This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh.
It’s cited widely elsewhere in the Bible – in all three of the synoptic gospel’s portrayals of Jesus’ divorce teachings, in 1 Corinthians 6 and in Ephesians 5. And it’s lately become the crux in what I call the template argument, in which this verse provides the proof that God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman.
This verse came back to my attention while reading the short – though quite dense – book The Septuagint, Sexuality and the New Testament by William Loader, professor of New Testament at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. Loader is looking for ways in which the Septuagint translators changed the Hebrew text of certain Old Testament passages dealing with sexuality, and how those changes influenced the arguments of Greco-Roman Jews relying on the Septuagint, particularly Philo of Alexandria and Paul of Tarsus.
Genesis 2:24 is cited in the New Testament this way: “Because of this, a man should leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife, and the two will be one flesh” (Mark 10:7-8).
That’s not the same thing, is it? The Septuagint added “the two” in place of “they,” heightening if not adding entirely an assumption of monogamy not present in the original Hebrew. If the Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts, as biblicists claim, we have a problem here: Because the original manuscripts of Mark, Matthew, Luke and Paul quote the unoriginal, altered manuscript of Genesis 2:24! And when we look at the original manuscript of Genesis – or at least the oldest we can find – there is nothing that prohibits polygamy from being included as part of God’s “template” for marriage. The husband and his wife become one flesh, but there’s nothing preventing him from having multiple wives, unlike in the Septuagint version, which specifically limits the relationship to two people. As Loader writes:
LXX adds “the two” which at one level accurately interprets the sense of the Hebrew, but can also result in greater focus being brought to the fact that from two one results. … 2:24 is generic and might be taken as always implying that the proper relationship is exclusively one between two people and not more, in other words, monogamy. It need not do so. 42
He cites David Daube’s The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, in which Daube writes: “It looks as if the LXX … had inserted ‘twain’ in order to enjoin monogamy, considered the more civilized practice by the Greeks.”
So the “template” in view of the original Hebrew does not preclude polygamy, which is a problem for that argument – but not the biggest problem.
The verse in fact does not reflect the normal practice of the time in which it was written – something you might expect it to do were it trying to enforce a certain behavioral norm. Notice that it says the husband leaves his mother and father, yet well into New Testament days, the practice was that the wife left her parents and moved in with her husband. This clue tells us that perhaps this verse is saying something different than we might expect. Perhaps it’s not trying to give us a cookie-cutter prescription for marriage.
The emphasis is probably not on the detail of who is left nor on marriage as such, nor on the strength of the urge to become one flesh which causes the man to move out from father and mother … but on the change of loyalties from parents to one’s wife. 40
After all, how does the verse begin? “For this reason.” That should raise a big red flag. The verse is not prescribing, it’s explaining. It is broadcasting its assumptions. Do those assumptions include heterosexuality? Well, of course. Just as Paul in Romans 1 sees same-sex attraction as “unnatural.” Monogamous homosexuality between two adults was simply not on these authors’ radar. Like Genesis 2:24, Romans 1 has been brought into the culture wars on the side of “traditional” marriage, yet neither passage seems intent on such a grandiose aim as defending their respective worldviews. Rather, each assumes a particular worldview then uses it to explain what is already occurring.
So what is Genesis 2:24 explaining, if not the appropriateness of monogamous heterosexual marriage? Loader cites a number of scholars who coalesce around the power of love. Why does a man break the connection to his parents and realign his loyalties to his wife? What would cause him to do such a counterintuitive thing? “Gen 2:18-24 explains in a narrative way what is meant by Cant [Song of Sol] 8:6 ‘For love is as strong as Death, passion relentless as Sheol,” writes Ed Noort. “It points to the basic power of love between man and woman,” writes Claus Westermann. “The love of men and women receives here a unique evaluation.”
So now we’ve found that such love does not only exist between men and women, but between men and men, and between women and women. Does this overthrow the value of Genesis 2:24? Not at all. Its testament to the overwhelming power of love is not lessened because our assumptions shift. The lenses may have changed, but the vision remains the same. Likewise, although we now know that same-sex attraction is not unnatural, Romans 1 remains a powerful warning about the downward spiral that results from idolatry.
When we divorce these passages from the culture-war connotations foisted upon them and instead use the interpretive clues they themselves give us, we find their meaning remains as important and relevant as ever.