For this reason, leave . . . and cleave? (Genesis 2:24)

by thebibleprof

OK, in the rat-race called life, I have been busy. Therefore, my “occasional” series on the Garden of Eden has become very occasional indeed. But I have not been too busy to ignore Professor Ziony Zevit’s excellent new book (What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013]), and so I interrupt this very-occasional blog with an emergency exegesis of Genesis 2:24, the passage which draws a very familiar conclusion from Adam’s first meeting with Eve, his very “bone and flesh.” The NIV version of this verse reads as follows: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”

Now the following retranslation owes its very existence to Zevit’s provocative discussion found on pages 151-157 of his book (along with his endnotes on pp. 304-306). [Note to reader: always read the endnotes! I (and many others) often put my best stuff there.] Zevit argues effectively that the Hebrew for the verb “to leave” [root ‘ayin-zayin-beth] probably here means “to help, fix, make whole, set right.” In other words, we are to read here (as in Nehemiah 3:8, 34, and probably elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible) an entirely different set of meanings from the traditional reading “to leave.” In the relatively recent lexicon by Koehler and Baumgartner, this “‘azab” II (that is, an entirely different root than “‘azab” I, “to leave”) means “to restore, put in order.” Other recent lexicons suggest much the same thing.

But of course, one should ask, why should we go against the seemingly plain sense of the familiar Hebrew verb, “to leave, abandon,” in this most familiar verse? Zevit’s provocative counter-question, “what is the ‘therefore,’ then there for?” becomes very appropriate at this point [note I have rephrased Zevit’s counter-question a bit]. In other words, why does the “therefore” at the beginning of this verse suggest that “leaving and cleaving” follows logically from the preceding verses? How can we deduce the “therefore” of “leaving and cleaving” from Eve’s category of “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” and then being designated “woman” [Hebrew, “‘isshah“] since she was taken from “man” [Hebrew, “‘ish“]?

OK, the “cleave” part makes sense. A man is to “cling to” his woman, they are to become “one flesh”—that makes perfect sense in the larger context. But the “leaving” the man’s parents (the traditional Hebrew translation of “‘azab” I, can even imply “abandoning” them, which was [and is] unthinkable in traditional Middle Eastern culture)—that is less obvious. Why not, then, Zevit’s alternative interpretation for this verse, “Therefore a man strengthens/supports/helps his father and his mother and clings to his woman/wife and they become one flesh.” And why not his comment, “the verse implies that since parents birth sons and (may) provide those sons with wives (see Gen[esis] 28:2; 38:2, 6; Judg[es] 14:2-3), every son is obliged to care for his father and his mother (Exod[us] 20:12; Deut[eronomy] 5:16) and to cling to his wife simultaneously. Understood this way, the verse also alludes to the formation of extended families embracing three generations in a single household that were typical of Israelite society” (p. 157, italics added).

Well, here is something to chew on. And, something which gives biblical warrant to the now common practice in North America (and elsewhere) of adult children (even married!) coming home to roost in the parents’ basement. So, “cleave” to your significant other, but don’t “leave” the ancestral homeland, rather “strengthen” it like good Israelites did back in the Iron Age. Pay some of the bills, already. Be good kids. Even if your mother-in-law does get on your nerves!

[The above comments represent some recently reinterpreted practical advice from the Garden of Eden story. However, such emergency exegesis always remains subject to change, especially as it flies in the face of some 2500 years of tradition. So stay tuned.]

Shalom. And give your parents and in-laws an extra hug soon.