Here are a few points you may find useful when discussing equal marriage with people who oppose it. Christians often argue that marriage has always been properly between one man and one woman. This, they say, is “biblical” marriage, and they claim that Old Testament polygamy was not endorsed by scripture and never part of God’s eternal plan.
But the idea that there’s an unchanging, divine marital template that transcends culture is easily refuted. Today’s understanding of “traditional marriage” is radically different from what the Bible actually commands.
Old Testament law condones and regulates polygamous marriage. It doesn’t merely report on it. See Exodus 21:10: “If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.” (NIV)
Here’s what’s interesting about the verse’s context — and this may seem like a tangent, but bear with me. The passage is about slavery, which the Bible condones. The chapter sets out rules for buying and selling one’s fellow Hebrews as slaves. A male Hebrew slave was to go free after six years (non-Hebrew slaves were property for life), but if a master provided his slave with a wife, the woman and her children remained the master’s property. The slave, if he couldn’t bear to abandon his family for freedom, could request to become a slave for life.
But female Hebrew slaves had no such choice. Starting with verse 7, the text sets the rules for selling your daughter into slavery. She isn’t to go free after six years like the men, but (verse 8), “If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed.” And here’s where verse 10, quoted above, comes in. If her master/husband marries other wives, he must continue to provide for his slave-wife, or (verse 11) let her go free. (See also Deuteronomy 21:15 for polygamy in a non-slave context.)
So the OT god doesn’t object to polygamy (nor to slavery). And notice that the marriage does not require the woman’s consent. This is not an anomaly. In Deuteronomy 21, starting with verse 10, God condones kidnapping and rape: “When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife.” If the man isn’t pleased with her (it’s irrelevant whether or not she’s pleased with him), he must let her go and not sell her.
And just a bit later in Deuteronomy 22:28-29, a man who rapes a virgin is required to pay a fine and marry his victim, and can never divorce her. The woman’s consent is no more required for the marriage than for the rape.
If this stew of slavery, rape, and wives acquired like breeding stock isn’t outrageous enough, let’s be clear that the Bible isn’t merely tolerating this behavior. In one circumstance, it actually commands the practice of polygamy. In Deuteronomy 25:5 and following, God requires that when a man dies without leaving an heir, his brother is to marry his widow “and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her.” Their first son is to bear the name of her dead husband. No provision is made for a brother who’s already married. A man could refuse such a “duty,” but the widow was then allowed to publicly shame him by spitting in his face and taking one of his sandals (representing a transfer of his rights).
Some Christians will argue that God disapproved of polygamy in the Old Testament because of a command given to kings in Deuteronomy 17:17: The king “must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.”
Well, there you go, right? But back up a bit. In verse 16, the king is also not to “acquire great numbers of horses.” Does this mean one king, one horse? The king is also not to “accumulate large amounts of silver or gold” (verse 17). So in this context, “many wives,” like horses and gold, represent conspicuous consumption, a royal flaunting of wealth. In that culture, would a king who had only three or four wives be seen as having “many”? Of course not.
But that’s the Old Testament, right? Many Christians will dismiss the OT and go straight to Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1:24-27. Not so fast. First, both Jesus and Paul make it clear, repeatedly, that the Old Testament god is their god, and that Christianity is the fulfillment of OT law (see, for example, Matthew 5:17-19, or Paul’s discussion of the law in Romans 2 and 3). So if you believe with Jesus and Paul that God instituted the barbaric laws detailed above, it matters. It raises questions: Did God change his mind? Did he repent of his former evil deeds? If God’s morality is unchanging and eternal, how could requiring a rape victim to marry her attacker be a righteous command in one era, only to be passed over in embarrassed silence in another era? Or is it only the parts condemning gay people that qualify as Eternal Truth?
What is most striking here is how the Bible’s entire concept of marriage seems foreign to modern ethics. As we’ve seen, marriage could be plural or not, could be intertwined with slavery, did not require the woman’s consent, and pretty much viewed the woman as a form of property whose primary function was to provide an heir (i.e., a son) for her husband.
Marriage has obviously changed drastically since those days, and that’s a good thing. We should feel no more bound by the Bible’s primitive notions of marriage than we are by its support of slavery and the rape of captive women.