breeding stock.

All of these practices can be understood, and the reasons for the systems can be justified.  What seems strange to us in the 21st century was not strange to ancient cultures of the Near East. 

The material of the Bible reveals a very important fact. Down through history marriage practices have been determined by cultural needs and customs. To assert that there is such a thing as Biblical marriage is not a defensible reading of the Bible.

The Bible makes no statement about marriage between two committed persons of the same sex. Same sex marriage is never a subject of concern in the Bible. The culture of early Christian churches showed no concern for such relationships.

This brings us to the early 21st century in America. Our American society also needs to define social structures. Women are no longer a lesser partner in any relationship. Children need secure environments in which to grow up. Men need to know that procreation is a lesser part of their societal responsibilities.

The phenomenon of the stable, loving same-sex couple is a fixed part of our society.

The discussions about marriage that we are now having are needed, and a broad spectrum of people should participate in the discussion.

I insist that people who treasure the Bible and its ethical insights ought to be at the discussion table as we talk about marriage in America. I also insist that those who bring their Bible to the discussion should read it before they arrive.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is           

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