On Being with Krista Tippett

Elliot Dorff and Luke Timothy Johnson

Marriage, Family, and Divorce

Last Updated

July 5, 2007

Original Air Date

July 25, 2003

American ideals and rituals of marriage, family, and divorce are infused with biblical messages. But what does the Bible really say, and how has it been taught across the centuries as the institution of marriage has changed dramatically and often? A rabbi and Christian theologian help us explore the nuances of Jewish and Christian teachings and reveal the striking practicality of Jewish tradition across the ages and the surprising ambiguities of the New Testament.

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Image of Elliot Dorff

Elliot Dorff is a rabbi, author, and Rector and Rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University.

Image of Luke Timothy Johnson

Luke Timothy Johnson is R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and author of The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation.


July 5, 2007

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. The ideals and rituals of marriage in America are infused with Biblical imagery. This hour we’ll explore nuances of Biblical teachings about marriage, family, and divorce; the surprising ambiguity of the New Testament; and the striking practicality of Jewish tradition across the ages.

RABBI ELLIOT DORFF: The marriage contract talks about all the duties that the man has to his wife, not the other way around. What the Torah itself tries to do is to take an inherently unequal situation in the ancient world and to make it more equal.

PROFESSOR LUKE TIMOTHY JOHNSON: The real tragedy in Christian theology about marriage is that it has tended to look only at the sacred texts and has tended to ignore the experience of actual married people.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. American ideals of courtship and marriage are infused with biblical messages. But what does the Bible really say, and how has it been taught across the centuries in which the institution of marriage has changed dramatically and often.

From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about belief, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today we’ll explore nuances of Jewish and Christian teachings about marriage, family, and divorce.

Whether a couple is religious or secular, modern relationships echo with imagery from the Book of Genesis.

READER: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a fitting helper for him.’ And the Lord God fashioned the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman, and he brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called woman, for from man was she taken.’ Hence, a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.”

MS. TIPPETT: But what does one flesh mean in our time? This hour we’ll speak with a rabbi and a New Testament scholar. Each of these men is, in some sense, more conservative than liberal when it comes to theology, but they offer creative ways to imagine the problems and promises of modern relationship. Neither feels comfortable talking about marriage in our time without including some reflection on committed homosexual relationship. In fact, a close reading of the New Testament reveals a deep ambivalence about the institution of marriage and the centrality of family. We’ll hear about that in a moment from Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University. He’s a former celibate monk who is now a husband and father.

From ancient times, Jewish thought on the subject of marriage has been strikingly reality-based. Rabbinic dialogue gives detailed instruction on how to manage and nurture a marriage. It stresses the needs of women as well as men, and the rabbis always conceded that marriage is difficult and that failure is possible.

My first guest, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, is rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, California, and a leading articulator of law and ethics in the conservative tradition of Judaism. When he reflects on marriage, he begins where the Hebrew Bible begins, with Genesis and creation. Here’s the passage in the Garden of Eden where he points out sexuality and the body were God’s first gifts to humankind.

READER: “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image after our likeness.’ And God created man in his image. In the image of God he created him; male and female, he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase. Fill the Earth and master it.'”

MS. TIPPETT: Rabbi Elliot Dorff.

RABBI DORFF: First of all, God creates the human being, the entirety of the human being, and calls it not only good but very good in the opening chapter of Genesis. That’s not just the soul, as it were. That’s the body as well. And so from the point of view of the Jewish tradition, the body, the emotions, the will, the mind, all of these things are part of God’s creation. They are morally neutral, all of them, and their moral valence, as it were, depends upon how we use those things. And then in terms of specifically the energies of the body, what the Jewish tradition is interested in doing is taking the various desires of the body and channeling them toward good purpose as defined by the Torah.

MS. TIPPETT: And sexuality would be considered an energy of the body.

RABBI DORFF: That’s right. One of the energies of the body, sort of like your desire for food. What the Jewish tradition does with that is, first of all, the dietary laws as to what you may eat in order to — that gives you a sense of the fact that the animal kingdom, and life even in the animal kingdom is something to be respected. Well, in terms of sex, both in the stories at the beginning of Genesis and also in the laws of Judaism, it’s clear that there are two purposes for sex as the tradition understood it. In the first chapter of Genesis, you have “Be fruitful and multiply,” so clearly procreation is one of the purposes of marriage. And then in the second chapter of Genesis, you get, “It’s not good for one to live alone, so a man leaves his father and mother and literally…

MS. TIPPETT: “And cleaves to his wife,” yeah.

RABBI DORFF: “…and cleaves to his wife,” literally sticks to his wife, right?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah.

RABBI DORFF: Clearly, then the other purpose of sex within marriage is companionship.

MS. TIPPETT: Do you know, I have spent a lot of time with Genesis over the years, but I noticed for the first time when I was getting ready to talk to you that in the first chapter of Genesis, which seems to be the more egalitarian story — right? — man and woman are created together…


MS. TIPPETT: …the emphasis is on procreation.


