Love and marriage, the popular song said, made as natural a combination as a horse and carriage. We might wonder if it was prophetic, because both marriages and horse-drawn carriages are more rare today than when that song was on the top of the charts.
My wife and I married in 1968, just as marriage entered a long-term decline. Living together was in; loving was in; formal marriage—“the piece of paper” (as in, “You don’t need a piece of paper to be in love”)—was definitely out.
Pop culture, and the entertainment industry, couldn’t seem to decide whether marriage was good or bad.
Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt had a series of high-profile relationships with a number of actresses before marrying Friends star Jennifer Aniston. But after seven years, Pitt and Aniston separated, then divorced amid rumors that Pitt had taken up with actress Angelina Jolie. Living together for the next seven years, Pitt and Jolie produced several children and adopted several more, announcing in April 2012 that they planned to marry. The actor’s on again, off again interest in marriage seemed to mirror that of the larger society.
And then HBO gave us a series called Big Love, which ran from March 2006 to March 2011. Big Love turned out to be “Big Marriage,” sort of. In 53 episodes, the series brought us the story of the fictional Henrickson family, a man with three wives and several children, all struggling to reconcile their lives in a “plural marriage” while interacting with a world of monogamy.
Just when it appeared that marriage had lost all its prestige in society—one bumper sticker even declaring marriage to be “the last legal form of slavery”— the marriage license, the “piece of paper” so long ridiculed and devalued, suddenly became a hot commodity. Everybody wanted one, including some decidedly nontraditional applicants. Opinions as to whether this was good or bad differed significantly.
In 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In 1999 and 2004, courts in Vermont and Massachusetts, respectively, weighed in on the subject. As of May 2012, no fewer than 31 states have passed legislation, ballot initiatives, or had court decisions concerning marriage. With everyone from Congress to the courts to cohabitants defining and redefining marriage, it seemed to me, as a Christian, like a good time to check on how the Bible defines marriage.
What the Bible says
To answer such questions, I always like to start with the basics, so I turned to the Bible’s book of basics— Genesis. Sure enough, marriage comes up in the second chapter. No sooner did God create Adam than the first man began to look around, and he discovered that among all the animals, only he was alone. As my wife will attest, it’s not wise to leave men alone for very long, and God agreed. “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’ ” (Genesis 2:18).
So God made Eve and joined the first couple in marriage. Lest we miss the significance of this, Genesis goes out of the way to clarify this union. “That is why,” the author tells us, “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (verse 24). Simple, straightforward: one man, one woman, one flesh.
But “one flesh”? Yes. During the fleeting moments when husband and wife come together physically, they are one flesh. And when conception occurs as a result of this physical union, this one flesh takes on an independent form as a child. Every parent can see this. Each child, so individual, is nevertheless an interesting blending of his or her parents’ physical characteristics. “He has his mother’s eyes,” we say, or, “She has her father’s complexion.”
Modern DNA identification techniques verify this blending into one flesh beyond eyes and complexion, all the way down to the genetic blueprint. The child becomes a living testament to the oneness of the union.
Not by chance do we link children with marriage, for God gave a commission to the first couple: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it’ ” (Genesis 1:28). So in the beginning, marriage was “one man, one woman, one flesh.”
But then came sin. The blight of sin affected every creature and distorted every relationship, including marriage. The human body no longer functioned perfectly. Some women could not bear children. Some men desired more than one woman, and some didn’t want the one they had. Polygamy and divorce arose, neither of which were a part of God’s original plan.
By the time God gave the law to Israel, women had ceased to be seen as “suitable helpers” and had come to be viewed as chattel, possessions to be acquired and disposed of. A man could divorce a woman by simply dumping her belongings outside his tent. The divorced woman often had to choose between starvation, begging, and prostitution. As an initial remedy, Moses required that men provide a bill of divorcement.
If God didn’t approve of polygamy and divorce, why were these practices allowed? Why did Moses provide for the bill of divorcement? Because, Jesus said, “Your hearts were hard” (Matthew 19:8). But He went on to reaffirm God’s original plan. “ ‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one’ ” (verses 4–6).
Not only did Jesus reaffirm marriage as “one man, one woman, one flesh,” but He also used the Genesis account as His evidence. So if God didn’t change the design of marriage, who did?
The fourth chapter of Genesis tells the story of Cain. It begins with Cain’s birth and continues with the story of Abel’s murder at Cain’s hands. As punishment, God condemned Cain to the life of a vagabond, always on the move. To protect him from those who would seek revenge, “the Lord said to him, ‘Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold’ ” (Genesis 4:15, NKJV).*
There follows a list of Cain’s descendants. While the narrative passes without comment over Enoch, Irad, Mehujael, and Methushael in a single verse, it devotes four verses to Lamech: “Lamech said to his wives, ‘Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times’ ” (verses 23, 24).
Here, then, is the first recorded challenge to God’s model. Lamech changed God’s plan of one-man-one-woman to one-man-two-women. This represents nothing less than a total repudiation of God’s authority. The serpent had promised Eve that she could become the same as God. In this passage, known as the “song of Lamech,” Lamech has the audacity to proclaim himself better than God. God provided one wife for Adam; Lamech took two wives for himself. God would avenge Cain’s murder sevenfold. Lamech would avenge his own mere wounding seventy-sevenfold.
Answering the Pharisees, Jesus attributed the changes in marriage to “the hardness of your hearts.” Lamech, who first dared to challenge God’s plan for marriage, displayed a pride hardened heart that could boast of murder.
Multiple academic studies have confirmed that marriage benefits both men and women in a variety of different ways. Married men and women live longer, healthier, and more prosperous lives than their single counterparts. They earn more, heal faster, and spend less time in the hospital.
Benefits of God’s plan
God’s original plan is still the best plan. “Ninety percent of married women who were alive at age 45 make it to 65, vs. slightly more than 80 percent of divorced and never-married women,” says Dr. Scott Haltzman, clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. “Mortality rates are 50 percent higher for unmarried women.”
“The results are even more remarkable in men. Men who were alive at 48 had a 90 percent chance of reaching 65 if they were married, but only a 60 to 70 percent chance if they were single—that’s a 250 percent higher mortality rate.”
The benefits of marriage go on and on. Married people have less depression and are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. Marriage benefits the partners, children, and society in almost innumerable ways.
No wonder so many want in on it. That shouldn’t surprise us. After all, God designed marriage, and those who follow His plan experience great blessings. Christ Himself affirmed that God’s design for marriage does not change.
But the experience of marriage? As many studies demonstrate, it’s better than ever.