Q. Is marriage a covenant?
A. I assume you are not asking about so-called covenant marriage, which has been in the news. In contrast to a “traditional” marriage in which a couple may be entitled to a no-fault divorce after a six-month separation, a legally entered covenant marriage contract allows a couple to waive their right to no-fault divorce. About half of all U.S. marriages today dissolve, so many states are looking for ways to stop rampant divorce. One idea behind covenant marriage is to get a couple to avoid acting out the mind-set that they can just bail out of the marriage if things don’t work out. But this legal agreement is not necessarily working well and is not being utilized much. In one state, only one-fourth of 1 percent of couples getting married select the covenant marriage option.
As with modern covenant marriages, some customs in Bible times could be considered contractual: the dowry (bride’s father or family gives possessions); the betrothal period; the bridal purchase price; the marriage present known as the mohar, given to the bride’s father by the groom or his father (a bridal price). By late-Biblical and post-Biblical times, the mohar was also a charge to be paid by the husband in case of divorce.
Men in Bible times could often divorce their wives easily, and in some cultures women had similar liberties. Verbal or written marriage contracts and customs are never a substitute for true love.
In addition to covenant marriage today and contractual marriage customs of Old Testament times is another concept of marriage as a covenant. Biblically there are two types of covenants: a promise between God and man, and a promise between or among people. Those familiar with the Old Testament are acquainted with the various conditional and unconditional covenants God made with individuals like Abraham and David and with the nation of Israel. Mutual agreements between various people also appear, such as the covenant between David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:16).
I do believe marriage can truly be considered a covenant. As a covenant, marriage is unique: it is between a man and a woman, yet God is directly involved because He created man and woman as male and female, instituted marriage and its conditions, and commanded that the covenant be binding and permanent. A triangle is often used to illustrate this relationship, with God being at the top. When a couple marry, they are making a vow. The definition of “vow” is “a solemn promise or assertion; specifically, one by which a person is bound to an act, service, or condition.” A vow is not only to each other but before God concerning their future relationship. A key word tying these elements together is “cleave.” This word, which is used a number of times to show other close covenantal relationships in Scripture, is used of marriage as well: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined [cleave] to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (See Genesis 2:21–25.) Becoming one flesh sets a seal in the relationship, a permanent covenantal tie.
The binding nature of marriage itself illustrates that it is a covenant. It is irreversible, and the marriage vows cite obligations upon both parties that both need to accept.
Another fact that reinforces the idea of marriage as a covenant is God’s hatred of divorce, since divorce is the breaking of a marriage. t is no accident that one of the strongest statements against divorce occurs in the Old Testament book of Malachi amid the prophet’s theme of covenant-breaking on the part of God’s Chosen People (cf. Deuteronomy 4:23). The prophet was warning the people concerning their apostasy, neglect, and failure to repent. Divorce surely is synonymous with covenant-breaking (Malachi 2:14–17).
The covenant of marriage is more than a covenant; it is a divine picture of Christ and His Bride, the church (Ephesians 5:22, 23). The covenant of marriage is permanent and committed. The marriage covenant is a faith-based covenant, as no believers are omniscient—they cannot know with absolute certainty what will transpire during marriage. That is why the view “for better or for worse” is so important. But with God’s help, it can also be “for better, not for worse.”
Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send your Bible questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.