Reading the Bible in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

by Terence Diggory

I. Continuing the Conversation

The debate about same-sex marriage has brought to the fore certain passages of Scripture that have not previously featured prominently in debate about the Bible and homosexuality.  These are passages that relate to marriage but have nothing to say about homosexuality directly.  Nevertheless, like the familiar “clobber passages” traditionally taken to condemn homosexuality, the passages on marriage have been cited as conversation-stoppers, on both sides of the debate.

Conservatives are fond of citing Genesis 2 as proof that marriage between a man and a woman is intended as part of the order of creation.  Then, lest there be any doubt about the relevance of this passage (which never explicitly refers to marriage), they cite Mark 10 (or its parallel in Matthew 19) to remind us that Jesus read Genesis 2 as a text about marriage when he preached against divorce.  End of conversation.

Not so fast! warn the liberals.  What has the Reformed tradition made of Jesus’ strictures against divorce?  Are you willing to go back to your congregation and condemn divorce as vehemently as you condemn same-sex marriage?  At which point the conservative is supposed to tacitly admit defeat and withdraw to the sobering study of membership rolls.

If we are willing to admit that this double caricature contains a grain of truth, I hope we can also recognize the dangers it conceals: the temptation not only to stop conversation with each other, but also to stop reading the Bible, because we know what it says and which passages are apt to support “our” side in debate.  On the other hand, our debates might actually bring great benefit, well-beyond the settling of whatever the question at hand may be, if they serve as conversation starters that send us back to examine familiar passages of Scripture with fresh eyes.

In that spirit, I offer here my current reading of Genesis 2 and Mark 10 in an effort to keep the conversation going with people who will disagree with me as well as with those who will agree.  So far, my reading has not altered my belief that same-sex marriage is consistent with God’s intention for marriage.  But my reading has considerably expanded my understanding of God’s redemptive inclusiveness, beyond the confines of sexuality, and of the ways that intention can be traced throughout the Bible.  The Bible itself, we should remember, took shape as a conversation that believers today have a responsibility to keep going.

II. Genesis 2: The Order of Creation

We bring questions to any text we read.  As a professor of literature, now retired, I encouraged my students to listen for a question that the text seemed to be asking before determining the “meaning,” that is, the answer to the question.  This principle is all the more important when we approach the Bible listening for the voice of God.  We may approach with a particular question in mind—for instance, “what is marriage?”—but sometimes God answers a different question than the one we thought we were asking.  In my view, this pattern underlies the complex relationship between human authorship and divine inspiration in the Bible.  A human author asks a question; God answers by redirecting the question, or expanding it.  This is not to say that God is devious.  Rather, the finite human text necessarily opens up in response to the infinite Word.

Just how narrow a question might prompt such a dialogue is evident in the continuation of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis 3, when the serpent is condemned to crawl on its belly as punishment for its role in tempting Eve to disobedience.  This is what Rudyard Kipling called a “just so” story or what modern folklore scholars call an etiological story, a story of origin.  The underlying question is, “How did such a strange thing as the snake’s mode of locomotion come about?”  Strangeness or distinctiveness is usually the stimulus for such stories (Kipling asked how the camel got its hump, how the leopard got its spots).  Attention is drawn to features of the world that somehow do not seem natural or logical.  The story’s function is to express the strangeness, not to offer a scientific explanation.  However, in Genesis 3 we can already detect a broadening of the question’s original scope by way of a theological explanation.  The serpent’s punishment is a counterpart to the equally strange conditions faced by the woman and the man.  Why should the birth of a child, that joyous event, be accompanied by so much pain?  Why should the obtaining of food, that natural necessity, require such a seemingly unnatural amount of labor?  The theological explanation of all of these strange conditions is of course that an unnatural tear (in both senses of that word) has damaged the fabric of nature as a result of human disobedience.

Reading back from these fairly obvious lessons of Genesis 3 can help us re-read what is apparently less obvious in the “marriage” passage of Genesis 2—I say apparently, because it has received very little attention in recent discussion of the passage.  That the passage is etiological may seem too obvious to mention: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).1  What deserves mention, and more attention, is that this account, like the etiological stories of Genesis 3, originates in the perception of something  strange.  The form of the answer suggests that the originating question was not “Why should a man seek a woman?”—which can be explained naturally enough—but rather, “Why should a man seek a woman outside his original family?” The problem is not joining with a woman, but rather leaving father and mother.

