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Is the Marriage Bed Undefiled? - Heb 13:4 (Monday with Mounce 98)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday with Mounce Predicate adjectives can be a bit tricky to translate. Since there is no verb, you have to supply one that is consistent with the verse and the immediate context. But that is a matter of exegesis and hence personal interpretation.

Take for example Heb 13:4. Word for word it says, “Held in honor the marriage among all, and the (marriage) bed undefiled. The verse concludes that those who do not obey this teaching will be judged by God.

The author uses predicate adjectives. τίμος ὁ γάμος. ἡ κοίτη ἀμίαντος. τίμος and ἀμίαντος are not preceded by the article, they are therefore in the predicate position, and the verbs have to be supplied. But what verb?

Interestingly, v 5 also uses a predicate adjective construction. “Keep your life free from love of money” (᾽Αφιλάργυρος ὁ τρόπος). So whatever we do in v 4 needs to be done here.

Most translations see the implied verb as imperatival. This is certainly justified from the imperatives that surround these two verse. “Let brotherly love continue” (v 1). “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (v 2). “Remember those who are in prison” (v 3). “Remember your leaders” (v 7).

The ESV sees an imperatival relationship, as do most translations. “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.” The KJV is alone is seeing an indicative verb implied. “Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled.”

First of all, since the verbal idea is always brought in from the context, it can’t be said that it must be one and not the other. But the context is imperatival, and the flow of the verse assumes an imperatival relationship. This is what must happen, since God will judge those who violate marriage and the marriage bed (which is a euphemism for sexual relations).

But I think the larger problem with the KJV approach is that I don’t see how it would be true. While marriage is certainly honorable as God intended, there is no culture in which its purity has been maintained. While the marriage bed is to be kept undefiled, it isn’t.

So barring anything in the verse’s immediate context, it is safe to see an imperatival relationship, and the author is making a demand that God’s intention in marriage be maintained in the church.

Now, on a only slightly related note, I want to make a slightly political comment. It really isn’t political, but it may have political ramifications.

A Christian leader came out recently that he would never vote for Newt Gingrich for President because he had defiled his marriage bed. Gingrich has openly admitted this. But I have been reading Boyd’s book, Repenting of Religion. I am going to blog on this more later, but I have found it a fascinating read. His basic point is that we are called to love one another. Instead, starting with Adam and Eve, we have all rejected God’s authority to determine what is right and wrong, and have all tasted of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As a result the church is consumed with people judging people, gaining life for judgment, and defining ourselves but what we do and don’t do in comparison to others, instead of by what God has said about us in Christ.

Anyway, I find myself wondering if this Christian leader would also not vote for someone who is a gossip and a slanderer? I would suggest that gossip and slander have been much more damaging in the church and destructive of the cause of Christ. People are to see how we love one another, and in so doing will come to believe that God sent Jesus (John 17:21). Have you seen anyone come to Christ lately because they were overwhelmed by our love for one another?

Yes, the marriage bed is to be kept undefiled. But frankly, I would rather hang out with adulterers than gossips. I think Jesus did too. While preserving sexual purity in a sexual riddled culture is of paramount importance, I suspect that our churches are more like Paul’s than we care to admit, filled with “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (2 Cor 12:20).

Just a thought. 

Mouncew William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at  Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.

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