Does a Man Need to Leave His Parents to Cling to His Wife?
Marriage Advice: Leave Your Parents Behind?
The chronological sweep of the opening chapters of Genesis extends from the creation of the cosmos through the birth of the tenth generation of humans. Tucked into this vast narrative is an often misunderstood brief comment about human nature:
בראשית ב:כד עַל כֵּן יַעֲזָב אִישׁ אֶת אָבִיו וְאֶת אִמּוֹ וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד.
Gen 2:24 Hence a man yaʿazob his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.
The word יַעֲזָב (yaʿazob) is usually translated “leave,” and the verse is understood to mean that after marriage young men leave, or should leave, their parents, strike out on their own, and set up their own homes with their new wives. This understanding of the verse has made it popular in speeches delivered at weddings. It is held to reflect a truthful ancient observation that men left their parents’ homes to live with their wives, as well as contemporary sensibilities concerning sociological and economic aspects of marriage. Today, young couples typically establish their physical domiciles apart from their parents’ and, ideally, begin their independent economic lives.
Contextually, however, this understanding is problematic. The verse begins with עַל כֵּן (ʿal ken), “hence,” which indicates that it is a logical conclusion drawn from that which precedes it in the text. Prior to this verse, God creates Adam (Gen 2:7), employs him in the garden of Eden (v. 15), provides him with sustenance (v. 16), and, finally, provides him with a mate—first bringing him all the animals, who prove unsatisfactory (vv. 18–19), and ultimately forming Eve from his bone and presenting her to him (vv. 21–22). In verse 23—immediately preceding our passage—Adam declares of Eve:
בראשׁית ב:כג ...זֹאת הַפַּעַם
לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה
כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻקֳחָה זֹּאת.
Gen 2:23 …“This one at last
Is bone of my bones
And flesh of my flesh.
This one shall be called Woman,
For from man was she taken.”
Verse 24 follows logically on verse 23 in its projection that men will take wives and become “one flesh”: just as Eve came from Adam’s flesh, so are men and women destined to reunite. But what of the text’s apparent statement that men must leave their parents? Adam, after all, has no biological parents to leave. How, then, does this statement relate to its narrative context?
Attempts to explain this statement have taken several different approaches.
John Calvin: The Bond of Marriage
In the sixteenth century, John Calvin (1509–1564) addressed the relationship between verses 23 and 24 in his commentary on Genesis:
It is doubted whether Moses here introduces God as speaking, or continues the discourse of Adam, or indeed, has added this in virtue of his office as teacher in his own person. This last of these is that which I most approve.
For Calvin, the connection between the verses implied by “hence” raises the question of whether the speaker is the same as in verse 23—that is, Adam—or whether it is someone else—namely God, or Moses as narrator. Calvin thinks it most likely that verse 24 reflects Moses’ own teaching based on the divine narrative.
The sum of the whole is, that among the offices pertaining to human society, this is the principal, and as it were the most sacred, that a man should cleave unto his wife. And he [Moses] amplifies this by a superadded comparison, that the husband ought to prefer his wife to his father. But the father is said to be left not because marriage severs sons from their fathers, or dispenses with other ties of nature, for in this way God would be acting contrary to himself.
While, however, the piety of the son towards his father is to be most assiduously cultivated and ought in itself to be deemed inviolable and sacred, yet Moses so speaks of marriage as to show that it is less lawful to desert a wife than parents. Therefore, they who, for slight causes, rashly allow of divorces, violate, in one single particular, all the laws of nature, and reduce them to nothing. If we should make it a point of conscience not to separate a father from his son, it is a still greater wickedness to dissolve the bond [of marriage] which God has preferred to all others.
Calvin argues that Moses could not possibly have meant that a man is to leave his parents on account of his marriage. Rather, he suggests, the verse teaches that in cases of conflict, a man should prefer his wife to his father, because the bond of marriage is more significant than the bond of birth.
Rashi: Prohibition of Incest
Rashi (1040–1105) comments on this verse as follows:
רוח הקדש אמרה כן לאסור על בני נח את העריות.
The Holy Spirit said this, in order to prohibit incest among the descendants of Noah.
In assigning this verse to the “Holy Spirit,” Rashi implicitly addresses the possibility, raised by Calvin, that verse 24 is a continuation of Adam’s speech in verse 23. Whereas Calvin attributes the verse to Moses, Rashi attributes it to God. Likewise, Rashi rejects the notion that the Torah is instructing men to leave their parents, suggesting instead that they are to “leave” their immediate families in choosing mates and select wives who are unrelated to them.
Both Calvin and Rashi offer alternatives to the common understanding that a man should leave his parents on marriage. Yet neither interpretation relates verse 24 to Adam’s circumstances in the text, and thus they fail to account for the enigmatic ʿal ken, “hence.”
Approximately 1200 years before Rashi, Jubilees, a Jewish composition of the Second Temple period thought to have been written ca. 125 B.C.E., explained the connection between the verses differently. According to Jubilees, the Angel of Presence explains to Moses what had happened in the Garden of Eden. As the angel speaks, telling Moses what Adam had said after seeing Eve for the first time, he continues, adding the comment now found in verse 24. Moses simply writes what he heard, not distinguishing between Adam’s words and the angel’s comment. Whereas Calvin attributes the verse to Moses and Rashi attributes it directly to God, Jubilees takes a sort of middle position, attributing the comment to the angel.
