I grew up in a place where winters were downright frosty. When the snow arrived, the older students played a game with the younger--and invariably more trusting--students. We’d tell them to taste the flagpole, and we’d promise a handsome reward if they did so. Sure enough, we could usually get at least one kid to go along with our game (and if you’ve seen the movie “A Christmas Story," you know how this works!). Once they pressed their tongue to the metal flagpole, they quickly found their tongue had frozen to the metal. Hopefully there's a little warm water nearby to thaw it, because pulling it free meant the pain of tearing off a layer of skin.
In 2 Samuel 23:10, we’re told that an Israelite soldier holds his sword in the cold for so long that his hand “cleaves” to the metal sword. What stands out here is that this is the same word used in Genesis 2:24 to describe God’s purpose in marriage: “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife.” God’s design for marriage is that we embark on a lifelong journey of leaving our old loyalties behind and joining ourselves to our spouse such that we are stuck together like a hand to a frozen sword--or a tongue to a metal flagpole! What does that entail?
The ancient Israelite culture valued the place of the family. Your parents were to be honored, and respected all life long--and yet, God says that when a couple marries, loyalty to their family of origin takes second place to the newly created family. Marriage requires that our first and highest human loyalty is to our spouse.
Our failure to “leave” our other loyalties behind is a sin we often fail to see. In fact, we often recognize some of the more obvious sins that threaten a marriage: pornography, addiction, or affairs. While these are serious threats to the health of a marriage, putting other loyalties ahead of our marriage can be every bit as toxic in the long run. Perhaps you are more interested in gaining and keeping your parents’ approval than your spouse’s opinion. So, you let them criticize or belittle your partner without standing up for your spouse because you don’t want to upset your parents. Or, you make plans for vacation or the holidays to appease the wishes of your parents, even though you know your spouse has different ideas. Perhaps your parents have keys to your house and visit unannounced to an uncomfortable degree. These are warning signs that you have not fully “left” your parents--even if you no longer live under the same roof.
There are other loyalties that may compete for your time, energy, and affection besides your family. Usually, these are good things that we make into idols. A mother may be so devoted to her children, doting on them, driving them from one activity to the next, pouring her time and energy into their success, that she all but ignores her husband. A husband may be so consumed with spending time with his work or friends that he only gives his wife the scant leftovers of his time and energy. When you marry, you are promising that your commitment to these other things will never replace your primary commitment to your spouse.
Not only does God intend us to “leave” our family; he also intends that we be joined to our spouse in a deep and lasting commitment. Marriage is not about two people who agree to stay together as long as the passion is strong, or as long as you both agree on most things, or as long as the relationship remains pleasant. Rather, it is, in a sense, the creation of something new: a “we." You are partnering with another person and committing yourself to them such that life is no longer about your needs, your wants, your way of doing things, but about “our” needs, “our” wants, and “our” way of doing things. Everything from managing your money, to planning your vacation, to disciplining your children, to making life decisions together is all about “we.” You of course remain two individuals with unique identities and personalities, but no longer are either of you fully autonomous persons.
This also means that you commit to weathering the storms of life and marriage together. Your passions will cool. You may even go through seasons where you don’t much like one another. But it is in those seasons, it is the covenant--the “being joined” to each other--that holds you together. It is the promise that you have made to one another.
How can we do this? How can you put your loyalties to your spouse first? How can your relationship weather the hardships that may come your way, or the doldrums when life seems so ordinary and unexciting? The health of a marriage--and thus our ability to “leave and cleave” depend on the foundation upon which we build. For the Christian, we may build our marriage on a rock-solid foundation. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul shows us that we can’t really make this work unless we understand how God loves us.
In Ephesians 5:31-32, Paul quotes Genesis 2, to show us how our marriages are patterned after God’s marriage to us. It is ultimately Jesus who “leaves” his father, to enter into our world, to “join himself” to us in spite of our indifference to him, in spite of our sin, in spite of our brokenness. Jesus keeps his covenant with us, even at the expense of his own life. THAT is the foundation we may build our marriage upon. That is the love that enables us to love. That is the leaving and cleaving that shows us how we too may leave and cleave to our spouse.