Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Gen. 2:24 ESV)
I was watching a video today discussing this passage in Genesis, the author making a point that even literalists interpret it in a figurative fashion. To the author of this video, a literalist is someone who sees scripture, and particularly Genesis 1-11 as being literal, i.e. it happened just as it is written. The text says 7 days, boom, 7 days. The text says two trees in a garden with four rivers flowing out of it. Boom, literal garden with trees and rivers, probably located in Iraq. The text says Adam named all the animals according to their kinds, boom, that was a really long day. Noah and the flood. Sons of God sleeping with daughters of men and making giant babies. Really tall towers and God being like, “now you guys can’t talk to each other any more;” boom, boom, boom. Literalists believe it all happened in a literal fashion exactly how they read it in the text.
So the author of the video was making a point here that basically nobody takes this passage literally. Nobody says, “today I marry you, and thus we are literally the same piece of meat.” Even the most conservative literalist will take this in some sort of figurative fashion. Maybe they see “two become one flesh” as “two have a single spirit of marriage” although seeing flesh as meaning spirit seems a little figurative to me. Maybe the emphasis should be on one, and therefore it can be argued that the text indicates that the world perceives two to be one now, but that’s a pretty tall interpretive stretch as well. Maybe the two gradually become more alike, seeming to be one. Or maybe it’s just about sex. That’s where the video’s author takes it, but let’s come back to that.
Interpretation is a tricky business. What we accept as a literal definition is one that has the weight of understanding behind it, i.e. enough people, or at least a few really smart ones, have said that this word means this thing because we can analyze it in all of these instances in all of these places and that’s generally what it means. But there is a big problem with this, especially with languages that are not spoken anymore (and Biblical Hebrew is one of those, despite there being people who speak modern Hebrew). In every language, words pick up meanings because those languages are alive and people often add or subtract meanings from words. When I was a kid, ain’t wasn’t a word, and a nerd was not someone you wanted to be around. Now a nerd ain’t half bad. 100 years ago, no one understood the word, okay. Now it is about the closest thing to a universal word going in the world. But if you asked me how I am, and I said, “I’m just okay,” that means completely the opposite of “I’m okay”. Imagine the confusion that might arise from that sentence becoming literature and being taken in the wrong context.
All this is to say that when we talk about the literal meaning of a word or phrase, we are accepting a definition based on the analysis of a few admittedly smart people who have crunched through and studied many instances of a given word in what is usually (such as in the case of the Old Testament) a very limited corpus of literature. And sometimes they come across incongruous instances of a word, where, like okay above, the accepted definition just doesn’t fit the mood of the text, or worse, it seems clear that this can only really be understood metaphorically. Then the door is thrown open for alternative interpretations with allegorist and metaphorists arguing with literalists over the author’s intended meaning.
And in the case of cryptic passages like this one in Genesis, finding the author’s intended meaning can be a bit like finding the holy grail.
But sometimes other texts give you a hand. While there are really about as many interpretations of this passage as people who have read it, we do have a paradigm interpretation here, from no less than God himself, Jesus, which is a reasonably good place for an analysis of this passage to take off. In discussing the evil of divorce, Jesus quotes part of Genesis 2:24, and follows it up with this line: “What therefore God has joined together, let man not separate.”
Ok, wow. So marriage is something God actually joins together, directly. Is that like every marriage? Maybe not the facetious ones like marriages to trees and dogs, or the ones that governments permit but churches don’t, but there are plenty of one-man one-woman marriages that happen outside the Church and plenty of marriages that happened before there was a church. Even Jesus’ words here are pre-church, right?
So how does that work? Does this mean that the God that Christians revere plays a role in uniting Muslims or Buddhists or even atheists in holy matrimony?
This rabbit trail could continue for a long way, especially if we bring up what Jesus says about marriage in Heaven, but we are talking about one flesh, so let’s save marriage in Heaven for a different post. Is Genesis 2:24, like the video alleges, a passage that can only be understood in a metaphorical manner? Is there a literalist interpretation that might work?
The most common literalist interpretation, which the video’s author sets up specifically to attack, is still figurative, that one flesh in this case means a physical union. If that were the case, the text might most aptly be translated as follows: “A man shall leave his family, join with his wife and the two of them will have sex.”
While that might seem appealing to a hormone-laden 14-year-old in a church youth group, it seems a little lackluster to most anyone else, and doesn’t have any real support elsewhere in scripture. To ground the marital union in the physical act of sex ultimately cheapens any union that does not have sex at its center. As great as the physical act can be, and even allowing for the possibility of metaphysical realities beyond the act itself, a marriage centered on any activity so grounded in the physical realm cannot but be cheapened if that activity is no longer possible for any reason.
This flies in the face of what we can observe. One of the most touching points to be witnessed in any marriage are those moments when one member of a union stands by the other in spite of physical difficulties or hardships that obviously preclude sexual gratification. If the physical act is by necessity the center of a marriage, such circumstances would by necessity drive the pair apart, but that is the opposite of what we often see.
This might appear to justify the video author’s claim, that a literalist interpretation of Genesis 2:24 is impossible. But there is one possibility worth investigating. We just mentioned a metaphysical reality to sex that goes beyond the merely physical. Grounding that reality in the physical act encounters the same issues we just brought up, but what if the union into one flesh indicates not sex but rather the act of marriage itself? In that case, fascinating possibilities come to light.
The problem with the video author’s allegations here is that his is a materialist argument, i.e. to be literal it must be observable because only what can be observed is true. However, a reality is, by definition, real or true, even if it is not something we can immediately perceive. The goal of the literalist here is to say that two persons literally become one flesh. In many ways, if one flesh can be understood metaphysically, the literalist only needs to prove plausibility, not observability. So based on this plausibility, what is it possible to learn about marriage from this passage?
