Ribs to Go

by Marcus Green

The Revd Marcus Green is a member of the Living in Love and Faith process and Vicar of Steeple Aston Church in the Diocese of Oxford.  He writes regularly in his blog on a variety of issues and in the following addresses the use of Genesis 1 and 2 in the discussions about marriage.  You can read it below or in the blog here.

Ribs to Go

The Old Testament reading in the lectionary for the Second Sunday before Lent was from Genesis 2, including these verses:

The Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

Time was, these words seldom got bandied around in sexuality debates. Now they often join the cohort of texts that are regularly trotted out to show how heterosexuality is God’s plan, and gay people are somehow (by implication, by open statement) second best.

I recently heard a sermon that picked up on this; I read others writing online for and against such interpretation. They add Genesis 1.27 (God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them) and they point to Jesus’ usage of these words in Matthew 19 and Mark 10.

I confess that I admire the creativity of those who have added these texts to our debates. One thing you have to give the traditionalist standpoint is that for a viewpoint that sells itself as being ‘what we’ve always believed’ it recreates itself regularly and with boundless energy. When I was first coming to terms with my sexuality, nobody thought to include Genesis 1 & 2 on their lists of texts to look at in this debate. Now, I get some quite conservative commentators admitting that the seven or so texts that used to be everyone’s basic armoury aren’t quite what they are supposed to be – but no worries – let’s go to Genesis 1!

It’s a strong argument. It’s a Creation argument – looking at how things were before the Fall, so it’s about how God planned the world to be. It’s about complementarity, being made in the image of God male and female. And it’s about the divine ordering of marriage: man and wife being united and becoming one flesh.

It’s used to point out that the proper place of sexual activity in God’s creation order is within marriage, and that marriage is defined as the joining of man and woman. It is used to demonstrate that anything else (i.e. gay sexual acts, the marriage of people of the same sex etc) lies outside God’s plan.

The fact that Jesus picked up on this is seen as the double whammy: in Matthew 19 Jesus refutes some pharisees who use a bit from the beginning of Deuteronomy 24 to permit divorce, by bringing in Genesis 1 & 2. Yes, there’s a permission for failure – but let’s not start with the expectation of failure, let’s start with the plan for success. And the plan for success? Heterosexual marriage as given by Genesis 1.27 & Genesis 2.24.


I have about a hundred questions here.

Let’s start with the really obvious stuff.

For these verses from Genesis 1 & 2 to be God’s plan for heterosexual marriage, we have to take them totally on face value without any interpretative interplay. We accept them literally as they stand. That’s a great way to take text in the Scriptures, of course. Well, it’s a great way to take text unless you’re taking it out of context, and unless you are cherry picking.

And the traditionalist use of these texts may just be slightly guilty of cherry picking…

Because if I go to (for example) Genesis 1.31 (the evening and the morning, the seventh day) or if in Genesis 2 we look at verse 22 or 23 (the stuff about Eve being taken from Adam’s rib) then I think we pretty quickly admit that the number of people in the room that are accepting these verses on face value is genuinely very small. We’re in a passage of Scripture that is full of mystery and poetry; it’s not a Haynes car manual. Coming to a complex passage like this and pulling out a couple of verses that fit what we want them to say and saying – “Look! The handbrake is supposed to be purple!” feels – risky.

Especially if people’s lives depend upon that handbrake.

Well, comes back the response, just look at Matthew 19. Jesus chooses to pull out these verses. If there is cherry picking, it’s the Gardener who is plucking the fruit.

Hmm. Yes, but the Gardener also puts all of this (Matthew 19.4) in “the beginning“, surely a reference to Genesis 1.1, and therefore not plucking verses out of context but establishing a context whereby the whole of these chapters comes into play?

Now if Jesus does that, either he wants us to accept a literal seven-day Creation in order to understand the very straightforward application of God’s best plan for people being heterosexual marriage – or maybe he wants us to understand that God’s best plan for all people comes in the context of poetry and mystery? Where words paint possibilities, rather than create prisons? People are made in God’s image in enormous variety, and are made in that image for relationship, and find in such relationship a re-finding of the image in which they were made. Of course the given pattern is heterosexual relationship (not marriage – there’s no marriage service spoken of here: that’s a later interpolation) as this is the way of life most will follow and delight in. But does that make this the exclusive pattern?

Only if your wife came from your rib.

Moreover, Jesus then does another remarkable sidestep.

For the exception to the Law of Genesis which the pharisees initially approached Jesus with came from the beginning of Deuteronomy 24, where man and wife might break the unbreakable bond of Genesis 2. And Jesus, in painting the mystic picture of humanity made in God’s image from Genesis 1 & 2, adds a different exception to Deuteronomy as he seems to head instead to the beginning of Deuteronomy 23.

The disciples are struck by Jesus’ words and say – you’re putting forward a tough deal. Jesus replies – not everyone can take it. Only those for whom it is meant should try. And then he (out of nowhere) adds:

For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.

Deuteronomy 24 talks about divorce; Deuteronomy 23 expressly banns eunuchs from the congregation of the faithful. People who have been ’emasculated’ in the NIV translation. And Jesus says, no: in the context of mystery and poetry and God’s intention for all his people, these too have a place in God’s kingdom. God’s people are not a fertility cult. More: the Sabbath is made for people, not people for the Sabbath – God’s order exists to bless people, not to bring them down. All people.

So those who are different aren’t counted out. Aren’t counted as less. Aren’t ignored. Male and female isn’t a prison to bind people up in order to conform them to the image of God but a glorious example for all. People who don’t fit others’ expectations for whatever reason (birth, society’s pressures, religious choice) are as human and as created in the image of God as anyone else.

And that plays back into the poetry and mystery of the words that have gone before. We are not a fertility cult; but we are made for relationship – because our relationships are about reflecting the love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the life-long, faithful, fruitful joining of people is a stepping into a way of life that God gives all human beings equally made in God’s image.

Because those who are different are never counted out.