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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s