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1. Cohesiveness in the Marriage Union — (Genesis 2:24)


A study of divorce and remarriage should begin with a significant study of marriage. Since the morality of divorce and remarriage is affected by the nature of marriage, we can only appreciate that morality when we know what marriage itself entails. Scripture supports the reasonableness of this simple approach. When Jesus was questioned about divorce, he responded (Matt. 19, Mark 10) by directing the Pharisees’ attention to the earliest scriptural teaching on marriage, Genesis 2:24 . In this first chapter, I will concentrate my effort on that verse, looking at each of its important words or phrases as they relate to the context. I will feel free to bring to bear upon this “key verse” other biblical passages and word studies that form the broader context of the verse. In this way, we should come to see the union in marriage as an intimate and complementing companionship wherein two individuals become a unit in order to do the work of God and to experience his blessings. In the second chapter, we will consider marriage as a public commitment that is designed to care for each partner in a manner befitting the nature of each sex.

The Cause of Marriage: the Di-Sexual1 Image

“For this cause…”

Genesis 2:24 is masterfully placed in the text of the Bible’s first book. It appears as an editorial comment made as the writer reflected upon the account of the creation of Eve.2 But the verse is no mere footnote; in a sense, it is the apex of the story of the creation of human beings. Since it is a single verse, it should not be expected to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject of marriage, yet as the apex of the story, it should tell us some essential things about that institution. As we seek to learn these great truths, let us follow the direction of the verse itself and ask why its Author thought it necessary to the text of the story.3

The text begins by addressing the “cause” of the marriage institution? The prior context of the verse reaches back into the first chapter of Genesis. There, in the general account of the creation of the world, we read that God culminated his creative work in the making of Adam, the first human being. Like the animals, human beings are given the divine blessing to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (1:28). But we were made unlike the animals in at least two respects. First, human beings are specially said to be created in the “image of God” and “according to his likeness” (vv. 26 f.). The apparent reason for this difference is so that we might be able to accomplish the second difference: the rule of the newly created world (vv. 26, 28). The ability to rule arises from the created similarity of human beings to our Creator. Human beings alone are given the task of rule, and the difference between us and the animals is our special creation in the image and likeness of God. We alone are in the image of God, and we alone have a task to do.

It is significant to our study that only human beings are said to be created “male and female.” Of course, most of the kinds of animals created were made in this way. That is how it is possible those kinds to “be fruitful and multiply.” These words imply blessing given to them as well as to us (v. 22). My point is that only of human beings is it said that they are created male and female. I understand this to mean that it is important to know that humans are “di-sexual.” And it would seem most reasonable to assume that the importance of knowing this relates to what is peculiar to humans in the text, namely, that we are “in the image” and have been given the responsibility to rule the earth. I concur with Karl Barth4 when he says that di-sexuality is somehow intrinsically related to God’s personality. Scripture is telling us that God has distributed the Image into genders which reflect His makeup.

“Male” (Heb.: zakar) and “female” (Heb.: negeba) are both “human beings” (Heb.: ‘Adam) but they differ from each other in a complementary way. The Hebrew terms are physically descriptive. Neither gender, alone, exhibits the complete divine Image. And, if it takes the complete Image to form the Authority that delegates rule of the earth, then it also requires integration of the divided Image to accept and implement this delegated rule. This is to say that both sides of the Image must be present and working in harmony.5

What is said here about distinguishable personality traits of the sexes is not likely to strike a friendly note among many in the sophisticated Western world today. It is fashionable these days to deny natural distinctions and affirm the similarities of the sexes. I do not follow the fashion, nor does everyone in the secular world. It is true that all members of each gender possess something of those personality traits distinctive of the opposite sex, but this fact does not overturn another fact, namely, that certain traits are dominant among members of each of the sexes.

Obviously, these separate sexes cannot experience the blessing of “being fruitful” and multiplying unless they physically unite. But it is equally true that the blessings of personal happiness and human fulfillment cannot be experienced without social communion between the sexes. God Himself is the happiest of beings, and this cannot but be related to the integrity of His personality. Since each of the sexes alone incompletely exhibits the divine Personality, it is necessary for them to share in each other to achieve psychological wholeness. The blessings of personal fulfillment—a necessity for doing the work of God in the world—are dependent on the communion of the sexes.

I am not saying that the sexes have to experience sexual contact to be happy. God is happy, and the physical is not an ingredient in that happiness—God is a Spirit (John 4:24a). I am referring to social relations and the integration of the distinctive personality traits distributed between the sexes. Neither am I saying that the form of social relations need be marriage. Were we to conclude that marriage and functional community are one and the same, we would find ourselves in disagreement with both Jesus and Paul. Jesus held up to the world the model of the “eunuch,” the unmarried kingdom worker (Matt. 19:12), and His own life on earth was a functional example of this condition. Paul exhorted the Corinthian believers to consider the economics of Christian service: single persons theoretically can spend more time pleasing the Lord (1 Cor. 7:32 f.). Neither Jesus nor Paul, however, isolated himself from the fellowship of women. Jesus’ supporters (Luke 8:1-3) and His disciples (Luke 10:39) included women. And Paul reports that his fellow workers included women as well (e.g., Rom. 16:1 ff.).

Sadly, human beings have twisted the biblical teaching on sexual community. We have done so from the beginning. Sometimes the misuse of sexuality has brought rejection of the opposite sex. Monastic isolation and writings against women, sex, and marriage run through history. A less radical, but more perverse, reaction is homosexuality.6 This unnatural choice (Rom. 1:26 f.) roots in a rejection of God’s revealed method of arriving at personal, physical wholeness. It rebukes God, by saying that one sex can find in quantitative addition a solution to a qualitative problem. Though homosexual men may not personally or geographically separate themselves from women, their sexual preference is a denial of God’s way: physical union is to be only with the other aspect of the divine Image—the opposite sex. Homosexuality is an attempt to “join together” them that God did not choose to join and indeed the joining of which He rejects (Lev. 18 and 1 Cor. 6, etc.).

It is natural for two of the opposite sex to seek to become one flesh for their sexuality was once sundered from the unity originally created by God. Sexual union is a blessed reuniting of the divorced Image.7 But homosexuality is never proper, because it claims completion when in reality there are either two “heads” or leaders (male homosexuality) or no “head” (lesbianism). According to the descriptive language of the Scriptures, there must be a head and a body-anything else is a monster!

On the other hand, sexual pleasure between men and women—valid candidates for sexual union-which was intended only as the ultimate and optional aspect of social union, has often been the only focus of male-female relations. The man has too often sought sex at the expense of the woman, desiring her not as a person, but as a means to the end of self-gratification. She is “objectified,” seen neither as a part of the Image nor as a person for whom Christ died.

That such denigration of personhood is despicable to the Creator is best seen in the section of the Deuteronomic Law that deals with the commandment contra theft. From Deuteronomy 23:15-24:7, we find a series of legal stipulations, most of which are designed to teach the listener that people are not objects or pieces of property. Chattel slavery is degrading. So is prostitution. And a wife [woman] is not a piece of property to be passed back and forth between husbands [men](24:1-4).

Even when marriage has been understood to involve the union of two persons, the woman has often not been seen as a full partner, but only a second-class human being. A textbook case of this attitude is found in the Talmud (bMen. 43b): “A man is bound to say the following … blessing … daily: ‘ [Bless Thou] who hast not made me a woman.’” Men seem bent on continuing to use women as a scapegoat for their failures, instead of properly relating to them in order to perform God’s work in the world. When it comes to reuniting the Image, men and women must treat each other as equal partners—as persons rather than objects. There is a pattern to being human and to acting like a human being. By implication, there are also some forms of behavior that are not permitted.

Yet in an age of “victimless crimes” when “freedom of choice” is touted, this is hard to accept. It is presumed that to be human is to be able to make a choice for or against anything. Existential humanism has long seduced us into thinking that we make our essence by the choices we make during our existence. To deny a person the right to choose his or her own experience of sexual union is said to be wrong. To unite at will is paraded as a basic human right.

