The Biblical Definition of Marriage, Part 3: Adam and Eve (Genesis 2)

In Genesis 2 we see God creating the man from the dust of the ground before the garden of Eden is planted.  After God plants the garden and puts Adam there, God decides that “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”  (2:18, NRSV)  God then proceeds to form every animal of the field and every bird of the air out of the ground, just as he’d* formed Adam, but none of them are found to be a suitable “helper as his partner.”  So God puts Adam to sleep, takes one of his ribs, and fashions the woman out of it.  When Adam sees this new creation he says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.”  (2:23b, NRSV)  The next verses read, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.  And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”  (2:24-25, NRSV)

Now we might be getting somewhere.  Eve (who won’t be named until the end of chapter 3) was created as a ‘helper and partner’ for Adam, and is referred to as his wife.  It’s hard to argue against the claim that this is indeed the first marriage, created by God.

But is this ‘definition’ of marriage the only legitimate definition of marriage for all time and in all places?  Does God soundly reject marriage in any other form?

If we say yes, then we have to accept that everything else about this ‘definition’ (‘example’ might be a better word to use here) must hold true today.  That includes the bit about both of them being naked and not being ashamed.  So if we’re to take this as the biblical definition of marriage, then all Christian modesty doctrines are out the window.

Also out the window are any ideas of subservience of the woman to the man.  The NRSV rather clumsily renders the Hebrew ezer kenegedo as ‘helper as his partner.’  This at least moves away from the subservient ‘help meet’ used in the King James Version.  Ezer kenegedo is literally translated as ‘a helper like one opposite of him.’**  In other words, Eve is everything that is lacking in Adam, and vice versa.  While this actually bolsters the claim that marriage was initially intended for the natural complement of one man and one woman, it also defeats the claim that the woman was created as anything other than equal to the man.

So if we’re going to take this biblical example of marriage seriously, then we must be willing to accept it all.  According to Genesis 2, marriage is between one man and one woman, both of whom are equal to each other, and clothing for modesty’s sake is unnecessary.

But Karen, you might say.  This is before the Fall.  Because Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and gave the fruit to Adam to eat as well, modesty became important, and God cursed Eve, making her subservient to Adam.  Good point, I would respond.  But then that begs the question: if the Fall changed what God expected in regards to modesty and gender roles, might it also have changed what he expected in regards to marriage, too?  If not, why not?  If our mortal situation and context can change God’s definition of shame, why can’t it change his definition of marriage, as well?  (As for it changing his definition of gender roles, I’m not so sure it did.  When God said to Eve, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” was he giving her a commandment, or was he stating an unfortunate fact based on his knowledge of the nature of men?  Just something to think about.)

We know that God intended for Adam and Eve to not be ashamed of their nakedness, but in response to their disobedience, and in response to their new situation of having that shame anyway, what did God do?  Genesis 3:21 tells us, “And the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.” (NRSV)  Adam and Eve were acting out of their deepest feelings of shame, which were contrary to God’s intention for them, but rather than punish them and insist that they remain naked, God himself made clothes for them.

I’m willing to go with the idea that in God’s highest ideals for humanity, marriage is between one man and one woman, and that they are to live without shame and without worry in the garden of Eden.  But since the Fall we’re not capable of living up to God’s highest ideals for us, and the God of the bible I read isn’t in the habit of unleashing his wrath on those who are unable to live up to his highest ideals.  He gets pretty ticked when people worship other gods, practice injustice, and exploit the most vulnerable among them, but there’s not a whole lot of him getting all fire and brimstone on people for their human moral failings.  In fact, he tends to use many of those people to achieve his work in the world.  As God demonstrated when he stitched together animal skins to cover the beautiful bodies he’d created because Adam and Eve needed him to, he understood where they were coming from, and he adapted his intentions to their needs.  As these posts continue to look at how marriage is depicted in the bible, one of the things I’m going to look at is how God adapts to humanity’s changing needs.  If there is biblical evidence that our own human contexts can influence what God will accept from us, then I’m not so sure that we can point to the prototypical marriage, created and established in the garden of Eden before the Fall, and claim it’s the only acceptable definition of marriage for all time and in all places.

