It seems like everybody in the Old Testament is either married, about to get married, or was recently married but something went terribly wrong. This may be becasue the bible is about marriage. The Old Testament is a history, it is a set of laws, and it is an enthnography, and the themes themes that hold the whole thing together are warfare, resorces, marriage, and a heavy dose of odd cultish rule-making about food and blood. Marriage is a central theme of cultural life, so of course it plays an important role in a culture’s own history and ethnography. But is the bible, as one example of historical reference, a place to learn what marriage is, or what it should be? Biblical Scholar Jennifer Wright Knust says no:

Lately biblical interpretation has become the frontline in a heated battle to determine what God really thinks about sex and marriage. As a biblical scholar, historian and Baptist pastor, however, I find this debate to be misguided and destructive. The Bible is simply too complicated and too contradictory to serve as a guide to sexual morals. Treating the Bible as a rulebook impoverishes the biblical witness and short-circuits our ability to speak honestly about sex. Since the Bible never offers anything like a straightforward set of teachings about marriage, desire, or God’s perspective on the human body, the only way to pretend that it does is to refuse to read it.

To this I want to add another element. The Old Testament is a document that reflects culture during a certain time and in a certain region. People argue over the exact time and date of events reflected in this set of documents, but for our purposes we can usefully generalize. The region of concern is often called the “Middle East” or “Near East” but at a smaller scale there are uncertainties as to whether much of this history occurred in Egypt vs. the Arabian Peninsula vs. the Levant. However, wherever we see realistic information about the cultural ecology of the people in the old texts, they are herders, planters, or people living in towns surrounded by herders. For this reason, we can comfortably state that the Israelites and their friends and enemies were living in regions of Northeast Africa and Southwest Asia, in and between the Western Dessert and Nile Valley trough to the Tigris and Euphrates valley, and nearby highlands. This is a region with spotty forests and extensive grasslands during wet periods, and arid lands. The time period of concern is perhaps as early as the middle and late Bronze Age, but all of the actual texts we know of come from later. Historians put the conquest of Canaan by he Israelites at the Bronze Age-Iron Age boundary (about 4200 years go). But with respect to cultural practices like marriage, the Old Testament almost certainly describes a patrilineal system where livestock equals wealth, marriages among high status men were polygynous, and men were raised to be warriors.

In other words, the Old Testament describes a “Middle Range Society.” This is a term of art in Anthropology that refers to societies that produce food (as opposed to foragers), where most people live in villages with rarely more than about 150 people, and social relations are arranged by proscribed marriage and kinship patterns favoring a male lineage. If you go and count all the traditional cultures we know of around the world from the last few centuries, most of them are Middle Range Societies (MRS). This is in part because MRSs tend to differentiate culturally over time at a small spatial scale, both linguistically and in terms of cultural identity. When people speak of cultural diversity in a place like “Traditional Africa,” or speak of “tribes” they are mostly talking about the world of MRS where a region the size of the United States could have two or three thousand distinct groups with a great diversity of languages further subdivided into many dialects and distinct cultural practices, origin myths, and kinship systems. If you go around a large region of MRS and ask people what they call themselves, you will get a lot of answers. This is the human condition prior to the formation of larger scale state societies, peasant economies, and industrialized and western economies. It is how most people lived from several thousand years ago until recent times, the present in some cases. And this is a problem.

It is a problem because modern humans are much older than that. Fully modern humans existed on this planet pretty much everywhere humans were ultimately to exist several tens of thousands of years ago. There are those who believe that fully modern humans became widespread about 40,000 years ago, but that the previous humans were very similar to modern humans. Others believe that fully modern humans were in place and spreading across the globe, running into Neandertals and Hobbits and such, beginning at 120,000 years ago. Many of the key features we find in modern humans, such as a large brain and evidence of forethought and planning in stone tool technology, are seen in Africa much earlier, perhaps closer to 400,000 years ago. And, some have argued that key features of human society, including marriage, have origins that go back much farther, to about two million years ago. We’ll get to that earlier time period in a later post. For now, however, we can say with reasonable certainty that moder humans…their bodies, brains, and behavior…were in place at least 40,000 years ago, perhaps much longer, as hunter-gatherer-fishers (foragers).

The transition from forager to farmer or herder involved that transition to MRS (I oversimplify a bit). We have seen this happen in the ethnographic record and there is plenty of archaeological evidence showing this transition as well, and it is very complicated, far more complicated than we have time or space to deal with here. But we do know that the very earliest that this transition happened was about 10,000 years ago, and for several thousand years, that transition was fairly incomplete in any given area it occurred. Even in the Near East, one of many centers of early agriculture, there is evidence of persistent foragers interacting in the early days with more settled farmers.

This is significant. It means that if we want to understand the true nature of marriage by any reference to the historical nature of humans, which can be done if done carefully, we must also recognize that we came into being as the species we are tens of thousands of years before the rise of Middle Range Societies. This is not to say that evolution has not happened in relation to the transition to food production. It certainly has. But most of that evolution probably has to do with removal of certain selective features of a pre MRS ecological landscape and the reaction of our bodies to the diseases of settled life and interaction with livestock and other problems associated with agriculture.

Looking to Middle Range societies such as those in the bible (which is among the weakest sources of information available for human culture compared to the vast ethnographic record of Anthropology) is like looking at Spring Break in Panama City to understand family life in America. Not that the bible was a big party. Rather, it is a poor sample of the human condition. Let me put a finer point on that. With the rise of agriculture in a given region, things like conflict and war become more likely, and social organization trends towards the maintenance of a state of fierceness or bellicosity. Everything else in society follows, including and especially kinship and marriage. Marriage becomes a way for a society to reproduce itself in this form. There are probably features of this way of managing marriage and kinship that have uses today. Today, people marry for strategic reasons that are pretty much the same as found in traditional marriages for alliance in Middle Range Societies. But the reliance on classic criteria for marriage from the tradition of Middle Range Societies is primarily a way to use marriage to reproduce that traditional society, which today serves in only two ways: 1) to continue an out of date religiously determined cultural modality; or 2) to serve in the traditional way as a control by powerful men over others, especially women.