Psychologically, it should still be possible for us to enter the mindset of this problem.  The family in which a child has been raised has provided for the child’s every need; it is the basis for the only security the child has ever known.  Why should the child, upon reaching maturity, leave that security behind and seek out a stranger?  Historically, we must grant the extra weight that this problem must have carried among ancient people for whom family was, quite literally, everything.  Anthropologically, this problem takes us to the very origin of human culture in the taboo against incest.  The message is not simply that man and woman “fit” together.2 Rather, the woman who in so many ways seems most fit for a man, his mother, is not fit to be his mate.

Theologically, the question “Why should a man leave his family?” is answered in Genesis 2 by turning the question inside out.  What may feel like leaving the family, defined as “father and mother,” is in fact a return to a mode of family that has priority in the order of creation, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23), as Adam describes Eve when God first presents her to him.  To appreciate the meaning of this kinship does not require a literal reading of the story of Adam’s rib, any more than an appreciation of imperfection in nature requires belief in an originally perfect serpent who walked upright and spoke human speech.  What matters is that Adam, in the light of God’s intention, recognizes Eve as a “helper” (ezer; Gen 2: 18).  To render the full phrase found in the Hebrew, ezer kenegdo, the NRSV falls into redundancy: “a helper as his partner.”  The original carries more force, which is nicely captured by the new translation found in the Common English Bible: “a helper that is perfect for him.”

In the light of the present debate about marriage, it also matters that the initial bond between Adam and Eve is not described as sexual.  Adam’s expression, “bone [etsem] of my bones and flesh [basar] of my flesh,” is a kinship formula, used elsewhere to describe, for instance, the bond between Laban and Jacob (Genesis 29:14) or the bond between David and the tribes of Israel (2 Samuel 5:1).3  Becoming “one flesh,” in Genesis 2:24, invokes this primal bond.  A sexual bond, if it is implied at all, attaches more clearly to the “father and mother,” because they produced the man who leaves them behind in order to “cling to” his wife.  As for that “clinging” [dabaq], it, too, invokes a feeling of kinship rather than a sexual act, as when Ruth “clung to” [dabaq] her mother-in-law, Naomi (Ruth 1:14).4 Even the terms “man” and “wife,” as they are used in Genesis 2:24, refer to the primal bond embodied in Adam and Eve rather than the sexual bond of “father and mother.”  The terms translated as “man” and “wife” in Genesis 2:24 are the same terms (ish and ishshah) that are explained by folk etymology (another version of etiology) in Genesis 2:23: “This one shall be called Woman [ishshah], for out of Man [ish] this one was taken.”  The translation “wife,” in Genesis 2:24, hinges on the attachment of a grammatical possessive form: “his woman” is taken to mean “his wife.”  But in the context of this story, it could just as well mean “the helper that is perfect for him.”

In view of these considerations, Genesis 2:24 does not appear to me to offer unequivocal authority for declaring heterosexual intercourse to be a necessary condition of marriage.  Does the text explicitly condone same-sex marriage?  No.  But I believe it opens the door in two important respects.  First, on the basis of this text, the primary condition for marriage—indeed, the only condition, I would argue—is that the partners recognize each other as “one flesh” in the way that Adam recognizes Eve.  “They were meant for each other,” is the conventional expression at wedding receptions, an expression that by its passive construction politely evades the bold assertion that God meant them for each other.  Homosexual as well as heterosexual couples report the joy of recognizing each other in these terms.  An understanding of marriage that starts with such recognition may bring the law of the church closer to God’s intention.

The second respect in which Genesis 2:24 opens the door to same-sex marriage concerns the church even more directly.  If we think of the church as “the family of God”– another conventional expression—then the message about family in Genesis 2:24 fits a larger pattern in which someone is sent out, like the man leaving father and mother, to embrace a stranger who becomes (or is already, in God’s view) family.  I have already noted that the word translated as “cling” [dabaq] in the NRSV is the same word that applies to Ruth’s attachment to Naomi (Ruth 1:14). The story of Ruth is a story of the crossing of boundaries, first when the Jewish family of Naomi journeys to Moab to escape the famine; then when Naomi’s son marries Ruth, a non-Jew; and finally when Ruth, after her husband’s death, commits herself to staying with Naomi when the latter returns to her homeland.

From the perspective of a strictly patriarchal culture, women themselves stood on the far side of a dangerous boundary, so it is not surprising that they became associated with the crossing of national boundaries at times of crisis for the Jewish people.  The only two books of the Bible named after women, Ruth and Esther, both revolve around marriages in which a Jew has taken a non-Jewish spouse, and both of those marriages open a path to salvation for God’s people.  In response to questions about marriage, the human authors of the Bible kept getting answers that were much broader in scope.  Finally, Jesus brought the message that all of the nations (gentiles) were to be included in the new covenant that was early on understood in terms of marriage (Eph 5:32).

