Tag Archives: Gordon J. Wenham

“Moses Allowed You to Divorce” Suggests a Breakable Bond (JDR-8)

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, where I’m examining Jesus’ words beginning with this question: Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? Here are my posts so far:

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

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

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

“One Flesh” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-4)

“God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-5)

Genesis 2:24 as God’s Creation Norm for Marriage (JDR-6)

“Let Not Man Separate” Implies a Breakable Bond (JDR-7)


Summary of this post: I ask whether Jesus’ statement that “Moses allowed” divorce provides any clues about whether marriage is indissoluble. After showing that Jesus was not pitting Moses against God, I survey what God’s law said about divorce. Some laws narrowly commanded divorce; others narrowly forbade it. Multiple laws assumed divorce and that divorce dissolves a marriage. The famous Deuteronomy 24 passage prohibited a man from remarrying his former wife who had meanwhile been married to another. This passage is joined by others that likewise grouped divorce and death as equally and truly ending marriage. 


Introduction: Was Marriage Indissoluble Under the Law of Moses?

Jesus wrapped up his summary of God’s creation design for marriage in Matthew 19:3-6 with a strong command: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The Pharisees were not satisfied with this response. They countered with a question, alluding again to Deuteronomy 24:1: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matt. 19:7). Doesn’t this mention of a “certificate of divorce” imply that it is “lawful” (Matt. 19:3) to divorce a wife?

Jesus’ rebuttal focused again on God’s creation design for marriage: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). In other words, yes, it may have been “lawful” under the law of Moses to divorce, but that same law, in its record of the creation, shows that divorce was not part of God’s original and unchanging design. In short, the should of marriage permanence remains clear, despite the certificates of divorce allowed under Moses.[1]

But does Moses’ allowance of divorce indicate anything about whether a marriage could be dissolved by anything other than death? Do the practices of divorce and remarriage under the law of Moses suggest that divorce was always only a legal fiction? Or do they suggest that marriages really could be dissolved, despite God’s creation intent?

As I address these questions in this post, I will focus on the first main clause in Jesus’ sentence: “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” From the perspective of what was uppermost in Jesus’ mind, the other two clauses are even more important (“Because of your hardness of heart… but from the beginning it was not so”). I plan to address those clauses directly in a future post or two. First, however, I want to consider what we can learn from Jesus’ acknowledgement that Moses allowed divorce.

So, what does the law of Moses say about divorce? And do its laws about divorce give any indication as to whether marriage is indissoluble or not? Let’s survey some of the most important evidence for clues.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, a 1659 oil-on-canvas painting of the prophet Moses by the Dutch artist Rembrandt.

The Law of Moses: Two Possible Misunderstandings

Two likely  misunderstandings must be cleared up right away. First, Jesus is not pitting Moses against God. Jesus is not saying “God forbade divorce but Moses dishonored God by allowing it anyway.” Jesus is never recorded as speaking negatively of Moses.[2] He believed the law of Moses came from God himself; in fact, in this very conversation with the Pharisees Jesus has already attributed an editorial comment from Moses (“Therefore, what God has joined…”) to God (“he who created them”).[3]

The suggestion that Jesus’ words “Moses allowed” are describing “a merely human deviation from the divine purpose” is “a very modern inference,” as commentator R. T. France noted. Rather, “the laws given by Moses were understood to be the laws of God; ‘Moses’ means the Pentateuch, the God-given body of law which is Israel’s highest authority.”[4] Thus, whatever commands we find in Moses’ law must be seen as coming from God himself.

Second, we should note that the law cited by the Pharisees, which is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, is really a law about remarriage, not divorce. This law is essentially a long “if” followed by a short “then” command. A summary version could read, “If a man divorces his wife, she remarries, and her second marriage comes to an end, then the man may not take her back as his wife again.”[5] Thus, Dean Taylor rightly wrote of this passage, “Moses did not institute divorce, he merely regulated against a type of remarriage.”[6] That said, it remains true, as Jesus acknowledged, that this law of Moses did “allow” divorce.

Laws Requiring Divorce

What is less well known is that in some cases the law of Moses actually required divorce. For example, in Exodus 21:11 a master-husband was instructed to give his Hebrew slave-wife her food, clothing, and marital rights, without diminishing them if he took another woman. If he withheld these rights, the law commanded that “she shall go out for nothing” (Ex. 21:11; cf. Ex. 21:26). Similarly, Deuteronomy 21:14 commanded that if a man “no longer delight in” his wife whom he had taken as a captive in war, he must “let her go where she wants” without selling her or treating her as a slave.

Both these passages contain linguistic links to the famous divorce and remarriage passage in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, links suggesting that these passages are talking about full divorce, complete with the right to remarry.[7] They also appear to be talking about real marriage, despite the wife being originally secured by either slavery (temporary indentured servitude of a fellow Hebrew) or captivity (of a foreign enemy). If either of these seems least likely to qualify as real marriage, it would be the captive wife. Yet the Deuteronomy passage says explicitly, “you may… be her husband, and she shall be your wife” (Deut. 21:13). Further, that passage occurs right before a paragraph that demands that unloved “wives” be given equal rights as loved ones, a command that parallels the one in Exodus 21:11.

