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Marriage Metaphors in the Prophets

Metaphor produces an interactive effect on the two parties involved: to say that God is a married man not only influences our picture of God, but also, conversely, changes our picture of man.

Hommage à Apollinaire
Marc Chagall

The Hebrew prophets sometimes imagine the relationship between God and Israel, his chosen people, to be that of husband and wife. At a simple level this may seem inoffensive, but the way the metaphor is used and the terms in which it is expressed have caused unease for some readers and outright condemnation from others.

How do the Hebrew prophets use marriage metaphors?

The prophet Ezekiel gives the clearest account of the marriage metaphor. In Ezek 16, God rescues Jerusalem when she is an unwanted baby. When she comes to puberty, God has sex with her and enters into a covenant with her, adorning her with riches. Jerusalem repays God’s bounty by promiscuous adultery; that is, the people of Israel are accused of abandoning their Lord for other gods. What is most disturbing about the metaphor is the violent language used to describe the wife’s adulterous activities and her subsequent punishment: she takes the wealth of her spouse, slaughters her children, and is fondled by multiple sexual partners. In return, God stretches out his hand against her; she is stripped of her clothing and struck with a sword (see also Ezek 23). In the case of the prophet Hosea, who also uses the marriage metaphor, violence is also planned against her children: God will not save them when war comes (Hos 1:2-6). Some scholars attempt to rehabilitate the text, pointing out, for instance, the scattered references to reconciliation. However, feminist scholars have led the way in exposing the damage caused by a metaphor that associates man with God and woman with lust and betrayal.

How can Queer Theory help us read the marriage metaphor?

Queer Theory evolved in the 1990s, most notably from the work of Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Its theorists have argued that gender is not a natural given but a highly artificial system that relies, in Butler’s words, on a “stylized repetition of acts”—a system of “performativity” that results in a rigid distinction between male and female and the impression that the only “natural” form of sexual expression is heterosexuality. Butler and others also argue that faults inevitably occur in this endlessly rolling conveyor belt. One task of the queer theorist is to discover and expose these “necessary failures” in order to demonstrate the frailty of the whole system.

Since the 1960s there has been much discussion about the function and effect of metaphor. It can be argued that metaphor produces an interactive effect on the two parties involved: to say that God is a married man not only influences our picture of God, but also, conversely, changes our picture of man; it divinizes marriage and in so doing divinizes heterosexual relations. From a feminist standpoint this divinization of marriage is objectionable enough since it sanctifies an unequal partnership. Without disputing this, queer theorists can add a further dimension. They seek out “necessary failures” in the metaphor. For instance, a male reader may feel comfortable with the idea that God is a male suitor, but the metaphor actually reverses the man’s cultural expectations. The text actually puts the male reader in the role of the lustful and treacherous wife of God. If that is not enough, he must face the prospect, according to both Jeremiah (Jer 31:3-5) and Hosea (Hos 2:14-23), of becoming eventually the contented wife of the Supreme Male—a very queer picture indeed!

  • Macwilliam-Stuart

    Stuart Macwilliam’s first degree was in Classics at the University of Cambridge (UK), and his career was spent in academic librarianship. He came to theology later in life with a second degree from the University of Exeter (UK), followed by a PhD in biblical studies in 2006. He was a lecturer in the Department of Theology at Exeter from 2006–2011, teaching Biblical Hebrew and New Testament Greek. His research interest was queer theory and the Hebrew Bible, and he published articles on Jeremiah, Hosea, Queen Athaliah, masculinities and male beauty. His book Queer Theory and the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible was published in 2011.