Tag Archives: Gordan Wenham

What Does “One Flesh” Mean?

What does the Bible mean when it says a husband and wife become “one flesh”? This phrase describing marriage is variously understood, leading to different conclusions in debates about divorce and remarriage.

Here are some conclusions I’m drawing about what the phrase “one flesh” means:

  1. It expresses the reality that woman and man are “made of the same stuff.” This is clear from the context where the phrase first occurs in Genesis 2:22-24:

    And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

    “This at last is bone of my bones
        and flesh of my flesh;
    she shall be called Woman,
        because she was taken out of Man.”

    Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

    The basic sequence is clear: (1) God makes woman from man’s body; (2) the man recognizes that the woman was “taken out of” his body and therefore in some way belongs to him; (3) it is because of this same-source likeness that a man and a woman become “one flesh” today.

  2. But it also hints of a compatible difference. Since Eve was taken out of Adam, they fit back together a little like a single two-piece puzzle picture. God did not present Adam with someone identical to him, but rather someone who fit him–who completed him–who was compatible because she was different-yet-same. None of these descriptions are sufficient and every one of them can be abused, but the basic duality of gender difference is everywhere in the original context of our “one flesh” phrase: man/woman, Adam/Eve, father/mother, husband/wife.
  3. It refers to physical oneness, especially sexual union. This is clear from the original context, which emphasizes the physicality of Adam (his body) and his wife (made from his body). The language of “bones” and “flesh” underscores this physical emphasis, as does Paul’s use of the term “one flesh” to show that “he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her” (1 Cor. 6:16). Some commentators point out that Genesis doesn’t say Adam “knew” his wife until chapter 2, after the comment about being one flesh. Therefore, they say, the term refers to something that was real before (and therefore apart from) any sexual union. But that is an invalid argument. First, surely the patriarchs “knew” their wives far more often than the Bible mentions! Second, the term “one flesh” is first used not to refer directly to Adam and Eve, but to how men and women ever since have become one flesh in marriage. Therefore, whether or not Adam and Eve “knew” each other immediately upon first meeting each other is irrelevant to the definition of “one flesh.”
  4. But it probably also refers to other kinds of oneness that unified bodies embody. This is suggested by how the Hebrew term for “flesh” is sometimes used elsewhere. Commentator Westermann says “the Hebrew בשׂר [flesh] does not stand in opposition to spirit or soul, like the Greek σάρξ [sarx, flesh], but describes human existence as a whole under the aspect of corporality [body-ness].”1 In other words, the word “flesh,” though explicitly referring to bodies, can implicitly refer to humans (or even animals) as whole beings. Consider how the term “all flesh” is used throughout the OT: God talks about destroying “all flesh” in the flood (Gen. 6:13); he is described as “the God of the spirits of all flesh” (Num. 27:16); and “all flesh” will see God’s glory and worship him (Isa. 40:6; 66:23). In these passages “all flesh” is roughly equivalent to “all humanity,” and flesh is described as having spirits and being capable of worship. This suggests the possibility that becoming “one flesh” could mean becoming “one human.”
  5. It is probably related to traditional Jewish language that expresses blood relationships and family ties. Adam says Eve is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Similarly, the phrase “my bone and my flesh” was used by Laban to describe his nephew Jacob (Gen. 29:14) and by others in similar situations (Judg. 9:2; 2Sam. 5:1; 19:12-13). If someone is flesh of my flesh they are part of my family; if someone becomes one flesh with me, it might mean that we have formed a new family. This possibility is reinforced by the language of “leaving” and “cleaving” in the Genesis passage; the man leaves his birth family and forms a new family bond. Commentator Wenham emphasizes that the “one flesh” language means that “just as blood relations are one’s flesh and bone…, so marriage creates a similar kinship relation between man and wife. They become related to each other as brother and sister are.”2
  6. But it actually expresses a relationship that is closer than any blood relationship. Here Wenham’s emphasis seems imbalanced. He acknowledges that becoming one flesh involves sexual union, shared children, and a spiritual and emotional relationship, but he emphasizes that it refers to a kinship tie formed in marriage. He even points to this one flesh relationship of a husband and wife as the reason for Deuteronomy 24’s prohibition on a divorced couples remarrying each other: “A man may not remarry his wife because his first marriage to her made her into one of his closest relatives… The partners to a marriage become one flesh.” Thus, to restore the marriage would be “a type of incest.”3 If this is true, then why is it not incest for any married couple to continue to have sexual relations with each other after their initial union has made them one flesh?

