Note to the AFA and SCOTUS: Marriage Predates the Bible

The American Family Association, which views Jews as second-class citizens lacking First Amendment rights, has never been afraid to co-opt the Jewish Bible for its own purposes, and did so with a full-page ad in The Washington Post yesterday proclaiming marriage an invention of their god.

Citing Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in His image…male and female He created them,” the ad reads, below,

A message to the United States Supreme Court:

As you deliberate on marriage
Remember whose idea it was in the first place.

Marriage was neither manmade nor created by any law or Constitution. It was God’s plan and purpose for civilization from the beginning. He created man and woman as distinctly separate but inherently compatible; each unique yet sexually complementary – providing both the means for and the ideal relationship within which to raise children from that union.

Before you now is a great question: Will you bend what God designed merely to suit the desires of man, knowing that you do so at the expense of children, perhaps even civilization itself? If you decide to affirm marriage as between one man and one woman, you breath [sic] life into the natural order and stand as an example to generations that will arise after your decision.

The only problem with all this is that it is not true. And if the Religious Right is free to believe that their god invented marriage, they are not free to legislate it on the basis of that belief. The First Amendment, not the Bible, is the law of the land, and it prohibits such lawmaking, regardless of how many Christians there might be who think this way (and there are fewer every day).

Factually, marriage was in existence as a social contract for many centuries before anyone heard of little Israel (the Merneptah stela, c. 1220 BCE). We know of Mesopotamian marriage from the Code of Hammurabi (18th century BCE). It is only thanks to Pharaoh Merneptah (reigned c. 1224-1214), the son of Ramesses II, who raised a stela in celebration of his victories, that we know Israel existed at all some 500 years later.

Merneptah speaks of a campaign he undertook in the lands of Canaan. Here he speaks of encountering and defeating a people called “Israel” and brags that his victory was decisive: “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” This is the first mention of Israel in history. Unfortunately, Merneptah gives us no information about the makeup or character of the country, its people, or its government, let alone its god or its beliefs.

However little this tells us of Israel, we do know that by the end of the 13th century BCE (around the time of the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations) that people had been getting married for many centuries and without regard for the god of the Bible.

Ancient cultures, like the Romans, viewed child-bearing as a means of combating death by leaving a copy of yourself after you were gone. Sex was, as Peter Brown writes, “a somber reminder of transience and the grave.”[1] Then come the early Christian thinkers who proclaimed sex not a means of overcoming death but as the cause of death, and the belief that avoiding sex would somehow restore to us our pre-fall freedom. But there were other reasons to get married, all ignored by the AFA.

The Roman marriage was not a religious institution. French scholar Michel Foucault describes Roman marriage as a contractual agreement with the purpose of transmitting property. People got married for practical – political, economic and dynastic – reasons,[2] not because any god told them to. Though gods would be called upon to bless the union, they did not proclaim it or require it, any more than they did the sale of wine or grain.

Another view is that of Metellus Macedonicus, who was censor in 131-130 BCE, who, the poetic objections of the world’s first satirist, Lucilius, aside, said in a senate speech unequalled in modern times:

“If we could live without a wife, gentlemen, we would all do without this nuisance; but, since nature has decreed that we can neither live with them satisfactorily enough, nor without them in any manner, one should take thought for his lasting welfare rather than for momentary pleasure.”[3]

Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus did not even place a stress on childbearing as the purpose of marriage, pointing out that anyone could have children, regardless of the nature of the union, and that it was companionship that was the goal of marriage. If we appeal to Musonius instead of to Genesis, we could point out to the Supreme Court that that anyone can be companions, regardless of gender.

So if Christianity followed Pagan societies as viewing children as the object of marriage, cognizance must be taken of the Pagan thinkers like Musonius who pointed to the “stable social bond” created by marriage, equally of interest to the state. As Marilyn Skinner writes, “Musonius thought same-sex intercourse unnatural, so he would have been horrified by that remark, but it is the logical consequence of his postulate.”[4]

In the same way, anyone can enter into satisfactory contractual agreements. God – any god – need have nothing to do with it.

Christianity did not invent marriage and does not own it. Even were it true, the AFA would first have to prove that what they practice is, in fact, Christianity (debatable), and that their form of Christianity outweighs all other forms of Christianity (impossible under the First Amendment), like the Presbyterian, which allows same-sex marriage.

In its ad, the AFA tendentiously, and ignoring the evidence of history, not to mention our own Constitution, claims that,

Before you now is a great challenge: If your decision to resolve this matter forces same-sex marriage on America, you will have settled nothing. We urge the Court to adjudicate rightly that which is God’s alone to decide.

Christianity is one religion out of many. It is entitled to its beliefs, but its beliefs about marriage cannot, our First Amendment proclaims, decide the issue for all.

Marriage is not an invention of the Bible, nor of the Abrahamic God. Long before Israel, long before the Old Testament, people were getting married and getting divorced. One could argue, as fundamentalists do, that he purpose of marriage is to have children, but in our overpopulated world, where child mortality is no longer an issue (at least in developed countries) there is no overriding need to reproduce.

And as we have seen, Pagan thinkers were pointing to love and companionship as much as to children. Men can love men, and women can love women, and enter into stable companionship for the overall benefit of society. Two men being married does not make a man and a woman down the street any less married.

The AFA and other Religious Right groups want a very specific, cherry-picked past to guide our way forward, but First Amendment concerns aside, if the past is our point of origin, we have come to a present very different from that past, and it should not be our destination in marking out our future.

[1] Peter Brown, The Body & Society: Men, Women, & Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 85-86.
[2] Marilyn B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture (Blackwell, 2005), 243.
[3] Skinner, 245.
[4] Skinner, 289.

Hrafnkell Haraldsson

Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen's Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.

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