In my previous post on Protestants and celibacy, I focused primarily on the Scripture passages that address celibacy directly. Another important part of Scripture to consider, and one frequently brought up, is the account in Genesis. God’s claim that “it is not good that the man should be alone” in Genesis 2:18 (ESV) is a common proof text for a negative view of celibacy. As I have written previously, I do not believe that equating “alone” and “unmarried” is a responsible way to read this passage.
I would like to focus on understanding what Scripture is really teaching us in the Genesis account. I will do so by focusing on one of the most important principles of interpreting Scripture, namely paying attention to context. In examining various areas of context, I’ve come to the conclusion that procreation is a significant component of God’s solution to “being alone.” Adam’s difficulty lay not in being unmarried: the difficulty was rather that he was the only human being. Humans, after all, are designed to need connections with each other. Marriage is but one form of this connection made possible by a world where people follow the command to “be fruitful and multiply.”
Celibacy, in turn, has its own inherent difficulties. Most people desire the kind of shared life usually found in marriage and have the biological desire to have sex. These desires, particularly the sexual ones, are unlikely to go away just because one has other forms of community. But we also need to learn to view celibacy the way Scripture does, which includes reading Genesis 2:18 in the light of what the passage is actually saying. We must not read something into it other than what is actually there. Without further ado, let’s look at one of the major areas of context.
Our Context as Readers
Our idea of what celibacy is like does not occur in a vacuum. Celibacy is often very difficult and it very often feels like punishment. However, not all of this difficulty is intrinsic. Protestant churches tend to lack the necessary support structures for sustainable celibacy. There is relatively little honest conversation about how people can deal with sexual temptation if they are not married. The advice is usually to simply get married. This all contributes to our willingness to see celibacy itself as what God calls “not good.”
Additionally, we are also influenced by the attitudes we are surrounded by in our culture. A major assumption is that marriage is primarily about adult connection and support. We furthermore assume that marriage is by far the most important context for this kind of connection and support. This is simply the 21st-century view of romance in most Western nations. With this assumption, it makes sense to us that when Adam is described as “alone,” and God’s solution involves a romantic partner, we view the romantic connection as the solution to loneliness.
We will obviously miss the point of the passage if we look at it only through 21st-century eyes, without considering how the original context was different. We also want to avoid what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” [pdf] in which we assume that the views of our culture are automatically better because they are more recent.
One of the biggest differences is that reliable contraception was not widely available prior to the 20th century. So if a man and a woman were regularly having sex, they would expect to have children. There were cases where the couple was infertile, but it generally wasn’t possible to know this prior to marriage and it was usually viewed as a curse.
To the original audience of Genesis, mentioning the marital union of man and woman would have brought procreation to mind as readily as the idea of eating lots of junk food still brings obesity to mind. There’s no reason the author would have to bring it up explicitly.
Furthermore, in the ancient Israelite mindset neither covenant nor emotional closeness were exclusive to a marriage relationship, and neither constituted infidelity outside of marriage.
With these observations in mind, it seems reasonable that procreation may have been the reason that God specifically created a wife for Adam. Procreation was, after all, the most fundamental difference between marriage and friendship in the ancient world.
Another major historical difference has to do with kinship. In the world of the ancient Israelites, as well as many other cultures throughout history and into today, people were expected to care for those in their extended family. If a person remained unmarried, he or she could expect to be cared for by his or her siblings and cousins into old age. Members of the extended family could also expect to see each other on at least a daily basis. In our culture, we tend to associate all of these benefits only with marriage, because they are much harder to achieve outside of marriage.
Immediate Context Within the Passage
One of the most important aspects of understanding the context for a piece of Scripture is understanding the passage in which it occurs.
The first mention of women is in Genesis 1:27, which says that “male and female” were created in the image of God. In the very next verse, God gives the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” referencing procreation. So here in the passage the connection with procreation is explicit.
