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How biblical is the language of marriage in Tanzania (or in my own culture)?

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?

Categories: Tanzania Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

2 replies

  1. What stimulating questions I might never have considered if you hadn’t shared them. Thanks for doing so. It also encourages me to ask such questions in the new culture I’m now part of.

  2. I would actually say that marriage remains fairly patriarchal in Australian culture. The woman changes her name to the man’s for example. We create a new family but eliminate the most obvious sign that she belonged to hers.
    My wife Jo actually didn’t change her name when we married (Joanna Reid is her completely unofficial English name but Oh Boon Chee is her official name, retaining her . This was for three reasons: 1) logistically she had far more assets than me spread through two countries; 2) Linguistically there is no Chinese character for Reid which complicates the writing of her name; 3) Culturally Chinese women retain their family name after marriage.
    The last point is most interesting. We assume that it is ‘normal’ for the wife to change their name and we can then move to assuming that such a move is theologically and practically correct (e.g. I’ve read an article by The council for biblical manhood and womanhood making this assumption) but this is a biased cultural assumption. My wife’s Chinese culture (although westernised and diluted) is Patriarchal; it is considered (slightly) shameful for a man to live with his in-laws but not for a woman to live with her in-laws, there are different terms for relatives relatives depending on relations to each parent and those on the mother’s side are of a lower relational rank (for instance there is a term for grandfather but this describes fathers father, the term for mothers father means ‘outside grandfather’), in addition the children still take the father’s name. However Chinese families are still expected to respect honour and care for both sides of the family.
    I actually appreciate the fact that Jo didn’t change her name – it still maintains the connection between her and her family, making the marriage more between two families rather than just about one a
    Genesis reflects some of this in the sense that both parties leave their families to get married, the leave and cleave that you mentioned.

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