The Key Text on Human Sexuality


If we should be shaping our thinking and living by the teaching of Scripture, we should give Scripture our particular and careful attention. In this extract from a longer presentation Stephen Daly attends to Genesis 2, the key text that bears on the current debates about God’s will for our sexual behaviour. Steven is Rector of Leederville in WA.


I’m assuming we know the story well. In fact, the better we know the story of Adam and Eve, perhaps the less we understand how shocking this story would have been in the ancient world. Shocking in the sense that it contains a number of shocks or surprises—points in the narrative where events take a turn that would have either been unexpected or indeed where the opposite may have been expected. One shock is that the Adam (his name means ‘Earthling’) will serve and preserve the Garden. We were expecting that the Adam would have been created to serve and preserve the gods. But no! God will look after the Adam as the Adam looks after the Creation and not the other way around.

Another shock is the method Yahweh God chooses for answering a problem, a problem that he himself has spotted, that problem being that is is—quite emphatically—not good for the Adam to be alone. Given that no suitable helper was found for the Adam amongst all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the wild animals, the surgical intervention that follows comes as a complete surprise. Why? What we’re expecting is for Yahweh God to stoop to his knees and begin again with the modelling clay, just as he did with the Adam in the first place (2:7) and also every other breathing, animate organism (2:19). The creation of the woman—who we will come to know as Eve—is an utterly unique and distinctive creation event. The causing of the Adam to fall into a deep sleep, the removal of part of his side, the closing up of his side, the making of the part into a whole, a woman, the bringing the woman to the now awake man—not something we’ve ever seen before in the biblical narrative nor will ever see again. Why? Because this methodology is commentary on things we’ve already been told. You see, firstly, we already know that the woman will be for the Adam a ‘suitable helper’. This phrase, literally, ‘like-opposite helper’ is in no way demeaning, for Yahweh God himself is the helper of Israel. But the sense of it is this: the helper will be a complementary partner, matching and suitable, not identical— indeed radically different in way that is complementary and complimentary. They’ll be radically different, maybe even opposites, but in ways that makes each other look good. The methodology displays an opposite truth: that the woman is just the same as the man, ultimately of one being, of one substance, of one kind. Someone—as the Adam will recognize perfectly in just a moment—someone just like me.

Secondly, the bizarre methodology of creation that we find in Genesis 2 makes emphatic and unmistakable something that we were told in Genesis chapter 1. God made from nothing, from uniformity, from disorder and chaos, a bipolar cosmos: light and darkness, heavens and the earth, dry ground and seas, night and day, water creatures and birds of the air—polarity everywhere. The crowning achievement of the six-day creation story is the creation of humankind. Humankind is created in order to rule, to have dominion and to subdue, continuing the work of bringing order from disorder, of creating and maintaining boundaries, of bringing diversity and complexity and beauty out of chaos. The crowning polarity in a bipolar universe is the last polarity created—humanity made male and female, and both male and female created in the image and likeness of God. In the Bible, the language of image has to do with representation. Humanity has been created to be imagebearers, created in order to represent God, like God.

Both chapters present the creation of sexuality as of supreme importance. In Genesis 1 the crowning glory of this bipolar cosmos is the creation of gendered, sexual humankind, male and female, representing God. In Genesis 2 the special glory of this relational universe is the creation of gendered, sexual humankind, man and woman, serving and preserving. Both stories have the same ending, the creation of sexuality. The making of humanity with male and female gender is extremely important to the mission of humanity, as they faithfully represent Yahweh, Lord of Hosts, Almighty God, Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, and work with him and for him in the Garden.

A third shock—out of many—and indeed it’s a scandal—are the words the Adam says in response to seeing Eve for the first time, for he does not say what we expect him to say. Genesis 2:23, ‘the Adam said, “This time it’s bone from my bone and flesh from my flesh. This one I call ‘Woman’ because from Man this one was taken”.’ What he doesn’t sing and dance about is how beautiful she is. He doesn’t celebrate her sexual attractiveness even though she is brand new and completely naked and those of us who have given it any thought— which is at least some of us—have assumed that she was the most beautiful woman ever created. And given the values of the Ancient Near East, this omission is astonishing. But nevertheless, her beauty is left to our imaginations; nothing is ever said about it directly. And there is no celebration of romantic love. Rather, what the Adam does see is twofold: this one is family; and in the making of woman you also have the making of man.

