What the Bible Says about Marriage

Marriage is a significant topic in the Bible with rich theological meaning. There is plenty of biblical material that addresses the subject both directly and indirectly. Making sense of how the Scriptures portray marriage can be a bit of a challenge though, especially considering the peculiar customs and cultural norms around the ancient Near East. 

However, with some help from contemporary scholarship, we can understand how the marriage dynamic changed over the course of the Bible and into its current practice within Christianity. 

This article aims to help you understand how marriage developed throughout the Bible. We’ll take a look at its origins, how it functioned in the Old Testament alongside ancient Israel, how it changed in the New Testament due to the teachings of Jesus and Paul, and how the Church views the sanctity of marriage today. The totality of the article will equip you with a proper understanding of what the Bible says about marriage, why it’s important, and how it should be understood by Christians today.

Marriage bands on a table

The Biblical Origin of Marriage

Marriage has its roots in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Genesis 2:18-25 records the biblical origins of marriage through the story of Adam and Eve. The story records that Eve was formed from the rib of Adam, and God quite literally made them for one another. In some sense, you might say that God officiated their wedding too because Eve is called the wife of Adam at the end of the passage.

God’s design for marriage is also able to be understood through this foundational passage. Biblically speaking, marriage is the union between one man and one woman. Marriage provides the correct context for having children, and according to the rest of the story, from the marriage between Adam and Eve came everyone who lives (Gn. 3:20). 

The offspring of Adam and Eve would increase exponentially as the Genesis story progressed, but almost immediately, God’s design for marriage would start to be perverted those children (Gn. 4:19). In one particularly well-known story of family deception, Jacob, the patriarch of Israel is fooled into marrying a different woman than was promised to him by his uncle (Gn. 29:14-30). This situation resulted in Jacob taking two wives and setting the precedent for polygamy in ancient Israel. 

Overview of Marriage in the Old Testament

Jacob’s own offspring would multiply to become the tribal nation of ancient Israel. After their exodus from slavery in Egypt, Israel would eventually have their code of conduct written down by Moses and legally enforced throughout the country. This set of codified laws would come to be known as the Law of Moses and included guidelines about marriage. It was created to help govern the ancient Israelites and shape the parameters of ethical behavior inside their borders. 

The Law of Moses served as a double-edged sword when it came to marriage. It made notable strides in the areas of women’s rights and social justice, especially compared to their ancient Near East neighbors. However, the issue of polygamy would unfortunately go unaddressed by it, and a new problem rose from its instructions about ending a marriage.

Marital Dynamics in the Old Testament

If you’re not an avid reader of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, it might come as a surprise for you to learn that polygamy was not uncommon in ancient Israel. Though the practice is virtually nonexistent in Jewish communities today, it served a few functional purposes in the ancient Near East. Although the following reasons are practical for the time period in question, it doesn’t mean God blessed polygamy as a viable form of marriage.

It’s also worth noting that polygamy wasn’t the normative practice for every household. Typically, if it was practiced, it was done so by wealthy families. Additional wives allowed for the possibility of producing more children, and more children meant extra labor for families living in the agrarian society of ancient Israel. Assuming multiple wives was also an effective political tool for forging alliances during that era, and this is the most likely reason why king Solomon had an absurd number of 700 wives and 300 concubines (1Ki. 11:3).1 

Concubines were of a different status than wives. They were well-treated slaves that served the family, and they were typically used as surrogates to birth children for wives who were barren.  The children from this union were not slaves but legitimate members of the family, and they could even become the family heir. This sexual union was not considered to be adultery by the written standards in the Law of Moses. However, as demonstrated by the Abraham and Sarah story (Gn. 21:9-11), the nature of this marriage dynamic could cause some understandable jealousy from the wife.2 

Divorce in the Old Testament

The Law of Moses also introduced a new term into Hebrew vocabulary. The Old Testament sets the precedent for the idea of biblical divorce, and it’s found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. A few things are said about divorce in this passage, and one of them even persists to this day.

Divorce was the legal severance of a marriage. The man was required to give the woman a written copy of the divorce paperwork, and the filing of divorce paperwork continues to be practiced in civilized countries across the world. Additionally, the man was prohibited from remarrying the woman if she became another man’s wife after their divorce. Unfortunately, by the time Christ was born, the Israelites had abused this part of the Mosaic Law and were divorcing their wives for even the most minor of “indecencies” perceived in them. 

However, just because Israel permitted divorce does not mean God desired it to happen. The prophet Malachi reveals God’s own heart about the issue of divorce, and it’s recorded as something that He hates (Mal. 2:16). In that spirit, Jesus would set straight the will of His father concerning both divorce and marriage during His ministry on earth.

Read: What the Bible Says About Divorce

Overview of Marriage in the New Testament

There were notable reforms made to the Law of Moses from the mouth of Christ, and a portion of these reforms addresses the institution of marriage. Additionally, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul would also further shape marriage through the detailed instructions of his letters to husbands and wives. Their teachings would later be collected, compiled, and canonized as the New Testament.

