Eight Marriage Types In The Bible
We have found eight types of marriages mentioned in the Bible:
- The standard nuclear family: Genesis 2:24 describes how a man leaves his family of
origin, joins with a woman, consummates the marriage and lives as a couple. There were quite a few differences between the
customs and laws of contemporary North Americans and of ancient
Israelites. In ancient Israel:
- Inter-faith marriages were theoretically forbidden. However, they were sometimes formed.
- Children of inter-faith marriages were considered illegitimate.
- Marriages were generally arranged by family or friends; they did not result from a gradually evolving, loving relationship that developed during a period of courtship.
- A bride who had been presented as a virgin and who could not be proven to be one was stoned to death by the men of her village. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21) There appears to have been no similar penalty for men who engaged in consensual pre-marital sexual activity.
- Polygamous marriage: A man
would leave his family of origin and join with his first wife. Then, as
finances allowed, he would marry as many additional women as he desired.
The new wives would join the man and his other wives in an already
established household. Polygamy was practiced by members of the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the
Mormons, until the practice was suspended, a least temporarily, in the
late nineteenth century. It is still practiced by separated
fundamentalist Mormon groups which have left and been
excommunicated from the main church.
There are many references to polygamous marriages in the Bible:
- Lamech, in Genesis 4:19, became the first known polygynist. He had two wives.
- Subsequent men in polygamous relationships included:
- Esau with 3 wives;
- Jacob: 2;
- Ashur: 2;
- Gideon: many;
- Elkanah: 2;
- David: many;
- Solomon had 700 wives of royal birth;
- Rehaboam: 3;
- Abijah: 14.
- Jehoram, Joash, Ahab, Jeholachin and Belshazzar also had multiple wives.
- From the historical record, it is known that Herod the Great had nine wives.
We have been unable to find references to polyandrous marriages in the Bible -- unions involving one woman and more than one man. It is unlikely that many existed because of the distinctly inferior status given to women; they were often treated as property in the Hebrew Scriptures.
- Levirate Marriage: The name of this type of marriage is derived from the Latin word "levir," which means "brother-in-law." This involved a woman who was widowed without having borne a son. She would be required to leave her home, marry her brother-in-law, live with him, and engage in sexual relations. If there were feelings of attraction and love between the woman and her new husband, this arrangement could be quite agreeable to both. Otherwise, the woman would have to endure what was essentially serial rapes with her former brother-in-law as perpetrator. Their first-born son was considered to be sired by the deceased husband. In Genesis 38:6-10, Tamar's husband Er was killed by God for unspecified sinful behavior. Er's brother, Onan, was then required by custom to marry Tamar. Not wanting to have a child who would not be considered his, he engaged in an elementary (and quite unreliable) method of birth control: coitus interruptus. God appears to have given a very high priority to the levirate marriage obligation. Being very displeased with Onan's behavior, God killed him as well. Ruth 4 reveals that a man would be required to enter into a levirate marriage not only with his late brother's widow, but with a widow to whom he was the closest living relative.
- A man, a woman and her property -- a female slave: As described in Genesis 16, Sarah and Abram were infertile. Sarah owned Hagar, a female slave who apparently had been purchased earlier in Egypt. Because Hagar was Sarah's property, she could dispose of her as she wished. Sarah gave Hagar to Abram as a type of wife, so that Abram would have an heir. Presumably, the arrangement to marry and engage in sexual activity was done without the consent of Hagar, who had such a low status in the society of the day that she was required to submit to what she probably felt were serial rapes by Abram. Hagar conceived and bore a son, Ishmael. This type of marriage had some points of similarity to polygamous marriage, as described above. However, Hagar's status as a human slave in a plural marriage with two free individuals makes it sufficiently different to warrant separate treatment here.