MS. TIPPETT: “Be fruitful and multiply.” In the second and third chapters, the Garden of Eden, which feminists have interpreted as where the woman is subordinate and woman is taken from man’s rib, which feels a bit insulting to women, the emphasis is on companionship.

RABBI DORFF: Well, actually the rabbis carry that on. I mean, on the legal level, you have a commandment to be fruitful and multiply. And then the other commandment that’s relevant to us is in Exodus Chapter 21 in which the Torah says that when a man takes a wife, then her food, her clothing and her conjugal rights he may not diminish. But the Jewish tradition from the very beginning assumes that women have sexual desires just as much as men do and that satisfying both of the sexual desires of men and of women is what marriage is all about, or at least one of the purposes of marriage, right?

And the rabbis do what they usually do with the commandments. Namely, they then try to define the commandments. So how do they define that? Well, a man may never force himself upon a woman. They understood marital right. And how often does he have to offer her to, you know, to have sex in order to satisfy her desires? Well, according to the Mishna, it depends upon what he does for a living. So if he’s home every night, then he has to offer to have sex with her every night. If he’s a donkey driver and home every other night, then every other night. Then if he’s a scholar, then once a week on Friday night on the Sabbath.

MS. TIPPETT: Theologically — or what is the rationale? Is it simply that our sexuality is part of what it is to be human and that there’s an understanding that that needs to find expression?

RABBI DORFF: Right, and that marriage is the proper place in which to…

MS. TIPPETT: And that’s a good thing, and that’s…

RABBI DORFF: That’s a very good thing.

MS. TIPPETT: …the proper place.

RABBI DORFF: It’s a very good thing. It’s not right to remain alone. And hence, you get — this is not just theoretical — a long history of you know, I remember that when I finished rabbinical school, we were told already in rabbinical school that if you weren’t married by the time you finished — at that time it was only men that were being ordained — the sisterhood would do absolutely everything in its power to get you married off within the first year that you were, you know, serving a congregation, which is indeed true.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And then I think that the structure of Jewish life also supports marriage, even something like Sabbath, just having that down time and that rest.

RABBI DORFF: The Sabbath is probably the best antidote to workaholic phenomenon in America that I think has ever existed because it effectively — it says that from sunset on Friday, you know, actually, a few — about 20 minutes before sunset on Friday until about 40 minutes after sunset on Saturday, you may not work. And you do have, on the contrary, obligations to be with family and friends and be part of — and go to synagogue. And basically it’s one of the most important ways of renewing, you know, family life. It was always important, but it’s especially important when people are sort of eating breakfast on the run. They often don’t have lunch together. Even dinner — I mean, many families, especially with teenagers, you know, don’t or are not able to have together during the week because they all have these extracurricular activities and the like.

MS. TIPPETT: I think that’s probably a good discipline for a modern marriage.

RABBI DORFF: That’s right. That’s exactly right. And it has a lot of symbolism also because the Sabbath is supposed to be sort of a reenactment of the Garden of Eden and also a foretaste — and the rabbis talk about this — is a foretaste of the world to come. So it’s supposed to be this idyllic time in which you don’t have to work for a living. All of that has been prepared ahead of time. You’re not allowed to cook on the Sabbath. You’re not allowed to work on the Sabbath. You’re not — I mean, you don’t have to write…

MS. TIPPETT: Right. So nobody is harried and overburdened.

RABBI DORFF: Nobody’s harried. In most traditional homes, they don’t answer the phone on the Sabbath and things on that order, right?


RABBI DORFF: Cell phone, whatever. No computers, no e-mail, none of that. And you simply talk to each other and you sing together and you catch up with each other, and this ultimate sense of being completed comes both in terms of time together and in terms of sumptuous meals and in terms of time to take a nap on Saturday afternoon and sex between a husband and wife.

MS. TIPPETT: Rabbi Elliot Dorff. He’s a leading ethical thinker in the conservative tradition of Judaism.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media.

We’re talking about marriage, family, and divorce in Jewish tradition. From ancient times, it was supportive of marriage in practical ways, and Jewish marriages were more stable than the general population. But as newer generations have become more secularized, this has changed. In response, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, where Rabbi Dorff is rector, created one of the most successful marriage preparation courses in the country.

RABBI DORFF: It started in 1975. It was Rabbi Aaron Weiss who had been the rabbi of a large conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. And in 2000 they did a survey of all of the people that had gone through the program, and eight percent had ultimately ended in divorce.

MS. TIPPETT: So how do you explain that?

RABBI DORFF: In some ways, because when people go through — it’s a 10-week program. It’s 10 couples together. And sometimes during the course of the 10-week program, because of the curriculum, which gets them to talk to each other about a variety of different important things, sometimes they decide, “You know, maybe we shouldn’t get married.” So some of them — which is much better for them to decide beforehand than afterward.

