Transactions and Covenants

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Dear Darla,

One of the hurdles that modern young women have to get over with regard to their thinking about marriage is the apparent transactional appearance of it. There is that surface appearance to begin with, and the plausibility of the charges leveled against it by the feminists have seeped into the backs of more than a few minds. That charge is that the “patriarchy” is simply a highly organized prostitution ring.

Now the first part of this letter is not going to seem like “relationship advice” at all, but I trust that by the end it should come into focus a bit more.

Back in the day, as it is thought, the village chief would buy a bride for his son, and the bride price was three chickens and a cow. The facile assumption is then made that a dowry is simply the financial price that must be paid in order for the chief’s son to have access to sex. And how is that not prostitution?

I trust you see that the subject is a complicated one, and I trust that you also feel that it can be emotionally charged. Time-honored customs, such as the father of the bride walking his daughter down the aisle and “giving” her away, are thought by more traditional Christians to be sweet and all, and everybody in our circles still does it. But how do we answer the hard feminist challenge that there was no “giving” at all? There was a fee. Marriage is just decorated prostitution.

But let me be careful. I don’t want to rub all your fur the wrong way all at once, and so let me outline the Christian resolution of this dilemma right at the front—which is the idea of covenant. I will then try to clear up some obvious questions after the fact.

Prostitution is obviously a major moral problem, but it is not a moral problem because it includes a financial/sexual transaction. It is a problem because of everything that it leaves out. Prostitution is a truncated parody of the marriage covenant, not a complete alternative to marriage. When a man is joined to his wife, the two become one flesh (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5), and when a man is joined to a prostitute, the two become one flesh (1 Cor. 6:16). It it not some “other” thing, but rather a stripped down caricature.

Now a covenant is a solemn bond, sovereignly administered, with attendant blessings and curses. When it is a marriage covenant, it is a solemn bond that encompasses all of our natural life, all our natural children, all our natural goods, and so on. It does not cover a certain portion of our lives; the marriage state encompasses everything. There is no part of a married man’s life in which he can be “unmarried.” It involves all that he is and does.

A man’s encounter with a prostitute strips away a lifetime of provision, and reduces it to a one-time cash payment, and in exchange, she renders him sex. The travesty here is everything that is missing. The feminist critique wants to say that the problem is the presence of sex for money. The real problem is that it is not nearly enough sex for not nearly enough money. And when those things get to the levels where they need to be, then many other aspects of life are swept up in all the excitement—car seats, minivans, mortgage payments, commuting to work, family vacations, white picket fences, dinner conversations, the works.

So Scripture is very clear that marriage is a covenant. The loose woman forgets the covenant of her God (Prov. 2:17). The men who are chided by Malachi for their marital treachery are told that they have been false to their wives by covenant (Mal. 2:14).

Now again, a covenant is a solemn bond, sovereignly administered, with attendant blessings and curses. And the marriage covenant is an all-encompassing covenant. With that said, you have to remember that not all transactions are covenants, but that all covenants are transactions. This means that when you go to the gardening store and buy a little hand shovel, that is a commercial transaction—but it does not rise to the level of a covenant. When a man and a woman stand up in front of a church and exchange vows, a transaction is happening there as well. But it is not merely a financial transaction. It is much, much bigger than that.

At this point, let me make a few more points about the scriptural grounding for all of this, and then I can finish by talking about how it is important for you to understand—living here in the 21st century as you do. I can finish by trying to make it relevant to you.

When Boaz redeemed Ruth, he was buying the land, and she was entailed with the land. Naomi was selling a parcel of land that had belonged to her late husband (Ruth 4:3). Boaz offered it to the unnamed relative, who said he would redeem the land (which was a financial transaction). Boaz then told him that Ruth came with the deal—he would have to buy her too (Ruth 4:5). At this the kinsman balked because he did not want to endanger the name of his line, and because he wanted to preserve his name, his name faded into oblivion. Boaz told the elders in the gate that he had purchased Ruth (Ruth 4:10). So Boaz purchased the land, and Ruth also, and she became his free wife (Ruth 4:13). She was not his concubine (a slave wife), but rather a free woman in Israel. And this is because the presence of a financial commitment as one of the terms of the covenant does not result in chattel slavery. A bride price or dowry does not mean that a woman is being purchased like an object off the shelf.

