Monogamy: God’s Creational Marriage Ideal

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Tabernacle of David considers this ministry trustworthy and Biblically sound.

Author: David Wilber

The first few chapters of Genesis are essential to understanding God’s intention for marriage. As Dan Allender and Tremper Longman argue, the creation narratives in Genesis 1-3 establish “crucial principles that are to shape our marriages.”[1] Richard Davidson notes that Genesis’s portrayal of the first marriage “constitutes the foundation for the rest of the biblical narrative and discourse on human sexuality and encapsulates the fundamental principles of a theology of sexuality.”[2] One fundamental theological principle revealed in the Genesis creation accounts (Gen. 1:1-2:3; 2:4-3:24) is that marriage, as God intended it, is to be monogamous. The rest of the Bible, especially the New Testament, upholds this marital form as the ideal standard.

In the institution of the first marriage in Eden, Genesis 2:24 gives the command, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Notice that both nouns in this verse (“a man [אִישׁ]…and…his wife [אִשְׁתּוֹ]”) are in the singular, indicating that a monogamous union between two marriage partners is in view. As Werner Neuer writes, “Genesis 2:24 is dealing with monogamy: it only mentions explicitly one man and one woman who become one flesh.”[3]

The Septuagint makes this point even clearer by adding the word “two” to the text: “and those two shall become one flesh (καὶ ἔσονται οἱ δύο εἰς σάρκα μίαν).” As David Instone-Brewer explains, the added word “two” is found in “almost every other ancient version—Syriac, Peshitta, Samaritan, Pentateuch, Vulgate, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Targum Neofiti and LXX, including the quotations of the text in the New Testament.”[4] That this additional word appears in almost all ancient manuscripts indicates that this emphasis in the text had broad support in the ancient world. “The gloss affirmed that a marriage is made between only two individuals, so that polygamy is an aberration of this.”[5]

Undoubtedly, the Genesis creation accounts describe the divine institution of marriage as monogamous. God calls this sacred union between one man and one woman “very good” (Gen. 1:27, 31; 2:18, 22-24), establishing monogamy as the creational ideal for marriage.

In addition to depicting this creational ideal, Genesis 2:24 has a prescriptive element.[6] Two textual details illustrate this point:

First, Genesis 2:24 can be described on the level of juridical etiology, that is, “on the level of the explanation (foundation) of what one must do, and not on the factual level, that is, on the level of what one does.”[7] The expression “therefore/that is why” (עַל־כֵּן) is the usual introduction to these juridical etiologies in Scripture,[8] linking “special norms of custom or law to illustrious institutional antecedents in order to provide them with foundations.”[9] For example, because God rested on the seventh day, therefore (עַל־כֵּן), we must observe the Sabbath (Exod. 20:11). Genesis 2:24 contains a similar structure to these other juridical etiologies: God created the first marital form of Adam and Eve, therefore (עַל־כֵּן), this marital form is upheld as the model to follow. As Davidson puts it, “The introductory ‘Therefore’ (ʿal-kēn) indicates that the relationship of Adam and Eve is upheld as the pattern for all future human sexual relationships.”[10]

Second, “he shall leave” (יַֽעֲזָב) is in the imperfect verb form. According to Robert Lawton, this Hebrew imperfect can be taken “with a potential force,” expressing “a description of divine intention rather than of habitually observed fact.”[11] The more forceful “shall/should,” according to René Gehring, “carries the meaning of a common, usual practice not restricted to some ancient (possibly only Edenic) time…the grammatical features [of Genesis 2:24] point to an enduring normative ideal.”[12]

While God’s revealed will for marriage is evident in the beginning, after sin entered into the world, “some of the old patriarchs commenced to take more than one wife, following the customs of the surrounding culture they lived in.”[13] These departures from God’s creational standard are often accompanied by disaster, rivalry, and misery, underscoring “a theology of disapproval” of polygamy.[14] Nevertheless, because people disregarded God’s revealed intention for marriage by entering polygamous arrangements, there was a need for Moses to address how to handle these less-than-ideal situations (see this article for more on the Torah’s polygamy regulations).

