Something to keep in mind when reading biblical passages about marriage, love, and sex: for most of human history, consent was a foreign concept, and love was an afterthought. Women were effectively their father’s property, and were “given away” to the husband upon marriage (often in exchange for a “bride-price” or to seal a treaty or agreement).
But it wasn’t all wine and roses for the groom, either: husbands-to-be often had as little choice in the matter as their brides. The parents arranged the marriage, usually for monetary or political reasons, and the people getting married basically had to deal with it. Of course there were exceptions (Ruth and Boaz, for example), and of course the practice varied over time, culture, and geography. But the pattern was pervasive.
One thing the groom did have going for him was the definition of adultery. Adultery didn’t mean cheating on your spouse. It meant sleeping with another man’s wife. A married man could visit prostitutes or any other unmarried non-virgin he could bed, and it was a-okay, even in the first century. The legal double standard persisted into the reformation (King Henry the VIII of England killed two wives for adultery, but always kept a mistress on the side. Funny, that). The societal double standard exists to this day.
This only started to change in the last two or three hundred years. We’ve all read Jane Austen (or at least seen the movies). But Austen wasn’t writing safe, posh romances. She used the romance novel to criticize arranged marriage, hypocrisy, and materialism in early nineteenth-century Britain. She wasn’t the first or only person to speak out, but it took a long time to get from arranged exchanges of property to what we currently think of as marriage.
And eighteen hundred years earlier, when the Apostle Paul was writing? Or twenty-five hundred years earlier, when Queen Esther would have been alive? Forget about it. The wife was the husband’s property. So were the kids and the slaves.
Nobody cared whether the bride wanted to get married. Nobody cared whether the slave wanted to become the husband’s mistress. Nobody cared whether the male slave wanted to become the husband’s ‘lover.’ And though they weren’t slaves, nobody cared whether the 12 year old boys in ancient Greece and Rome wanted to have adult ‘mentors’ with a side order of pederasty.
So why does that matter today? Because it affects how we interpret the Bible. If we see marriage in our modern, 21st century light, or even in an idealized 1950’s light (as the complementarian movement does), we don’t see the reality. Biblical marriage, biblical adultery, biblical homosexuality – these things are all fundamentally different than their 21st century counterparts.
That’s not to say the Bible doesn’t speak to us today on these issues. It absolutely does. But if we ignorantly superimpose our own culture on the biblical text, we will fail to understand. We have ears, but if we cover them and sing 21st (or mid-20th) century love-songs, we will not hear. And as Christians, we must hear what the Bible says. We simply must.