Q: An ever-present “woman” in the Old Testament is Israel, God’s metaphorical wife. How are Christians to understand the imagery of Israel as God’s unfaithful wife, and what is the relevance of the divine-human marriage metaphor in our lives today?
A: “‘Is not Israel still my son, my darling child?’ says the Lord. ‘I often have to punish him, but I still love him. That is why I long for him…’” (Jer. 31:20, NLT). Texts like these feed our understanding of the God of the Old Testament as our father, an image that eloquently articulates our relationship with God. Just as pervasive in the Old Testament is the metaphor of God (Yahweh) as the husband of Israel. While we find God’s complaint against his rebellious son reasonable, his accusation that Israel “whores” in brazen unfaithfulness offends our twenty-first century sensibilities. Why does the Old Testament use this analogy?
God loves his people above all else, and he asks that they love him in the same way. The husband-wife analogy is the best way to illustrate this reciprocal relationship of exclusive love. It is no surprise that the biblical text, written in a patriarchal culture, casts Yahweh as the husband and Israel as the wife. In this divine-human relationship, unfaithfulness could be attached only to the human party—the wife, who represented both the men and women of Israel.
As Israel settled into Canaan and became familiar with the religious practices of the nations around it, it adopted these practices. In and around them, people worshipped a whole array of gods. Some of these gods appeared particularly attractive. Baal, the god of the thunderstorm, and his consort Asherah, the goddess of fertility, were deities whose favor seemed helpful—even critical—in Israel’s agricultural economy. Because worship of these deities included fertility rites involving male and female temple prostitutes, the image of Israel prostituting itself had both metaphorical and literal significance.
In time, Israel’s unfaithfulness to its “marriage” covenant with Yahweh became the norm, and God’s prophets used the marriage metaphor with growing regularity. While it is mentioned only a few times from Genesis to Deuteronomy, it appears with increasing frequency throughout the prophetic books. It becomes the major theme of Hosea, and Ezekiel contains some of the most sexually charged language in the Bible, as Yahweh voices his disgust with Israel (Ezekiel 16 and23). Thankfully, such passages are only one part of the story.
We must not overlook Scripture’s other depictions of Yahweh’s wife. The Old Testament balances out the metaphor of unfaithful Israel with a depiction of Israel as the ideal lover. Though the Song of Songs does not name its characters as Yahweh and Israel, the book has long been interpreted as an allegorical celebration of the intimate relationship between God and his people. If the prophetic texts dramatize the breakdown of the relationship, the Song enacts the satisfaction of it. If the prophets portray a jealous husband and a sullen, silent wife, the Song pictures a God who delights in his beloved, a woman whose voice is the first and last we hear. If the other texts represent the reality of Israel’s actions, the Song represents God’s ideal. When we apply the ideal of the Song to human marriage, we will experience God’s desire for every husband-wife relationship.
Because of the long history and high dramatic potential of the marriage metaphor, New Testament authors carry it into their writings as well. Christ becomes the husband of the church (Eph. 5:23–32; 2 Cor. 11:2). When the writer of Revelation anticipates the union of Christ and his church, he returns to the metaphor, saying, “the wedding of the Lamb has come and his bride has made herself ready.” The bride here is not the adulterous bride of Hosea and Ezekiel, but one arrayed in “fine linen, bright and clean” (Rev. 19:7–9; 21:2). In the New Testament, as in the Song of Songs, the marriage metaphor represents God’s desire—a relationship in which husband and wife delight in one another.
We need to remember that the marriage metaphor plays both ways. While the texts about Israel as the unfaithful wife may seem insensitive today, this is only a part of the metaphor. Hosea and Ezekiel are balanced out by the Song of Songs and Revelation. The metaphor allows us to understand God in relation to ourselves. By applying the metaphor of a human marriage to our relationships with God, we can better perceive what self-inflicted devastation can come as a result of unfaithfulness to God. What is more, we can perceive the delight that is possible between God and us when we reciprocate Yahweh’s enduring and faithful love.