From John’s Gospel:
Now Gideon had seventy sons, his own offspring, for he had many wives. His concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, and he named him Abimelech. Then Gideon son of Joash died at a good old age, and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash at Ophrah of the Abiezrites.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Judges 8:30-32 – August 9, 2012)
OK. I know I shouldn’t get into this . . . I know that someone is going to give me a hard time; I can almost predict that someone will tell me they are planning to “leave the church” over this. But here goes.
I am sick and tired of hearing the words “traditional biblical marriage” bandied about by those who oppose the legal and religious recognition of the committed relationships of same-sex couples. Absolutely fed up with it. Because there is no such thing! Read these three verses from the Book of Judges slowly and carefully because they describe the marriage (or should one say marriages . . . or perhaps “sexual relations”) of one of the greatest heroes of the Bible. And what they describe is a far cry from what the proponents of so-called “traditional biblical marriage” think they are talking about about; Gideon was very definitely not in a “one man, one woman” marriage. The text doesn’t tell us how many wives he had, but with seventy sons I would estimated that he had at least fifteen if not a lot more! And he had at least one concubine! It’s entirely possible that he married his wives as part of some political arrangement with their families or tribes, and that it was his concubine who was his actual love interest.
I need not rehearse here the variety of marital arrangements one finds in the Holy Scriptures. Esther J. Hamori, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary has already done a superb job of that in an article for the Huffington Post, Biblical Standards for Marriage. Suffice to say that there are all sorts of culturally conditioned settlements . . . and that’s the significant point, “culturally conditioned”. Our Bible does not and never has set down one sort of standard (for interpersonal relationships or for most other things) that is immutable and permanent; the Bible is a collection of stories of changing norms of behavior stretching over centuries. These changeable and changing behavioral norms may be grounded in a set of ethical or religious principles, but they adapt as cultures and conditions change.
I should also note, but will not dwell upon, the history of marriage (or “matrimony”) as a sacrament of the church. It wasn’t one for about the first millennium of the Christian era! The church wasn’t involved in overseeing marriages at all, but as the clergy became society’s record-keepers, and as the rising post-Empire royalty and aristocracy needed some control on the descent of property and titles, the church became involved. Initially it was only as record-keepers, but then ceremonies and rituals were devised and then, eventually, someone began theologizing about the marital estate and the church’s role in helping it be contracted . . . and, before you know it, Voila! It’s a Sacrament . . . and it’s “always” been one. And, of course, it is now incumbent upon all of society, not just the upper crust, to have church-approved marriages.
We live in a different world from Gideon, so fifteen wives and one or more concubines probably probably would not be an acceptable (or practical) living arrangement for a modern man. We live in a different world from medieval Europe. Marriage is no longer (usually) a political arrangement as it generally was in both those times; today, our concept of marriage honors the emotional attachment of the parties. Today, we know that that emotional attachment, that affective attraction is not universally a heterosexual one; we know that some definite percentage of the human species is affectively attracted to members of their same sex. We know that this is not a deviation from the norm; it is the norm. And knowing that, our culture is changing and the culturally conditioned normative behavior of marriage is changing with it.
The task ahead for religious people is not to insist upon enforcing as unchangeable the cultural norms of a long-departed world like Gideon’s. The task is, rather, to re-apply the underlying ethical and religious principles to our new situation. For Christians, this means looking to the two greatest commandments as stated by Jesus: Love God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-40) Given that, how can we not re-assess our understanding of marriage? How can we not extend our blessing to the committed relationships of same-sex couples? How can we not give up some false notion of “traditional biblical marriage” and instead embrace Christ’s ethic of loving God and loving our neighbor?
Father Funston in the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.