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Those kinky Hebrews: marriage in the Judeo-Christian scriptures

By Alan Austin - posted Wednesday, 20 June 2012


When you have a ménage a trois, they must not include a woman and her daughter. “That is wickedness.” Says the Lord. And when a man sells his daughter to another man, he must refund the money if the buyer finds the sex unsatisfactory.

Just two instructions in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, which suggest the God of Israel does not follow Biblical family values.

The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney urged his followers last week to “commend the Biblical way of life in our churches and to the community.” This was in anticipation of this week’s report on same-sex marriage to the Australian federal parliament.

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Dr Jensen’s definition of marriage specified “two persons of the opposite sex”. Roman Catholic and Orthodox leaders echoed this call.

The problem these venerable gentlemen have, however, is that their understanding of the “Biblical way of life” is just nowhere found in the Bible.

Abraham is one of the greatest heroes of the Judeo-Christian tradition. When he and wife Sarai found themselves childless they brought their slave girl Hagar into the bedroom. The resulting son became a great patriarch.

Abraham later took a second wife, Keturah, and had several more kids. He also had children with an uncertain number of mistresses, or concubines.

Jacob’s sex life is more bizarre still. He purchased his first wife Leah from her father then married her sister Rachel. Rachel’s servant girl Bilhah soon joined them “as a wife” for at least two children. A bit later, Leah’s servant girl Zilpah made it a happy fivesome.

Yes, a bit kinky perhaps. But there is no hint in the texts this was irregular. In fact, the opposite. Great rejoicing at these blessings from God.

These lucky guys were not alone. Lamech took two wives. Esau had three. Gideon had many wives. King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Rehoboam took 18 wives, and 60 concubines. Abijah had 14 wives. Caleb had children with at least two partners. David had eight wives, an unknown number of concubines and a relationship with Jonathan. There are others we know of and many we don’t.

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This is not to suggest ancient Israel was Amsterdam in the swinging sixties. The opposite, in fact. Polygamy was ordained by God to fulfil the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Especially after famine or war had depleted male populations. Clear guidelines were firmly in place.

First wives must be looked after when a man takes new ones. Wives must not come from another race. Inheritance must be divvied up fairly among children of all wives. Subsequent wives must not include your wife's sister while your wife is living (this came after Jacob’s threesome). And a widow whose husband dies before they have had children must marry her brother-in-law after the funeral.

A man may assign one of his slave girls to a male slave for them to have children. When the male slave is redeemed, he is free to go. But his wife and children remain the property of the owner.

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About the Author

Alan Austin is an Australian freelance journalist currently based in Nīmes in the South of France. His special interests are overseas development, Indigenous affairs and the interface between the religious communities and secular government. As a freelance writer, Alan has worked for many media outlets over the years and been published in most Australian newspapers. He worked for eight years with ABC Radio and Television’s religious broadcasts unit and seven years with World Vision. His most recent part-time appointment was with the Uniting Church magazine Crosslight.

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