So some of it is that, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that they get skills through these courses in terms of how to interact with each other. I mean, the first — it’s 10 sessions. I think the first five deal with communication skills. They come to talk with each other and then in a group about strategies to deal with parents, strategies to deal with friends of one who are not friends of the other, issues of jobs versus children and how to handle them. Well, one really important one is how do you have a fight and still come out married? And part of it has to do also with expectations.

I love Broadway musicals, so the way that I like to put it is this, right? The Hollywood image of marriage is from South Pacific. “Some enchanted evening you will meet a stranger across the crowded room. You’ll know even then that somehow you’ll meet her again and again.” Right?


RABBI DORFF: And so the image that you get is that marriage is a series of enchanted evenings. And then when you get married and you find out that indeed there are some enchanted evenings, but most of them are sort of ho-hum and some of them are downright unenchanted, you begin to think that — if that was your expectation, you begin to think, “Well, maybe this is not the marriage for me,” and you break up. As opposed to Fiddler on the Roof, right? “After 25 years, do you love me?” “Well, for 25 years we’ve done this, that and that. Now you ask me do I love you? Well, I suppose I do.” “And I suppose I love you, too. After 25 years, it doesn’t change a thing, but it’s nice to know.” Right? Now there, I mean, what that piece speaks is I think the traditional Jewish understanding of marriage. That is, you get married primarily because you like each other enough to do the work of family together, that is to grow old together, to have companionship, to have children, to raise those children.

My own grandmother, my mother’s mother, had an arranged marriage. My mom asked her why she married my grandfather, and she said, “Well, because I had heard he was a kind man, and that was enough for me.” And they had an idyllic marriage.

MS. TIPPETT: When you think about these practical skills of communication and knowing how to fight, is that also something that you think about theologically? I mean, those are things we’ve learned in modern times about what makes a good modern marriage. I’m wondering if the tradition also expanded on this notion of companionship.

RABBI DORFF: Absolutely. There are passages in Jewish literature which talk about how a man is supposed to try to be very sensitive to his wife’s moods. He’s supposed to hon…

MS. TIPPETT: That’s good advice.

RABBI DORFF: He’s supposed to honor his wife more than himself. There are even manuals that were written in the Middle Ages about how a man is supposed to treat his wife and others having to do with sexual activity, you know, how to make sure that it’s pleasurable for her as well as for him. There’s a series of other things. Now, I mean, of course, Jewish marriages were to some extent influenced by the marriages of the cultures in which they lived. So the relationships between husbands and wives living in Muslim countries were to some extent influenced by Islam, Islamic practices, and in northern European countries by Christian practices. But throughout the tradition, you get love poetry. See, Song of Songs is a book in the Bible — right? — which is simply love poetry. And even though Rebbe Akiva later interpreted it as the love poem between God and the people of Israel, nevertheless, if you simply look — I mean, sure, he understood that, as everyone else does, that it’s just simply love poetry that is, frankly, very graphic and…

MS. TIPPETT: And is it describing marital love?

RABBI DORFF: Some of it is, and some of it is not. I mean, some of it is — some of it is courting. It’s not at all afraid about talking about the desirous nature of the body of the opposite sex, in both directions, by the way, because there are some of the poems that are written by women and some of them written by men. But, interestingly, along the lines that you were just asking me about, in the wedding ceremony, the only description of the couple themselves is as rei’im ha-ahuvim, the loving companions, where “loving” is the adjective, but “companions” is the noun, right? So they are, first and foremost, companions.

MS. TIPPETT: The word “helpmeet” that, you know, has become sort of a cliche, I think, helpmeet, helpmate.

RABBI DORFF: Ezer knegdo, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: Isn’t that a very interesting word in the Hebrew that has a lot more complexity? What does…

RABBI DORFF: Yes, it does. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: What does that connote?

RABBI DORFF: Well, the word is — I mean, there are, frankly, a series of different…

MS. TIPPETT: And that’s in Genesis.

RABBI DORFF: That’s in Genesis. That’s correct. This is the second chapter of Genesis in which man is alone, Adam is alone, and he feels lonely. And then Eve is created as ezer knegdo. And both of the Hebrew words are subject to a lot of interpretation. First of all, the word l’ezer means “to help,” but then the word knegdo means literally “opposite him.” But it also can mean “on a par with him.” So as much as she is a help to him, he is a help to her, right? So it could be understood in an egalitarian kind of way. It’s usually not understood that way. It’s usually understood as the woman being the help to the man.

MS. TIPPETT: But opposite, I mean, doesn’t that imply the tension that we know between men and women in marriage, which it sort of acknowledges, also is a constructive thing? I mean, right?

RABBI DORFF: Right. Exactly. The tradition recognizes the fact that men and women are different. I mean, some of that, of course, comes out of certain stereotypical roles for husbands and for wives that the tradition creates. And as a matter of fact, when it comes down to duties, the Talmud spells out what the duties are of a man toward his wife and of a woman toward her husband. And I think the important thing to note there is that it’s not just in one direction. It’s not just that the woman has duties to her husband. It’s quite the opposite. If anything, the marriage contract that we use talks about all the duties that the man has to his wife, not the other way around. And what the rabbis tried to do for — what the Torah itself tries to do is to take an inherently unequal situation in the ancient world and to make it more equal.

