Jesus and Marriage

I got a question a couple of days ago in the comment section on this blog about Jesus’ statement on marriage and divorce in the gospels.  LCH writes,

Some of the “Side B” Christians I’ve read essays from have mentioned Jesus’ talking about marriage and divorce, and saying, “It was not so from the beginning,” and referencing humans being created male and female. Since this isn’t one of the so-called “clobber passages”, it wasn’t addressed in your book. I’m wondering if you could provide thoughts on what we’re to take from that, and why one might not have to read it as establishing marriage between persons of opposite gender.

This is one of the texts that I wish I had said more about in the book!  I get a lot of questions on it.  Here’s the text from Mark 10:2-9 from the NRSV:

 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,  8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

First, as I note in my book, this whole text is centrally about whether divorce is permitted.  Since divorce is the severing of kinship ties and obligations, Jesus’ citation of the “one flesh” text in conjunction with his prohibition of divorce makes it clear that he sees the language of “one flesh” as pointing to the permanence of this particular kinship bond.

But why does he also cite the reference to “God made them male and female?”  I suspect that the reason is fairly simple.  The marriage bond is not the only kinship bond, and people feel free to walk away from many kinship bonds, given their personal circumstances.  We are not eternally obligated to live with our cousins.  But Jesus wants to say that the bond of marriage is a special kinship bond, that one can’t simply walk away from.  It is special because it is established by divine decree, rather than by simply being born into a family. So I suspect that he quotes from the rest of the Genesis text to do two things:  First, he wants to return to original principles on which the law rests, rather than operate in a casuistic manner on the question of divorce.  Secondly, he wants to single out the marriage bond as a unique kinship bond that cannot be walked away from like other kinship bonds can.

It is quite another question whether Jesus alludes to “male and female” not only descriptively, to point to the special character of the marriage bond, but rather than in a way that is exclusively normative.  Given the fact that the subject in focus in Jesus’ discourse is not a definition of marriage, but a discussion of the legitimacy of divorce, I think it’s probably over-reading to attempt to derive an exclusively normative understanding of male-female marriage from this passage alone.  Jesus alludes to the Gen. 2 text to make it clear that marriage is a particularly significant and distinct kinship bond. He assumes that the marriages he speaks of are between a man and a woman (there were no  other marriages in his day), and thus he alludes to the Gen. 2 text to make it clear that he is speaking of a particular sort of “one flesh” constituted by marriage, and not by other kinship ties.The very fact that he makes such an allusion underscores that the language of “one flesh” might not be construed in Jesus’ day to refer exclusively to marriage, but could refer to a variety of kinship bonds (e.g. Gen 37:27, Lev 18:17, 25:49, Jdg. 9:2, 2 Sam 5:1, 19:12, 1 Chron 11:1)

So that’s the key question:  does Jesus speak of “male and female” and  allude to Gen. 2 because he intends to teach that this is the only form of marriage that is possible, or does he do so because he wants to clarify that he is speaking of the “one flesh” bond of marriage, rather than any other kinship bond?  I think that the latter is actually the more plausible explanation.  In other words, Jesus’ usage underscores my central argument that the language of “one flesh” in Genesis 2 is concerned with the origin of the kinship bond in marriage, not with the origin of gender complementarity.

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