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  • Writer's pictureDavid Runcorn

Is Genesis chapter 2 a definition of marriage?

David Runcorn is one of the convenors of Inclusive Evangelicals and the author of the forthcoming book, 'Playing in the Dust - a pilgrimage with the creation stories' (Canterbury Press).

I recently contributed to an event entitled: ‘Different Voices: A Conversation about 'God, Sex and Marriage’. I shared the platform with a well-known conservative leader, Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbe’s Oxford. It was a pleasure to engage with him, though we hold very different convictions. He describes himself as ‘same sex attracted’ and believes this must require celibacy, as this attraction is contrary to God’s will and purpose as revealed in scripture. He has my respect, but within the same scriptures I find welcome, inclusion and the theological basis for equal marriage.  


In his talk Vaughan repeated the familiar claim that Genesis chapter 2 is ‘a definition of marriage’. In fact, this assumption is not exclusive to those holding particularly conservative views on marriage. Expressed in more generalised form it has long been the assumption in the wider church. ‘A gift of God in creation’ is the way the marriage service describes it. But in the last seventy years alone the Church of England has developed and expanded its understanding of that gift.


In the Book of Common Prayer the first two reasons for marriage were (1) to have children and (2) as a remedy against sin. In 1980 the revised marriage service made marriage firstly for companionship, and sex not only for the purpose of procreation. Reliable contraception was a major factor behind this change – something which the Genesis world knew nothing of, and likely would not have permitted. In 2002 the Church of England expanded its doctrine again to allow divorced people to remarry in church - something widely supported by Christians holding conservative theological views in the current debate. (Follow the footnote link below for a fuller historical outline of the way the understanding of marriage has developed in the Church of England over the last sixty years)


If this is a definition we have been changing it,

and have been doing so for some time. 

In the dictionary, a definition is ‘a statement of the exact meaning of a word’. Is that really what we find in the Garden? Is there any basis for the claims in the current debates that in Genesis 2 God definitively reveals his founding, unchanging intention for humanity and human relationship: marriage – exclusively between a man and a woman?


Yes, it was a man and a woman in the beginning. But if this is a story telling of the origins of the human race, then starting with a man and a woman is a practical necessity. It would be a very short story otherwise. No one is disputing that.

But thereafter interpreting this ancient story is not quite so straightforward.


To discern what the Bible is saying at any point we must pay close attention to how it is saying it. In the world of biblical studies there is now more emphasis on the literary genre of the texts and how narrative and story are used to creatively mediate meaning and purpose.


Genesis 2 is plainly not a definition. It is a very subtle and imaginative Hebrew wisdom tale - a kind of parable. So, what is it actually about? Is it really concerned with establishing the definitive beginnings of marriage and gender for all time?  


Of course, there are two contrasting stories of human beginning. In Genesis 1 male and female are created together in the image of God - not male or female, note. These are not binary opposites. In this story-telling, pairing is a way of expressing the whole width of life, like night and day, light and darkness, land and water. This is speaking of all humanity, not making a defining point about gender.


By complete contrast, Genesis 2 starts with one creature in the likeness of – well - mud. The creature is not good on their own for the task that is theirs. God creates a partner for them. Marriage is only spoken of in an aside by the storyteller. The word itself is never used.


The names given to the first humans provide a clue. Hebrew story-telling loves puns. ‘Adam’ is a pun. Adam comes from the Adamah, the earth creature from the earth, the human from humus. And for most of the story that follows the Hebrew just speaks of The Adam - ‘The Human’. When the two creatures first meet The Human names Woman just like the other creatures. Although ‘helpmate’ means someone completely equal she is created entirely to meet The Human’s needs in this story. She does not consent - ‘I do’. She is given no choice or voice.  


And what might she have said?


‘Well. Gosh. This is so sudden! I need more time. I don’t even know your name.’

Which is not surprising because The Human doesn’t know his own name either at this point in the story. Neither of them receives a personal name until after ‘The Fall.’  ‘The Adam’ calls the women Eve, ‘mother of all’, when she conceives their first child (4.1). ‘The Adam’ does not become a personal name for the man - Adam - until some years later, when their third child is conceived (4.25).

There is a subtle, evolving understanding of human personhood

and identity going on.


We might also notice there is no one else in the garden at all - no other human relationships of any kind. No marriage actually happens there. No vows or promises are made. There is no leaving and cleaving, simply because they have no homes and families to leave! We see nothing of their life together. No children play in that perfect garden in the cool of the evening. Sex is not mentioned until after they are thrown out of the garden. No children are born before The Fall. No one assumes from this that children are the result of Original Sin!

Does all this really sound in any way like a definition of marriage? Human life as we know is simply not present.  


Finally, the language of ‘one flesh’ needs clarifying (2.24). It is certainly a beautiful expression of loving sexual union. But in the Old Testament ‘one flesh’ most fully means ‘one kinship’. It refers to the way the uniting of a couple in marriage is part of a greater uniting of two families and their wider communities.

Marriage is part of a much bigger story. It always is.


So what story is actually being told here? Something we call marriage is part of it, indirectly, and yes, it is very important. (I stress, I have a very high view of marriage). But in Genesis 2 it is only one part in a much fuller poetic parable about what it means to be created human and to live in this world in the will and purpose of God together – and the consequences of not doing that.


Immense care is needed in applying this story to the very modern questions we are needing to ask– in particular, looking there for fixed definitions of universal, unchanging understandings of human biology, relationships and identity.


The story is descriptive, not prescriptive. When we try to make it fit into our own culturally specific beliefs about marriage we are not listening to it on its own terms. In this profound wisdom parable, five guiding principles are found at the heart of the covenant heart of marriage:


joyful recognition

human choice

leaving and cleaving

community kinship


the care of creation


The rest is left remarkably open. The whole rich and complex variety of human relating and belonging is not even there. There are no models of any other human relationship or community. There isn’t really a defining model of marriage there. The bible itself does not treat this story as a definition. If this is a definitive statement of human relationships, in the beginning, why were so few Old Testament marriages actually marriage? Jacob was committing adultery when he married Rachel while Leah was still alive. What of the many wives, concubines and female slaves of Abraham, David, Solomon? What of the legislation in the Torah permitting a man to take a second wife as long as he doesn't neglect the first one (Ex 21.10)? Marriage for reasons of state is described with no comment in the historical books - i.e. marriage that makes alliances, like Solomon and Pharaoh's daughter, or that cements a person's claim to the throne (David using Michal in this way because she was the daughter of Saul). All without censure.

We must conclude it is simply not that kind of story. To try and make it so is to make a category error.


Meanwhile back in the Genesis story other expressions of human relationship and who may be part of them are left to us to faithfully and responsibly explore in each generation. If we are unwilling or unable to do this, we will be unable to respond faithfully to what we are being called to in this emerging and complex world, under the guiding of Word and Spirit.  


One thing is clear - narrow this story down to one understanding of human relationship and you exclude everyone else. In the garden, in the beginning, one thing is unambiguous. God pronounces it is not good for humans to be alone. That surely applies to all? The question that is ours today is whether there is any reason why marriage could not include those who have found love, delight, blessing and divine gift in someone of the same sex? On this, Genesis 2 offers us no definition. Of course it doesn’t. Wisdom tales and parables are not definitions.

  1. You will need to scroll down a long way to Annex H, Section 2. 2.1 The doctrine of the Church of England in the last sixty years. The article immediately before this subsection is worth reading too.

The material in this talk forms a companion piece to an earlier blog on this site. There is some overlap in the discussion, but each seeks to develop different aspects of this debate.



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