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)

One comment on “God’s wives (2)

  1. […] an earlier post I argued that the relationship between God and his people is described in several places in the […]

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