Men are, by nature, hunters, and women have been put in the position of being the prey.
– Steve Harvey
In Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd the beautiful Bathesba Everdene sends a Valentine note to the highly dignified William Boldwood, merely as a prank. Bathesba feels nothing for Boldwood, and he in turn has never looked her way. The deed is a trifling joke suggested by her maid Lily. Without much thought she pens the short message and dispatches it. She does not sign the note, and thinks it will never be linked to her, but she could not foresee the great effect it would have on the hitherto indifferent man. Boldwood however traces the handwriting to her and becomes obsessed with her, and with executing the two words contained in the note: “Marry me.” The rest of the story is a maze of complications involving ill-fated marriage, untold misery for her as well as others, the life-long imprisonment of one man, and the death of another. Bathesba’s little joke went very bad indeed, and there was not very much to laugh about in it. Although the story ends in what one may describe as relative serenity, it does not escape the reader’s notice that the cost has been much too high: a heap of misfortune instigated by nothing more than an ill-thought marriage proposal.
I was recently in a church discussion about marriage, in which someone asked if women should ever propose. Of course they did not mean the type that Bathesba made, but rather serious relationship proposals. The general consensus appeared to be that women should never do that. One of the reasons offered was that it could lead to an improper balance of power in the marriage relationship, with the woman exercising authority over the man. The only result of that, of course, is misery for both sides. It was stressed that all the initiative should lie with men because that is the ordained order. One contributor in particular situated this in a biblical light by offering an allusion to Genesis 2:24. But what does the Bible really say about this? Can and should women propose? And are all such proposals doomed to the bleak fate of Bathesba Everdene’s Valentine’s Day error?
“I Like You” versus “Marry Me” – Defining Proposals
We cannot proceed to answer these questions without first delineating the types of marriage proposals that were made in biblical times and that are made everyday today. In biblical times, proposals were essentially marriage proposals. As a rule, Hebrew marriages wherever possible were initiated by fathers for their sons. Abraham doing so for Isaac is a famous example of this (Genesis 24:2-4). Otherwise men initiated their own marriages as Jacob did, by consulting the father of a woman. Women were customarily offered by their fathers to men of wealth, excellent morals, or military exploits. Caleb offered Aksah to Othniel after he conquered Kiriath Sepher (Judges 1:12,13). Laban gave Jacob his daughters (Genesis 29:19). Hamor asked Dina’s hand for his son Shechem from Jacob. Jethro gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses, so on and so forth. So in biblical times, parents asked for wives for their sons, and fathers offered their daughters in marriage. Proposals, then, occurred on the parental level.
In contemporary postmodern culture, marriage does not occur immediately. It is typically preceded by a period of dating and courtship in which the pair are said to be “in a relationship”. While some courtship probably occurred in ancient days, open dating is a phenomenon of present-day culture. Dating couples are not guaranteed to marry. They are not betrothed. They are “checking each other out,” sizing each other up, evaluating. Dating pairs may indeed never marry. What is required in contemporary dating is not a necessary expectation of marriage, but a genuine openness to it.
Within the Christian context, dating proposals indicate no more than that one wishes to become better acquainted with a person they consider a potential spouse. The Christian marriage counselor and relationship expert Gary Chapman says “the purpose of dating is to get to know each other and to decide if this will lead to marriage or not.” Initiating a dating relationship today, then, is very different from initiating a marriage. It simply amounts to one party indicating to the other that they are “interested”. It may be spoken directly, sent in a letter, or they may decide to “drop hints” and “send signals”. If a proposal is successful, the probationary period of dating begins, and it may end in a marriage proposal. But it may not.
Today in both Western and African society, a marriage proposal is made by one of the dating partners, usually the man. Parents are often – and should be – aware of the dating relationship. Once a marriage proposal is accepted, parents are informed, and in many societies the process reverts to the biblical model in which the man’s parents ask for the bride from her parents, this time only ceremonially. In biblical times parents did the real thing; consulting the would-be couple was merely formality. Today the reverse is true: the would-be couple does the real thing, and informing parents comes afterwards. Of course, in many societies, parental consent is no mere formality: parents still have – and should have – an important say in whether a marriage actually happens or not.
