Today is my first wedding anniversary! Married life is wonderful, and I have a wonderful person to share it with. In part because of my anniversary, I have been pondering marriage in the bible. (Why? It’s better than laundry.) As I reread, I am struck again and again about how much marriage in the bible sucks, especially if you happen to be a woman. The Torah might as well be Sharia Law(*) for its depiction of the rights of women. Even the New Testament isn’t much better: in 1 Corinthians, Paul recommends that if you aren’t married, you should stay that way. Jesus is at least known to have attended a wedding…
In honor of my anniversary, I’m going to do something different. Over the next week, I will be positing my thoughts on a different aspect of biblical marriage, one post every day. For simplicity, I’m limiting myself to the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible. Next year, I hope to be able to move forward into the later books and possibly even the New Testament.
Read on for Part 1: Marriage in Genesis, in which we discover that woman was created for man… or sometimes also his brother.
(*) Note: I know next to nothing about Sharia Law, except by reputation. My suspicion is that its reputation is tainted by the Judeo-Christian sources that report on such things. I have a distinct suspicion that it’s probably not that far off of early Jewish teaching.
Before I get to marriage, an apology: I never did post the Sukkot article this year. I got stuck on a few points that required rabbinical clarification and wasn’t able to get them in time. Next year!
Marriage and the Creation Story
For the most part, the Torah is awful when it comes to marriage and the rights of women, but at least it starts off on the right foot. In fact, one of the most beautiful passages on marriage is right at the top, in Genesis 2. If you may recall from my note on Adam and Eve, God was in a pickle: he was trying to find a good companion for Adam among the animals, but there just wasn’t a good one there. God decides to do the only natural thing, create a new being as man’s partner:
And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the place with flesh instead thereof. And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from the man, made He a woman, and brought her unto the man. And the man said: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.
You could read a note of subservience in this passage, but I don’t. (That will come later.) A man “cleaves unto his wife” and are “one flesh”. Certainly the woman is in part man’s caretaker, but she is not his maid. Instead, she replaces his parents as the target of his devotion and love. This vision of a man clinging onto his wife in need is opposite to the typical view of a damsel in distress; I love it. The couple are “one flesh”, which I understand as “one equal flesh.” While the word love is never used here, this may be one of the most complete expressions of non-sexual love in the Torah: the need we feel for our spouse as from the heart. It’s beautiful.
Sadly, that lasts only until the next chapter and it’s really downhill from there:
Unto the woman He said: ‘I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy travail; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’
Eve’s punishment for eating the apple was to be a slave to her husband, and for all women to be slaves to their men for all eternity. If this isn’t enough to make me want to chuck the Torah out the window (sorry!), I don’t know what is. The message here is that women are property, plain and simple. And not only are they property, it’s their FAULT they are property. It’s like original sin for some Christian denominations, except you can’t get out of it through baptism.
In some way, we can look on this now and find it funny, but it’s hardly a wonder that so many of the marriages in Genesis were a mess. Abraham had his messy triangles with Sarah and Hagar, not to mention the two times he got his wife married to someone else by accident. Isaac’s wife was a manipulative schemer. Jacob married the wrong woman in a drunken stupor; one can only imagine how the first couple years after that went. Joseph was falsely accused of adultery. Onan struggled NOT to have to marry his brother’s widow. Even Moses was given heck for his inter-racial marriage. (Though God stood up for him on that one, which was nice.)
Actually, there is one remaining echo that I like of the equality of marriage, and it’s in Leviticus:
The nakedness of thy father’s wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father’s nakedness.
On the surface, this is a law about not seeing your step-mother (or mother) naked. But the implication is grander than that: a man’s wife’s nakedness is that man’s nakedness. Maybe I’m trying too hard, but isn’t that a nice reflection of the “one flesh” idea from Genesis 2? My suspicion is that early scholars may not have seen it that way, but I’m fond of it anyway.
Up Next: On Marrying Your Brother