What Does the Bible Mean When it Says Married People Should Leave and Cleave?

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Marriage is God’s idea. Upon creating and forming Adam and Eve, he gives instructions for marriage’s design and purpose, including the phrase, “Leave and cleave.”

Every major culture has some form of marriage connected to the practical aspect of bearing and raising children. Still, the purpose goes beyond the practical. The biblical narrative clearly expresses an aspect of love and lifelong commitment.

Our modern culture has expounded upon and expanded the idea of love and marriage. Finding a husband or wife is the goal of many romantic comedies or Hallmark movies, often to fantastical degrees.

Today, the phrase “Leave and cleave” seems old-fashioned and archaic. But perhaps we can still learn God’s will and design from the beginning and find joy and hope for the future.

Where Does the Bible Tell Us to Leave and Cleave?

“Leave and cleave” is derived from Genesis 2:24, which states the following:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (ESV)

This verse is part of the creation account, describing how God made the heavens, earth, and humanity.

The Bible first introduces God as a Creator before all his other roles. The Scripture continues to stress how God, as the source of creation, gives him authority and means he is vastly unlike us, the created. The earth was “without form and void,” under chaos and darkness. God first speaks light into the darkness and separates the light from darkness. This light was different than the sun and moon, created later.

The New Testament places Jesus there at creation as the Word through which God made the world. The apostles further deem Christ the light, meaning Jesus was the light spoken into the darkness in that first moment. With the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, we see a picture of the Trinity in the first few verses of the Bible.

God continues to speak, commanding creation forth from himself in stages and days. On the sixth day, God makes humanity. He doesn’t create through speaking. However, he forms humanity with his hands and makes humanity in his own image.

Adam couldn’t be the image of God alone because God isn’t alone within himself. There are three persons as one within God, so the Lord declares the one thing that isn’t good—Adam has no one like him. God is loving, so he addresses this lack in Adam and gives the man a woman, Eve: like him but not the same as him.

Adam also needed Eve to participate in God’s purpose for humanity: to be fruitful and multiply. God could have made Adam capable of asexual reproduction, I suppose. But God himself creates from a relationship of oneness, so the person made in his image must also.

It is in this context that the Scripture makes a statement about marriage. Leave your family and cleave to your wife.

What Does it Mean to Cleave to Something?

To “cleave” has dual meanings. We often think of one meaning: something being separated, like a cleaver separates meat into pieces.

However, the interpretation depends on the context used. In the biblical context, particularly in Genesis 2:24, “cleave” is often translated as “hold fast” or “cling.”

In this sense, to cleave to something signifies a strong, unwavering attachment or commitment. It conveys the idea of deeply bonding with someone or something, maintaining a close, intimate connection. In the context of marriage, as described in Genesis, it signifies the husband’s commitment to his wife, creating a union meant to be enduring and inseparable.

Beyond its biblical usage, the term “cleave” can also denote the act of splitting or separating. This alternative meaning adds a layer of nuance to its interpretation. It implies a forceful or decisive action, often involving a physical or metaphorical breaking away from one entity to join another. The biblical instruction to leave and cleave in marriage encapsulates both senses of the word: leaving the family of origin, attaching oneself to a spouse.

Leaving and cleaving underscores the transformative nature of marriage, highlighting the shift in priorities and allegiances. It emphasizes that the husband and wife form a new family unit, distinct and separate from their respective families of origin. This separation does not diminish the importance of honoring parents. It establishes the marital relationship as a unique and paramount connection.

In the New Testament, when questioned about divorce, Jesus reaffirms the principle of leaving and cleaving. He refers back to Genesis 2:24 when he answers:

“He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’” (Matthew 19:4-6 ESV)

This reaffirmation by Jesus underscores the enduring importance of the leave-and-cleave principle, portraying marriage as a divine union that transcends individual family ties. The bond between husband and wife is depicted as sacred and inseparable, and the directive to leave and cleave serves as a foundational principle for a strong and unified marital relationship.

Did Biblical Cultures Practice Leave and Cleave Differently Than We Do?

During biblical times, people often had a different idea of leaving one’s family of origin to form a new household than we do in modern Western societies. Cultural and familial structures created different expectations.

