If it can be printed on a bumper sticker, it is not the whole truth. Bumper sticker slogans may be clever. They may express a bald opinion, but they do not, and cannot, communicate subtle and nuanced thought. They do not reflect the reason, if any, behind the opinion.
The bumper sticker pictured above was distributed free-of-charge by Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. According to its conservative algebra “Marriage equals one man plus one woman.” I frequently hear this norm attributed to the Bible.
I counter with a bit of doggerel verse I memorized long ago.
King David and King Solomon led merry, merry lives
With many, many lady friends and many, many wives
But when old age crept over them with many, many qualms
King Solomon wrote the Proverbs
And King David wrote the Psalms.
–James Ball Naylor, 1935.
The simple truth is that the Bible does not define marriage. There is no verse in Scripture that says “Marriage equals one man plus one woman” or something to that effect. In fact, the Bible describes several kinds of marriage and does so without judgment. Certainly the norm of one man and one woman is most common in the Bible, as I believe it has been in every time, place and culture, but polygamy, concubinage and levirate marriage are also found in the Bible.
Levirate marriage was the practice of a man marrying his brother’s childless widow in order to raise children for his dead brother. This kept the deceased’s name alive and his inheritance intact. It also provided a measure of security for the widow in a society that treated women as chattel property. The word “levirate” derives from the Latin word “levir" meaning “brother-in-law.” The practice of levirate marriage is described in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and features in the stories of Ruth, Tamar (Genesis 38) and Jesus’ dispute with the Sadducees in Matthew 22:38 ff and parallels.
Jacob, who became Israel, and whose children gave their names to the twelve tribes of Israel, was a polygamist. His children were born to his two wives and their two handmaids. See Genesis, chapters 29 and 30.
As for Israel’s two greatest kings, David had multiple wives and concubines, but Solomon takes the prize with “seven hundred wives…and three hundred concubines” who led him into idolatrous worship (1 Kings 11:3ff.). If that seems a bit excessive, it may account for the command, no doubt written after the fact and postdated, found in Deuteronomy 17:17
And he (the king) must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away….
To sum up, the Bible does not mandate that marriage equals one man and one woman. The Scriptures recognize several forms of marriage, including polygamy, concubinage and levirate marriage.
Next: a look at Genesis 2