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Bible themes and topics. Homosexuality.

Part 2:
Eight family structures mentioned in the Bible.
Comparison to today's family types.
to marriage in the Bible. Same-sex marriage.

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Eight family types mentioned in the Bible:

God is recorded as promoting the concept of marriage in Genesis 2:18: Referring to Adam, "...the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him." (King James Version - KJV) "Help meet" also appears in the Jerusalem Bible. It is translated "helper" in many other translations (e.g. Amplified Bible, An American Translation, James Moffatt Translation, New American Standard Bible, New Century Version, New International Version, New World Translation, Revised Standard Bible, Young's Literal Translation. The Living Bible, New Living Translation, and Today's English Version use a phrase like "a suitable companion to help him." The original Hebrew word, when used to refer to humans, implies a partnership of two equals, rather than a relationship between persons of unequal status. "Co-worker" or "partner" might be a better translation. The Contemporary English Version, New American Bible, and Revised English Bible use the term "partner" indicating an equal status between Adam and Eve.

We have found eight types of marriages mentioned in the Bible:

  1. The standard nuclear family: Genesis 2:24 describes how a man leaves his family of origin, joins with a woman, consummates the marriage and lives as a couple. There were quite a few differences between the customs and laws of contemporary North Americans and of ancient Israelites. In ancient Israel:
    bullet Inter-faith marriages were theoretically forbidden. However, they were sometimes formed.

    bullet Children of inter-faith marriages were considered illegitimate.

    bullet Marriages were generally arranged by family or friends; they did not result from a gradually evolving, loving relationship that developed during a period of courtship.

    bullet A bride who had been presented as a virgin and who could not be proven to be one was stoned to death by the men of her village. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21) There appears to have been no similar penalty for men who engaged in consensual pre-marital sexual activity.
  2. Polygamous marriage: A man would leave his family of origin and join with his first wife. Then, as finances allowed, he would marry as many additional women as he desired. The new wives would join the man and his other wives in an already established household. This practice was practiced by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons. It is still practiced by some fundamentalist Mormon groups which have been excommunicated or separated from the main church.

    There are many references to polygamous marriages in the Bible:

    bullet Lamech, in Genesis 4:19, became the first known polygamist. He had two wives.

    bullet Subsequent men in polygamous relationships included:
    bullet Esau with 3 wives;

    bullet Jacob: 2;

    bullet Ashur: 2;

    bullet Gideon: many;

    bullet Elkanah: 2;

    bullet David: many;

    bullet Solomon had 700 wives of royal birth;

    bullet Rehaboam: 3;

    bullet Abijah: 14.

    bullet Jehoram, Joash, Ahab, Jeholachin and Belshazzar also had multiple wives.
    bullet From the historical record, it is known that Herod the Great (73 to 4 BCE) had nine wives.
  3. Levirate Marriage: The name of this type of marriage is derived from the Latin word "levir," which means "brother-in-law." This involved a woman who was widowed without having borne a son. She would be required to leave her home, marry her brother-in-law, live with him, and engage in sexual relations. If there were feelings of attraction and love between the woman and her new husband, this arrangement could be quite agreeable to both. Otherwise, the woman would have to endure what was essentially serial rapes with her former brother-in-law as perpetrator. Their first-born son was considered to be sired by the deceased husband.

    In Genesis 38:6-10, Tamar's husband Er was killed by God for unspecified sinful behavior. Er's brother, Onan, was then required by custom to marry Tamar. Not wanting to have a child who would not be consider his, he engaged in an elementary (and quite unreliable) method of birth control: coitis interruptus. God appears to have given a very high priority to the levirate marriage obligation. Being very displeased with Onan's behavior, God killed him as well. Ruth 4 reveals that a man would be required to enter into a levirate marriage not only with his late brother's widow, but with a widow to whom he was the closest living relative.

  4. A man, a woman and her female slave: In Genesis 16, Sarah and Abram were infertile. Sarah gave permission for her husband to engage in sexual intercourse with a female slave that she owned, Hagar. The slave was apparently purchased earlier and brought into the family. Presumably, the arrangement to engage in sexual activity was done without the consent of Hagar, who had such a low status in the society of the day that she was required to submit to what she probably felt were serial rapes by Abram. Hagar conceived and bore a son, Ishmael.

  5. A man, one or more wives, and some concubines: A man could keep numerous concubines, in addition to one or more wives. These women held an even lower status than a wife.  As implied in Genesis 21:10, a concubine could be dismissed when no longer wanted. According to Smith's Bible Dictionary, "A concubine would generally be either (1) a Hebrew girl bought...[from] her father; (2) a Gentile captive taken in war; (3) a foreign slave bought; or (4) a Canaanitish woman, bond or free." 1 They would probably be brought into an already-established household. Abraham had two concubines; Gideon: at least 1; Nahor: 1; Jacob: 1; Eliphaz: 1; Gideon: 1; Caleb: 2; Manassah: 1; Saul: 1; David: at least 10; Rehoboam: 60; Solomon: 300; an unidentified Levite: 1; Belshazzar: more than 1.

  6. A male soldier and a female prisoner of war: Numbers 31:1-18 describes how army of the ancient Israelites killed every adult Midianite male in battle. Moses then ordered the slaughter in cold blood of most of the captives, including all of the male children who numbered about 32,000. Only the lives of 32,000 women - all virgins -- were spared. Some of the latter were given to the priests as slaves. Most were taken by the Israeli soldiers as captives of war. Deuteronomy 21:11-14 describes how each captive woman would shave her head, pare her nails, be left alone to mourn the loss of her families, friends, and freedom. After a full month has passed, they would be required to submit to their owners sexually, as a wife.