Immediately after the verse in question (Genesis 2:18), God asks Adam to name all of the animals (Genesis 2:19-20a), resulting in the realization that none of them constituted a suitable helper for Adam (Genesis 2:20b). When God creates Eve, Adam begins by observing the similarities between himself and Eve. Specifically, he says that she is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”
This emphasizes that Adam didn’t just lack a spouse; he was the only human being on the face of the planet. So the fact that he was “alone” didn’t just mean that he was unmarried. Procreation itself was a large part of solving this problem. As Genesis 1:28 had just indicated, procreation was the divinely ordained way for there to be more humans. Although obviously Eve was another person and thus an immediate part of God’s solution to loneliness, procreation was also part of that solution. Still, the text doesn’t give any indication that a spouse is always necessary to solve loneliness for any other particular person. If other people are procreating, then there are other humans with whom to form bonds of friendship and kinship.
Larger Context within Scripture
In order to understand any passage in Scripture, we should look at it within the broader picture of Scripture more generally.
Scripture is replete with references to the value of love and community in forms other than marriage. Friendship is a frequent theme in both the Old and New Testament, most famously that of David and Jonathan.
In the Old Testament, there are several references to the members of the community that lack the usual family relationships, namely orphans and widows. Israelites were commanded to take care of their practical needs. For example, in Deuteronomy 26:12, widows and orphans are among those who receive food given as a tithe. In Deuteronomy 24:19-21, Israelites were commanded to leave leftover produce for sojourners, widows, and orphans.
The command to care for widows and orphans went beyond taking care of physical needs. In Deuteronomy 16:9-15, orphans and widows are to be included in certain festivals. So their need for belonging is acknowledged as well.
For Christians, the New Testament is a particularly important source for understanding the Old Testament.
There are several New Testament passages that are difficult to reconcile with the teaching that celibacy usually goes against God’s creative intention, and many that lend themselves nicely to the conclusion that “more humans” was as much a part of God’s solution to loneliness as “a spouse.”
Most immediate are the passages I discussed in my last post, where we find explicit teaching that celibacy is a greater good than marriage. In one of these passages, Matthew 19, Jesus specifically quotes Genesis yet also praises celibacy. (I discussed this in my prior Genesis 2:18 post.) This is nearly impossible to reconcile with the claim that being unmarried itself is what is “not good.”
Another key passage to consider is Matthew 22:23-33, or the parallel account in Mark 12:18-27. In this instance, the Sadducees are asking a question about a man who dies and leaves a widow with no children. In this case, the widow is entitled to remarriage in order to have a child. This is an instance of the theme that marriage and children were inherently linked in the Jewish mindset.
Jesus never questions the procreative view of marriage that is presented. However, he does make the radical claim that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (ESV). If the romantic and relational parts of marriage were the fundamental creative intent behind it, it seems odd that it would not survive into the resurrection. On the other hand, if procreation plays a fundamental role in what God was designing, it makes better sense that it is no longer necessary in a world where people no longer die. People no longer need offspring either to continue the family line or to maintain the human population.
In the New Testament, we also see numerous references to love and community outside marriage. Paul uses familial language to address believers throughout his letters. In Acts 4:32-35, believers took care of each other’s physical needs to the point of holding property in common. Believers are told to meet together and encourage one another (Hebrews 10:25). In Galatians 6:2, Paul commands believers to bear one another’s burdens.
So within the pages of Scripture, marriage is not the only contrast to “being alone.” And all of these alternatives are not only made possible by marriage as a romantic partnership, but also by procreation, which builds up the human family.
But what does this mean in practice? As I mentioned at the beginning, remaining unmarried is a difficult and painful burden for many. The simple fact that procreation could theoretically provide alternatives does nothing to change this fact. Even though people are not “alone” in the same sense Adam was, they often do not experience the kinds of connection and community that God intended.
I think the examples given in Scripture can help point us towards a way forward. Some of the needs of celibate people are physical, like being cared for into old age and meaningful touch. Others have to do with connection, intimacy, and belonging. Meeting these needs for all believers will no doubt be difficult, but Christ calls us to no less. Let’s start by acknowledging that God’s answer to loneliness is not supposed to end with marriage, and let’s work towards making that answer work for the unmarried in our midst. Only then can we learn to value celibacy in the midst of remaining difficulty the way Jesus and Paul did.