“Cleave” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-3)

This post resumes my blog series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage. In this post I transition from introductory matters to exegesis, starting to address the question, Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble—that nothing besides death can truly end a marriage? I will begin my investigation of this question with a series of posts walking through Matthew 19:3-12, addressing many of the key terms and arguments sometimes used to claim that Jesus believed marriage is an unbreakable bond.

Here are the posts in this series so far:

Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)

Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)

Summary of this post: In this post I argue that “cleave” in Matthew 19:5 (KJV; “hold fast” in ESV) does not indicate that marriage is a bond that can be broken only by death. I show that the Hebrew word translated “cleave” in Genesis 2:24 does not indicate an unbreakable bond when it is used elsewhere in the OT, not even when used of covenant relationships. I also show that the Greek word used in the NT quotations of Genesis 2:24 does not imply permanence, most clearly as Paul uses it to refer to unions with prostitutes. Thus, Jesus’ quotation about how a man will “cleave” to his wife does not show Jesus believed marriage is indissoluble.

Introduction and Assertions that Cleave Indicates Permanence

In Matthew 19:3 we read that the Pharisees came up to Jesus and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” Jesus’ first response was to remind them of God’s creation pattern of making humans as “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). He then quoted Genesis 2:24, which Matthew records like this: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matt. 19:5 ESV).

The KJV term for “hold fast” is the lovely word “cleave,” an English word that is a double-edged sword, meaning either “to adhere closely to, to remain faithful to” or else “to split or divide, to sever.” Think meat cleaver. Ouch. Or not.

Some people argue that the expression “cleave,” or at least the original Hebrew word found in Genesis 2:24 (dāḇaq), indicates that a married couple is “glued” together in an inseparable bond. They present this as evidence that marriage is indissoluble.

Carl Laney made the following claim about “the Hebrew word for ‘cleave’”:

The word is also used of the leprosy that would cling forever to dishonest and greedy Gehazi (2 Kings 5:27). In marriage, the husband and wife are “glued” together—bound inseparably into one solitary unit.[1]

Dean Taylor favorably quoted Laney and added the following:

I’ll never forget a brilliant, real-life object lesson of this passage I once saw in a children’s lesson. A few yeas [sic] ago, in order to graphically demonstrate the meaning of this word, Bro. [ … ] from Charity Christian Fellowship, took a piece of wood that had been glued together the night before and attempted to separate it with great force as the children looked on expectantly. I’ll never forget the result—as we all looked on in astonishment, the board indeed splintered into pieces, but the union was still intact! The message was clear.[2]

Woodworking photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

Old Testament Use of Cleave

A survey of how the same Hebrew word is used over 50 other times in the OT, however, shows that the word itself carries no message about how durable or weak a bond may be.

The book of Ruth shows how the word dāḇaq can be used of literal, physical connections between humans. For example, when Naomi urged her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab, “Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:14). In this case, the union indicated by dāḇaq lasted only moments or minutes at most.

Later, Boaz used this word twice while instructing Ruth: “Keep close to my young women… You shall keep close by my young men” (Ruth 2:8, 21). Does the word dāḇaq in these verses indicate a bond that can be broken only by death? Was Boaz advocating some sort of perverse polygamous union where Ruth would be “glued” permanently to his male and female servants? No, later in the chapter we read exactly how long this union between Ruth and Boaz’s servants lasted: “Ruth stayed close to [dāḇaq] the women of Boaz to glean until the barley and wheat harvests were finished” (Ruth 2:23).

The word dāḇaq is also used metaphorically of covenant relationships. For example, Israel was commanded to “hold fast” to the Lord (Deut. 10:20) and they were forbidden to “cling” to the pagan nations in Canaan (Josh. 23:12). Unfortunately, Israel’s bond with the Lord was often broken, with the result that they were commanded to break their bonds with pagan nations (Jer. 3, etc.). These examples are significant because, like Genesis 2:24, they involve covenant relationships. Thus we see that, even in a covenant relationship, dāḇaq does not indicate an unbreakable bond.

New Testament Use of Cleave

Similarly to these OT examples, the Greek word found in Jesus’ quotation of Genesis 2:24 in Matthew 19:5 (κολλάομαι) has no necessary connotation of permanence. For example, in Luke 10:11 it is used to refer to dust that “clings to” the disciples’ feet—dust that they will “wipe off” again. And in Luke 15:15 it refers to how the prodigal son “hired himself out” to a pig farmer, referring to a contract that later came to an end.

Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

Significantly, the same Greek verb is found in 1 Corinthians 6:16, in Paul’s discussion of sexual immorality:

Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.”

Again, to be clear: this is the same verb that is translated “cleave” in Jesus’ quotation of Genesis 2:24 in Matthew 19:5. Thus, if the KJV translated it consistently, Paul’s statement here would read, “Know ye not that he which cleaves to an harlot is one body?”[3] In other words, even before Paul directly quotes Genesis 2:24, he alludes to it by his choice of this verb.

David Garland drew the following conclusion from Paul’s use of this verb:

The verb… implies that the man and the prostitute are wedded together even if there are no wedding vows… They may regard their union as only a temporary liaison… but it is much more entangling than that; neither is free from the other when they part company. Paul derives his proof for this from Scripture.[4]

Are the man and the prostitute really “wedded together”? While it is indeed true that Paul emphasized the deep significance of a union between a Christian man and a prostitute, we must ask how he wanted such a sinful union to be resolved. Did he imagine that a man who once united with a prostitute was henceforth permanently married to her?