Genesis 2 might give us God’s original intention for marriage, but it is by no means THE biblical definition of marriage.

If you read a little further, you’ll find that only six generations later, one of Adam and Eve’s descendents invented polygamy.  Genesis 2 defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, but Genesis 4:19 tells us that Lamech took two wives.  Given the fact that he addresses both of them simultaneously in 4:23, there can be no doubt that he was married to them both at the same time.  Lamech single-handedly redefined marriage, essentially saying to God, “I know better than you what constitutes a marriage.”  And God did—nothing.  There is no biblical evidence that God objected to this redefinition.  If he was going to nip it in the bud and enforce his original intention, that would be the time to do it, but he didn’t.

It will be interesting to see how marriage continues to develop in the bible.  I hope you’ll stick with me.

* For my policy on inclusive language in reference to God, see
** Ancient Hebrew Research Center, “Biblical Hebrew E-Magazine” July 2008, Issue #044


The Biblical Definition of Marriage, Part 3: Adam and Eve (Genesis 2) — 2 Comments

  1. Karen, we have talked in depth about this subject before and im sure its no suprise yet again i do not agree with you. I have worked for a lot if differant denominations of pastors and have seen and heard all kinds of interpitations on this topic. Your thoughts are ones i have hears beforw. Bottom line for me is the part where God defined marriage to begin with. Yes that was before the fall. But i ask the question how are we saved? Are we to just accept that the world has changed the deffinition of marriage as far back as the refferance to the 4th generation of addam and eve? If we accept it as having been redefined and do not try to correct this error in our owm lives as we strive to be the best servents of God striving to sin as little as we can even though we know we will fail we still try our best regardless and ask for forgivness for the things we are not able to avoid doing wrong. If we simply accept these things as just another sin that we have commited and no longer try to stop doing them then we are no longer holding up our end of being saved by grace. Accepting that man has changed the deffinition of mariage is also accepting a sin man has commited and not doing everything we can in our own lives to correct that sin is still sin on our part and is still something we are to make every attempt to not do.

  2. Victor, you ask the question, “How are we saved?” We are saved by grace through Christ. Once you start talking about “holding up our end of being saved by grace” then you’re no longer talking about grace but works. If grace is something that can be lost due to our not trying hard enough not to sin or not asking forgiveness when we sin anyway, then it’s not a gift and Christ’s death and resurrection accomplished nothing except support the Phariees’ position. And who gets to decide who is trying hard enough and who isn’t? You? That’s what you’re doing if you hold to a ‘bottom line’ of your interpretation and judge everything else a sin.

    As I stated in my post, I don’t believe God ‘defined’ marriage for all time and in all places in Genesis 2; I believe he described his highest ideal of marriage. You can’t so easily dismiss the fact that he did indeed remain silent when humanity began practicing other forms of marriage. That happened in Genesis 4. There were 46 more chapters in Genesis, 4 more books of the Penteteuch, 11 books of history, 17 canonized prophets through whom he spoke, plus other books of Old Testament writings, all spanning a few thousand years in which he could have raised some objection to the phenomenon of people practicing marriage in a way that made sense in their own contexts but didn’t pattern themselves after Adam and Eve. He never did. And it’s not like he wasn’t raising objections about other things people were doing. But his wrath and judgment always centered on idolatry and injustice. God repeatedly worked through people who were practicing marriage in a way contrary to Genesis 2, yet he never once admonished any of them for what they were doing. Even Solomon who had 700 wives and 300 concubines only ‘did what was evil in the sight of the Lord’ when he began following the foreign gods of his wives. The number of wives and concubines was never an issue. And the New Testament doesn’t condemn polygamy either. So your insistence that any form of marriage other than one man and one woman is a sin in God’s eyes is simply not supported by the biblical witness. If God can accept that the world has changed the definition of marriage since the fourth generation of Adam and Eve then why can’t you?

    Thank you for commenting; I’ve been meaning to get back to this series, and now I have incentive to do so. I don’t expect you to agree with me, but I do hope you’ll think carefully about your position. The bible is made up of a lot more than Genesis 2; I hope you’ll consider what else it has to say.