MS. TIPPETT: Rabbi Elliot Dorff. Today on Speaking of Faith we’re exploring the nuances of what Christian and Jewish traditions have to say about marriage and divorce.

Rabbi Dorff is a respected interpreter of ancient wisdom as applied to modern realities. The Jewish Torah provides for divorce, and so from the earliest times Jewish tradition has not treated divorce as a sin. Rabbi Dorff has written that divorce is sometimes the right thing to do, sometimes a tragedy, and often both. The Talmud teaches that the temple altar itself sheds tears upon the termination of a marriage.

RABBI DORFF: It sees divorce as a sad thing but not as a sin, and so it’s clearly not something that one should do flippantly. But on the other hand, sometimes divorce is what really, you know, what is necessary.

MS. TIPPETT: And, I mean, do you think that in some ways you — that might be surprising because marriage is so highly valued, but, on the other hand, because marriage is described in a complex way, is the allowance of divorce also an acknowledgment of that?

RABBI DORFF: That’s right. Basically, see, in American law until the 1970s, except in Nevada, if you wanted to get divorced, you had to show either adultery or insanity in your partner. That’s why Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1968 had to fly to Nevada to divorce his wife because he wasn’t willing to say that she was insane or adulterous.

But in the Jewish tradition, this goes back to the rabbis. There don’t have to be any grounds for divorce. It can simply be what we would call incompatibility. They don’t like each other anymore and so they may divorce. The tradition did what it could to try to delay the process, to try to get them to reconcile, because it understood that divorce comes at a great cost to both partners and certainly at great cost to the children, if there are…

MS. TIPPETT: The children.

RABBI DORFF: …and so you don’t do this lightly. But at the same time if this is the right and proper thing to do, then you don’t have to show that, you don’t have to demonstrate that to any rabbis or a court or anything. In fact, the court only supervises the process.

MS. TIPPETT: And you’ve said that while it’s allowed and allowed for in these practical ways, it’s also seen as an occasion of deep regret…

RABBI DORFF: Divorce, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …and sadness and grief. And I wonder also, does Jewish ritual also make a place for that sadness to be expressed?

RABBI DORFF: Part — what happens is that the divorce writ has to be written specifically for this couple. That’s one of the ways in which the rabbis delayed the process in hopes of making sure that they really needed to be divorced. Once it is, then there’s the ceremony in which the man gives it to the woman or her agent. They don’t have to be together in order for this, to do this. Sometimes it’s too painful for the couple to do. But if they are there and doing it together, then the man gives the document to the woman, who takes it in cupped hands and then walks with it for several steps to indicate, you know, graphically that what’s happening is that the two of them are leaving each other. And in our own time, there have been a number of other rituals that people have devised to talk about the grief that men and women have in marriage. It’s much — just because of the way that Anglo-Saxons are sort of created in our country, it’s much harder for men to express that kind of grief than it is for women. And so one of the things that’s been sort of interesting is men’s support groups as well as women’s support groups in this kind of thing. It’s very hard to get men to come to those kinds of support groups, truthfully, because of the way that men are acculturated to American society is that they’re not supposed to show their feelings, which is, frankly, crazy.

MS. TIPPETT: Here’s something I’d like to ask you before we go. You are a rabbi, and you have four adult children. And I’m wondering, as you watch them be adults in our time, what are some of the ways that you see them struggling with this tradition, particularly of marriage and divorce in Judaism, and what are some of the ways that their struggles bring you back to reconsider the tradition?

RABBI DORFF: My own family is, in some ways, really, statistically I think fairly typical of other families. I have a daughter and a son who got married, married people who were very much part of the community and the like. I have a son who married somebody who was part of the Jewish community, but they got divorced two and a half years later. And then about seven years after that, he married a Jew by choice, that is somebody who…

MS. TIPPETT: Who converted to Judaism, OK.

RABBI DORFF: …a woman who converted to Judaism. Right. And I have a daughter who came out as a lesbian and was just recently artificially inseminated and gave us our first grandson. And so…

MS. TIPPETT: So you have a modern family.

RABBI DORFF: I have a modern family.

MS. TIPPETT: And how do you hold that together as the Biblical norm, as an ideal, with the reality that divorce happens, that you have a daughter who will never marry a man.


MS. TIPPETT: How do you reconcile that ideal, that norm, with these other realities, which you also, clearly, you don’t judge? You’re not condemning these other — so…

RABBI DORFF: No. No, not at all. I mean, I think…

MS. TIPPETT: So how does it work? I mean, how are we supposed to live with those norms?

