Marriage: Covenant or Contract?, part 1



(This is the first of a three-part series; here are the links to part 2 and part 3.)

In a previous post, I spoke about the Church’s tendency to try to imbue common objects and actions with spiritual overtones, and how this supports the encrustation of tradition onto the teachings of the Church. As Christians, we are so prone to the sacralization of those things that we hold dear that we end up creating our own sacred cows. As a card-carrying iconoclast in good standing (our motto is “Sacred cows make good hamburger”), I am going to write about one of the most sacred of sacred cows, the “Covenant” of marriage.

Marriage is a Covenant!

One of the greatest shibboleths in the Christian church is this statement: “First we need to understand that marriage is a covenant, not a contract.”* I’ve heard this from pulpits, on Christian TV and radio, and read it countless times in Christian writing, whether it be books or the internet. It is a truism of Christian teaching that Marriage is separate from all other kinds of agreements, because it was a “Covenant instituted by God.”

I have an annoying habit: I ask questions. I can’t help it, it’s a gift. And one day last year, as I was reading someone make this same point, yet again, on a marriage forum, the question popped into my head, “Where does the Bible say that marriage is a covenant?” I couldn’t think of anywhere in the Bible that marriage is called a covenant. And so I did a search using my ESV Online account, and found one verse, in the Old Testament, in which Marriage is referred to as a “covenant.”

But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. (Mal. 2:14)

There it is: your wife “by covenant”. That should settle it, right? For a while, I chewed on that, wrestling with it. Comme ça: “Yes,” I thought, “but it’s only one verse.” “How many times does the Bible have to say something before you accept it as true?” “Uh, do you ‘baptize for the dead’, then? That’s mentioned only once.” You get my drift; I was struggling with this idea.

After all, if you’re going to create a doctrine, a teaching, shouldn’t you have more than one verse that is explicit and direct, in your corner?

Erm, Marriage Is a Contract

And then, it happened again. Another question came to me, and so I’m going to ask you: how many times does the Bible refer to “contracts”? After all, if marriage is different from other contracts because it is a covenant, shouldn’t there be something, somewhere, in the Old Testament, to distinguish covenant from contract? Go ahead, open a new browser window, go to your favorite Bible site and search for “contract”. I use the English Standard Bible, but on Bible Hub and Bible Study Tools, you can search in other translations: NABS, KJ, RSV, NIV.

It’s not there, is it? Uh-uh. You know what that means? There were no “contracts” in the Bible. Or, maybe, just maybe, all contracts in the Old Testament were “covenants.” “That can’t be! We know that marriage is separate from contracts!”

Oh? How do we know that? Because it’s been preached ad infinitum? Is “common knowledge” really all that authoritative? Contrary to all this popular belief, scholar David Instone-Brewer says

In contemporary English, the best translation for the ancient Near Eastern concept of “covenant” (Hebrew berith) is the term “contract.” (Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, by David Instone-Brewer, p.15.)

What clinches all this together is the fact that the “marriage is not a contract, it’s a covenant” idea is completely foreign to Jews, both modern and ancient. In fact, Jews still practice the ages-old custom of drawing up a marriage contract. Called a ketubah, this ‘contract’ detailing the obligations of the groom to his new bride, which dates back over 3000 years, is still practiced today.

It all comes down to this: during the Old Testament times, all contracts were covenants, and all covenants were contracts. Including marriage.

(more to come, of course.)


*I think the world of Generous Husband and Generous Wife; in fact, I link to their websites in my sidebar, and recommend their daily blogs to everyone. Without a doubt, GH and GW are two of the greatest marriage resources on the internet. BUT (you knew that had to be coming, right?), this is a direct quote from one of their articles on their companion site, The Marriage Bed. Truly, this shibboleth is ubiquitous.


Filed under Marriage & Sexuality

5 responses to “Marriage: Covenant or Contract?, part 1

  1. Pingback: Addressing The Sexless Marriage, part 1 | The Curmudgeonly Librarian

  2. Pingback: Marriage: Contract or Covenant, part 2 | The Curmudgeonly Librarian

  3. Pingback: Marriage: Contract or Covenant, part 3 | The Curmudgeonly Librarian

  4. Pingback: Divorce: Scarlet Letter or Valid Option? | The Curmudgeonly Librarian

  5. Pingback: Amputation As An Analogy | The Curmudgeonly Librarian

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