But God’s Word does not understand this to be so. Sex might be the natural direction of the reuniting Image, but uncovenanted sex, in the view of God’s word, was either rape (Deut. 22:28 f.), seduction (Exod. 22:16 f.), or harlotry (Deut. 22:20 f.), all crimes. The victim (aside from the two themselves!) of rape or seduction was the father of the woman (Deut. 22:21, 29; Exod. 22:17; and especially Lev. 21:9); to profane any human being is an assault upon the Father, God. In sex, as in other human relations, everything must be done “decently and in order.”

On the other end of the continuum is the school of thought that made marriage an expectation of maturity, at least among those not committed to monastic vows. It was so in Jesus’ day (cf. Matt. 19:9 ff.); it is so today.

Summing up what we have been saying: God made gender community essential to produce human wholeness, and the sexual union the natural culmination of the desire for intimacy (since they were once physically united). Given these facts, it is only reasonable for God to protect male-female relations (especially the sexual aspect of them) with a pronouncement about the moral context of such a union.

The Commitment of Marriage

Individuality in Marriage

“A man…”

Adam, of course, knew nothing of the institution of marriage when God brought the woman to him. He had to be told later what had happened to him when God formed the woman out of his side. He doubtless did not know anything about sexual intercourse. Given all this, it is most unlikely that Adam himself uttered the words of Genesis 2:24. Although it is possible that God uttered them directly at that time, it is far more probable that they are editorial. As Genesis functions as the prologue of a legal code, it is to be expected that the editor should have added such a moral note to this important event.

The crucial part of this note begins: “a man.” The Hebrew term used here (‘ish) is not the same as those used before to signify humankind (e.g., Gen. 1:26). Neither is it the term used to convey the maleness of “man” (as in Gen. 1:17). Instead it is a word that connotes an individual male. The emphasis is on a given male as a distinct person.8 By using this word, the Scripture is trying to tell us that marriage is a personal decision, by contrast to a corporate or sexual one. Though many societies have practiced arranged marriage, most have consulted the prospective bridegroom. Women have had less say about whom they will marry, but there is evidence that they had veto power.9 On the other hand, getting married is not a matter of mere physical connection. It is not simply the male in his sexuality, or “plumbing,” that enters into the marriage, but the whole individual person. Men who get married simply to experience the pleasure of genital union are but a little higher in virtue than those who go to a prostitute. Their life-style is barely moral, sadly deficient. It is the job of parents to teach their children that marriage is essentially for interpersonal communication and fulfillment of two people, not merely a selfish coupling for pleasure.10

“…his wife…”

Note, lastly, that the term for “man” is the same as that commonly used for “husband,” and that its counterpart (‘Ishsha) is used to denote both “woman” and “wife.” Only by considering the context can one determine whether the individual or the positional meaning is intended. This is also true of the Greek counterparts: Anthropos can mean either “man” (as in Matt. 7:9) or “husband” (as in Matt. 19:3). Gune means either “woman” (cf. Matt. 14:21) or “wife” (the probable meaning in Matt. 5:31). Even when they do imply position, these words always stress individual personhood.

There are Biblical terms that highlight the social position “husband” or “wife” more than the ones just mentioned. For example, in Hebrew a husband is sometimes called “master” (baali). In Greek the word used would be “lord” (kurios). In these words, one tastes a flavor that is less romantic and personal than it is hierarchical. The role relationship is being stressed by these words. For instance, Peter refers to Sarah calling Abraham “lord” (kurios) to show her submission to his authority (1 Pet. 3:6). And in Hosea 2:16, we have the striking statement: “‘And it will come about that in that day,’ declares the Lord, ‘that you will call Me Ishi [personal/romantic] and will no longer call Me Baali [hierarchical].’” Commentators sometimes add that, in addition to the obvious need to change the title of husband from what was the name of a heathen deity (Baal), the future covenant between God and Israel will be of the sort wherein a term of endearment is more appropriate.11 Ishi conveys more affection than Baali.

Independence in Marriage

“shall leave his father and mother…”

It is this individual person, half the Image of God, so to speak, who the text says “leaves” his “father and his mother.” The key word “leave” (aw-zab’) means to forsake, leave destitute, refuse. It is used of loosening bands, as of a beast from its bonds. The Arabic equivalent means “single” or “unmarried.”12 The idea here is that the man forsakes his parents. He cuts himself off from them. He breaks the “union” with them almost in the sense of divorcing himself and becoming “subsequently single.” It is as if he has been bound to them in a marriage state but, in an act of the will, departs from them regarding responsibility and dependence (if such exists) and becomes alone to unite with the chosen woman. The bridegroom cannot be both a dependent child and an independent husband in the same home. Even in a world infused with the concept of extended families, priorities must be kept straight.

I note here that the text speaks specifically of the man in this matter. It is he who must be his own head of the household. If in family relations he is dependent upon his father, then to whom do his dependents look for authority? It would create for his wife an unworkable hierarchical arrangement: she would have two heads (i.e., her husband and his father), and that, according to Jesus (Matt. 6:24), is not right.

The problem is not so much his as it is hers. He might still be able to relate to his father in honor as master of the extended family, but it is improper for his wife to have to deal with two potentially competing authorities. In such an arrangement the father’s authority would probably supersede her husband’s, yet, according to the Scripture, it is the latter who is to be her final authority in family matters (Eph. 5:22 f.).

Understanding that logic, we can see that the text does not require an explicit reversal of the clause for use to know that the woman must leave her father and mother. The reason the man must be free of encumbering relationship to his parents is so that his wife may be unencumbered by inappropriate authority. It would be folly to suggest that she may in some manner remain encumbered by a relationship to her own father. And the text itself foreshadows the later custom of “giving the bride away,” insofar as God, the Father of Eve, “brought her to the man” (Gen. 2:22).

Nonetheless, it is important to understand that God does not require the pair physically to leave either parent-pair. For those who can keep their priorities and lines of authority straight, the extended family idea remains as an option. Scriptures elsewhere teach us that Christ intends to take his bride, the Church, to live “in his Father’s house.” On the other hand, it is often difficult, if not dangerous, to live in the home of a parent when the line of authority and independence cannot be kept straight. Jacob offers us an example of this in his wranglings with Laban.

It would also be inaccurate to suggest that a man is necessarily a dependent until he gets married.13 Jacob was independent of his father before he married; he was away from home and entirely on his own. The Genesis 2 text is simply trying to say that if the “cord has not been previously cut” by the time the marriage is contracted, it must be cut at that time. Childhood, remember, ends when the society (by and large made up of parents) determines that a youth has reached the age when he must stand on his own responsibility before the community. The issue is not left up to any individual parent, and it is well that it is not. 14

Lastly, and most important, the term leave is a term of strong intention. The man is making a decision to end, once and for all, an significant relationship of dependence. He is choosing to break off, with the intention never to resume, that kind of relationship to his parents. And when the woman is given by her father to the bridegroom, his relationship to his daughter ends the same. When it is not, we see the sorrow that results. David was given Michal, but Saul, her father, later took her back. By agreeing to marry another man, she became a party to the return (1 Sam. 25:44). Leaving must be with the intention never to return to the authority of the parent again. This does not entail, however, and end to honoring the parents.

Inter-Dependence in Marriage

“shall cleave to his wife”

The next phrase of Genesis 2, “and shall cleave to his wife,” is at the heart of the marriage/divorce issue. Hear two descriptions of the word cleave:

The word means “to cling to, to stick (or glue) to, to hold fast to someone in a permanent bond.” Certainly the idea of cleaving is a whole-hearted commitment to another in an inseparable union … A man who cleaves to his wife … will “glue” himself to her in a permanent bond. When two people are married, God provides the glue and seals them in a union which is never to be broken. (Emphasis added.)15

The Hebrew word for “cleave” suggests the idea of being glued together … In marriage, the husband and wife are “glued” together—bound inseparably into one solitary unit. An interesting characteristic of glue is its permanence … The same is true of persons “glued” together in marriage. It is a permanent relationship until death. There is no allowance made in Genesis 2:24 for divorce and remarriage. (Emphasis added.)16

The importance of this matter must not be overlooked. If such writers are correct in their analysis, then the question of divorce is already answered: Marriage is permanent. Divorce is always improper, because it does not legally reflect this couple’s real status in the eyes of God. Remarriage is a form of adultery (except for widows and widowers), because remarriage brings together partners who have no right in the eyes of God to be joined together. It continues to astonish me that people attempt to hold both to the real permanence of marriage and to the moral propriety of divorce. Either one or the other must go. For my part, I choose to deny the former. Moreover, as this book argues, I believe that I have the tacit support of the biblical text. Insofar as the debate continues, I suggest that the authors just quoted have been over zealous in their exegesis. Let us look at the Hebrew and Greek lexicons and uses of this word cleave in the biblical text.

