Are Marriage Laws Pagan? Isaac and Rebekkah in Ancient Near Eastern Context


marriage pagan
Note: I am currently reworking this teaching after doing extensive research into Biblical marriage from extra-biblical sources. My initial findings stand, but I will be making the teaching a lot more thorough by bringing in a lot of first-century Galilean and Judean context. How ketubahs and gets are presented within the Hebrew Roots movement is not an accurate picture of how they really looked and how they were entirely legal court documents, what the requirements were for legal witnesses, and what a ketubah meant for a wife’s financial guarantees in case of divorce.
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If I had a dime for every woman who believed the doctrine that they don’t need a marriage certificate to get married and that they can just hook up with a guy, who then went and did it, and who got used up and abandoned, even though she was in possession of a self-made Ketubah signed by “witnesses” who then didn’t hold the man who she was shacking up with accountable (and indeed, had no legal ability to do so) when he turned out to not really be very Torah observant – and now have NO LEGAL RECOURSE and can’t get out of this marriage that doesn’t exist legally and yet spiritually it does exist because they had sex together…
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Yeah it was a messy run on sentence but this is a messy run on situation. Here’s the story I hear:

(1) Marriage by the State is pagan; (2) all you need to do it go cohabit and have sex and as long as you both love God, you are legally married in His eyes and (3) have all of the protection you need Biblically, oh and (4) God told me this by revelation.

It sounds romantic, spiritual and appealing, right? It sounds like a way to reclaim our heritage as believers – but nothing could be further from the truth.

Whenever I hear a doctrine prefaced or prefixed by “God told me this by revelation” then I am like 100 times MORE likely to assume that it’s just something straight out of their imagination. If they had proof, they would provide it. Those who have no proof, too often credit God with revelation – and crediting God with vain imaginations, make no mistake, is a form of blasphemy. It’s asserting God’s authority to preach something in His Name, taking it in vain.
 
Ladies, in the past (really until just recently historically) a marriage was a covenant made by two fathers, two families. It was a legal act, recognized by the civil authorities because everything about it was done in legal civil fashion. It wasn’t just going to a man’s house and shacking up and now you are safely married after making up a paper and saying what you want on it and having random people sign it. That was, fornication in the ancient world – and still is. All throughout the Bible we have situations presented that were not thoroughly explained to the people of the times – and frankly, why waste the ink to do so? Until just a short while ago historically, all the world operated by ancient mindsets – they were honor/shame focused, dyadic (community) centered and spiritual. Our ancestors walked away from all of that and became concerned with innocence and guilt, individualism, and science – our ancestors changed the culture 180 degrees and then set about twisting the laws of God in order to fit the new paradigms. We cannot ignore the original culture that the Bible Laws were tailor made for. We can’t walk away from that culture and then just drag the Bible along with us as though God’s original intentions are even less sacred than the original intentions of the authors of the United States Constitution.
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Very often, and especially in Paul’s letters, we see that appearances in an alien culture are vitally important – whether it is in the form of an admonishment for married women to obey Greco-Roman legal dress codes or in warnings as to how believers should conduct themselves publicly within the culture in which they have been exiled. We are God’s ambassadors, and when we do things that look shameful within the larger society, we are shaming God. Living with a man without benefit of a legal marriage license in this culture and calling oneself a believer looks excessively shameful to God, and frankly, is not Biblical. This isn’t some noble protest against the Government, it is something that makes God look really casual about His ideas of what constitutes marriage.
 
People will tell you, on this particular issue, that they received a “revelation” from God but what they did was simply read the plain text out of the Bible WITHOUT knowing anything about the underlying culture. They aren’t aware, for instance, that Abraham’s servant went with absolute legal authority and, as an ambassador in the name of Abraham to whom he had sworn an oath with hand on (well, you know), made a covenant in his master’s name, with Rebekkah’s father and brother. Isaac and Rebekkah were legally married before she ever left Haran. The Brideprice was paid. The dowry was already given for her protection should Isaac divorce her for childlessness. The entire legal structure  of the Ancient Near East would have recognized the contract.
 
This is all a matter of established ancient law and you can see it in the text IF you know that context. Rebekkah had a legal contract, a legal marriage – she had legal protections should Isaac toss her onto the street – and if Isaac wronged her he would have her entire family to deal with, because they would all be wronged and would seek out satisfaction.
 
The ancient world was an honor/shame society and Isaac and Rebekkah were practicing an “endogamous” marriage within the clan. Nothing could have possibly been more legal than that – not only did she had civil covenant legalities in place to protect her, but she was also protected by an honor/shame culture THAT DOESN’T EXIST IN THE WEST. This was as safe as marriage got in ancient times and it was exactly why people did it – because in honor/shame cultures you were required to be absolutely honest with family (making Laban’s behavior all the more shocking when read from an honor/shame standpoint). Rebekkah’s father would never have sent his daughter with Abraham’s servant unless said servant was carrying assurances – it would not be unlikely that he was in possession of Abraham’s seal, cord and staff – in fact, I believe that he was.
 
