Today we were introduced to vocab around marriage. In Swahili, there are different words for ‘to marry’ depending on whether you’re talking about a man or a woman. To simplify, you talk about a man being married in the active voice – he marries someone – but about a woman in the passive voice – she is married to someone. On one level it’s semantics and etymology, on the other, language is tied up with culture.
After I’d recovered from the initial shock that marriage is something that happens to a woman, not with a woman, our language tutor explained. He said, the man is the one who takes the initiative. He goes to the woman’s father. He pays the bride price. He is the one who is active; she is passive. Things are changing but that’s the source of such language.
I asked our about how Jesus (quoting Genesis) says, ‘a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife’. (It comes up in Ephesians too.) Interestingly, the verb for ‘be joined/united’ is passive here, presumably because God is doing the joining. In my culture, this doesn’t raise much of an eyebrow because a husband/wife pairing is a new family, with their families of origin another level out, the ‘extended family’.
Another application I’ve heard in Australian churches is that marriage is involves by two things: ‘leaving and cleaving’. A man whose loyalty remains to his family (especially his mother) over his wife after marriage is seen not only to be weak and disloyal but also to not really be living up to what marriage is.
Not so in Tanzanian culture. The wife becomes part of the husband’s family. Apparently this can be quite a stark divide. One example is that a married daughter may feel quite uncomfortable about her elderly or sick mother coming to live in her home, because the daughter has left her family and joined her husband’s.
But now that I think about it, the culture that Genesis was written into and the culture of Jesus’ time was largely patriarchal, with women becoming part of the husband’s family, not unlike what happens in Tanzanian culture.
So I’m wondering how leaving your father and mother and being joined to your wife might play out in a patriarchal culture. What did it mean for the writer of Genesis / Jesus / Paul? How might that help in thinking about Tanzanian marriage?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.