Cleave” In The Hebrew

In Hebrew, the word for “cleave” is dabag “to adhere, be glued firmly, keep, be joined, follow close, abide fast; to impinge, cling; to repair breaches.”17 This sampling clearly shows that the term implies a tight connection of the cleaving parts. Nothing here implies, however, that permanence is an essential or inherent ingredient of the “glue” of marriage. I believe it is fair to say that such synonyms give no convincing support to the idea that the word cleave (dabag) implies permanence. Consideration of the uses of that word in the Old Testament affords little help to the permanence school, yet its advocates seek to make their case by appealing to use.

Consider the following examples:

The Hebrew word for “cleave” suggests the idea of being glued together. It is used in Job 38:38 of dirt clods which stick together after the rain It is used by Joshua of a military alliance (Josh. 23:12) The word is also used of the leprosy that would cling forever to dishonest and greedy Gehazi (2 Kings 5:7). In marriage, the husband and the wife are “glued” together-bound inseparably into one solitary unit.18

Cleaving is an essential element in the covenant language of the Old Testament … Israel is commanded to cleave to the Lord with intensity, to have a love that will not let go … Certainly the idea o f cleaving is a wholehearted commitment to another in an inseparable union.19

Close inspection of the verses cited, however, presents a much different picture of the function of this word: As for dirt clods, who is to say that they cannot be separated? If they are still clods, perhaps they can. It is not the point of the story of Job to make a comment on the permanence of the dirt bond. The reader, who should doubtless be concerned with other matters in this story anyway, may rightly feel free to draw different conclusions.

The “military alliance” citation actually proves that cleaving is not necessarily permanent. The alliance in question is the forbidden relation between Israel and the heathen nations of Canaan. Anyone who is familiar with the history of Israel in the Promised Land will recall that on many occasions this prohibition was not heeded and such alliances were established. In light of this, the question arises, Did God see these alliances as permanent? The answer is surely “No!” Time and again, the prophets call the people of Israel to break off such cleavings and to return to the God of Israel and be loyal to him (cf. Jer. 3 ff.). Here is a case in which cleaving is improper and leaving is the order of the day.20

Of course, the term is used of Israel’s cleaving to God, and surely that was supposed to be a permanent commitment. But the Israelites’ continued adultery with the nations reveals that cleaving, as their act, was not permanent. If the relationship of God to Israel is permanent (itself an interpretative question), it is not because Israel cleaved to God, but because God cleaved to them. From this we learn that cleaving may or may not involve an endless bond; that is, permanence is not inherent in the term cleave. Whether or not permanence is a part of a particular cleaving must be decided on other grounds than the dictionary. Since this is so, interpreters ought to be less zealous in pounding their pulpits on the matter. Marriage may well prove to be one of those instances wherein the cleaving ought to be but, sadly, may not be permanent.

Here is an appropriate place to make an important criticism of much writing on divorce. Most writers who propound the permanence of marriage consistently fail to distinguish between permanence of intention and of fact. They seem to think that quoting passages that stress that marriage ought to be permanent (a moral matter) proves that marriage is permanent (an ontological or metaphysical matter). Though we will return to it at a later time, it should be said now that Jesus did not deny the ability of sundering a marriage but only the morality of doing so.21

Returning to the examples cited, note, lastly, that Gehazi’s leprosy (2 Kings 5:7) is known to be “forever,” not by the word cleave, but by the accompanying adjectives. And so it goes through the other uses of cleave in the Old Testament. Many times the idea of permanence is clearly not implicit in the word cleave. The rest of the time, alleged implication of permanence turns out to be inference.

At this point one might be prompted to consider the last synonym offered by the lexicon: “to repair breaches.” Perhaps the immediate context will give us a better understanding of the use of cleave. In that vein, we should recall from the context that God created a breach in Adam’s flesh and out of that created Eve. The union in marriage is a sort of “repair” of the breach in the unity of Adam’s flesh by reuniting the two parts of the Image.

At first this latter comment might seem promising to those who propound some mystical element in marriage. It might be argued that the marriage partners are as closely united the “parts” were in Adam was before the creation of Eve, that is, one person. Indeed, this might be close to what many people think of marriage. The two individuals lose their individuality and become some third entity. This mystical union is understood as being so ontologically unifying that the resulting “oneness” cannot be broken. “You cannot divide one,” we are told.

Of course, it might be mentioned that it was a unity (Adam) that was originally sundered, but doubtless the retort would be that only God could do such separation and that, as far as marriage goes, He would never desire to do such a thing. But this is all vain kibitzing. However organically a married couple may be related, they do not become one person. At best they are like Siamese twins.

Often such discussions come up on consideration of Jesus’ statement that “the two shall become one.” It is perfectly proper to take that New Testament passage into account, but one must be careful that such a maneuver does not simply beg the question. It is not transparent that the “one” to which He referred is one “person.” It may simply mean that the two independent persons have become one team or unit. Though talk is often heard of “personal” unity in marriage, I have yet to hear a psychological, philosophical or biblical explanation for what this new person is and how the two individual persons have ceased to be. In all marriages with which I am familiar, including happy and intimate ones, I still observe two distinguishable individuals functioning in harmony—and, if distinguishable, then perhaps separable.

In any case, one cannot simplistically quote the text of Scripture to prove one’s point on this matter. Nor should one too hastily agree with A. Isaksson, who tells us that “it is clear from the context of Mt. 19:3 ff. that Jesus was referring primarily to what is written in Gen. 2:24 as proof that marriage is indissoluble.”22 I, for one,23 would contend not that Jesus sees marriage as “indissoluble” but rather that he thinks it morally improper to “sunder” it.24

William A. Heth and Gordon J. Wenham seem to be moving in more dependable directions by considering, with Isaksson, the use of cleave in covenantal contexts (Deut. 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20), but careful reflection on their work suggests that they largely ignore the covenantal elements in favor of a reaffirmation of the elusive ontological bond. After noting that parallel terms in these passages are attitudinal, they quickly return to a metaphysical consideration of “bone and flesh.”25

By way of conclusion, I would regard cleave, in the Old Testament, as implying a bonding of two individuals that emphasizes intended, but not ontological, permanency. Implying intention, the term is really closer to the idea of covenant than it is to a bonding of being. But what of the New Testament? We must remember that Genesis 2:24 is quoted more than once by the New Testament writers. We must consider how they translated and used the term.

Cleave” In the Greek


The Greek word that is used in quoting Genesis 2:24 in the New Testament is proskallao. It is a strengthened form of kalloo, another word used in the marriage discussion. We will look at the strengthened form first, since it is the New Testament writers’ choice. That word is used three or four times only. Its first occurrence is in the Matthew 19 divorce passage and in some manuscripts of the Mark 10 parallel. Since the manuscript support for its inclusion in Mark is not strong, we will limit our consideration to Matthew 19:5. In this passage, the term is embedded in a quote of the whole Genesis 2:24 verse. Jesus quoted Genesis in response to the Pharisees’ inquiry about the propriety of ending marriage. They wished to know if there was any legal way out of a man’s marriage commitment. Doubtless, they wished to know Jesus’ opinion of the legal grounds for dissolution, but Jesus perceived what was in their hearts. They were focusing on the wrong question. He knew that they were only too ready to be hard-hearted toward their wives. They were interested in how to end marriage. Jesus wished them to look at marriage from another direction—the main reason for marrying in the first place, to be together—so he cited the words of the Law that recall the basics of marriage. Leaving was what they did to get into marriage. Joining was what they were doing by getting married. When they first made their vows, separation from the spouse was the furthest thing from their minds. Now, it seemed, separation was the focus of marital analysis. How things had changed!