If a wife taken as a slave or captive had a right to secure a divorce if her husband would not provide for or “delight in” her, then surely a wife gained by more normal means had equal rights or better. Thus, Jews in Jesus’ day applied this passage to all marriages. They “recognized that the obligations of Exodus 21:10-11 could form the basis of a claim for divorce,” and “rabbinic literature preserves detailed discussions concerning the exact limits for gaining a divorce on the grounds” in that passage.[8]

It is worth noting that some of the authors who have been influential for conservative Anabaptists on the topic of divorce (Coblentz, Webb, Wenham, etc.) do not even mention Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14.[9] Several make statements that are clearly false in light of these passages. For example, Cornes wrote the following in his summary of the OT law:

Any individual law which specifically legislates about divorce only limits its availability. The law must therefore be seen as restraining divorce rather than enabling it.[10]

Wenham and Heth likewise exclaimed, “There is, in fact, no legislation respecting grounds for divorce in Old Testament law!”[11]

Kuruvilla, drawing on Cornes, made a similar claim, even extending it to include the entire OT:

Throughout the Old Testament, there is no “enabling legislation” for divorce. Instead, Old Testament laws merely restrict a practice that was already ongoing… Nowhere in the Old Testament are any statements given that “enable” divorce or remarriage.[12]

Contrary to these claims, Exodus and Deuteronomy both clearly command that if a husband refused to care for his (slave or captive) wife, he must grant her the freedom of a divorce. Would God, through Moses, have commanded that wives of abusive husbands be freed to remarry if he thought that their first marriages remained undissolved?

A Jewish wedding. Image used with permission from Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing. Downloaded from FreeBibleImages.org.

Laws Prohibiting Divorce

Other laws provided for women by protecting them from wrongful divorce. For example, what if a husband took a wife, decided he didn’t like her after having sex with her for the first time, and then tried to get rid of her by falsely accussing her of not being a virgin? Such a man was to be whipped and fined, and “he may not divorce her all his days.” He had to provide for her for life, without exception, for he had “brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel” and put her in danger of wrongful capital punishment (Deut. 22:19). Similarly, the rule for a man who raped an unbetrothed virgin was that he had to marry her and “may not divorce her all his days” (Deut. 22:29).[13]

As far as I can discover, author Rubel Shelly is right in saying that these are “the only two specific situations named in which a man could not divorce his wife” under the law of Moses.[14] And presumably, if a wife in these two situations was later uncared for, she could go to court to sue for either provision or her own right of divorce under the precedent of Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14.

How widely was divorce practiced in OT Israel? Given the pattern of Israel’s other sins, Instone-Brewer is probably right in saying “we must assume that divorce was as prevalent in Israel then as in other ancient Near Eastern societies.”[15] What is clear is that divorce was widely “allowed” under the law of Moses and sometimes even commanded. Was God allowing something that was a legal fiction, or was he allowing (and sometimes commanding) something that was real, even though it fell short of his original design for marriage?

A Law Prohibiting Remarriage

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 supports this picture of easily-available divorce. I’ve already summarized the basic point of the passage, and I’ll reinforce that summary now by emphasizing that the Jews in Jesus’ day entirely missed the point of the passage when they mined it in search of valid grounds for divorce. The passage does not provide grounds for divorce but restrictions against a certain kind of remarriage.

Let me quote the passage in full and then we’ll look for clues about marriage permanence.

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deut. 24:1-4)

Some things about this passage remain highly debated among commentators. What is “some indecency”? How, exactly, was the wife “defiled”? Why was it wrong for her former husband to take her again as his wife after she had been defiled? What relevance, if any, does this remarriage prohibition have for us today?

I won’t try to answer those questions now. I will point instead to some clear facts that may be clues about whether marriage is indissoluble. In this passage:

    • A woman who is remarried is called “another man’s wife”—that is, she is now the “wife” of “another man” besides her former husband (v. 2).
    • Her prior husband is called her “former husband” (v. 4), indicating he is no longer her husband.
    • A certificate of divorce is expected for ending a second marriage just as surely as a first marriage, suggesting the second marriage was considered just as real as the first (v. 3).
    • Divorce and death are presented in parallel as equally ending a marriage (v. 3).
    • A woman’s former husband (including her first one) has less right (none!) to claim her as wife than any other man does (v. 4); there is no assumption a first husband has special rights based on a persisting marital union.

Let me get technical for one paragraph. It is worth noting that the Hebrew word (ri’šôn) translated “former” in the phrase “former husband” does not always mean “first” (e.g., Num. 21:26; Ps. 79:8; Is. 42:9). Thus, this law restricts a second husband from remarrying a former wife after she has married a third as surely as it restricts a first husband from remarrying. Therefore, it is not right to say that a first husband is singled out by this law even negatively, by receiving a special prohibition not given to subsequent husbands. (The CSB, NET, NIV, NLT, and multiple other translations are misleading in this regard; KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, and others more cautiously read “former.”)

In short, while it is not clear whether the divorces in this passage were legitimate, everything about the passage suggests that divorce was seen as truly ending a marriage—just as truly as by death. Further, remarriage was seen as “putting a seal” on divorce, making any former marriage permanently dissolved.

The persistent widow, from Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:1-8). Used with permission from FreeBibleImages.org.

Laws Grouping the Divorced and the Widowed

Tellingly, several other passages in the law of Moses group divorce and death in a similar way. For example, both widowhood and divorce gave a priest’s daughter equal right to return to her father’s house and eat his priestly food, which she was forbidden to eat while she was married to a layman (Lev. 22:12-13). Similarly, if a married woman made a vow, her husband had a right to make her vow void when he first heard of it. But this law came with an exception: “Any vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, anything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her” (Num. 30:9). As far as both these laws were concerned, a divorcing husband and a dead husband had equal authority over their former wives—none.

The marriage restrictions for a high priest also group divorce and widowhood together:

A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people (Lev. 21:14).

