What does God think about divorce, incest, polygamy, and bestiality? Over the years, readers of the Bible have used Gen 2:24 as a lens through which to view these issues. More recently, Gen 2:24 has become a “go-to” text on the issue of homosexuality, despite the fact that the passage never mentions the word.
Scholarly views about the meaning of Gen 2:24 vary greatly. One thing that all agree on is that Gen 2:24 is an etiology, a text that explains something. Most scholars also agree that Gen 2:24 was added by an editor working later than the primary author of Gen 2, perhaps to address the needs of a later audience. What is it that Gen 2:24 explains? This is where scholarly opinion begins to diverge.
Some scholars think that Gen 2:24 functions as a normative definition of marriage—though it should also be noted that the word marriage appears nowhere in the text. According to this view, Gen 2:24 defines marriage as being between two people of different genders and from different families, for life, to the exclusion of all others. The thinking goes that by implication this definition excludes any other form of relationship, so that Gen 2:24 tells us that “marriage” between two men or two women, for example, falls outside God’s plans for humankind revealed in creation.
By this logic, one would then also have to agree that no married couple could ever live with the husband’s family (“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife…” Gen 2:24), yet we know that in ancient Israel, as in many other cultures, couples did continue to live patrilocally—that is, with the husband’s family, where his inheritance of land would have been.
Other scholars disagree, arguing either that Gen 2:24 has nothing to do with marriage at all or, if it is an etiology about marriage, that it does not intend to provide a normative definition of marriage. In other words, Gen 2:24 is a descriptive explanation (this is what does happen) rather than normative explanation (this is what must happen.)
For those scholars who don’t believe that Gen 2:24 is about marriage, Gen 2:24 explains quite a different phenomenon—the strength of the attraction between human beings. This attraction is the result of the way that God made men and women. Humanity was at first constituted in a single adam, or “earth creature,” but was separated into genders by God in order to solve the problem created by the adam being alone (Gen 2:18). This creative process leads to an attraction between human beings that is so strong that each one must “leave” (the Hebrew word is stronger, more like abandon or forsake) their parents and “cleave” to their mate, to become a new family unit. And remember that one of the primary responsibilities of Israelites was to honor their parents (Exod 20:12), not to abandon them!
The difference between these approaches to interpreting Gen 2:24 is striking. Though some interpret Gen 2:24 as a prescriptive verse, describing how marriage must be and how people must act, others interpret it as an acknowledgement that people do not always form relationships as their parents, or their religious values, would have them do. They may choose a partner of the “wrong’ gender” or ethnicity or religion. The drive to do this is the result of God’s actions in creation.