Although the midrashic explanation of Jubilees accounts for the lack of elegance in the transition between verses 23 and 24, it does not clarify what verse 24 means. Like Calvin and Rashi, Jubilees fails to relate the verse to Adam’s circumstances and thus does not explain the function of ʿal ken.
Reconsidering the Meaning of ya‘azob: The Biblical Evidence
Calvin, Rashi, and Jubilees are undoubtedly correct in their assessment that verse 24 is a general teaching based on the narrative and not a continuation of Adam’s speech. Yet they fail to explain the connection between the first part of this teaching and Adam’s circumstances. In my view, this failure stems from a misunderstanding of the term yaʿazob.
The Bible contains 216 verbs formed on the root of yaʿazob: ʿ-z-b. In three passages, the sense of “leave” or “abandon” is inappropriate, and the verbs must be understood as conveying a different sense.
Helping One’s Neighbor’s Donkey
The first of these is Exodus 23:5:
שׁמות כג:ה כִּי תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּו.
Exod 23:5 When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from setting it right (meʿazob), you must nevertheless set it right (ʿazob taʿazob) with him.
In other words, together with your enemy, you must help reposition the load on the donkey’s back so that the animals can stand up.
Although Deuteronomy 22:4, addressing a similar set of circumstances, does not use forms of the verb ʿ-z-b, it clarifies the intention of the words in Exodus. Deuteronomy instructs Israelites not to be oblivious when they see a kinsman’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, most likely under a load:
דברים כב:ד לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת חֲמוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ נֹפְלִים בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ.
Deut 22:4 If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it (hakem takim).
This verse instructs the Israelite to help his kinsman get the animal to its feet, to help correct a situation deemed unfortunate.
Restoring a Wall
The second passage occurs in a description of workers reconstructing gates and repairing breaches in the walls of Jerusalem:
נחמיה ג:ח עַל יָדוֹ הֶחֱזִיק עֻזִּיאֵל בֶּן חַרְהֲיָה צוֹרְפִים ס וְעַל יָדוֹ הֶחֱזִיק חֲנַנְיָה בֶּן הָרַקָּחִים וַיַּעַזְבוּ יְרוּשָׁלִַם עַד הַחוֹמָה הָרְחָבָה.
Neh 3:8 Next to them, Uzziel son of Harhaiah, [of the] smiths, repaired. Next to him, Hananiah, of the perfumers. They restored (yaʿazebu) Jerusalem as far as the Broad Wall.
The third passage occurs later, in verse 34 of the same chapter in Nehemiah. In a speech to fellow opponents of the wall-building project in Jerusalem, Sanaballat asks:
נחמיה ג:לד ...מָה הַיְּהוּדִים הָאֲמֵלָלִים עֹשִׂים הֲיַעַזְבוּ לָהֶם הֲיִזְבָּחוּ הַיְכַלּוּ בַיּוֹם הַיְחַיּוּ אֶת הָאֲבָנִים מֵעֲרֵמוֹת הֶעָפָר וְהֵמָּה שְׂרוּפוֹת.
Neh 3:34 …What are the miserable Jews doing? Will they restore (yaʿazebu), offer sacrifice, and finish one day? Can they revive those stones out of the dust heaps, burned as they are?
Homonyms: Two Meanings of ʿ-z-b
In commenting on Exodus 23:5, medieval Jewish exegetes such as Rashi, Rashbam, and Ibn Ezra point to the distinctly different sense of the verbs formed from the root ʿ-z-b in these verses. Only in the twentieth century, however, did scholars associate these meanings with a second root, which lexicons list as ʿ-z-b II, with cognates in Akkadian, Epigraphic South Arabic, Geʿez, and Ugaritic. On the basis of these cognates, the posited meanings of ʿ-z-b II are “to help, fix, make whole, set right.”
The Geʿez cognate, ʿazzaba, “to assist, uphold, help,” is particularly relevant to Genesis 2:24. Based on this understanding of ʿ-z-b, our verse can be translated: “Therefore a man strengthens/supports/helps his father and his mother and clings to his woman/wife and they become one flesh.”
God as Adam’s Parent
Once we recognize that Genesis 2:24 is making use of this second root, of ʿ-z-b II, we can understand how it connects to the preceding narrative. As noted earlier, Genesis 2:24 follows a narrative in which God brings Adam into the world, employs him in his garden, provides for his sustenance, and provides him with a proper, human wife. In all these matters, God acts like a good, responsible parent (Gen 24:1–4; 38:2, 6; Jud 14:2–3). The typical parent was expected to raise children to adulthood and, in return, expected that they would remain loyal and responsible (Isa 1:2; Prov 10:1; 17:6; 22:6).
By working in the garden, Adam has fulfilled his obligation to God, and he will presumably continue to do so. The “hence” of verse 24 spells out the implication of the complete Adam narrative for all of his descendants: they are obligated to care for their parents (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16) and, simultaneously, to cling to their wives.
In view of this explanation of the verse, it may still be used at weddings, but I suspect that it will become more popular in the speeches that parents address to their children.
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October 20, 2016
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Prof. Ziony Zevit is Distinguished Professor of Biblical Literature and Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures at the American Jewish University. He earned his BA at USC, and his MA, Can. Phil., and Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. Among his books are The Religions of Ancient Israel (2001),Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew (2012) (with Cynthia Miller-Naudé), andWhat Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? (2013).
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