“A Man … Shall Cleave unto His Wife”: Marriage and Family Advice from the Old Testament


“A Man … Shall Cleave unto His Wife”:

The customs and life-style of people in the Old Testament often seem peculiar, and even harsh, to modern readers. But from examples found in that book of scripture, we still can learn much about proper relationships between husbands and wives and within families.

Old Testament stories illustrate well the point that everyone who comes into the gospel comes out of his or her own culture. This lesson is important in our day as the Church becomes established in nations with widely varying cultures and family traditions. With all this diversity, it is impossible to conclude that the gospel prescribes just one pattern of family life to suit all people in every culture and in every time. Certainly, gospel principles remain universal, but their application in various cultures may differ.

We must be careful, then, not to rigidly base our views of family life for our time on family models in the Old Testament. There are, however, selected stories and counsel in the Old Testament that reach beyond Old Testament cultures and illustrate universal gospel principles.

Unity in Marriage

In Gen. 2:18 the Lord says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” In English, the words help meet carry a different connotation than the Hebrew ‘ezer kanegdo. An early meaning of the Hebrew word ‘ezer could more correctly be aid. The second word in the phrase, kanegdo, has traditionally been translated as meet for or fit for or worthy of. Combined, these meanings paint a different picture of the English translation, help meet. God created Eve as an aid or helper worthy of Adam. Help meet should not carry the connotation that Eve was an assistant of lesser status, or less competence, than Adam.

When Adam and Eve were presented to one another as companions, Adam reacted with delight, as illustrated by his statement, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” (Gen. 2:23.) Adam’s statement is wonderfully symbolic of the closeness he felt with Eve.

The covenant between Adam and Eve is summarized in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” [Gen. 2:24] Referring to this scripture, President Spencer W. Kimball commented, “Do you note that? She, the woman, occupies the first place. She is preeminent, even above the parents who are so dear to all of us. Even the children must take their proper but significant place.

“I have seen some women who give their children that spot, that preeminence, in their affection and crowd out the father. That is a serious mistake.” (Ensign, Mar. 1976, p. 72.)

It is all too common in modern times for husbands and wives to place various people or activities—work, recreation, extended family, even Church service—above their marital bond. This is not necessarily a conscious decision. However, the covenant made by Adam and Eve to leave parents and be one teaches us that successful couples will be careful to place each other first. The greatest gift parents can give children is a united and loving marital bond.

Marriage is not just a social contract between man and woman; it involves God as well. God is a witness to all marriage agreements and insists that couples should be devoted and completely faithful to each other. The allegory of marital fidelity in Proverbs 5:15–21 beautifully portrays the blessing of faithfulness to one’s spouse. [Prov. 5:15–21]

Full Partnership

The story of Adam and Eve teaches us that marriage should be a full partnership. As noted earlier, the Hebrew rendering of help meet indicates that Eve was a helper worthy of Adam. After Adam was driven from the Garden of Eden, he “began to till the earth … and to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow. … And Eve … did labor with him.” (Moses 5:1; italics added.)

Elder Marion G. Romney commented of this passage: “The word with … is very significant. It means more than physical labor. It connotes a common purpose, understanding, cooperation, and love. …

“Even when circumstances justify a wife’s working away from home to support her family, she should be laboring ‘with,’ not on her own nor in conflict with her husband. …

“In Latter-day Saint families the husband and wife must be one.” (Relief Society Magazine, Feb. 1968, pp. 85–86.)

On the basis of selected Old Testament passages, some have argued that women were seen anciently as subordinate to and of less worth than men. Certainly during the years of nomadic wanderings in the Old Testament, Hebrew families were ruled by men. These families were not just a small group of parents and children living together. They were much larger kinship groups, in which a patriarch presided over extended families and employees who pitched their tents around the tent where he lived with his immediate household.

While it is true that males led these family groups, women were not of less importance, nor were their opinions and counsel ignored. Women were not ordered about and used as men pleased. Rather, they were joint heirs in the image of God, charged with tasks requiring the independence and great management ability of the “woman of valor” in Proverbs 31, who is depicted as a competent manager of goods and real estate, an expert businesswoman in a cottage industry, a competent mother and wife, and a person with a strong sense of personal worth. (See Prov. 31:10–31.) Neither were women less spiritual. The Old Testament recounts experiences of righteous “prophetesses” such as Miriam (see Ex. 15:20) and Huldah (see 2 Chr. 34:22; 2 Kgs. 22:14).

