God’s wives (3)

A tension is evident in Lamentations where the destitute and captive city is described, not as an abandoned child but as a widow (Lamentations 1:1), and at the end of the mourning for the destruction, desolation and death God is praised: “But you, O Lord, reign for ever; your throne endures to all generations” (5:19) and the widowed city longs for restoration (5:21). In Lamentations the city is widowed, the nation is exiled, and the people groan. The characters are not individuals but rather they are all emblematic of the people as a whole: the daughters of Zion and the grieving widows are the nation itself. The writer only speaks in the first person at the crux of the book (chapter 3) in describing his personal misery, and turns immediately to speak of the “steadfast love of the LORD” (3:22) and his goodness. The goodness and mercy of the LORD are juxtaposed in a starkly contrasting manner with the misery and desolation that lies around. Even during their worse crisis the writer says “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (3:26). Despite speaking in the first person it is still a national salvation for which he pleads patient waiting, and despite the nation forsaking God (it is always they who forsake God not God who forsakes them) they maintain a desire or passion for him.

It seems that the relationship which concerned the prophets, the writer of Lamentations and probably the writer of the Song of Songs was the relationship between the nation of Israel and God. There is no hint in any of these texts of a concern about the individual’s relationship with God and the idea of ‘personal salvation’ is foreign to most of the Hebrew biblical literature, with the notable exception of the book of Psalms. The Psalter contains a mix of songs which were probably written for liturgical use or for national celebratory occasions[1] as well as personal confessions, supplications and thanksgiving. Most Psalms seem to be connected in some way to the Jerusalem Temple.[2] Parts of the Psalter in the final form in which we have it show evidence of earlier compilations: it is composed of five ‘books’; several Psalms are grouped together and attributed to common authors or with common titles (such as the ‘Songs of Ascent’); and some Psalms naturally flow on to the next. Scholars however have long wrestled with the structure of the book, as the psalms which were evidently for corporate use in a worship setting are mingled together with personal confessions, or psalms written against an historical background involving an individual (such as David fleeing from Absalom in Psalm 3)[3]. It looks like a “collection of collections”.[4] There is a fair degree of ambiguity in some of the national psalms where it is difficult to determine if the subject is the Davidic King, or God. For example, Psalm 72 could be a prayer for Solomon, or equally in praise of a messianic king. Sigmund Mowinckel argued that the ‘enthronement psalms’  had a liturgical purpose in an enthronement festival which he further argued was part of a harvest festival, specifically the Festival of Ingathering, or Tabernacles, but that the enthroned king who was being acclaimed was the LORD rather than the Davidic King.[5] Psalm 45 which is headed שיר ידידת a love song closely resembles the love-language of the Song of Songs and provides a link between Psalms and the Song of Songs. It is addressed to a king, contains some of the elements of a wasf, yet sounds a little like a national anthem (“Send him victorious!” 45:4). It suggests that the love-song may have been written for one purpose and acquired further significance as part of the national collection, and is at the nexus of where personal and individual meets national and corporate. The so-called ‘Pilgrim Psalms’ show signs of having been written for the corporate worship of pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for the three annual pilgrimages, but they also contain elements which are personal and individualistic (such as “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!”’ in Psalm 122:1). Marc Brettler summarises the difficulties in attempting to find an orderly arrangement in the book when he writes: “perhaps Psalms is not really a book at all; it would seem to be a hodge-podge. We can no longer determine why each psalm is in its place”.[6] Perhaps the difficulty we have in making sense of the structure of the book is precisely because here he have the nexus in Hebrew literature between the nation and the individual, and because it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to separate individual yearnings from corporate ones.

It is in the Psalms that we find most clearly the redemption of the individual as well as the nation. The writers of the prophetic books, Lamentations, Song of Songs and the Psalms give us multiple divergent perspectives about the relationship between God and his chosen people, whether we think of his people corporately as Israel or as individuals. Song of Songs appears to be deliberately commenting on the Genesis creation story and reversing the perversion of desire between male and female which came through disobedience and sin. The prophets metaphorise the mutual desire between God and his people for intimacy as a troublesome marriage where the husband remains faithful while the woman has other lovers, and Song of Songs implies a lack of passion (on the woman’s part) as a reason for her unfaithfulness. Perhaps Ezekiel put some of the blame on God because he sometimes acted like a father and at other times like a lover or husband. Israel was confused and did not know how to relate to this father-husband-God. Perhaps Tennyson was right that “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved” but through the lover and marriage metaphors the biblical poetic books argue that “If love is lost it can be found again.”  Eventually, both in the prophets and in the Psalms, the people (and by implication the individual) learn that God’s passion for them should be reciprocated and then at last the union between the lovers will be consummated.