Jesus placed the quote before the words “Consequently they are no longer two, but one, flesh” (v. 6). We will discuss this more later when we analyze “one flesh,” but for now, understand that Jesus meant to remind them that the time for deciding to walk away from a marriage is before the vows, not after. By joining as “husband” and “wife” they ended their right to make a unilateral decision. The couple are dependent on each other, not independent. The time to isolate two blocks of wood is before, not after, gluing them together.

But to say all this is not to say that there is no cause for divorce insofar as the two have glued themselves together. Rather, it is cause for arguing that there is no right of separating or sundering the couple. In effect Jesus has not yet answered their question. They asked about divorce, Jesus answered regarding separation. These are not the same. It is not that Jesus confused the two, or that there is no answer to their question. It is because He wished to stress the bond rather than the legal dissolution. It is the Pharisees who were confused. They fancied that marriage was simply a matter of choosing to be or not to be. Jesus wished to bring reality into that fancy.

But they persisted, asking why Moses commanded divorce in Deuteronomy 24. We will reserve detailed analysis of this point for later chapters. Here note that Jesus pinpointed the hardness of heart that both He and Moses recognized in some married men. As an aside to the discussion, He did mention an exception to the general rule that divorce should not come between marriage partners. But the stress of the passage is that in cleaving men have “made their bed.” They have committed themselves to being glued to their wives. But again, commitment isn’t necessity.

The second instance of proskallao is Acts 5:36. There, Gamaliel is commenting upon earlier messianic groups who had come to nothing. One Theudas had made messianic claims and had gathered about him some four hundred followers. These followers had joined up with him. They had apparently remained with him until their band was dispersed at the death of their leader. It would not be appropriate to suggest that these men had become mystically or sexually bonded to Theudas. They certainly did not become one individual with him. But theirs was a bond of intentions and ideas, which determined their subsequent actions. There is no reason to suggest that Gamaliel’s word choice could not accommodate a personal betrayal of Theudas by a person similar to Judas. In short, the word implies strong social bonding, but not “mystic sweet communion.” The last usage of the term is in Ephesians 5:31—again, a quote of Genesis 2:24. The writer of Ephesians uses the quote in a discussion of marital relations. He places it in a section discussing the need for a husband to provide for his wife as he does himself. More precisely, it follows an analogical reference to Christ’s relation to the Church—His Body. Does Paul intend the reader to see in the quote a further expansion of the point about care of the wife? If so, then perhaps the quote is intended to remind the husband that he has committed himself to care for this woman. On the other hand, the quote might intend to broach a new subject: the union of the husband to the wife.26 Paul may be suggesting that as a husband leaves his parents to join to his wife, the Lord chose to leave his Father to cleave to the Church—a union that is immediately mentioned. The former interpretation is probably preferable, insofar as verse 33 informs us that love, care and respect are the issue still. In either case, what is clear about the use of proskallao is that the intention and incumbent obligation to care for the wife are at issue. Nothing inclines us to go beyond these matters to some ontological relationship. To go in that direction is to go well beyond the text.27


Kallao is the Greek word that is the root of proskallao. Vine reports that it means “to join fast together, to glue, cement.” He reports that it is used in the New Testament only in the passive voice, with reflexive force. Others might choose to say that the voice is “middle (emphatic).” In either case, the emphasis is upon one attaching oneself closely to another.28

Although the word is never used explicitly of joining in marriage, it is used of the “one-flesh” relation of a man to a prostitute in 1 Corinthians 6:16. Since this passage involves a quote of the Genesis 2:24 “one-flesh” wording, it is worthy of our consideration. In these verses, Paul is admonishing his readers to put away immoral practices, specifically, the visiting of temple prostitutes as a vent for sexual desire. Says he, “Do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? … But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with him.” Paul is making it clear that even a one-time sexual experience involves reuniting the physical breach between Adam and Eve. (This also shows that the term cleave has acquired specific sexual connotations by New Testament times.29) Not only that, but (according to Paul) in the fornication the believer becomes part of the body of the prostitute. She is the “head,” in control of the relation.

Paul contrasts joining with a prostitute to joining to the Lord. The believer, Paul points out, has already established a living relationship with God; therefore, it is improper for the believer to be joined to this second master at the same time. God and harlots are incompatible. Since the believer has been bought with a price (v. 20) and is the temple of the Holy Spirit (v. 19), the believer must not only break off existing relations with prostitutes, but must never establish any with them again. In other words, there must be a complete divorce between the man and the harlot. He must “flee” or forsake (v. 18).

For our purposes, the point is clear. Kallao (“one-flesh”) relationships may be as strong as one’s relationship with God or as casual as a union with a prostitute, but the word in itself does not imply permanence. The admonition to break off the kallao relationship with the prostitute clearly reveals this to be so. The fact that our kallao relationship to the Lord is permanent should not mislead us into thinking that our relationship to the prostitute is also permanent. By the same token, the lack of permanence of the relation to the prostitute should not be taken to imply a lack of permanence in the relationship to Christ. Duration is not determined by the word kallao alone. Kallao relationships may be temporary or permanent. We cannot settle questions of duration simply by an appeal to the word used. Neither is it proper to take one type of kallao relationship (e.g., union with the Lord), known to be permanent, and suppose that some similar relationship (e.g., husband and wife) is therefore permanent. Each type must be understood in its own context. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that the word kallao in itself implies no permanent bond. The relationship may in fact be permanent, but that permanence must be proven from something other than that word.


Another word for “joined”—as in the joining of a man to his wife—is the word su[n]zeugnumi. It is made up of two words: “with” and “yoked.” It means “yoked together,” and its root (zugos) is the same word used in the Mark 10:9 parallel. In English, we would speak of “yoke of oxen,” that is, two oxen yoked together, and so is it used in the New Testament (Luke 14:19). The picture is of marriage as the creation of a team of persons who are closely related to each other. Like oxen yoked together to do a task, each partner in the married couple has been yoked with the other for so that they may most precisely function as a team, can do the work that God has set before them. For Adam and Eve this involved tending the garden. The resulting translation accurately encompasses the Greek meaning: “Consequently they are no longer two independent individuals [i.e., each able to make a decision to leave the other— unilaterally] but are a unit. What therefore God has made a team, let no man separate.” Again, there is nothing either mystical or spiritual in itself about being a team.30

In 2 Corinthians 6:14 there is another interesting instance of the word yoked. Paul tells his followers not to be “unequally yoked” (heterozugos) together with unbelievers. The reason for this has already been noted in our treatment of the believer and the prostitute in 1 Corinthians 6:16. The believer and the unbeliever are spiritually incompatible. Perhaps Paul felt a need to reaffirm this Old Testament principle (cf. Deut. 7:3) insofar as some of the Corinthians might misunderstand his prohibition of sundering marital relations with unbelieving spouses in 1 Corinthians 7. Lest they think that it was all right to be yoked to an unbeliever as long as it was not a casual liaison, Paul points out that formal unions are unacceptable; as well. The harmonization of 1 Corinthians 7 with 2 Corinthians 6 rests in a crucial difference of compatibility at the time of the yoking. The former passage speaks of persons spiritually compatible at the time of the yoking; both were unbelievers, and only later was one of them “called” or converted to belief in Christ. The latter passage speaks of the marrying of someone already a believer to an unbeliever; that is, they are unequally yoked ab initio—at the very beginning of their relationship.

Paul’s admonition to those who have joined themselves together with, belial is found in his quote (6:17) of Isaiah 52:11: “Come out from their midst and be separate, says the Lord. And do not touch that which is unclean; and I will welcome you.” In substance this is the same admonition Ezra gave to those in the same condition in post-exilic times (cf. Ezra 9 and 10): separate. Paul means to exclude not only new relationships but existing (wrong) ones as well (“stop being joined,” v. 14). It seems hard to conclude that Paul is teaching the permanency of zugos by this.

