Jewish Distinctness | A Biblical Theology of Marriage – Part 3

Something unique happens in Genesis 24 where the story about the marriage of Isaac to Rebekah is recounted. While at its heart it is a beautiful love story, displaying God’s providence in the midst of his newly formed people, there is an apparent impetus driving the selection of a wife with Abraham’s desire to make sure Isaac does not take a wife from among the Canaanites. It is the first instance in the Bible of cultural endogamy.  This practice of endogamy continues in Genesis 28:1-9 as Isaac gives direction to Jacob’s choice of wife, while at the same time it is evident by Esau’s actions that taking a Canaanite wife would be considered an act of disobedience, thus bringing displeasure to his father. It is not until Deuteronomy 7:2-5 that the law code institutes rules concerning marriage in Israel and curses intermarriage outside of Israel. Moving on from the generation following Jacob, two narratives arise, teaching much concerning the theology of marriage in the Jewish nation.

The first is the story of Dinah and Shechem. In Genesis 34:13-17, the sons of Jacob say they are unable to allow this intermarriage to proceed unless Shechem and all of his family become ethnically Jewish. While disguised in deception to destroy Shechem, it reveals the fact that this endogamic practice was something that the brothers knew they had to maintain. At the end of the narrative, an interesting statement is made when the sons of Jacob reflect upon the past events saying, “should we use our sisters as prostitutes?”(Gen 34:31) Insinuated in the context is the notion that it would be inappropriate to engage in the activity of intermarrying to increase the size of the covenant community.[1]  The context of these stories does not hint at an expectation that Jews were only to marry those who have the faith of Abraham.  The determination of a proper spouse was dependent not upon their ultimate spiritual status but their relationship to the geopolitical entity of Israel. The endogamy expected was ethical rather than spiritual.

The second story is in Genesis 38:6-11, concerning Tamar and her levirate marriage to Onan. Onan in spilling his seed on the ground was deemed to have done something displeasing before God and was stricken dead. His act was a violation of the command to his father Jacob to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 35:11). The fulfillment of the promised offspring and the seed of the woman was dependent upon procreation. The reader later learns that it is mainly offensive because the seed of the woman was to come through the line of Judah. Failing to get married and failing to procreate was seen in Jewish culture as a curse, because not only did you lose your inheritance, but it was also an attack against the redemptive purposes of God, in the coming of a Messiah.[2]

After the exodus and establishment of the Mosaic Law code, temporal curses regarding the land were tied to the act of intermarriage with foreign peoples (Deut. 7:2-4). The law puts forth that one of the purposes for this endogamy is to stay away from idolatry (Deut. 7:4). God knew that marrying foreign women would lead to religious destitution for Israel and so he forbade it. As Joshua prepares for his death and prepares to turn the reigns of leadership over to the people, he says in Joshua 23:6-7 that keeping the law will keep the people pure, while intermarriage in 23:12-13 explicitly leads to cursing. Following the inevitable exile, the scriptures continue to dispense more information regarding Jewish marriages.

As men and women returned from Babylon and began to repopulate Jerusalem, Ezra comes back as well seeking to bring reform to the nation. Ezra 9-10 puts forth that intermarriage is exceptionally wrong and sinful. Ezra 9:4 states that it is an act of covenantal unfaithfulness to marry with a foreign people, and 9:13 makes the case that it was this intermarrying that led to the exile in the first place. As Ezra posits in his prayer, shall we break the commands of God yet again? The first time brought about exile, how heinous is to keep doing that which is wrong even after the initial punishment? What is then expressed is that the sin of the people requires confession, repentance, and a reconfirmation of the covenant with God or else one would lose the inheritance in the land. Sadly, repentance took the form of sending away the wives and children. While repentance from sin is always necessary, what that looks like depends on the context.

The distinctiveness of Jewish marriage is further unpacked in Malachi 2:12-16. Malachi is writing in a context regarding the same issue that faced the returning exiles as Ezra and Nehemiah. What is put forth by Malachi is the ultimate reason for practicing marriage according to the positive laws found in the special revelation of God. God was putting forth more laws governing marriage above and beyond those found in natural revelation because He was seeking  זֶרַע אֱלֹהִים  or godly offspring.[3] This practice of endogamy which began with the original child of promise, Isaac, continued throughout the entire history of Israel because the Abrahamic covenant was entrenched in the Noahic, requiring Jacob to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 35:11).