The restriction against marrying a widow was a matter of ritualistic cleanliness, not a timeless moral requirement (1 Cor. 7:39).[16] It functioned like other restrictions in this passage, such as the one forbidding the high priest from making himself unclean by caring for the dead bodies of close relatives (Lev. 21:11). Similarly, the NT strongly implies that there is nothing immoral about marrying someone who was formerly sexually immoral (“a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute”) but who is now “sanctified” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

Given this context, it appears that the law against priests marrying divorced women (cf. Lev. 21:7) was also a ritualistic restriction, not a moral one. Commentator Wenham suggests this restriction was designed to protect a priest’s reputation and also to ensure his wife’s children were really his own, thus protecting the priestly line.[17]

In fact, divorced and widowed persons were so tightly grouped in Jewish thought that the Hebrew and Greek words translated widow in the Bible were sometimes used to refer to a divorced woman.[18] This broader conception of widowhood in the Hebrew language is found in 2 Samuel 20:3. After David returned to Jerusalem following his defeat of Absalom, he took his ten concubines whom Absalom had defiled and “put them in custody… but did not have relations with them. So they were locked up until the day of their death, living as widows” (NASB).

Similarly, the Greek-speaking Jewish philosopher Philo—during whose lifetime Jesus lived and died—counted a divorced woman as having been widowed in his interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4:

If a woman after parting from her husband for any cause whatever marries another and then again becomes a widow [χηρεύσῃ], whether this second husband is alive or dead, she must not return to her first husband.[19]

Philo’s interpretation affirms our observation that divorced and widowed women were treated very similarly under the law of Moses, both classed as being unmarried.

Conclusion: Marriage Was Dissoluble Under the Law of Moses

As far as I know, these are all the passages in the law of Moses that deal explicitly with human divorce.[20] None of these passages give any indication that divorce did not truly end a marriage. Taken together, they strongly indicate that divorce was seen as fully dissolving a marriage. There is no indication that a man who divorced his wife had any special right to take her back again, and he was expressly forbidden from doing so if she had meanwhile been married to someone else.

Yes, every mention of divorce in the law of Moses is in tension with God’s creation design recorded in the first book of Moses. If every Israelite had lived up to God’s design, no marriage would ever have ended in divorce.

However, it is also true that if every human had lived up to God’s design, no marriages would have been dissolved by death, either. (This includes marriages ended by death as punishment for adultery, a topic I hope to address later.[21]) Tragically, both death and divorce are part of human experience post-Eden, and both are pictured in the law of Moses—God’s law—as truly ending marriage.

Was this picture merely an illusory concession to human practices? What did Jesus mean when he said these divorce allowances were given because of “hardness of heart”? And what about his statement that “from the beginning it was not so”? I plan to turn to these questions in my next posts.

Thanks for reading this long post! I invite you to add your insights or questions in the comments below.


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[1] It is a sobering truth that merely living up to a law granted as a concession to human weakness does not ensure one is truly pleasing God.

[2] Even though some of Jesus’ teachings hinted that the law of Moses would come to an end (Matt. 11:13; Mark 7:19; Luke 16:16), he urged people to obey even the details of the law (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42) and warned they would be judged by Moses (John 5:45-46; cf. Luke 16:29-31). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ teaching about divorce comes immediately after his statement that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void” (Luke 16:17).

[3] See Matt. 19:4; cf. Matt. 15:3-6.

[4] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the NT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 719.

[5] The KJV, unfortunately, obscures the flow of thought, but the NKJV, ESV, and most other modern translations make the if-then structure of Moses’ command clear. The moral logic and current relevance of Moses’ prohibition of a husband remarrying his former wife, however, remain highly debated. Since Jesus didn’t address these questions, I won’t address them in this post, either.

[6] Dean Taylor, “One Flesh, One Covenant,” Pt. 2 of “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage,” The Heartbeat of The Remnant, July/August/September 2007, Ephrata Ministries, p. 5. Available online, accessed 7/14/2022, http://www.ephrataministries.org/pdf/2007-07-one-flesh.pdf.

[7] The Hebrew word translated “let her go” in Deuteronomy 21:14 (šālaḥ) appears again in Deuteronomy 24:1, which describes a husband who divorces his wife and “sends her” out of his house. Likewise, the word translated “shall go out” in Exodus 21:11 (yāṣā’) appears in Deuteronomy 24:1 (24:2 in some translations) in the phrase “she departs out of his house.” This woman then “goes and becomes another man’s wife” (Deut. 24:2). This shared language implies that in all three passages the woman who is sent away is free to remarry, even though two of the passages never explicitly say so.

[8] David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 102.

[9] Authors who discussed divorce in the OT without mentioning either Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14 include John Coblentz (What the Bible Says about Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage), Finny Kuruvilla (“Until Death Do Us Part”), J. Carl Laney (The Divorce Myth), Joseph A. Webb (Till Death Do Us Part?), Gordon J. Wenham and William E. Heth (Jesus and Divorce) and G. J. Wenham (Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting). Andrew Cornes (Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice) discussed only the Deuteronomy passage (p. 137-38). Despite acknowledging it discusses divorce, he surprisingly asserted that it actually discourages divorce. The authors of Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View (Wingerd, Elliff, Chrisman, and Burchett) addressed both texts in an appendix (pp. 143-46), but only to explain why they “did not consider” them “relevant to our discussion.” I do not find their reasons compelling.

[10] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 176-77.

[11] William E. Heth and Gordan J. Wenham, Jesus and Divorce, updated ed. (Carlisle, England: Paternoster Press, 2002), 107.

[12] Finny Kuruvilla, “Until Death Do Us Part: Is Remarriage Biblically Sanctioned After Divorce?” (essay), (Anchor Cross Publishing, July 13, 2014), 4-5, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/570e3c2f8259b563851efcf8/t/5911288c4402435d4e08c196/1494296716383/essay_remarriage.pdf. The most obvious passage contradicting Kuruvilla’s broader claim is Ezra 10, where Israel divorced their foreign wives in an act of repentance. Nothing in the passage suggests that these marriages were not real, despite being contrary to God’s law. Nor is there any indication that any subsequent marriages would be legal fictions permitted by God even though the first marriages were not truly dissolved. Rather, the passage is best understood as a case where two shoulds conflicted with each other—the should of marital permanence and the should of marrying only within Israel. Both of these could be broken, and in this case Nehemiah ruled that the latter should took precedent over the former. In the language of the passage, to have “broken faith” with God by marrying foreign women was worse than to subsequently break faith with these women by divorcing them, for the latter was required as part of renewing Israel’s “covenant with… God” (Ezra 10:2-3, 10-11).

