Taking Genesis Seriously
Marcus Green. Marcus is chaplain of Worcester College, Oxford, author of The Possibility of Difference – a biblical affirmation of inclusivity, and a member of General Synod.
But marriage is about one man and one woman.
The Bible says so.
The Church of England canons say so.
Jesus says so.
You can’t just mess with that because the government has changed the law…
And somehow, we all accept that this is what the Bible says.
But does it?
The big text normally cited here is Genesis 2.24, and its New Testament appearance when quoted by Jesus in Matthew 19.
In Matthew 19, we’re told, Jesus is really clear - God made people male and female, and a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. That’s marriage. Jesus defines it. End of.
Except two things. Jesus isn’t being asked to define marriage in this passage, he’s being asked to comment on divorce. So it’s an answer to a specific question, not a general theology that he’s putting out there. And also - does anyone else have questions about the strange thing that is going on with the quotations? Jesus uses two. Genesis 1.27 and Genesis 2.24. It feels like he’s a bit free with his references - they’re neither directly from the Hebrew nor from the Septuagint - it’s preacher’s license I guess.
Or maybe he was remembering the original…
Here’s what I mean.
This is Genesis 1.27:
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
But this is Jesus’ version:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female?’
It’s shorter. Snappier. The same, but different. Is it actually a quote at all, or is he rather pointing to the general text?
Jesus is better at Genesis 2, but it’s still not word perfect.
This is what Genesis 2.24 actually says:
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
And here’s Jesus’ version:
‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’
The thing is - these verses are used to ring-fence marriage as a heterosexual institution by traditionalists, and even some allies and people who think of themselves as progressives accept that the Biblical story makes marriage about a man and a woman. The argument for equal marriage is therefore seen as a push beyond the biblical witness.
But what is going on with those quotations? Is Jesus just coming up with proof texts that make the traditionalists’ case? Does he agree with them?
Again, two answers present themselves.
As before, we have to remember that Jesus is answering a specific question. His rendering of the text in his answer may, at least in part, be due to his choice of how to answer a specific question. A question which is nothing to do with equal marriage or even a general theology of what marriage is.
But also - there’s a question of how Jesus uses Scripture in general.
What if, instead of applying proof texts to make an argument, Jesus is using headline texts? So these aren’t put forward as Bible verses providing self-contained gobbets of truth, but rather as verses which are meant to act as signposts to greater passages of text in which bigger ideas are contained?
This idea is really valuable in a conversation where Genesis 2.24 is taken as immutable reality, but Genesis 2.21-22 (Eve being made from Adam’s rib while she sleeps) is conveniently forgotten.
Every time I hear someone wanting me to accept Genesis 2.24 as a literal definition of heterosexuals-only marriage for all time, I do keep wondering: How seriously are we actually taking Genesis? Are we just taking the bits we like? I’ve actually had people respond to me - well, Jesus cherry-picked the verse, so it must be OK!
No it’s not.
And it’s not what’s going on.
In Matthew 19, Jesus headlines verses from Genesis 1 and 2. He doesn’t just pull out a couple of proof texts. He puts the whole Creation passage into play, and by doing so brings wider themes to our attention that we forget at our peril.
I hardly ever see these themes presented in contemporary discussions around so-called ‘biblical marriage’. And that’s a shame.
In Genesis 1, seven times God declares things he has made to be good. In the Genesis 2 account of creation, twice things are described as good (and there is also the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’) but for the first time there is also something that is ‘not good’. Remember, in Matthew 19 Jesus is being asked to comment on divorce, on the breaking of relationship. So he brings into play a passage of Scripture that includes the wonder of all people being made in the image of God and the joy of companionship as God’s good gift, because the thing that is ‘not good’ is -
‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’
The base-line is: God makes us for relationship. Relationship with another is good. Being alone is not good (and yes, there’s a working away from that later in in Matthew 19 - something I’ve looked at before and will come back to on another occasion - but even that contains a story of hope when rendered in Jesus’ hands).
We’ve already just touched on this. Jesus could have stayed in Genesis 2, but he brings Genesis 1 into play, because at the start of a book that is going to dive deep into the way human beings treat each other as ‘less’, and the way in which we use power and envy and sex and all sorts of things to devalue other people, we begin by stating that God does not work this way and does not intend for us to do so.