To be clear, the Torah’s few polygamy regulations do not undermine the creational ideal but instead “serve to confirm the canonical concern to uphold this Edenic norm.”[15] The portrayals of marriage in the Torah legislation presuppose monogamy as the ideal marital form.[16] The prophetic and wisdom literature similarly presuppose monogamy as the normative ideal.[17] Throughout the entire Old Testament, monogamy serves as the foundation for the biblical authors’ moral and ethical exhortations regarding the marriage relationship.

In summary, the Genesis creation accounts undoubtedly establish monogamy as the ideal marital form. Textual elements indicate that this marital form is upheld as the model for humanity to follow. Polygamy comes into the picture only after sin enters the world and corrupts God’s good creation. Because man disregarded God’s will for marriage by entering polygamous arrangements, the Torah must address this aberration. Nevertheless, the Torah and the rest of the Old Testament affirm monogamy as the ideal marital form in accordance with God’s revealed intention in creation.

New Testament Affirmations of the Creational Marriage Ideal

Like the Old Testament, the New Testament presupposes monogamy as the ideal marital form,[18] in some places even appealing to Genesis 2:24 directly as the basis for this model. One notable example is Yeshua’s interaction with the Pharisees in Matthew 19:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:3-6)

When the Pharisees asked Yeshua about divorce in Matthew 19, instead of immediately expounding upon what constituted a legitimate reason for divorce in the Torah legislation, Yeshua directed them to God’s revealed intention for marriage in the beginning. Remarkably, he quotes Genesis 2:24, following the Septuagint translation: “the two shall become one flesh.” Moreover, Yeshua grounds the monogamous marital form in the very creation of male and female: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female?” (Matt. 19:4; cf. Gen. 1:27). Thus, Yeshua affirms that God intended marriage to be a certain way since he was the one who created it in the beginning. The marital form assumed in Yeshua’s teaching is monogamy; this marital form serves as the foundation for Yeshua’s statement that God joined the two together and nobody should separate them.

The introductory phrase in Yeshua’s exegesis, “…created them from the beginning,” is significant. This phrase “indicates that the importance of the exegesis lies in the fact that this is the example that the Creator set for everyone else.”[19] The appeal to creation was a standard argument within Judaism to support moral ideals. Instone-Brewer gives an example from rabbinic literature to illustrate this fact:

The same type of argument, based on an example given by God, is found in a Hillel-Shammai debate about how many children one has to have before one has fulfilled the command to ‘increase and multiply’ (Gen. 1.28). The Shammaites argued that ‘two children’ were sufficient, based on the example of Moses (Exod. 18.2-3). The Hillelites said ‘a male and female’ were sufficient, based on the example of God who created Adam and Eve. The Hillelites won the debate because they cited a higher example than Moses.[20]

Thus, in line with contemporary Jewish thought,[21] Yeshua’s appeal to the creational ideal implies monogamy as the standard to be followed. The inclusion of the additional word “two” in Yeshua’s quote of Genesis 2:24 further underscores the fact that Yeshua understood God’s intention for marriage to be monogamous—a point he emphasizes in his commentary on the verse: “So they are no longer two but one flesh.” This statement not only affirms monogamy but also excludes polygamy. As Robert Hitchens writes, “‘one flesh’ can in no way include polygamous marriages. It is not ‘three, four, five, or six’ that become ‘one flesh’ but ‘two.’”[22]

The Pharisees responded to Yeshua’s teaching by asking a second question about divorce. Again, Yeshua’s answer to their second question also has implications for polygamy:

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:7-9)

As noted above, some legislation in the Torah does not reflect the creational ideal but rather God’s will “in response to the circumstances brought about by human sin.”[23] Yeshua affirms this principle by stating that the laws permitting divorce are not “from the beginning.” Since divorce is a real situation that arises from people disregarding God’s revealed intention for marriage in creation, there is a need for laws addressing it—but the existence of such laws does not indicate that God approves of such situations. We can view the Torah’s polygamy legislation similarly—such laws are God’s response to the realities of a fallen world.

The second part of Yeshua’s response is particularly significant: he says that the man who divorces his wife without legitimate basis (sexual immorality) and marries another woman commits adultery. In other words, since God considers such divorces invalid, marrying someone else is tantamount to committing adultery because the original marriage is still binding in God’s eyes. Once again, Yeshua’s teaching in this passage excludes polygamy as a legitimate option. Logically, if Yeshua considered polygamy to be morally valid, then a man who “divorces” his wife without a legitimate basis and marries another woman wouldn’t be committing adultery; he would just be taking on an additional wife. Therefore, the fact that Yeshua considers such an arrangement “adultery” indicates that he condemns as sin marrying more than one wife at the same time.

