Does ‘One-Flesh’ Mean Conjugal Union or Merely Fictive Kinship?

Throughout the history of Christianity the “one flesh” union of marriage has always been understood as a conjugal union—that is, marriage is fundamentally sexual involving the covenanted union of the bodies of one male and one female in a procreative bond. This is the understanding that has prevailed over the last 2,000 years of church history in nearly every branch of the Christian tradition—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Nevertheless, in the twentieth-century, revisionist accounts of marriage have appeared with many arguing that marriage is not necessarily conjugal.

One argument employed to advance the idea that marriage is not conjugal involves a novel interpretation of the phrase “one flesh” (‎בָשָׂ֥ר אֶחָֽד) in Genesis 2:24. Many modern interpreters now view “one flesh” not as bodily union but as so-called “fictive kinship.” For example, in his 1998 book From Epic to Canon, Frank Moore Cross argues that the one-flesh union of marriage does not refer to “carnal union” but to “kinship” (p. 8). It is the covenant, not the union of bodies, that puts into effect the legal fiction of affinal relation. Likewise Sandra Richter, in her 2008 book The Epic of Eden, argues that marriage is “fictional kinship.” The marriage covenant is entered into not by promise and consummation but “simply by means of a legal agreement” (p. 72). In his 2013 book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, James Brownson makes the “kinship” interpretation of “one flesh” the basis for his understanding and endorsement of so-called “gay marriage.” He argues that “The ‘one-flesh’ union spoken of in Genesis 2:24 connotes, not physical complementarity, but a kinship bond” (p. 32).

My paper will argue against this stream of interpretation and will show that “one-flesh” in Genesis 2:24 denotes conjugal union, which in turn consummates an affinal relation. I will show this thesis through exegesis of Genesis 2:24 and through an explanation of the use of this text in Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 6, and Ephesians 5. I will show that the New Testament’s use of “one-flesh” language presumes that it refers to a conjugal union.

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