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Bridegroom: A Biblical Symbol of Union, Not Separation by Carroll Stuhlmueller from 'Women Priests'

Bridegroom: A Biblical Symbol of Union, Not Separation

by Carroll Stuhlmueller

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 278-283.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

(Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, received his doctorate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontificial Biblical Institute in Rome. He had been a Visiting Professor at L'Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem and was at the time Professor of Old Testament at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He has published extensively and was on the editorial board of The Catholic Biblical Quarterly and The Bible Today.)

The biblical image of “the divine Bridegroom” is pursued in chapter five of the Roman Declaration as a strong argument against the priestly ordination of women. Because it is an important and continuous way of referring to Yahweh and to Jesus, this symbol would seem to exclude women from representing Jesus in a public or official way. A bridegroom evidently must be a man, not a woman.

Like other major symbols in the Bible, this one too turns out to be at once simple and complicated. Marriage, the most basic institution of human society, offers the easiest and most effective example for explaining any number of life experiences. Yet, marriage is rooted not just in the male and female anatomy, clearly distinguishable, but also in the masculine and feminine genders, mixed and shared in each person, whatever their sex. No aspect of human life is more mysterious, complex and labyrinthine than gender in its relation to sex.

This seemingly contradictory situation of every person is corroborated by the involved and almost convoluted history of the image of “divine bridegroom” in the books of Hosea and Jeremiah, cited by the Roman Declaration, as well as in later parts of the Bible influenced by these prophets. For this reason the application for today can be made only after carefully investigating the historical evolution of this type and drawing some clear principles for hermeneutics.

The difficulty is apparent at once. Hosea gives Yahweh the title “Spouse of Israel” (in Hos 2:18, Israel will address the Lord as “my husband”), even though God possesses neither a human form nor any sexual differentiation. Despite this lack of sex, God reveals supereminently the masculine and feminine qualities of gender. The perfect male and female are both created at once to the divine likeness (Gen 1:27). In continuation with the Old Testament tradition, Jesus referred to himself as bridegroom (Mk 2:19). Jesus never exercised any sexual activity as a husband in marriage. Such a “natural resemblance,” to quote the Roman Declaration from a different context, is not to be found in Jesus. In him, nonetheless, masculine and feminine genders flowered magnificently.

The titles of bride and groom, as used of Yahweh, Jesus, or the Church, do not immediately signify male and female as they consecrate all people and God in most intimate union. Marital union or the merging of the sexes, not their differentiation and separation, dominate the biblical symbol. We must look more closely at the origin and history of the image in the Old Testament.

Yahweh was first presented as ''spouse" in a clear and emphatic way in the preaching of Hosea. The prophet was generally inspired by the book of Deuteronomy, but he drew the precise image from the fertility ceremonies of the Canaanites who worshipped male and female deities. Hosea’s own marriage provided the final impulse and cut dark lines of tragedy and poignancy into the symbol. At once, however, Hosea broke the myth by transferring the context of the sacred marriage from “nature” to “history,” taking it back to the days of Moses when God drew Israel out of Egypt to make a covenant, or as Hosea would say, an espousal, with this chosen people.

Hosea also repudiated the promiscuous sex sanctified as divine ritual among the Canaanites, and proceeded to call it by its right name, “whoredom” or “harlotry.” Yet, the most degenerate act of all, as chapter 4 of this prophecy enunciates, was the whole battery of offenses against justice and compassion. These sins rightly deserved to be named “harlotry.”

The image of bride and groom is quickly adapted then to reach beyond sexual forms and actions. In Hos 2:21-22 God addresses all the people Israel, be they men, women, girls or boys:

I espouse you to myself forever
. . . in love . . . in fidelity.
Then you shall know Yahweh.

The Hebrew word “to know” (yada’) normally expresses the full sexual experience of marriage (Gen 4:1; I Kgs 1:4). Yet, this image is extended to the heavens and the earth and even performs the miracle of mercy, transforming the illegitimate child lo- ammi into Hosea’s and God’s very own offspring.

Even though Israel appears under the image of a bride, Hosea refers most frequently to the male rulers, particularly to priests (4:4, 9; 5:1), princes (5:10) and kings (7:5-7) as guilty of violating the “marriage bond” with Yahweh and like an unfaithful spouse committing harlotry. Because of such evil leadership, all Israel is led into “whoredom” (4:6-19; 5:5; 7:1-2). Therefore, Hosea did not stress male and female sexuality as he emphasized intimate union and called its violation “whoredom.”