A biblical dowry was (in effect) divorce insurance. A suitor who paid the dowry was endowing his wife with a fund that stayed in her name. If he later divorced her for no cause, or for burning the toast, she kept that money. If he was going to be an unreasonable man, then he was going to pay a price for being an unreasonable man. Her father could also add to her endowment, which an unreasonable man would also forfeit. That endowment was hers.

If she was guilty of adultery, however, the case was different. He didn’t lose anything if she played him false. This standard is likely what lies behind the puzzling divorce law in Dt. 24:1-4. Husband #1 divorces his wife for cause (meaning that she forfeits the dowry). Husband #2 divorces her (not for cause), meaning that she still has her dowry, or he dies, meaning that she has the inheritance. Under those circumstances, husband #1 was prohibited from financially profiting by maintaining two opposite positions—i.e. that she was somehow worthy of divorce for cause and also somehow worthy to marry again.

So this might seem like the long way around, but here is why it matters to you, and how it should affect your thinking. The marriage covenant involves all of our stuff. The biblical view of marriage is a community property kind of thing. Because of the covenant, the one flesh union becomes a sacred identity. In the absence of covenant, as happens with prostitution, the one flesh union becomes a travesty. But it is not the presence of sex and money that makes it that travesty, but rather the absence of the covenant. This is because the covenant encompasses all of life, and speaks the truth about all of that life.

The relationship between a man and a woman, bound by holy matrimony, is not just a matter of their hearts being entwined. Rather, everything is entwined. And because everything is entwined, there must be standards, sanctions, terms, conditions. A covenant has all of those things. So lease agreements, contracts, car rental forms, and marriages do all have certain areas of overlap. But the marriage covenant is the king of them all. When it comes to earthly transactions, none is greater or more profound than marriage.

Say a couple of businessmen strike a deal. In six months, one of them will deliver 100 widgets by a certain specified date, and the other guy will pay $1000 dollars for them. A couple months later, the two men happen to meet at some social event. In the course of their conversation, they discover that the one guy’s widget factory had burned down, such that he can’t make them, and the other guy’s customer, who was going to market the widgets for him, had cancelled his order. Now, in this circumstance, do the two men have the authority to shake hands and call the whole deal off? Yes, because it is their deal. It was their contract. They made it, they can tear it up. They are lords of their own contract. They can do this because it is a lesser contract.

Now suppose you have a married couple, married for three years, and in the course of a conversation one evening they both discover that both of them want out of the marriage. Neither one loves the other one. No kids, no joint property. Divorce would be pretty simple. Do they get to shake hands and call it off? No, they do not. They do not get to do this because they are not the ones who joined together. This is a covenant, not a contract. What God has joined together, let no man separate (Mark 10:9).

Now comes the practical part.

When romantic or sentimental young girls think that marriage is simply about being soul mates, or best friends, or anything like that, they are leaving out most of life. Not only so, but they are seeking to have some nebulous feeling of love be the bonding agent. And then, when that feeling is gone, or has shifted into a form that they don’t recognize, they feel like the marriage is dead.

The covenant is like a concrete foundation—gray, cold, hard, straight lines everywhere. This is simply the way it is—if you want your house to remain standing. When the concrete trucks drive away, the covenant has been poured. Because the foundation is straight, you can put up all the cushions and curtains of sentiment and emotional attachment that you want to. What you cannot do is heap up cushions, curtains, rugs, pillows, and afghans as a foundation, and try to build a straight stud wall on that pile. It won’t work, as modern divorce rates show.

And so the central question for you, in considering your prospects, is this one. Is he a good man? Will he love me as Christ loved the church? Will he keep covenant?

Your uncle,