Monday, November 14, 2022

Anonymous Asks (223)

“Does the Bible promote arranged marriages?”

If you are getting your moral direction from Hollywood, you might think the only legitimate basis for marriage is romantic love. If not romance, at very least a pragmatic consideration of one’s own interests is surely in order. For example, a woman in her late thirties who desperately wants children might be willing to settle for marriage to a man for whom she doesn’t have strong feelings, provided they are compatible in their thinking about the importance of family.

But does the Bible teach that something other than our emotions, intellects and will ought to be involved in the process, specifically the direction of others?

Not the Norm

Arranged marriages were not the norm even in scripture. We can find plenty of examples of OT characters who made their own choices, some better than others. For example, Esau chose a pair of Hittite wives who made his parents miserable. Evidently they were not consulted about that. Samson chose a wife from among the Philistine against his parents’ advice. When Amnon because obsessed with his half sister Tamar, she told him to speak to the king about it, reasoning David might respect his son’s wishes even though they involved a family member.

Okay, those are all bad choices. Others were more reasonable. One of David’s better choices for a wife was a widow named Abigail whose beauty and wisdom appealed to him. Boaz married Ruth for similar reasons after she effectively proposed to him.

The Case of Abraham

Arranged marriages are still a feature of some cultures. While the practice was not the norm in scripture, the historical books of the Bible do give evidence that godly (and ungodly) parents made the occasional marriage for their children without considering romance or physical attraction. Judah took a wife for his son Er. There is no indication Er was consulted. Daughters were more likely than sons to be packaged off without the formality of consent, but marriage also provided young women with the security and protection they needed in order to leave their father’s house safely.

Probably the most famous arranged marriage in scripture is Abraham sending his servant to take a wife for his son Isaac from among his relatives in Mesopotamia rather than from among the Canaanites where he lived. Rebekah was literally an answer to the servant’s prayer, so we know God was involved to some degree in the choice. However, Rebekah was not forced into a marriage she didn’t want. She was offered a veto and declined to use it. (She was also was not an unmitigated blessing in Isaac’s life. Like her famous son, she was a manipulator who did not always follow her husband’s wishes. I consider Rebekah’s side of that story here.)

Levirate Marriage

Levirate marriage was another sort of “arranged marriage”. This was apparently common practice among Abraham’s descendants and other nations of the day. After the death of his eldest son Er, Judah instructed Er’s brother Onan take his widow as a wife in order to raise up offspring for his brother. This did not suit Onan. Even so, he did not refuse outright, but tried to circumvent his father’s purpose in the bedroom. Tradition is a powerful thing. Later, levirate marriage ended up encoded in the Law of Moses with the intended purpose of preserving a dead relative’s name and inheritance rights in Israel.

Still, even levirate marriage was optional. Getting out of it was originally considered shameful, but it could be legally accomplished. By the time Boaz married Ruth, the process for extracting oneself from such an arrangement seems to have had minimal stigma attached to it.

Marriages of State

Royal marriages were also made for reasons that had little to do with the desires of the participants. Saul’s daughter Michal loved David, but he at first declined to become the king’s son-in-law, then later reconsidered when Saul made it a challenge. The king’s real aim was to have David killed in the process of meeting the bride-price, and that marriage too was ill-fated. David would later marry the daughter of the king of Geshur, which was probably more a matter of forging an alliance than love. Again, this ended badly. Maacah bore Absalom to David, and we all know what trouble he caused.

Other marriages of state were even more notorious. Ahab’s marriage to the Sidonian Jezebel is remarkable for the damage she did to his nation. Her daughter Athaliah was arguably worse. She married the king of Judah, usurped the throne after his death, and came closer to ending the Messianic line than anyone else in Israel’s history. None of these marriages were likely made for what we would consider the ordinary reasons.


So then, does the Bible promote arranged marriages? Neither by precept nor example. There are no commands to parents to organize their children’s marriages, and no commands to children to comply with their parents’ wishes in that regard. When Paul talks extensively about Christian marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, he views it as a choice to be made by the individuals involved, including women. The widow “is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord”. Moreover, the arranged marriages I have cited from the Bible’s historical books rarely turned out better than marriages made by the participants, and often turned out worse.

The only argument one might really make about the Bible promoting arranged marriages would derive from the commands in Deuteronomy about levirate marriage. But no such obligation exists for the Christian today. The Law of Moses is not binding on believers. Moreover, the pragmatic reasons for levirate marriage do not exist in today’s society. Women may obtain safe employment as readily as men, the welfare state protects those who can’t or won’t work, and the property issues levirate marriage was intended to protect are not part of Western culture.

Godly parents may have good advice to give to their children, but choosing their spouses for them is generally a step too far.

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