Apparently a one flesh union is not the same thing as a kinship bond, despite some similarities. I suggest that the difference is not that a husband and wife remain distant enough that sexual union is permissible, but that sexual union is permissible because they are closer than any other kinship bond. When Paul talks about a man and a woman becoming one flesh, he says that a man who loves his wife “loves himself”; he should care for her as for his own body and cherish her as “his own flesh” (Eph. 5:28-33). In fact, the one flesh union of a man and woman (even a prostitute) is compared to how we are “members” of Christ’s body–actually part of the same body as him (1 Cor. 6:15; Eph. 5:30). Jesus said that a married couple are so unified that “they are no longer two but one flesh” (Matt. 19:6).

In summary, my current best understanding of the Bible’s “one flesh” language is that it indicates the formation of a new two-in-one human being. One flesh union is possible because men and women are “made of the same stuff” and designed to fit each other. Our sexual union embodies and enables a more general profound oneness. This union is intended for marriage but can be experienced (contrary to God’s intent) outside of marriage. In one flesh union a new family bond is produced, but the union goes beyond mere kinship so that the best way to describe a one flesh couple is to say “they are no longer two.”

Commentator Provain paints a similar picture:

Adam is cut in half, so that there come into existence two ‘sides’. One becomes male and the other female. These are now separate beings, who nonetheless exist in the closest possible relationship; she is, as the male affirms, ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ (2.23). Elsewhere in the OT, this combination of ‘bone’ and ‘flesh’ refers to a member of one’s family (e.g. Gen. 29.14). In Genesis 2 the language has an even more intimate significance, for the male and the female are destined to become again ‘one flesh’ in marriage (Genesis 2.24) – to ‘return’, as it were, to their original condition as the inhabitants of one body.4

Different understandings of the “one flesh” language of Genesis 2 can lead to different conclusions about divorce and remarriage today.

Here are two examples:

  1. Gordan Wenham, in part because of what he believes about a “one flesh” marriage union producing a permanent kinship relationship, feels that even today “it would seem wisest” for a divorced and remarried person “to adhere to the Deuteronomic” regulation and not return to their first spouse.5
  2. Warren Wiersbe, who believes that the “one flesh” language implies that “marriage is basically a physical relationship,” concludes that “the phrase ‘one flesh’ implies that anything that breaks the physical bond in marriage can also break the marriage itself.”6

I am not sure either of those applications are essential conclusions of those specific understandings of the term “one flesh.”  I am also not sure what all practical conclusions should be drawn from this phrase. This one phrase cannot bear the weight of all our divorce and remarriage questions–particularly questions about what should happen next after God’s original design has been marred.

This phrase does, however, suggest very practical implications: If the “one flesh” summary statement means that God intends to form new two-in-one human beings, then monogamous, life-long marriage is clearly the creation norm. Why would you want to experience the personal fragmentation of sexual union with more than one partner? Why not rather invest “selfishly” in the health of your marriage and the good of your marriage partner (“yourself”) for as long as you both live?


What do you think the term “one flesh” means? What understandings have you heard of? What conclusions have you seen people make based on their understanding of this term? Please let me know if I’m missing something. Share your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks for reading!


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  1. Claus Westermann, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 1–11 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994), 233.
  2. Gordan J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Vol. 1. (Dallas, TX: Word, 1987), 71.
  3. Gordan J. Wenham and William E. Heth, Jesus and Divorce, updated edition (Carlisle, CA: Paternoster Press, 2002), 109-10. This interpretation is attributed here to Wenham.
  4. Ian Provan, Discovering Genesis: Content, Interpretation, Reception, Discovering Biblical Texts (DBT) (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 78. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.
  5. Wenham and Heth, 201.
  6. Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Basic (Genesis 1-11): Believing the Simple Truth of God’s Word, The BE Series Commentary (David C. Cook), 49-50. Kindle Edition. Wiersbe also believes that “marriage is a civil relationship, regulated by law, and should be a spiritual relationship and a heart relationship, governed by the Word of God and motivated by love.”

