A Biblical Look at Intercultural Marriages
- 2011 13 Jan
Excerpted from Marla Alupoaicei's new book Your Intercultural Marriage (Moody Publishers, 2009)
"Often the difference between a successful marriage and a mediocre one consists of leaving about three or four things a day unsaid." ~ Harlan Miller
The more research I have done on intercultural marriage, the more I have realized that it has long been misunderstood by Christians. For thousands of years, scriptural principles have been misinterpreted and twisted to accommodate people's racial biases, prejudices, and personal agendas.
Perhaps the strongest misconception I've found is the idea that intercultural and interracial marriage were prohibited by God for racial, ethnic, or cultural reasons. This is not the case. Some of the wisest and most honored biblical heroes and heroines (including Moses, David, Esther, Ruth, Solomon, and Joseph) were involved in intercultural or interracial marriages—marriages that God approved of and blessed.
The Bible does contain some instances in which God warns His people not to intermarry with others, but this was always for spiritual reasons rather than for racial or cultural reasons. He wanted His people to keep themselves spiritually pure by not marrying people who worshipped idols or who engaged in other pagan practices. God does not prohibit marriage (intercultural or otherwise) except when it involves a Christian marrying a person who is not a Christian (2 Corinthians 6:14).
One author on the Web site Bible.org writes,
God forbade the Israelites to intermarry with the Canaanites—the people of the land. (See Genesis 24:3; Exodus 34:10-17; Deuteronomy 7:3; Joshua 23:12-13; Ezra 9:2ff.) But intermarriage with all so-called foreigners was not prohibited (see Deuteronomy 21:10-13). We should recall that a number of foreigners (non-Israelites, by race) were a part of the promised line of Messiah, including Tamar (Genesis 38), Rahab (Joshua 2:1ff.), and Ruth (Book of Ruth). . . . Then there were the foreign wives of Solomon, which led to his downfall (1 Kings 11). It was not so much a matter of these women being foreign (non-Jewish by race), but a matter of these women worshipping foreign gods that was at issue. The concern was always that men's hearts would be turned from God to idols.
He continues, "In the New Testament, marrying an unbeliever (no matter what race) was forbidden (1 Corinthians 7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18). It seems very clear that faith in Jesus Christ tears down racial barriers. . . . If marriage is a picture of the relationship of Jesus Christ to His bride, the church (all true believers), then marriage to a believer of another race simply pictures the fact that Jesus came to save Gentiles as well as Jews."2
God used marriage as the ultimate example of how faith, love, and grace can bring together believers of all races, tribes, and languages through a shared belief in Jesus Christ.
Intercultural Marriage in History
Intercultural marriage has existed almost since the beginning of mankind. After the incident that occurred at the Tower of Babel, people were scattered over the face of the earth (Genesis 11:1-9). As the years passed, various language dialects, traditions, and cultural habits developed that were particular to people groups who migrated to different areas. People began to consider their own language and ways as familiar and right, and other languages and traditions as "foreign."
Over the years since then, many nations of the world have had regulations banning or restricting intercultural and interracial marriage. During the Nazi regime, Germany banned interracial marriage, and South Africa also banned it during the apartheid era. Intercultural and interracial marriage were illegal in most areas of the United States until the 1967 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Loving v. Virginia. In this case, Richard Loving, a white man, was convicted under Virginia's anti-miscegenation law for marrying Mildred Jeter, a woman of African American and Native American descent. On appeal of this conviction, Loving argued that the law violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which requires that all citizens receive equal treatment under the law. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court found in the couple's favor, proclaiming the Virginia statute unconstitutional.3
Intercultural and Interracial Marriages in the Bible
Now, let's take a look at several biblical marriage narratives. Most of them are poignant love stories, but a few are cautionary tales. From these biblical examples, we'll discover more about God's gift of marriage and the intriguing dynamics of intercultural partnerships.
Moses and Zipporah
Moses' sister, Miriam, and his brother, Aaron, spoke out against Moses in part because they disapproved of the Cushite woman, Zipporah, whom he had married (Numbers 12:1). Zipporah was the daughter of Jethro, the priest of the land of Midian. Most biblical scholars agree that the region called Cush was located in what is now Ethiopia, meaning that Zipporah was most likely black.
