Monday, August 3, 2009

One flesh - what does it really mean?

While we are on the subject of sex, I had a hunch today, as I was working on 1 Cor 6:12-20, that everyone I was reading was being to quick to assume Paul's quotation of Genesis 2:24 was a reference to sex. Now given that the context is a discussion of the theological reasons for not having sex with prostitutes that is perhaps understandable. But it also highlight that among modern Christians "becoming one flesh" has become a euphemism for sex, and perhaps consequently sexual activity has become the defining characteristic of marriage. See for example this or this, both extremely interesting articles from Christianity today. So on this hunch I thought I would consult an expert on what was really meant by one flesh in Gen 2:24. For the Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham, becoming one flesh, "does not denote merely the sexual union that follows marriage, or the children conceived in marriage, or even the spiritual and emotional relationship that it involves, though all are involved in becoming one flesh. Rather it affirms that just as blood relations are one’s flesh and bone... so marriage creates a similar kinship between man and wife.” [From his Genesis 1-15 commentary, p 71]

So a Biblical view of marriage is not first and foremost about having sex, although that is included, but first and foremost about being family. Joined together, as one flesh, committed and interdependent. I believe this truth, properly applied, could be transformational for many Christian marriages. What do you think?

Now all I have to do is figure out how this changes my understanding of 1 Cor 6:12-20!


  1. Very interesting. Certainly the 'creation of a new flesh-family' meaning is basic as far as the Gen 2 reference is concerned, but I'd have thought that the context of 1 Cor 6 ('sinning against their own body' and 'honour God in your body') would strongly suggest an emphasis on a body slant to 'one flesh' rahter than a family slant?

    And it would seem to me that even if the meaning in Gen 2 is primarily a 'new flesh-family' sense, this wouldn't conflict with readings/uses of the phrase such as a 'new body-union' (if this is indeed how Paul uses it)?

  2. Yes i know what you mean, and maybe i am just going against the grain, but something doesn't fit fopr ,me at the moment and i just had a hunch this might be a key. Apart from this Genesis quote, there is also a possible allusion to Hosea 3:1-3 in the final few phrases. The real issue is, is if Paul is thinking only of sex, why does he only single out sex with a prostitute rather than any sex outside of marriage? What difference does it make if it is with a prostitue or just with some random person or with another mans wife? Of course it is more than possible that the porstitute is just a cipher for any 'immoral' woman but i've not seen anyone argue that.

    It could just be the stage i'm at in my exegesis that i'm a bit discombobulated and i've lost sight of things that are obvious to everyone else. but then sometimes those things which are obvious to everyone else need smashing with a big hammer, cos they may be obvious but they aint true!

  3. The reason Paul talks about a prostitute in 1 Corinthians is because prostitution was the major issue in that town. The Temple of Aphrodite with its sacred prostitutes was based there. If he was addressing a different sexual problem, then one assumes the same principal applies...

  4. Anon, actually the latest historical/archaeological research suggests that Corinth wasn't much different in that respect to any other Greco-Roman city of the time, although it certainly had a reputation to that effect. See Murphy-O'Connor's important book "St Paul's Corinth." Preachers like to schock congregation with acounts of Corinths depravity, but really there is no factual basis for it.

  5. Paul in Corinthians only quotes Gen 2;24 partially. No Leave and cleave! Why? Could it be that marriage is leave, cleave then one flesh?
    Paul van der Merwe