A few thoughts before I return to my point – I am an unmarried man. I have many friends who are married, most of whom are female, but my single status could perhaps cause you to think I am more foolish than I am since, as we all know, a wedding ring makes you smarter, faster, leaner, prettier, and enhances/creates all kinds of other magical abilities in addition to brings you closer to God/godhood. So of course someone could put forward the counter to my argument that I have no grounds to speak on regarding how and why an extra-marital friendship should exist. To this, my only rebuttal is yes, you are right.
And yet this did not stop the Buddha or Jesus from speaking their minds about marriage, adultery and fornication in addition to their own singleness and celibacy. The running joke is that the Buddha, often depicted as fat and happy, has little to say on self-discipline and fasting. With Jesus, historians, cultural commentators, writers, and theologians of every stripe want to marry him off to Mary Magdalene, Mary or Martha, or some other wife that he supposedly picked up in India. Indeed, as The DaVinci Code puts forward, we are even able to change the gender/sex of some of his apostles – namely John – where we are not making Jesus out to be a homosexual. It seems many of us are uncomfortable with an unattached deity. Indeed, the Latter Day Saints cannot conceive of an unmarried asexual diety, nor could the Greco-Romans in their own time. This problem them, of unmarried spiritual commentators (among whom, yes, I am included – like it or not), is not a new one but one we have been struggling to come to terms with for eons. The metanarrative put forward is that humans must have sex, and if they have sex, they must be monogamous, for you are incomplete without a “significant other.” Any deviation from this is suspect.
Take me, for instance. I am at the time of this writing 30, halfway to 31. As the holidays approach ever closer on the calendar and I begin to make preparations to go home for the holidays, I am already prepared for another round of conversation with my stepmother. “You’re twenty-nine!” she said last year. “And you’re not married yet and haven’t gotten anyone pregnant. What are you? Gay?!” This summer, she was more blunt. “Just… I just want you to get out there. Get a girl pregnant. Any girl. It doesn’t even really matter who anymore. Just give us grandkids.”
Now, as amusing as those exchanges might (or might not) be, my stepmother is not alone. I have had pastors express “concern” that I was unattached. I once rented an apartment from a bishop whose wife tried to hook me up on blind dates with their parishioners, and then there was the Pentecostal landlord of mine who said she would pray for me since she “had a prayer life that guaranteed marriage. I pray for people and they’re married within the year. No lie.” That was three years ago.
Now, lest you misunderstand, I’m not celebrating my singleness. Like other people my age, I would have liked for this or that relationship to have worked. Or wish I had worked harder at. That is, I am not a Barney Stinson. No, I am not enumerating the notches on my belt but instead saying there has been a constant pressure from well-intentioned religious people to marry me off and so I know of what I speak – religion is uncomfortable with singleness. We have, however, spent enough time setting up preliminaries and I cannot entertain you with amusing anecdotes any longer.
Some stepstones to where I am going:
Hebrews 4:15 – Speaking of Jesus, we do not have a “high priest” who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses. No, we have one who has been tempted in every way just as we are. Yet (unlike us), he (Jesus) did not sin.
Hebrews 2:17-18 – He had to be fully human in every way like them (humankind) so that he might accurately represent them. He suffered when he was tempted so that he would know those he represented.
By the time that Jesus became a traveling storyteller, the Jewish religious leaders together with the Jewish people (i.e. Pharisees, Sadducees) had determined that they should not associate with outsiders (i.e. Samaritans, Romans) but within the community, men should not fraternize with women. Both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds speak openly about men relating to men but nothing except warnings for men with women. Proverbs 31 speaks of a praiseworthy woman, but notice her honor is really her husband’s – not her own. Giving my predecessors the benefit of the doubt, I would like to believe there were good reasons for this. Surely, there was a social problem that the Jewish faith community, over time, wanted to prevent for legitimate reasons. We must never forget that the scriptures were read over centuries and people of faith have tried to conform their lives to the maxims not in galaxies far, far away but again and again throughout time until today. Something about the treatment of women and couples in scripture “stuck.”
But what was it? And why?
We must first rewind to Genesis. In Genesis, we see the “first man” Adam alone among the newly-created world. That is, there was not a woman or fellow man around. In Genesis 2.18, it is noteworthy that God is the one who noticed “it is not good for man to be alone.” Many see this as a divine mandate/command to marry. Further, in the first chapter, God encourages these “first parents” to reproduce. Many see this as a divine mandate/command to have sex… and as we all know, you can’t have sex before marriage… So (logically) God married them and since God married these two, he must be “for” marriage. Logically. Because this is all logical, all sequential.
Except that’s a curious way to read things. We don’t have anything within scripture that says that. In fact, quite the contrary, we see unmarried people having sex all the time. And we celebrate it. The stories of Ruth and Esther and the poetic Song of Songs in the Hebrew Scriptures each and all highlight how great it is that people are having sex before marriage. Biblical scholar Jennifer Wright Knust in her collection of work continually tries to rewrite the Evangelical narrative to celebrate sex and discontinue “demonizing” those who are having it outside of a marriage contract and I, along with many others, support her work because I support the idea that Evangelicals don’t have scripture nailed just yet.