Notice that God never told Moses not to marry Zipporah. The fact that she was black seemed to be a non-issue, and her godly religious heritage as the daughter of a priest made her an excellent match for Moses. However, Miriam and Aaron grew jealous, not only of the fact that Moses had married a woman who was not an Israelite, but of the fact that God had chosen to use Moses as His mouthpiece when speaking to the people. Miriam and Aaron used the fact that Moses had married a Cushite woman to try to stir up the Israelites to question his authority and mutiny against his leadership.
God responded sternly to Miriam and Aaron's sinful racial and cultural prejudice as well as their attempt to undermine Moses' leadership. According to Numbers 12:9-10, God struck Miriam with leprosy as a result of her choice to speak out against Moses and Zipporah. (Most likely, Aaron would have been struck with leprosy, too, if not for the Jewish law that a priest could not be a leper.) Moses prayed fervently for God to heal Miriam. The Lord decreed that, because Miriam was unclean, she must stay outside the Israelites' camp for seven days. After that time, He restored her health. Both Miriam and Aaron learned a valuable lesson about racial prejudice. As far as we know, they did not speak out against Moses and Zipporah ever again.
Samson and Delilah
Samson began life as a Nazirite, set apart from birth for the purpose of serving God. An angel visited Samson's mother before his birth and told her that Samson was not to drink wine, eat unclean food, or have his hair cut as he grew up. But one day, when he was a young man, Samson saw a beautiful Philistine woman in Timnah. He told his father and mother, "Get her for me as a wife."
His parents protested and said, "Is there no woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?" But Samson said to his father, "Get her for me, for she looks good to me" (Judges 14:2-3).
Any red flags there? Samson knew nothing about this woman except the fact that she was beautiful and she came from the tribe of the Philistines, the Jews' arch-enemies, who worshipped idols. Samson married her, and she betrayed him. Her father gave her to Samson's friend as a wife (Judges 14:20). When Samson discovered this, he was furious. He retaliated against the Philistines by burning their crops. As a result of the destruction that Samson's wife had brought to them by marrying Samson, the Philistines put Samson's wife, her father, and the rest of her family to death.
After that time, Samson judged Israel for twenty years (Judges 15:20). But he hadn't learned his lesson about lusting after women who did not serve the Lord. He fell in love with a woman named Delilah from the Valley of Sorek, which separated the land of Judah from the land of the Philistines. The Philistines coerced Delilah to get Samson to reveal to her the source of his strength. Three times he told her the wrong answer. Finally, however, he revealed the truth: that if his hair were cut, he would lose his strength. During the night, Delilah called a man to come and cut off Samson's hair (Judges 16:5-19).
The next morning, the Philistines seized Samson, gouged out his eyes, and forced him to work as a grinder in the prison. The Philistines also made sport of Samson, forcing him to entertain them at parties. But his hair grew while he was in prison, and his strength began to return. Samson's last act was to use a massive show of strength to bring down the pillars of a large house where the Philistines were celebrating. Samson died when the house collapsed, along with 3,000 Philistines (Judges 16:20-31).
Samson's downfall was his weakness for women who did not love and serve God. His example offers a strong warning for us, demonstrating why a Christian should not marry a person who doesn't share the same faith or spiritual values.
David and Bathsheba
King David's love affair with Bathsheba is one of the Bible's best-known stories of intrigue. Bathsheba was the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of David's "mighty men"—his band of thirty-seven fierce and loyal warriors.
The Hittites were a pagan tribe related to the Canaanites. The Bible authors contrast the sinful actions of the Jewish king David with the godly and honorable actions of this Gentile and formerly pagan man named Uriah, who evidently had converted to the Jewish faith.
David sinned by committing adultery with Bathsheba, who became pregnant. Then David had Uriah killed in battle so he could marry her (2 Samuel 11). As a result of this sin, the child born to David and Bathsheba died. However, they later bore a son named Solomon who gained great favor, renown, and wisdom from the Lord. Jesus, the Messiah, was part of the lineage of David, Bathsheba, and Solomon.
Solomon and the Shulammite Woman
Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba, shared a great love with a young, beautiful Shulammite girl. We read this heartwarming love story in the book of Song of Solomon. Scripture says that the girl was dark-skinned, in part because of the work she had to do in the fields. But she may also have been of African or Egyptian descent.