RABBI DORFF: Well, I think that the tradition very much prized marriage and saw that as the primary way to do it. It also understood divorce and did not condemn it as a sin and saw it as being something that you do only after a lot of consideration and every attempt to reconcile, but sometimes there was divorce. It did not know about single parents, except in the case of widowhood or divorce. And in the case of single parents, it tried to get them remarried as quickly as possible. And interestingly, that continues on in the Jewish community. Even though the rate of divorce in the contemporary Jewish community is more or less the same as it is in the general American population, the rate of remarriage in the Jewish community is far higher.

Gays and lesbians, of course, out of the closet is a whole new phenomenon in our generation, let alone their having children qua gays and lesbians. And I also think that it’s not good for them to be alone any more than it’s good for … for straights to be alone, and so I think we in the Jewish community need to create the matchmaker again.

MS. TIPPETT: Rabbi Elliot Dorff is rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He’s the author of Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics.

This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University. He says Christian teachings on marriage, family and divorce send conflicted messages that may not simply represent what we now call family values.Go to our Web site at speakingoffaith.org, where you’ll find an annotated guide to today’s program. The particulars section presents images and details about all the references, readings and music you’ve just heard, including a link to the marriage seminars at the University of Judaism that Rabbi Dorff discussed. At our Web site, you can listen to this program again and learn how to purchase mp3 downloads of it, and sign up for our free e-mail newsletter, which includes my journal on each program as well as previews and exclusive extras. That’s speakingoffaith.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about belief, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Marriage, Family, and Divorce.” We’re exploring some of the nuances of Jewish and Christian teachings on the institution of marriage.

Biblical symbols and phrases are part of the American rituals of courtship, marriage and family, even for many who are not religious at all. And Christian teachings are woven into American culture’s moral sensibility about marriage and sexuality. In recent decades, as the divorce rate grew and fewer and fewer families have included two biological married parents, more and more Christian groups have created marriage enrichment programs and pro-family movements.

But, according to my next guest, Christian tradition expresses ambivalence towards marriage and family. Emory University theologian Luke Timothy Johnson is one of the most highly regarded experts on Christian traditions and the author of a classic work, The Writings of the New Testament. He brings historical, literary and theological context to modern questions surrounding marriage, family and divorce.

PROF. JOHNSON: It’s not a simple matter to be reading these ancient texts as guiding our lives; relatively simple, though involved, to read them as historical sources or as cultural texts. That’s fun and interesting because it’s “other.” But when we try to bring them home and to think about how do our lives correspond to them, how can we imagine our own lives while imagining scripture simultaneously, it’s difficult. Why do we do it? The same texts that confuse us are also the ones that give us life.

MS. TIPPETT: Luke Johnson says that the vigorous pro-family message coined in our time is not to be found easily in the New Testament. The New Testament does not provide Christians with a positive living model of marriage. Muslims have a prophet who married several times and fathered children. Jews have many examples of marriage and family in all its complexity among the patriarchs and matriarchs. But Jesus never married. Jesus’ disciples left their families behind to follow him. Later the apostle Paul remained celibate and preached this as a moral ideal to new Christians. In short, modern Christians inherit in scripture a deeply conflicted message about whether and how marriage and family matter. For Luke Timothy Johnson, this does not mean that modern people can’t consult Christian tradition for guidance. But taking it seriously means acknowledging its complexity and its contradictions.

PROF. JOHNSON: The real tragedy in Christian theology about marriage is that it has tended to look only at the sacred texts — this is really important — and has tended to ignore the experience of actual married people. I mean, a great deal of Christian theology was carried out by monks and celibates who, quite literally, didn’t know who they were talking about. So what Jesus doesn’t give us, what the New Testament doesn’t give us, where are we going to learn it? Well, one way, by default, is to simply take all of those things in the Bible that affirm marriage, sex and family in a sort of a straightforward way, losing that critical edge that Christianity brings to that.

MS. TIPPETT: You’re right. You can pluck out verses which affirm marriage.

PROF. JOHNSON: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: But talk about, holistically, what is to be found there.

PROF. JOHNSON: On the subject of sex, family and marriage, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: On the subject of — yeah, sex, marriage and family. It’s — it’s a whole collection of thoughts — is that — and guidance.

PROF. JOHNSON: That’s correct, and they go together. They’re interrelated. And what really distinguishes the Christian collection, the New Testament canon, is this deeply conflictual character. So on the one side you have, let us say with family, you have clear passages that affirm family and the household. For example, in Paul’s letters to his delegates, qualities of good parenting are qualifications for leadership within the community. Young widows are to marry and raise their children and run households. So all of this is very affirming of family, and you can pick out those texts. On the other side, Jesus says, “If you want to follow me, you have to hate your father and mother.”


PROF. JOHNSON: You know, “Leave your wife and your husband and your children, by the way. Abandon them and come follow me.”

READER: A reading from the Book of Matthew.

“Jesus said, ‘For I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.'”

A reading from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 11, verses 34 through 37.

MS. TIPPETT: I’ve heard lots of sermons in my life trying to massage that and interpret it so that it is palatable.

