James Brownson on “one flesh” and same-sex unions

Read time: 8 minutes

Moving on…. Yesterday I summarized James Brownson’s argument that when the author of Genesis says that a man leaves his mother and father and clings to his wife so that they become “one flesh”, he does not mean that they become a sexual union; he means that they become the basis for a new family group. What lies behind the idea of the man and woman becoming “one flesh” is not their sexual complementarity for the purpose of procreation. It is their genetic similarity for the purpose of forming a new kinship bond.

He then rather muddies this elegant distinction by suggesting that there is, nevertheless, an implied link between kinship and sexuality. The one flesh relationship “flows from sexual union, but is distinct from that sexual union, and is expressed in ways that extend beyond sexual union alone” (87). The reason for this complication is that although the Hebrew word translated “cleave” or “cling” in Genesis 2:24 (dabaq) does not have sexual connotations elsewhere in scripture, Paul speaks of a man being “joined” to a prostitute so as to become “one flesh” with her (1 Cor. 6:16). The Greek word for this joining is kollaō, which is related to the verb proskollēthēsetai, meaning “will be joined” in the Septuagint translation of Genesis 2:24.

From this Brownson concludes that the “clinging” of the man to his wife entails sexual intercourse, which leads to the formation of the kinship bond. So, ‘the language of “one flesh” is not simply a euphemistic way of speaking about sexual intercourse; it is a way of speaking about the kinship ties that are related to the union of man and woman in marriage, a union that includes sexual intercourse’ (87).

This gives us “the basic moral logic underlying the Bible’s consistent rejection of sexual promiscuity”. Sexual intercourse cannot be separated from a wider context of “shared life and kinship” (88-89). Brownson also argues that “one flesh” has been explained without reference to procreation. The woman was created not so that humanity might be fruitful and multiply but to rescue man from his aloneness. Being “one flesh” does not consist in a man and a woman getting together to have sex and producing children.

We now come to Jesus’ saying about God joining man and woman together as “one flesh” (Mk. 10:5-9). Two important points are made here. First, “the permanence of the one-flesh union is analogous to all other kinship ties” (95). If “one flesh” defines a kinship group rather than sexual union, the marriage relationship is no different to the relationship between parents and children or among siblings: it carries, in principle, the same ineradicable obligations. We cannot stop being parents or children or brothers or sisters, so why should we stop being husbands and wives?

But secondly, and more fundamentally in Brownson’s view, in the prophetic tradition marriage is a figure for the relationship between God and his people: Israel is the unfaithful, adulterous wife, YHWH is the long-suffering and ultimately faithful husband (95-96). It may explain the absoluteness of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in Mark that he thought of marriage as an intentional representation of the proper relationship between God and Israel. So marriage is to be permanent because the covenant relationship is permanent.

Implications for the debate over gay and lesbian relationships

If the “one flesh” union signifies an enduring kinship bond, grounded in sexual intimacy but not subordinated to procreation, serving as an analogy for the permanence of the covenant relationship between God and his people, we now have to consider a simple but contentious question: “Can the Bible’s vision for one-flesh unions be understood in a way that can also encompass committed same-sex unions?” (104).

First, Brownson observers that there have been other occasions when the church has had to abandon normative readings of scripture: we no longer accept the Bible’s geocentric worldview; we no longer tolerate slavery as a given social normality. Since the biblical writers never envisaged same sex unions as life-long commitments similar to marriage, “it remains an open question whether the consistent reference to male and female in discussion of the one-flesh union in Scripture should be interpreted in exclusive terms” (105). Is there anything in the “one flesh” paradigm that precludes same-sex unions? Are we not bound, sooner or later, to embrace “gay marriage” in the same way that we have had to embrace heliocentrism, abolitionism, and, for that matter, egalitarianism?