(Concluded)


[1] Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: a Translation with Commentary, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), p. xvii

[2] Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), p. 226

[3] John Goldingay however argues that the psalms with historical superscriptions were not written in those circumstances but that the headings were probably added for use in a lectionary to provide a Scripture with similar or related themes for parallel consideration with the psalm. John Goldingay, Psalms 1-41 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 28-29

[4] Brettler, How to Read the Bible,  p. 226

[5] Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms In Israel’s Worship, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962) Volume 1, p106

[6]  Brettler, How to Read the Bible,  p. 228

God’s wives (2)

Julia Kristeva has noted that the earliest texts of the Bible contain only two references to God’s love for humanity, and even these are somewhat obscure.[1] The theme of divine love, she argues, is fully developed in Deuteronomy and the prophets and metaphorically in the Song of Songs, and while there is no explicit mention of either God or Israel in the Song of Songs the fact that the book is found among the Qumran scrolls is evidence that it was studied from a religious standpoint before the destruction of the Second Temple. It was almost certainly understood as an allegory from earliest times by a nation which which saw itself as the Shulamite woman, chosen by a God who had an erotic passion for her.[2] But God as the husband of his people is “the most innovative metaphor of the biblical period”[3] and is not seen elsewhere in Ancient Near Eastern literature. Kristeva noted that “No other nation, even if dedicated to sacred orgiastic worship, has imagined its relation to God as that of the loving woman to the Husband.”[4] But the idea is not presented in the biblical texts early as a fully developed concept, and there are hints that it developed over time.

Referring to the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman Phyllis Trible argues convincingly that in the order in which the story is told “the account moves to its climax, not its decline, in the creation of woman. She is not an afterthought; she is the culmination.”[5]  Tribble reads Songs of Songs as developing the equality theme of Genesis: “Like Genesis 2, Canticles affirms mutuality of the sexes. There is no male dominance, no female subordination, and no stereotyping of either sex. The woman is independent, fully the equal of the man.”[6] There appear to be several deliberate intertextual links between Song of Songs and the creation myths in Genesis which provide an insight into the purpose of Song of Songs. For example, the word translated “desire” in Song 7:10 is תשוקה which occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible, here and twice in the creation story (Genesis 3:16; 4:7). Interestingly, Song of Songs reverses the meaning of this word to the way it is used in Genesis where it refers to the woman’s desire for the man: in Song of Songs it speaks of the man’s desire for the woman. This should immediately give us a clue that Song of Songs may be deliberately reversing the consequences of disobedience in the Genesis story with the recovery of equality between man and woman. Tribble calls Songs of Songs “a midrash on Genesis 2-3”[7] and the recurring references in Song of Songs to gardens, animals and fruits pleasing to the eye and taste are strong indications that the writer has drawn themes and motifs from Genesis and deliberately restored the equality between the man and woman which was disrupted by eating the forbidden fruit. While “desire” in the context of Genesis is the result of disobedience (Tribble calls it “perversion”: the Genesis account does not use the word “sin” until the second occurrence of תשוקה in 4:7 where it is in the context of Cain’s sin and it is the abstract “sin” that “desires” to have Cain) in Song of Songs desire is joyous, passionate and pure. There is a pericope in Song of Songs however where passion is conspicuously absent, and that is in the second night scene (5:2ff) where the woman ignores the call and knocking of her lover. Is this the crux of the book and is the writer telling us that passion, or the lack of it, is the key to understanding something greater?

The idea of the relationship between God and his people being like an Edenic partnership is also implied in Psalm 8:4-6 where the question “what is man that you are mindful of him?” is answered by juxtaposing two ideas drawn from the creation story: man is made only a little lower than the heavenly beings, or God (almost certainly drawing on the words “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” in Genesis 1:26a); and, mankind being given dominion (drawing on the words “And let them have dominion” which immediately follow in Genesis 1:26b). Humanity is not only in God’s image; it also has dominion and is crowned, enthroned with God in joint-rulership. This equality between the creator and the created is radically unique in ancient near eastern religion. In the Genesis story however, the equality ends abruptly and creation is marred. It is a continuing saga through the prophets where God takes Israel as his wife and partner, but she leaves him for other lovers and yet even after she “plays the whore” he has a passion for her and takes her back in an effort to restore the intended unity evident in the creation story. We have a few glimpses of an eventual harmony in the relationship: Psalm 8, drawing heavily on creation themes; the Song of Songs, where there is no sign of either lover dominating the other, but where, if only for a moment, the man disappears, forsaken, because of the woman’s loss of passion; and in Hosea 2:16 where God says Israel should no longer call him בעלי Baali – my master/husband but rather call him אישׁי Ishimy man/partner. The prophet is here providing a glimpse of how the relationship was always meant to be. But even in these texts there is a tension between the way it should be, and was perhaps always intended to be, and the way it actually is. Psalm 8 with the near-equality at the crux has an inclusio which includes the words “O LORD, our Lord” where אדנינו Lord, although different to בעלי Baali has the meaning of someone who has authority over the other.

