Follow by Email

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Biblical Definition of Marriage, Part 3: Adam and Eve (Genesis 2)

In Genesis 2 we see God creating the man from the dust of the ground before the garden of Eden is planted.  After God plants the garden and puts Adam there, God decides that "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner."  (2:18, NRSV)  God then proceeds to form every animal of the field and every bird of the air out of the ground, just as he'd* formed Adam, but none of them are found to be a suitable "helper as his partner."  So God puts Adam to sleep, takes one of his ribs, and fashions the woman out of it.  When Adam sees this new creation he says, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken."  (2:23b, NRSV)  The next verses read, "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.  And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed."  (2:24-25, NRSV)

Now we might be getting somewhere.  Eve (who won't be named until the end of chapter 3) was created as a 'helper and partner' for Adam, and is referred to as his wife.  It's hard to argue against the claim that this is indeed the first marriage, created by God.

But is this 'definition' of marriage the only legitimate definition of marriage for all time and in all places?  Does God soundly reject marriage in any other form?

If we say yes, then we have to accept that everything else about this 'definition' ('example' might be a better word to use here) must hold true today.  That includes the bit about both of them being naked and not being ashamed.  So if we're to take this as the biblical definition of marriage, then all Christian modesty doctrines are out the window.

Also out the window are any ideas of subservience of the woman to the man.  The NRSV rather clumsily renders the Hebrew ezer kenegedo as 'helper as his partner.'  This at least moves away from the subservient 'help meet' used in the King James Version.  Ezer kenegedo is literally translated as 'a helper like one opposite of him.'**  In other words, Eve is everything that is lacking in Adam, and vice versa.  While this actually bolsters the claim that marriage was initially intended for the natural complement of one man and one woman, it also defeats the claim that the woman was created as anything other than equal to the man.

So if we're going to take this biblical example of marriage seriously, then we must be willing to accept it all.  According to Genesis 2, marriage is between one man and one woman, both of whom are equal to each other, and clothing for modesty's sake is unnecessary.

But Karen, you might say.  This is before the Fall.  Because Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and gave the fruit to Adam to eat as well, modesty became important, and God cursed Eve, making her subservient to Adam.  Good point, I would respond.  But then that begs the question: if the Fall changed what God expected in regards to modesty and gender roles, might it also have changed what he expected in regards to marriage, too?  If not, why not?  If our mortal situation and context can change God's definition of shame, why can't it change his definition of marriage, as well?  (As for it changing his definition of gender roles, I'm not so sure it did.  When God said to Eve, "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you," was he giving her a commandment, or was he stating an unfortunate fact based on his knowledge of the nature of men?  Just something to think about.)

We know that God intended for Adam and Eve to not be ashamed of their nakedness, but in response to their disobedience, and in response to their new situation of having that shame anyway, what did God do?  Genesis 3:21 tells us, "And the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them." (NRSV)  Adam and Eve were acting out of their deepest feelings of shame, which were contrary to God's intention for them, but rather than punish them and insist that they remain naked, God himself made clothes for them.

I'm willing to go with the idea that in God's highest ideals for humanity, marriage is between one man and one woman, and that they are to live without shame and without worry in the garden of Eden.  But since the Fall we're not capable of living up to God's highest ideals for us, and the God of the bible I read isn't in the habit of unleashing his wrath on those who are unable to live up to his highest ideals.  He gets pretty ticked when people worship other gods, practice injustice, and exploit the most vulnerable among them, but there's not a whole lot of him getting all fire and brimstone on people for their human moral failings.  In fact, he tends to use many of those people to achieve his work in the world.  As God demonstrated when he stitched together animal skins to cover the beautiful bodies he'd created because Adam and Eve needed him to, he understood where they were coming from, and he adapted his intentions to their needs.  As these posts continue to look at how marriage is depicted in the bible, one of the things I'm going to look at is how God adapts to humanity's changing needs.  If there is biblical evidence that our own human contexts can influence what God will accept from us, then I'm not so sure that we can point to the prototypical marriage, created and established in the garden of Eden before the Fall, and claim it's the only acceptable definition of marriage for all time and in all places.

Genesis 2 might give us God's original intention for marriage, but it is by no means THE biblical definition of marriage.

If you read a little further, you'll find that only six generations later, one of Adam and Eve's descendents invented polygamy.  Genesis 2 defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, but Genesis 4:19 tells us that Lamech took two wives.  Given the fact that he addresses both of them simultaneously in 4:23, there can be no doubt that he was married to them both at the same time.  Lamech single-handedly redefined marriage, essentially saying to God, "I know better than you what constitutes a marriage."  And God did---nothing.  There is no biblical evidence that God objected to this redefinition.  If he was going to nip it in the bud and enforce his original intention, that would be the time to do it, but he didn't.

It will be interesting to see how marriage continues to develop in the bible.  I hope you'll stick with me.

* For my policy on inclusive language in reference to God, see
 ** Ancient Hebrew Research Center, "Biblical Hebrew E-Magazine" July 2008, Issue #044

Part 1     Part 2


  1. Karen,
    I have thoroughly enjoyed these posts. It is nice to see someone take the time to actually flesh out what Scripture says about our domestic relationships, and you're only in the beginning of Genesis!
    Anyway, I thought you might enjoy a book called the 'Murmuring Deep' by Avivah Zornberg. Much of the book is focused on the psychology and spirituality of the figures in Scripture and the deep longing that drives them (and us). When she describes the passage, "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." She describes it less in terms of an ideal and more in terms of what drives our relationships. Especially in light of the Biblical and historic Hebrew practice of the woman leaving the house of her parents for the man's as well as the subsequent stories in Torah of men finding their wives while on journeys, it seems she may have a point.

  2. That's an interesting perspective you describe; I'll definitely have to check out her book. Thanks for the suggestion!