As Jeffrey Siker and others have argued, there are striking parallels between the debate among early Jewish followers of Jesus about the inclusion of gentiles in the new covenant and the debate among Christians today about the church’s welcome to homosexual persons, including their inclusion in the covenant of marriage.5   While I would affirm that parallel, I would also emphasize that what is at stake is much more than an ethic of inclusion—an ethic that conservative Christians sometimes view suspiciously as an attempt by liberals to impose secular, non-Scriptural values on the church.  Rather, what is at stake is nothing less than God’s ongoing work of redemption.

The question is not only who is to be saved but also where is salvation to be found.  Again and again, the Bible locates salvation beyond customary boundaries, whether they be geographical—Joseph’s Egypt, Ruth’s Moab, Esther’s Persia—or psychological: “a man leaves his father and his mother” (Gen 2:24).   Awaiting him elsewhere is the “helper that is perfect for him,” an ezer who provides a means of redemption in keeping with the plan of God, who is the ezer of his people (Psalm 121:1-2).6 Jesus places himself in this position when he promises eternal life to anyone “who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake” (Mark 10:29; cf. Matt 19:29).  Being disciples of Jesus means following him outside our comfort zone and recognizing him in the stranger we are called to embrace.

III. Mark 10 (parallel Matthew 19): Marriage and Divorce

To help us recognize Jesus as he calls us today, we have the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels to guide us.  What Jesus says about marriage in the Gospels is surely relevant to the question of whether the covenant of marriage may be extended to same-sex couples, though it cannot be directly relevant because, as liberal apologists repeatedly remind us, there is no record that Jesus ever spoke explicitly about homosexuality.  The relevance that conservatives claim for the discussion of divorce in Mark 10 (and Matthew 19) is that Jesus speaks of the married couple as “male and female” (Mark 10:6) with reference to Genesis 1:27, and thereby appears to affirm heterosexual marriage as belonging to the order of creation.7 Of course, the question, “Who may marry?” is already one step away from the question that is actually asked by the Pharisees in the text: “Who may divorce?”  At least it is clear enough, in this case, that a question has been asked.  However, Jesus’ response expands the scope of the question at least as broadly as God’s Word in Genesis transcends the question of why the snake crawls on its belly.

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” ask the Pharisees (Mark 10:2).  At the simplest level, they are asking a question about divorce, but since their purpose is to test Jesus, we can attribute to them a deeper question, “How well do you know the law?”  Jesus turns this question back on them by asking them to cite a relevant passage from the Torah, and they respond by citing the recognition of divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.  With the law now clearly in focus, Jesus makes the astonishing move of stepping beyond the law.  Moses’s acceptance of divorce, Jesus says, was a concession to people’s “hardness of heart” (Mark 10:5)– yet another consequence, we can assume, of the Fall.  But before the Fall God had already created the human heart to yield to another in the relationship represented by Adam and Eve, a relationship that involves not only two human beings but also God.  By citing Genesis 1:27, “male and female he [God] created them,” Jesus emphasizes, not the difference between the two sexes, but rather the participation of both sexes in the one image of God in which they were created: “God created humankind in his image” (Gen 1:27).

Presumably, the same emphasis carries over to Jesus’s second citation, of Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Mark 10: 8). “For this reason” or “therefore” is part of the text Jesus is citing, where it refers to the creation of Eve as Adam’s ezer.  That is, two people come together as “one flesh” not because one is a man and the other is a woman but “for this reason,” because God intends “a helper that is perfect” for each person.  This must be the reason to which Jesus refers in his additional “Therefore”: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10: 9).

The more Jesus emphasizes the perfection of God’s intention, the less perfect the law appears.  However, in a world of imperfect human beings, the law retains its purpose as long as its imperfection is humbly recognized.  Thus, Jesus’s conclusion, “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10: 9), is not, as the reformers understood, an absolute proscription against divorce.8  Rather, it is a reminder that some couples are truly “meant for each other,” and human judges should be wary about interfering with that intention.  But we cannot infer God’s intention merely from the fact that a couple is married, because marriage law, which includes the law of divorce, reflects human imperfection.  If we are to be wary of interfering with God’s intention in the consideration of divorce, should we not be equally wary in the consideration of who may marry?  The same-sex couple who seek a service of Christian marriage are testifying that God has put them together.

To read Jesus’s lesson to the Pharisees as a proscription either of divorce or of same-sex marriage is to reduce Jesus to the status of Moses, that is, to treat him as a law-giver rather than a savior.  The context of the discussion of divorce, in both Mark 10 and Matthew 19, makes it clear that the question that Jesus is answering is not, “How may I obey the law?” but rather “How may I enter the kingdom of heaven?”—that is, a question of salvation.  Immediately following the discussion of divorce, we get the scene in which Jesus welcomes little children.  “Truly I tell you,” says Jesus, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15).   The implication, I take it, is that the kingdom is to be received meekly, as a gift (“Blessed are the meek”: Matt 5:5), rather than demanded as something earned.