Deo and Douloo

Two other words that speak of the marriage relation in the New Testament are akin to sunzugos. They too speak of joining the two partners together, side by side. The first, deo, the common word for binding something, is used to describe both Paul’s relation to Christ in Acts 20:22 and the possessed woman’s relation to Satan in Luke 13:16. As we have observed before in similar instances, the word itself does convey a strong attachment, but no permanent union—the woman was freed in Luke 13:13. Accordingly, when Paul uses deo of the marriage relation in 1 Corinthians 7, we should expect no denotative concept of permanence.

Nonetheless, what of the context of the word in those passages? Does it imply that the bonds of marriage are permanent? 1 Corinthians 7:39 is often quoted as saying it is.31 1 Corinthians 7:27 is quoted as proving it is not! We shall consider this matter in greater detail in a later chapter; let it suffice here simply to say that the word itself cannot settle the matter.

The second term, douloo, exhibits a usage similar to deo. The strength of the attachment is not to be denied; douloo is a common word for enslavement. It is used, for example, of addiction to wine in Titus 2:3 and of being a bondslave to righteousness in Romans 6:18. But it is also used in Galatians 4:3 of the believers’ former bondage to the “elemental things.” And where it is used in the marriage context, a woman whose husband has separated himself from her is specifically said not to be under such bondage to him any more (1 Cor. 7:15). The effect in this last-mentioned use is that the separated person is no longer under a condition of slavery or contract to the master or head. Clearly, douloo does not imply a permanent union.

So, then, our study of the concept of joining in the New Testament confirms our previous work in the Old. The strength of the union in marriage as implied in cleave or similar words is profound, but not necessarily permanent. The union seems far more social and moral than ontological. The two individuals lose their independence, but not their individuality. They become a team, tightly tied to each other but not necessarily permanently bound.

The Condition of the Marriage Union

“They shall become one flesh.”

Genesis 2:24 ends with the clause “and they shall become one flesh.” The crucial words are one flesh. Here again, one finds a term that has become almost a slogan, a word the mere invoking of which some feel ends the discussion. We turn again to the writers quoted earlier, first Paul E. Steele and Charles C. Ryrie:

God said, “They shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). One cannot be divided and maintain wholeness … Allen Ross says, “To become one flesh means becoming a spiritual, moral, intellectual, and physical unity.” … Abel Isaksson points out that the term “one flesh” actually refers to a kinship that is so permanent that even if the husband or wife dies, the other is not free to marry those of the partner’s family without committing incest.32

Then J. Carl Laney:

Becoming one flesh symbolizes the identification of two people with one community of interests and pursuits.. Although they remain two persons, the married couple becomes one in a mystical, spiritual unity … The concept of “one flesh” is beautifully illustrated in the children God may give a married couple. In their offspring, husband and wife are indissolubly united into one person.33

Casting aside Laney’s ill-chosen illustration (in which a new and unique person arises from biological parents-marriage having nothing to do with the matter at hand), we must ask if the text of Scripture sustains these opinions or whether we must look for another.

Old Testament Use of “one flesh”

The words one flesh are found, in the Old Testament, only in Genesis 2:24, although this passage is quoted several times in the New (Matt. 3, 19:5; Mark 10:8; 1 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 5:31). As we noted with regard to cleave, the interpreter should be careful of quick opinions regarding such seldom used words. Nonetheless, the context of the one time it is used in the Old Testament is instructive, insofar as the term flesh is used several times in that passage. The idea behind that word is simple. Adam, feeling lonely, is brought animals to name. In the process, he feels his uniqueness even more poignantly. There are no other creatures like him. But when later God presents him with a woman to be his companion, he immediately recognizes an essential relation. He sees that she is one of his kind, with flesh like his and bones like his.34 He doesn’t so much cleave to his wife so that he may become one flesh again as he cleaves because they are the same flesh. Nonetheless, having cleaved, they become “one flesh.” I take that to mean that the sexual intimacy, a relation to be entertained only by those who have “cleaved” to each other, reunites the once-sundered flesh as closely as it ever will be reunited.

A. Isaksson considers flesh or the expression hone and flesh to denote here and elsewhere (Gen. 29:12-14; 37:27; Judg. 9:2; 2 Sam. 19:13) kinship or blood relation. These words “speak about a person in his total relation to another.”35 Isaksson would use the words kin or family to express the meaning of flesh.36 To Isaksson and company, this means that the relationship established by becoming married goes far beyond simple sexual coupling.

Isaksson’s understanding of “one flesh” as a family relationship deserves further comment, insofar as some modern authors lean heavily upon his Old Testament work to support their case that marriage forms a union that cannot be dissolved.37 In the first place, though it may be the case that such terms are often found in the context of kinship, one must be careful in applying general use to the text of Genesis 2:24. Trying to apply Isaksson’s idea to that text brings a mixed interpretative blessing. On the one hand, the simple terms flesh and bone in Genesis 2 do indeed seem to bear the sense of family or species. As we have already mentioned, Adam takes note of Eve because she is his kind of creature. We might say that she is akin to him or “of his creaturely family,” as opposed to those of the animals he has been observing. On the other hand, it does not seem so easy to suggest the translation “shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one family [or kin]” or social unit. It would seem more likely that the “one-flesh” idea means to convey a physical reuniting of those who are of the same “kind” or species.

Thus I do not feel comfortable to argue as harshly as Isaksson does that “one flesh” does not have any specific sexual significance.38 “One flesh” does seem to speak of physical reunion, and under the circumstances it seems strained to avoid the mechanism of sexual intercourse as important to the text of Genesis 2:24. It would seem that Isaksson and Heth/Wenham wish to distinguish “one flesh” from sexuality so as to preclude the inference that sexual misconduct dissolves the “one-flesh” relationship. At least, such is the use to which Heth/Wenham put Isaksson.39

There is really a semantic knot here that needs to be untied. Heth/Wenham contend that one flesh is synonymous with marriage or marriage bond. There is a close relationship between the terms, but they are not synonyms. A “one-flesh” relationship seems to be primarily an organic one, which, in the case of human beings, would be sexual.40 Marriage, however, is not primarily sexual. It is not the “one flesh” but the “cleaving” that constitutes the marriage. The organic union (“one flesh”) is the first and consummative right of those who have cleaved. As to whether or not sexual misconduct dissolves the marriage, that has to be proven, and may be, if sexual fidelity is understood as an essential element of covenant. The fact that there exists a “one-flesh” or organic relationship in marriage does not ipso facto mean that an illicit sexual relationship dissolves the covenant. The argument that infidelity does end the marriage bears the burden of proof. Heth/Wenham do not need to argue as harshly as they do.41

One other aspect of Isaksson needs to be dealt with rather harshly. According to his understanding, one flesh primarily means “relation,” the sort of relation spoken of in Leviticus 18. The subject of this passage is kinship as it relates to incest. Isaksson’s point is that the marriage union forms a bond of kingship so strong that even if one partner dies, the remaining spouse is still so closely related to the dead partner’s close kin that to marry one of them is the same as committing incest.42

On this view, the husband and wife become close kin, like brothers and sisters. This kinship then is used to explain why it is an abomination for a woman to return to her former husband after becoming married to someone else subsequent to a divorce (Deut. 24:4). Hear Gordon Wenham:

A spouse’s relationship with the family is not terminated by death of the partner who belonged to it by birth nor is it ended by divorce. As far as her husband’s family is concerned, the divorced wife still belongs to them and thus may not marry anyone closely related to her husband … the horizontal relationships are as enduring as the vertical ones. It thus seems to imply that to seek a divorce is to try and break a relationship with one’s wife that cannot really be broken.43

Isaksson himself goes further by suggesting that the nature of this relationship is such that for her to return to her “brother” (first husband) after becoming defiled by a subsequent husband is incestuous.

