(Part two of a series. Part one is here.)
Contemporary Westerners regard marriage, first and foremost, as a personal matter. The two people must decide for themselves whether their relationship has the right stuff, such that they wish to spend the rest of their lives together.
The government, the Church, the couple’s neighbours — all of them should basically butt out of a matter that is not really their business.
The legitimacy of this emphasis on personal choice seems self-evident to us Westerners. We are aware that other cultures practice arranged marriages, but we would never submit to such an arrangement ourselves.
This is really only half of the equation. As I will soon demonstrate, there is an essential social component to the institution of marriage, even here in the West.
But even the phrase the institution of marriage is liable to grate a little. To us, marriage is not so much a social institution as it is a private agreement between two individuals.
In ancient Israel, the scales tilted in the other direction. Ancient Israel placed tremendous emphasis on the social dimension of marriage.
Accordingly, Israelite marriages were typically arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. The parents’ primary consideration was the social connections that would result from their child’s marriage.
Nevertheless, parental authority was not such as to leave no room for the feelings of the young couple. There were love marriages in Israel. The young man could make his preferences known (Gn 34:4; Jg 14:2), or take his own decision without consulting his parents, and even against their wishes (Gn 26:34-35). It was rarer for the girl to take the initiative, but we do read of Saul’s daughter Mikal falling in love with David (1 S 18:20).
Actually, young people had ample opportunity for falling in love, and for expressing their feelings, for they were very free. 2 M 3:19, it is true, speaks of the young girls of Jerusalem being confined to the house, but this text refers to the Greek period and to an exceptional state of affairs. The veiling of women came even later. In ancient times young girls were not secluded and went out unveiled. They looked after the sheep (Gn 29:6), drew the water (Gn 24:13; 1 S 9:11), went gleaning in the fields behind the reapers (Rt 2:2f.) and visited other people’s houses (Gn 34:1). They could talk with men without any embarrassment (Gn 24:15-21; 29:11-12; 1 S 9:11-13).
Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, p. 30.
Wherever young men and women come into contact with one another, sexual attraction is liable to follow. Parents in ancient Israel were not so hard-hearted as to completely disregard the romantic longings of their children.
Still — the social dimension weighed more heavily in ancient Israel; whereas the personal dimension weighs more heavily with us.
Proponents of same sex marriage prefer to emphasize the personal dimension. Their position is, Who I marry is no one’s business but my own.
It’s a strong argument. It is consistent with our Western emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. For example, freedom of conscience suggests that individuals can decide for themselves what is right and wrong, and order their lives accordingly.
Some people deny that the prohibition against same sex marriage is discriminatory. Homosexuals are free to marry just like anyone else, they claim: they can marry someone of the opposite sex whenever they choose to do so.
It’s a facile (even contemptuous) argument. Sexual orientation is deeply personal and evidently involuntary. (That is, homosexuals do not choose to find people of the same sex attractive, any more than heterosexuals choose to find people of the opposite sex attractive. It just is that way.)
If a woman is attracted to others of the same sex, of course that is who she would choose to marry. To deny her that option is, indeed, to discriminate against her. It is to deny her the personal choice that is open to heterosexual couples.
On the other hand — proponents of same sex marriage can’t deny that there are three other dimensions to marriage: the social, the religious, and the statutory. Those dimensions also must be taken into account.
Marriage is not solely a personal matter, and it can’t be treated as such. That will be our focus in the next post on this topic.