Out here, even in “Torah Observant” communities – men are not required to deal honorably with their wives because no one understands that kind of culture anymore – we don’t even know what honor is. There is also no Covenant court set up, no legitimate Bet Din to protect a woman from being abandoned. Women cannot bring a Covenant lawsuit against a husband who has wronged them – nor can they go to a secular court because they didn’t do things civilly either. We are living in exile, and exile means that we do not have the benefit of pretending like women have the legal protections they would have had in the ancient world.
 
So #1 – Rebekkah was legally married by the laws of the land, through a sacred Ancient Near Eastern covenant system between two fathers and two families. This was not something done simply between man and woman. Brideprice and dowry were legally paid and recorded. #2 – Rebekkah had societal protections because of honor/shame culture that do not exist within the United States and Europe and certainly not within the religious communities that are not truly operating under ancient principles for faithfulness, but are based instead on a strange amalgam of what we *think* was going on based upon what is written in the Bible to an audience who didn’t need to be told these things – it would have been a waste of ink. Modern day “neo-pagan” communities operate according to how they *think* ancient pagans would live, and modern day “Torah-Observant” communities do exactly the same thing, but without studying the culture or actually living as ancient people did.  We are not honor/shame centered and we are not dyadic/community based. We are innocence guilt/individualistic/scientific people – we are the OPPOSITE of the types of people the Law was designed to work well with. Our ancestors left the culture of the Bible and now we are trying to keep our culture and twist the Torah around our modern mindsets like a pretzel.
 
I have messages and messages from women who believed this doctrine, and who were left “married” and yet unmarried while their “Torah observant” husband moved on to the next woman he met online. And no one can force their “not even common law” husband to do right by them. All he has to say is “she abandoned me” and it becomes a he said/she said. I’ve seen it so many times in the last year that you might be shocked. Women come to me and I can’t do anything to help them. No one can help them – not until they have been with their “husband” for seven years – providing common law recognition by the State.
 
A legal marriage contract isn’t pagan – they have always existed. There is a big difference between civil laws and idolatry – laws are not inherently idolatrous or pagan – making an idol, placing  it in a shrine, trying to imbue it with the essence of a god, bathing it, feeding and clothing it and bowing down to it – that’s pagan and idolatrous.  Laws are simply laws, they are generally the opposite of pagan, they are simply secular – they are either good laws or bad laws. And they have existed for one reason above all other reasons – to protect women and children from men. Hey, look at the Torah laws, how many of them tell women who not to have sex with and how many are telling men who they had better not have sex with? How many protect men from being raped and how many protect women from being raped? Is it the man who has protections from being falsely accused of adultery or women?
 
Men have had to be historically commanded not to follow their baser instincts and to not rape, to not seduce, to not have sex with family members, to not engage in homosexual relationships, to not touch a woman when she is having her period, to not dishonor a woman without proof. Women don’t naturally do those things (or at least they didn’t before women’s lib decided we should act more like men – somehow acting like men made us more sexually promiscuous, go figure!).
 
In the Kingdom of Israel, the Covenant, the constitution of the Kingdom of God, protected women from men from beginning to end. Unfortunately, in exile and without Sanhedrin courts in place, we women are left without protection unless we take advantage of the laws of the land concerning marital legality.
 
Like polygamy and polygyny, this is one of those areas that people feel very strongly about and preach completely out of the societal context – and amazingly, to the detriment of women and children in both cases and to the benefit of men. Go figure.
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4 Comments


  1. Tyler, thank you for addressing this topic. I’ve seen a lot of discussion on it and frankly, was growing concerned about the reasoning. It sounded to me like not getting a civil & legally recognized marriage certificate was more of a defiance against “the system” than a Biblical stand against “pagan” laws. But you have exposed the modern laws, not as pagan, but merely secular, and clarified the Ancient Near East culture rules, which are clearly not in place in our modern American society. Thank you.

    Reply

    1. Thanks – yes, we have gotten this mistaken doctrine that everything that is not Torah is somehow automatically pagan, but there are a lot of neutrals in this world – things that simply exist, some of which are beneficial and some of which are evil. The easiest cop-out in the world is to say that anything not in Scripture has to be pagan, but it isn’t reasonable. And yes, a lot of it is simply rooted in wanting to rebel against something – I have known many people who proclaim Torah not out of love for it, but simply as a backlash against Catholicism or mainstream Christianity. We cannot exist as people who are merely in constant rebellion against this or that – we have to be “for” what is good, or we will spend out lives living in the negative and that is not what He intended for us.

      Reply

  2. I have a friend who is in this situation. We have had a few conversations about it, but I’ve never had the right words to express what was so wrong with what she had chosen to do. And really, it is so hard to argue with “God told me…” without sounding really nasty.

    Do you have any wisdom to share on talking to people about this topic who are in this situation already? I probably wouldn’t bring it up with her on my own, but would love to have some guidance with what would be appropriate to say when he topic comes up naturally again.

    Reply

    1. If she is saying “God told me..” then probably all you can do it let it go. To argue with that will just create a martyr situation in her eyes. Sadly, there is probably no level of proof that will be enough – sometimes God has to teach us in painful ways not to attribute our own imaginations to His commands. Because honestly, the only response that occurred to me was nasty as well lol, like “Oh so everyone who really hears from God hears exactly what you hear right? And everyone else is deceived? How many cult leaders have I heard that from?” Yeah, that would be bad.

      Reply

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