Ephesians 5:22-33 and Genesis 2:23-24

We have seen that Eph 5:22-33 reflects a complex matrix of equality and hierarchy, and we have seen that Paul was commanding wives to submit and husbands to love for evangelistic purposes, concluding that while it was normal for Paul it was not normative for all. Does Gen 2:23-24 require us to change our conclusion? It is what Paul quotes in the end of our passage in Ephesians in support of the relationship of Christ and the church. We should consider what it says and how Paul used it, and, if necessary, alter our conclusion.

First of all, does Paul quote Gen 2:23-24 or v. 24 only? It seems that there is enough support for including v. 23. It is fairly attested, and it is used early by Irenaeus. Genesis 2:24 reads, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (NRSV). The text follows a poem, which reads, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh . . .” (Gen 2:23, NRSV). At this point in the narrative, Adam has now been given a suitable helper, and she was made from his own body. He said this poem, and then the narrative contains the comment found in v. 24. It is making the point that a man becomes one with his wife, so that they are one unit together. While she was produced out of man, man joins with her to create one being. Paul picks up on this joining and applies it to Christ and the church, which is by extension also applied back to marriage. Christ and the church are understood allegorically based on Gen 2:24; the two have become one flesh.

Now, up until Eph 5:31, there is no talk of “flesh,” but only “body.” Paul states that “we are members of [Christ’s] body” (Eph 5:30, NRSV). Without the words of Gen 2:23, there is a swift and abrupt change from “body” to “flesh.” It is interesting that Irenaeus quotes this section with the words of Gen 2:23, giving it an early attestation. If it is original, it could be explained to be taken out either by accident, skipping from autou at the end of v. 30 and picking up at the autou from the end of the longer variant reading, or intentionally, since it could have been used by later Gnostics and editors who were fighting against Gnosticism took it out. That Irenaeus quotes it despite the Gnostic theology that was present during his time strongly indicates that it was original, for he held to it as pre-dating Gnosticism, and, therefore it was part of Scripture. The context permits the inclusion of this longer reading, the argument seems to require it, and it was held by Irenaeus to be part of the text. If we include it, these extra words soften the abrupt change from “body” to “flesh” by transitioning from “body” to “flesh and bones” to “flesh.” The argument without these extra words stands incomplete, for then the quotation of v. 24 seems to be awkwardly inserted.

It seems, then, that we should include the extra words, so that it would read in this way: “. . . because we are members of his body, from his flesh and from his bones. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (italics are the added text; NRSV).

Now what? Paul is arguing that while the wife came from the husband’s own substance originally, the husband and wife become one unit, and therefore, they operate as such. Issues of power and authority are drained from the situation. In marriage, the husband and wife are equals, they are part of the same unit, and they work together. This relationship is understood between Christ and the church as seen in Gen 2:23-24, albeit allegorically. Christ is understood to be the husband in Gen 2:23-24. The church comes from Christ, but then the two are united into one flesh. The emphasis rests on the unity of the two in the one new person. By comparison, as a result of this unity, the husband is required to love, not rule, domineer, or master, his wife, just as Christ cares for the church. This unity between Christ and the church is a mystery according to Paul. It’s not that it is incomprehensible, but rather, it’s a matter of revelation. Even though they are one person, Christ is still the head. However, there is no emphasis given on the authority of the head over the body. Instead, the emphasis is on nurturing and caring for the body on the part of the head. While the husband is the head, by way of analogy, and he is responsible for caring for his wife, the two are joined together in one flesh. In the marital relationship, they are equals, for they are one.

In conclusion, Paul’s use of Gen 2:23-24 supports equality, not hierarchy. But Paul still supported patriarchy. Therefore, even though Paul understood equality or unity in marriage, something else was going on that spurred him on to command wives to submit to their husbands. The biblical understanding for Paul was equality in marriage, but to meet the needs of evangelism, the proclamatory purpose, he commands the wives to submit. He was meeting the needs of particular circumstances. The general, timeless theological principle, however, rests on Gen 2:23-24, which emphasizes unity. And there is yet another timeless principle: evangelistic concerns take precedence over individual rights. When necessary, but not to the detriment of the individual, certain rights ought to be given up if it will benefit the message of the gospel. Even still, Paul’s command for wives to submit must be read alongside of Paul’s command for husbands to love. The two commands go hand-in-hand as a paired effort in the marriage relationship to effectively communicate the proclamation to the rulers and authorities.