I shall have more to say about this when we consider Deuteronomy 24:1-4, but for now, note that, although the death of a spouse (or divorce from him or her, for that matter) does not erase all aspects of the social relationships the first marriage established, it goes far afield to suggest that kinship relations are ontologically, morally, and legally indissoluble in the sense that divorce and remarriage are impossible or immoral per se.44

Heth/Wenhan, Isaksson, and company have over-read the significance of continuing social ramifications of a marriage. At the point where they infer that such continuing relations inhibit marriage to the non-blood relatives of a former spouse, they leave exegesis and begin speculation.45 And when Isaksson argues that to return to the former spouse is to commit a form of incest, he presents us with a view that is truly bizarre. For if the act of becoming “one flesh” establishes that kind of kinship or blood relation, then the very act of consummation in any marriage would be incestuous, and all marriages would be incestuous by nature. That seems a bit far-reaching!

It seems better to conclude that one flesh, in the Old Testament, implies a bond of kinship that speaks of the physical reunification of parts of the Image of God that are of the same kind. The bond established is such a strong one that, even when it is severed (by death or divorce), ongoing social ramifications exist. But it goes too far to suggest that “one flesh” entails a permanent relation such that marriage partners cannot be divorced or remarried to others. And the Levirate relationship (Deut. 25:5-10) clearly teaches that marriage to blood relatives after death can be moral.

New Testament Use of “one flesh”

A careful look at the New Testament quotes of Genesis 2:24 will help fill out our understanding of this word-set. Consideration of one flesh in the Gospel passages does not change our conclusion. In Matthew 19, after quoting Genesis 2:24, Jesus says, “Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (v. 6). Although this may be interpreted as no longer two distinct entities but one mystical unity, this is not a good alternative. The next verse makes that clear. The two are said to be no longer isolated individuals, but a social unit. They are like two oxen that are joined together. When unyoked they might walk away from each other, but now that they are yoked they form a team. It is not that that team cannot later be broken up as the yoke is removed or broken; they do not become one ox. One must neither understate nor overstate the strength of the bond.46

The next usage of the word-set comes in 1 Corinthians 6. There we see that a man who has joined himself to a prostitute has established a “one-body” relationship to her. One body appears to be synonymous with one flesh. Paul uses one body of the liaison with the prostitute to create a linguistic parallel with the relation between the Holy Spirit and the believer, whose body he indwells. Paul uses one flesh to remind the Corinthians that sex implies commitment or union,47 thereby showing that the idea is not implicitly negative in his vocabulary. Nor will it do, for the same reason, to suggest that one body is a term that denotes only physical union with no spiritual implications. In the end, it seems that Paul sees the phrases as being nearly synonymous. The body theme is his preferred term (he uses it extensively in later chapters of the letter), but he wishes to quote Genesis to show that physical union is God’s long-standing concern. Physical union was originally meant to be in the context of leaving and cleaving—actions obviously absent in the mind of people engaged in the temple practices. Over and against this attitude, Paul teaches that to be united with a harlot implies a commitment to her. In fact, he cleverly insinuates that the harlot is the head, the one in charge: “make [your body to be] members of a harlot” (v. 16). But all this is incompatible with a Christian’s previous commitment and relation to another master, Christ. We cannot serve both Christ and a prostitute.

In saying this we can see that there are spiritual ramifications of union to a heathen prostitute, and that our relation to her is spiritually unacceptable. That, of course, is the point of the passage. Since such fornication is incompatible with the kingdom (6:9), a willful joining with the forces of Satan’s kingdom in this way is treason. It is not as some Platonists or proto-Gnostics were apparently saying, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food,” that is, sexual relations are purely physical. No, there is spiritual alignment with the Devil in willful intercourse with a harlot. But this is not the same thing as saying that the one-flesh relationship is in itself a spiritual relationship, one way or the other. Chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians makes it clear that a one-flesh relationship with an unbeliever is, in itself, not an alignment with the Devil. Were it so, Paul would have told the married believer to flee from her spouse just as he tells the believer to flee immorality. As we shall see later (in chap. 8), it is probably that very question (“Is being married to an unbeliever in itself acceptable, or should we divorce?) that brought about the admonition about desertion so much argued over today. Thus we conclude that the one-flesh relationship is not a spiritual union, though any given relationship may have spiritual ramifications. It all depends upon whether the relationship is licit or licitly entered into—whether or not it is acceptable to a Holy God. 48

The Ephesians passage cites the Genesis text but does so only regarding the believer’s relation to God. Paul is identifying the nature of the Christ-Church union. It is a living union and, according to many traditions—including my own, a union that is permanent—nothing will ever separate the believer from the Lord. Paul simply wishes to note that the union of men and women is similar at the point of being a living union. The duration of union is not a point of discussion, however, and it is wrong to make it so.

The point here discussed needs clear and careful statement. Paul is presenting an analogy. In interpreting an analogy, we must be careful not to go beyond what is intended. To do so is dangerous; we may infer points never in the mind of the author. Those who suggest points of analogy not specifically mentioned in an analogy have the burden of proving that the similarities are not merely in their own mind.49 In the case at hand, insofar as permanence is never broached by the apostle, those who would suggest permanence as a feature of marriage on the basis of this text bear the burden of proof. Nor will it do to point out that Christ’s relation to the Church is permanent. That need not be denied. The question is not whether Christ is permanently bound to his Church, but whether husbands are permanently bound to their wives. The fact that Paul himself mentions two or three points that are not parallel between the analogically related pairs should itself give pause to those who wish to force permanence into the analogy. Some things said of Christ and Church may be said of husband and wife. Some things said of Christ and Church may not be said of husband and wife. To which category does permanence belong? One cannot tell from Ephesians 5; therefore, Ephesians 5 cannot be the proper basis for a permanence argument.

By stripping one flesh of the concept of ontological permanence, we do not mean to take away from the strength of the word implicit in both Testaments. The term definitely does imply a strong bond, a bond stronger than one established by a person having “casual sex” might think the act involves. But it does an injustice to Scripture to add strength that the word does not contain, and I fear this is being done. God does not need any help in verbal inspiration. It is enough that the divinely chosen word, like its negative counterpart, leave, speaks of a strong action. Marriage is a commitment to be joined to the spouse until death sunders the relationship, but it is not necessarily a commitment to a permanent relationship. The permanence is one of intention and commitment, not of fact. Marriage ought to be permanent, but, sadly, it may not be. If any given marriage remains “until death” parts the couple, it is by the grace of God, not by the indissoluble nature of the relationship per se. It is worth saying at this point that, although by New Testament times the word cleave and the words one flesh had come to have physical or sexual overtones, it is improper to speak of marriage as essentially a physical bond. Although 1 Corinthians 6 does speak of non-marital intercourse as such a cleaving, and quotes the Genesis 2:24 terminology, an easy reading of the Old and New Testaments reveals that marriage is not the sexual act (as we have already noted). Premarital intercourse led to a legally forced marriage (cf. Exod. 22:16; Deut. 22:28 f.; etc.), so if we wish to use the term one flesh as synonymous with sexual unity, we need to distinguish between becoming “one flesh” and being “married.”

What, then, does it mean to become “one flesh,” and is this union permanent? The words themselves speak of organic union. Organic relationships are fundamental ones involving constitutional union. It is the relationship of one’s hand to one’s head. But although the head and hand may “team up,” their relation is far greater than that of two oxen simply bound together by a wooden yoke. The union appreciated by husbands and wives is spoken of in the language of inherent union as well as extrinsic grouping. First Corinthians 6:16 emphasizes “organic union,” using the analogy of the parts of a body in their relation to each other, and also loosely relating this whole discussion to our personal relationship to Christ.

Ephesians 5:31 picks up on the analogical illustrations and expands them to a corporate analogy: the union of husband and wife is like that between Christ and the Church. Again, the two are intimately related, the way an arm is to a shoulder. (Paul explicitly speaks of the wife thinking of herself as a part of her husband’s body, Eph. 5:28 f.). The question arises, however, whether the Scripture intends us to take this talk of “organic union” literally. In other words, is the union itself organic, or only like an organic union? Is there really a living organism that the two sexual partners become? What exactly is that “third entity”? Or is it that the Scriptures use the language of organic union to evoke in our minds the profundity of the marriage relation? After all, the more precise use of the organic, “one-flesh” language by Jesus is simply to emphasize that the two are a team, the members of which cannot function as independent individuals.

