Relationship Advice from the Ancients: Part I


I travel frequently for long periods of time. When I do, I sublet my apartment.


Subleters have left behind a variety of treasures: wind chimes in my kitchen window, LPs of bands I’d yet to discover, a spotted orchid planted in the bottom half of an otherwise empty shampoo bottle in the shower. As I was settling back into my apartment after several months away, a Buddhist friend called me up to ask a question: did I know what verse in the Bible talked about a man leaving his parents’ and becoming one with his wife? I had a general idea where the verse was in both Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew, but needed to look at a Bible to double check. I was sure my well-used Oxford Study Bible was in a storage box, and told my friend as much as I walked over to the shelf where I shelve my more decorative philosophy books. As I suspected, my Bible wasn’t there.


I made my way over to the sofa to settle in and listen to the details of my friend’s latest disagreement with her very sweet husband. The spot on the coffee table where I wanted to stick my feet was occupied by, of all things, a Bible. I flipped it open and discovered that many of the pages throughout the book were colored over with pastel, bubble-lettered, anonymous quotes. “We accept the love we think we deserve” it said in pink and green letters atop the second book of Genesis.


Before there was a canonical Bible, there were scrolls containing wisdom that were circulated throughout religious communities. A small piece of wisdom, what we would think of as a few verses or a short parable, was written in the middle of an otherwise blank space. As the piece of wisdom circulated, the leading rabbi in each community would respond in writing on the scroll to what had already been written. Wisdom was thus accumulated, debated, enhanced, and nuanced. What I had in this parting gift from my tenant I read as similar, although that may or may not have been her intension.


I’m not a “true believer” when it comes to any book believed to have been divinely inspired. I don’t pay much heed to any deity who is a part time nonfiction author. Yet, I find it pretentious when someone makes the counter-claim that scriptures are socio-historical pieces of propaganda, full stop.[1] When a piece of writing has not just lasted through generations, wars, shifting world-views, and global migrations but has also made an impact on cultures, norms, identities, and systems we should not dismiss it.


I had to wonder, what did Jewish people find important enough about the verse in Genesis to write it on a scroll and pass it from community to community, through generations, until a similar verse came to be written in the Christian Scripture? Could my Buddhist friend and her husband learn anything from its message, or was it just a stone being thrown in a marital spat? And could anything be learned from the quote drawn over the passage? My friend isn’t alone in experiencing friction with her spouse over family priorities—it’s an age-old conflict that comes up in the very contemporary context of my work with nearly every couple I see for fertility issues. 


Genesis 2:24 instructs, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one.” If you read the passage closely, there are three steps to this ancient relationship advice. Before I discuss these steps, a word or two about the context of looking to the Bible for life advice. People who see the Bible, in part, as a guide for correct action, often use the Ten Commandments as a baseline. Don’t steal, or cheat on your partner. Do respect your parents. The commandments, however, come up a lot in conversations about relationship conflict even when I am talking with avowed atheists.  The Bible holds a place of importance in our culture not only as a book of scripture, but as a part of the literary cannon and a basis for some of our moral codes and laws. In parts, it’s a tedious list of genealogy. At times it advocates things we as a society have come to realize are wrong. Elsewhere it is sprinkled with useful advice, and Genesis 2:24 is one such place—so come back and read more about what wisdom we can gain from the ancients in the passage.   



[1] I should explain that just because something lasts in written form doesn’t make it right, but it’s worth exploring how the information is useful. For instance, the Bible advocates slavery, something that is evil. By acknowledging that slavery existed and was seen as normal, we confront the fact that social norms are not necessarily right or good and this reminds us to approach ideas and practices we take to be common sense with a healthy skepticism. Just because something is practiced doesn’t mean it should be practiced, in this case. Reading about slavery in the Bible, we should be reminded that humans are evolving not just biologically, but also morally, and have the capacity to do and be better.