So we can clearly delineate three types of proposals: First, parent-led proposals for marriage. Second, proposals for dating relationships, and third, marriage proposal made by a dating partner. The last two are more relevant to our discussion. Does the Bible prohibit women from initiating dating relationships? Does it prohibit them from making marriage proposals?
What the Bible Says
In the beginning, God made man and woman and ordained that they should enjoy a marital union which would not only make each of them complete as a person, but would allow them to fill the earth with more human beings. Within this context, God made woman for the man (Genesis 1:18). A few verses later in verse 24 came an all-important pronouncement: Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. It is this statement that most people refer to when it comes to the right order of approach in the initiation of dating or marriage relationships. Let us consider it briefly.
This verse is probably most known in the rendering of the King James Version. The wording “Therefore shall a man” and “shall cleave to his wife,” sound like a command or at least a divine standard. Some interpreters certainly think so. However, most interpret the verse as merely a description of a future state of affairs. The word “shall” can indeed relate the idea of a command, but it is also frequently used as a simple future tense marker synonymous with “will”. The interpretation we choose is often influenced – as we will see in a minute – more by our cultural inclinations than by the context of the text itself.
What the Text Means
Genesis 2:24 did not come out of the blue. It is a culmination of an entire narrative of creation that has a purpose. In Genesis 2, the writer has a clear intention to explain how man came to be, rather than how the entire world was created. Once done, he concerns himself with explaining how it came to be that man is in two sexes, and how the single idea of humanness is achieved despite the two forms. Let’s trace the narrative.
After a summary of the creation account in chapter one (2:1 – 6), the writer turns to the creation of the first human. God forms the man called Adam, and plants him in a garden, and gave him his welcome orientation, complete with a warning against eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (7 – 17). Then the writer proceeds to explain how and why the female sex came to be (18 – 23); out of a rib of the man and to be a suitable helper for him. All through it is clear that the writer’s burden is to answer an obvious question: how did the two sexes come about? This is how: the male from the earth, and the female from the male (from a rib), like him (flesh of his flesh; bone of his bone) and for him (as a helper). So the passage contains what we might call an etiological or explanatory narrative, and the explanation is well given. But once the writer has explained how humanity now exists as two separate forms, an obvious problem arises: he must explain how the singleness of humanity is preserved.
The answer to this question relates to how woman was formed. When Adam sees the woman for the first time, his words are important: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen 2:23). In the very next verse, the use of “flesh” indicates the reunification of the man that which was “taken out of Man”. When men and women unite in conjugal intercourse, the extracted flesh, in a sense, returns to its source; the man is ontologically complete and the woman is ontologically at home! Neat huh?
With this context in mind, it becomes clear that Genesis 2:24 presents marriage as the means by which the unity of humanity is achieved. That is the point: the man leaves his father and mother and then cleaves. This is about marriage as an ontological ingredient of human interaction.
It’s Not a Command
So what emerges from this that is helpful for our question on who should propose? Well, two things. The first important point has already been alluded to. Within the context, we have seen that the entire passage is explanatory or descriptive rather than prescriptive or normative. The grammar of the text simply suggests the future tense: “will leave”, and “will cleave”, not the imperative or command form of “must” leave and cleave. Alternatively, it suggests “a permanent state or property, mental disposition or propensity”. It has also been described as denoting “repeated, habitual or customary actions, whether in the past, the present, or the future.” A few have suggested that this verse is indeed a command, but most interpreters agree it is merely a description of what went on to happen in the future. Further, it is an explanation of why that is so, as numerous translations render it:
This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one. (NLT)
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. (NIV)
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. (ASV)
This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh. (CSB)
(Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife, and they will become one flesh.) (ISV)
The King James’ Version should be understood the same way: “shall” is synonymous with “will”, not “must”. It is not a command. It is the writer once again explaining to his audience why marriage exists: in order to provide a legitimate space for the ontological integration of the sexes through marital intercourse. The writer is not saying that men must marry women because men were created first, but rather that men marry women in order to reunite with their extracted part. The woman that was “taken out of man” must be, in a sense, returned :-).