to be continued


[1] 2 Samuel 12:24-25 where Solomon is named by David Jedidiah or “beloved of the LORD”, and 1 Kings 10:9 where the Queen of Sheba observes that God loves Israel, or at least has “granted [Israel] his favour”.

[2] Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987, p.99f

[3] I noted this phrase and placed it within quotation marks during a lecture by Dr Ari Lobel at the University of Sydney but did not note a source, so I expect that they are Dr Lobel’s own words and not a quotation.

[4] Kristeva, Tales of Love, p. 97f

[5] Phyllis Trible, “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation”, Journal of the American Academy of religion, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Mar., 1973) Oxford University Press, pp. 30-48, p. 36

[6] Tribble, Depatriarchalizing, p. 45

[7] Tribble, Depatriarchalizing, p. 47)

God’s wives (1)

Relationships can be difficult, even tumultuous, yet Alfred Lord Tennyson reputedly once said “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved.” According to several biblical writers the relationship between God and humanity is no less complicated than human relationships and in fact we might wonder if it is even possible to have an intimate connection between the human and the divine. If so, is it something that can be experienced on a personal or individual level, or only as a corporate abstraction? In the history of interpretation, both in Judaism and Christianity, it has been common to interpret the Song of Songs as a metaphor or allegory describing the relationship between God and Israel, or between Christ and the Church. The New Testament letter to the Ephesians[1] encourages husbands and wives to submit to one another (5:21 ESV) and uses the relationship between Christ and the church as the model: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (5:22); “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:25); “husbands should love their wives … just as Christ does the church” (5:28f); and concludes with “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (5:32). Paul (or a later pseudonymous writer) was almost certainly influenced in this analogy by several prophetic texts in the Hebrew Bible which described the relationship between God and Israel in terms of a marriage.

Possibly the earliest use of the husband metaphor for God is in Isaiah 5 where the prophet sings a love-song: “Let me sing for my beloved, my love song concerning his vineyard” (v. 1) and describes his beloved as caring for the vineyard by clearing it of stones and planting it with choice vines. The song then shifts from the third person (about the beloved) to the first person (the beloved singing) and asks “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” (v. 4). The song includes a warning for the ‘vineyard’: “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured” and continues with a prediction that the wall will be broken down, the vineyard will be trampled on, and it will become waste and desolate (Vv. 5-6). The song finally returns to the third person and identifies the ‘vineyard’: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting” (v. 7). While this love song doesn’t explicitly speak of God as Israel’s husband, it used the same kind of language that we find in the Song of Songs[2] and has some of the characteristics of a wasf, [3]a near eastern poetic form in which a boy and girl describe how the other’s body affects them[4].

Perhaps the best example of a wasf outside the Song of Songs is Ezekiel 16:10-13 which includes elements similar to Song 5:10-16 with a difference being that Ezekiel’s wasf describes the woman’s clothing and jewellery in greater detail while Song of Songs focuses more on her physical features (perhaps because Ezekiel’s woman is a metaphorical one rather than a real person). Ezekiel used the marriage metaphor twice: in chapter 16 Jerusalem is described as a woman whom God marries, and in chapter 23 God takes two wives, Oholah (Israel) and Oholibah (Judah), both of whom turn out to be unfaithful. These two chapters have generated a great deal of controversy because of the graphic sexual metaphors which are used to describe the women. Some scholars take this language as evidence of “an abusive and misogynistic patriarchal society”[5] although it is possible that the writer is intentionally using vivid language to highlight some stark irregularities in the relationship between God and his people. There are some disturbing features about the metaphorical wives in the prophets. Judah is described as a whore who is wayward, incompetent and oppressive (Jeremiah 2:20-34). Hosea is told by God to take “a wife of whoredom” (Hosea 1:2) in an enacted parable about Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. Ezekiel’s prophecy against Israel’s “abominations” contains some imagery which is unique to this prophet and is graphically disturbing. It first describes the birth of an unwanted female child which is left to die in an open found (16:3-5) and which God pities and takes in as his own daughter, and because of God’s care the child grows and flourishes. The imagery thus far, although graphic, is not particularly disturbing although we may consider it to be an unusual way to describe God’s love for his people. However, it takes a dramatic turn when the child reaches puberty and is observed naked and the prophet attributes to God sexual desires toward her (vv. 7-8a). Here God is first father and then husband and this has the elements of an abusive relationship, or at least an unequal relationship. It is possible that the Song of Songs later addresses this issue by allegorising God and his people in an equal relationship where each desires the other. In Ezekiel’s metaphor God then makes vows and enters a covenant with the child, taking her as his wife. The wasf which follows describes God adorning his wife, but it takes another dramatic turn when the wife “played the whore” (v. 15). The disturbing element here (at least to a modern western mind) is not so much the wife’s unfaithfulness (serious though that would be, especially in an ancient culture) but the potentially exploitive and sexually abusive use of the child by God. Yet that concept must also have been shocking to Ezekiel’s audience – it seems intentionally designed to shock – or why would he have used it? What precisely are the biblical marriage metaphors telling us about the relationship between God and his people, or his creation in general?

