Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Genesis 2:24
Cleave – You’ve probably heard this verse at least one hundred times. Every wedding, every sermon about marriage, every book and video from a Christian perspective ends up with this verse somewhere in the subject matter. But what no one told you is that the Hebrew verb here is not the one we would have expected, especially if we thought that becoming one flesh had anything to do with sex. If you really want to see what God has in mind, you’ll have to do some deeper investigation.
The verb here is davaq. It means cleave or cling. It’s about stickiness. But it probably isn’t the verb we would have used. You see, davaq is a middle of the road, passive response verb, best suited for gluing things together. It isn’t the passionate, relationship-oriented verb that characterizes the love action we want in erotic intimacy in marriage. In fact, it’s more about sticky wet clods of dirt (Job 38:38) or fastening crocodile scales (Job 41:9) than it is about passionate, sexual embrace. You won’t find davaq in the Song of Solomon. So, why does it show up here, in the quintessential verse about marriage? And why has every pastor who has ever given a wedding sermon using this verse avoiding talking about dirt clods?
If we look at the way davaq is used when it describes relationships between people, we see that it can describe both friendly and hostile circumstances (Laban and Jacob). It describes relationships between members of the same sex (Ruth and Naomi). In Wisdom literature, it parallels ahav (to love – Proverbs 18:24). We see it used to describe Israel’s relationship with YHWH (Jeremiah 13:11). This wide range of applications tells us something important. Davaq does not carry the emotional, erotic, passionate nuances we expect. Davaq is about deliberate commitment. Even when it is used in hostile circumstances, it is about willful, considered attachment. Ruth, Laban and the men of Proverbs are not making choices based on emotional overload. Neither does YAHWEH. God’s choice of Israel is deliberate, calculated and permanent. It is the ultimate example of stickiness.
This helps us understand why Genesis 2:24 uses davaq, not hashaq (the verb for adhering to someone in love). Marriage is a deliberate commitment to stick together. It is not based on emotional, physical or psychic attraction. It has very little to do with how I feel. That’s why marriage in the Torah can be arranged by the families without any interaction between bride and groom. Marriage is covenant activity. All the other expressions of love that we so commonly associate with our view of marriage really don’t matter. What matters is the glue.