I was rehearsing the contents of a book I recently finished when I happened onto a train of thought on married couples listed in the Bible. As I was running down the list of the major couples, it occurred to me that virtually every marriage described in any detail in the Bible was deeply flawed. In fact, were someone to ask me for an example of a “Biblical” marriage in the Bible, settling on one particular couple as being worthy of imitation would prove quite a daunting task. Here is the list I have compiled:
- Eve: The father and mother of sin. Eve was the first to fall into temptation, but it is evident from Genesis 3 that Adam was at her side as she took and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, reminiscent of Saul of Tarsus holding the garments of and giving hearty approval to those who stoned Stephen in Acts 7-8. Adam and Eve are ultimately responsible for the corruption of Creation that followed, including the fratricide of Cain and Abel.
- Unnamed Wife: While Job proves himself to be a righteous (though imperfect) man in spite of immense suffering, his wife (whose name is never given) simply offers him one line in all the 42 chapters of Job, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die,” to which Job rightly answers, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?”
- Sarah: Oh, Abraham and Sarah…where do we even begin? Abraham twice passes his wife off as his sister and allows other men to take her in (to Pharaoh and Abimelech), and in Genesis 20:13, Abraham implies that these are not the only two occurences of this. Abraham and Sarah are stuck in a seemingly endless waiting game with God and grow weary of it on more than one occasion. Sarah finally loses hope that she will ever bear the child of promise and gives her maid Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate, which amounts to adultery with a wife’s stamp of approval. Obviously, this causes trouble in their marriage (Genesis 16:4-6) as they have turned their marriage into a love triangle. Hagar becomes arrogant toward Sarah; Sarah hates and abuses Hagar, ultimately sending her away to die twice (from which God rescues her each time); and Sarah blames Abraham for the whole lot of it. Ishmael comes about because of Abraham’s and Sarah’s refusal to wait on God’s timing, and unending strife ensues between Ishmael’s line and Isaac’s line, even to our own day.
- Rebekah: The story of Isaac and Rebekah begins like a Hollywood romance (Genesis 24:62-67): They each lift up their eyes and see each other across a field, and it has the sound of love at first sight; they are married almost immediately in Sarah’s tent, and they seem to love each other. What ultimately comes between them is favoritism between their twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Father Isaac prefers rugged Esau; Mother Rebekah prefers more domestic Jacob. Ultimately, Rebekah aids Jacob in deceiving Isaac to steal the blessing passed down from Grandfather Abraham, which rightfully belongs to Esau.
- Leah: Jacob had never intended to marry Leah, but her father Laban (brother of tricky Rebekah) pulled a bait-and-switch maneuver on him and dumped the less desirable Leah onto Jacob, after he had worked for the right to Rachel’s hand. Obviously, there are lingering marital issues which persist down through the years to the point that Leah feels completely despised, disregarded, and neglected by her husband.
- Rachel: Jacob always preferred Rachel to Leah, but even that was not enough to help Rachel emotionally cope with the fact that God had closed her womb. She and her sister-wife fought continually over their mutual husband. Finally, God opened Rachel’s womb and brought forth Joseph, but upon the birth of her second son Benjamin, she died. Jacob never recovered from the loss of his beloved wife.
- Zipporah: Zipporah only plays a minor role in the Biblical narrative of Moses. Exodus 4 gives an account to which every less than dutiful husband can relate. Moses, in accordance with Abrahamic Covenant, is supposed to circumcise his son Gershom by the eighth day. Clearly, Moses has not followed through on this singularly important task. God almost kills him (or his son). In a rage, Zipporah steps in and quickly circumcises their son just before God executes judgment. “You are a bridegroom of blood to me.” While I’ve never had this said to me personally, it does not seem that Zipporah is particuarly happy with her husband at this point. In Exodus 18, it is clear that Moses and Zipporah have been living in separation from one another for some time, although it is not altogether clear why or for how long. But I think it is safe to say that this is not exactly an Ephesians 5 model of union.
- Delilah, etc.: Samson first marries a Philistine girl in Judges 14, a union which causes the death of a lot of men, this girl, and her father. Then he enjoys a night with a prostitute in Judges 16 before falling head over heels for Delilah. The two never marry, instead opting for some ancient form of cohabitation, and she ultimately leads to the downfall of Samson along with hundreds of Philistines.
- Ruth: Ask anyone in the know, and this is probably the model Old Testament “Biblical marriage.” The great virtue of this particular marriage is, of course, the fact that it so closely mirrors the Christ-Church relationship in the way that it pictures redemption. Boaz stands as a sort of Christ-type, foreshadowing the great Kinsman-Redeemer who would come and take away the shame and restore the inheritance of his bride. Although this is the model relationship, the Old Testament narrative on their marriage stops at the point of their marriage, in sort of a “they get married, have kids, and live happily ever after” sort of way, so that we do not get much of a picture of their actual living marriage relationship. What we see more of, rather, is their unique period of courtship.
