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Series on marriage

We are back into our series on marriage, where we have been asking the question, ‘What is Christian marriage?’

I have shared with you two key components of marriage and will share a third today. The first is that it is a one-flesh union. This has to do with physical sexual union, but also a joining of two people in every way, and the bonding of the two into one. Second, marriage is a companionship of partners. It is sharing life together, loving and caring for each other and working together at common goals. Finally today, it is also a covenanted union.

Let’s begin by recognizing that –

Marriage is a covenant

For our purposes we can define a covenant as a binding commitment, in this case, to your spouse. (The blessings and also penalties for breaking the stipulations of the marriage covenant, especially in the Old Testament, fit this covenant idea as well). It is not a temporary, experimental, or consumerist relationship, where you stay in it until you don’t like it anymore and get out. It involves specific binding commitments and obligations to each other.

That Christian marriage is a covenant comes out in several ways in Scripture: 

1) Marriage is called a covenant. Proverbs 2:17 speaks of an adulterous woman as one “who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God.” (NIV). Malachi 2:14 speaks of an unfaithful husband in this way, “you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.”

2) Marriage is paralleled in many places to God’s covenant with his people. (Jeremiah 31:32; 11:10, 15 etc.). That is, God is pictured as married to Israel. And so we see from this the covenantal nature of human marriage. For instance in Ezekiel 16:8 God says to his people, his bride, “I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you . . .”

As this last verse evidences, 3) Marriage involves an exchange of vows. Vows are binding voluntary commitments. And as Numbers 30:2 says, “If a man vows a vow to the Lord . . . he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (Psalm 50:14) (Also see Jesus on keeping your word in Matthew 5:37)

The most basic vow is to take the other person as your spouse. Here are two examples from ancient Jewish documents: “she is my wife and I her husband from this day forever” (Elephantine); “you will be my wife according to the law of Moses.” Presumably a corresponding vow was said by the wife.

Interestingly, we have an example of this in Scripture between God and Israel. It is a divorce decree, however, which is the opposite of the marriage vow. This is found in Hosea 2:2. If we reverse it, the vow would be – “she is my wife and I am her husband.” (The covenant vow of God to Israel is the same in form – “I will be your God and you will be my people” – Leviticus 26:12; Deuteronomy 29:13)

There were also other vows and commitments made that had to do with marital obligations. Some of these are rooted in Exodus 21:10. The husband is to provide “food, clothing and oil.” And the wife is to use these for the family. (See also 1 Timothy 5:8.) (These came from Mosaic legislation about slaves. If a man takes a slave as his wife and then takes another wife, he cannot reduce the first wive’s food, clothing and oil. In Judaism this came to be applied to all wives).  The last one – “oil” came to have a double meaning. It can mean ointment, but also conjugal rights. Most translations, both ancient and modern say something like “marital rights.” Paul talks about these rights in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5.

This threefold set of obligations is seen in the description of God’s relationship with his bride, Israel:

  • God, the husband of Israel is portrayed as keeping these vows in Ezekiel 16. In vs. 8-9 he gave her conjugal love and also literal oil. In vs. 10-13 he gave her fine clothing, and in v. 13b he gave her excellent food.
  • Judah, his wife, did not keep her vows. In v. 15 she was sexually unfaithful to him. In vs. 16-18 she gave her clothing to idols, and in v. 19 she gave her food to idols. (See also Hosea 2:5; 8-13)

Vows and commitments would also include financial arrangements. The groom gave a financial gift to the bride’s family (the mohar or bride wealth, or less correctly bride price). Deuteronomy 22:28-29; Exodus 22:16-17; Genesis 24:53; Genesis 29:18; Genesis 34:12; 2 Samuel 3:14; Hosea 3:2. At least at one time it was 50 shekels of silver for a virgin. Perhaps it showed that the man is able to provide for the woman. This practice changed later (first century BC). The money was not paid unless the husband divorced the wife. This made marriage cheaper and divorce more expensive for the man.

The bride’s family gave a dowry to the husband, which was in essence her inheritance, and kept for her. This was a larger sum than the bride wealth. Judges 1:14-15; 1 Kings 9:16. If the husband died or wrongfully divorced her, breaking their agreement, she got this back. However, if she broke the agreement he retained it. This also discouraged divorce.