Particularly in ancient Judaism, people emphasized extended family structures and the family unit’s collective well-being. Leaving and cleaving did not necessarily involve physical relocation to a separate dwelling. Instead, it was more about establishing a new familial identity within the broader family context.

Marriage was viewed as an extension of the existing family unit rather than a complete departure. Newlywed couples often continued to live near their extended families—even in the same house, sharing resources and support. This close-knit living arrangement was practical and aligned with the culture’s value of communal life and mutual assistance.

Hence, the biblical principle of leaving and cleaving was more about shifting priorities and allegiances than physically separating from one’s family. The husband was called to prioritize his relationship with his wife over other family ties while maintaining a sense of interconnectedness with the larger family. This approach to family life fostered continuity and intergenerational support.

In contrast, Western societies often strongly emphasize individual autonomy and independence. The prevailing cultural norm involves young couples leaving their parents’ homes to establish their households. This departure signifies a change in living arrangements and a shift in financial responsibility and decision-making autonomy.

The biblical practice of leaving and cleaving challenges the contemporary notion of couple completely independent from their extended families. In biblical cultures, extended family members being involved was integral to the new family’s stability and flourishing. The interconnectedness provided a safety net, communal wisdom, and shared purpose.

Can We Leave and Cleave in Unhealthy Ways?

Leaving and cleaving can be practiced in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Striking the right balance between independence as a couple and maintaining healthy connections with extended family is crucial for fostering strong and sustainable relationships.

In unhealthy instances, leaving and cleaving can manifest as extreme individualism, where a couple isolates themselves entirely from their families of origin. This can lead to alienation. Couples struggle to navigate challenges effectively without the wisdom and support that extended family members can provide. The biblical emphasis on leaving does not advocate for complete detachment. Rather, it asks to reorder priorities, emphasizing the new family unit while maintaining connection with the broader family.

On the other hand, unhealthy leaving and cleaving can involve an unhealthy reliance upon the family of origin. The couple may struggle to establish their identity and make independent decisions. Extended family members can interfere when they mean to help.

Healthy boundaries involve recognizing that the marriage has autonomy yet appreciating the extended family’s role in offering guidance, emotional support, and shared experiences.

How Do We Leave and Cleave in God-Honoring Ways?

Leaving and cleaving in God-honoring ways involves balancing establishing a new family unit, yet maintaining respect and connection with the family. By adhering to biblical principles and incorporating a spirit of love, communication, and mutual respect, couples can foster healthy relationships and build a foundation that honors God.

First, God-honoring leaving and cleaving prioritize the marital relationship. This involves recognizing the unique bond between husband and wife. The marriage relationship holds a distinct and central place in God’s design. Hopefully, the parents of both husband and wife embodied these healthy ways to interact with the family.

Second, effective communication is crucial. Couples should openly discuss their expectations, desires, and boundaries about how the extended family will be involved. By sharing their perspectives and actively listening to each other, couples can have a shared approach. They can ensure they share the same understanding of what it means to leave and cleave.

Setting healthy boundaries is another key aspect of leaving and cleaving in a way that honors God. Establishing these boundaries allows couples to maintain autonomy while fostering positive connections with extended family members. This involves discerning when to seek advice, when to establish independence, and how to communicate these boundaries respectfully.

Practicing love and respect toward both sets of parents is also integral. Children should continue to honor their parents, even though they aren’t bound to obey as adults. This requires acknowledging that the family each spouse came from was significant, yet the marriage is primary. Couples can build an atmosphere of unity and understanding by demonstrating love and respect to both families.

Moreover, leaving and cleaving in a God-honoring way includes seeking guidance from God through prayer and relying on biblical principles. Prayer allows us to seek wisdom, discernment, and strength. With God’s guidance, we can have the confidence and love we need for interactions with family members.


Photo credit: ©GettyImages/jodie777

Britt MooneyBritt Mooney lives and tells great stories. As an author of fiction and non -iction, he is passionate about teaching ministries and nonprofits the power of storytelling to inspire and spread truth. Mooney has a podcast called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author of We Were Reborn for This: The Jesus Model for Living Heaven on Earth as well as Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.

This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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