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  • Writer's pictureDavid Runcorn

Marriage in the Garden

Updated: Feb 10

David Runcorn in one of the convenors of Inclusive Evangelicals and the author of Love means Love - same-sex relationships and the Bible (SPCK)

The story of Adam and Eve in the garden occupies a central place in the present debates about human sexuality and relationships. Surely here, it is argued, God has definitively revealed his founding intention for humanity – which is marriage, between a man and a woman. This is the ‘gift of God in creation’.


That being so, what would you expect the story to include? Well, an actual marriage would be a start. The word itself does not even appear except in brackets, where we learn that his hearers inhabit a world in which human beings marry. This is characterised as leaving and cleaving, but we are told no more about marriage in that culture. Marriage is part of the story he is telling, but clearly not his main point. That should be a warning. This is not to diminish marriage or its place in the bible or in God’s intention. It is just saying we need to read more carefully.


Let’s start again.

The first creation is an ordered, planned process. By contrast the second has a folk story feel to it. It emerges as it goes along. As theologian and scientist, John Polkinghorne observed, ‘Creation has more the appearance of an improvisation than the performance of a predetermined script’. God makes the first human in a completely empty world. At this point, Adam has nowhere to live and nothing to do. So God creates a garden and installs him as the gardener. This may have always been the plan, but the feel is more spontaneous.

‘Creation has more the appearance of an improvisation than the performance of a predetermined script’.

God suddenly declares, ‘It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’  In that paradise, one thing is not good. The human is alone. It is no one’s fault. Sin has not yet entered the world. Incompleteness is one of the original good gifts in this world. Growing and developing in awareness is part of life. Even God is pictured as part of that.

Being alone is not the same as being lonely and Adam was alone. Was the job proving too much? Working alone is generally not a good thing. Adam’s search is for a suitable work colleague. He is not looking for love. Note that Adam is not yet a gendered male. It is not clear when the name ‘Adam’ moves from meaning ‘humankind’ to becoming the personal name of a gendered man. But the story is not yet at that point.

‘Helper’ or ‘helpmate’ (ezer) too easily suggests a secondary role. Elsewhere in the bible an ezer is someone who actively intervenes on behalf of another, and ‘someone who is in front of you, or in sight of you, or opposite you’ (John Goldingay). An ezer leads, takes initiative and has your back. This is not a relationship with any hierarchy. It is a partnership of mutuality and equality.

God cannot meet the human’s need. He serves him in the search, improvising creatures and bringing them to Adam. But in none does Adam discern a ‘help meet for him’ (KJV). 

God takes the initiative. Adam is put to sleep for this. In the bible God does not allow humans to look on him directly or witness him at work. Moses must turn his back as God passes (Ex 33:12-23). The resurrection happens in the dark. The world awakes to discover something decisive occurred in the night. So, it is with Adam. God makes woman. The word suggests skilled design. She is a work of art! She is there when he wakes up and he greets her with joyful recognition. The job interview is forgotten. This is love. The storyteller has a tendency to let details blend into one another as he goes along. The search for a working partner has merged into love and companionship. That happens in our world too.

The story is highly compressed and thin on detail. Adam and Eve do not actually marry at any point. Nothing illustrates what marriage is to look like in practice. The storyteller's aside on marriage leaving and cleaving is profound but it is not found in the garden where Adam and Eve had no one to leave! We are not told of any sexual relationship until after their exile. There is nothing on gender differences or roles though Adam’s delight is in her similarity not difference.  More surprising, given the traditional focus on procreation, there are no children and family life in the original garden. That only happens after they have gone into exile. No one has yet drawn firm conclusions from the fact that children only appear in the story after The Fall!

No one has yet drawn firm conclusions from the fact that children only appear in the story after The Fall!


Adam simply names her as he did the other creatures. She is ‘the woman’. She is not called his ‘wife’ until they are hiding from God in the bushes after eating from the forbidden tree. She only receives a personal name after their exile from the Garden when she conceives for the first time. ‘Adam’ only unambiguously becomes a personal name when he makes love to Eve and they conceive Seth (Gen 4.25). Until then the Hebrew actually calls him The Adam.   


How is our Doctrine of Marriage coming along so far?

But one thing is completely clear isn’t it? God made humanity male and female. Marriage, in Genesis, is only between a man and woman. The appeal to history is often made. ‘The church has taught this for 2000 years’. Now something widely believed, and for a very long time, is not for changing lightly. But the appeal to longevity is not, in itself, a guarantee of truth. We may just have believed it for a very long time. If we are unwilling or unable to imagine the possibility of new ways of knowing in our world, we will be unable to respond faithfully to the questions that this unfolding world is always posing. 