[13] Her father, however, had legal right to refuse to give his daughter to him in marriage (Ex. 22:17).

[14] Rubel Shelly, Divorce and Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology (Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers, 2007), 50.

[15] David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 23.

[16] This conclusion is reinforced by how Ezekiel repeats these commands in his vision of a renewed priesthood: “They shall not marry a widow or a divorced woman, but only virgins of the offspring of the house of Israel, or a widow who is the widow of a priest” (Ez. 44:22). The final “loophole” in this verse shows that it was not intrinsically wrong for a priest to marry a widow.

[17] Gordan J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, New International Commentary on the OT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 291-92.

[18] The Lexham Bible Dictionary provides this definition for both the Hebrew word (אַלְמָנָה, almanah) and the Greek word (χήρα, chēra): “A woman whose husband has died, or who has been parted in some way from her husband” (M. J. Morris, “Widow,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016].

[19] Philo, On the Special Laws, III.30, from Philo, Vol. VII, Loeb Classical Library, trans. F. H. Colson, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 493. Emphasis added. https://archive.org/details/PhiloSupplement01Genesis/Philo%2007%20Decalogue%2C%20Special%20Laws%20I-III/page/n509/mode/2up.

[20] Other passages in the law of Moses contain information about marriage that have indirect significance to the question of marriage permanence (such as texts implying the legality of polygamy). There are also narrative portions of the books of Moses that are relevant. These include not only Genesis 1 and 2 and other passages reinforcing marriage faithfulness, but also stories such as the account where God encouraged Abraham to heed Sarah’s desire and “cast out” Hagar (Gen. 21:8-14), his slave whom he had taken “as a wife” (Gen. 16:3). Finally, God predicts his own divorce of Israel (“I will forsake them”), for he knows they will “whore after… foreign gods… and break my covenant that I have made with them” (Deut. 31:16-18).

[21] If the passages I have discussed in this post are overwhelmingly focused on protecting wives, the Mosaic laws about adultery focus on protecting husbands from unfaithful wives. If it was evident a wife had committed adultery, both she and her adulterous partner were to be put to death (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22).


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Genesis 2:24 as God’s Creation Norm for Marriage (JDR-6)

This post is a sort of “extra” in my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, glancing back to Genesis 2:24 to ask what it indicates about whether marriage is indissoluble. Here are my posts so far in this series:

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

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

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

“One Flesh” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-4)

“God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-5)


Summary of this post: I ask whether Genesis 2:24 is a prediction or a command, and whether the union it describes is necessarily permanent. Based on Greek and Hebrew grammatical considerations, and based on how both Jesus and Paul used this verse, I argue that it functions as a creation norm for marriage. That is, Genesis 2:24 describes both what normally happens (norm as normal), and also what should happen (norm as standard). Thus, we should let this verse prompt us to ask Am I living in line with God’s creation norm? rather than using it to assert a doctrine of marriage indissolubility.


Introduction: What Does Genesis 2:24 Say?

The post I’m sharing today is less directly focused on Jesus’ words about divorce and remarriage. It is also perhaps a bit more philosophical than some of my posts. For these reasons, some readers might want to skip it, waiting for my next post on Jesus’ command, “Let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6).

On the other hand, if you’ve noticed how some Bible teachers quote Genesis 2:24 and claim it says marriage is indissoluble, and if you wonder whether that’s really what the verse is saying, then please continue reading.

In my last three posts I examined three terms Jesus used as he discussed Genesis 2:24. These are—to use KJV language for the moment—“cleave,” “one flesh,” and “hath joined.” Before I move further into Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, I want to consider Genesis 2:24 as a whole. I’m about to quote the verse again and, as you read it, ask yourself: what are the three verbs in this verse (“leave… cleave… become”) describing? Are they:

1) A prediction of what happens and cannot be undone?

2) A prediction of what happens with no comment on whether it can be undone?

3) A command about what should happen but might not?

Here is the verse, as quoted by Jesus:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and [shall] hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. (Matt. 19:5, ESV)

Is this verse saying that a man leaves, cleaves, and becomes one flesh with his wife, and that this cannot be undone? (Option 1)

Is it saying that a man leaves, cleaves, and becomes one flesh with his wife, but without comment about whether these can be undone? (Option 2)

Or is it issuing a command, saying a man (at least one who marries) must leave, cleave, and become one flesh with his wife? (Option 3)

Or are none of these three options really the best way to think about Genesis 2:24?

“Fresh love.” Photo by Engin Akyurt. Used with permission.

Does Genesis 2:24 Show Marriage is Indissoluble?

Before we attempt to answer these questions, let’s look at what some Bible teachers have concluded based on this verse. Here is what John Coblentz wrote in a booklet from Christian Light Publications:

Whatever else we may conclude from these Scriptures, we can safely say that marriage is the joining of a man and woman in a lifelong bond.[1]

A “Statement of Position on Divorce and Remarriage” from the Southeastern Mennonite Conference asserted the following immediately before presenting Jesus’ quotation of Genesis 2:24:

The indissolubility of the marriage bond is a principle that is basic to a consistent interpretation and application of Bible teachings in relation to problems issuing from divorce and remarriage. When confronted with the question of divorce, Jesus based His response solidly on God’s ordinance in creation…[2]

Clair Martin, after discussing Genesis 2:24, shared this definition of marriage in a booklet published by the Biblical Mennonite Alliance:

Marriage is a universal process of divine origin and regulation in which an unmarried man and an unmarried woman, by mutual consent, are permanently made to be one flesh by God.[3]

J. Carl Laney wrote the following while discussing Genesis 2:24:

Marriage… is a permanent relationship until death. There is no allowance made in Genesis 2:24 for divorce and remarriage.[4]

And Joseph Webb concluded his discussion of the passage with these assertions:

God, who originated marriage and established the rules by which it was to operate, created the first union with Adam and Eve… This “one flesh” condition… is called a covenant for life… Any offspring of Adam who has become a part of such a covenant must understand this and realize that either partner can violate this covenant repeatedly but it is scripturally impossible to break it.[5]

All five of these excerpts affirm Option 1 above; they either assume or explicitly argue that Genesis 2:24 is a prediction of what happens and cannot be undone—a man leaves, cleaves, and becomes permanently one flesh with his wife. Is that what God, through Moses, said in this verse?

