by Dr Meg Warner, Old Testament Theologian, Member of General Synod and author of Abraham
I am grateful to Dr Davie for his close engagement with my blog post, ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed’. There are, however, three aspects of Dr Davie’s blog in respect of which I feel that a further response is required.
- Davie writes, ‘First of all, throughout the Bible, it is either stated that marriage leads to the procreation of children, or it is assumed that it will. Time without number in the Bible people who are married have children and this is regarded as a normal and expected turn of events, and as the way in which God builds up his people.’
There is a world of difference between saying, on the one hand, that the Bible states or assumes that ‘A’ will lead to ‘B’, and claiming, on the other, that the Bible teaches us that ‘A’ is for ‘B’, and that ‘B’ must be considered intrinsic to ‘A’, with the effect that the claimed relationship between ‘A’ and ‘B’ must be reflected in the lives of Christians today.
One of the myriad challenges of interpreting biblical narratives, including Genesis 1-3, is determining what the narratives specifically set out to present as situations or behaviours to be emulated, and what is simply adopted or assumed from the surrounding culture(s). Dr Davie offers some examples, such as the Book of Ruth, in which childbirth is indeed assumed to follow on from marriage. Is this sufficient to establish that Genesis means to tell the reader that childbirth is an intrinsic part of marriage? Or do its narratives do little more than reflect ordinary practice of the time? There are all sorts of practices relating to marriage reflected in Genesis narratives that we do not consider to be elements of marriage today. For example, we do not maintain a custom of payment of the mohar (‘bride price’, eg. Genesis 29 and 34) or countenance polygamy (eg. Genesis 16, 25, 26 and 29). On the other hand, Davie doesn’t refer to a number of instances in Genesis in which childbirth is not preceded by marriage. These include the birth of Adam and Eve’s children (see further below) and the children born to the maidservants of Leah and Rachel.
Davie’s argument in this regard is weak. While not entirely without merit, it certainly does not warrant the strong statements that Davie seeks to build upon it, to the effect that a marriage that is ‘intrinsically closed to procreation cannot be a marriage any more than a triangle can have a fourth corner, a truth can be a lie, or an elephant can be a penguin’.
- Davie writes, ‘The problem with this reading of Genesis 1 and 2 is that it ignores the basic rule of biblical interpretation that you need to read biblical books as whole entities. Genesis 1 and 2 are part of a much bigger continuous narrative that extends all the way to Genesis 50 and so they have to be read together, and read in the light of this bigger narrative.’
The idea that biblical books ought to be read as whole entities is certainly a rule of biblical interpretation, but it is not the only one. The best readings do this, certainly, but they also have sensitivity to how passages function in their immediate literary contexts, especially when scholarship tells us that the text as we have it is likely to have undergone a complicated transmission process. Care needs to be taken to identify and to honour the multiple voices in the text, and to avoid doing violence to them by adopting a ‘flat’ interpretation that assumes concordance between all elements. The relationship between Genesis 1 and 2 is a parade example, and the intricacies of the relationship between these two chapters could not possibly be navigated fully in a single blog post.
- Davie concludes, ‘To sum up: we need to read Genesis as whole and when we do we find that Adam and Eve, the paradigm married couple, fulfil Genesis 1:28 through their marital relationship and this establishes a God given pattern for human behaviour which the rest of the Bible (and the subsequent tradition of the Church) simply follows.’ (my emphasis)
The problem with Davie’s final assertion is that far from presenting Adam and Eve as a paradigmatic married couple, Genesis does not even present them as married. There is no record of their marriage in Genesis, any more than Genesis tells us that living creatures and birds married before fulfilling God’s mandate to them to ‘Be fruitful and multiply’. While English translations of Genesis 2 and 3 use the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, the Hebrew words used in each case, ish and ishshah, mean both woman/wife and man/husband, and therefore do not point necessarily to a marital relationship. Further, the allusion to marriage in Gen 2:24 (‘Therefore a man/husband leaves his father and his mother and clings to his woman/wife and they become one flesh’) is not very strong. While many, even most, scholars agree that marriage is envisaged here, there is no distinctive marital language used. The two verbs, ‘leave’ and ‘cleave’, for example, are distinctly covenantal, and while marriage is certainly presented as a form of covenant in the Old Testament, these two terms are distinctive of covenantal relationships between God and Israel (and the gods of the nations). For these reasons, and others, a significant minority of scholars (including very senior and influential scholars) take the view that Gen 2:24 does not allude to marriage at all, but rather to the strong pull between men and women that is the consequence of God’s actions in creation.
If Genesis does not explicitly witness to Adam and Eve’s marital state, it is difficult to maintain an argument that they are to be considered paradigmatic in modelling an exclusive pattern of marriage and procreation to be followed today.
 See further my discussion of the verse in Megan Warner, ‘Therefore a Man Leaves his Father and his Mother and Clings to his Wife: Marriage and Intermarriage in Gen 2:24’, Journal of Biblical Literature 113 (2017): 269-289.
Thanks to Jayne Ozanne, of Via Media, for this item of interest to all who value the biblical narrative about procreation and its corollaries for human relationships.
Dr Meg Warner is a scholar in Old Testament studies and is also a member of the Church of England General Synod. Her testimony here needs to be thoroughly examined and considered in arguments today about the different characteristics of covenant relationships, and how God is involved in them.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand