My previous post highlighted how strange Christian vocabulary (aka “Christianese”) sounds to non-Christians (tn. here). Nowhere is this truer than with the term ‘relationship with Jesus’. I was reminded yesterday, via a lovely family wedding, of the gulf between this spiritual concept and a normal healthy relationship. This time I’ll expound this biblically, which should, I hope, make my point much sharper.
Marriage in the Ancient Near East (ANE) generally – and moreover Israel specifically – is a mixed, yet largely negative bag. Sure, you could point to the Song of Songs as a positive portrayal of love and an analogy of Christ and his Church or Yahweh and Israel. Against this, it should be recognised that no mention of God is made and the sexually charged main characters are unmarried. The evidence is their secrecy and emotional guilt, well known to many naughty believers (!), and the beating of the ‘beloved’ by the city guard (5:1-8) is for the loss of her virginity.1
Once we’ve examined how the marriage covenant is both generically and specifically portrayed in the Bible, we can then evaluate how it objectively looks to any outsider. Also, content warning on Part 2(c); it necessarily involves a shocking and unpleasant image conjured by Jeremiah in relation to marriage with Yahweh.
2. How Does Yahweh / Jesus Picture the Marriage?
If you wish to go along with the whole NT marriage analogy, some context is important. Marriage here means: (a) one-way polygamy; (b) ownership; and (c) domination. If marriage to Jesus is supposed to be a model for our own earthly marriages, I am worried.
Isn’t it strange that we are allowed to be in a relationship with Jesus, yet so is everybody else? Marriage with Jesus is a one-to-many arrangement. Paul gives no condemnation of polygamous marriages and the Old Testament (OT) / Hebrew Bible (HB) confers moral legitimacy upon them, which implies that a wife-only monogamy and husband-only polygamy at least could apply in this context.2
Sure, Jesus marries one bride – the ekklesia (ἐκκλησία, lit. “called-out ones”) – yet this means ontologically that you are no longer an individual when it comes to marriage. Doesn’t that seem strange? Salvation is individually attained, yet marriage is corporate? Why is Jesus allowed to marry a ‘church’ of believers and I am not allowed to marry a ‘pantheon’ of gods or a ‘group’ of women? ‘Pantheon’ is a collective noun as is a ‘group’, so why not?
Moreover, the translation of ekklesia as ‘church’ in the NT is dubious. The translators of the OT / HB into Greek (Septuagint), replaced quhal (קָהָל, ‘assembly of Israel’) with ekklesia. (e.g. Josh. 8:35; Judg. 21:8; 1 Chr. 29:1) For his mission, Paul saw a wider definition of Israel as the people of God rather than a new religion called ‘Christianity’. He is imagining a renewal of Israel’s collective ‘marriage covenant’ to God, not an individualistic Western conception of a ‘relationship’.3 This makes the OT / HB passages in Part 2(b) and 2(c) relevant and important.
Note that only Matthew, the “most Jewish Gospel”, has Jesus utter the word ekklesia. Moreover, the entire NT is founded upon the Septuagint in terms of quoting the OT / HB, so it makes sense to examine what they state on marriage, especially the times when analogies are being made between covenant with Yahweh and his ekklesia and one between a husband and wife.
Wives are coupled with property in the 10th Commandment (against covetousness), right between ‘neighbour’s house’ and ‘male or female slave’. (Ex. 20:17) Wives fit into the category ‘anything that belongs to your neighbour’. Some argue that property cannot get afforded rights, though somehow don’t apply this to logic to slaves. Women and slaves are a special class of property, but still property.
That’s vital contextual information for how to interpret the NT marriage analogy. The marriage comparison involves ownership, and – if you believe in it – you must, well, own that! ‘You are not your own’, Paul writes, because ‘you were bought with a price’. (1 Cor. 6:19-20)
A set mohar (מֹ֫הַר, ‘bride-price’) is assumed in the Torah with the fathers of virgins receiving more money.4 Jesus is envisaged as having paid the ‘bride-price’ with his own blood to our Father, which is also his Father, so we are married to our brother, which is forbidden in the Law.5 (Lev. 18:9; 20:17) No wonder devout Jews had a hard time accepting this Pauline ‘gospel’. Having said that, we are married to him as both children and slaves, as Jeremiah (ch. 3) writes:
14 Return, O faithless children, says the Lord, for I am your master.
This partnership is unequal; we are children and slaves who must ‘obey’, and the husband can send a divorce certificate to his wife for any reason whatsoever, yet not vice versa. (Deut. 24) This is the sad reality of marriage in the Bible, as we, unfortunately, expect to see in the majority of ancient texts.
