My wife and I married in 1968, just as marriage entered a long-term decline. Living together was in; loving was in; formal marriage-“the piece of paper” (as in, “You don’t need a piece of paper to be in love”)-was definitely out.
For a long time, marriage rates declined as divorce rates soared, indicating that maybe “the piece of paper” didn’t mean much after all. I stayed married, and behind the times.
Our children had to cope with plain old relationships: “I have two sisters,” or “I have a brother and a sister,” or “We live with both our parents.”
Other children could boast fancier pedigrees, more elaborate descriptions: “I’m my stepdad’s son from a previous relationship,” or “I live with my dad during the summer and with my mum during the school year,” or “She’s my half-sister: our mum’s the same, but we have different dads.”
While more and more families were “blended,” my wife and I remained “homogenised.”
Marriage also suffered from the the entertainment industry. Kurt Russell, movie star and longtime live-in partner of Goldie Hawn, damned marriage with faint praise: “I think marriage is fine. It’s got very little to do with your relationship. But the rules that come and go with marriage, I would love for us to be able to do without and get past.”
Then something extraordinary happened. Just when I thought it was down for the count, the marriage licence, the “piece of paper” so long ridiculed and devalued, suddenly became a hot commodity. Everybody wanted one. Opinions as to whether this was good or bad differed significantly.
what the Bible says
Starting with the basics seemed like a good place to find out how the Bible defines marriage. So I turned to the Bible’s book of the basics, Genesis. Sure enough, right there in the second chapter, marriage comes up.
No sooner did God create Adam than he began looking around and discovered that among all animals, only he was alone. As my wife will attest, it’s not wise to leave men alone for long. God agreed. “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’ ” (Genesis 2:18).
So God made Eve and joined the first couple in marriage. Lest we miss the significance of this, Genesis goes out of the way to clarify this union. “For this reason,” the author tells us, “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Simple, straightforward: one man, one woman, one flesh.
But “one flesh”? Yes. During the fleeting moments when husband and wife come together physically, they are one flesh. And when conception occurs as a result of this physical union, this one flesh takes on an independent form as a child. Every parent can see this. Each child, so individual, is nevertheless an interesting blending of the parents’ physical characteristics. “He has his mother’s eyes,” we say, or “She has her father’s complexion.”
Modern DNA identification techniques verify this blending into one flesh beyond eyes and complexion, all the way down to the genetic blueprint. The child becomes a living testament to the oneness of the union.
But then came sin. The blight of sin affected every creature and distorted every relationship, including marriage. The human body no longer functioned perfectly. Some women could not bear children. Some men desired more than one woman and some didn’t want the one they had. Polygamy and divorce arose, neither of which God intended.
By the time God gave the law to Israel, women had ceased to be seen as “suitable helpers” and had come to be viewed as possessions to be acquired and disposed of. A man could divorce a woman by simply dumping her belongings outside his tent. The divorced woman often had to choose between starvation, begging and prostitution. As an initial remedy, Moses required that men provide a bill of divorcement.
If God didn’t approve of polygamy and divorce, why were these practices allowed? Why did Moses provide for the bill of divorcement? “Because,” Jesus said, “your hearts were hard” (Matthew 19:8). He reaffirmed God’s original plan. “Haven’t you read,” He replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one” (Matthew 19:4-6).
Not only did Jesus reaffirm marriage as “one man, one woman, one flesh,” but He also used the Genesis account as His evidence. So if God didn’t change the design of marriage, who did?
The fourth chapter of Genesis tells the story of Cain. It begins with Cain’s birth and continues with the story of Abel’s murder at Cain’s hands. As punishment, God condemned Cain to the life of a vagabond, always on the move. To protect him from those who would seek revenge, “the Lord said to him, ‘Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold’ ” (Genesis 4:15, NKJV).*
There follows a list of Cain’s descendants. While the narrative passes without comment over Enoch, Irad, Mehujael and Methushael in a single verse, it devotes four verses to Lamech: “Lamech said to his wives, ‘Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times’ ” (Genesis 4:23, 24).
Here, then, is the first recorded challenge to God’s model of “one man, one woman, one flesh,” and it represents nothing less than a total repudiation of God’s authority. The serpent had promised Eve that she could become the same as God. In this passage, known as the “song of Lamech,” Lamech has the audacity to proclaim himself better than God. God provided one wife for Adam; Lamech took two wives for himself. God would avenge Cain’s murder sevenfold. Lamech would avenge his own mere wounding seventy-sevenfold.
Answering the Pharisees, Jesus attributed the changes in marriage to “the hardness of your hearts.” Lamech, who first dared to challenge God’s plan for marriage, displayed a pride-hardened heart that could boast of murder.
In the beginning, God designed marriage as “one man, one woman, one flesh.” Christ Himself affirmed that, in God’s eyes, marriage does not change. As the story of Lamech demonstrates, while we may think that we can change marriage, in fact all we can do is reveal how hard our hearts have grown.
Marriage hasn’t changed. We have.
*Scriptures quoted from NKJV are from The New King James Version, copyright