Jeremiah, dependent upon Hosea in style, attitude and imagery, lays the blame principally upon “their kings and their princes, their priests and their [charismatic or cultic] prophets” as guilty of breaking the marriage bond with Yahweh (2:26). The prophet compares these men to “a frenzied she camel, coursing near and far . . . snuffing the wind in her heat—who can restrain her lust?” (2:23-24). The image, somewhat crude when applied to human beings, underlines the cruel hideousncss of Israel’s breaking the covenant or marriage-bond with Yahweh. Marital union, not sexual differentiation of male and female, and its violation by male leadership are intended when Israel is described as Yahweh’s spouse. Yahweh’s intimate bond with Israel and also the pain and obscenity of its rupture are the key ideas of Jeremiah.

The image is developed further. Even more emphatically than chapter 11 of Hosea, Jeremiah transformed the days of the exodus experience into an idyllic honeymoon:

I remember your youthful devotion, your bridal love,
How you followed me through the desert. (Jer 2:2)

Yet, in this allusion to the exodus out of Egypt, Jeremiah and Hosea were thinking principally of a new exodus. The past was not so much a point of comparison with the present as a type of the future; as the past was being pondered, it was continually absorbing features of later existence into its evolving image. The return of the exiled people to their own homeland is presented not only along the lines of a new exodus but also as a return of a sinful, adulterous spouse to the moment of first espousal and initial virginity. The image, as earlier with Hosea, breaks natural bonds and performs a miraculous reversal.

In the important chapter 31 of Jeremiah, the covenant or marriage formula is first repeated, then the exodus, finally the rejoicing over the marriage of the “virgin” Israel:

At that time, says the Lord,
I will be the God of all the tribes of Israel,
and they shall be my people [cf. 31:33].
Thus says the Lord:
The people that escaped the sword
have found favor in the desert.
As Israel comes forward to be given his rest,
the Lord appears to him from afar:
With age-old love I have loved you,
so l have kept my mercy toward you.
Again I will restore you, and you shall be rebuilt,
O virgin Israel;
Carrying your festive tambourines,
you shall go forth dancing with the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
those who plant them shall enjoy the fruits. (Jer 31:1-5)

The marriage image undergoes a grand and wondrous reversal. Israel is transformed from an adulterous or sinful nation in exile to a virginal or saintly people at home! Again, sexual differences are not being emphasized but full marital union between Israel and their loving spouse Yahweh. Also to be noted in this passage is the easy movement back and forth between the masculine and feminine gender. The first six lines speak of Israel in the masculine; lines 7 to 14 in the feminine; the last three lines again in the masculine.

Jeremiah’s imagery nudged Israel’s poets and preachers ever closer towards the ecstatic joy of the eschatological age. In this development the marriage symbol is combined with the image of the city Zion or the Jerusalem temple. In fact, the passage just quoted from Jeremiah concluded with: “Rise up! Let us go to Zion, to the Lord our God.”

Zion becomes a dominant theme with the unknown prophet of the Babylonian exile, called Second or Deutero-lsaiah, author of the Book of Consolation (Is 40-55). He compares both Zion and God to a woman:

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me;
my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
Even should she forget [which is impossible],
I will never forget you....
Look about and see,
they are gathering and coming to you.
As I live, says the Lord,
you shall be arrayed with them all as with adornments,
like a bride you shall fasten them on. (Is 49:14-18)

Second Isaiah combines the images of Zion-mother and Zion-virginal bride, and quickly modulates the image of God from mother to that of bridegroom. The symbolism is very complex—admittedly the case with the Bible and Semitic literature—but a consistent note of intimate love and marital union pervades the passage.

The entire second half, chapters 49 to 55, of the Book of Consolation is dominated by the theme of Zion-Jerusalem, presently a woman barren, forsaken and deprived of her children, and yet being summoned with the repeated command, “Awake! Awake!” (51:9, 17; 52:1). In chapter 54 Zion-Jerusalem representative of all the people Israel, is told to “spread out your tent cloth unsparingly” (always a nuptial symbol—cf., Ps 19:5-6; Ez 23). She is then consoled by an oracle of

Fear not! . . .
The shame of your youth you shall forget,
the reproach of your widowhood no longer remember.
Your maker is your husband....
The Lord calls you back,
like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit.

What makes this passage so significant is not only Zion’s passage from widowhood to a new virginity, from virginity to a new marriage, from barrenness to fertility, but also the very subtle way that maternal love is attributed toYahweh. The prophet speaks of Yahweh first as “husband’ but then alludes to the ”tenderness" (raham-im) of the Lord “who has mercy on you” (meraham-ek). The Hebrew root raham, occurring in each case with emphatic position means the maternal womb.