8 She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce; yet her false sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore.
Yeah, it’s all weird. Abraham marries his half-sister, Sarah, before the Law is given, so is not rebuked. (Gen. 20:12; cf. Lev. 18:9) Does this then mean that OT / HB moral injunctions against marrying relatives are comparable to moral injunctions to be circumcised? If so, why do Christians oppose same-sex marriage on the grounds that it may lead to the legalisation of incest? In Matt. 12:50, Jesus says that ‘whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’. This is a tangent, yet still worth drawing out, because it helps to distinguish between normal human relationships and a ‘relationship with Jesus’, as per Part 1.
Content warning on the below: unpleasant imagery needs to be addressed in order to properly contribute to the subject of this blog post.
Since women are property, they could be treated awfully, especially if they were promiscuous.6 In Hosea 1, the prophet is told to marry ‘a wife of whoredom’ and ‘have children of whoredom’. In the following chapter, he is told to say ‘to your brother, Ammi’ (“my people”) and ‘to your sister, Ruhamah’ (“pitied”) the following:
2 Plead with your mother, plead—
for she is not my wife,
and I am not her husband—
that she put away her whoring from her face,
and her adultery from between her breasts,
3 or I will strip her naked
and expose her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
and turn her into a parched land,
and kill her with thirst.
4 Upon her children also I will have no pity,
because they are children of whoredom.
The names here mean ‘my people’ and ‘pitied’; they echo the names given to his children before their names in Hosea 1, except missing the prefix ‘lo-’ (‘not-’), which indicated that his children, and Yahweh’s “children”, were ‘not my people’ and ‘not pitied’. The Septuagint makes it clearer that the prophetic warning is actually being given to Israel as a covenantal partner.
22 And if you say in your heart,
‘Why have these things come upon me?’
it is for the greatness of your iniquity
that your skirts are lifted up,
and you are violated.
25 This is your lot,
the portion I have measured out to you, says the LORD,
because you have forgotten me
and trusted in lies.
26 I myself will lift up your skirts over your face,
and your shame will be seen.
If you break the covenant, Jeremiah proclaims, Yahweh is entitled to personally strip you naked. In fact, it is greatly worse than this, because ‘lift up your skirts’ is a well-known Hebrew euphemism for sexual assault, as is ‘expose / strike the heels’ (tn. ‘violate’ in NRSV).7
And this is by no means the only example of a God who lashes out at the evidently weaker party in this twisted “relationship”. Much pop culture gives fresh breath to the threats of Yahweh against his “promiscuous people”. In Pulp Fiction, for example, Samuel L. Jackson is actually referencing Ezekiel 25 when he gives his famous line:
And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.
I’ll give a few more examples, though the best evidence is just to read the OT / HB for yourself, pretending that this is just some random ancient text you have stumbled across, rather than the sacred library of around half the globe’s population. In Exodus 32, Moses orders Levite fanatics to murder 3000 golden calf enthusiasts who had turned from Yahweh and as a result of this brutality are blessed and ordained to an everlasting priestly order.
Moses said, ‘Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.’
It’s not just his own ‘chosen wife’ who he is violent towards. Using explicit biblical figures only, Yahweh kills a whopping 2.8 million people, with 158 separate instances of murder. This number decuples (x10) to 25 million when estimations are included. The full table, compiled by Steve Wells, is available via his book ‘Drunk With Blood’. This includes NT bloodshed too, indicating that the OT / HB worldview has not been authoritatively disowned as part of some ‘old law’, as some modern day Marcionites assume.