It’s About Marriage
Second, this is about marriage. In ancient Hebrew culture, marriage was often contracted at, or even before, first sight. Parents arranged marriages for children sometimes before the would-be couple even met each other. Sometimes the very first time they met was at their marriage. Fathers offered their daughters to heroes and benefactors. But as we have seen, things are different today, for the most part.
First, Genesis 2:24 is about marriage. How can we tell? The clause “leave his father and his mother” is culturally symbolic of marriage in Hebrew conception. Also, the Hebrew phrase ishtiy, literally means his woman. Genesis 2:24 therefore hearkens back to 2:18 and 2:20, where the woman is portrayed as existing for the man as a helper. So clearly, the man is cleaving to his own helper; there is a sense of belonging that connects the two. This mutual belonging is the essence of marriage. Genesis 2:24 has very little – if not nothing at all – to do with 21st century dating relationships. That is an absolutely vital point to understand.
Second, Genesis 2:24 describes the normal direction of initiative in marriage. This is important when we consider the contemporary marriage proposal. It turns out that what this initiation entails is culturally specific. It may boil down to a number of questions, and all of them are culturally specific, because the Bible has not specified any detailed ceremonial processes by which marriages are to be contracted. Who pops the question (proposes marriage)? Who cuts the tie of dependency totally from parents? Who sets up the new domestic arrangements? Who seeks the hand of whom? Who pays the bride price? The Biblical answer is that the man does. Again a faithful exegetical reading requires us to stress does, not should. The importance of this distinction cannot be overstated.
Beyond culture, we may also rely on Paul for guidance on what male leadership should resemble within marriage. Alluding to the Genesis 2 narrative, Paul teaches that women should not dictate to men or “have authority” over them (1 Timothy 2:11-13). More precisely, however, the allusion makes it clear that Paul situates his admonition in the context of marriage, hence wives should be submissive to their husbands. Paul appeals in part to the created order: Adam was created before Eve (vs. 13). For Paul, the issue is authority in the home, and how that dynamic translates in the experience of the church community that Timothy is in charge of. We can say therefore that male initiative in marriage should include ever facet in which authority is involved or expressed. In this point, we find a Biblical admonition that is not merely descriptive but prescriptive and normative.
What Breaking the Order Looks Like
Since the normative element concerns the exercise and expression of authority, we can say that women go wrong if they usurp any function that exercises or expresses authority rightly belonging to the man. In many cultures including African culture, most of the questions we have asked certainly involve the expression of authority. Who cuts the tie of dependency totally from parents, who sets up the new domestic arrangements, who seeks the hand of whom, who pays the bride price all involve some sort of expression of authority and headship. In taking the lead on these things, men assert that it is they who marry women. Breaking this normal order then involves taking on duties and prerogatives in the marriage process by which male authority is expressed. These duties and prerogatives, and whether the marriage proposal is included in them, will vary from society to society.
That said, for the Christian pair the matter of who pops the big question however, is of a different nature entirely. If you think about it, if this question is rightly asked, it involves laying aside any notions of authority or entitlement. A rightly made proposal recognizes the freedom of the other party to accept or reject. The Bible has not given men the right to force marriage on any woman, or vice versa. A true marriage proposal therefore, is an ultimate expression humility and vulnerability.
In the same vein, when it comes to simply telling a gentleman that you like him, or asking him if he’d like to hang out, at best it may be culturally awkward or inappropriate, but not biblically so. In deciding whether or not it is right to make either type of proposal it is better for a woman to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, though without completely being deaf to cultural norms.
