What Does Genesis 2:18 Really Teach?

A frequently misinterpreted verse in the Bible is Genesis 2:18, where God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (ESV).  From the immediate context, where God creates Eve as a helper for Adam, many people understand the state of being single to be “not good” and marriage as the only real solution to loneliness.

Common as this interpretation is, it cannot be squared with the full witness of Scripture.  Take Matthew 19, for instance.  After Jesus had just finished making an argument from Genesis about divorce, the disciples assert that it is better not to marry.  If the common understanding of Genesis 2:18 were correct, Jesus would have immediately brought it up.  He didn’t, but instead basically said that it can be better to remain unmarried, just not for everyone.  He mentioned three categories of people who would remain celibate, only the third of which would have any explicit choice in the matter.  (See Seeds of Celibacy for a reflection on this last fact.)

The only way I can reconcile Genesis 2:18 with Matthew 19 is that “being alone” and being married are not the only choices: there must be a third option.  This makes a good deal of sense even in the context of the Genesis passage: after all, Adam was not merely single, he was the only human being on the face of the planet.  It was through his relationship with Eve that the world was populated.  In the New Testament, the Church plays a significant role as family for all believers.  In my current situation and life stage, I find that fellow believers do fulfill this role for me, because I do have meaningful companionship and support from my Christian brothers and sisters.

On the other hand, it seems that particularly in our culture, many single people end up alone in a very real sense.  As Americans, we have enough trouble giving our biological families priority over work and busy schedules.  We thus often fail to fulfill our role as Christians in the lives of our single brothers and sisters – a failure I understand to be sinful, though I don’t always get it right.  Many single people struggle deeply with loneliness.  In addition, I’ve paid a lot of attention to the stories of other LGBT people.  I’ve seen far more cases than I can count of people who were suffering from crushing loneliness—sometimes to the point of seriously contemplating suicide—before they found companionship and human connection through a gay relationship.

I’ve concluded that a lot of the time, these people are indeed facing the kind of “being alone” that God has called “not good.”  However, in a lot of cases, marriage is not a viable option even for those who struggle with and do not feel a particular call towards celibacy.  Rather than simply calling this a tragedy, I think we as Christians are called to figure out how to make sure our brothers and sisters have another real alternative to “being alone.”  I’m not sure exactly what this looks like, but I’m excited to see some good thinking places like here on Spiritual Friendship.

Jeremy EricksonJeremy Erickson is a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He previously studied Mathematics and Computer Science at Taylor University in Upland, IN.

9 thoughts on “What Does Genesis 2:18 Really Teach?

  1. As a divorced middle aged woman who has had to deal with being alone for the first time in my life, (although, I have gone through the most difficult period and it is getting easier now), I find a lot of comfort and encouragement in this blog. I’ve kind of given up on trying to find a mate, as the few starts and stops I’ve encountered seem to end on the premise that my relationship with the Lord is too intense and focused to the point of obsession. Even Christian men have felt this way toward me. I ask, how can someone be “obsessed” with Jesus and even if you could call it that, how is that a negative thing?

    I’ve tried to establish familial relationships with those in my local congregation but like this article states, no one seems to have the time to pursue or be pursued for godly friendship in their over-worked busy lives.

    I am also at fault I think, being an introvert and perhaps not expressing my needs and vulnerability enough to my brothers and sisters. How do I tell them that I have been so lonely at times that I have contemplated checking out?

    I keep praying and asking God to send someone into my life, not necessarily someone for marriage but someone who I could have an intimate bond with, I keep telling Him I don’t need a lot, just one person would do. So far, I continue to be alone but rather than wallow in some sort of victim identity, as my flesh is want to do, I am contemplating ways that I can reach out to others who may also be alone, let it start with me I guess.

    Thanks for this blog and sharing your struggles, it is good to see that I am not the only one out here with this burden. God bless and keep you in your faithfulness to Him.

  2. I am not a native speaker, but I thought there is a distinction between ‘alone’ and ‘lonely’, i.e. it is possible to be alone but not lonely (which seems to be your case) and it is possible to not be alone but still lonely (I have no experience with marriage, but I assume it is possible to feel lonely even when married).

    It may sound like semantics (and I have about no clue whether the underlying original word used will allow it), but maybe we should use “It is not good that the man should be lonely” rather than ‘alone’ ?

  3. “The only way I can reconcile Genesis 2:18 with Matthew 19 is that “being alone” and being married are not the only choices: there must be a third option.”

    Yes.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. In fact, a pastor friend of mine recently asked me this question: “how can the married members of the Church work to make single people feel as if they are indeed family?” I didn’t have a good answer for him at the time, but I have pondered it.