  7. A male rapist and his victim: Deuteronomy 22:28-29 requires that a female virgin who has been raped must marry her attacker, no matter what her feelings were towards the rapist. A man could become married by simply sexually attacking a woman that appealed to him, and paying his father-in-law 50 shekels of silver. There is one disadvantage of this approach: he was not allowed to subsequently divorce her.

  8. A male and female slave: Exodus 21:4 indicates that a slave owner could assign one of his female slaves to one of his male slaves as a wife. There is no indication that women were consulted during this type of transaction. The arrangement would probably involve rape in most cases. In the times of the Hebrew Scriptures, Israelite men were limited to serving as slaves for seven years; women were permanently enslaved. When a male slave left his owner, the marriage would normally be terminated; his wife would stay behind, with any children that she had. He could elect to remain as a slave if he wished.

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Comments on the family types in the Bible:

There do not appear to be any passages in the Bible that condemn any of these forms of marriages or family structures which are forbidden in Western countries:

bullet God was displeased with Solomon's approximately 1,000 wives and concubines. But it was not because of the polygamous arrangement. God was concerned that many of the women were foreigners, and worshiped foreign Gods. They eventually lead Solomon to stray from worshipping Yahweh. (1 King 11:1-6).

bullet Jesus is recorded in John 2:1-11 as converting water into wine at a wedding in Cana, in the Galilee. He seems to have created the wine in order to help the wedding  organizers who had run out prematurely. Some believe that by making the wine, Jesus affirmed his approval of the first type of marriage, listed above. That might be true. But there is no indication that Jesus indicated disapproval of any other forms of marriage. He never is mentioned as having criticized polygamous marriages, levirate marriages, or any of the other marriage types listed above.

bullet John the Baptist criticized Herod's polygamous marriage to Herodias. (Matthew 14:3). But the criticism was based on the inappropriate choice of Heodias, since she was the wife of his brother Philip. John apparently did not criticize the fact that it was a polygamous marriage.

bullet Some interpret Jesus' comments on divorce in (Mark 10:2 & Matthew 19:3) as proof that Jesus supported only the first type of marriage listed above. But his response "So they are no longer two but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate" was in answer to a specific question from the Pharisees: whether "a man" was allowed to divorce "his wife." (Matthew 19:3). Jesus response, which denied a man the right of a man to divorce his wife, does shows that at least Jesus acknowledged the nuclear, one-man-one-woman marriage. But it does not exclude support for the other types of family structure, listed above. Polygyny was less common during the 1st century CE than it was in earlier times, but it was still practiced. As noted above, Herod the Great had nine wives.

Much of the opposition to same-sex marriages is based on six or seven "clobber" passages in English translations of the Bible. Even though many of these passages clearly condemn same-gender sexual behavior in English , the original Hebrew and Greek passages are quite ambiguous.

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Bible passages in opposition to marriage:

The Christian Scriptures (aka New Testament) contains a few passages which promote celibacy either as an alternative to marriage or as a superior lifestyle:

bullet Matthew 19:10-12: Jesus is recorded as promoting celibacy, but only for those who can handle it.

bullet 1 Corinthians 7:1-2, and 7:7-9: Paul writes that celibacy is a preferred choice. His opinion might have been influenced by his belief that the end of the world would arrive in his immediate future. He gave heterosexual marriage is an option for those who would otherwise burn with sexual lust. He appears to have given no consideration to homosexual marriage. He might have been unaware of loving, committed homosexual relationships.

bullet Revelation 14:1-5: This passage discusses 144,000 singers during the end times, who seem to be given an elevated status because they are virgins who were "undefiled with women." They follow Jesus wherever he goes. "And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God." The implication is that sexual activity is polluting.

It would seem that the Bible's teaches that most people are happiest in a loving, supportive, committed relationship. However, if a person can handle celibacy, then is is an alternative and perhaps a preferred option. The anti-sexual message of Revelation seems out of sync with the rest of the Bible. But then, so is its portrayal of God as a wrathful, hateful, vindictive deity bent on revenge, which is seen throughout the book. These may have been the themes in Revelation that caused Martin Luther to reject the book, and relegate it to the appendix (along with James) of his German translation of the Bible.

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Same-sex marriage in the Bible:

Today, many gays and lesbians form loving, committed relationships. As note above, some marry, others form civil unions or domestic partnerships. However, there is no indication in the Bible that its authors were aware of gays or lesbians who were part of such a union. Marriage, or a committed long-term relationship, between two persons of the same gender is not mentioned in the Bible. They probably existed, but were kept "in the closet" to avoid persecution.

There are no biblical passages which either promote or condemn such unions.

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Related essays in this web site:

bullet Same-sex marriage: a conservative Christian position

bullet Same-sex marriage: a liberal Christian position

bullet Same-sex marriages (SSM), civil unions & domestic partnerships

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  1. "Marriage and divorce in 2000, adoptions in 2001; England and Wales," National Statistics, at:  You need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:
  2. Marriage Rate and Age,
  3. "Median age at first marriage by sex: 1890 to 2010," U.S. Census Bureau, at:
  4. James C. Thompson, "Women and the law in ancient Israel," 2010, Women in the Ancient World, at:
  5. Elizabeth Fletcher, "Marriage," Women in the Bible, at:

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Copyright © 2004 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-JAN-26
Latest update: 2014-MAR-02
Author: B.A. Robinson

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