An Example: Ruth’s Marriage Proposal
We turn now to a biblical example that is useful for illustrating the points we have made so far. It is an example in the Bible of a female-initiated process that led to marriage. Before we get into it we must point out that while biblical narratives do not necessarily constitute prescription, we can rely on them when they offer principles and examples that do not contravene other principles in the Bible that are normative or prescriptive. The account of how Ruth’s marriage came about is just such an example.
When Naomi (Ruth 3) sought a way to obtain relief for Ruth from poverty and starvation after their return to Israel, she suggested a daring act.
Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.” – Ruth 3:3, 4
Boaz was a relative of Naomi’s, and she saw in him a possible route out of their misery. She asked Ruth to make an approach that she hoped would bring her to his notice and end in a levirate marriage. Ruth was up to the task and she executed the plan to perfection (vss. 5 – 7). In the middle of the night, Boaz was surprised to see a woman lying at his feet. He asked who she was, and Ruth, after introducing herself, boldly asked, “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.” This was, in no uncertain terms, a marriage proposal. A “guardian-redeemer” was someone who could redeem a distressed widow by marrying her, usually through a levirate marriage. In this, she went even further than Naomi had instructed her. Boaz clearly understood her request. He was willing to do it and he did after the nearer kinsman turned down the offer. Indeed he was anxious to get it done as soon as possible! (Ruth 3:18)
It is important to note that Boaz still took the initiative to effect the marriage arrangements. He approached the nearer kinsman in the presence of the elders; he footed the bill for redeeming the land of his deceased brothers, and took Ruth as his wife. He acted just as Genesis 2:24 had predicted. But he did not make the proposal; Ruth did. Ruth, in turn, respected his leadership and authority in doing what it took to make the marriage happen. She did not, like some women might, set about calling meetings the elders, confronting the nearer kinsman, and insisting that Boaz move in with her as soon as practicable.
Quite the contrary, she was obedient to Boaz’s leadership, even when he suggested she might have to instead marry someone she’d never even met before. Clearly, this was no marauding feminist. It is instructive to note that despite Ruth’s making the initial proposal, the Bible can still declare in Ruth 4:13 that “Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife.” Boaz himself was clearly aware of his own power in the matter, saying, “I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelek, Kilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife” (Ruth 4:9, 10). Such language would no doubt upset our 21st Century sensibilities, but it shows there was never any doubt as to who was in charge. In fact there are many feminists who do not like the book of Ruth because of this utter submissiveness.
Ruth’s encounter shows that sometimes, a little female initiative can produce some really good results. The situation was not too unlike many scenarios in our time. Boaz had obviously noticed her (Ruth 2:5), and asked after her (vs. 6). He made clear his admiration for her virtuous character and extended unexpected kindness to her, lavishing her with the gifts from his agricultural riches (vss. 8 – 18). When Ruth told Naomi in the evening, the experienced old lady knew what was going on. The advice she gave was decisive. Boaz was clearly interested; he just needed a little nudge in the right direction, and what a nudge it turned out to be. Ruth went all out as we have seen, perhaps even further than Naomi suggested. Naomi had told her to wait for Boaz to decide what to do. Ruth took the matter into her own hands and asked him, through a clear cultural sign, to marry her from out of her poverty (Ruth 3:9).
Boaz was elated. He had noticed her, but he knew there was someone more entitled to have her than he was. Perhaps he saw this as a hindrance. Some men don’t like to chase wild geese. Some men need a little encouragement, a little push, and what a blessing if it comes from none other than the object of their silent affections! It turned out to be a good match: over the course of time, the Savior was born through the instrumentality of a woman who was brave enough to take the initiative.
Once more we should stress that narratives like this one do not necessarily tell us how we should behave. We are not following the example of Ruth simply because it happened. Rather, we are doing so because it provides an example that conforms with the biblical view we have established thus far. This, too, is very important.
What about Christ and the Church?
Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.