This lesson becomes more explicit in the next encounter, between Jesus and the rich man who claims he has kept all the commandments of the law.  To enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells him, he must go beyond the law, sell all that he owns, “and give the money to the poor” (Mark 10:21).  Jesus knows that this demand will be impossible for the rich man to fulfill, just as he knows that his pronouncements about marriage are impossibly strict.  The latter point becomes especially clear in the abbreviated discussion of marriage that appears in Luke, in the context of an explicit warning to those who would enter the kingdom of heaven “by force” through strict obedience to the law (Luke 16:16-18).  The point about salvation, as Jesus explains in both Mark and Matthew, is that “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).  This is the point at which Jesus promises salvation to those who leave father and mother, like the man in Genesis 2:24, and find their ezer in Jesus.  In this context, leaving the comfort zone of father and mother equates with leaving the comfort zone defined by the law and accepting the freedom and the responsibility that come with membership in the kingdom of heaven.

IV. Living for the Kingdom under the Law

In the debate about same-sex marriage, the question of law comes up in a way that can easily obscure the relevance of Jesus’s teaching about the law.  As more and more states recognize same-sex marriage under civil law, Christians face the question of how civil law relates to the law of the church.  Should the church authorize clergy to conduct a service of Christian marriage for a same-sex couple who are eligible for marriage under civil law?  From the conservative perspective, there is a strong inclination to insist that the church is responsible for upholding God’s law, which, in this case, conservatives understand to differ from civil law about eligibility for marriage.  Therefore, such reasoning concludes, clergy should not conduct a service of Christian marriage for a same-sex couple.

The problem with drawing a simple dichotomy between church law and civil law is that it risks identifying church law with the kingdom of heaven.  We need to remember that the law of Moses, which Jesus criticizes in his discussion of divorce, was “church law” for the Jews, who did not recognize a distinction between sacred and civil except when it was forced upon them by foreign occupation.  From Jesus’s perspective, our church law today would have the same limitations as the law of Moses, and the same purpose, namely, to order the lives of fallen human beings with their “hardness of heart” (Mark 10:5).  Acknowledging its share in the imperfections of civil law, as a human institution, church law should cooperate with civil law in their common purpose—again, a repeated theme of the early reformers.  Such cooperation would include lending the sanction of the church to marriages authorized by civil law.

But what about the kingdom of heaven?  Surely the church’s responsibility to guide people on the path to salvation is more important than its responsibility to assist in the ordering of civil society?  I would agree, and on the basis of the passages from Scripture that I have examined here, I would argue that marriage itself is one means of offering such a guide in the companion or ezer that God intends for each person.  It is only one means; God apparently does not intend everyone to marry.  It must be possible to find one’s ezer in roles other than that of marriage partner.  And the partnership of marriage is apparently only a means to salvation, not the end, since “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt. 22:30).  Nevertheless, I believe it is wrong for the church to deny this means to any couple, regardless of gender, who testify that God has put them together.  “What God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10: 9).

At least, that is the conclusion I draw from my present reading of these passages of Scripture.  But I offer this reading as just one moment in what I hope will be part of an ongoing conversation.

Dr. Terry Diggory recently retired as Professor of English at Skidmore College, where he taught modern literature and held a chair inTerry Diggory interdisciplinary studies. His specialty is modern poetry. He is a ruling elder in the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs, New York, a former moderator of Albany Presbytery, and “communications hub” for Presbyterian Rainbow, an inclusive organization in Albany Presbytery.


Thanks to the members of the Marriage Study group of Albany Presbytery and the adult education class at First United Presbyterian Church, Troy, who invited me into conversation that helped me formulate the ideas presented here.

1. Except in one instance noted below, I cite the New Revised Standard Version as published in The HarperCollins Study Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).  The introduction to Genesis in this edition (4) notes the symmetrical placement of etiology in Genesis 2 and 3.

2. Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2001), emphasizes anatomical “fittedness” (139).

3. William Stacy Johnson, A Time to Embrace: Same-Gender Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 146, 292n98.

4. Johnson, 145-46.

5. Jeffrey S. Siker, “Homosexual Christians, the Bible, and Gentile Inclusion: Confessions of a Repenting Heterosexist,” in Siker, ed., Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1994). 178-94.

6. Johnson, 118.

7. Gagnon, 193-96.

8.  John Witte, Jr., From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 67.

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