By Monsignor Frank Bognanno
I was disappointed in the guest commentary article on marriage in the Bible (“1Man, 1Woman Isn’t the Bible’s Only Marriage View,” June 13).
No attention was paid to the revelatory nature of the Scriptures: that regardless of the various literary genres they contain, or the various times in which they were written, or the breadth of human phenomena they describe (e.g., the various “types” of marriages that existed in the ancient Near East), the Bible remains, first and foremost, a religious text, God’s revelation to humankind.
The Bible’s two “testaments” are to be read together. The “new” is hidden in the “old” and the “old” is fulfilled in the “new.” Together they speak to God’s revelation. From the Christian perspective, God’s revelation appears as progressive. God’s will becomes more apparent over time, Israel’s moral response more evolved and salvation more inclusive. This change is noted throughout the biblical narrative, which reveals gradual but significant positive changes in Jewish (and, later, Judeo-Christian) social and religious mores.
In the Bible, God’s will regarding marriage seems to follow a progressive trajectory when we look at the Old and New Testaments together. The definition of marriage crystallizes in the teaching of Jesus. In fact, three “stages” of human transformation can be seen in the Bible, which can be described as: “prefall,” “post-fall,” and “redemption.” Each stage affects the nature and shape of marriage.
First, we turn to a “pre-fallen” view of humanity in Genesis 1:27-28, which tells us that God created man and woman in the divine image, that they were paired together to “increase and multiply” and that Eve was Adam’s ezer, a Hebrew word which has since been described by modern scholars as descriptive of Adam and Eve being as “complementary strengths,” each one living for the other.
The Bible then depicts a fallen humanity. Because of our inherited weakness resulting from the original sin of our first parents, the original discipline of marriage begins to devolve into various male-female social combinations.
Polygamy, for example, was accepted at various times. However, the recording of polygamy in the sacred texts does not mean that this social custom reflects God’s plan for marriage. Likewise, the institutionalization of slavery, though depicted in the Bible, does not mean that slavery must be God’s ultimate plan for society.
Thirdly, the New Testament
inaugurates a fulfillment of God’s divine plan of redemption and salvation in the person of Jesus, a plan that also includes the rehabilitation of marriage to its original form. For example, when asked if divorce and remarriage (successive polygamy) were part of God’s plan, Jesus immediately refers back to Genesis 1:27-28 and 2:23-25, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman. He then adds “let no one divide what God has joined together” (Mark 10:1-12).
What seemed to be missing from the authors’ article was the obvious fact that the Bible is predominantly a religious text— one in which God, over time, reveals the divine plan of salvation for humanity as well as his plan for the institution of marriage. The individual teachings of Scripture (including the various depictions of marriage) must be interpreted in terms of the whole trajectory of Scripture, toward God’s full revelation in Christ.
[Monsignor Bognanno is pastor at Christ the King Catholic Church in Des Moines, IA. This essay appeared today in the Des Moines Register. Thanks to Monsignor Bognanno for permission to publish it at Quiner’s Diner.]