My own choice is the latter. I admit that marriage is a profound relationship that is best understood by hearing the language of organic union. Scripture, I believe, does not intend for us to speculate on the mystical nature of some “body” that the married couple become but rather to concentrate upon the profound nature of marriage and the tragedy of sundering such a relationship.

Nonetheless, for those who may differ with me here, I shall broach the question of whether the Scripture understands such “organic unions” to be permanent. First, note that, lexically, nothing demands that this be so. Second, be careful about drawing conclusions from the illustrations and analogies that the New Testament uses in connection with our terms. Nothing is stated explicitly in those passages that would imply permanence, and it is risky to presume relations in an analogy that go beyond stated correspondence. Yet this is often exactly what is done. Well-meaning persons go beyond stated similarity in Ephesians 5 to argue for permanence because Christ’s relationship to the Church is permanent.50

Think of it this way: if God can sunder the unified flesh of Adam, then someone could sunder the “one flesh” of a husband-wife relationship (Gen. 2). Summarizing: in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, people are warned against sundering the “one-flesh” relationship, implying they physically can but shouldnt. Whatever “one-flesh” relationship may exist between the man and the prostitute, they are specifically told to “flee immorality,” that is, break the relationship. It is far beyond the text to suppose that, this admonition notwithstanding, some ongoing bond remains between them. The need for purity of the spiritual bond with the Holy Spirit denies that. And, finally, although the apostle, for effect, says that “no one ever yet hated his own body” (Eph. 5:30), we have already been told by him that immorality (porneia) is a sin “against [one’s] own body” in 1 Corinthians 6:18. Or if I may be forgiven the crassness, one can separate an arm from a shoulder. One could even cut off one’s head. That would be traumatic, but possible. Even if we were to take the language of “organic union” literally, such a union would still be by nature dissolvable.

From the New Testament, then, we discover that the term one flesh emphasizes an organic kind of union that is suggested by the same term in its Old Testament use. However, this may be simply a figurative way of expressing the profound nature of the bonding that takes place in the sexual union in marriage. In all, however, we are reminded that a “one-flesh” union may take place outside marriage. Thus, the union is a union in marriage and not of it per se.

Insofar as the only valid sexual union occurs in marriage, however, these terms came to be near synonyms for marriage itself. They underscore the truth that marriage is undertaken to bring two persons together in intimate and profound relation.

The Initial Context of Marriage

“[They] were both naked and were not ashamed.”

The context of the Genesis verse reminds us that marriage has just been discussed in the context of a sinless world. Although it is true that the Mosaic “footnote” about marriage has elements that existed only after the Fall (e.g., “father and mother”), the discussion has set forth marriage in an Edenic world. Since there was then no sin, there was no need to discuss either immoral marriages or the breakup of marriage. Adam and Eve were acceptable partners. They were not of different religious convictions, one believing and the other pagan; there were no heathens. Nor was there any reason to proscribe homosexual marriages (though that proscription may rightly be exegeted from the text), as there were only one each of the two sexes. There was no need to tell Adam and Eve not to marry in lust like the Gentiles, for there was no lust. There was no reason to caution parents about their children’s marriage as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 7, because there were no parents. The mention of parents is unusual, done only to show the strength of the desire for reunion between the halves of the Image.

On the other hand, it is true that the text does not discuss the end of marriage. This has been made much of by those who wish to deny divorce and remarriage. They wish us to remember that marriage originally was to be till death parted the couple. But of course this is simply to misunderstand the placement of the Genesis 2:24 text. Before the Fall, there was no discussion of marriage lasting until death, for there was no death, since death comes by the sin of Adam. It is only subsequent to the Fall that the issue of the end of marriage becomes relevant. Had there been no sin, then we may presume that Adam and Eve’s marital relation would have lasted as long as God thought it helpful for the fulfilling of their task of caring for the world, and with eating from the Tree of Life, that might have been endless. But at the point when sin entered the world, and death by sin, and further sin from that sin, including shameful behavior by and against marriage partners became relevant, from then on, death might end marriage by natural means, or by execution of one or both of the partners for some crime. Or marriage might end by some serious offense against the covenant, perhaps by divorce. In short, one has no right to deny the right to divorce and remarry just because such activities are not mentioned in Genesis 2:24. Genesis 2:24 never promised us that what is said there contains everything that could be said about marriage or its ending.


From our study of Genesis 2:24, we have probably said more about what marriage is not than what it is. This has been because we have concentrated upon the themes and terms of union (e.g., one flesh) more than on the covenantal themes implicit in the word cleaving. Specific major conclusions are restated in Appendix A.51 At this point our findings are summarized in a more general way.

The text of Holy Scripture, from its earliest passages, presents marriage as a profound union of individual persons. From early in its first book, the Bible speaks of marriage in the language of organic union. The effect of this talk is to stress the intimacy and the bonding nature of the act that consummates the social-legal “contract”. This intimacy is presented as the goal of marriage as well as a marriage right. Yet only the legalities sanction such intimacy. This latter fact should increase appreciation for the legalities and encourage their continuation. Divorce, on the other hand, is a sidetrack. It remains one of the saddest ironies of human relations that the state of marriage, which was originally designed as the moral context of the drive for “togetherness,” has been so abused that discussions of it often center on the “right” to end it. It is a sad commentary on the failure of human beings to live according to the wise counsel of their Creator. The union in marriage was meant to be enjoyed “till death” parted the couple, and the legalities themselves were designed to help ensure continuation. Thus, it is wrong to understate the strength of intimate union in marriage.

On the other hand, it is equally improper to overstate the strength of that union. The cohesiveness in the marriage union does not entail a permanent ontological bond (i.e., a bond of being). None of the crucial terms used in the Bible denote permanency. Though the strength of those terms implies an intention to make the relationship an endless one, and though there is every indication that God expects the marriage union to go on until the death of the partners, this does not imply ontological finality, in the sense of creating a permanent third entity or being. The couple vows to keep their union inviolate until death, and if violation of the vows occurs, the union is broken thereby. As it was begun by intentional action, it is broken by intentional action. But, of course, marriage need not end in such moral violence. Marriage ought to remain inviolate until death, and, by the grace of God, it might do so! God intended for marriage to last, but we cannot legitimately argue from the text of Genesis that marriages will be unending in a world of sin.52

Our conclusion, then, is that marriage is the moral context of a profound union accomplished by the physical union of two persons. The close relation between the physical union in marriage and marriage itself gives rise to the metaphorical description of marriage as an organic union wherein the partners have so entwined their lives as to render themselves a unity. But their relationship is not for that reason permanent in fact, though their marriage ought to remain intact until death parts them. The marriage relation is not best typified by mere sexuality, by terms of mystery or an ontological union of spirits. It is a bond based upon intention. It is the establishment of a kinship relationship between two people that, in spite of death or divorce, has ongoing ramifications for them and/or their near kin.

1 Di-sexual means two genders—male and female. “Man” was created as di-sexual, that is male and female. This term is not to be confused with bi-sexual which means something very different—someone with an “orientation” toward having sex with both genders, hence it was avoided in favor of di-sexual.

2   I accept the traditional authorship of Genesis, believing that Moses edited prior writings in the production of this part of the “historical prologue” to the Law.

3   God is the Author of Scripture. He guided the human writers so that what they included was exactly what He wanted. Yet He did this without violating their vocabulary, grammar or even conceptual choices. That is a mystery to us, but it is possible with a sovereign God.

I am aware that many of my readers will think that I take the text of Genesis far too literally, as if the events described in it really happened as the text states. I do believe that. But whether or not they happened that way is irrelevant to the truth that the words convey. If God is behind the development of the text, then the final result said what He wanted it to say. My concern is with that meaning.

4   Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3/1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, ET 1976), pp. 207-20

5   I am not saying that God is physical or has sexual distinctions. I am simply trying to point out that the general personality traits that we associate with the different sexes are both equally derived from the divine Personality. God exhibits Himself sometimes as the “head” (a male characteristic, 1 Cor. 11:3), sometimes as the “mother hen” (Matt. 23:37). God is neither male nor female. The traits can only be distinguished by and in revelation; but no separation, within Him, is possible.

