For me, part of what makes interfaith dialogue interesting is seeing something familiar from a new perspective, and sharing a familiar perspective with someone new. I’ve been looking closely here at Genesis 2:24, a Bible verse that has been tossed around quite a bit in the recent arguments over LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage. As frequently translated, Genesis 2:24 reads as follows:
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.
I’ve already had occasion to consider the meaning of this verse. The verse seems like it should be paired with an earlier verse, where G-d declares that “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The verse begins with the Hebrew עַל־כֵּן֙, translated as “Therefore,” indicating that the verse is an “etiology,” a story that explains the reason or origin of something already in existence. I made the argument that an etiology is different from a law, or a command, or even a way we’re recommended to live. So, I would read Genesis 2:24 to say something like, “People hate to be alone; this is why we often see men leave home in pursuit of someone to cleave to.” In other words, the verse is not there to tell us to do something we might otherwise not do; it’s there to explain why people are already doing something—and this “something” may or may not be what the Bible tells us we should do!
But it should be obvious, a lot of people read Genesis 2:24 differently. Some see Genesis 2:24 as “G-d’s plan for marriage” and the “Biblical prescription” for the American family. Some go further: some Jews and some Christians want to see their Bible as “instructions for living” or the “Life Instruction Manual.”
So, it’s not just that some read Genesis 2:24 to say that G-d intended marriage to be between one man and one woman. Some read the entirety of Genesis 2:24 to provide a divine plan. For these people, the verse doesn’t merely call for men to marry women—it also requires men to leave home, cleave to a wife and become “one flesh” with her. In fact, the expression “leave and cleave” is a “thing” in some corners of the Jewish and Christian world.
So Greg Laurie writes under “Marriage 101” that Genesis 2:24 provides for “two essential elements of marriage: leaving and cleaving.” Familylife.com says that “G-d did not mince words when instructing a married couple to leave their parents.” Gotquestions.org writes that “If spouses refuse to truly leave their parents, conflict and stress result.” But then, how does one balance the requirement to “leave and cleave” with the Biblical command (repeated again and again) to honor one’s parents? Gotquestions.org says that parents deserve due respect, but the “leaving” principle predominates. Focus on the Family says much the same thing, suggesting that a mother can be “too close” to her married son, and that such sons might set a rule where they’d speak only once a week to their mothers, and then only about “general things.”
I’m not here to speak about whether the foregoing is good marriage advice. But I think we can say that today, many sons do leave home. (So do daughters, for that matter.) They leave for college, and the military. They leave the farm to go to the big city, or the rust belt to go to the Sun Belt. We read Genesis 2:24, and we think of the typical scene where son (or daughter) parts from parents, promising to write and call (modern translation: text and email), while tears flow down cheeks and “Sunrise, Sunset” plays somewhere in the background. And perhaps, we “empty-nest” parents draw comfort from Genesis 2:24, thinking “This is the way it’s supposed to be.”
But as you know, I’m not here to comfort anyone! I’m here to create problems for Bible texts. And there’s a big, big problem behind this kind of reading of Genesis 2:24. In ancient Israel, when the Bible was written, sons did not typically leave their parents in search of a wife and a “nuclear family” of their own. The nuclear family was practically unknown in ancient times. Instead, family in ancient Israel was most commonly an extended affair, “comprising all of the descendants of a single living ancestor”—a man and his wife (or wives), his sons and their wives, his grandsons and their wives, unmarried sons and daughters, plus unrelated dependents such as slaves and resident laborers. Naturally, not every ancient Israelite belonged to this kind of extended family! But the extended family provided a kind of norm, and for good reason too: much of the focus of ancient Israeli society and law was the preservation of a stable system of land ownership by family, clan and tribe. And prospective husbands were not likely to step outside of this system, away from the land, in order to marry.
Instead, marriage in ancient Israel typically took place within the structure of the extended family. In biblical times, marriages were arranged, most often by the fathers of the bride and groom. It’s hard to know how much control the groom had in selecting his mate, but it seems clear that he did not make this choice on his own. The bride was typically a member of the groom’s clan, or even part of the groom’s extended family. Marriages between cousins were common—for example, the Bible’s Isaac and Rebecca were first cousins. The marriage arrangements included the payment of a bride price (in Hebrew, a mohar) by the groom’s family to the bride’s. (NOTE: this is not a “dowry”; a “dowry” is something paid by the bride or her family.) In short, marriage was not an agreement between two individuals, but between two families. Thus a prospective husband did not generally leave home in order to arrange a marriage—just the opposite, in fact.
Even after the marriage was contracted, the groom did not typically “leave his father and his mother” and “become one flesh” with his wife. In ancient Israel, marriage consisted of two ceremonies: betrothal (erusin) and wedding (nissuin). The betrothal functioned something like an “engagement” does today, but with one big difference: at betrothal, the couple was legally married. Upon betrothal, the bride could not marry anyone else without first getting divorced, and she could not have sex with anyone else without committing adultery. Yet the betrothed couple were not married in our full sense of the word. The bride continued to live in her father’ house, and the betrothed couple did not have sex—in fact, the bride was not even supposed to be seen by her husband until the wedding! The business of becoming “one flesh” was delayed.
During the betrothal, the groom’s family would arrange for payment of the bride price to the bride’s family. Meanwhile, the groom was supposed to build a place where he and his bride would live—and in most cases, this place was a room attached to his father’s house. Once the room was completed, the wedding could take place, and bride and groom could finally commence life as husband and wife. The time between betrothal and wedding might typically be a year or longer!
After the wedding, the bride effectively joined the husband’s family—so if anyone typically left Mom and Dad, it was the bride, not the groom. The married couple might move out of the bridal chamber room into a house of their own, but the house would often be located among other such houses for other members of the extended family, all clustered around a common courtyard.
We get an interesting picture of ancient Israelite marriage in the Book of Genesis, with the story of the marriages of Jacob. Jacob did “leave his father and his mother,” but he was effectively forced to leave, out of fear of his murderous brother Esau. (Jacob was also something like 70 years old when he left home!) But Jacob didn’t leave home and go just anywhere. He went to the house of his Uncle Laban, effectively remaining within his extended family. Nor did he seek just any wife. He sought to marry one of his first cousins, upon instruction from Isaac. Thus even Jacob’s marriages were in some sense arranged by his father! Per the custom, Jacob paid a mohar for each of his wives, by working 7 years for Laban for each wife. At the end of the 14 years, Jacob and his wives left Laban … to return to the family of Jacob’s birth. Jacob may have travelled a long distance, but in this sense he never left his extended family.
This leaves us with a lot of questions about Genesis 2:24. A man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh? Says who? Sons didn’t typically leave their families to find a wife, or to marry a wife, or to live with a wife after marriage. Sons got married and stayed home, and didn’t become “one flesh” with their wives until a couple of years after betrothal. So, what the heck is Genesis 2:24 even talking about?
Maybe the answer lies in a different understanding of what Genesis 2:24 means by “leaving.” Maybe “leaving” in Genesis 2:24 doesn’t mean going somewhere in the sense of packing up the hatchback (or donkey) and heading out for parts unknown. Maybe “leaving” means a change in responsibilities and allegiances: a son who once owed his primary duty to his mother and father becomes a husband whose primary connection is to his wife.
Next time, we need to look hard at the Hebrew word in Genesis 2:24 that our translations render as “leave.” I think you may be surprised to see what we find! But until then … what do you make of “leave and cleave”?