In the rest of this post, I’ll suggest an answer based on a brief consideration of both grammar and how Jesus and Paul put the verse to use when quoting it.

Observations From Grammar

In both the Greek NT and the Greek OT versions of this verse, all three verbs of Genesis 2:24 are in the future tense (“shall leave… shall cleave… shall become”). This does not solve our dilemma, though, for future tense Greek verbs are commonly used not only to predict future events (Options 1 and 2) but also to give commands (Option 3). In fact, the most common way that commands are recorded in the Greek OT Law of Moses is with future tense verbs.

In the Hebrew OT, these verbs are in the imperfect tense. This indicates, according to commentator Gordon Wenham, that they express “repeated customary action.”[6] Andrew Cornes explains further:

The narrator here is describing what regularly happens when men and women marry. It would probably be better, therefore, to translate with the English present tense: ‘Therefore a man leaves… cleaves… and they become’ (so RSV).[7]

By this analysis, either Option 1 or Option 2 fits best with Genesis 2:24—the verse is making a prediction about what happens in marriage. In this view, the verse functions as an “origin story” about how the practice of marriage covenants began: Humans do this (“leave… cleave… become one flesh”) because of how Eve was made from Adam’s side.

These basic grammatical observations, then, suggest that it is best to view Genesis 2:24 as a prediction (or a description of a “repeated customary action”), not a command. But can marriage covenants be undone? We can’t find an answer to this question by analyzing the grammatical forms of verbs.

Observations from Jesus’ and Paul’s Use of Genesis 2:24

What can we learn from Jesus’ and Paul’s use of this verse? Interestingly, they each used the verse slightly differently.

Paul seemed to see an inevitability in the verse: He used the verse to prove (“do you not know?”) that “he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her” (1 Cor. 6:16). It was not that a man should become one flesh with a prostitute; rather, if he had sex with her, he inevitably would become one flesh with her, even though he shouldn’t, and even though he should separate from that union after it was formed.

Jesus, on the other hand, deduced a “should” from this verse: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Yet he based this “should” on what he presents as an accomplished fact, a fact drawn from Genesis 2:24: “What God has joined together…” In other words, it is not that a man should leave, cleave, and become one flesh with his wife. Rather, it is because these are already true that no one should separate a husband and wife.

“Faithful love.” Photo by itsmeseher. Used with permission.

Genesis 2:24 as a Creation Norm

Perhaps the best way to think of Genesis 2:24, then, is to see it as presenting a creation norm. I’m using norm here in both senses of the term—what normally happens (norm as normal), and also what should happen (norm as standard).

First, and primarily, the verse conveys a norm by expressing what normally happens as a result of God’s creation design of male and female (Option 2, explicit). Because of God’s creation design, men and women leave their birth families, pair up, and are intimately joined, especially through sex. This is so central to God’s creation design that we can rightly say that God joins couples in marriage.

Second, this verse conveys a norm by implying that this human practice of joining in marriage is good; it is something that should be affirmed, protected within marriage, and not undone (Option 3, implied). Just as God’s creation design of male and female implies that same-sex “marriages” are contrary to God’s will, so his design of male and female implies that normally, within marriage, sexual couplings should not be separated.

In sum, design implies intended function; one norm indicates the other.[8]

What is missing from both Jesus’ and Paul’s discussions, however, is any sense that God’s creation design is not merely a norm but also fatalistically deterministic. Neither, when quoting Genesis 2:24, says that the one-flesh unions that result from God’s creation design are indissoluble. Thus, there is no reason to assume that Option 1 above is correct; there is no reason to conclude that a man cannot break his one-flesh union with his wife, stop cleaving to her, and return again to his father and mother (or to a single life)—even though this is clearly contrary to God’s creation norm.

Conclusion: Don’t Import Indissolubility into Genesis 2:24

The key question that both Jesus and Paul lead us to ask, then, is this: Are we living in line with God’s creation norm for male and female unions? Are we saving one-flesh union for couplings that are fitting for Christians (Paul)? And are we being careful to not separate one-flesh marriage unions (Jesus)?

It is these sorts of questions—not imported assumptions about it being impossible to separate what God has joined—that we should take away from our reflections on Genesis 2:24.


Thank you for reading! Please leave a comment if you have additional insight into what Genesis 2:24 does or does not say. In my next post, I plan to return to my discussion of Jesus’ words. Does “let not man separate” imply marriage is an unbreakable bond?


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[1] John Coblentz, What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1992), 1. Coblentz also cites Genesis 24:4, 58, and 67 (Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca) before this statement. In context, Coblentz seems to be saying that marriage involves both an unbreakable bond and covenant obligations that can be broken without breaking the marriage bond.

[2] “Statement on Divorce and Remarriage,” (Southeastern Mennonite Conference, 1983). Available online, as copied by a student of Mark Roth: https://www.anabaptists.org/tracts/divorce2.html

[3] Clair Martin, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: A Biblical Perspective, 24-pg. booklet (Biblical Mennonite Alliance, n.d., based on series of messages given in 2007), 2. Martin says “a friend” shared this definition.