Brownson has argued that the “one flesh” idea has nothing to do either with physical gender complementarity or with procreation. He also points to the use of the shared bone-and-flesh motif in the Old Testament to signify broader kinship relations. Laban, for example, says to Jacob, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” (Gen. 29:14). Why should not same-sex relations be included in this wider construct? To this extent, he suggests, “one cannot exclude other unions that involve long-term commitments to shared life from being considered under this rubric” (107).

There is no evidence (supposedly) for permanent same-sex unions in the ancient world. Instead, same-sex erotic relationships were always “marked by differences in social rank and status”, and were always “episodic rather than permanent” (107). 1 Corinthians 6:16, however, makes it clear that there is a close connection between sexual union and becoming “one flesh”, so it is not surprising that the Bible “never considers such relationships when speaking about becoming one flesh” (108).

If “one flesh”, therefore, does not in principle exclude same-sex unions, and if same-sex unions may also be “marked by the recognition of deep kinship obligations”, we at least have “an opening for further dialogue about the meaning of the one-flesh union—and the place of same-sex unions in such an understanding” (108).

I’m not sure, but…

I find Brownson’s willingness to read Genesis 2:24 in the light of Paul’s argument about sexual union with a prostitute problematic. Paul is not expounding the Old Testament verse; he is putting it to rhetorical use in a very different context, as is clear from the fact that what he really wants to say is that the man and the prostitute become “one body”. The Old Testament does not use the one flesh argument to condemn sexual promiscuity, possibly because promiscuity was not reckoned to jeopardize kinship ties. It seems to me that Brownson would have made a more straightforward case if he had kept sexual union out of the “one flesh” paradigm altogether.

But the methodology may raise a more fundamental concern. It is one thing to suggest that faithful same-sex unions are not formally excluded by the “one flesh” paradigm. It is another to read that non-exclusion back into the original conception of marriage as “one flesh”. As Brownson recognizes, the Bible nowhere contemplates faithful life-long same-sex unions, so the paradigm presupposes only heterosexual relations. If we want to say that same-sex relations are not excluded, the principle has to be retrofitted, in the same way that Brownson appears to have read sexual union back into the concept from 1 Corinthians 6:16.

The question then is: why is the paradigm so important—Brownson has devoted a whole chapter to it? If we think it is important because it is part of the creation account, then presumably we are granting it a high level of normativity. But in that case shouldn’t we also accept its presuppositions? Aren’t the presuppositions part of the concept? If we follow Brownson’s line of thought, on the other hand, and suggest that the heterosexual one flesh union is not normative, then why bother arguing for the non-exclusion of same-sex unions in the first place? I realize that this is a rather convoluted analysis, but it seems to me that there is some confusion in Brownson’s hermeneutic at this point.

The analogy with geocentrism and slavery is weakened by the fact that we have no positive, explicit, polemical repudiation of heliocentrism or abolitionism in scripture. They were unconsidered possibilities, unforeseen developments. But we do have explicit repudiations of same-sex erotic practice. Such practice was not unconsidered or unforeseen; it was a fact of ancient life.

It is true that being “one flesh” is not expressly “subordinated to the purpose of procreation” in scripture (89), but while the physical begetting of children may not be in view, kinship—as shared bone and flesh—certainly entails the idea of the extension of the family group. Also, we have the argument in Malachi, addressed to the priests, that God made the man and woman “one”—not “one flesh”, but presumably Genesis 2:24 is in mind—because he was seeking “godly offspring” (Mal. 2:15). This may limit the extent to which the “one flesh” metaphor can be reinterpreted to include same-sex unions. Yes, there are means today by which same-sex couples can raise a family, but it may be pushing the biblical argument too far to say that same sex unions may be formative for kinship groups as “one flesh”.

The argument that the shared bone-and-flesh kinship motif allows same sex unions to be understood as “one flesh” unions is flawed. Laban does not claim to be “one flesh” with Jacob; and clearly not every kinship relation can be understood in the original and formative sense that is intended in Genesis 2:24.