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Study Resources for Matthew

If you use the Christian Light Publications materials for Sunday School, you will be studying Matthew for March and April. This is a bit last-minute and I’ll need to be brief, but I thought I’d share a few suggested resources. If you have other resources, feel free to share them in the comments below.

Commentaries

My favorite Matthew commentary is the big one by R.T. France in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series, widely considered a “must-buy.” It was written when he was an older man, so it has a maturity and wisdom that some commentaries lack. It is based on the best scholarship, but it is not hard to read. France’s method as he wrote this commentary was to simply read Matthew and write commentary. Only after this did he check to see what other commentators have written and what he previously wrote in his earlier, shorter Matthew commentary. So this is a commentary on Matthew, not a commentary on commentaries! Some readers don’t like France’s take on Matthew 24 (he emphasizes how part of the chapter was fulfilled in A.D. 70), but (a) I think he get’s it right and (b) we’re not studying that chapter this go around, anyway. I haven’t read this commentary through, but the parts I’ve read have been consistently insightful.

If you don’t want to invest in France’s 1169-page volume, here are a few others that would be helpful for most Sunday School teachers:

Other Suggestions

  • Lesson 1 is about the Sabbath (Matthew 12). I am pleased to see the commentary recognizes that Christians are not required to observe the Jewish Sabbath, and that we are not judged on whether we keep holy days (Col. 2:16-17). I affirm that we were designed to experience regular times of rest (some of us need the reminder), but a proper understanding of the Sabbath’s fulfillment in Christ, both now and in the future (see also Heb. 4), should prevent us from setting rules for others about holy days. For more help on how such things changed with the coming of the new covenant, see “The Law of Moses and the Christian” by Dorsey on this page (also Moo’s essays), and the “New Covenant Theology” talks by Steve Atkerson of New Testament Reformation Fellowship on this page.
  • Lesson 3 is on the relationship between tradition and the word of God (Matthew 15). I once preached a sermon on Mark 7, a parallel passage. You can find my Scripture outline for Mark 7 here, and you can find my (slightly modified) sermon notes here. My sermon notes include a lot of rather pointed (some of you might think too pointed!) application questions to help us sense the force of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees.
  • Lesson 6 is on Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 27-28). While his book does not deal directly with this Scripture text very much, I cannot help but mention Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. If you are like me, you will disagree on some secondary points but walk away truly surprised anew by the hope provided by Jesus’ resurrection!
  • Lesson 7 is on the permanence of marriage (Matthew 5 and 19). I don’t feel well qualified to give recommendations on resources for this topic, so I’ll just mention some of the resources that are on my want-to-read list. Some conservative Anabaptists have found Jesus and Divorce (Wenham and Heth) helpful. Here is a booklet by Clair Martin that the Biblical Mennonite Alliance published on the topic. Here is an online book by H. Van Dyck Parunak that takes a conservative position on most questions. Here is a booklet by Finny Kuruvilla about the question of remarriage after divorce. The most influential scholar on this subject in the evangelical world is Instone-Brewer, who mentions a book by Andrew Cornes as being “the best presentation” of the opposing conservative viewpoint. Divorce and remarriage involves complex exegetical and pastoral questions, and we will not serve people well with poorly thought-out answers or approaches that avoid the Scripture passages that raise the hardest questions. (I do not say this from a desire to be critical, for I still do not have solid answers for all my own questions.)
  • Lesson 8 is a parable (Matthew 20). You might want to add a book on parables to your library, such as Interpreting the Parables by Craig L. Blomberg (463 pages) or The Parables of Jesus by David Wenham (256 pages). For detailed scholarship look for Klyne R. Snodgrass, and for fascinating cultural insights see Kenneth E. Bailey–best compared with a more traditional commentary. (Note: I own Snodgrass and Bailey, have enjoyed other works by Blomberg, and see Wenham is recommended by a trusted source.)

Since I’m a bookish sort of fellow, a lot of the above recommendations are books. Don’t buy them all at once. 🙂  But do consider buying one or two that are likely to serve you well for years to come. A good book is a wise investment, especially when that good book is a book that helps you understand the Best Book.

What other resources would you suggest for studying and teaching Matthew? Share them with other readers in the comments below. Thanks!


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