… to be continued


[1] Ephesians is attributed to Paul but regarded by many scholars as a late first century text.

[2] Song of Songs includes a song about Solomon’s vineyard (8:11f) and also uses the vineyard metaphor in 1:6, 14; 2:15; 7:12

[3] Wasf is an Arabic word meaning “description”.

[4] G. Schwab “Wasf”, in Tremper Longman III & Peter Enns (eds.), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), p. 835

[5] T.C. Parker “Marriage and Divorce” in Longman, Wisdom Poetry and Writings, p. 536

Jesus’ use of humour

I’ve written previously about humour, or parody, in the biblical book of Jonah and possibly in the Job narrative, and elsewhere, but I haven’t as yet posted any thoughts about Jesus’ use of humour even though this is where my investigation of biblical humour actually began. So I will correct that now by posting a few thoughts about humour in the sayings and stories of Jesus.

Every culture has a unique style of humour and it is very difficult to translate humour from one language or culture into another; something is almost always ‘lost’ in the translation. As a result, we may miss the humour in Jesus’ words if we do not understand the characteristics of first century Jewish humour, especially when employed as a teaching method. According to some scholars humour was a common feature of teaching of the Second Temple period. For example, Jakob Jónsson wrote that “The literature of the rabbis is of special importance in this connection as it was a common homiletic method in their circles to include comical and humoristic examples in their illustrative teaching and preaching.”[1] Hershey Friedman noted that “The Talmud and the Midrash … frequently make use such hallmarks of humor as sarcasm, irony, exaggeration, humorous questions, etc.”[2] Bruce Longenecker cited several scholars who noted that Jesus’ figures of speech included irony, parody, or satire and “amusingly pithy turns-of-phrase”[3] while some were “wholly comical”[4]. He argued that modern readers might miss the humour in Jesus’ teachings because “in our predominantly print cultures, we have lost our sensitivity to the kinds of structural patterning and rhetorical delivery that was elementary to discourse in the predominantly oral cultures of antiquity”.[5] He quoted Dorothy Sayers: “If we did not know all His retorts by heart, if we had not taken the sting out of them by incessant repetition in the accents of the pulpit … we should reckon Him among the greatest wits of all time.”[6]

This article deals primarily with Jesus’ use of hyperbole as a form of humour. Not all exaggeration is humorous, but exaggeration was a common feature of Jesus’ teachings and was often humorous. We find two types of exaggeration in the teachings of Jesus:

A. Overstatement: overstating something in order to forcefully bring home a truth.[7] An example of overstatement is in the saying: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away … And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:29-30). Readers easily recognise this as an overstatement rather than an imperative to be applied literally. Another example is the saying: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).  Jesus is not instructing his disciples to hate the people who are closest to them, but rather, he is overstating a position in order to make a point forcefully: that compared with the love that a disciple must have for him in order to be his disciple, any other expression of love, by contrast, is “hatred”.