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

[5] Joseph A. Webb, Till Death Do Us Part? What the Bible Really Says About Marriage and Divorce (Longwood, FL: Webb Ministries, 2003), pp. 8, 27. I have removed Webb’s non-traditional use of typeface.

[6] Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Volume 1, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 27, n. 24.a.

[7] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 60.

[8] After writing this section I read a similar interpretation in a book by David Bennet: “Jesus is clarifying that for a male and a female to become husband and wife—by leaving their families behind and becoming sexually one, forming a new kinship unit—that is not just ‘how things normally go’ but how God has made them and wishes them to be understood: what scholar Bernd Wannenwetsch has called ‘the norm as ought.’” See David Bennett, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 240-241. Bennett provides this citation: Bernd Wannenwetsch, “Creation and Ethics: On the Legitimacy and Limitation of Appeals to ‘Nature’ in Christian Moral Reasoning,” in Anthony Clarke and Andrew Moore, eds., Within the Love of God: Essays on the Doctrine of God in Honour of Paul S. Fiddes (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014), www.oxfordscholarship.com.


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“One Flesh” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-4)

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage. In this series I am studying Jesus’ words with one question foremost: Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble—that nothing besides death can truly end a marriage? 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)

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


Summary of this post: In this post I will argue that “one flesh” in Matthew 19:5-6 does not indicate that marriage is a bond that can be broken only by death. Paul’s use of this term in 1 Corinthians 6:16 to refer to union with a prostitute shows that a one-flesh relationship is not necessarily permanent. In fact, one-flesh oneness can occur both in unions which should never be broken (Eph. 5:31) and in unions which must be broken, no matter how entangling (1 Cor. 6:16). One-flesh language in Paul and elsewhere should be understood to emphasize the unavoidable depth of a sexual union, not its unavoidable duration.


Introduction and Assertions that One Flesh Indicates Permanence

When Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ challenge about divorce, he quoted Genesis 2:24 as a foundational text about God’s design for marriage:

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)

Immediately after quoting this text, Jesus emphasized its final clause: “So they are no longer two but one flesh” (Matt. 19:6). One flesh is a term that raises a lot of questions and varied interpretations. I discussed the term in a general sense in a past blog post,[1] but here I’ll focus on one question: Does one flesh imply permanence?

Some Bible teachers argue that a one-flesh union is inseparable. In addition, some argue that a one-flesh union is possible only in a person’s first marriage; only in a validly-contracted marriage does God join a couple together into a permanent, one-flesh union. The hugely-influential Mennonite book Doctrines of the Bible (1928), edited by Daniel Kauffman, put it like this:

The fact is that when two are married they are “one flesh” as long as both live, and during this time neither can become “one flesh” with some one else. To assume to do so makes both adulterers…[2]

In this thinking, one flesh virtually means one person, so separation is truly impossible.[3] Some have even compared a one-flesh marriage to scrambled eggs, asserting that a true one-flesh marriage can’t be unscrambled.

Andrew Cornes is one scholar who seems to think that one flesh indicates an unbreakable bond. He emphasized that “become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) does not describe a “process” but an “accomplished fact”:

The first thing to emphasize is that the expression is passive… It is not something which a couple can or should do; it is something which happens to them… The consummation of their marriage is part of what causes this to happen, and obviously they can choose to consummate their marriage or refrain from doing so. Nevertheless it is not they who make themselves one flesh… St Paul does indeed say that sexual intercourse is (at least to some extent) the catalyst which brings about this change into one flesh. But the change itself—the “being one flesh”—is certainly broader than that. It is not that husband and wife are one flesh when they are sexually united and cease to be one flesh when their bodies are apart. In marriage they become, permanently, one flesh.[4]

I agree, at least in part, with most of what Cornes said here. It may indeed be true that the Hebrew grammar of Genesis 2:24 implies that God is the ultimate active agent in uniting man and woman as one flesh.[5] It may also be true that the verse depicts becoming one flesh as an accomplished fact, not a process. Neither of these points, however, proves Cornes’ assertion that a married couple are “permanently” one flesh.

Joseph Webb argued even more strongly for both God’s agency and the permanence of all one-flesh relationships:

Only God can create a “one flesh” relationship between two persons. Know further that this “one flesh” condition is created through the making of a vow, and is called covenant for life; which can only be broken by the physical death of one of the partners… Sex relations do not establish the “one flesh” relationship.[6]

Gordon Wenham was equally strong in his assertions:

The Creator himself had created man in two sexes so that when they meet, they become one flesh, that is, as closely related to each other as brother and sister or parent and child. These are relationships that cannot be undone. By this appeal to Genesis, Jesus transposed the debate to a different key. Divorce was not possible under certain circumstances defined by some rabbi; it was impossible because it clashed with the Creator’s intentions in creating marriage. Genesis makes traditional divorce impossible. The divorced couple, though separated from each other, are still related to each other in the one-flesh union.[7]

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Paul’s Use of One Flesh in 1 Corinthians 6

The most obvious biblical challenge to these claims is Paul’s use of one flesh in 1 Corinthians 6:16:

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.”

Paul’s words here challenge at least two assumptions of the authors quoted above.

First, it challenges the idea that becoming one flesh is primarily a passive experience. Did Paul believe that God alone creates a one-flesh union between a man and a prostitute? Isn’t Paul’s emphasis here quite the opposite—that humans can form one-flesh relationships even in the briefest of vow-less unions? Isn’t he emphasizing human responsibility for these unions? True, it is God’s creation design that causes a sexual act to result in a one-flesh union, but humans must give account for initiating one-flesh unions.