PROF. JOHNSON: Again, this is the case of Christians tending to privilege one set of texts and ignoring the other set. And all Christians do that. The question is, are they doing it with any degree of responsibility at all? I have to share a story with you on this very point. Many years ago I gave a talk at a conference called “God Doesn’t Like Families,” and I basically wanted to trace that stream in scripture from Abraham on — right? — “leave your family, leave your home,” right?


PROF. JOHNSON: And running through the New Testament and suggesting God doesn’t seem to be that interested in families. Or as a colleague of mine, Luther Smith, memorably said in a sermon one time, what the Bible seems to say is that families are necessary, but they’re not sufficient. And I was asked by a local parish if I would come give a talk on that subject. And I sent them the title “God Doesn’t Like Families.” I arrived in the church. I opened the bulletin and it said, “Godlike Families.” So I began my presentation by saying, “This is the problem.”

MS. TIPPETT: So they had misprinted your…

PROF. JOHNSON: Yeah. They had mis — quite deliberately. They thought my title was very much too scandalous.

MS. TIPPETT: Quite deliberately. Right. Godlike families. Yes.

PROF. JOHNSON: That’s right. And so clearly one problem within one version of Christianity is a kind of idolatrous posture with regard to family, so that a family is not only necessary, which all of us would acknowledge, but that it’s also sufficient. And losing that edge which is essential to the biblical tradition the prophetic edge of moving beyond family, moving behind kinship into a larger world which is God’s creation.

MS. TIPPETT: But are those two things in tension? How are…

PROF. JOHNSON: Oh, indeed they are in tension.

MS. TIPPETT: …they in tension? Does that make it more difficult to be committed to your family necessarily?

PROF. JOHNSON: I think it actually helps being committed in a more appropriate way. I think, for example, that good parenting does not have as its goal keeping kids at home. It’s preparing them to be free to leave home, so that a certain degree of distancing is required even to do the job, that if you cling too closely, you ruin them. Just as if you abandon them, you ruin them. So there is that tension.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s probably true in marriage, isn’t it, as well?

PROF. JOHNSON: Exactly the truth. Giving the partner space is really important in order even to have intimacy. So that if there’s not really two persons there, you really can’t have intimacy. So, similarly, the draw outside the kinship system to serve a larger world I suspect is a premise for really good commitment to the kinship system, to family. Unless I see our family life as part of a larger ecology, the tendency is to make it idolatrous, to absolutize it.

MS. TIPPETT: And we’ve certainly done that, especially in our age with the nuclear family, right? I mean, it…

PROF. JOHNSON: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: …just gets tinier and tinier, and it is the center of the universe.

PROF. JOHNSON: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: So, I mean, what you’re saying is you can affirm it, and you can be critical at the same time, and that the Bible…

PROF. JOHNSON: Yes, but I’m also saying this.

MS. TIPPETT: …asks us to do that?

PROF. JOHNSON: Yes, but I’m also saying this. These alternative forms of family that people are thinking about now also provide us an opportunity to think about what is the essence of family itself as opposed to what are the accidentals of family. So that we can view our present societal situation, fatherless families — and in some ways it really does represent a crisis, obviously — homosexual families, adoptive families, for example, or other kinds of groupings of people — we can regard that as a challenge to the family, a threat, or we can regard it as a reminder that kinship and belonging in the human reality is a matter of social construction, and it is a matter of choice, even one’s own family. I mean, one can be born into a biological family, obviously — many of us are — and leave it and leave it behind and hate it. And we just want to get free of it. Family is not just given but chosen.

MS. TIPPETT: New Testament theologian Luke Timothy Johnson. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, exploring marriage, family and divorce in the biblical traditions.

Luke Timothy Johnson points out that for early Christians, all the rules and structures of this world, including marriage and family, were up for grabs. This comes through especially in the writings of the apostle Paul. He chose not to marry in what he believed were the end times. Jesus had preached a message of radical equality between men and women, and this too defied old ways of being. And though Jesus and Paul talked often about love, they were not usually speaking of the romantic love we associate with marriage. The most common New Testament notion of love was agape, or practical love.

PROF. JOHNSON: I think that the deepest Christian dimension of love is this dimension of agape, of self-giving, of mutuality. I apply this absolutely to my life in as concrete a way as trying to cook a gumbo. I mean that if my little daughter came knocking at the door of my study when I’m trying to write a paper, that is the call of God to me. “Daddy, come play with me.” On the other hand, if I answer every time and go play with her, I make a tyrant out of her. If I never answer the door because I’ve got my project to do, then she stops knocking, and there’s another loss. So this agapic love, this love of looking to the good of the other, is never simple. It calls for what I call the asceticism of attentiveness. I mean, one really has to be alert at every moment to what are the real needs of the other and what are my own needs, and how do I live in a way in which there is flourishing.

MS. TIPPETT: This word agape that you’re referring to is the Greek. There are different words for love which connote different things that we tend to mush together…

PROF. JOHNSON: That’s exactly right.

MS. TIPPETT: …in the word “love.” Right. So there’s eros, which is the more erotic, romantic love.