Genesis 1.27 is a text of inclusion in this reading:
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
The ‘image of God’ is equal in both male and female, without hint of hierarchy or preference. The divorce question Jesus is asked is about what a man might do to a woman; his answer begins with a reminder of God’s intention for humanity - no hierarchy or power. Both men and women carry the divine image equally. All are precious. It’s not a statement of the glory of patriarchy or heterosexuality, it’s a statement of the full humanity of all people in response to an enquiry that implies some (here, women) carry less value than others.
No, says Jesus; no-one carries less value. All are human. All are equally made in the divine image.
Using this text therefore to enforce a second-class status on some because of sexuality or gender or any other reason in any way goes against what Jesus is doing here. It’s imposition of the Scripture, not exposition. It is ‘not good’. Indeed, to enforce that some, because they don’t fit in with societal or religious ideas, must always sit outside companionship and marriage is to permanently place them in a category of ‘not good’ that this very Bible passage exists to eliminate.
Which brings us to the third point:
The rib stuff.
I love ribs. Truly, they’re of my favourite things to eat whenever I find myself travelling in the southern states in the US.
And they’re a really wonderful part of this Genesis passage. Don’t be embarrassed by awkward bits of Scripture: always spend some time with them to find if there’s anything of value to be found in their company.
There’s something really wonderful here.
A proof-text reading of this material ignores this, because it’s inconvenient, and we’re taking everything very much at face-value and literally (despite the literary form and everything we know we should be doing) and we’re missing the bigger issues.
On a face-value, literal, proof-reading reading of this text, the whole rib thing is embarrassing. We just want the good stuff about keeping marriage for a man and a woman.
(Thank goodness Jesus didn’t cherry-pick Genesis 2.21-22! Wouldn’t that have been awkward…)
I’m saying he does include that stuff, and it’s good. Very good.
He includes the whole of the Genesis 1 and 2 passage. Seeing Jesus’ references to the text as taking headline verses which point us to the whole wider passage means we have to take the entirety of opening chapters of the Bible and see how they bear upon his answer. We can’t ignore difficult things or stuff that doesn’t quite fit. Not because we have to take these verses literally as to how men and women were originally created, but because we are to understand something of the ‘why God did this’ as being vital. This isn’t about mechanics, it’s about the reasoning behind the mechanics.
Genesis 1 and 2 are poetic; they’re not an instruction manual.
They’re more about the ‘why’ than the ‘what’.
God means us to be in relationship. And the person we are to be in relationship with is not other as so much traditionalist theology demands we believe, but like us. Just like us. Made in God’s image. Another human being. We’re not meant for a bird of the air or a wild beast or a fish in the sea. We’re meant for another person. Someone like us. Bearing the same image. Flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. And the joining together again in a committed relationship is a completion of God’s good order as like finds like and knows it is home at last. This is what God calls good.
The companionship, the relationship, the love - the marriage is not with someone or something that is different - a key part of the heterosexual-only reading of all of this - but with someone who is the same. Another human person.
Bone of our bone. Flesh of our flesh.
That’s what this passage does. This whole passage. The stuff that Jesus brings in. It makes the marriage partners equal human beings.
For sure, a traditional man-woman reading is completely valid, of course. But not as an exclusive reading - not as “This and only this”, because we’re in the context of equality and inclusion (Genesis 1) and the context of the right help-mate being found for us, the one that is good, being made of the same stuff - an equal human being (Genesis 2); so the heterosexual example before us is great - but so would be a homosexual example. Inclusive and equal.
Genesis 2.24 therefore works not as “this and only this” but as “this and like this”, not as a prohibition on others but as an example for all.
* * *
We have to move away from a simple acceptance that these texts are bad for a progressive, inclusive cause.
A traditionalist reading of the ingredients on a frozen pizza can feel bad for a progressive, inclusive cause. We all come to everything with a certain expectation. But we don’t have to accept the way we are told the world works.
It’s good to challenge expectations.
The Bible is filled with good news and love for LGBTQIA+ people. Just the same as for anyone and everyone else. Because God loves people. All people. Equally.
We must refuse to accept a story that tells us anything with the words ‘the Bible says’ is automatically going to be negative for us as LGBTQIA+ people just because our experience so often has tended that way.
The truth is much, much better.
Marriage is about equal human beings finding another equal human being and discovering they have been gifted with a companion to love and be loved by, with whom to share life, to find and set up home together, to cherish one another and to bring life through their love. It is in Christ both journey and joy, work and wonder, but it is not a thing we grant some folk and keep from others.
Not according to the Scriptures, and not on Jesus’ watch.
Marcus is chaplain at Worcester College.
He is the author of The Possibility of Difference – a biblical affirmation of inclusivity (2018).