If we are unwilling or unable to imagine the possibility of new ways of knowing in our world, we will be unable to respond faithfully to the questions that

this unfolding world is always posing. 

It seems obvious to point out that any account of the origins of humanity will of necessity be a telling of the creation of a man and a women. But no other relationships of any kind are found in the garden. Children, family, friends or community.  No other people or any other expressions of human belonging at all. They are alone. No one claims this is the model for marriage.


How we interpret this story depends on what kind of story we think is being told. Is it prescriptive – laying down authoritative, divinely ordained, unchanging principles for all humanity and all time? It simply does not read like that. So much is left open and undefined. It offers no roles models or detail we need. Rather it is descriptive. Humankind is made for relationship. We need each other. it is not good to be alone. We know, what the storyteller does not choose to tell us, that these relationships can and do take many forms. Marriage, where it appears in this creation story, is a particular example of this, rather than the example.

Here is a wisdom tale inviting us into a divinely imagined world at its very beginnings, in which some core principles for human relationships are emerging and being tested through the life of this couple.


There are three particular principles.

Human relationships are founded on recognition and choice.

In the first creation story God decrees everything. Here in the Garden God decrees nothing, except what is not good. He acts as a servant to Adam in his search, creating endless creatures to bring to him. Only the human can choose. A companion, in the sense of companionship which is in view in this text, is somebody you actually want to be with and share your life with. An imposed companion would be no companion at all. There is no divine blueprint; there is only what makes glad the heart of each of us’ (1). And here contemporary practice finds resonance with the ancient text. It is the couple who make a marriage not the church. The couple minister the sacramental covenant of marriage to each other. The church witnesses and blesses what has already been chosen.


Human love is a ‘cleaving’

The word comes in the storyteller’s bracketed aside. It is more often translated ‘cling’. What this actually involves we are not told. It is most vividly illustrated in the moving story of Ruth and Naomi. Naomi, a depressed and embittered widow, is returning from a far country to her hometown and her Hebrew people. She tells her Moabite daughter in law, Ruth, to leave her. Ruth refuses. She ‘clings’ to Naomi (Ruth 1.14) saying,

'Where you go, I will go;  where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people,  and your God my God'. Ruth 1.16

It is the same word used in Gen 2.24 and that is surely deliberate. Ruth’s clinging is not sexual or marriage. As an action it expresses something at the heart of the mutual commitment. It takes many different forms, as we do. Like many couples, my wife and I chose those verses for our wedding day. They said everything we wanted to say to each other in that moment of commitment.  So here another expression of committed love is found setting an example for marriage.


‘Becoming one flesh’

This is commonly assumed to be the sexual union of the couple in marriage and it is certainly works well as a poetic image of lovemaking. But in the Bible ‘one flesh’ does not mean sexual love. The Hebrew word (basar) means ‘relatives’.  ‘One flesh’ actually means ‘one kinship group’ (cf Gen 29.14 & I Sam 5.1). One flesh emphasises the central place of marriage in the re-shaping and renewing of primary kinship groups. ‘The focus is not on sexual union but on the formation of the essential and foundational building blocks of human community’ (2). This union forms part of a much wider context of belonging. This is the context of Jesus’s teaching on divorce where he is not concerned with who can marry, he is making a statement about the utterly destructive effect of divorce on the whole fabric of the community (eg Matt 19.1-12). 


The creation stories have been described as ‘a past for a people seeking a future’ (Meg Warner). That is helpful. Rather than looking back to supposed, fixed, origins, marriage, Christian faith is lived forwards, in the light of the coming kingdom. That makes it open to change and development, as it has been throughout history. It also makes spaces for responding to questions we have not faced before, and that stories like these do not directly address. This is precisely where we find ourselves. We have in our midst fellow Christians who have recognised and chosen the vocation to committed love, who have cleaved and become one flesh.  But the church is, as yet, unable to marry them or recognise their marriage because they are couples of the same sex.


Rather than looking back to supposed, fixed, origins, marriage, Christian faith is lived forwards,

in the light of the coming kingdom.

As human creation emerges, recognition, choice, cleaving, community kinship and the care of creation are revealed as the heart of all committed relationships. The rest is left open. There are no models of any other human relationships there. It is simply not that kind of story. To require it to be so is to make a category error. What expressions of relationship and who may be part of them are for each generation to explore. While we are unwilling to do this, we will be unable to respond faithfully to what this emerging world calls us to. Narrow this down to a story about one exclusive relationship, and you exclude everyone else.



1 Gareth Moore.  A Question of Truth. Continuum. 2003. p147

2. James Brownson. Bible, Gender, Sexuality. Eerdmans. 2013. p34


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