The Lord will so enhance the glory of Jerusalem that in chapter 60 it will be diffcult to distinguish Jerusalem, normally addressed in the feminine form, from the Lord Yahweh:

I will appoint peace your governor,
and justice your ruler....
You shall call your walls “Salvation”
and your gates “Praise.”
No longer shall the sun
be your light by day....
The Lord will be your light forever. (Is 60:17-19)

The same miraculous transitions rush upon us in chapter 62:

No more shall people call you “Forsaken,” . . .
But you shall be called “My Delight”
and your land “Espoused.” . . .
As a young man marries a virgin,
your Builder shall marry you;
And as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride
so shall your God rejoice in you. (Is 62:4-5)

Again the reverse movement from widowhood to virginity for a new marriage is miraculously achieved. Our attention, however, is not directed to sexual differentiation but to marital union, its joy and satisfaction. Male and female sexuality is not attributed to God, but intimacy, fidelity and joy are experienced in God’s union with Zion-Jerusalem.

The union becomes all the more complete in the Zion psalms. In these pieces of exalted poetry, Zion is the throne of God and even a figure of the divine (Pss 46 & 48).

This same development continues as it repeats itself in the New Testament: Jesus is joyfully presented as bridegroom and then repudiated (Mk 2 19), Israel or the Church are changed from sin and adultery to a new and glorious status of virgin spouse (2 Cor 11:2; Rev 14:4). It is interesting to note that in Rev 14 the gender of the virgins has subtly modulated from female to male, the 144,000 elect who inhabit the heavenly Zion. The gender changes once more to the feminine in chapter 21 of Revelations, for the “new Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down out of heaven from God, [is] beautiful as a bride, prepared to meet her husband” (Rev 21:2).

Finally, the intricate overlapping of motifs and the dramatic turns in the evolution of symbols would be compounded all the more if our study would have also investigated the sub-theme of Zion-temple. It modulates: a) from a movable desert tent, leading or following the nomadic people (Lev 23:42-43; Num 10:33-36), b) to a fixed and glorious temple to which the people come in pilgrimage (I Kgs 8; Zech 14:16-19), c) to the person of Jesus, center of worship (Jn 2:21), and eventually, as we have seen, d) to the heavenly home of all the elect, Jewish and Gentile. As a symbol it does not maintain the natural resemblance of a city nor of its first form of decsert tent.

We conclude from this study, especially from our investigation of Hosea Jeremiah and Second Isaiah, that the Yahweh-Spouse or Jesus-Bridegroom image does not stress sexual differences but intimate, joyful and fruitful union of all persons; it rests in the psychological complexity of masculine and feminine genders in everyone, including God and Jesus. We also note that biblical symbols modulate with amazing versatility and at key moments break natural laws and resemblances.

This fact must be clear in the case of the bridegroom Yahweh to whom the Old Testament never attributes human or sexual anatomy. In both Hosea and Jeremiah the unfaithful wife is seen at once in the person of male individuals, the civil and religious leaders, as well as in the entire people Israel, men and women. The nuptial imagery turns out to be more complex in that the widow becomes the virgin prepared for first espousal in the eschatological Zion or Jerusalem. Zion as bride and mother is thus seen as the embodiment of God, the bridegroom, in Is 60 and 62 as well as in Pss 46 and 48.

The image of the divine Bridegroom then does not dictate that priests in the Christian dispensation who represent Jesus must be clearly and apparently of the male sex. The image is far too involved for such a single-line application. In fact, a priesthood of men and women, celibate and married, would much more adequately represent the rich biblical nuances of virginity and marital union, simultaneously overlapping in the symbol of God and Jesus as spouse.


H.W. Wolff, Hosea. Hermeneia series (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974) pp. xxvi-xxviii, 13-16, 30-64; J.L. Mays, Hosea. Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969) 7-15, 34-60; P.G. Rinaldi, I Profeti Minori, ll La Saera Bibbia (Rome: Marietti, 1960) 7, 22-23, 27-46; J. Bright, Jeremiah. Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1965); R. de Vaux “Jerusalem and the Prophets,” Interpreting the Prophetic Tradition (New York: Ktav, 1969) 275-300, augmented in Revue Biblique 73 (1966) 481-509 R.A.F. MacKenzie, “The City and Israelite Religion,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25 (1963) 60-70; Richard J. Sklba, The Faithful City. Herald Biblical Booklets (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1976), C. Stuhlmueller Creative Redemption in Deutero-lsaiah. Analecta Biblica, 43 (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970) 60-66, 115-122; in the Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), ch. 15 on Hosea by Dennis J. McCarthy; ch 19 on Jeremiah by G.P. Couturier; ch 22 on Deutero-lsaiah by C. Stuhlmueller; and ch 30 on Canticle of Canticles by R.E. Murphy, Leonard Swidler, “Jesus had Feminine Qualities, too,” National Catholic Reporter 13 (no. 23; April 1, 1977) 15-16.

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