As to the physicalistic implications of “Image and Likeness”, I can only speculate that the Logos had previously taken some form in order to best communicate with the angels (created in the same form), and that form was what was used in designing humankind. The issue of the place of sexuality in that “form” would be even more speculative. Jesus said that angels do not practice marriage, but the issue of their sexuality is left open (Matthew 22:20 and Mark 12:25).

6   For an excellent treatment of this ethical problem, see Greg Bahnsen’s Homosexuality; a Biblical View, Baker, 1978.

7   Some qualifications will be added to this general truth in subsequent chapters.

8   R. Laird Harris, et al, ed., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Hereafter TWOT) (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), Vol. 1, p.38.

9   Cf. Gen. 24:5, where the servant of Abraham inquires of his master what to do if “the woman will not be willing to follow … ”

10   One reason there is so much confusion on this matter today may be that parents themselves have never learned this, and are therefore unable to teach it to their children. The reader is encouraged to read David Atkinson, To Have & to Hold (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), pp. 77-82.

11   Ebenezer Henderson, The Twelve Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Baker, reprint, 1980), p. 13.

12 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Op. cit., ‘Aw-zab’.

13   Some popular seminar speakers, such as W. Gothard, teach this distortion.

14   Some parents simply do not know when it is time to “let go.” They would make their children their veritable slaves until they died, if given half a chance. They might also attempt to bear responsibilities for the offspring that the offspring themselves ought to bear. Or, someone else might attempt wrongfully to hold the parent accountable. The Scripture would seek to hold each person responsible for his or her own doings.

15   Paul E. Steele and Charles C. Ryrie, Meant to Last (Wheaton, III.: Victor, 1983), p. 25.

16   J. Carl Laney, The Divorce Myth (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1981), p. 20.

17 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, “dabag.”

18   Ibid.

19   Steele and Ryrie, Meant, p. 25.

20   I will consider the special case of the covenant with the Gibeonites later.

21   I agree with Kant’s dictum that “ought” statements imply “can” (in the mind of the obligator). If Jesus told His listeners they “ought” not to “separate,” that separation was (in His mind-and therefore in reality) a real possibility. It seems futile to prohibit the impossible! There are philosophical and theological arguments for disagreeing with Kant, but I find them wrong-headed, and too remote for further discussion in such a Book as this.

22   A Isaksson, Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple: A Study with Special Reference to Matt.

23   See my discussion of this matter in Chap. 7.

24   13[sic]-12 and I Cor. 11 3-16, trans. N. Tomkinson with J. Gray (Acta Seminarii Neotestamentici Upsalienis 24; Lund’ Gleerup, Copenhagen: Munsgaard, 1965).

25   William A. Heth and Gordon J. Wenham, Jesus and Divorce: The Problem with the Evangelical Consensus (Nashville: Nelson, 1985), p. 101.

26   The use of “For … ” usually implies relation to the prior context, but, since the word is in the quote, this may not be the case.

27   See further treatment of Eph. 5 in chap. 10.

28   K. L. Schmidt, “Kallao, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G Kittel, trans. G. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), vol. HI, p. 822. Hereafter: TDNT.

29   Ibid.

30   The difference between sunzeugpumi and proshuao appears to be that the latter term emphasizes the intention of the marrying parties, whereas the former emphasizes the fact of their union.

31   A form of the word is found in a similar context and with a similar thrust in Rom. 7:2.

32   Steele and Ryrie, Meant, p 64.

33   Laney, Myth, pp. 21, 22.

34   Paul touches on this truth in 1 Cor. 15:39. However, it goes too far to argue, as Isaksson does, that “the original relationship between man and woman forms the explanation of man’s strong desire to cleave to his wife. Since man and woman were originally of the same bone and flesh, a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, in order that they may become one flesh, i.e., together form a family” (Isaksson, Marriage, p. 21). This would appear to imply that Adam, at the first moment of seeing the woman, realized that she was indeed part of his own body. A “hunk of [his] side” is the literal translation. But this is improbable. We know the facts, but Adam was simply observing that her appearance, her skin and her bone structure, was the same as his, contrasted with that of the animals.

35   Heth and Wenham summarizing Isaksson, Jesus, (p. 101).

36   Isaksson, Marriage, p 21.

37   See, for example, Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 101

38   Isaksson, Marriage, p. 19.

39   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, pp. 104, 106.

40   I do not deny that between God and humans (Eph. 5:31) organic union entails a nonphysical mystery.

41   Though it is a point that may be overturned by subsequent argument—see chap. 2.

42   Isaksson, Marriage, pp. 20-24.

43   Gordon Wenham, “The Biblical View of Marriage and Divorce 2-Old Testament Teaching,” Third Way (London, November 3, 1977), p. 9.

44   Perhaps a fictional analogy may help. The fact that I was once a student of a particular school and had a falling out with the administration on some issue will affect my future relations with them and possibly with other schools affiliated with them. It would not inhibit me from matriculating at some other institution not affiliated with them. So too, the fact that a man might not be able to marry the close kin of a former spouse does not imply that he may not legitimately marry someone not so closely related to them.

45   I repeat that we shall treat the defilement of the divorced woman (Deut. 24:4) in chap 3.

46   I believe that Jesus uses “one flesh” as a near synonym of marriage, insofar as he wishes to speak of marriage as a profound union rather than the mere association the Pharisees seem to have believed.

47   It is difficult to know what nuanced difference, if any, is intended by Paul. It could be suggested that Paul prefers such a phrase to keep the “one-flesh” idea for licit marriages, but then why would he not have simply used that phrase and left the “one-flesh” idea completely alone? Then, too, Paul speaks of our relation to Christ in terms of “body” (1 Cor. 12:12). In 1 Cor. 6:15 Paul says that our bodies are the members of Christ—an apparently synonymous way of speaking.

48   A former colleague, Thomas Cornman, once pointed out to me that if marriage is a spiritual union, i.e., a union of spirits or souls, marriage would extend beyond the grave—an extension contrary to the teaching of Jesus in Mark 12:25. The soul, after all, is immortal. The upshot of this dynamic is that marriage must initially have been designed to be a temporal not a spiritual union.

49   The possible exception to this is Hebrew parallelism, where the second member of a couplet is in somewhat synthetic parallel relationship to the first and reveals an aspect of the first not initially clear. It could then be said that the first had that characteristic though it was not specifically stated in the first member.

50   See chap. 10.

51   These include marriage as a sexual union, marriage as a spiritual union, and marriage as a mystery.

52   D. A. Carson, in his comments on Matt. 19:4-6 in his Matthew commentary in Expositors Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p. 412, argues, “If marriage is grounded in creation, in the way God has made us, then it cannot be reduced to a merely covenantal relationship that breaks down when the covenantal promises are broken.” Without getting ahead of myself by attempting to exegete that passage, I feel it necessary to comment that the exact nature of the “grounding” remains undefined in that statement. I too would admit that Jesus directs those who ponder the ending of marriage to the Genesis language of organic union. But I do not agree that Jesus necessarily means more than to remind the Pharisees of the fact that marriage is intended to unite till death parts, rather than be the sort of institution they imagine, which may be ended by the man’s decision. The most that we can say on this matter is that Jesus used the fact of organic union in marriage to dissuade the sundering of the covenantal union that is marriage. On the other hand, it cannot summarily be argued as Carson has done that the breaking of (the most basic) covenantal vows will not end the moral obligations of marriage. I believe, in fact that the breach of such promises supersedes any ramifications of organic union that exist, such that it may be said that the organic union itself has been sundered. The point I make is not that marriage may be reduced merely to a covenantal relationship, for I do not deny that under the protection of the covenant an organic union exists, but I believe that it is in error to suggest that marriage is essentially that organic union. It is essentially a covenantal relationship. To stress that the nature of marriage is covenantal rather than ontological does not lessen the impact of divine sanction for marriage. It is, after all, a covenant made before God, who initiated the institution of marriage in the first place. It is a “God-ordained unity” as a covenantal relationship.

Related Topics: Christian Home, Marriage, Terms & Definitions

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