“Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)
What does it mean to become “one flesh”?
- Physical Union:
On a straightforward level, it can refer to the physical union between a husband and wife, particularly sexual intimacy, which is a unique aspect of the marital relationship. Since Eve was created from Adam as a helper “suitable” or “according to” him, she represents the part of him that he lacks, or cannot be on his own. The sexual diversity between a man and a woman brings about an act of the fulfillment of the mystical union that is necessary for man to be God’s image bearer.
- Emotional and Spiritual Bond:
Beyond the physical aspect, many believe it refers to the deep emotional and spiritual bond that forms between a married couple. This bond is characterized by love, trust, understanding, and a shared life. This bond is only realized through the radical transparency that a married couple has, both physically and emotionally. It should be the most veridical of all relationships. Allen Ross says, “Such fellowship was shattered later at the Fall and is retained only in a measure in marriage when a couple begins to feel at ease with each other” (Genesis 2:18–25, BKC, 1985).
- Covenant Relationship:
Marriage in the Bible is often depicted as a covenant—a deeply binding promise or agreement. “Becoming one flesh” can be understood as the merging of two lives in such a covenant, implying a lifelong commitment and deep unity. This characteristic is often the most alluded to as it is (or should be) evident in the vows and brings commencement to all aspects of the one-flesh marital relationship. While God gives no instructions on the particular consummation details a marriage must include, a study of natural theology through the history of marriage finds two elements necessary for a marital bond between a man and woman to be licit. 1) A covenant that expresses lifelong commitment to the marriage and 2) a public announcement of the covenant. The avenue through which this one-flesh union is made public has various incarnations depending on the time and culture. Most cultures have included some sort of public celebratory ceremony; however, some express the covenant through a publicly worn ring, cohabitation, or a simple public announcement. Believe it or not, many cultures have elected to forego the normal clandestine practice of intercourse for some sort of public viewing (family, friends, and/or neighbors) of the first time a couple has intimacy. Without the evidential nature of this event, marriages could be annulled. Aren’t you glad that practice is over?!
- Familial Oneness:
The “one flesh” relationship is an extension or a natural outcome of the fact that the woman was taken from man, quite literally. Adam’s “song” expressed this celebratory reality when he proclaimed “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” We often find this expression in the Scripture as a voicing among relatives of familial oneness (Gen. 29:14; 2 Sam. 5:1; Jud. 9:2). This aspect of marriage—this powerful familial bond—cannot be annulled any more than a brother can cease to be a brother. As Wenham says, “The kinships established by marriage are therefore not terminated by death or divorce” (Wenham, Gordon J., Genesis 2:23, Word Biblical Commentary, 1987).
An often (surprisingly) overlooked aspect of the one-flesh union is the idea that a husband and wife become one flesh quite literally through their progeny. Each child is a representation of the realities behind the previous five aspects. Having the blood or DNA of each parent, the child is the “bone of their bones and flesh of their flesh.” Children, therefore, are evidence of the marriage but are not a necessary condition (as many cannot have children). But the lack of the possibility of progeny evidences that there is no true marriage. Two good friends, no matter how much of a bond there is between them, can never be married. It should go without saying, but it is a theological truth that a man cannot marry an animal as evidenced by this lack of reproductive ability. Neither can a man or woman marry an object, and a man cannot marry himself. Only two people who are able to have descendants qualify for marriage. Only those who can follow the Lord’s command to “Be fruitful and multiply.” Obviously, this leads to the fact that a man cannot marry a man nor a woman a woman.
The biblical passage from Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh,” encompasses a profound and multifaceted concept of becoming one flesh within the context of marriage. It is not limited to any one aspect but rather a rich tapestry of interconnected elements that define the essence of marital unity. It is important for us to know and foster each aspect. When all are present and nurtured, the effects of the Fall begin to find redemption in the sanctity of this relationship. It is in this relationship that humanity will find the image of God most expressed.