    I wonder if, as anonymous houses says, it is important to be vulnerable, certainly this is part of it. But I think a bit about the relationships I have now that function like this: real family. They didn’t begin with a conversation about how lonely I was, they began with a moving towards. Talking is good, actions may be needed, though, to make this work. Not a single person simply saying: “I’m lonely, I need you, please let me be a part of your family.” but also holding out a hand to those people, people who seem marginalized and those who don’t, and inviting them into your own communion. This has been a challenge to my thinking lately.

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  5. I suppose it’s important to remember that Adam’s situation was unique in that his aloneness was in terms of having no-one else around apart from God. Thus he went from singleness to marriage in one step with no option to find companionship in a wider community of humans. However, if we are “single”, we should never be as alone as Adam originally was, since we have friends/family/church to provide community. Therefore, it’s important not to read too much into Gen 2:18, which comments on a different situation.

  6. I think the reason why Genesis says its not good for the human being to be alone is important to note: “I will provide an ‘ezer’ suitable for him.” The term “ezer” which is often translated “helper” is used almost exclusively in Scripture to refer to God’s powerful saving actions toward human beings. Thus, it was not good for the human being to be alone because he needed the social support of another human being.

    The animals were not similar to him. Having other living creatures around was not enough. Nor was God enough (an important point to make since cliches in Christian circles abound on this). The human being needed another human being. Why? Because God created us as social creatures who need the support and companionship of other human beings.

    The passage is not so much about marriage per se, but about how human beings have been created to have kinship. We need family.

    I think we have to be careful about prooftexting–that is, putting too much theological weight on one or two passages here and there and making claims that are sometimes divorced from living reality. We don’t need Scripture to tell us that most of us have an innate drive to form our own family units. We live and breathe that. And its often painful when that doesn’t occur.

    Jesus’ statement doesn’t necessarily contradict the Genesis statement. He was not saying that if someone is celibate they no longer need kinship. And in that period of time, it was likely very rare for anyone to be living alone. Many cultures have had extended kinship networks where three generations will live in one home. So, not getting married didn’t mean you don’t have family. Broader American culture is not like that (unless you are from a minority cultural group that still practices strong kinship networks). So, there are particular complications in modern culture that need to be addressed that were not present at Jesus’ time.

    I used to think that the church family was supposed to be family for the single, celibate person, but I have come to realize that it can never replace the kinship bond because the kinship bond is fundamentally different than having close friends and connections with people more broadly. So, I think single, celibate people will continue to feel like the Church is sinning and not measuring up in this regard because its expecting something that the Church cannot give. This is not to say the Church cannot be family at all–but that we have to be careful about prooftexting Jesus’ statements about a spiritual family and assuming that replaces the need for kinship as the social creatures we have been designed to be.

    Recently I was reading Rolheiser’s book “The Holy Longing” and he said something that I resisted at first, but have come to agree with as true:

    “Some years ago, a young man joined the Oblates, the religious community of which I am a member . . .he would complain about the lack of community with this type of refrain: ‘I joined this order, looking for community, but everyone is always too busy to have time for me. We don’t share deeply enough with each other. . . .’ Eventually he went to counseling. The counselor . . . told him, ‘What you are really looking for is not to be found in a religious order. You are looking for a lover, not a religious community.’ We have often confused church community with family in the psycho-sexual sense. This has brought us no end of disappointment. We speak of church as a family, but it is not a family like a family created by a man and a woman and children is a family. .. Church community can never be a functional substitute for emotional and sexual intimacy. It is not intended to be. One shouldn’t go to church looking for a lover” (pp. 116-117).

    Another point worth making is that Jesus’ discussion of marriage in the Gospels tends to be related to procreation. Thus, the eunuch doesn’t (apparently) marry because he is not able to procreate. However, Paul, later gives other reasons for marriage that are not related to procreation, including that each person should have their own spouse in order to thwart temptation to sexual immorality. So, this is another reason to avoid prooftexting. Its important to look at the plurality of voices across Scripture. And its essential to be really honest about the realities of trying to live a single, celibate life in our modern time of mobility, disconnected family units, internet pornography, etc etc. Our social needs now are much greater than in previous times due to the disintegration of kinship ties and community and even friendship bonds.

    What is the solution? I don’t have any solid answers. But, a couple of things I think we need to consider and that is openness to people forming kinship bonds that are non-marital–whether that is a platonic partnership or making someone kin through covenant (like Ruth and Naomi) where there is a commitment to go through life together. Kinship is essential to human flourishing and I think the primary point of the Genesis statement that it is not good for a human being to be alone is that every human being needs “ezers” in their life. One might also consider civil same-sex marriage as an accommodation for those who cannot achieve celibacy following Paul’s concern that not having one’s own spouse can lead to more damaging sexual immorality.

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