Descriptive, Prescriptive, or Prophetic?

When we read the Bible, we Christians tend to use a dubious and disturbing method. We are on the prowl for principles. And when we find one, we pounce upon it, seize it with both hands, and run off with it — regardless of context, regardless of other texts, regardless of anything. Then, in our hands, the principle becomes a law, and the law becomes a stick to beat each other with.


Let me take an example. In Genesis 2:23, after the Lord creates woman from man’s side, He brings her to the man. Adam says: “This [creature] is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of a man” (Amplified).

Then Adam continues, or the narrator adds, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall become united and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (verse 24, Amplified).

I want to focus here on verse 24, the progression of leaving — cleaving — becoming one. Clearly, there is some sort of principle or generalized conclusion stated here. The RSV’s choice of tense makes this even clearer: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

But what sort of principle is presented here?

  • It might be an observation: This is how a man, at least some men, can be expected to behave. In this case, the “Therefore” makes sense: When a man meets the one whom his whole being recognizes, the one who can make him more fully all that he was created to be, then he will leave home for her. But for all we know, this may be a rare event, occurring once in a generation, or only at milestones in the history of salvation.
  • It might take on the force of a command: This is how every man should and must behave. The “Therefore” loses its force: This is not a wondrous occasion but a natural event — of course the right woman will come along. And when she does, you’d better get ready to leave. Woe to you if you don’t leave! Fortunately, we have a book-and-audio-CD set that can help you: The 17 L’s of Leaving.
  • Or it might be a prophetic statement: Someday, a certain Man will see a certain Woman, and become enraptured, and leave all for her.

We evangelicals have a tendency to rush to the second sort of reading. We want the Bible to be our rule for life, with something to say about every facet of existence. We are a bit desperate for texts that will tell us how to have a good marriage. This one looks serviceable, so let’s milk it for all it’s worth.

My church has been using A Biblical Portrait of Marriage, an older curriculum by Bruce Wilkinson of Walk Thru the Bible Ministries.(1) The first chapter and video are all about leaving. Insights from modern psychology are woven in, and, although there are Biblical references, the perspective is entirely that of modern American culture. We look at the “dependent” young couple, still too strongly attached to parents, and the “manipulative” parents, unwilling to let go.

Of course there are some truths here, and they are worth discussing. But are they really Biblical truths, or only baptized modern common sense?(2)

Most troubling are some of the logical conclusions drawn by the curriculum, as well as the questions left unanswered and unasked:

  • Since “leaving” occurs at marriage, what becomes of the young adult who never marries? Does he or she ever step out from under parental authority? Apparently not — even though, in Scripture, we see David, Elisha, and others make this transition before they marry.
  • Because “leaving” has the force of law — the curriculum speaks of taking actions “in order to fulfill the ‘leaving’ command” (1.7) — great weight and pressure fall on the conclusion that married adults should never live with (or next door to) parents. What are we to do when financial constraints rule out any other option? Is it always wiser and better to postpone marriage, perhaps indefinitely? And do we really want to imply that only people with middle-class or higher incomes can be Christians in good standing?
  • If married children should never live with parents, is it a sin for them to take in parents who have become aged and infirm?

Leaving in the Bible

If “leaving” were an important rule of life, we would expect to see examples throughout Scripture. We don’t. Quite the contrary: the system of land inheritance in Israel ensured that sons settled next to their fathers. (And daughters who inherited land not only stayed put, but had to marry within their clan and tribe, Numbers 36.) The Walk Thru the Bible curriculum advises that some married children should move to another state, but this simply wasn’t an option for most people in the Bible, not if they wished to own land.

Noah’s married sons live with Noah and his wife aboard the ark (Genesis 7:13). Perhaps those were desperate times, but we also find Job’s adult sons and daughters living (in their own homes) a stone’s throw away from him; he receives news of their deaths almost as quickly as he hears about his livestock (Job 1:13-19).

Rebekah leaves home for the sake of love, but her husband Isaac doesn’t (Genesis 24:57-67). Somehow their interests are split between their two sons, and there’s no indication that this is due to proximity to Isaac’s father, Abraham. Later, Rebekah sends her son Jacob back to stay with her brother Laban (27:43-45), but this hardly qualifies as an example of a parent “letting go.” Neither “leaving” nor failure to “leave” can adequately account for the tensions in this marriage.

Jacob lives (contentiously) with his uncle/father-in-law for 20 years (Genesis 31:38, 41); only at the end of this period does the Lord direct him to leave (31:3). Moses also lives with his father-in-law, long enough to have two sons (Exodus 2:21; 4:18). He leaves because the Lord calls him back to Egypt (4:19; 3:10), not because he is too “dependent” or his father-in-law too “manipulative.”

Apart from some pledges from the Lord to Israel, the most powerful and heartfelt expression of devotion in the Old Testament is not between a pair of young lovers; it is Ruth’s declaration to her mother-in-law (and, at that, ex-mother-in-law), Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17). Naomi plays matchmaker for Ruth and even claims Ruth’s son as her own (4:16-17). Yet the story is not told as a cautionary tale about the dire consequences of failing to “leave”; rather, it is a beautiful picture of redemption and inclusion.

