Taking A Closer Look At The History Of "Biblical Marriage"

Labor Of Love

We all know that marriage remains one of the world’s most divisive political issues. Christian and conservative activists are always griping that the “blessed union” should be between a man and a woman. Because, you know, God wanted it that way so we could have babies and the such. Author Susan Squire’s new book, I Don’t: A Contrarian History Of Marriage, undercuts such right-wing arguments.

Squire, who happens to be our friend, argues that marriage isn’t based on God’s word at all. In fact, many societies only used marriage for its practical purpose: maintaining a straight lineage. The Israelites, like Sarah and Abraham, whom we’ve pictured above, had strict laws in order to ensure a valid lineage. Sex wasn’t the problem. It was infidelity.

Early Christian leaders, like lust-phobic Augustine, introduced the “marriage bed” not because they feared bastard children or God’s wrath, but for fear of lust. Nuptials were a practicality and it wouldn’t be until Martin Luther and his Reformation that emotions would be injected into the marital mix.

Our editor picks Squire’s brain, after the jump…

[Image by Lars Justinen]

Andrew Belonsky: I’d like to start with a piece I recently read by science fiction Orson Scott Card, in which he wrote, “I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn. Only when the marriage of heterosexuals has the support of the whole society can we have our best hope of raising each new generation to aspire to continue our civilization.”

Susan Squire: What makes him think that everyone doesn’t already support heterosexual marriage? A lack of support for hetero marriage? That’s bullshit.

AB: It’s a zero-sum game for him.

SS: I have yet to understand when conservatives say that gay marriage threatens heterosexual marriage, what the threat would be. Marriage was originally heterosexual – I mean, this whole thing about marriage being between a man and a woman is a religious thing. There is practical reason for that, because, in the past, there was no other way to reproduce. We didn’t have the science. It had to be a sperm and an egg meeting. It made sense that it had to be a man and a woman, because the point of marriage, until recently, was not love or comfort or protection from loneliness. The point was to reproduce and keep the race going.

AB: Well, that’s an argument that comes up…

SS: But reproduction no longer has to occur through heterosexual intercourse. That’s not the only way. Gay marriage is a moral issue. It’s no longer a reproductive issue. Social conservatives people haven’t thought this through. They’re offended by the idea of gay sex.

AB: Do you think that a lot of the social conservative fear comes out of – not even about the perceived ickiness of gay sex? I mean, all sex can be icky. But, do you think it’s the leveling of the playing field. With “man and woman” you have that prescribed role. “The good wife.”

SS: Well, that no longer applies now. Supposedly.

AB: Supposedly, but not necessarily in the minds of these people. To have two women be equal –

SS: Marriage was originally created to control reproduction, to keep the line straight, and also to control who had sex with whom. It cuts down on loose sexual activity. I mean, people still cheat and do whatever, but it still limits you – the double standard was created to limit the woman to one man, her husband. It was always much looser for men, but men were supposed to breed only with their wives, except in Israel, where they could breed with anyone, as long as she wasn’t another man’s wife. That was about property. So, if conservatives are so concerned about gay sex proliferating, if they’re so concerned about peep holes, or whatever, if they find it so loathsome, then they should be behind gay marriage, because marriage controls sex.

AB: Can you explain why Augustine had such a negative view of marriage?

SS: He was terrified of lust.

AB: Marriage was, in his mind, to control lust?

SS: He just basically codified the previous few centuries of Christian thinking. The only place to have sex was in marriage and the only way it wasn’t a sin – even in marriage – was if it was only for procreation. Couples were supposed to go about it really grimly, like they’re accomplishing this duty, or, as he called it, “the task of propagation.” All those guys talked about how terrible lust is and celibacy is better, but if you have to have sex, do it a certain way in marriage. The early Christians didn’t care about reproduction. They didn’t care about the human race. The religion began as this apocalyptic thing and they thought the world was going to end, so why would they care about propagating the earth?