Thereto I plought me my troth

We were fortunate enough, my wife and I, to celebrate our fortieth wedding anniversary last weekend. A good excuse for a family reunion and some bubbles. The great passage of time was remarked by the absence of so many of our original guests, sadly no longer with us, and by the presence of folks we never even invited first time round, most notably our children and their families.

On the way there I had time (my wife being the driver because of my late-night band gig the previous day) to reflect upon the relationship of marriage to creation doctrine. It was a pleasant relief from poring over the perversion of marriage in our own times. I remembered that in our marriage service, we were reminded that we were entering into holy matrimony,

…which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.

I remembered that Jesus, teaching on divorce, referred his hearers back to Genesis 3.24, saying “In the beginning it was not so.” He modeled marriage in his time to the pattern at the beginning. Now his words mean more than either “On page 4 of your Bible”, or “According to my naive belief in a 7-day creation” (God protect us from such a shallow modern view of the Incarnation). There is much wisdom to be gleaned from the creation of mankind as male and female in the same divine image in ch1, but Genesis 2 is particularly the story of the first man to be in covenant relationship with God, and there is a holy mystery in the fact that he was also the first man to understand the true nature of the union betwixt a man and his wife.

Paul tells us (as our 1662 marriage service stresses) that the union between Christ and his Church is not an illustration, but the archetype, of marriage. Genesis tells us marriage arose because of the first “not good” discovered in the original creation; man needed a suitable created companion for his life on earth. But it was based on the relationship he already had in the spiritual realm, for remember Adam’s spiritual union was even then with the Triune God: he walked with Christ in the garden, and he, in his solitude, was the Church. And so we shouldn’t see marriage as merely a human social convention, nor as a “civilised” version of the mating games that God put into his creation of birds, bees, storks and bonobos.

No, marriage “from the beginning” was part of the divine endowment that made Adam the first fully-human creature – a creature related to God personally and to the rest of mankind actually through the vehicle of marriage. Now I don’t ignore the fact that Adam was also the first creature to pervert both relationships; disobedience to God led to death and sin, and secondarily to the curse on Eve in 3.16. That curse is why Jesus had to teach about divorce at all, expounding the passage about it that Moses had inserted into the torah “because of their hardness of hearts.”

Jesus was actually commenting on a current Jewish controversy between rival rabbinic schools about “no fault divorce”. As David Instone-Brewer has pointed out, the core Jewish teaching on marriage came not from the passage on divorce, but from another obliquely-relevant text, Ex 21.10. This is about the rights of a woman if a man takes a second wife (more “hardness of heart”, on the basis of Genesis 2), but the point is the first wife must not be deprived of food, clothing or sexual rights. The Jews rationally concluded that these were the basic rights of a wife, and that the flip-side was that a man providing these for his wife was likewise entitled to expect the food to be cooked, the clothing to be in repair and his own sexual rights respected. It was the denial of these things that broke the marriage bond and nullified the marriage, and hence the exception of adultery in Jesus’s teaching, and the undisputed (in those times) belief that desertion or lack of basic provision were a negation of marriage.

But it’s clear from the Bible that the relationship between man and woman is only the foundation of marriage – its fruit is the whole social and economic fabric of civilisation. And that was brought home to me even at our quite small anniversary bash. Our marriage was the bringing together of two families, and although our parents are all now deceased, those families were both represented, and are still bonded socially.

Then again, our three children in turn have brought us together with three other families through their own marriages, and the fruit of those already exists in our (so far) three grandchildren. Our society may give every appearance of being fragmented and impersonal, but the network of such related families is what still makes it a “society” far beyond anything in the animal kingdom. In the bronze age it was still possible for an individual¬† family to become the basis of a nation (like Israel) or even an empire (under Solomon – though that was Iron Age). But even now, when states number hundreds of millions and nationalities are leaky, remnants of family consciousness remain, and are heightened when any of us uses the records of those states to uncover our genealogy.

Even the geneticists will tell you that is so – the “founder effect” of the first few prehistoric settlers in a territory still makes their genes dominate the population, after all the waves of immigration.

Marriage was always an economic issue too, as I suggested from Ex.21 above: families provide for each other. Bride prices and dowries brought real economics into marriage – and from early days the suitability of matches, in economic as well as any other terms, was a legitimate concern of families. For the truth is that economics too derives from families. Childless Abraham becomes wealthy, and actually becomes the head of a large family business, verging on a small nation. But will he have to adopt his servant Eliezer as his heir, or become a parent through his wife’s servant Hagar, or have a son by his wife as God promised? The simple fact is that if none of those had happened, the social structure of that region would have collapsed.

It seems very different today, when many of us appear to inherit little or nothing and it passes to the taxman instead. But it’s still (just) possible to trace the network of family life in modern states – the national commonwealth is, at heart, a very large tribe. The extent to which that extended family cohesion is lost is, in large measure, the extent to which a society is unstable.

In any case, we invest in our children directly in other ways than the economic stability suggested by the tribal portions of the newly-founded Israel under Joshua. We do so by the education we give them and, if we remember aright that marriage derives from Christ and his Church, by the faith we seek to hand on to them. These are endowments to which even the unmarried can contribute.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Thereto I plought me my troth

  1. Merv Bitikofer says:

    Happy belated anniversary to you both! My wife and I just celebrated our 25th, but we don’t have any grandchildren yet.

    Family is indeed such an essential social unit, that I tremble to see the results of the large social experiment we are engaged in — not just rampant divorce and fragmentation — that is bad enough to be sure. But even in more cohesive “normal” families of the affluent west today it is virtually expected that children will not spend much of their adult lives in the same state, much less the same town as where they grew up. [paradigm of education here?] So, unlike the Amish we don’t keep generations of age together to support each other in spatially close-knit community. Ironically, this same experiment is not being afflicted so much on the poorer people of the world. Yet, even before the results of our experiment are in, we eagerly export our carbon-subsidized lifestyles as far and wide as we can, imagining that it must be the compassionate thing to do.

    But how did I end this initial congratulations on such a downer?! Bring on the bubbles, and enjoy the parties! Chesterton would thoroughly disapprove of my sour musings. We celebrate because there is so much good to celebrate. May God continue to bless our families and use us to bless others here and now in the times He has given us.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Merv.

      25 years is good, too – we celebrated ours by a trip in a hot-air balloon. Maybe there’s some moral in that.

      There’s certainly something been lost by kids leaving home and locality, though it’s been around awhile, I guess: it’s about 200 years since my Garvey forebears left family and home in Co. Roscommon to come to England. About 4000 years since Abram left his in Harran.

      And there is some compensation, I guess, in the ease of transport nowadays: we brought daughter and granddaughter back here from the family bash, and her husband’s down for the weekend and to take her back to London, just as another granddaughter arrives to stay. At least they come because they want to, rather than because nobody can afford to leave the family home (or to get left out of the will!).

      But this is a small country – crossing a continent to see them would be tougher in every way.

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