Genesis 2:24 and the meaning of “one flesh”

What does Genesis  2:24 speak of when it says “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh”?  In particular, what does the text mean when it says that they become “one flesh?”  The meaning of the text is further amplified by the previous verse, Genesis 2:23, where the man says, upon meeting the woman, “This at least is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  A simple scan of other places in the Old Testament that speak of “flesh and bone” yields some interesting results:

  • Genesis 29:14  and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” And he stayed with him a month.
  • Judges 9:2  “Say in the hearing of all the lords of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?’ Remember also that I am your bone and your flesh.”
  • 2 Samuel 5:1  Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh.
  • 2 Samuel 19:12  You are my kin, you are my bone and my flesh; why then should you be the last to bring back the king?’
  • 2 Samuel 19:13  And say to Amasa, ‘Are you not my bone and my flesh? So may God do to me, and more, if you are not the commander of my army from now on, in place of Joab.'”
  • 1 Chronicles 11:1  Then all Israel gathered together to David at Hebron and said, “See, we are your bone and flesh.

In each of these cases, the reference to “flesh and bone” is a reference to shared kinship. To be “one flesh” is to be in a relationship of kinship.  This is clearly the meaning that Jesus also had in mind when asked about divorce in Matt 19:5f. and Mark 10:8.  The fact that “the two become one flesh” means that the will of God never countenances divorce, which is essentially the severing of kinship ties and obligations.

Genesis 2 18ff. is thus about the origin of the most fundamental of social relationships that marked ancient society generally:  the relationship of kinship.  Gen. 2:24 narrates the close relationship between sexual union (“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife”) and the kinship relationship: “and they become one flesh.”

The basis for a biblical sexual ethic, therefore is simple.  We are not to say with our bodies (by sexually uniting with another) what we are unable to say with the rest of our lives (by embracing the kinship bonds that such a union creates.)

In my book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, I explore in great detail what this core insight means for sexual ethics in general, and for the question of gay and lesbian relationships in particular.

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4 thoughts on “Genesis 2:24 and the meaning of “one flesh”

  1. I found it interesting what the chief Rabbi of France had to say on this issue in an open letter to France in, “Homosexual Marriage, Parenting, and Adoption The Chief Rabbi of France says what we often forget to say,” Gilles Bernheim, in the March issue of “First Things,” in light of the recent debate on Homosexuality in France:

    “Through desire man discovers sexual difference at the heart of nature. “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” Openness to this other leads to self-discovery as complementary difference: “She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” In Hebrew, “one flesh” refers to “the One,” Ehad—the divine name par excellence, according to the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is G-d, the Lord is one.” It is in this union, which is at once carnal and spiritual, a union made possible by difference and by complementary sexual orientation, that man and woman reproduce, in the created order, the image of the One G-d.

    As a counterpoint, the third chapter of Genesis presents sin as the refusal of limitation and therefore of difference: “For G-d knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be as gods, knowing good and evil.” “The tree of knowledge of good and evil”—“the tree of knowing good and knowing evil”—symbolizes precisely the two ways of apprehending the limit. First, “good knowing” respects otherness and accepts the fact of not knowing all and consents to not being all. This way of knowing opens toward love and therefore toward “the tree of life” planted by G-d in the middle of the garden. Second, “evil knowing” refuses limits and difference. It eats the other in the hope of reconstituting the whole within the self and of acquiring omniscience. This refusal of the relation of otherness leads to greed and envy, to violence, and ultimately to death.

    Isn’t this what is implied in the notion of gender: the refusal of otherness, of difference, and the demand to take on sexual behaviors independent of sexual difference, the first gift of nature? Is this not, in other words, the pretension to “know” the woman as the man, to become the whole of humanity, to emancipate oneself from all natural conditions, and therefore “to become as gods”?

    I thought it quite illuminating and very actual, so I hope it can shed some more light on the issue you raise, Jim, about . I know we can copy and paste easily from anywhere, but this, I thought, was quite pertinent in light of the changes that stand to take place in France.

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