Second, as I mentioned in my last post, Paul clearly expects and urges separation of such one-flesh unions when they occur with prostitutes. He does not think they are indissoluble. He does not think that anyone who once becomes one flesh with a prostitute is now bonded for life to her, obligated to give her the full rights of marriage. Rather, he says that those who engage in such immorality can be “washed” and “sanctified” (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Paul’s usage shows clearly that one-flesh relationship is not necessarily permanent.

Webb’s Rereading of Paul

Webb disliked this reading of one flesh in 1 Corinthians 6:16 so much that he proposed an interpretation of the passage that I’ve never seen anywhere else: He asserted that Paul is forbidding Christians not from visiting prostitutes, but from marrying them!

In 1 Corinthians chapter 6, Paul was not saying that sex relations make “one flesh,” but rather that the joining of a man to a woman, by their vows, makes them “one flesh,” even if she is a harlot… Somehow, we must remove from the church’s teaching the concept that sex creates the one flesh relationship. 1 Corinthians 6:16 is the only verse, when misinterpreted, that even suggests such a thing. God’s Word only uses the phrase, “one flesh,” when it is speaking of marriage; not an illicit affair… Know that if you marry, even a harlot, you become one flesh with her![8]

I find this interpretation of Paul simply unbelievable. From a cultural perspective, it was extremely unlikely that either a Jewish or a Greco-Roman man would ever be tempted to marry a prostitute. A prostitute would, by definition, be an adulterous wife.[9] In both Jewish and Roman culture of the time, a wife’s adultery was automatic reason for a man to divorce her—in fact, he was virtually obligated to do so.

On the other hand, it was perfectly culturally acceptable for Greco-Roman men, including husbands, to frequent prostitutes. It was this common practice that Paul warned against in this passage, not some hypothetical temptation to marry prostitutes.

Photo adapted from fauxels.

Does One FleshOne Body?

Others try to preserve their belief that one flesh refers only to indissoluble unions by another method: they deny that Paul applies the term to unions with prostitutes at all. Paul says that a person who is united with a prostitute becomes “one body” with her, they note. One body, they assert, is different from one flesh; a one-body union can be broken, but a one-flesh union cannot.

I have seen this argument on Facebook, and one author who asserted the same is Raymond Ortlund, Jr.:

The one who joins himself to a prostitute enters into a ‘one body’ connection with her. It falls short of, but nevertheless approaches, mimics and violates, the full, ‘one flesh’ union of marriage. It does not create ‘one flesh’, for all that that means; but it does draw a man and a woman into intimacy which properly belongs only to the marriage bond…

Pace some commentators, I cannot dismiss Paul’s change of language from ‘one body’, as his description of a relationship with a whore, to ‘one flesh’, which his allusion to Gn. 2:24 requires, because the marriage relationship of one flesh, bringing a man and woman together for life, is of another, higher order than a merely sexual encounter. Paul, the master theologian, chooses his words carefully.[10]

Why did Ortlund insist one body means something different from one flesh? Did he provide any arguments from Paul’s vocabulary usage, his sentence structure, or any other observable data in this passage? No, the only reason Ortlund offered here is “because the marriage relationship of one flesh, bringing a man and woman together for life, is of another, higher order.”[11]

In other words, Ortlund came to Paul’s text with the assumption that one flesh is a loaded term, referring only to relationships that last “for life.” But this assumption is the very question we are testing: Is there a basis for assuming that one flesh necessarily includes the idea of a relationship being indissoluble?

Contary to Ortlund’s assertion, Paul’s usage shows that he considered one flesh and one body to be virtually equivalent terms, with neither implying permanence.

First, note that body is Paul’s default term for the entire discussion, occurring eight times in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. It best fits both his general discussion of bodily purity and his imagery of being members of Christ. It is also the term Paul will use in the next chapter, as he discusses the sexual obligations that husbands and wives owe each other (1 Cor. 7:4). The term one flesh never occurs in that chapter about marriage. Thus, body is Paul’s default term in these chapters, carrying neither positive nor negative connotations, suitable for discussing any kind of sexual relationship.

Second, the logic of Paul’s argument ties one body and one flesh very tightly together. Within this discussion about bodily purity, Paul cites the Genesis 2:24 “one flesh” statement to prove his warning about becoming “one body” with a prostitute. How can we know a man “becomes one body with” a prostitute? Because the Bible says “the two will become one flesh.” This tight logic shows that Paul was using both terms to refer to the same basic reality, even if body and flesh may each carry some unique connotations on the side.

Third, just as Paul uses both body and flesh in this passage to refer to union with a prostitute, so he uses both terms in Ephesians 5 when discussing the intimate oneness of a husband and wife:[12]

Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (Eph. 5:28-31, emphasis added)

So, yes, Paul does indeed mean that a man who unites with a prostitute becomes “one flesh” with her.[13] Thus, if our conception of one flesh is to be biblical, it must fit all sorts of sexual unions, not merely marriage unions. Laney put it well:

There is no sexual intercourse which does not result in two people becoming one flesh (1 Cor. 6:16)! A married man who has intercourse with a harlot has destroyed the uniqueness of the one-flesh relationship he enjoyed with his wife.[14]

Conclusion: One Flesh Does Not Prove Permanence

According to Paul, then, the reality of a one-flesh relationship does not indicate an unbreakable bond. Rather, this one-flesh oneness can occur both in unions which should never be broken (Eph. 5:31) and in unions which must be broken, no matter how entangling (1 Cor. 6:16). One-flesh language in Paul and elsewhere should be understood to emphasize the unavoidable depth of a sexual union, not its unavoidable duration.

But is it really fair to say that just because a union with a prostitute can be broken, therefore a marriage union can also be? No, that is not a fair argument, and that is not what I am saying here. Rather, I am responding to a specific argument about what the term one flesh indicates about the permanence of any union. Paul’s use shows that the term itself does not carry any idea of necessary permanence. Therefore, if marriage is truly indissoluble, it cannot be simply because it involves a one-flesh relationship.