The apostle Paul similarly upholds the creational ideal of monogamy. Like the Messiah, he appeals to Genesis 2:24 as the foundation for his teachings, once again quoting the Septuagint translation: “the two shall become one flesh” (1 Cor. 6:16; Eph 5:31). Additionally, in 1 Corinthians 7:2, he echoes the creation principle of monogamy by writing, “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.”

In summary, Yeshua and Paul both quote from the Septuagint translation of Genesis 2:24 (“the two shall become one flesh”), which emphasizes monogamy and excludes polygamy. The marital form of monogamy serves as the foundation for Yeshua’s and Paul’s theological and moral teachings. Yeshua’s appeal to “the beginning” implies monogamy as the pattern for marriage to be followed, and his describing an illegitimately divorced man’s remarriage as adultery logically condemns polygamy. Therefore, Yeshua and Paul both uphold the creational ideal of monogamy and condemn polygamy.

[1] Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longmann III, Intimate Allies: Rediscovering God’s Design for Marriage and Becoming Soul Mates for Life (Wheaton, Il: Tyndale, 1995), 14

[2] Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 15-16

[3] Werner Neuer, Man and Woman in Christian Perspective (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 1991), 68

[4] David Instone-Brewer, “Jesus’ Old Testament Basis for Monogamy,” The Old Testament in the New Testament: Essays in Honour of J. L. North, Steve Moyise, ed. (Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 80

[5] Ibid.

[6] The prescriptive element of Genesis 2:24 does not mean that every single person must get married. Clearly, there are exemptions that apply to those whom God specifically calls to celibacy for various reasons. But for those who do marry, Genesis 2:24 prescribes a monogamous model.

[7] Angel Tosato, “On Genesis 2:24,” CBQ 52 (1990), 405

[8] Exodus 13:15; Exodus 20:11; Leviticus 17:11-12; Numbers 18:24; Deuteronomy 5:15; 15:11-15; 24:18, 22

[9] Angel Tosato, “On Genesis 2:24,” 405-406

[10] Davidson, Flame of Yahweh, 43

[11] Robert B. Lawton, “Genesis 2:24: Trite or Tragic?” JBL 105 (1986), 98

[12] René Gehring, The Biblical “One Flesh” Theology of Marriage as Constituted in Genesis 2:24: An Exegetical Study of This Human-Divine Covenant Pattern, Its New Testament Echoes, and Its Reception History Throughout Scripture (Doctoral thesis, Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, Australia, 2011), 43

[13] Ibid., 104

[14] Davidson, Flame of Yahweh, 180; for a thorough analysis of the record of polygamous relationships in the Old Testament, see esp. 180-211

[15] Ibid., 178

[16] Exod. 20:17; 21:5; Lev. 18:8, 11, 14-16, 18, 20; 20:10; 21:13; Num. 5:12; Deut. 5:21; 22:22

[17] Mal. 2:14-15; Prov. 5:18; 12:4; 18:22; 19:13; 31:10-31; Eccl. 9:9; Psa. 128:3; Sol. 1-8

[18] Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:1-4; 1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6

[19] Instone-Brewer, “Jesus’ Old Testament Basis for Monogamy,” 97

[20] Ibid., 87; Instone-Brewer cites t.Yeb. 8.4; m.Yeb. 6.6; y. Yeb. 6.6; b. Yeb. 61b-62a.

[21] Other Jewish groups, such as the Qumran community, appeal to these same Genesis proof-texts in support of monogamy. See Ibid, 80-89.

[22] Robert J. Hitchens, Multiple Marriage: A Study of Polygamy in Light of the Bible (Elkton, MD: Douos Publishers, 1987), 15

[23] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Bible and Christian Life (T & T Clark, 1985), 229-230

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About David Wilber

David is first and foremost a passionate follower of Yeshua the Messiah. He is also a writer, speaker, and teacher.

David’s heart is to minister to God’s people by helping them rediscover the validity and blessing of God’s Torah and help prepare them to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope within them (1 Peter 3:15)…

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