I’ll explain that second statement first: In the making of woman you also have the making of man. The original human was always referred to as being male, but the Adam represents humanity; man as opposed to the other animals. To be a Son of Adam is to be a human being. Now we get the Hebrew words eesh (man opposed to woman or husband) and eeshah (woman opposed to man or wife). And now to the first statement: this one is family. The Hebrew phrase ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’ is a common Hebrew saying, meaning, ‘of my own family.’ The equivalent English expression is ‘my own flesh and blood’ which is actually how the Hebrew euphemism is routinely translated. We belong together by the closest and most unbreakable of ties is the meaning of both figures of speech. The man is celebrating the fact that he recognises her instantly as family. They belong together intrinsically. God split the Adam in order that there might be a reconciliation and recombination, a coming back together again that is creative. The reconciliation will create family.

The scene ends with one last shock, verse 24: ‘Thus so a Man (or husband) leaves his father and mother and clings to his Woman (or wife), and they will be one flesh.’ For the ancient reader, the shock of this verse would be very considerable, for what he or she would have been expecting was: ‘Thus so a woman (or wife) leaves her father and mother and clings to her Man (or husband). And they will become one flesh.’ In most traditional cultures—and certainly in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East—when a young woman marries, is expected to join her husband’s family. Upon marriage, the young woman has joined her husband’s father’s household, and she is usually a long way down the honour ladder (lots of people get to tell her what to do). Even though this was the universal, Ancient Near Eastern pattern, the Bible asserts that it is wrong. No, the man leaves his parents and cleaves to his wife so as to create a new family. God’s design for marriage was countercultural when it was first revealed and it has been offending people ever since. All cultures and societies have had a problem with it, in one way or another, as they find that either it fails values to value what they value in marriage (such as patriarchy or fertility) of that it values things that they dislike (such as faithfulness).

We already know what the words ‘one flesh’ mean—it means one family. But in a secondary, and yet undeniable way, the phrase ‘they will become one flesh’ refers to sexual intercourse, for that is also how the Bible uses the phrase—see Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6, for example. Sexual intercourse will be a private, intimate, relational and physical picture of a public, legal and social truth—these two people are one flesh, that is, one new family. Sexual intercourse creates a new family, whether or not children are the result of that sexual activity. Sex before marriage—a familiar and meaningful phrase in our culture—becomes something of a contradiction in terms, biblically speaking. And indeed, the Bible condemns fornication (consensual or not) and adultery because both acts are theologically unreal—these acts ignore the bond and boundaries established by the act itself—and therefore are acts of faithlessness.

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Genesis 2:24 in biblical revelation. This verse is the cornerstone when trying to understand what the Bible thinks about sex and marriage. Paul refers to Genesis 2:24 directly in 1 Corinthians 6, which is the only place Paul discusses sexual sin in any detail, that is to say, explains why sexual sin is sexual sin. In that passage, Paul could have used any number of arguments to cut the ground from his opposition, who were arguing for the acceptability of having sex with temple prostitutes. He doesn’t use a moral or ethical argument. He could have; but he doesn’t. His text is not The Sermon on the Mount, or the Golden Rule, but rather Genesis 2:24. And his argument is a spiritual one and it is this: You cannot have sexual intercourse with a prostitute because you are already having spiritual intercourse with Jesus. You are one with him in Spirit. The step that’s missing is the one that is assumed: sexual intercourse includes spiritual intercourse. What God has brought together let humankind not separate.

Paul also refers to Genesis 2:24 directly in Ephesians chapter 5, telling us something already that we know: That the real and substantive importance of marriage is that it represents something important about God and marriage will find its fulfilment in the marriage of the Lamb: Marriage has a spiritual meaning, a prophetic aspect—telling the world about God’s saving work on behalf of humanity through the person Jesus of Nazareth. Thus the point of sexuality is marriage and the point of marriage is to represent God and representing God is the mission and purpose of (the point of) humanity.