This is important, for some writers liberally sprinkle their teachings with expressions like “one flesh relationship,” “one person,” or “mysterious union,” often without first carefully explaining them. The abundance of such words creates a general sense that marriage must be indissoluble, even if the writer has not really proven that point. Luck pushes us to think more deeply:

Though talk is often heard of ‘personal’ unity in marriage, I have yet to hear a psychological, philosophical or biblical explanation for what this new person is and how the two individuals have ceased to be. In all marriages with which I am familiar, including happy and intimate ones, I still observe two distinguishable individuals functioning in harmony—and, if distinguishable, then perhaps separable.[15]

Jesus’ point about a man becoming “one flesh” with his wife, then, does not indicate that he believed marriage is indissoluble. Rather, he was arguing that husbands and wives who are joined so intimately should not be separated.


Thank you for reading this post. I welcome your responses! In my next post, I plan to discuss the clause “what God has joined together.” Does it imply an unbreakable bond?


If you want to support more writing like this, please leave a gift:


[1] I think I still agree with most of what I wrote, though I’d phrase some things differently now.

[2] Daniel Kauffman, ed., Doctrines of the Bible: A Brief Discussion of the Teachings of God’s Word (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1928), 434.

[3] As Taylor says, “God has mysteriously joined man and wife together into one person” (Dean Taylor, “One Flesh One Covenant,” Pt. 1 of “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage,” The Heartbeat of The Remnant, April/May/June 2007, Ephrata Ministries, 4. Available online, accessed 4/21/2022, http://www.ephrataministries.org/pdf/2007-05-covenant.pdf).

[4] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 59-60.

[5] I am not well equipped to discuss Hebrew grammar, but the point is certainly theologically true.

[6] Joseph A. Webb, Till Death Do Us Part? What the Bible Really Says About Marriage and Divorce (Longwood, FL: Webb Ministries, 2003), 8, 27. I have removed Webb’s non-traditional use of typeface and capitalization.

[7] Gordon J. Wenham, Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 73.

[8] Webb, ibid. I removed Webb’s non-traditional use of typeface and added italics for my own emphasis.

[9] Unless she were a former prostitute—a scenario that then makes no sense of Paul’s warnings against uniting with her. Nothing in Paul’s teaching prohibited marrying former prostitutes who had been “washed” (1 Cor. 6:9-11) and who were already united to Christ.

[10] Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., God’s Unfaithful Wife: A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 145 and 145, n. 16. Jay Adams likewise distinguishes “one body” and “one flesh” in this passage, but without defending his distinction and without asserting that a one-flesh union cannot be broken: “In 1 Corinthians 6… Paul distinguishes three sorts of unions:

1. one body (v. 16)—sexual relations with a harlot=a close union
2. one flesh (v. 16)—the marriage union=a closer union
3. one spirit (v. 17)—union with Christ=the closest union

It is not possible here to develop this important passage further.” See Jay E. Adams, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible: A Fresh Look at What Scripture Teaches (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980), 17. Thiselton likewise distinguishes one body as referring to union with a prostitute and one flesh as referring to marriage. But he does not defend this distinction nor consistently adhere to it. See Anthony C. Thiselton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical & Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 95.

[11] Ortlund does suggest one additional reason later, in his discussion of Ephesians 5. I will respond to that reason (via footnote 12) when I discuss the same passage below.

[12] Ortlund believes Paul uses “flesh” and “body” differently in the two passages:

It is worth nothing that, in contrast with 1 Cor. 6:16, Paul uses ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ in nearly equivalent terms here, because he is bringing together his ‘Body of Christ’ image of the church with the language of Gn. 2:24. But the categories operative in the Corinthians passage are different, as the inner logic of that passage requires. There, Paul is counting on a distinction between ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ as material to his message. The two words are ciphers for fundamentally different relationships, viz. a casual sexual encounter (‘one body’) versus marriage (‘one flesh’). There, ‘body’ is prompted by the merely physical nature of promiscuity; here ‘body’ is prompted by Paul’s image of the church.” Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., God’s Unfaithful Wife: A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 154-55.

I have already said that I do not see Paul intending to draw a “distinction” between casual sexual encounters and marriage in 1 Cor. 6. Rather, he is noting what both have in common. I don’t think Ortlund’s second assertion (about what “prompts” Paul’s used of each term) holds, either. For one thing, Paul uses “body” rather than “flesh” in 1 Cor. 7 when discussing marriage relations, so he does not reserve that term in that letter for “the merely physical nature of promiscuity.” For another, Paul is indeed thinking about his image of the church in 1 Cor. 6, not only in Eph. 5. In 1 Cor. 6 Paul says “your bodies are members of Christ,” and in Eph. 5 he says “we are members of his body.” The “member” language in both passages shows Paul is concerned with our individual union with Christ, and “of Christ” in 1 Cor. 6 is equivalent to “of his body” in Eph. 5. Again, Ortlund’s distinctions seem motivated more by his prior assumptions about what “one flesh” must signify than by any accurate observations about Paul’s usage of terms.

[13] For what it is worth, a clear majority of recent 1 Corinthians commentators appear to agree with me on this point, including Craig Blomberg, Roy Ciampa/Brian Rosner, Gordon Fee, David Garland, Roy Harrisville, Richard Hays, Craig Keener, and Mark Taylor. As Harrisville notes, “the terms ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ in this verse are virtually synonymous, use of the term ‘flesh’ controlled by the biblical quotation from Gen. 2:24.” See Roy A. Harrisville, I Corinthians (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1987), 101. Among commentators whose views I was able to ascertain, the only one who appeared to disagree with me was Thiselton (see previous note).

[14] Carl J. Laney, The Divorce Myth: A Biblical Examination of Divorce and Remarriage (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1981), 21.

[15] William F. Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2008), 9-10.


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