Becoming One Flesh

Jan van Eyck. “Adam and Eve,” details of the Ghent altarpiece.

In the Christian tradition there is a persistent notion that sex is shameful, or at best a necessary evil. This attitude does not  come from Judaism or Jesus. It developed early in the Western church along with devaluation of women in church affairs. What does Scripture really have to say about sex?

At the beginning of the Bible there is a lot of sex going on with no hint of shame, only fruitfulness, abundance, and the acts of a generous God. Procreation is part of being alive, even the seed- bearing plants, and trees bearing fruit with the seed in it. The seed, the seed, sex! There is no hint of shame in Genesis.

God creates the water and air; animals on the fifth day; and the land animals, including humans, on day six. God directly bids them, be fertile and increase (Genesis 1:20-28). Human beings, however, have two further characteristics evidently unique to our species: we are made in the image of God, man and women equally so (“male and female, He created them”). Furthermore, we are charged to fill the Earth and master it, to learn all we can about the Earth and its creatures and to be in charge of their well-being. Evidently, the success of God’s creation depends on our species alone (Genesis 1:29-31). Human sexuality is associated with ecological responsibility, not shame.

The first mention of shame in the Bible comes in the next chapter, when man and woman are married. Just after the wedding, the man and his wife were naked in front of each other, yet they felt no shame (Genesis 2:31). Here at least is a naked-shame association. Though it is true we must get naked to have sex, it is not true that “naked” and “sex” are the same thing. However, many in the Christian faith have ignored this distinction, and have interpreted this verse as being about sex and its inherent shamefulness. But this cannot be the case.

Judaism has a persistent democratic and universalist streak (S.J.D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishmah). It used to be the obligation of everyone in Hebrew society to know and study the Torah, no exceptions (Exodus 19:6, Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Rabbis would have wanted to convey to everyone, irrespective of educational status, that the first man and woman had no thoughts about anything at this stage of human evolution; even though they were standing naked in front of each other, they felt no shame. The man and woman of the creation narrative are like the other animal species in this regard. They have no knowledge of themselves and make no judgments.

Why was it important for the rabbis to get these ideas across to their congregations? Because the situation is about to change for the couple, and their eyes will be opened in the revelations that follow in Genesis chapter 3. The human animal is about to become self-aware, and this dramatic telling of the evolution of language is important for the development of a serious religious life.

The shame-sex interpretation we often hear is flawed given the story that follows, because man and woman do not have children right away. They need a kind of schooling first. When sex does take place in the Bible, there is no equivocation. The signal words are either the commandment “be fruitful and multiply” or dialog such as “Now the man knew his wife.” Nakedness in the Bible is not about sex, it is about distress, as can be seen in the following Genesis and gospel narratives (Genesis 3:9-10 and Matthew 25:31-46).

Adam has previously started his schooling, been put to the test, and learned about science; he names the animals as God creates them and has noticed that among them, no fitting helper was found (Genesis 2:20). The first man has discovered he is alone, and has been guided by God to know this experimentally (as George Fox would later write in his Journal).

But God has previously said “it is not good for the man to be alone.” God dismantles the man’s body, and fashions a rib into a woman. Adam is overjoyed to meet his new mate and calls her Woman, for he understands that from man was she taken (Genesis 2:18-23). Man has been made aware that he has a woman in him.

Now I must ask my readers to suspend all stereotypes of the next part of the story, handed down to us by centuries of misguided doctrine. The stereotype goes something like this: Since woman was taken from man, it logically must follow that women in general are secondary to men. Well might this be, unless “a man” then does something to reciprocate.

This is just what he does: a man (“Adam” in Hebrew means “a man”) leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). While woman has been taken from man, now a man must leave his parents and cling to his wife, in order to create the helping relationship that is the foundation of human society. Adam must go back to his rib and heal its lack: “they become one flesh.”

Just as Adam has been made aware of the woman in him, now, reciprocally, the woman has been made aware of the man in her, demonstrated by the symbolic union of man and woman. Could this not be the drama of the male and female archetypes of which God (and the rabbis) want us to be aware?

eyck eveSome people might think that the phrase “become one flesh” refers to the heterosexual sexual act. The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t fit with the narrative that led up to this event. “Becoming one flesh” means the banishment of alone-ness and the creation of helpfulness. Human beings are to live together, in a society whose character is helpfulness. “Becoming one flesh” is a testimony of community.

Nor does Adam’s clinging to the woman refer to the exclusivity of heterosexual marriage. “Adam” and “Woman” are not persons as such, but universal archetypes of the human race. They are the psychological valences that operate in everyone regardless of the type of genitalia we happen to possess. The story warns us that without the equal participation of the male and female voice in human affairs we cannot expect “life and prosperity,” only “death and disaster” (Deuteronomy 30:15).

A whole new chapter of Genesis now ensues in which no children are produced. This is very strange, for if “becoming one flesh” means heterosexual sex, children of the couple would immediately follow according to biblical protocol (Genesis 4.1). Sex is a joyful and creative event in biblical narratives. It is preceded by the generous word of God, who declares “let there be,” seven times no less (Genesis 1.3-26). Shame and devaluing women are not in biblical narratives about sex.

There is no excuse in the Christian faith for regarding sex as inherently shameful. What is shameful about sex is its misuse. This would include sex that tears apart relationships, including regarding women as less than men, or excluding persons from any rite of the church because of an inborn and harmless sexual orientation. Misuse goes against what sex is supposed to do according to scripture: build community.

There are many rules in the Bible designed to prevent destructive sex—for example, the Seventh Commandment. When we put our minds and hearts to study these rules, it is clear that every one of them is there to protect and ensure the continuity of community among all of us. This is perfectly in keeping with biblical narratives about reproduction that are uniformly joyful, abundant, generous—and never shameful.

William H. Mueller

William H. Mueller taught biological and behavioral sciences at University of Texas School of Public Health. His writing can be found in several Quaker periodicals. He and his wife Pat edit a prison ministry newsletter, "Inlook-Outlook," and are members of St. Lawrence Valley Meeting in Potsdam, N.Y.

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