– Revelation 19:7
Marriage is a mirror of Christ’s relationship with His church. Paul calls husbands to love their wives as Christ loved his church (Ephesians 5:25), and Christ is pictured as a groom who marries the church (Revelation 19:9). So John Piper is right to say, “The meaning of marriage is the display of the covenant‑keeping love between Christ and his people.” In this relationship it is Christ who woos His church, and makes the greatest marriage proposal through the gift of the cross. Shouldn’t this be the ultimate paradigm we promote and preach? Well, we should understand one fundamental difference between Christ/church relationship on the one hand, and the man/woman one on the other. This difference will show why it may not be the best comparison to make.
The Bible teaches that we are unable in ourselves to desire or approach God. Romans 8:7 says our carnal mind is enmity against God. It cannot se subject to God. In other words, in our natural state, we do not love God first. Some even argue, and quite strongly, I think, that we cannot love God first. Christ is trying to win the heart of a woman (the church) that in its natural, fallen state, is not interested in Him. It is He who must draw us to Himself. He works very hard, imparting grace and appealing through His Holy Spirit in order to get us to say yes. The apostle John put it well: “We love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). A flesh-and-blood woman, on the other hand, can desire a flesh-and-blood man. God made her naturally able both to give and receive love. Sin may have marred this ability, but it has not extinguished it. This fundamental difference cannot be ignored. In the church we have a woman who is not interested in the first place. Our discussion pertains to the flesh-and-blood woman who is very interested indeed.
Summary and Guidelines
At this point it is useful to summarise the main points.
- Genesis 2:24 is about marriage, not dating.
- Therefore this text cannot be used as a basis for denying women the right to make a dating proposal.
- Genesis 2:24 is a description, not a command.
- Therefore it cannot be used to prohibit a woman’s making a marriage proposal either.
- In 1 Timothy 2:11-13 Paul ascribes the exercise and expression of marital authority to men. How this authority is expressed is culture specific. At a minimum, Paul excludes haughty domination of the man by the woman.
These five points have hopefully been clearly established from the relevant biblical texts, and now we have a basis on which to propose – no pun intended – some guidelines for when and how women may propose in accordance with biblical precept (Genesis 2:24, 1 Timothy 2:13, 14) and precedent (Ruth 3).
- Ladies should in general, allow guys to pursue them and take the lead in all other aspects related to the marriage. Men are hard-wired to seek women for mates, and women have the prerogative to select among suitors. Many men will be put off when women show overt signs of interest or actually propose. They may see such a lady as cheap or even immoral.
- We must be mindful, however, that this is nature and nurture at play, and not ordinance. There is no biblical rule that stipulates that it must be so. Rather than forbid Christian women from making proposals, a responsible faith community should make allowance for personal and cultural differences on this point.
- A lady should generally only make a proposal under extreme circumstances, and in Ruth’s case, it seems that even practical economic difficulties would apply. As a widow in ancient Israel, Ruth was in a particularly vulnerable position. In that culture life for a widow could be truly unbearable unless she had a man to take care of her. Her proposal was born of no lovesick sentimentalism; it was a desperate measure for desperate times. Clearly, then, there are circumstances that can legitimise a woman-led proposal, though they may not always be of the same kind. An absolute prohibition is therefore untenable.
- As knowledge increases, societies must grow, for to whom much is given much is required. More information exists today than ever before about personality profiles and how they might affect the initiation ad sustenance of relationships. Christian young women may prayerfully approach a man if the man’s personality is standing in the way of the formation of a potentially beautiful, God-glorifying relationship. Men too can be shy, and “Faint heart ne’er won fair lady” is not a responsible mantra for an informed Christian lady to hold.
- If a woman ever proposes, she should do so not in the spirit of prevailing feminist rebellion against the headship of men in marital contexts. Some people cite Ruth’s story as a precursor to feminist ideas of gender equality. Radical feminists no doubt see the marriage proposal as a part of the agenda to erode gender distinctions in society. For them proposing is just the first step of taking suppressing male leadership if not taking over control altogether. Such an agenda cannot find any basis in the story of Ruth as we have seen it. Indeed, the very symbol Ruth used for her proposal was understood in Jewish custom as a request for protection as a husband. This approach maintains the leadership of the man as the spiritual protector of the home and family.