What we can conclude, then, particularly from what we know of the relationship between Adam and Eve, is that the executive council of husband and wife together is extremely important in the organization of families. Husbands and wives should counsel together in decisions related to communication and activities in the family, rearing and disciplining of children, food storage and other aspects of family welfare, finances, work and career decisions, family work responsibilities, housekeeping tasks, recreation, and all other decisions that affect their bond with each other. President Kimball said, “When we speak of marriage as a partnership, let us speak of marriage as a full partnership. We do not want our LDS women to be silent partners or limited partners in that eternal assignment! Please be a contributing and full partner.” (Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 106.)

To husbands he said, “Our partnerships with our eternal companions, our wives, must be full partnerships.

“Our sisters do not wish to be indulged or to be treated condescendingly; they desire to be respected and revered as our sisters and our equals.” (Ensign, Nov. 1979, p. 49.)

Importance of Teaching Children

The poetical expression of delight in children is represented in Psalms 127:3–5: “Children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.

“As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.

“Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.” [Ps. 127:3–5]

The ancient Hebrew household was definitely an educational institution in which parents gave practical and religious instruction to children. Ideally, as equals before God, deeply devoted and in love with each other, husband and wife shared together one voice in the training of their children. In turn, children were required to honor their parents as God’s earthly representatives. To honor parents involves showing affection and caring for them, highly prizing them (see Prov. 4:1–10), and learning the law of God from them.

Spiritual education was a family-centered responsibility in ancient Israel. Moses clearly taught Israelite parents: “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:

“And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. …

“And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.” (Deut. 6:6–7, 9.)

The counsel from modern prophets is much the same. Elder James E. Faust has said, “Surely, the most important ingredient in producing family happiness for members of this Church is a deep religious commitment under wise, mature parental supervision. Devotion to God in the home seems to forge the spiritual moorings and stability that can help the family cope.” (Ensign, May 1983, p. 40.)

Associated with the parallel commandments for children to honor their parents, and for parents to teach their children, is a promise to the children that their days will be “long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth [them].” (Ex. 20:12.) Does this mean that, when we honor our parents, we will be favored with long life? Surely most people are aware of respectful young children who have passed on. But in the sense that children honor the correct religious teachings of their parents (who were, in the Israelite view, God’s representatives on earth), the quality of the children’s lives will be better. The quality of people’s lives in every nation is related to the way individuals respond to their parents. The Israelite nation fell into Babylonian captivity because of many spiritual deficiencies, including the fact that children were dishonoring parents. (See Ezek. 22:7, 15.)

Clearly ancient Hebrew parents were expected to set and enforce limits for their children as well as, to mold their characters. “A child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame. …

“Correct thy son, and he shall give thee rest; yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul.” (Prov. 29:15, 17.) Parents were admonished to teach virtues such as respect for the aged, avoidance of boasting and gluttony, simplicity, hospitality, truthfulness, hard work, and obedience. Though their life was hard, families of ancient Israel were prepared for their crises by discipline tempered with affection.

Perhaps it is even more important in our time that religious and character education be a family-centered responsibility. Prayer, scripture study, testimony, work ethics, self-discipline, and loyalty to generations of family become the heritage of children reared in families where this responsibility is recognized.

Family Name and Traditions

Families at one point in ancient Israel were tent-dwellers living in groups of kin who protected and sustained each other against the harshness of weather, climate, and hostile nonfamily groups. The Israelites had a self-sustaining economic system in which individuals relied primarily on the extended family for necessities of life. Children associated on a daily basis with their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Individuals were absorbed into the family of three and sometimes more generations of forebears and associated relatives.

Children were expected to be loyal to their extended family and to honor not only their immediate biological parents but also their generations of ancestral parents. These families emphasized the importance of respecting one’s family history, name, and traditions.

The traditions of ancient Israelite families often focused on religious events or festivals. These served to transmit religious teachings as well as a sense of identification with family, tribe, and nation.

Strengths found in Latter-day Saint families often are linked to family traditions. Activities associated with special events, such as the blessing of children, baptisms, priesthood ordinations, birthdays, family vacations, family reunions, Christmas celebrations, and home evenings serve the same purpose as traditions in ancient Israel. They transmit values, character, doctrine, and identification with the larger family to children in each generation.

The Old Testament Picture

These selected examples from the Old Testament help remind us of the importance of the family in Heavenly Father’s eternal plan. The experience of this earth’s first family teaches that marriage is not a social convention but is God-ordained as an eternal partnership. The example of religious and character development in ancient Hebrew families reminds modern parents of the necessity of training children in spiritual areas. The importance the Old Testament places on the extended family and its traditions guides us to seek modern family traditions that link the generations together. Such principles, taught in the Old Testament, can help families in our day forge loving, nurturing bonds to sustain them throughout eternity.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett

James M. Harper, an associate professor of Family Sciences at Brigham Young University, serves as president of the Dan Jones Second Branch at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah.