Leave, Cleave, Become One Flesh

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed. Genesis 2:24-25 KJV

Both Jesus and Paul appealed to Genesis 2:24 when discussing God’s intention for marriage. Genesis 2:24 is an explanatory ending to the story of Eve’s creation. It is not good for a human being to be alone; God’s creation of Eve – and the introduction of human sexual relationships – solves that problem in two ways. First, Eve herself is a partner for Adam (as Adam is a partner for Eve). Second, and this should be rather obvious, Adam and Eve are created male and female. They have complementary reproductive functions that will enable them to bear children; their progeny will populate the world. Adam won’t just have one partner; he will be a part of a family. He will, in fact, become a member of a world-wide community populated with men and women.

Leave

How interesting that part of the solution to human isolation is leaving home. A marriage is the union of two different families, and that’s a good thing. Each partner brings different experiences, different insights, and different ways of living together into the new household. The cross-fertilization of family cultures helps the human community prosper. As the human community grows, the process will require a continual rearrangement of family commitments and human ties. Just as biological diversity is essential to the physical well-being of a species, so social rearrangement is essential to the well-being of the human community.

More personally, it is essential that husbands and wives actually “leave home” when they leave home. Husbands and wives must reorient their lives from the family of origin to the new family they are creating. One’s spouse and children take center stage; one’s parents and siblings become peripheral by comparison. Some marriage partners fail to ever leave home, at least emotionally and mentally. This disorientation weakens the marriage.

Cleave

The word that the KJV translates as “cleave” is translated elsewhere as “join,” “cling,” or “unite.” I like “cleave”: it sounds like a bond with the strength of super-glue. At least in part, this is a sexual image. In sexual intimacy, a husband is physically joined to his wife. That a physical, sexual union is at least partly on the author’s mind comes in the next sentence. “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”

Sex, however, is not the only thing on the author’s mind. The union of a husband and wife is a cleaving in every sense: emotionally, socially, economically and spiritually. It is intended to be an enduring, indisolvable union. This intent is captured in the modern wedding vows, in which a husband and a wife promise to remain faithfully united to each other “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health … until death do us part.”

Cleaving is both a commitment and a process. It’s a commitment in that it requires a firm decision on the part of both partners to stay together through thick and thin. We vow to be true to our mates through arguments, annoyances, differences of opinion, having children, losing children, changing jobs, moving to new cities, times of physical separation, mid-life crises, changes in appearance, becoming attracted to someone else, growing old, growing sick, and whatever else life throws at us. Cleaving requires husbands and wives to stubbornly hold on to the commitments they’ve made.

Cleaving, however, is not just a matter of the will. Time and experience actually strengthen the union between a husband and a wife. Over time, the bond between a husband and becomes stronger and more powerful. Two who cleave to each other become one flesh.

One Flesh

Like “cleave,” “one flesh” is also an image of both sexual and psycho-social intimacy. A husband and wife visibly become one flesh in the marriage bed, but marital unity goes far beyond that. When a doctor joins two pieces of bone together, the two pieces knit together over time to become one flesh. Husbands and wives, too, become one flesh as they live their lives together. My wife and I no longer surprise each other when we have the same thoughts or say the same things. We are two people with one brain between us (and yes, that’s a joke.)

Only those who are naked and not ashamed can truly be one flesh. Nakedness, in this case, is not just the absence of clothing. Husbands and wives who are “naked and not ashamed” are open and genuine with one another because they have grown to trust each other. Each partner lets the other come to know them as they really are, with all their imperfections. Such vulnerability and transparency doesn’t diminish the strength of the marital bond; it strengthens it.

Furthermore, becoming “one flesh” also has implications about the exclusive nature of the unique relationship between a husband and a wife. After all, with how many people can you become “one flesh?”

Finally, children are literally “one flesh” produced by the union of husband and wife. Sexual intimacy produces one new life from two parents. Parents then nurture and shape the “one flesh” born to them until he or she leaves home to start the process all over again.

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