Later, the marriage contract was called the Ketubah. But since much of this had to do with what happens economically in case of the dissolution of the marriage, it became connected to divorce. And since the mohar (the amount to be paid in case of divorce) and the dowry were involved in this, the word Ketubah came to identified with these. (David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, pp. 82-83)

In a New Testament context, where polygamy is disallowed and divorce is severely restricted, marriage vows include a life-long and exclusive commitment to your spouse, and any children that come from your union. As Jesus said in Mark 10:9, “what God has joined together, let not man (or, a mere human) separate.”

The wedding ceremony enacts the marriage covenant

Although in ancient times the marriage covenant could also be written out, usually it was implemented simply by means of the verbal exchange of vows in the ceremony. This is what established the marriage covenant.

Both in ancient times and today this involves a public ceremony with witnesses and a feast. This is important because it shows that when the bride and groom live together:

  • Both have consented to this, there is no force involved.
  • And it protects both from the charge of sexual immorality.

We understand the role of human witnesses, but God is also a witness at the wedding. Malachi 2:14 talks about how some Israelite men had wrongly divorced their wives. It says, “the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth.” God is saying, I was there and heard the commitments that you made and have now broken. This shows us that our vows are made to each other, before others – but also before God.

The covenant nature of Christian marriage

So Christian marriage is not just a sexual union, which you can have with a prostitute, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:16 (see also Exodus 22:16-17 in relation to premarital sex). This will make you one-flesh with that person, but it is not a marriage, and in fact, should be stopped since it is a wrong use of sex.

And Christian marriage is also not just a sexual union plus living together as companions and partners. The Samaritan woman lived with a man who was not her husband, as we read in John 4:16-18. And she knew that this was wrong.

No, Christian marriage is a one-flesh union and it is a companionship of partners, but it is these built on the foundation of a covenant, with specific binding commitments. And it is this covenant that provides the proper context for a one-flesh union, a life-long companionship of partners, and for having and raising children.

By entering into a marriage covenant you take on the full responsibility of a marriage relationship – not some other, lessor kind of relationship. And you make yourself accountable for this before God and all the other witnesses.

The covenantal nature of Christian marriage makes clear that this is the most important human relationship you will ever have. It takes precedence over your relationship with your parents, blood ties, because you leave them to hold fast to your spouse (Genesis 2:24). And it takes precedence over your relationship with your children, also blood ties, because they will one day leave and most likely hold fast to a spouse of their own (Genesis 2:24).

Finally, let’s briefly look at marriage as a covenant in our key text –

Genesis 2:18-25

v. 24 says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

The man is told to “leave and cleave/hold fast” to his wife. This points to a new, covenanted union.

The word “hold fast” includes in its meaning loyalty and commitment. It is a word that often refers to Israel’s faithfulness to their covenant with God. There is also a covenant here to be committed to.

This also comes out in the phrase, “they shall become one flesh.” As we saw, the idea of “one-flesh” goes beyond the physical to the social; it works to bond two people together.

(I find Walter Brueggemann’s contention that the phrase “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” is a covenant formula unconvincing.  Although covenant is a prominent theme in this passage, this phrase is focused on the complimentarity between the man and the woman.) 

But the covenant nature of what is going on in Genesis 2 is especially evident when we see that it is portraying a wedding ceremony, the means of enacting a marriage covenant.

  • God gives away the bride – v. 22. God is here the wedding attendant or the father of the bride who gives her to the groom.
  • God is the witness to the wedding. God is the only third party in this case. But it is done publicly, before God.
  • God gives a covenant charge to the couple – v. 24. This verse can be read as simply the voice of the narrator. But Jesus takes it as the voice of God (Matthew 19:5). And so God is acting as the officiant of this wedding, charging them to leave and cleave, and become one flesh. (This also fits with the idea that God “joined them together” in Matthew 19:6).
  • It ends with the man and “his wife” – vs. 24-25. The phrase, “his woman/wife” (it can be translated either way) reflects the ancient marriage vow, “she is my woman/wife.” He has taken a marriage vow. (From a woman’s point of view it would say “her man/husband”).

William Higgins

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