It is true that OT law normally expected a man who had sex with an unbetrothed virgin to subsequently lawfully marry her (Ex. 22:16-17; cf. Deut. 22:28-29). That is very different, however, from saying that a man who has sex with a prostitute (not a virgin) is already married to her (rather than obligated to marry her).

In addition, several points make the suggestion of a permanent union in 1 Corinthians 6:16 very unlikely:

(1) In the preceding verses (1 Cor. 6:9-11) Paul rejoiced that Corinthian believers who had formerly been “sexually immoral” and “adulterers” had been “washed” and “sanctified.” This suggests freedom from past immoral unions.

(2) The Corinthians who visited prostitutes almost certainly included married men. Did Paul imagine they were now obligated to practice polygamy?

(3) Did Paul imagine that a prostitute was “wedded” (with full marital obligations and without her knowledge) to every man who had ever united with her?

While it is indeed true that union with even a prostitute forms unavoidable entanglements—entanglements entirely unfitting for one who is already united to Christ—it is hard to imagine that Paul believed such entanglements included a responsibility to continue the union. Other Scriptures indicate that a Christian who had sinned in such a grievous way should repent (2 Cor. 12:21), put the sexual immorality to death (Col. 3:5), and abstain from it (1 Thess. 4:3)—in short, “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18).

Conclusion: Cleave Does Not Prove Permanence

In both Hebrew and Greek usage, then, context alone determines how permanent a bond is when two things cleave or hold fast together. Nothing in the word cleave itself indicates a permanent bond. Laney is wrong to say the word cleave shows that “in marriage, the husband and wife are ‘glued’ together—bound inseparably into one solitary unit.” They should be! But there is nothing in the word that proves that the bond could not be broken.[5]

Jesus’ quotation from Genesis about how a man will “cleave” to his wife, then, does not indicate that he believed marriage is indissoluble. Rather, he was arguing that husbands and wives should not be separated.

Finally, I’d like to make a comment about the speaker who glued two blocks of wood as an illustration about the meaning of “cleave.” Bible teachers, may we remember the following: Just because we can come up with a powerful sermon illustration for a particular Bible interpretation does not prove that the interpretation is correct. Don’t substitute rhetoric for research. Don’t use a sermon illustration to convince people your interpretation is correct. Rather, prove your point from the Bible, then use illustrations to help people feel what you have already helped them rightly see. Exegesis comes first, then illustration. If we do otherwise, we are simply deceiving ourselves and others.

Thank you for reading this post. I welcome your responses! In my next post, I plan to discuss the intriguing term one flesh. Does it imply an unbreakable bond?

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[1] Carl J. Laney, The Divorce Myth: A Biblical Examination of Divorce and Remarriage (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1981), p. 20.

[2] Dean Taylor, “One Flesh One Covenant,” Pt. 1 of “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage,” The Heartbeat of The Remnant, April/May/June 2007, Ephrata Ministries, p. 4. Available online, accessed 4/21/2022, http://www.ephrataministries.org/pdf/2007-05-covenant.pdf. I want to clarify that, while I disagree with Dean on this point and some others, I have been blessed by him in other ways and he has always been gracious in our interactions. I enjoyed reading his personal testimony in his book A Change of Allegiance: A Journey into the Historical and Biblical Teaching of War and Peace (Ephrata, PA: Radical Reformation Books, 2009).

[3] The KJV actually reads, “Know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body?”

[4] David Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), p. 234.

[5] See my discussion about how some Bible teachers confuse the could and the should of Scripture: “Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2),” June 19, 2022, https://dwightgingrich.com/hyper-literalism-could-vs-should-guiding-question-jdr-2/

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3 thoughts on ““Cleave” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-3)”

  1. Wow that’s a gooder! Are you ready for the enemies you’re going to to make 🤣🤣. I’m sure many friends as well. I think you’re spot on and I applaud the diligent exegesis. I’ve had my own bellyful of powerful illustrations that are not backed up by correct scriptural context.

  2. I’m not sure that your conclusion follows, at least when restricting to the evidence that you have provided so far. You write “In both Hebrew and Greek usage, then, context alone determines how permanent a bond is when two things cleave or hold fast together. Nothing in the word cleave itself indicates a permanent bond.” This seems correct, and is indeed often the case – many words have a wide semantic range that is context-dependent (‘sarx’ is a good example).

    You then use this to conclude that “Jesus’ quotation from Genesis about how a man will “cleave” to his wife, then, does not indicate that he believed marriage is indissoluble. Rather, he was arguing that husbands and wives should not be separated.” But this conclusion does not logically follow. You have not considered the context which determines where on the potential semantic range this specific usage of the word lands. It is true that ‘cleave’ on its own does not logically imply indissolubility, but you have gone further than that in your conclusion.

    Now, I assume you will get to this context in future posts, and it could certainly logically be the case that the relevant context requires assigning the “non-permanent bond” meaning to what Jesus was saying about marriage. But at least in this post, the conclusion does not follow.

    1. Hi Joey,

      Thanks for taking time to read and respond. You are definitely right; the larger context is crucial to understanding what Jesus believed and intended to teach on the question of the indissolubility of marriage. In my future posts I plan to walk through significant parts of that context point by point.

      My goal in this post was to respond to those (such as Laney) who argue based on the word “cleave” itself that Jesus believed marriage is indissoluble. That assumption is false, for the word itself does not carry the idea of permanence, even if it could be used at times in situations involving permanent bonds. Unfortunately, that false assumption about this word “cleave” then becomes part of the assumed context for other things that Jesus said about divorce. This is why I plan to address one term or comment at a time in this series. Of course, this step-by-step exegesis requires some patience from all of us.

      Again, I agree with the specific point you made about semantic ranges and contextual meanings. Thanks again for your comment!

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