Recently, one of my students asked me an important question: “Is there any significance to God telling the man he “shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife” (Gen. 2:24)? Why is the wife not to leave her family?
Let’s begin with how the ESV translators render the verse in question:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
Contrast that with how the NET translators render the verse, especially noting the parts in italics, which I added to both texts:
“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and unites with his wife, and they become one family.”
The Hebrew phrase rendered into English as “therefore” or “that is why” functions as (technical-wording warning) a habitual imperfect, having a gnomic sense. Okay, that’s a fancy way of saying it functions as a way to explain “this is why—it’s the way things are.” The narrator is explaining what life is like as a result of how God has designed that man/woman thing. The words “leaves” and “unites” also seem to have this same sense.
A man turns from his parents and is joined to his wife, and they become one. The husband is not being told (commanded) to move out and get his own place or to distance himself from his parents, though those choices may be wise in contemporary contexts. The man certainly would not have done so in Moses’s day. He usually stayed with his parents, and the wife left her father and mother and started living with her new husband’s family. So, rather than understanding “therefore a man shall leave” as meaning “he should do this,” readers should understand that we are receiving an explanation for why, for example, a three-month relationship with a sweetheart typically has even more power over a person than the parent/child relationship established over decades. In other words, that “chemistry” thing is powerful. And God designed it that way.
An abridged sampling of phrases that have the same grammatical construction establishes the “therefore” as meaning “that is why the way things are” vs. a command:
Genesis 10:9 He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; therefore [that is why] it is said, “Like Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD.”
Numbers 21:27 Therefore [that is why] those who speak in proverbs say: “Come to Heshbon, let it be built; Let the city of Sihon be repaired. That’s why they say what they do.
1 Samuel 19:24 And he also stripped off his clothes and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Therefore [that is why] they say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”
NKJ 2 Samuel 5:8 Now David said on that day, “Whoever climbs up by way of the water shaft and defeats the Jebusites (the lame and the blind, who are hated by David’s soul), he shall be chief and captain.” Therefore [that is why] they say, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”
Psalm 25:8 Good and upright is the LORD; Therefore [that is why] He teaches sinners in the way.
Psalm 110:7 He shall drink of the brook by the wayside; Therefore [that is why] He shall lift up the head.
Ecclesiastes 5:2 Do not be rash with your mouth, And let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth; Therefore [that is why we should] let your words be few.
Jeremiah 51:7 Babylon was a golden cup in the LORD’s hand, That made all the earth drunk. The nations drank her wine; Therefore [that is why] the nations are deranged.
Habakkuk 1:4 Therefore the law is powerless, And justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; Therefore [that is why] perverse judgment proceeds.
Habakkuk 1:15 They take up all of them with a hook, They catch them in their net, And gather them in their dragnet. Therefore [that is why] they rejoice and are glad.
Habakkuk 1:16 Therefore [that is why] they sacrifice to their net, And burn incense to their dragnet; Because by them their share is sumptuous And their food plentiful.
In not one solitary instance is this grammatical construction to be taken as a command. In every case there’s a cause/effect relationship. This Hebrew construction is used to explain the end result.
A well-known teacher of marriage seminars co-authored an entire marriage workbook series in which the opening page of one chapter begins like this, “Once a couple has received each other as God’s gift, they must leave their parents.”
Based on this and similar teachings, when I first coauthored Sexual Intimacy in Marriage back in the 1990s, my coauthor and I referenced this teaching in our “What is Marriage” chapter, wrongly assuming that the Genesis 2:24 passage was a directive, not a description. Later, as I studied Hebrew, I saw we had been inaccurate with the text, and we changed it in a later edition. (This is part of what makes me consider language training so important for teachers—Are we teaching what is true?)
The more troubling teaching I’ve seen come from this misconception bases an entire view of spiritual marital hierarchy on Genesis 2:24, seeing “a man shall leave” as the first marriage command, and drawing significance from its being apparently “spoken to” the husband. An assumption follows that men are the spiritual leaders of the home because God addressed this first “marriage command” to the male. If God is going to speak to a couple, it is reasoned, he speaks through the husband. Never mind that he spoke to Samson’s mother or Pilate’s wife when he wanted to communicate something to both husbands. And never mind that this is more an explanation for onlookers than a directive to the man/woman involved.
Dr. Robert Chisholm, who wrote notes on Genesis for the NET Bible and who chairs the Old Testament Department at Dallas Seminary, summarized what’s really happening in this text when he told me this: “There is no directive here. Moses is explaining the historical basis for the nature of things. It’s all about why little boys morph into little ‘wolves’ around the age of puberty.” And if I might add that if the boys are wolves, the girls are often very cooperative sheep. Or perhaps you prefer Judi Burnell’s perspective: “That is why the battle of the sexes will never be won; there’s too much fraternizing with the enemy.” Application: Friends and parents, don’t assume you can stop powerful chemistry. You’re fighting a losing battle.
More technically, here’s what the NET notes say on this verse: “This statement, introduced by the Hebrew phrase עַל־כֵּן (ʿal ken, ‘therefore’ or ‘that is why’), is an editorial comment, not an extension of the quotation. The statement is describing what typically happens, not what will or should happen. It is saying, ‘This is why we do things the way we do.’ It links a contemporary [to the narrator] practice with the historical event being narrated. The historical event narrated in v. 23 provides the basis for the contemporary practice described in v. 24.”
In summary: “Therefore, a man shall leave” in Genesis 2:24 means “That’s why a man leaves….” as opposed to “a man must leave.” “A man shall leave” is being predicted as part of cause and effect, not given as a command.