Descriptive or Prescriptive? Biblical Stories of Marriage

If you are a Christian or have grown up going to a church youth group, you have probably heard a dating message from the story of David and Abigail, or Adam and Eve, or Jacob and Rachel, or Isaac and Rebekah. Many books have been written that built off of these Biblical stories to make a Christian method of dating.

It is important to note that the Biblical stories are not prescriptive, but descriptive. In stories, Biblical authors simply describe the events that took place. There are no headings over each story that say, “Good Example” or “Bad Example.” They simply state the facts. In other words, just because we read it in a story, that does not mean we should necessarily do it. In fact, the Bible’s cold-hearted description of the events around many marriages in these stories are an unrelenting critique of those marriage models. Here are some examples:

  1. One of the most common arguments against the Bible is polygamy. Critics have argued, “David was lifted up as a righteous man, but he had many wives. Does that mean that polygamy is ok?” While polygamy was permitted in ancient cultures, the Bible relentlessly gives the details of these polygamous men’s lives and describes the troubles it brought them. (Genesis 16)
  2. Many agrarian cultures, like the ones in the Bible, treated marriage like a business transaction to profit a family. In the business transaction between Jacob and Rachel’s family, we see Laban tricking Jacob into marrying his more ‘undesirable’ daughter. When Jacob didn’t like his purchased product and realized it couldn’t be returned, he worked to purchase the product he really wanted. This led to weird complications between daughter and father, sister and sister, and husband and wife. The details of those stories are a condemnation of making marriages a business transaction. (Genesis 29-31)
  3. In Jesus’ day, if you were unmarried, you were a second-class citizen. To them, marriage was a sign of God’s blessing and raised your status. However, Jesus frees us from viewing marriage as a sign of blessing or singleness as a sign of cursing, because he and Paul were both single. In fact, Christianity was one of the first religions that made singleness a viable option for its followers. (1 Corinthians 7:6-7)
  4. Also in Jesus’ day, it was common for a man to divorce his wife basically any reason, leaving her a social outcast with very little means to support herself. Jesus harshly condemns this practice. (Matthew 19:1-12)
  5. In the early church, women were dynamically lifted up as equals to men, though they had few rights in their cultures. (Galatians 3:28, 1 Peter 4:7)
  6. In the Roman culture in which the early church was birthed, husbands were allowed to cheat whenever they wanted. Wives were often forced into terrible forms of birth control, and, if they got pregnant, could be forced into abortions by their husbands. These abortions often lead to life-threatening complications or drastically damaged their ability to have children. (these terrible actions are noted by historian Rodney Stark in his book The Triumph of Christianity) Through all of this, the Bible still holds that the husband is head, but radically slashes at the Roman view by telling them not only to flee sexual immorality, but also to nourish and cherish their wife, as if she was part of his own body. (1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Ephesians 5:25-29)

The stories in the Bible are written for our example, but we need to determine whether they were a good or bad example from the explicit teachings of the Bible. The truth in God’s Word and the examples given critique many incorrect models of marriage throughout the history of the world. Although many incorrectly view the Bible’s teaching on marriage to be outdated, it continues to be a clear voice on gender equality, anthropology, marital roles, practical marital advice, sexual morals, true love, the pleasures of sex, the meaning of marriage, the nature of relationships, and much more.

“‘Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Ephesians 5:31-32