Disclaimer: this post is not meant to argue for or against gay marriage but simply to point out something I don’t understand about one specific argument sometimes employed by one side of the debate.
I imagine you’re wondering what I’m talking about, so let me help clear things up a bit. The argument goes as follows – actually, why reprise it in my own words when I can be lazy and let someone else do it for me:
Well, it’s been quite a whirlwind week for same-sex marriage, from North Carolina to Obama to Colorado—and, of course, to the many outraged conservatives concerned with preserving traditional marriage, i.e., the time-honored sacred bond between one man and one woman. Why, just last week, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said that marriage has meant just that for over five thousand years.
Time to break out your Bible, Mr. Perkins! Abraham had two wives, Sarah and her handmaiden Hagar. King Solomon had 700 wives, plus 300 concubines and slaves. Jacob, the patriarch who gives Israel its name, had two wives and two concubines. In a humanist vein, Exodus 21:10 warns that when men take additional wives, they must still provide for their previous one. (Exodus 21:16 adds that if a man seduces a virgin and has sex with her, he has to marry her, too.)
But that’s not all. In biblical society, when you conquered another city, tribe, or nation, the victorious men would “win” their defeated foes’ wives as part of the spoils. It also commanded levirate marriage, the system wherein, if a man died, his younger brother would have to marry his widow and produce heirs with her who would be considered the older brother’s descendants. Now that’s traditional marriage!
I understand the author’s point: what we call marriage today in no way resembles what was traditionally considered marriage, and so the ‘traditional marriage’ to which opponents of gay marriage appeal is largely mythical.
Great. Now let’s talk about why it might be wise to argue along a different tack.
The above excerpt is meant to support the expansion of marriage to include men marrying men and women marrying women. But according to the portrait of history it paints, gay marriage is – in the words of Shephard Smith – ‘on the wrong side of history’.
You see, where the person making the Biblical argument above sees a clean break between ‘traditional marriage’ and marriage as it is practiced today, the same facts could tell an entirely different story to someone else. For instance, one could legitimately argue that the history of marriage is simply one of restriction: marriage today is still marriage, even though some parameters have changed from the times of Abraham.
A man could once take many wives; that number was then restricted. A man could once take a wife from among the spoils of war; no more. Marriage was once as easy as seducing a virgin; over. Levirate marriage; 2000-and-late.
What these formerly-permitted marital bonds have in common is that they took place between man and woman (if not ‘a man’ and ‘a woman’). But even within that earlier tradition of less-restrictive marriage practices, there was never a tradition of marriage between a man and a man.
Given the realization that history could be understood on a spectrum that is slowly moving away from ‘anything-goes’, bringing up all the things that are no longer considered acceptable might not be the best approach to persuading someone that he should uproot a set of restrictions as old as ‘traditional marriage’ itself.