Marriage is an interesting topic when approached through the lens of the Bible. Those unfamiliar with the holy text are often surprised that the bible doesn’t really support it. Yes, men and women form a life long (hopefully) relationship and yes, there is talk of a wedding feast and certain political and family arrangements around the two groups to whom the male and female belong but the actual ‘how’ of a marriage is left to the readers imagination. The cold hard truth of biblical married union is this, a man sleeps with a women, it’s an event that is private but also publicly acknowledged and often planed and they are husband and wife, man and woman.
Occasionally the question is asked, is monogamy biblical? After all,we read that many of the biblical patriarchs have more than one wife or ‘concubine’, more than one sexual partner within a certain time frame. Was it the Creators intention for man to have many ‘wives’ or one ‘wife’?
To be utterly honest it’s isn’t an easy question to answer ‘scripturally’ because there is no out and out answer and there are so many scenarios that seed the many stories we read featuring multiple females ‘wed’ to one male. But we can try to untangle the knots and to do that I’m going to start at the beginning, literally.
Genesis 2:24 Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh.
(* we shall ignore for now the difficult ‘father and mother’ part of this verse, as Adam and Eve didn’t have either 🙂 )
.. and shall Cleave to his Wife
A man shall cleave to his wife? There are to my mind 2 words we need to quickly explore to find out a) what is meant by cleave and 2) if wife means wife or wives. Lets start with (b) first. The short answer is yes, it means wife (one person) and not wives (a group) but if we wanted to we could still imagine a relationship in which a man could ‘cleave’ to more than one wife.. right? Well, we really need to find out what cleave means and that will be the focus of this short post.
To cleave (dabaq) features some 54 (give or take a couple) times in the hebrew bible and means to bond, stick, stay close, deeply attract and stay steadfast. It is a word meaning that gives the picture of two things that once placed together are now fixed and not to separate. As with all bible study, one of the best ways to understand a word or phrase or idiom is to explore the other places it is used. As with any study, the best way to understand a subject is to study around the subject.
6 Only take courage, and be careful to observe all things that are written in the book of the law of Moses: and turn not aside from them neither to the right hand nor to the left:
7 Lest after that you are come in among the Gentiles, who will remain among you, you should swear by the name of their gods, and serve them, and adore them:
8 But cleave ye unto the Lord your God: as you have done until this day.
9 And then the Lord God will take away before your eyes nations that are great and very strong, and no man shall be able to resist you.
31 I cleave unto thy testimonies; YHVH, let me not be ashamed.
1 If there rise in the midst of thee a prophet or one that saith he hath dreamed a dream, and he foretell a sign and a wonder,
2 And that come to pass which he spoke, and he say to thee: Let us go and follow strange gods, which thou knowest not, and let us serve them:
3 Thou shalt not hear the words of that prophet or dreamer: for the Lord your God trieth you, that it may appear whether you love him with all your heart, and with all your soul, or not.
4 Follow the Lord your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and hear his voice: him you shall serve, and to him you shall cleave.
5 And that prophet or forger of dreams shall be slain: because he spoke to draw you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage: to make thee go out of the way, which the Lord thy God commanded thee: and thou shalt take away the evil out of the midst of thee.
6 If thy brother the son of thy mother, or thy son, or daughter, or thy wife that is in thy bosom, or thy friend, whom thou lovest as thy own soul, would persuade thee secretly, saying: Let us go, and serve strange gods, which thou knowest not, nor thy fathers,
7 Of all the nations round about, that are near or afar off, from one end of the earth to the other,
8 Consent not to him, hear him not, neither let thy eye spare him to pity and conceal him,
9 But thou shalt presently put him to death. Let thy hand be first upon him, and afterwards the hands of all the people.
10 With stones shall he be stoned to death: because he would have withdrawn thee from the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage:
11 That all Israel hearing may fear, and may do no more any thing like this.
These are only a couple of the examples in which we find the word Cleave used, to be utterly honest, within the 50+ uses it is often used to denote the physical presence of one item to another for example, the tongue to the roof of a mouth or pursuing party to it’s target. I’ve focused on the spiritual and emotion use of the word as one would expect within a partnership. What I found was that this word, outside of the Genesis use is only used again, within this context, when speaking about a persons relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What can we glean from this short study? Well I have to say, I find it hard to believe that when ‘Cleave’ was used within Joshua, Psalms and Deuteronomy is was referring to more that one God or Torah. That the Joshua passage meant in truth, ‘but cleave ye unto the Lord your God (and other Gods)’ seems wholly pointless. That David would pray, ‘I cleave to your testomonies, YHVH (and some other ones)’ simply beggars belief.
I’m happy with my conclusion that God designed man to have one partner. After all He never commanded man to take more than one. I’m content with the textual evidence that we are built to ‘cleave’ physically and emotionally with one human being as a partner and spiritually with the One God. It makes a beautiful sense to me.
However, it’s hard to understand why, when that seems so obvious a conclusion, we see so many patriarchs and their family members taking so many wives and partners. As a good friend of mine pointed out, ‘remember, those relationships never ended well’. While we are, I believe, designed for a single love, partner, spouse.. I don’t think the Creator is against a man taking another so long as that man looks after that person with as much love and care as his first. The Torah is filled with empty spaces in which the Creator could have said ‘that’s not a great idea’ and warned against it, Korach seeked promotion and let us not mention Lots daughters. There should always be room when we are reading the Bible to remember the context and the culture. Times change. Adam had one partner, Noah had one partner and by the time we get to Abraham it was common to have more than one wife to ensure a large stable of sons.
To my mind, I can only ‘cleave’ to one party and to try to bond with another turns my ‘cleaving’ them to ‘leaving’ them.