Having said all that, however, I think that Brownson is right to claim that this line of thought creates at least an opening for further dialogue. There appears to be a case for arguing that the one flesh union of Genesis 2:24 does not presuppose gender complementarity but accounts for kinship. I also think it is very helpful to revise our understanding of marriage so that the focus is less on the core sexual relationship and more on the wider nexus of relations and obligations.

The argument may prove difficult to make in biblical terms—we haven’t got on to the prohibition texts yet—but there is perhaps some scope for including life-long same-sex unions within a community that is required in its core relationships to model the ideal narrative of God’s commitment to his people. This would mean that “gay marriage” would have to be regarded as an important gain for the church—rather than a further step into depravity—because it registers socially a preference for faithfulness over promiscuity. But I make these points very tentatively. For now, I’m in two minds and keeping both of them open.

Rob Hutton | Fri, 01/16/2015 - 17:27 | Permalink

Wow Andrew that is seems like “academic theology” reaching seriously beyond the bounds of the plain reading of scripture. Da Vinci code move over! If you dig deep enough into individual words and phrases taking them out of the context of a passage you can end up anywhere. 

The context has to be complimentarianism — man is alone, God gives him a woman not another man. It certainly goes beyond sexual intimacy but that in no way implies her gender was a moot point. The differences between men and women surely go beyond just their genitals. It was the physical, emotional and even spiritual complimentarianism God intended to create in a marriage relationship that would inevitably (rule not exception) produce off-spring who would in turn draw their gender identity from those parents. 

It seems to me this book (which I haven’t read) and your review are “planting evidence” to create something that isn’t there. That’s a dangerous thing to do with God’s word. I’m in no way suggesting a censorship of academic pursuit, but I do rather think teachers need to be careful about making musings seem like something they are not. Unless of course you feel your posts are exempt from being teachings? 

@Rob Hutton :

If you read the post prior to this one, you’ll see that the main thing Andrew is examining is whether or not the argument holds water that the phrase “one flesh” rules out same-sex marriage because it means sexual union.

If it is true that “one flesh” does not mean sexual union, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it encapsulates same-sex marriage, but it does mean that it’s the modern evangelical reading that has been taking that phrase out of context and assigning meaning to it not intended by the author.

I think Andrew’s point is that, if “one flesh” doesn’t mean “sexual union,” it at least means it’s discussable, as you have done, as to what relationship (if any) that phrase has to same-sex marriages, and I think he’s right.  It opens up a door to discussion that wouldn’t exist if “one flesh” meant “sexual union.”

There may be other reasons to feel the passage couldn’t include same-sex marriage.  You brought one up.  But the point is that particular phrase doesn’t exclude them on the grounds of male-female sex.

@Rob Hutton :

Wow, Rob, I’m not sure I see where the problem is.

In addition to Phil Ledgerwood comments which came in as I was writing this….

I don’t think that I’ve taken words out of context. The whole argument is about words in context: on the one hand, the context of the biblical idea of shared bone and flesh to define kinship; on the other, the context of Genesis 2:21-25. There’s nothing particularly outlandish about Brownson’s contention—I just hadn’t come across it before. Gordon Wenham comments, for example:

This 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 relation between man and wife. (G.J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 71)

What you say about the complementarity of man and woman is all true, but it does not appear to be what the writer was saying when he took “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” to mean that the man and woman become “one flesh”. “One flesh” refers back to the fact that the woman was taken from the man to be a companion and helper. Nothing is said in the context about either sexual activity or procreation. In that regard, I would question the qualification “merely” in Wenham’s statement.

Apart from that, I have highlighted a number of problems with Brownson’s argument: misuse of 1 Corinthians 6:16, the attempt to include the non-exclusion of same-sex union in the Genesis paradigm, flaws in the analogy with geocentrism and slavery, the difficulty of excluding procreation, and so on. These may well invalidate his attempt to extend “one flesh” to same-sex unions, but if “one flesh” has more to do with kinship than sexuality, it seems worth thinking through the implications of this (minor) paradigm shift for same-sex relations. Is that so irresponsible?