- Michal: Michal was David’s first love (though not his last). She was the daughter of Saul; he had earned the right to wed a daughter of Saul with the slaying of Goliath and specifically Michal with the slaying of a hundred more Philistines. Michal once protected David from one of her father’s plots on his life, but the downfall of their marriage came as she saw David dancing before the Lord upon the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Her womb was closed for the rest of her life.
- Abigail: Scripture paints quite a positive light on Abigail, as opposed to her first husband Nabal, who is labeled a fool. Upon Nabal’s death, David took Abigail as his wife, and it was a good match. Nothing else, however, of their relationship was ever mentioned after this time.
- Bathsheba: The most famous of David’s wives, or perhaps just the most notorious. Their relationship is conceived in adultery, leading to the murder of her first husband. Because of their sin, their first child dies. Ceaseless strife follows David and his family after this event. Among his children, there is incestual rape, murder, rebellion, and general conflict until his death.
- 1,000 wives & concubines: Solomon was the most famous of David’s children, coming from his marriage to Bathsheba. Foreign women ultimately proved to be the downfall of Solomon’s reign, as they led him to abandon the one true God and worship instead the idols of the land.
- Jezebel: There is nothing good that can be said of either Ahab or Jezebel. They were two abominable people who, quite frankly, seemed to be made for each other.
- Gomer: Gomer prostituted herself out. God told Hosea to take her and hold her tightly as his wife, though she would play the harlot again and again. Their marriage ultimately stood as an illustration of God’s love for His people, even in spite of their continually wanderings.
It is interesting that the marriages of many of the greatest men in Scripture go almost unmentioned, if they were even married at all: Joseph, Caleb, Joshua, Samuel, Peter, and Paul, just to name a few. Of these, it is clear that Joseph, Caleb, Samuel, and Peter were married, but we never even hear the names of their wives, much less any specific details about their marriages.
It is also interesting to contrast the marriages of the Old Testament guys with the New Testament guys. Typically, we get fuller pictures of the real relationships of the couples in the Old Testament than the New Testament, but the snippets that we can glean of the New Testament couples are much more positive than the ones of the Old Testament. In fact, there is relatively little mention of sin or failure among the three New Testament couples that I have listed. And yet, what remains uniformly clear from these three is that even these best pictures of God-honoring marriage would be in trouble apart from divine guidance. Elizabeth was the old barren woman, like Sarah or Hannah. Zacharias, like Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, struggled to believe that even God could provide a child to such an elderly couple. His doubt was so severe that God shut his mouth until the birth of his son. Mary found herself on the other end of the spectrum; she was so young that her marriage with Joseph had not yet been consummated. And there she was, found to be with child; her betrothed Joseph was prepared to do the honorable thing and quietly divorce her, not exposing her to more shame than necessary. Again, God stepped in.
Aquila and Priscilla stand as perhaps the best example in the Bible of what a God-honoring marital partnership should look like. They are only mentioned as secondary characters where they are mentioned (Acts 18), but the little that can be gleaned shines very positively on them. Their lives seemed to revolve around God’s work, whether in their co-laboring alongside Paul or in their effort to bring Apollos to a more accurate understanding of Christ. Clearly, at some point God had invaded their lives and taken the primacy. I think if any exists, this is the Biblical example of a “Christ-centered marriage.” And the Biblical history of their relationship spans all of about three verses.
A good marriage in the Bible seems to go hand-in-hand with a faithful walk before God, something like Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The New Testament summation on this I think is found in Colossians 3:2, “Set your on mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth.” As the Bible characters walk in step with this, in the spirit of the wisdom of the Proverbs (the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom), marriage goes well. When one like Abraham sets his mind to the fear of man rather than God, he passes his wife off as his sister. When one like David sets his mind to own his pleasures rather than pleasing God, he commits adultery with another man’s wife, kills him, and takes her as his own. When one like Solomon sets his heart to the pursuit of the company of women rather than the pursuit of fellowship with God, he is led astray into a wasted life of idol worship.
The vast majority of Biblical accounts of marriage were very flawed, very reflective of the fallen condition of mankind, just as the vast majority of marriages in the church and in the world are today. And what should we expect, after all? Faithfulness in marriage must first stem from faithfulness to God. Responsibility in marriage must be rooted in responsible stewardship before God. Deep love in marriage must first originate from the depths of God’s love for us and in us. Honesty in marriage must predicate from a lifestyle of confession and repentance before God. Good marital leadership must be learned in subjection to God’s leadership. It has been said that marriage is a training ground for life, but I think it is even more true that a man’s relationship with God is the refinery that strips away the selfishness, pride, arrogance, and irresponsibility of a little boy and produces a Biblical man prepared for marriage. God, let me be that man.