Marriage in Middle Range Societies, in the Old Testament, and in many American churches is a tool of the patriarchy. Codifying this tool in law is a dickhead move.


  1. #1 LC
    August 4, 2012

    With all the argument over gay marriage and “one man, one woman” (don’t they ever read the bible?), I got Stephanie Coontz’s book “Marriage, A History”. The introduction alone covers an amazing number of variations and Chapter 2 (which I’ve just started) opens with a discussion of the difficulty of even coming up with a description of what marriage is, or what its functions are, that would apply to all the varieties of the institution that we know of.

    Your blog posts on the subject have come at just the right moment for this reader.

  2. #2 Al West
    August 6, 2012

    Interesting post. I wonder, though, if saying that “marriage is a tool of society” is a useful thing to do. Society doesn’t exist as something independent of humans; it doesn’t use tools, or do anything, as it is an abstraction of human behaviour, an abstraction that the humans doing the behaviour are aware of and act in accordance with. So it’s hard to see how it is productive to see marriage in this way – unless what you mean is that humans themselves generally view marriage as a means of reproducing the right form of community, and that this, more than anything, is the primary motive for marriage. Which I’m not sure it is.

    This, also, is contentious:

    With the rise of agriculture in a given region, things like conflict and war become more likely, and social organization trends towards the maintenance of a state of fierceness or bellicosity.

    Agriculture doesn’t necessarily mean greater bellicosity. It could mean greater inter-communal violence (the desire for land and food security, etc), but it seems that intra-communal violence is higher among foragers. That is certainly true among, say, Inuit groups before their subjugation by imperial powers. I realise that this isn’t the experience of many ethnographers with extant foraging groups, but perhaps there are other reasons for this – certainly the ethnohistorical evidence points to greater intra-communal violence in non-agricultural communities. War, yes, grows with agriculture, for obvious reasons, but violence as a whole doesn’t necessarily grow with the rise of agriculture or pastoralism.

    It also seems unlikely that the Israelites conquered Canaan in 2400 BCE. Archaeologically, the Israelites are invisible; they are the same as other Canaanite groups until the Babylonian captivity (or the forced migrations under the Assyrians, when the populations of Judah and Israel were largely replaced by Aramaeans). The only evidence for the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition date seems to be the claim, made in the Bible, that the Israelites under David acquired iron-working from the Philistines.

  3. #3 Al West
    August 6, 2012

    *2200 BCE, not 2400 BCE.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    August 6, 2012

    Al, perhaps I didn’t make the point strongly enough, or perhaps you have to read the whole series. Society is not a thing that thinks and does stuff, but it is run more or less (depending on the society) by power brokers who do.

    Having said that, a reference to society as a functional unit is not inappropriate; there are emergent properties of societies and cultures and self perpetuation is probably actually selected for at that level (using the word selection in a general sense).

    “, but it seems that intra-communal violence is higher among foragers.”

    Do you have any evidence to support this statement outside of the arctic and subarcit? I failed to include my usual caveat that when thinking of long term societal, biological, and cultural history we need to avoid mixing arctic/subarctic adaptations, which are very recent and unique.
    ” ethnohistorical evidence points to greater intra-communal violence in non-agricultural communities.”

    That is a very hard statement to back up. There are times and places in the archaeological record where you find the occassional spear in the head, but increasingly such cases are linked to earlier than thought agriculture, like in the Late Archaic of North America. There isn’t much of a record on no-agricultural modern humans to base this on.

    Having said all that, ” War, yes, grows with agriculture, for obvious reasons, but violence as a whole doesn’t necessarily grow with the rise of agriculture or pastoralism.” may be a reasonable statement, but it does not obviate what I said . When resources are highly vulnerable to competitive neighbors, in middle range societies, you get more fierceness as a cultural trait. These are not peasant societies with some sort of army (I made that distinction). Nor does “fierceness” mean day to day nastiness (I also made that distinction).

    “It also seems unlikely that the Israelites conquered Canaan in 2400 BCE. ”

    Could be, that is not my area.

  5. #5 Redline
    September 15, 2014

    You only use half the biblical information for your premises. You completely leave out the New Testament which gives the ‘desire’ parts of the MRS’s. To understand that these people were aware of the biblical rules of:
    Do not lie with your mother(Father)
    Do not lie with your Sister(Brother)
    Do not lie with a man if you are a a man
    Do not lie with a woman if you are a woman

    The facts of the biblical books also give very clear ruling on marriage as one man, and one woman(or in older books fiver or so women, but really, can YOU live with FIVE women in sync? I don’t want to!).

    I would say your entire essay leaves one wondering at exactly what you do for research when you only read ‘half’ the book to get your information. DO you also read half the other books you study for information as well? Your own information suggests a strong yes.

  6. #6 Bernard
    July 14, 2017

    The institute of marriage is a constantly changing in the face of civilization development. We are living in a time where extremely conservative marriage co-exist with open relationships.

    So, is there any meaning to draw distinction?

    On one hand you can have a happy couple where a man engages in different sexual activities and a woman is aware and appreciative of it. On the other side, a conservative couple may seek a therapist to alleviate the problems that arise from constrictive sexual environment.

    It is hard to judge.

  7. #7 dean
    July 14, 2017

    “The facts of the biblical books …”

    The bible contains facts? That’s news.

  8. #8 Bernard J.
    July 15, 2017

    For the record, the other Bernard is not me.