It is a standard trope in Christian circles that marriage is a “covenant”. However the Biblical evidence for this is scarce and while there are 2 verses which uses it in a metaphorical way, there is only 1 verse which remotely suggests a literal reading and it comes from Malachi 2:14, in broader context:

Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously each against his brother so as to profane the covenant of our fathers? 11 Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord [p]which He loves and has married the daughter of a foreign god. 12 As for the man who does this, may the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob everyone who awakes and answers, or who presents [q]an offering to the Lord of hosts.13 “This is [r]another thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the [s]offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14 Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.

– Verses 10-14

The context here is that Malachi is accusing the people of Judah of marrying foreign daughters and women, those outside of “the covenant of our fathers”. Biblical commentators as such are divided on verse 14 phrase “your wife by covenant” as to whether it refers to a personal covenant between the married couple or does it refer to the wife of the covenant people.

I will argue however that the latter is the correct reading by some overarching considerations: (1) If we see the structure of the creation ordinance it is doubtful that “covenant” suits this arrangement, and (2) if we look at ANE practices there is a sense that marriage is a “covenant” but not in the way we expect and not between the two couples.

(1) Does not require a very long or complex argument. We see that Adam and Eve were “married” when God the Father gave Adam a wife/helpmeet. This was not a “consensual” agreement, God didn’t ask Adam if he wanted to marry Eve, neither did God ask Eve if she wanted to marry Adam. God the Father simply gave Eve away to Adam, they became one flesh, etc. As such, the constant practice of the Old Testament and even all throughout Christendom was that the father gave their daughters away to the groom, and the father’s consent was sought, but the marriage was only truly made with consummation, i.e. becoming one flesh, and no amount of signing pieces of paper made a marriage. It’s hard as such to see how covenant fits into the creation ordinance of marriage.

(2) However, by looking at an ANE practice, we can see where covenant fits into this practice, but not in the way we think. Here is an extract from First Civilizations: Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt discussing the Law of Hammurabi concerning marriage:

Marriage in Babylonia was a civil affair, and no religious ceremonies or sanctions were attached to it. Before a marriage, the future husband would approach the father of the girl with an offer of a bridal gift: either a sum of money or its equivalent in goods. This bridal gift (tirhatum) has been interpreted as a “bride price” by some scholars, while others see it only as a form of financial compensation to the bride’s family, since in losing her they would be losing the labour and services of one person. If the offer was accepted, a contract (riksum) was drawn up and a marriage feast was held with food provided by the bridegroom. When the marriage arrangements were completed the bride brought with her a dowry (sheriqtum) consisting of grain, silver, and household goods. If the woman was wealthy, her bridal contract could include one or more female slaves as her personal maids.

Here’s the question *who* are the parties to the marriage contract? It seems that if the contract concerns the “bridal gift”, then the contract, interestingly, is between the future husband and *the father of the bride*. Thus, this “covenant” if we want to call it that, is really a covenant between households, the new household of the husband and the old household of the bride’s father. Given the many precedent we have in the Old Testament of covenants between households, and literally a covenant between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban, it makes more sense to speak of “covenant” in a marriage as a covenant between the husband and the father-in-law, between households.

Naturally if the covenant is between households, then it suggests that it is more of a pragmatic-domestic, even financial, nature rather than sort of eternally binding oath. But as tribal households, back then, existed on a quasi-international plane, between equal powers directly under Heaven as it were, it makes sense to invoke the final arbiter of all disputes, God, to ensure the good faith of the two households. With the modern administrative state however, and where marital contractual terms are enforced by the state, I’m not sure if this logic still makes sense.

However, my argument would be that the Genesis matrix doesn’t really suggest that marriage is a covenant between the two parties, and where covenant is involved, it makes more sense to say that it is a covenant between two households than between the partners per se.

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