I saw a meme the other day about the bible and marriage referencing OT passages on physical relations between men and women. The meme gave the message that the bible promotes traditional marriage (nuclear family), marriage via death of your brother (husband dies and has a brother then the wife marries the bro-in-law), polygamy, slave marriage, stoning a woman who wasn't truly a virgin, etc. First off, I would argue that everything that is in the OT wasn't condoned by God. Second, we also have to, have to, have to, (did I mention "have to") have to remember Israel was under a theocracy and not a democracy. Israel wasn't a constitutional republic, pure democratic government, or any man-centered government; they were under God's government. This point is a good point to remember even if God didn't/doesn't exist and Israel was mistaken about their God because they were operating a totally different society than what many of us live in today regardless of whether God exists or not. I'm not a professional theologian or bible scholar, but the previous two points seem like good points to keep in mind when we come across these OT passages that hit us pretty hard in the gut.
What about the following for traditional marriage between a man and a woman? According to the meme the bible has the following regulations for the nuclear family: interfaith marriages forbidden, wives subordinate to husbands, arranged marriages, and this is added just for fun I'm sure: a bride who couldn't prove her virginity was stoned to death.
Interfaith marriages forbidden
Interfaith marriages were forbidden for Israel because they were under a theocracy so what obviously follows from that is those under the theocratic rule were not allowed to marry those who didn't worship Jehovah God. I understand that God's purpose with Israel was to set them apart from surrounding societies of the time to show their external difference from the surrounding societies. Such a structure required a lot of external challenges for the Israeli of that time. It required sacrifice like not marrying those outside of the religion. If Israel had established a democratic society then yes they would have been able to legally marry those who weren't of the same religion. Theocracies don't give you the options democracies do.
Wives subordinate to husbands
Israel isn't the only religion or society guilty of this one. People take this to the extreme like the husband drags the wife around by her hair (maybe a husband has done that - it's possible). I think Paul explained this the best by saying the husband is to love his wife selflessly and the woman is to submit to the husband. The husband is the representative of the marriage before God. If the husband loves his wife selflessly then the woman will gladly submit because the husband is loving his wife in a selfless way, i.e. protecting her, cherishing her and taking care of her better than he takes care of himself. This doesn't mean the husband is to be a pushover, but I think this is another way of establishing the husband and wife as a team and promotes healthy selfless love.
This wasn't uncommon back then or even today. An arranged marriage, arguably, wasn't a unique idea that Israel originated, nor is this surprising given that Israel was a theocracy and not a democracy. In a democracy the individual is free to choose his own life whereas in a theocracy the individual is part of a collective under the rule of their god(s) who charts their life for them. Some theocracies, maybe Israel, probably extend the authority of arranging marriages to the parent(s) and/or elders of the society.
A bride who couldn't prove her virginity was stoned to death
This is a passage that I, as a classical liberal, am not at all comfortable with accepting or promoting this law. Please don't think I will try to explain this verse away (Deut. 22:21). When we come across verses like this one (there are a few like it in Deuteronomy) we have to remember that Israel was treated differently than NT Christians. OT Israel was under a theocracy, more specifically, they were ruled by a perfectly righteous God who wanted his people to be different from the surrounding societies who practiced free sex. Israelites were only to have sex within heterosexual marriages. Fornication, multiple sex partners, and the like were not tolerated by God as actions for his people to make. The consequence of breaking his law was not just a slap on the wrist. He wanted his people to be different from other societies.
The meme mentions polygamy, which as I understand wasn't specifically endorsed by God as something he wanted Israel to practice. There are five (6) things to consider when reading the OT (this is an excerpt from the Apologetics Study Bible.)
Narratives describe what happened, not what was necessarily approved.
- We assume wrongly that if a story is in scripture, it must be "what God wanted."
- Biblical narrators dealt with the real world, with all its corrupt and fallen ambiguity.
- Shouldn't mistake realism for ethical approval.
- OT stories challenge us to wonder at God's amazing grace and to patience in continually working out His purposes through such morally compromised people.
- OT stories challenge us to be discerning in evaluating their conduct according to standards the OT itself provides
These are excellent points to remember when reading the OT narratives. Every verse in the OT is not a divine command from God, most are describing an account of an event that happened. My continual use of the theocratic government reason for these shocking laws in the OT is not in any way an attempt at approving these laws or an attempt to act like atrocities didn't happen under that government; what I want to do is to treat the OT like any historical document understanding the dating, historical context and what the society was like, i.e., put my self in the time and setting of the author of the historical documents instead of trying to read and understand the documents through the lenses of my society and time. If we keep the above points in mind and also the form of government that Israel was under when reading the OT, it will be a huge benefit for our understanding of the OT.
Is God a Moral Monster? This audio deals with OT stuff.