Review: Marriage as a Covenant

Gordon Hugenberger, Baker, 1998, 340 pages, 5 of 5 stars

Summary: Malachi 2:10-16 teaches conclusively that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman.

Years ago I wrote my seminary thesis on polygamy. I thought the most difficult question would be: “What should I do with polygamists wanting to join my church?” I instead walked away from that paper scratching my head and asking: “What exactly is marriage?”

That is, at what moment does it officially begin?  Does marriage start when the bride price is paid, or when there are vows? What if a couple of four decades never exchanged vows? Is marriage an agreement between families, as many today in Africa espouse? What consummates a marriage, the vows or the sexual union? Do answers to these questions differ within various cultures?

Hugenberger–former longtime prof at Gordon-Conwell and pastor of the historic Park Street Church–has been an invaluable aid in helping me unravel these conundrums, especially in the African culture I reside in where the parameters of marriage are often unclear. Though he writes primarily to Westerners, the insights remain indispensable to my setting.

Overview: The book’s eight chapters can be summed up as follows: (1) Malachi shares Ezra’s hatred for mixed marriages, (2) The traditional view is correct that Malachi 2:14 is referring to a covenant between a wife and husband, (3) Malachi 2:16 condemns only unjustified divorce (contra KJV), not all divorce, and thus agrees perfectly with Deut. 24 and Ezra 9-10, (4) Malachi and Ezra are not at odds. Ezra pushes annulment of invalid marriages not “divorce” and uses different vocabulary than Malachi. Polygamy is sinful but not invalid.

(5) Marriage as covenant is derived from the paradigm marriage in Gn. 2:24, (6) Covenants have three ingredients: a non-relative relationship, obligations, an oath. (7) Covenants need to have a solemn declaration of the commitment undertaken, (8) Marriage is portrayed as covenant elsewhere in Scripture, including Proverbs 2:17, Ezekiel 16:8, 59-62, and 1Samuel 18-20.

Strengths: This book was outstanding for a number of reasons. First, Hugenberger asks the right questions (see some of them above). For examples, he asks what breaks a covenant. Is it divorce, fornication, or are covenants unbreakable? For those who chose the latter, Hugenberger gives dozens of Scripture examples where covenants are broken (e.g. Gn. 17:14; Dt. 31:20; 1Kngs. 15:19; Isa. 24:5; Jer. 11:10, 14:21; 31:32; 33:20; Zech. 11:10ff).

Second, he clearly defines his terms. A covenant is “an elected, as opposed to natural, relationship of obligation under oath” (p. 11). He also says the sine qua non of a covenant is the ratifying oath.

Third, he answers common objections. Some say defining Genesis 2:24 as a covenant is overreaching. Such a claim is anachronistic. The simple union in the garden makes no reference to “covenant” at all. But Hugenberger says there are many places in Scripture where covenants are made, though the word “covenant” is never mentioned (e.g. 2Sm. 7; cf 2Sm. 23:5).

Finally, his section on the bride price (Tsonga: lebola) was insightful. Hugenberger argues marriage by purchase is not real marriage because (1) it emphasizes the relationship between man and family rather than man and wife, and (2) it thinks ratification is at the point of money/animal transfer and not the sexual union or vow. 

According to the author, the bride price is not formative of marriage but of engagement. There is no evidence in Scripture that the payment of terhatum constitutes  marriage itself. Rather, it effected betrothal/engagement, not marriage (2Sm. 3:14). Therefore, there is no “bride price” in Scripture but only a betrothal present.

Weakness: Beware! This book is an expansion of Hugenberger’s doctoral thesis. It is not for the faint of heart.

Conclusion: With skill Hugenberger tackles a difficult topic and a difficult passage. In fact, he calls Malachi 2:15 “one of the most difficult passages of the whole Old Testament” (p. 126). Those looking for a scholarly study of marriage as covenant should start here.  

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