- A man, one or more wives, and some concubines: A man could keep numerous concubines, in addition to one or more wives. These women held an even lower status than a wife. As implied in Genesis 21:10, a concubine could be dismissed when no longer wanted. According to Smith's Bible Dictionary, "A concubine would generally be either (1) a Hebrew girl bought...[from] her father; (2) a Gentile captive taken in war; (3) a foreign slave bought; or (4) a Canaanitish woman, bond or free." They would probably be brought into an already-established household. Abraham had two concubines; Gideon: at least 1; Nahor: 1; Jacob: 1; Eliphaz: 1; Gideon: 1; Caleb: 2; Manassah: 1; Saul: 1; David: at least 10; Rehoboam: 60; Solomon: 300!; an unidentified Levite: 1; Belshazzar: more than 1.
- A male soldier and a female prisoner of war: Numbers 31:1-18 describes how the army of the ancient Israelites killed every adult Midianite male in battle. Moses then ordered the slaughter in cold blood of most of the captives, including all of the male children who numbered about 32,000. Only the lives of 32,000 women - all virgins -- were spared. Some of the latter were given to the priests as slaves. Most were taken by the Israeli soldiers as captives of war. Deuteronomy 21:11-14 describes how each captive woman would shave her head, pare her nails, be left alone to mourn the loss of her families, friends, and freedom. After a full month had passed, they would be required to submit to their owners sexually, as a wife. It is conceivable that in a few cases, a love bond might have formed between the soldier and his captive(s). However, in most cases we can assume that the woman had to submit sexually against her will; that is, she was raped.
- A male rapist and his victim: Deuteronomy 22:28-29 requires that a female virgin who is not engaged to be married and who has been raped must marry her attacker, no matter what her feelings were towards the rapist. A man could become married by simply sexually attacking a woman that appealed to him, and paying his father-in-law 50 shekels of silver. There is one disadvantage of this approach: he was not allowed to subsequently divorce her.
- A male and female slave: Exodus 21:4 indicates that a slave owner could assign one of his female slaves to one of his male slaves as a wife. There is no indication that women were consulted during this type of transaction. The arrangement would probably involve rape in most cases. In the times of the Hebrew Scriptures, Israelite women who were sold into slavery by their fathers were slaves forever. Men, and women who became slaves by another route, were limited to serving as slaves for seven years. When a male slave left his owner, the marriage would normally be terminated; his wife would stay behind, with any children that she had. He could elect to stay a slave if he wished.
Comments on the family types in the Bible:
There do not appear to be any passages in the Bible that condemn any of these forms of marriages or family structures:
- God was displeased with Solomon's approximately 1,000 wives and concubines. But it was not because of the polygynous arrangement of one male and multiple females. God was concerned that many of the women were foreigners, and worshiped foreign Gods. They eventually lead Solomon to stray from worshipping Yahweh. (1 King 11:1-6).
- Polygamous marriages were part of God's plan, according to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Jacob had twelve sons who became the patriarchs of the twelve Tribes of Israel with the help of two wives and two female slaves.
- Jesus is recorded in John 2:1-11 as converting water into wine at a wedding in Cana, in the Galilee. He seems to have created the wine in order to help the wedding organizers who had run out prematurely. Some believe that by making the wine, Jesus affirmed his approval of the first type of marriage, listed above. That might be true. But there is no indication that Jesus indicated disapproval of any other forms of marriage. He never criticized polygamous marriages, levirate marriages, or any of the other marriage types listed above.
- John the Baptist criticized Herod's polygamous marriage to Herodias. (Matthew 14:3). But the criticism was based on Herod's inappropriate choice of Heodias, since she was the wife of his brother Philip. John apparently had no concern about the fact that it was a polygamous marriage.
- Some interpret Jesus' comments on divorce in (Mark 10:2 & Matthew 19:3) as proof that Jesus supported only the first type of marriage listed above. But his response "So they are no longer two but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate" was in answer to a specific question from the Pharisees: whether "a man" was allowed to divorce "his wife." (Matthew 19:3). Jesus' response, which denied a man the right of a man to divorce his wife, does shows that at least Jesus acknowledged the nuclear, one-man-one-woman marriage. But it does not exclude support for the other types of family structure, listed above. polygamy was less common during the first century CE than it was in earlier times, but it was still practiced. As noted above, Herod the Great had nine wives.