And of course, in the modern evangelical setting, Jesus / God loves us so much that if we don’t love him back, he sends us to be tortured forever, or burnt to a crisp (‘annihilationism’), depending on your point of view. At least we know God was speaking truthfully when he proclaims that he is ‘a jealous god’. (Ex. 20:5)
Yahweh is a jealous and violent husband, who would be locked up for this kind of threat in the human world. This is not the kind of relationship you imagine yourself signing up for while attending Soul Survivor and singing “You’re Beautiful”! It is a dishonest ‘bait-and-switch’, which would be immediately questioned if not for the psychological priming via emotive music, preaching and hardly implicit peer pressure.
In Part 3, I’ll explain why this ‘relationship with Jesus’ idea treats ‘religion’ as a ‘dirty word’ and implicitly demeans those of different faith traditions who do not claim personal connections to the divine.
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- For the secrecy of the relationship, see ‘gazing through the window’ (2:9); ‘hiding-places’ (2:14), and ‘go to the countryside’ alongside ‘spend the night in the henna bushes’ (7:11). More in-depth analysis on the unmarried status of the lovers, see Fox, Michael V. (1985). The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs. Madison: University of Winsconsin Press; also Kaplon, Megan P. (2012). ‘Contradiction in Marriage and Love in the Song of Songs’. Inquiry. Vol. 4, Iss. 7. pp. 1-2. ↩
- Notice that the authentic letters of Paul exclude 1 Timothy (3:1-7) and Titus (1:5-9), where monogamous marriage is a requirement for eldership. This is the conclusion reached by wide majority consensus of religiously diverse scholars, including Christians, at reputable academic institutions. On NT forgery, see my posts here and here. Regarding the likelihood that the historical Jesus may have approved not only of the laws ascribed to Moses, but the punishments as well, please see my article here. ↩
- This is one of the points raised by the ‘New Perspective on Paul’, which seeks to better place Paul in his Jewish context as self-confessed ‘Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee’. (Acts 23:6; Phil. 3:5) This school of theological thought emerged from the works of both Christians and non-Christians. See: Wright, N. T. (1997). What Saint Paul Really Said. Oxford: Lion Publishing; Sanders, E. P. (1977). Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press; Krister, S. (1963). ‘The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West’. Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 56, Iss. 3. pp. 199-215. ↩
- Gen. 34:12; Ex. 22:16-17; Dt. 22:28-29. I am aware that ‘bridewealth’ is the technical term used in anthropology, yet I think the term ‘bride-price’ has more resonance with a wide and general internet audience. Some may object that a true ‘bride-price’ (i.e. ‘price to purchase a woman’) is not in scope of these verses, but rather a sum of money to prove a suitor’s worthiness and financial stability (see here). I disagree, since the language of these texts is replete with ownership / property phraseology. In Gen. 34:12, there is an equivalence of ‘give’ and ‘give’ as if it were indeed a contract for a market transaction. Note the lack of consent in Ex. 22:16-17; the father is the one who accepts or refuses, not the woman. The money goes to the father, not the mother and not the woman involved. The offender here is indeed being forced to compensate ‘the woman’s family/kin group for the loss of her fertility and ability to work within the family unit’, exactly what is being denied by Jason Staples in the linked article. ↩
- Notice that the Torah is specifically addressed to men; in junctions against incest, only female relatives are mentioned. ↩
- Conversely, it should be said in fairness that women were generally accorded better rights than given to them in the law codes of surrounding nations. I am not especially interested in reaching some ideological conclusion, but rather making good arguments based on sensible premises, valid logical arguments, and reasonable methods. Consequently, I am more than happy to make “embarrassing evidential confessions” and to share sources which disagree with me. Are you? ↩
- For ‘lifting the skirt’ as a euphemism for sexual assault, see Lev. 18:6-19; Lev. 20:17; Dt. 22:30; Dt. 27:20, Isa. 47:3 and Nah. 3:5. For ‘exposing the heels / feet’ having sexual connotations, see 1 Sam. 24:3; Ruth 3:4-7; note that it is more than simple ‘exposure’, but ‘violent treatment’ (חָמַס). This is why the NRSV has translated the phrase as ‘you are violated’ in Jer. 13:22. ↩