August 10, 2016

Marriage Inequality

The dominant biblical understanding of marriage in the Hebrew Scriptures was based on inequality, in which a man ruled over a woman (or several women), but was himself free to indulge his sexual appetites with other women, so long as they were not married to another man. This inequality is reflected in the language used to describe marriage: throughout the Torah and beyond, the husband is "the lord" (ba'al) of the woman; for a woman to be "married" is to be "governed" (be'ulah) or to "have a lord/master" (be'ulat ba'al).

But it was not always so. This inequality can be regarded as a consequence of the curse delivered to Eve after she and her husband ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge: "He shall rule over you." But it was not so in the beginning, when equality reigned, an equality recognized by Adam in his exclamation of joy upon his first encounter with Eve — the one like himself; taken, as the figurative interpretation has it, from his side — as one to stand beside — rather than from his head or his foot, to rule or to be ruled.

Hosea (2:16) recognized this in his portrayal of the loving God speaking to his unfaithful but redeemed spouse Israel: "On that day, says the LORD, you will call me, 'My husband,' and no longer will you call me, 'My Baal.'" The word Hosea uses for "my husband" is "ishi" — the same title the primeval couple shared in Eden (ish and ishah — man and woman, husband and wife). This expresses their fundamental equality, as God intended.

Karl Barth held that a husband is only a husband in relation to his wife (an assertion complicated in German, as in Hebrew, because Mann and Weib have this ambiguous double meaning.)  The double meaning actually reveals more than Barth intended: for a single man is a man, a single woman is a woman; but a married man is still a man, and a married woman still a woman — though now married, joined in a union and relationship of equals.  The quality of "being married" has to do not with the sex of the person or the pair, but on the covenant of relationship that exists between them. In German one can say "Mann und Mann" or "Weib und Weib" with all the ambiguity intact. For a married man or woman is married because of the plighting of a troth and mutual pledge of exclusive fidelity — the exclusivity, as Jesus observed, harking back to the necessarily exclusive first married couple; but the fidelity, as he also taught, is the essential meaning of marriage. So it is not the relative sex-difference that constitutes the marriage, but the mutual swearing of faithful love. This is one of the reasons that opening the institution of marriage to same-sex couples is both a recovery of a Creation principle of equality, and an eschatological realization of the ideal relationship between God and the People of God, based on love, not domination. This is one of the things marriage equality can reveal to the church, for so long mistakenly serving the notion of male dominance.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


John Julian said...

Now that is an example of the sheer wisdom we have been missing since you've retreated from regular blogging. That is what it is—in the best biblical sense—wisdom! A taking apart of the obvious to recognize the depth of truth that is only signified by what shows at the surface. It requires a kind of intellectual dexterity that is not common....and has always been an earmark of "In a Godly Direction." (That business of "side" versus "foot" or "head" is awesome!)


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Father John Julian, for your kind words. I cannot, though, teke credit for originating the bit about Eve as "collateral" -- the rabbis noted it (Genesis Rabbah) and it became a trope from Peter Lombard on up and through Aelred of Rievauls (where I first encountered it, including the lovely use of "collateral"!) and Aquinas... and even Matthew Henry. I will note it as a "wish I'd thought that" and can say I am perhaps applying it in ways that none of the foregoing would have done. :-)

Peace and all joy.