So, okay, Adam and Eve is a bit confusing. That is, if men and women are supposed to have sex then this raised all kinds of questions. Maybe we need to move the story forward a bit to something that can help support our predisposition.
Issac. Let’s pick Isaac.
After the death of his mother Sarah, Isaac is inconsolable. He has lost the one woman who meant everything to him,his comfort, his “normal” and “sane” parent. So his father Abraham takes it upon himself to find Isaac a wife and hires one of his servants to go back to their country and house of origin, Bet Terah of Aram-Naharaim. In the Hebrew parsha reading Chayei Sarah we see one of the more romantic stories in scripture. Rebekah, a young virgin/girl is approached by Abraham’s servant and believes with confidence in a god who is not her own. This was either a girl who truly believed in miracles and romance or was hot to “hop on the stick” as they say. And yet the story concludes with an inconsolable Isaac now consoled by the love he finds in and with Rebekah.
Truly, deeply romantic. And a fertile story to make law. Because that is, in the end, what we do with lovely, romantic, beautiful things. We twist them and force them to conform to our idealized perceptions. We cannot let love bloom between people of faith – no, we must make a pattern of this story, this unique and not repeated “type” and cast it out as the exclusive pattern for religious romance. You must “hear from God,” there must be a miracle encounter (often at work) and there must be the friend or groomsman who brings the lovers together. Indeed, Shakespeare used this pattern in almost all of his comedies, Jane Austen used this as a narrative device in all of his stories, and we see it repeated time and again in virtually every. single. romantic. comedy. ever.
Except I want to say again, Isaac and Rebekah’s story is unique. It is not repeated by any other biblical character. Not even Mary and Joseph. Not even Moses. Moses, you may recall, marries and barely ever sees his wife. In fact, the most extensive account of Moses’ wife, Zipporah, appearing in scripture is when Moses has failed to perform his parental and husbandly duties and she must step in to do it for him. David and Solomon had numerous wives. If there is any “pattern” of biblical relationship that is consistent between the genders, it is sex and/or friendship – not marriage.
So, to return to Jesus, what was it about his culture that presumed marriage? Or, more precisely, if marriage and romance weren’t going to take place, what did a relationship look like between a man and a woman? Clearly, some kind of social rule existed.
One day, when Jesus was tired from walking, he sat down at a well. His disciples had gone ahead into the town to get food and supplies and, when they returned, they found him talking to a Samaritan woman. What is strange in this story for us as modern readers, and what was strange to the disciples that day (and to the audience of that period) was at least three different things:
- Jesus was talking to a woman,
- She was a Samaritan (an unbeliever, and thus, not a romantic prospect), and
- He asked her for a drink – which would have made him “unclean” since Samaritans were “dirty” people to the Jews.
In other words, Jesus didn’t do this accidentally. He consciously tried to make a friend that day; it wasn’t just about the water. Either Jesus was so dehydrated that his senses temporarily left him, Jesus felt he was near death and broke the customs of his time, or he was actively pursuing some kind of relationship. I’m of the camp that goes with this second option. While it is curious that he stayed behind and that the story makes note that he was “tired” it also makes note that the disciples didn’t excuse the behavior in connection to these things. They didn’t defend his behavior by retelling the story. Ah, well, umm… You see… Ahh… What happened here was ah… Jesus… He was… Umm… Feeling bad. Yeah. Yeah, that’s the ticket! He felt bad and got confused! That’s it! That’s what happened!
Because this wasn’t the first time he had broken custom in relation to women. No, indeed Jesus was a bit of a revolutionary and firebrand of his time. He forgave an adulterous woman, makes it a point to secure the future of his (presumably widowed) mother before he dies, excuses everyone from the room of a dead girl (if he was going to “take a peek” under a girl’s shirt, this would have been it), heals a woman with an “issue of blood” and – lest we think this was an accident – turns around to bless this woman who has been outside of the community for years and restore her dignity – indeed, if we were to enumerate all that he did to create a new narrative between men and women, it might take up a library .
And yet, this unmarried man as far as the scriptures are concerned remains unmarried until his death. There is no girlfriend or lover present and wailing on the day he dies. He remains unattached.
Now – I want to be perfectly honest. Given the verses from Hebrews I cited above, I want to believe Jesus had romantic interests. Okay, he might not have “fallen into temptation” and had sex, but surely he felt something for a girl, right? He clearly enjoyed the company of women, numerous stories record that he was friends with Mary and Martha, and the gospel writers make it a point to say that he tried to move women’s rights forward. I want to believe, in all of this, that there was someone he loved more than the others – some “special girl back home” that he held in his heart. And yet, as a student of literature, I am explicitly denied this. I could presume a little “somethin’ somethin'” between him and one of the women in the stories, but I can’t really hold that presumption for too long. The fact remains that for someone so “ripe” for a relationship, he sure spent a lot of time with women but we, as readers, are denied anything to explicitly attach him to someone.
And this, this absence, creates all kinds of craziness. Because we can’t conceive of an unattached deity.