The easiest way to answer that might be to try and identify a broader definition in scripture as a whole for the operative language in this text. Such an exercise would mostly be concerned with a study of the words one and flesh.
So what does the rest of scripture tell us? I don’t want to get into a comprehensive word study on these words, largely because that would be time consuming as well as not very profitable, i.e. filled with purity and sacrificial laws in Leviticus, but I think that we can jump to another place in scripture that most of our minds would go to automatically when the word flesh comes up, namely the writings of Paul. When Paul discusses flesh, he condemns it and not because he is trying to exhort us all to a vegetarian life. Generally Paul metaphorically sets up the flesh in opposition to the spirit. Both are components of our being, flesh being our natural, fallen, evil, dark and sinful state, and spirit being the opposites of that, coming as it were from The Spirit of God. In a sense then flesh in Paul is somewhere between a word like rot and something more descriptive, like Vonnegut’s meatbag.
But since we are already playing in metaphysical realities, what if we look at this flesh/spirit juxtaposition as also having a deeper meaning. In that sense, though we are metaphysically fallen, and the meatbags that house us have come to represent the worst of who we collectively are, our bodies themselves, our minds, indeed our whole persons, are no more inherently evil than the world is. God did not make us evil. No one will deny that. He looked at all that he had made, and it was very good.
We know that creation groans waiting for its redeemer. Maybe we too, as part of that creation, built on a basically good or at worst neutral template, are groaning waiting for our redeemer, sort of like the day after a long hike or a particularly energetic soccer game.
If that is the case, then sometimes that original goodness might shine through the dark, even if our will is not in it, like a beautiful sunset on a really smoggy day or beggars warming themselves from the heat of a building that is burning down. Though our flesh is often warped into the brokenness that Paul speaks of, there are moments when who we are, our flesh itself, i.e. our whole original nature, cries out to be what it was made to be, to do what it was made to do, and not to be utterly warped into either some nefarious activity of the enemy or even our own pitifully selfish desires.
Now take that picture of flesh and put it back into Genesis. The two become one metaphysical entity, and each one post-fall has some original goodness surrounded by an awful lot of evil, nasty, selfish infighting. As individuals, we generally handle our selfish evil in one of two ways, we either ignore and overlook it, almost to the point that we don’t even know it’s there, or we hide it away deep so that no one can see it but us.
In most interpersonal relationships, where two remain two, those ignored evils become quirks and idiosyncrasies of the other, sometimes simply cute or maybe mildly frustrating until one day they suddenly become a big deal. That’s the point where somebody usually gets ghosted.
Overcoming these quirks takes commitment from both parties in the relationship. It is in commitment that we become open to having our flaws pointed out, and know that the other will accept such elucidation from us, but most such revelations, even in a good friendship, are delivered as jokes or light chiding, with little real expectation of change. After all, change is hard, and in many cases it is often easier to find new friends than change ourselves.
As for those deep, hidden flaws, barring some sort of nervous breakdown they stay deeply hidden. Most of us probably even have a secret memory of gingerly trying to reveal just the edge of one of these deep dark secrets to a friend or loved one, met either with misunderstanding or looks of horror or both. Needless to say, seeing our sins reflected in the eyes of another, and knowing that we no longer control one of our secrets; that this other might, in their horror, betray us; it is more than most of us can bear.
Which is what makes marriage hard, but also worth it. Where two are joined together for the long haul and privacy itself becomes shared, those quirks and idiosyncrasies first become points of contention, no longer leaving us room to ignore them, and then either break the marriage or are dealt with, while the places we hide the deep evils become shallower and shallower until hiding them is no longer possible. The strength of marriage is the presence of constant, unrequited love, a divine love, maybe even a love instilled in us as a metaphysical, intangible component granted by God when he joins us together. It is only unrequited divine love that is strong enough to bind us even through our dark spots, exposing them, and it is only through exposure that our darkness begins to unravel.
Unfortunately, this need for constancy in spite of hardship and the fact that love is freely given mean that even with Divine inauguration, many marriages flounder exactly here, at dealing with the darkness of another and seeing the darkness in ourselves. For without love and commitment, the combination of darkness within and without becomes overwhelming. We cannot bear it alone. But marriage means we don’t have to. God has designed a means for us to truly be together, constantly healing each other’s brokenness.
But what’s more, that healing process is sort of like a perk, tacked onto one of the real purposes of marriage. Genesis 2 is pre-fall. Marriage was not designed to correct us, but it was designed to grow us. This is where the one comes into one flesh. There is another place in Christian thought where we see a number greater than one becoming one. “God in three persons, blessed trinity.” It is likely that among many of the other purposes God had in marriage, one of the most significant is giving us a tangible means of appreciating the metaphysical reality of the divine economy. In other words, by intimately coming to know each other, we come to a greater knowledge of God.
So there we have it, a literalist metaphysical understanding of two becoming one flesh. And maybe there is a little more to it. For as we grow and the darkness is cut out of our being, it seems likely that there are some holes left in us; some places where all that is left of who we are after our surgery is unrecognizable and useless. It is to those places where the presence of another is a boon, for it is unlikely for two people to have the exact same injuries, for two beings to be missing the exact same parts. Thus it is that one can bear up the weight of the other in those places, like supporting the weight for someone who can’t walk properly, for a time serving as their legs, until their own legs have grown strong enough to stand. And maybe, though this is conjecture, the wounds to the original leg were so great that the new one had to be modeled more off the other than the original, meaning that in a sense for a time the two shared a leg, and even after they are whole, the leg they walk on is more that of the other than their own. Thus, in a sense, they really have become one flesh.