One Flesh

Recently a Facebook friend posted a message that began with her proclaiming, “I married people!” It took me a moment to realize she wasn’t describing her marital history. She had recently been ordained as an Episcopal priest, and marrying people was part of her job. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, some months had elapsed before she was able to officiate at her first church wedding.

”All tragedies are finished by a death, all comedies are ended by a marriage,” wrote Lord Byron, whose own life ended tragically at age 36. His statement is perhaps truer in drama than in life, where marriages aren’t really the end of anything but a beginning. Fairy tales may wrap up by saying the couple lived happily ever after. But in real life, even the happiest marriages end in death. As for what happens in between, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer provides a sober acknowledgment of the prospects: “…for better for worse, for richer for poorer, for fairer or fouler, in sickness and in health…”

After 50+ years of marriage, I bring some expertise to the subject, in the same way that a centenarian brings expertise to the subject of human longevity. Chances are, centenarians don’t have a clue as to why they have lived so long, but at least they have lived a long time. Similarly, I don’t have a clue about marital longevity, apart from the fact that I have been married a long time. A marriage counselor no doubt can apply some expertise to all the ways in which marriages come a-cropper. Speaking strictly from my own experience, I would have to rule out surpassing virtue as the reason mine didn’t. In my more lucid moments, I mark it down to dumb luck.

Marriages are made in heaven, so they say. It’s the kind of thing that starry-eyed newlyweds might believe. I am no newlywed, but I still believe it. How else explain that some marriages persist, despite all that we do to fall short of the promises we make when we can’t possibly know what we are getting ourselves into. My wife and I were all of 23 when we tied the knot — roughly half the age of our children now. What could we have been known?

My wife and I wrote our own wedding vows, but we retained the traditional line from the Book of Genesis: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” In the half-century since, we have been working out how this applies to two strong-minded individuals who have each changed in ways that would have been unimaginable to the young innocents who embarked on this joint venture so long ago.

There is little question that the phrase ”one flesh” is meant in the most literal sense, since the man made in God’s image describes the woman taken from his rib as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” The meaning most certainly embraces, if you will, the marital act. In the normal course of things, this enables the participants to stay on good terms with the Almighty by fulfilling the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. It is at this point, if not before, that the starry-eyed couple begins to suspect they may not have fully known what they were getting into — but too late to do much about it.

There is another sense of “one flesh” that goes to a far deeper understanding of what it means to be human; indeed, what it means to be created in God’s image. I might compliment my spouse by referring to her as “my better half,” and in doing so implicitly acknowledge that I am, in a sense, incomplete unto myself. The Lord God Almighty apparently arrived at a similar conclusion when he stated to no one in particular: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” But if the man was created in God’s image, how could he be incomplete?

The answer lies in the Genesis passage that first mentions being created in God’s image. In the traditional King James translation, the verse reads, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Later translations substitute “mankind” or “humankind” for “man” to acknowledge that both male and female are created in God’s image. You can say that each is created in his image. You might also argue that the two together render a more complete image. “One flesh” is the man and the woman joined together. The word translated as “one” in the Genesis passage is ehad in Hebrew, which is also the name given to the Lord, as in “The One”: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

Lord B yron, Don Juan
Genesis 1-2
Deuteronomy 6:4

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