PROF. JOHNSON: Romantic love, and that’s usually the basis for marriage in the Western world.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. But agape is really the way of living in the New Testament, isn’t it?

PROF. JOHNSON: That’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: Which has all this connotation of practical care?

PROF. JOHNSON: Looking to the good of the other for the other’s sake. And it’s all…

MS. TIPPETT: Not for your sake.

PROF. JOHNSON: Not for my own sake. Now, in between those two kinds of love and I think very important for married life, the middle term, if you will, is the love that’s called filia, friendship, which I think is extraordinarily important. The friendship in our contemporary world tends to be acquaintance, sort of a casual thing. For ancient philosophers and for most of Christian theology and Jewish theology, friendship is one of the most important philosophical topics because the friend is another self. And there is an intimacy of, not of gazing into each other’s eyes, as Saint-Exupery said, but of looking together in the same direction. And I think a marriage without friendship is not a real marriage. A marriage can lose some of the erotic element; can’t lose the friendship dimension.

MS. TIPPETT: And I think that you present this in some of your papers, that, you know, Paul, also like Jesus, was not married. He was leading what looks like a celibate life, right?

PROF. JOHNSON: I think that’s quite clear, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. So you can read some of what’s in the New Testament and feel that it’s quite dismissive of sexuality, that it’s a problem — right? — that you sort of have to address, but you don’t want to spend too much time on. But you can also read it that it’s acknowledged to be a powerful dimension of life, and that precisely because it is so powerful, it’s important that it be ordered…


MS. TIPPETT: …and that it be fulfilling in that marital relationship so that Christians can get on with all the other important things in life. Is that a fair reading?

PROF. JOHNSON: I think that’s a very fair reading. And I think the single greatest and most important text here is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. This is the famous passage in which Paul says it’s better to marry than burn. But a more careful reading reveals that this is really quite a remarkable passage. It’s remarkable, first of all, simply because of its gender equality. Unlike any philosophical text that I know in antiquity, he addresses both partners. He addresses the man, he addresses the woman, and he carries that all the way through the discussion. This is quite thrilling to me.

READER: From a letter of the apostle Paul to the new Christians at Corinth:

“For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a set time to devote yourselves to prayer. And then come together again so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

“To the unmarried and the widows, I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”

A reading from First Corinthians.

PROF. JOHNSON: Paul’s argument is for him, it’s not that sex is unimportant; it’s so powerful. So it’s a pretty positive view of what marriage is about, I think.

MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, it strikes me often that in our society there’s a well, there’s a great obsession with sexuality in general. But what is dividing churches now is this matter of homosexuality, is different kinds of sexual lifestyles aside from marriage. But that in the sweep of the New Testament, there’s much, much, much more teaching about marriage and divorce which, at the same time that alternative sexual lifestyles have grown, the institution of marriage is in huge disarray. I mean, how do you read what the New Testament says about divorce and what that has to say to us today?

PROF. JOHNSON: Yeah, I think you’re right. I’d like to pick up from your first comment about we’re so sexualized. We obsess about sexuality. Whether or not we’re actually more robustly sexual I think is a really open and interesting question. In my view, homosexuality has become a scapegoat for churches to keep them from focusing upon the genuine lack of engagement with the very serious issues with sexuality.

MS. TIPPETT: With heterosexuality.

PROF. JOHNSON: With heterosex — and my argument is that the church must be against porneia, the church must stand against sexual sin.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and porneia I think is very interesting. You know, you talk about what’s happening with Internet pornography, and you know that the Greek word that’s used in the New Testament is porneia


MS. TIPPETT: …and you translate that as sexual sin.

PROF. JOHNSON: Sexual, yeah, immorality in the broadest sense, so it includes prostitution, it clearly would obviously include pornography and all these kinds of things. So the church has to take a stand against this. The forms of sexuality that are violent, that are manipulative, that are exploitative, that are breaking boundaries, obviously, all these things are clearly incompatible, that are noncovenanted.

My argument about this homosexuality thing is, is that we need to sort of level the playing field a little bit and recognize that what counts for homosexuality also counts for heterosexuality. And so that if we’re going to forbid porneia on one side of the ledger — namely, homosexuals — you can’t approve of the baths or promiscuity and so forth, then we have to also look at the Playboy lifestyle with equal seriousness. So the issues then of divorce that you bring up, this is really quite remarkable. If Jesus ever said anything seriously, you know, it’s this, right?

MS. TIPPETT: This, meaning…

PROF. JOHNSON: Paul — divorce. Don’t divorce. And yet, in effect, divorce has become a way of life for Christians.

READER: “Some Pharisees came to Jesus, and to test him they asked,’Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning made them male and female and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh, so they are no longer two but one flesh.” Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.'”

A reading from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 19, verses 3 through 6.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. We’re talking today about what ancient Jewish and Christian teachings actually have to say about marriage, family, and divorce in our time. My guest, Emory University’s Luke Timothy Johnson, explains that Christian scripture is much less tolerant of divorce than Jewish tradition.