B. Hyperbole: this is a gross exaggeration, to the point of unreality.[8] The exaggeration is so obvious a reader is unlikely to take it literally. This type of exaggeration is common to Jewish humour of the Second Temple period, and occurs frequently in Jesus’ teachings. Some examples of hyperbole are:

  1. “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:24).[9]
  2. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25). This is such a gross exaggeration that some commentators have questioned whether Jesus really said this. The word for “camel” and the word for “rope” have identical spellings in Aramaic (גמלא), so Jesus might have actually said “it’s easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle …”[10] There is a common explanation that “the eye of the needle” was a small door in one of the gates of Jerusalem, and for a camel to get through its driver had to remove all its packs and the camel had to crawl through on its knees. These are interesting ideas, but miss the point that Jesus is using a gross exaggeration to make the claim that for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God is impossible! Jesus went on to say: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (verse 26). The point of the “unreal” exaggeration is that God can do the impossible: he can even save rich people![11]
  3. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3) The hyperbole in this story is in the contrast between a tiny speck of dust and a huge splinter (“log”). A speck of dust in the eye is an irritation, but a huge splinter would cause blindness. By contrasting these two situations Jesus points to the stupidity of offering advice to people about sensitive matters when we are blinded ourselves by even bigger personal issues. The message is more effective when stated humorously: in laughing at ourselves we are more open to receiving the truth and to being gently guided to a better way.

An unusual or unreal story-line is an effective use of humour to direct the listener’s attention to the main point[12] and sometimes accompanies hyperbole in Jesus’ stories. For example, the story of the “ten virgins” or bridesmaids (Matthew 25: 1-13) portrays a wedding party which includes five bridesmaids who are unprepared for their role in an event which normally would have been planned with precision. In the culture of Jesus’ immediate audience, weddings were a major event which lasted several days and were planned to the smallest detail possibly months or years ahead. Everyone involved in the wedding knew their role and how to prepare for it. Part of the traditional first century Jewish wedding was a procession at night when the bridal party went to meet the groom. The bridesmaids carried torches for lighting the way and the torches were used as a feature in a “fire dance”. This was a traditional part of every wedding, and the bridesmaids would have learned and practiced the dances well in advance. It was an important part of the celebrations and it’s inconceivable that some detail of it would have been overlooked or forgotten.  Jesus’ audience would immediately have recognised that his story was unrealistic and therefore comical with a main point which came in a “punch line” in verse 13: “keep watch”, or “be prepared”. Something as important as a wedding takes a great deal of preparation, and one would pay attention to every detail to make sure everything went as it should. How much more should they be prepared for the coming of the kingdom of God.

Didactic humour serves a number of purposes: it is memorable; it is interesting and keeps the audience engaged; it helps to focus on one main point; it makes the listener more receptive to the lesson; it encourages a response. Jesus employed humour frequently and effectively.


[1] Jónsson, J., Humour and Irony in the New Testament: Illuminated by Parallels in Talmud and Midrash (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1965) p.90

[2] Friedman, H.H., “He Who Sits in Heaven Shall Laugh: Divine Humor in Talmudic Literature” Thalia 1997; 17, 1/2, p.37

[3] Longenecker, B.W., “A Humorous Jesus? Orality, Structure and Characterisation in Luke 14:15-24, and Beyond” Biblical Interpretation 16 (2008) 179-204 p.181, citing R.A. Horsley and N.A. Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), p. 47.

[4] Longenecker 2008 p.183, citing H. Palmer, “Just Married, Cannot Come”, NovT 18 (1976), pp. 241-57 (248).

[5] Longenecker 2008 p. 184

[6] Longenecker 2008 p.182, citing D. Sayers, The Man Born to be King (London: Victor Gollancz, 1946), p. 26.

[7] Stein, R.H., The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978) p.8

[8] Stein 1978 p.11f

[9] Several of Jesus’ teachings referred to blindness in a humorous or satirical way. For example, “They are blind guides.And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14), is not hyperbole but meets the criteria for humour.

[10] This would make the hyperbole symmetrical but wouldn’t remove it. All early manuscripts and quotations in the church fathers have ‘camel’ not ‘rope’. George M Lamsa’s Syriac-Aramaic Peshitta translation has the word ‘rope’ in the main text but a footnote on Matthew 19:24 which states that the Aramaic word gamla means rope and camel, possibly because the ropes were made from camel hair (The New Testament according to the Eastern Text, George M Lamsa, 1940, p.xxiv and note on Matthew 19:24.) Similar sayings in the Babylonian Talmud have “an elephant going through the eye of a needle” (Berakoth, 55b , Baba Mezi’a, 38b).

[11] Jesus’ audience would have been familiar with Pharisaic theology which argued that wealth was a sign of God’s favour (because of righteousness) while poverty was a sign of God’s disfavour (due to sin). This saying turns this theology on its head and reverses the order.

[12] “The shock effect of some stories suggests that their didactic function is to reinvigorate and puzzle the mind.” (Terri Bednarz, Humor-neutics: Analyzing Humor and Humor Functions in the Synoptic Gospels (Fort Worth: Brite Divinity School, 2009). p.137