The Abrahamic covenant was a covenant of the age that is passing away, and it serves to bring about the context of the fulfillment of the Genesis 3:15.  While the curses of Genesis 3 are given to all of humanity via the covenant head Adam, so also is the promise of the seed of the woman given to all of humanity. Being a physical descendant of Abraham, in the Abrahamic covenant did not exempt anyone from the constraints of the Noahic common grace era. Instead, God provided positive laws which specific to the Jews for the purposes of God.[4] The positive laws concerning marriage were placed upon the Jewish nation to ensure that the holy seed which God sought from the promise of Genesis 3:15 came through the loins of Abraham. As demonstrated in texts above, acting in a manner contrary to the purposes of being fruitful and multiplying was considered a covenantal violation which brought a curse upon the community.[5]

This endogamic practice was a cultural mandate, enforced by God on the Abrahamic covenantal community.  It functional served to keep Israel separate from all the nations as a singular geopolitical entity and bring about the fulfillment of the three significant promises to Abraham, a land, a people, and Kingship.  While these promises were typological representations of higher things, Paul is able in Galatians to identify Christ as the seed which would bring blessing to all the nations.  The Abrahamic along with the Mosaic and Davidic covenants created a typological representation of the Kingdom of God, Pactum Salutis, and Covenant of Grace in the age that is passing away.[6]  The introduction of Christ in time and place inaugurated in history a radically new way of perceiving the world.[7]


[1] This negative view gets picked up again later in the New Testament in 1Cor 7 and 2Cor 6. Paul in the first letter articulates the benefit associated a mixed marriage between faith and unbelief. In the first letter it is possible to see benefit and good to come from pursuing after such marriages. 2Cor 6 comes across as a strong redaction, that pursuit of an unbeliever is an act of covenantal unfaithfulness.

[2] cf. Andreas Köstenberger, Marriage and the Family (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012). Kostenberger deals with those who appeal to this text to say the primary reason for sex in marriage is for procreation. His response to the question admits that the normal course of sexual activity seems to point to procreation and that everybody under the Noahic covenant are commanded to procreate. In allowing for the use of preventative measures, he lacks the teeth to say that for New Covenant members we are no longer under the obligation to procreate, engaging in marriage is no longer for the purpose of producing children, in fact it would seem to be agreeable with Paul’s theology of marriage to say that seeking after children can be a distraction to the work of the kingdom of God.

[3] WCF 24.2 appeals to this text in Malachi to affirm a statement regarding marriage saying “marriage was ordained…for the increase of mankind with legitimate issue and of the church with a holy seed” the first part of the statement affirms the goal of marriage under common grace. The second part affirms the goal of the Abrahamic covenant, that marriage provided the context for Israelites to produce the seed of the woman as the promised offspring of Abraham. v.i.With the coming of Christ, this cultural mandate of the Abrahamic and Noahic is no longer enforced upon believers and focus of the NT shifts from physical descendents to spiritual descendents. Physical procreation can then be at odds with spiritual procreation.

[4] Cf. LBCF 28.1 ‘Positive Laws’ are commands which are above and beyond the natural moral order.  Special revelation is required for their ennactment and they are only tied to the covenantal arragement in which they are given.  Upon the termination of the covenant the positive laws pass away as well.

[5] It is in this milieu which Paul writes against homosexuality in Romans 1.  Even though Jews had particular constraints upon how they should be fruitful and multiply, all of the Noachic society was under the expectation to persevere through propogation untill the expected holy seed was born of the woman.  Paul’s contention in Romans 1:32 builds upon his argumentation concerning unnatural relations and all manners of unrighteousness, acknowledging that those under the Noachic order lived with the knowledge of a natural law.

[6] The language of LBCF articulates that all covenants from Noah to David served to represented greater reatlities by farther and farther steps.  Under principals of typology identified by Fairbain the type, the shadow necessarily passes away when the anti-type comes into reality.

[7] Sumney, “In Christ There Is a New Creation.”  Sumney speaks about Paul’s new creation theology as introducing a new epistomological way of percieiving the world because in our union with Christ, we live no longer in the age that is passing away but the life we now live is in Christ who has entered the age to come.

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