The Song of Solomon is one of the most poignant love stories in all of literature. As intercultural couples, we can learn a great deal about love, conflict, conflict resolution, intimacy, and more by reading it. Engaged couples may enjoy reading this book on their wedding night.
We don't know what ever happened to the Shulammite girl, but the Bible indicates that, in later life, Solomon became involved with a wide variety of women from pagan backgrounds who led him away from the Lord. He may have been influenced by his father's philandering with Bathsheba and other women.
However, every couple can learn important lessons by reading the book of Song of Solomon together. Also look for the following excellent resources on the Song of Solomon by pastor Tommy Nelson:
• The Book of Romance: What Solomon Says about Love, Sex, and Intimacy
• Song of Solomon Classic DVD Series: A Study of Love, Marriage, Sex, and Romance
Ahasuerus and Esther (also called Xerxes)
The pagan King Xerxes selected an exquisite young woman named Esther from among the most beautiful young women in the land to become his queen in place of the former Queen Vashti.
At the recommendation of her cousin Mordecai, Esther kept her Jewish heritage a secret during the selection process and after she had become queen. However, the king's right-hand man, Haman, hatched a plot to destroy all of the Jews because Mordecai refused to bow down to him. Mordecai informed Esther of Haman's sinister plot and told her, "Do not imagine that you in the king's palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:13-14).
Esther courageously approached the king to plead for the lives of her people. He allowed them to defend themselves against their enemies, and he ordered Haman to be hung on the gallows that Haman had built for Mordecai. Esther provides a powerful example for women who have married a man from another culture or belief system. She responded to her husband with respect and honor, and he honored her and her people in return.
Boaz and Ruth
Ruth hailed from the land of Moab, east of the Dead Sea. After the death of her husband, Mahlon, Ruth demonstrated remarkable loyalty and courage by staying with her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, who had also been recently widowed (Ruth 1:16). Ruth traveled with Naomi back to Naomi's hometown of Bethlehem in the land of Judah.
Naomi and Ruth's arrival created quite a stir in Bethlehem. The Moabite people were often in conflict with the Israelites, so no doubt people were surprised at Ruth's choice to enter the land of Judah with Naomi.
Ruth "happened" to glean in a field owned by a wealthy and benevolent man named Boaz. He immediately noticed that she was a foreigner and offered her protection in his fields. As Boaz watched Ruth glean day by day, he recognized her excellent and noble character.
Naomi advised Ruth to go down to the threshing floor at night and let Boaz know that he could serve as a kinsman-
redeemer for her. She did so and asked him to spread his garment over her as an indication that he would marry her and provide for her (Ruth 3:9).
Ruth and Boaz married and had a son named Obed, the father of Jesse, who became the father of King David in the line of Christ (Ruth 4:17)
Joseph and Asenath
We don't know much about this partnership, but Joseph, son of the patriarch Jacob, gained favor with the Pharaoh of Egypt. As a result, Joseph was given Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian priest, as a wife (Genesis 41:45). Asenath was a dark-skinned beauty from a culture that held views that contrasted with the traditions and religious heritage of the Jews. However, because Joseph was an honorable man who had gained great favor even from foreign kings, he most likely was able to strike a balance between his own faith and values and those of his wife. Joseph and Asenath bore two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 46:20).
A Summary of Biblical Teaching on Intercultural Marriage
Pastor and author John Piper lists the following biblical principles on race and racial harmony, which also apply directly to intercultural marriage:
• God designed all ethnic groups from one human ancestor. (Acts 17:26)
• All members of every ethnic group are made in the image of God. (Genesis 1:27)
• In determining the significance of who you are, being a person in the image of God compares to ethnic distinctives the way the light of the noonday sun compares to the light from the candles on a birthday cake. Being a person is infinitely more significant than being a white person or a black person.
