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:
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?
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.” 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).
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.
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.
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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 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.
 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.
 Carl J. Laney, The Divorce Myth: A Biblical Examination of Divorce and Remarriage (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1981), p. 20.
 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.
 Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Volume 1, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 27, n. 24.a.
 Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 60.
 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.