PROF. JOHNSON: The New Testament is pretty unequivocal about divorce. I mean, so that you have the sayings of Jesus saying, “Don’t divorce.” Now, it’s clear that this is a really hard saying from the beginning because we have it in an absolute form in Mark. And in Matthew’s gospel, the saying of Jesus is repeated twice. But we see that the Matthean community is already struggling with the absoluteness of Jesus’ command by inserting an exceptive clause. “Except for porneia” or “except for unchastity,” right? So there’s a wiggle room here. You can divorce if your partner’s…

MS. TIPPETT: Right. If it’s happened.

PROF. JOHNSON: …promiscuous or something — or adulterous. And then Paul, again, he affirms the divorce thing, that is the indissolubility of marriage, but then he also goes on to say, “But if an unbeliever chooses to separate and doesn’t want to hang around, then the partner is free.” So my point is that we see within the pages of the New Testament itself a struggle with the absoluteness of Jesus’ demand. And that’s partly because Jesus is envisaging the order of creation, and we actually are — we’re claiming we’re living in the new creation, but we’re also still living within the realm of sin, inadequacy, failure and all of these things.

Now, your question, though, is also: What should we think about these texts as we go through the struggles of life? And it seems to me that here again — I want to bring this back to the level playing field with homosexuality and heterosexuality — plain fact is we don’t live by a lot of what scripture says, and in a variety of ways we seek to negotiate that gap between what we do and what scripture says. Anybody who says they just live by the New Testament’s just lying, either to themselves or to you, number one, because it’s impossible because scripture says such conflicting things.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. You can’t live all those different ways at once.

PROF. JOHNSON: You can’t — you can’t live all those ways — you can’t be a Presbyterian and a Roman Catholic simultaneously in terms of church order. And they are not a simple script that we live. They really represent an ideal often toward which we strive. If we think of scripture as something — a script that I simply enact, once I fail to do that, I’ve got to toss out the scripture. I mean, there’s no relationship anymore. It’s sort of like I’m in a relationship with a spouse and I’ve looked lustfully at somebody and, “Oops, I’ve already committed adultery in effect, so let’s split,” rather than, “Let’s work to repair this,” or, “Let’s get past this thing.”

Same thing with this scripture stuff, so I think that what the New Testament is presenting to us on marriage and divorce is an ideal, and we fall short of it. But we don’t want to eliminate those texts because we don’t match up to them, because if we normalize divorce, as our culture has done, if we view it as something as trivial as changing high schools, we really do weaken marriage, right? I mean, we just have sort of serial polygamy, in effect, which is very, very bad for children, very bad for becoming a robust human who is able to deal and work, as you said, through stresses, through hard times and so forth.

You know, I left a monastery. My wife is a divorced woman. I mean, I’ve struggled with these issues very much. But I think we need to have the texts say what they’re saying, recognize that we’re not living up to it, and be really honest and self-critical about this. But if we’re doing that, and we say, “I’m still living within the church, even though I’m a divorced person, and I’m going to try to live within that ambiguity, God help me, I can do no other. It’s simply where I am,” then I also have to apply the same thing on the side of homosexuality.

MS. TIPPETT: Luke Timothy Johnson is Robert W. Woodruff professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Earlier in this hour you heard Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Each of these men, steeped in the texts and the history of his tradition, presents a nuanced and complex understanding of marriage and divorce. This shouldn’t be surprising, but it does stand in contrast to simplistic pronouncements we sometimes hear in our public life about the Bible’s teachings. Rabbi Dorff’s Jewish perspective is refreshingly realistic with its focus on the goodness of marriage coupled with practical support for marriage. Luke Timothy Johnson’s analysis of Christianity’s ambivalent teaching suggests new ways for analyzing why, in America’s Christian-influenced culture, marriage is so puzzlingly troubled an institution.

Finally, it seems important that these two devout, learned men have long been incorporating reflection on committed homosexual relationship into their broadest understanding of what the Bible says about marriage, love and family.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this program. Contact us through our Web site at speakingoffaith.org. There you’ll find an annotated guide to today’s program. The particulars section presents images and details about all the references, readings and music you’ve just heard. While you’re there, you can listen to this program and all of our past programs, and learn how to purchase mp3 downloads. Also, sign up for our free e-mail newsletter, which includes my journal on each topic as well as previews and exclusive extras. That’s speakingoffaith.org.

Special thanks for this program to the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion at Emory University. On the Speaking of Faith Web site, we’ve posted links to transcripts and projects at that center’s conference on Marriage, Sex, Family and the Religions of the Book.

This program was produced by Kate Moos, Mitch Hanley, Colleen Scheck and Jody Abramson. Our Web producer is Trent Gilliss. The executive producer of Speaking of Faithis Bill Buzenberg, and I’m Krista Tippett.

Next week, former Republican Senator John Danforth has emerged as a provocative voice in the American political landscape. He speaks frankly on his new concerns about the role of religion in his own party and in the wider world. Please join us.