- If it is necessary for a woman to propose to a man, she should take care to not make it a matter of public knowledge. Ruth went to him in secret with her marriage proposal. The man’s social status and reputation, and even his self-esteem may be seriously compromised otherwise.
- Women should first exhaust other possible means before making a proposal. Ruth showed courtesy and serviceability to Boaz and his workmen. She earned a commendable reputation and demonstrated to Boaz.
- If a lady must propose she should explore existing social structures, such as gestures and symbols, that allow her to do so in a way that is above board.
One of the submissions made during the afternoon Bible study was quite in line with Steve Harvey’s observation that “Men are, by nature, hunters.” It does seem that men are predisposed to “hunt” for a partner. It may simply be culturally ingrained, but some have offered some biological evidence for it. Indeed, some of the reasons offered was that it would be awkward, and it would make the woman look cheap. Clearly, these are culturally ingrained attitudes we have in Accra Ghana. Elsewhere in the world such a situation would not be so awkward or off-putting. But cultural notions cannot be completely ignored either.
Wantonly and carelessly disregarding the cultural norms of matrimony could lead, like some submitted that day, to serious problems in the marriage experience. In many cases, I am sure it has. However, the fact is that when it comes to proposals, especially dating proposals, there are no biblical injunctions against women making them. What is more, this need not be the case if both partners are fully surrendered to Christ, Who is above all culture. One contributor in the Bible study used words I rather like: women should not be “in a hurry” to propose. That is a more helpful posture, I think.
So, long story short, is today’s Christian woman permitted by Scripture to indicate her interest in dating a gentleman? The answer is that Scripture does not forbid it. Is she ever permitted to go so far as to propose marriage? The example of Ruth shows that it may sometimes be necessary for her to do so, and that in such a case she can. But it also shows that it cannot be done lightly or with frivolity. If today’s Christian young lady ever must propose marriage, she has Ruth’s rare, biblically faithful example to follow. If she does so prayerfully and prudently, I am confident she can have similar success.
In Far From the Madding Crowd, things did not go well for Bathsheba Everdene, but not because she was a woman. Her world crumbled because she was careless with another person’s heart. That is an evil the Christian suitor should never be guilty of, male or female.
 Ancient Jewish Marriage, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ancient-jewish-marriage
 The Purpose of Marriage, http://www.5lovelanguages.com/category/dating-2/page/2/
 Oxford English Dictionary, “Shall”, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/shall
 Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being.
 Not for all, I am sure.
 Of course, it does contain an account of the instruction to not eat of the forbidden tree, but even then it is an account of an instruction that does not apply to us today.
 Jouon, P. & Muraoka, T. (2011). A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew [Google Books Edition]. Roma: Gregorian & Biblical, accessed January 4, 2017 from www.google.com.
 Kelley, P.H. (1999). Biblical Hebrew. An Introductory Grammar. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
 Robert Lawton (1896) and du Preez (2000) see this as the Jussive form, which is identical to the imperfect used in 2:24.
 Again, I realize some will not like this idea.
 Indeed, even here, contemporary marriage arrangements often challenge the idea in some points. Women often contribute financially and logistically to setting up the home, and even paying for marriage ceremonies without any necessary danger to the health of a Christian marriage and home, and nor can it be shown that they contravene any biblical precept in doing so.
 In ancient Hebrew culture, one could marry the wife of a deceased brother
 See Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible
 Italics mine
 Freedman, David, N., Myers, Allen, C. and Beck, Astrid, B. 2000. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. p. 1071
 Various arguments based on the effect of testosterone, as well as other neurological factors
 Calvinists believe in the doctrine of “total depravity”, which says that human beings are completely sinful, and cannot love or draw near to God by themselves. They cannot perform truly good deeds either because everything they do flows from a fundamentally corrupted nature.
 Piper, John. (2009). This Momentary Marriage. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. p. 15