• The prediction of a curse that Noah spoke over some of the descendents of Ham is irrelevant in deciding how the black race is to be viewed and treated. Ham's descendents were Canaanites, not Africans. (Genesis 10:15-18)
• It is God's purpose and command that we make disciples for Jesus Christ from every ethnic group in the world, without distinction. (Matthew 28:18-20)
• All believers in Jesus Christ, of every ethnic group, are united to each other not only in common humanity in the image of God, but even more, as brothers and sisters in Christ and members of the same body. (Romans 12:4-5)
• The Bible forbids intermarriage between believer and unbeliever, but not between members of different ethnic groups. (1 Corinthians 7:39)
• Therefore, against the spirit of indifference, alienation, and hostility in our land, let us embrace the supremacy of God's love to take new steps personally and corporately toward racial harmony, expressed visibly in our communities and in our churches.4
Male and Female Roles
Western societies tend to be more egalitarian than others in their views of the roles of men and women, but gender inequalities remain in every society. Tradition, religious beliefs, politics, social class, and caste also may influence a couple's understanding of male and female roles.
In most areas of the U.S. and in many Western countries, the class system is less pronounced, but other cultures (such as the Indian culture) adhere to a strict class and caste system that greatly influences each person's interactions with others. Intercultural couples must explore this issue to form a better understanding of each spouse's attitudes toward roles and class. As husbands and wives engage in open discussion, they will learn to sort out cultural stereotypes, personal expectations, and biblical principles in order to reach a workable, God-honoring partnership in which each individual respects the other's roles.
According to Scripture, the husband is commanded to show submission to the Lord Jesus Christ by loving his wife and showing her honor (Colossians 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7). The wife is responsible to submit to the husband (Ephesians 5:24) and to respect him. In addition, all believers are commanded to submit to each other (Ephesians 5:21). This means that as Christians, both men and women are to model submission, as Christ did.
Together with your fiancé or spouse, read Ephesians 5 and discuss the marriage principles that you find. How does your culture interpret the roles of men and women? How did your parents interpret them? How were these roles modeled (or not modeled) in your family of origin? Be sure to ask your loved one the same questions.
One book that will help you define and create workable marriage roles is Rocking the Roles by Robert Lewis and William Hendricks.
A man falls in love through his eyes; a woman, through her ears. —Woodrow Wyatt5
Before a couple commits to an intercultural marriage, each partner should discover the facts about his or her loved one's intimate past as well as his or her attitudes toward sex and intimacy. This can be a difficult task, as sexuality is still considered a taboo subject in many cultures, especially among Christians.
Some questions to ask before marriage are:
• What is your culture's view toward intimacy before marriage?
• What is your culture's view toward intimacy after marriage?
• What are your personal beliefs on these issues?
• What did your family teach about these issues?
• What has been your intimate or sexual involvement before our engagement/marriage?
• What do you expect our intimate life to be like after we are married?
• What do you expect our intimate life to be like during pregnancy? Does your culture have certain traditions or rules about this?
• What do you expect our intimate life to be like after we have children?
• What will we do to keep our love life strong?
Christian resources, including books, videos, and conferences, like the Intimate Issues Conferences and FamilyLife Conferences, can help couples expand their knowledge and improve their intimate relationship. For more information about the Intimate Issues conference for women, visit www.intimateissues.com. Linda Dillow has a book for women also called Intimate Issues that I highly recommend. For more information about the fantastic, truly life-transforming "Weekend to Remember" marriage conferences sponsored by FamilyLife, please see www.familylife.com.
QUOTES for reflection
The Shulammite Woman:
May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
for your love is better than wine . . .
I am black but lovely,
O daughters of Jerusalem.
Song of Solomon 1:2-5
To me, my darling, you are like
My mare among the chariots of Pharaoh.
Your cheeks are lovely with ornaments,
Your neck with strings of beads.
How beautiful you are, my darling,
How beautiful you are!
Your eyes are like doves.
Excerpted from Your Intercultural Marriage by Marla Alupoaicei (Moody Publishers). Copyright 2009 Marla Alupoaicei. Used with perrmission. All rights reserved.
Author and speaker Marla Alupoaicei [pronounced ah-loo-pooEH-tchay] serves as the director for Leap of Faith Ministries, an intercultural marriage support ministry in Frisco, Texas. She has authored or co-authored over twenty books and Bible study guides, as well as non-fiction articles and poems. She also works as a staff writer for East-West Ministries, a grace-based church planting organization in Addison, Texas. Marla and her husband, Catalin, whom she met while on a mission trip to Romania, have been married for seven years.