If “leaving” is an all-important life passage, why does Jesus miss the opportunity to rebuke Peter for allowing his mother-in-law (and his brother Andrew) to live in his house (Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:29-30)? Why on earth, when He is on the cross, does He saddle John with His mother, Mary (John 19:26-27)? Shouldn’t He be counseling her to “let go”?

As the Walk Thru the Bible curriculum acknowledges (1.3), the word for “leave” in Genesis 2:24, azab, is a strong word, which can mean to forsake or abandon.(3) It appears in the prophetic cry of Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” It seems odd that the Bible would use so forceful a word simply of moving out of one’s parents’ house. It is rather like Jesus’ statement that, to be His disciple, we must hate — radically separate ourselves from — father and mother (Luke 14:26). But Jesus is not talking here about getting married; indeed, He adds that the disciple must hate wife and children too, and his own life.

Another Purpose

The New Testament quotes Genesis 2:24 several times. In Matthew 19:4-6, speaking against divorce, Jesus emphasizes the “becoming one flesh,” not the “leaving.” The same is true in 1 Corinthians 6:16, where Paul is discussing prostitution.

But in Ephesians 5:29-33, talking about marriage, Paul seems to look at the entire progression — leaving, cleaving, becoming one. He calls it “a profound mystery” (verse 32, NIV) that points to (RSV “and I am saying that it refers to”) Christ and the church.

Might this be a rather pointed hermeneutical tip? Could it be that Genesis 2:24 is not intended to serve as a “leaving command” but as a prophetic picture? Already, in the second chapter of the Bible, before the Fall, before there are adult children to leave or parents and homes to be left, God speaks of a Man who will love so deeply, so devotedly, that He will abandon all, lay aside His glory, cleave to His beloved by taking on her condition, and die and rise (even as Adam sleeps and suffers a tearing) so that we might be “one flesh” with Him, members of His body.

“You have ravished My heart, My sister, My bride, you have ravished My heart with a glance of your eyes” (Song of Songs 4:9, RSV). This is the love that impels Boaz when he “will not rest until the matter is settled” (Ruth 3:18). And, yes, this love is a model for every Christian husband — but not as a command. This is no mere principle that I can extract and apply. It is the burning heart of God; I must draw near to it, fearfully, and let it course through me, change me, rule me.(4)

More than 40 years ago, J.I. Packer pointed out that we have no shortage of books and sermons

on how to pray, how to witness, how to read our Bibles, how to tithe our money, how to be a young Christian, how to be an old Christian, how to be a happy Christian, how to get consecrated, how to lead men to Christ, how to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit (or, in some cases, how to avoid receiving it), how to speak with tongues (or, how to explain away Pentecostal manifestations), and generally how to go through all the various motions which the teachers in question associate with being a Christian believer. . . . Yet one can have all this and hardly know God at all.(5)

If we read the Bible for prescriptive principles, we turn it into a how-to book. We say, or verge on saying, that we can apply these principles ourselves. We don’t really need the Scriptures with their complexities and mysteries, once we extract and distill the principles.

Proverbs 3:5 enjoins us not to rely on our own understanding. But if we can put our trust in principles, we don’t really need the Holy Spirit. We might as well be living in Old Testament Israel. Apparently we don’t have hearts of stone (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26); we’re not constitutionally unfaithful because of a “spirit of prostitution” (Hosea 4:12; 5:4); we don’t need an inner change of mind and heart so that obedience springs from within, not without (Jeremiah 31:33).

Or we can read, again and again, the long and messy, wonderful stories of One who loves. He shatters our principles and exposes our sin. When we read in this way, we come away hungry, not confident in ourselves but pruned, and crying out for mercy. Over time, perhaps we learn to value what He does, and to grieve at anything less. We pray to be filled afresh with the Holy Spirit, not simply for strength to fulfill principles we understand, but to walk in obedience to promptings and texts that we cannot fathom.

This would be Biblical thinking, which might lead one day to a Biblical culture. It begins in a way of reading that has nothing to do with picking out principles and sermon points. If we but allow them, the Spirit and the Word will lay bare our hearts.

(1) Atlanta, GA: Walk Thru the Bible, 2001, 2008. The copyright date for many of the materials is 1995.
(2) Secular social psychologist Jonathan Haidt quotes this verse in discussing “transfer of attachment” in romantic love (The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom [New York: Basic-Perseus, 2006], 119).
(3) Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 87-88.
(4) Here I must acknowledge a very significant exception to the categories and ways of reading that I have been discussing. Walter Trobisch’s I Married You (1971; Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1997) is based entirely on Genesis 2:24. Trobisch finds in this verse principles for marriage, even an outline and a metaphor. Yet the atmosphere is utterly different from that of the Walk Thru the Bible curriculum, and of most Christian books today. “Leaving” is not a command to extract and apply, but a behavior observed (in one form or another) where there is love (87). The text is “like a deep well,” inexhaustible (18), and so Trobisch’s book is not a series of steps (how-to) but a narrative with different stories and examples. “Leaving” grows and changes: father and mother stand for the community, and “leaving” represents all that is public and legal in marriage (19-20, 27, 85-86); it is a paradox, since a union continues (41) — so that one can leave and later take in a parent (34); it requires divine wisdom (43); it never fully permeated Israel’s culture (67). Ultimately, it points to Jesus (147-48). This book is a rich, lived meditation.
(5) J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 22.