The corpus of these marital teachings are used to guide the Church even today. Premarital and marital Christian counseling programs integrate these biblical principals into their lessons and curriculums. They are just as applicable now as when they were given during the time of Christ. 

Marital Dynamics in the New Testament

Marriage underwent some noteworthy changes within Christian communities because of Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul penned many of the Christian morals adhered to before and during marriage. These teachings resulted in a marital dynamic similar to but definitely distinct from Judaism at the time.

Paul serves as our window into most of the New Testament marital dynamics, and of his many writings, 1Corinthians 7 is the biblical passage that most informs us about marital ethics for Christians. We learn that premarital sex is wrong because it’s for the context of marriage only (vv.1-2). Each spouse should submit to the other in conjugal rights, and sex shouldn’t be used as a weapon (vv.3-5). Seperation and divorce should be avoided (vv.10-11). Marriage involves worldly troubles of all sorts (v.28). Death should be the only thing that ends a marriage (v.39).

Jesus affirmed God’s original design for marriage in Matthew 19:4-6. He affirms marriage to be a union between one man and one woman, and even cites Genesis 2:24 as the biblical basis for his position: “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Mt. 19:5, ESV). The numerical certainties of this biblical passage negates polygamy for Christians. Therefore, by His words and affirmations, Jesus upholds the sanctity of marriage as a heterosexual, monogomous relationship.

Divorce in the New Testament

Divorce was something strongly detested by Christ. Like His Father, Jesus hated divorce and spoke out against it when questioned. He even stated that the sin of adultery was abounding through certain divorces.

Matthew 19:1-11 covers the bulk of Jesus’ teaching on divorce. In this passage, Jesus toughens the leniency with which divorce was enforced in the Mosaic Law and equips us all with the proper perspective about divorce (even His own disciples). Jesus sets one specific parameter that warrants a biblical divorce: adultery/sexual immorality (vv.7-9). 

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul would pen more instructions concerning the acceptable parameters for divorce in 1Corinthians 7:10-16. Notable in this passage is his advocation to resist divorce, even if married to an unbeliever. However, if their spouse abandons them and leaves, they are not bound to that person any longer (v.15). Therefore, abandonment is an additionally accepted parameter for divorce.

Theological Significance of Marriage in the Bible

Marriage is a physical resemblance of spiritual truth about Jesus and His Church. Christ is often referred to as the Bridegroom and even self-referenced Himself as such when questioned (Mt. 9:14-15). Collectively, as Christians, we are the bride of Christ.

The Apostle Paul had a spiritual marriage in mind when he used virginity as a metaphor for holiness (2Co. 11:2). Understanding the theological messaging of this verse is important. Paul saw part of his pastoral role as being akin to chaperoning the Church before its metaphorical marriage to Christ (Rev. 19:7). In fact, the displays of love between a husband and wife is meant to mirror Christ’s own love for the Church (Ep. 5:25-27). 

The points of this article are useful for better comprehending the theological significance. They combine and integrate to form an understanding about our coming marriage to Christ. Marriage or divorce is inextricably linked to our own actions during this spiritual engagement period to Christ.

As his betrothed bride, we are to remain spiritually pure like virgins before their wedding. There should be no cheating on Christ with other religions or spiritual pathways (Jn. 14:6). After all, infidelity is the one thing He said was grounds for divorce. Knowing this, I exhort you to never risk the possibility of being divorced by Christ.

Stay true to Him because He is staying true to you. Abandonment is the other acceptable criteria for divorce, but God has already promised us that He will never leave us or forsake us (Mt. 28:20; He. 13:5-6). Therefore, only we can abandon Him and thereby prove ourselves like the unbeliever who left their spouse in 1Corinthians 7. Again, I exhort you to remain faithful during our time of physical separation from Him while He tarries a little longer (2Pe. 3:9).

Whether you are physically married now or plan to be at some point in the future, if you’re a Christian, you will definitely be spiritually married to Christ one day soon. In the meantime, enjoy this exciting time of engagement and cherish the gift of the Holy Spirit that has been given to you by Jesus (Jn. 15:26), and train yourself now to be the humble partner that He deserves by modeling His own humbleness for you (Pp. 2:5-8).

May God bless you and give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4).

  1. Mark Goldfeder, “The Story of Jewish Polygamy,” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law. 26, no. 2 (2014): 239.
  2. Catherine Hezser, Jewish Slavery in Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 192.

Written By: Nicholas Lakin

Nick is an academic scholar, budding theologian, and thoughtful teacher of the Bible. He has a passion to see others grow in their knowledge of God for the purpose of glorifying Christ. He’s also a graduate of Liberty University and a former United States Army soldier.

His academic works range from commentaries and exegetical analyses to nuanced details regarding the Hebrew and Greek languages of the Bible. His future endeavors include Chaplaincy and founding a nonprofit organization that’s conducive to ecumenical orthodoxy across Protestantism.