This is part 2 of 8 in a series on what the Bible says concerning divorce and remarriage. For the other posts, see here:
When considering the complex ethical issues of divorce and remarriage from the Bible’s perspective, the answers one finds are largely based on presuppositions about what marriage itself is. The obvious and necessary place to start in exploring the nature of marriage is in the opening chapters of Genesis.
Genesis 1.27 – So God created humanity in his own image, in the image of God he created [humanity]; male and female he created them.
I’ve already explained what it means to be created in God’s image in Monergism, Synergism, and God’s Image, Part 1. In essence, being God’s image, in it’s cultural framework, is coextensive with acting as a vice-regent, so to speak, of God: carrying out or administering his authority, rulership, and justice on the earth. So we find in Genesis 1.26: “…Let us make man in our image…and let them have dominion over…” In verse 27, the thought is poetically repeated, setting up “male and female he created them” as the emphasis of thought. This clause is not simply an aside: “oh, by the way!” Its emphasis indicates more: male and female together carry out the function of God’s image to a degree that couldn’t be done by just one of them[i]. God’s purpose is to give them dominion and the dual male/female creation is part of the order established to fulfill that purpose. In thinking about marriage, this is the primary function of the joining of male and female.[ii] In continuing to v.28, God’s blessing of procreation is not merely as an end in itself but precisely for subduing the earth and “having dominion”.
Fast-forward, then, to Genesis 2.24 – Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
This verse concludes vv.18-23 and the creating of the woman for the man. Of importance for inquiry of the nature of marriage (the question about roles within marriage is another issue) is what prompts God to make the woman, and so make marriage, in the first place: “It is not good that the man be alone” (v. 18). In man’s aloneness not being good, humankind is in essence communal. To enable humanity to function, God creates woman, thereby making the man-woman pair the fundamental building block of society. This one-ness then, is precisely the point of the passage and what vv. 19 to 23 are all about such that, when we reach v. 24 “and they shall become one flesh”, there’s no reason for “one flesh” to primarily mean what it’s usually taken as: sexual intercourse. No doubt sex is part of it, but not merely. In the flow of the text, God creates mankind to function for the purpose he created. In chapter 1, that purpose is carrying out God’s rulership, of which procreation is a subset. However, there’s nothing special about “one flesh” that it should refer primarily to sex. It appears that the notion of sex being so fundamental to marriage comes from presumptive readings of Dt. 22.28-29 and (especially) 1 Cor. 6.16. Again, not that sex isn’t an important aspect of being or becoming “one flesh”. Rather, “one-flesh” concerns human unity in all its aspects including will, emotions, purpose, and life pursuits. Sex is the physical expression of a deeper unity.[iii]
The last point to make on this passage is that the joining of man and woman is primarily covenantal and, to some degree, arguably, ontological. First, covenantal language is clear throughout. That the man should “leave and cling”[iv] carries clear covenantal overtones as this language is used consistently for the covenant relationship between Yahweh God and Israel both positively and negatively (Deut. 10.20, 11.22, 13.18, 28.20, 30.20; Josh. 23.8, 12; Hos. 4.10). This covenantal framework means that any ideas of “cling” such as “glue”, “stick”, or any other idea of permanent attachment-that-cannot-be-undone (as is often argued) misses the point. At issue is loyalty, unity of will and purpose, becoming “one flesh”.
The second covenantal reference is by Adam himself in verse 23: “… bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” See Gen. 29.14, Judges 9.2, 2 Sam. 5.13, 19.12-13. In each of these cases this phraseology does speak of relatives but in each case the semantic force is of loyalty because of the relationship. Of course, there is no higher literal sense of the words than here in Gen. 2.23 since the woman was just created out of the man, but the language is not simply a declaration of the obvious, but of intent to loyalty.
At the same time, it seems that perhaps there is a sense in which the marriage relationship as depicted here is not merely covenantal but also ontological, though I think one needs to take care here. That is, there is a sense in which, when one unifies oneself to another in such loyalty and unity, one’s life and entire being becomes more and more oriented towards the other person. Over time, a “nearness” develops in which your life becomes quite literally “bound-up” with the other such that a part of you leaves if ever the other person leaves. This is not necessarily something “mystical” due to simply being married[v], but rather is forged over a time of committing to loyal unity with the other person. This is not merely an exercise in psychology but is part of creation itself. Within the context of the creation narrative, God is creating humanity to function in a certain way[vi]. That he created the woman out of the man means that the one is suitably made to be joined to the other one. Man and woman are created to function in a life carried out by re-joining, so to speak, with the other through persevering commitment to the other and thus they become “one flesh”.
[i] It should go without saying that the construction conveys that both ‘male’ and ‘female’ are created in God’s image.
[ii] This does not mean that carrying out God’s rulership can only be done through marriage. To take this as a slight against single people is to miss the point. These passages and the discussion herein concern general societal structures, not every individual.
[iii] At the same time, sex is a physical means of deepening the “one-flesh” relationship, which is what makes sex outside of a fully committed relationship degenerative: it’s misaligned commitment values.
[iv] Heb. qbdw bzey (ya`ezab wedabaq)
[v] There seems to be little basis for seeing the souls of two married people being literally knit together through marriage, as was common thought in the church throughout much of history.
[vi] See in particular some books by John Walton who has written extensively on the creation of functions in the opening chapters of Genesis.