A Critique of Jennifer G. Bird’s “Biblical Marriage: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means”
Quite simply… Jennifer G. Bird’s article “Biblical Marriage: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means” is more liberal biblical scholarship that bends over backwards to make current PC hot button issues conform to their understanding of scripture.
1) Just because certain marriages are described in the Bible doesn’t entail that God endorses them as good. This is a simple is/ought fallacy. So I take it that polygamy was entered into, but that doesn’t entail that it was God’s ideal or that there was nothing wrong with it.
Bird does give 2 Old Testament prescriptions: a) marrying one’s rapist and b) brother having to marry his widowed sister-in-law. As for the former, this is a typical gripe thrown out by skeptics, but it’s a distortion of what was actually going on. Highly recommend Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? (118-9) on this issue. Basically, he argues, along with other various scholars, that the Deut. 22 passage is the background to the Exodus 22:16-7 passage, and the idea is that the woman is somewhat complicit, even though she’s initially pressured. That’s why the text in Deut. says that “they are discovered” (vs. 28), not “he is discovered.” Further, the verb “seizes” in the Deut. passage is different from the verb for “forces” just a few verses prior. The former is a weaker form of the latter. Think statutory rapist, not “a dark-alley rapist whom the young woman tried to fight off or from whom she tried to run away” (Copan, 119).
Under the Old Testament system, the bride-price or dowry is obviously in jeopardy, since a non-virgin young woman isn’t as desirable in that culture. It would be almost impossible for her to marry someone else. According to the Exodus passage, the father need not give his daughter to the seducer. Thus, the daughter isn’t required to marry the seducer. If that happens, then the father is to get the dowry price for virgins. So actually the passages end up protecting the well-being of the woman and her family.
As for the brother marrying his widowed sister-in-law, that was the marriage arrangement. It wasn’t Enlightenment notions of marrying for romantic love. That’s a modern way of looking at what marriages should be about. Nonetheless, no one is to hate one’s own flesh, but to love and cherish it as the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 5:29. A disciple of Christ is to love even one’s enemies (John 13:34). So Bird seems to be making too much of romantic love being *foundational* for marriage. Of course it should be developed in marriage by anyone who wants a healthy marriage, but it need not be foundational as Bird seems to assume it should be.
Given what the Bible already prescribed for the one-flesh arrangement from the beginning and a certain reading of Lev. 18:18, I hold that if the brother was already married, it’s assumed he shouldn’t take another wife. The story of the sons of Judah seems to strongly suggest they were single men fulfilling their levirate duty. The family line was already being preserved through the married living brother and that was sufficient.
As for the New Testament, I don’t get the problem of Jesus calling His apostles for the short period of His ministry (3 and ½ years) to leave wives and kids and follow Him. Doesn’t our military require this on occasion? Hiatuses are not divorces. Sometimes they are necessary. After Jesus ascended, it’s obvious that the apostles went back to their families according to 1 Cor. 9:5. Paul also said that each was to remain in the position he was called (1 Cor. 7:17ff.). There’s nothing Bird offers of a justification for divorce. The only exception to that is found a few verses prior when the believing spouse is to let the unbelieving spouse go if he or she wants to. The believer is called to peace and remaining with the unbeliever if he or she wills. When one becomes committed to Christ and His kingdom, this takes priority over any other relationship. Jesus becomes Lord; not the spouse, and not the kids. When that happens, oftentimes it is literally a matter of leaving one's family for the sake of the kingdom of God because the unbelieving spouse won't have anything to do with it. It's not because the believing spouse is called to divorce. Beyond that, Jesus gives the exception for divorce, viz., sexual immorality or unfaithfulness (Mat. 5:32 and 19:1-8). So making oneself a eunuch for the kingdom ought to be understood in this context. If applicable to married people, it’s a spiritual truth of devotion to Christ and not an excuse to divorce.
Bird also brings out an apparent contradiction with Paul on marriage equality vs. marriage rule within the relationship. This is such a modern confusion! Just because we are all equal in the Lord, made in His image, doesn’t entail that one isn’t to be the spiritual head or authority in a marriage relationship. President Obama is an equal to me. We are both human. However, that doesn’t entail that I’m therefore no longer to submit to his authority. There’s no contradiction here.
Now I may be wrong about male headship in a “biblical marriage.” I may be wrong about everything else I just stated, but none of what Bird offers so far justifies that a biblical marriage allows for homosexuality. There’s no example of it in scripture. So just because biblical marriage may in fact turn out to be somewhat malleable doesn’t entail there are no limits to it. If that were the case, then I guess the Bible is open for me marrying my brother or my dog.
2) Bird’s second point is addressed by my first point. She’s right to say that those who love the Bible don’t have to endorse that women are to be treated as property and not persons to be loved and cherish and nurtured. Again, just because marriages of this sort are mentioned in the Bible, or just because there are examples of husbands treating their wives poorly, doesn’t entail that this is what the Bible teaches us to do.
3) Given the whole context of the Bible, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is to be understood. Not only does the Bible clearly speak against rape and cruelty, it also clearly speaks against homosexuality. Do I really need to justify this (not only does it go against the one-flesh arrangement in Genesis and not only does it go against Lev. 18:22, but it also goes against Rom. 1:26-7, 1 Cor. 6:9, and 1 Tim. 1:10)? So one can’t focus on one of the clear sins in the account of Sodom and Gomorrah without overlooking the others.
Bird goes on to say, “There are other passages people turn to, such as Leviticus 18:22, and focus on men having sex as an abomination.” Actually, no one is claiming that men having sex is an abomination. This is a very unscholarly, imprecise way of speaking. The focus of the passage is men having sex with other men.
According to Bird’s PC logic, Lev. 18:22 was simply for a time period in which God didn’t want the Israelites wasting their seed. However, since we are no longer living in that period, it’s perfectly fine for men to use their seed on other men in loving relationships. The problem with this is that it's a simple argument from silence. Bird never provides a reason we should believe her on this. Even if that were the case, then according to the very next verse, it would make just as much sense to argue that God only limited the Israelites from wasting their seed on animals for that time period. Now, of course God wouldn’t have any problem with a person having sex with one’s pet. This is ridiculous! Or how about the verse prior to 18:22? Now it's all right to sacrifice our kids to Molech? Why? Simply because this is what one stipulates.
The rejoinder will undoubtedly be that all actions are to be driven by love (however that's defined by the PC culture). However, homosexual relations aren’t loving relationships. They are just like any other fornicating relationship, and none of them are loving. Why? Simply because one is going against the Designer’s intent. A good society should promote the intimate relationships that form the basis of its very existence. Children naturally are best suited from the maleness of their fathers and the femaleness of their mothers in an objectively committed relationship. Subjectively committed relationships aren’t as valuable to the society, since they only work so long as one feels committed. When the feeling is gone, so is the relationship, and guess who really pays? The kids, of course. Teaching children they can do whatever they like and engage in homosexual relationships devalues the basis for a society. It promotes the culture of narcissicism we find ourselves in today. Here we use the other and take what we want instead of pointing the other to the good of the whole community.
Finally, Bird shows her biblical incompetency by claiming that “there is no specific place where ‘God Himself’ establishes marriage as a holy institution.” Hebrews 13:4 says, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” If God is the one who rightly judges here, then God is the one who rightly established marriage as a holy institution.
R. M. Sivulka
President, Courageous Christians United
October 30, 2014