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The nuptial dimension between reality and allegory

· Symbols in the Bible ·

The subject of nuptiality embraces the Bible from the first pages of Genesis until the final, suspended scene of the definitive nuptials between the Lamb and his bride (cf. Rev 19:6-9; 21:1-2). In the structure of the theme, however, there are two levels which by their nature and character should never be confused. If on the one hand the nuptial theme concerns a man and a woman of flesh and blood, on the other this image is also amply used in biblical narrative to describe the relationship between God, the Bridegroom and his people, the Bride. Obviously in this case the nuptial model is of a similar type and any attempt to apply it to this or that precise person in history, also in a vicarious role, can lead to reductive and misleading views.

Marc Chagall, “Song of Songs”

The first scene is certainly that described in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh”. But it is worth taking a step back and pausing on the background described a little earlier. “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’” (Gen 2:18). Paraphrasing the text in modern language, God, having noticed the existential loneliness of ‘Adam, that is, of the human being in general, after various attempts to fill this emptiness with the company of animals, decides that the only companion of the human being who can truly be “a helper fit for him” is, precisely, another human being. Thus having caused a deep sleep to fall upon the first man, he takes a side [or hip] (the translation closest to the Hebrew term which only in this verse was translated as “rib”) and from this part moulds another human being. From this moment the original ‘Adam can recognize himself in the other. It is a recognition that indicates at the same time both a lack and a desire, the nostalgia for this other which implies belonging yet at the same time otherness, since she is no longer beside him but in front of him. And it is precisely this recognition of himself as a missing part of the other that will bring the “uomo” and the “uoma” (if we wish somehow to convey the phonic effect of the alliteration of the two terms in Hebrew) to desire union and thus to realize the first-born ‘Adam: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife (“uoma”), and they become one flesh”. Then what should have been a balanced and complementary relationship and bond would in reality become the opposite with all the consequences and relative struggles that are so familiar to the human beings of the past and to those of today. But the founding idea that endures, for example in the Jewish tradition, is that only beneath the chuppah, or nuptial canopy, can the man and the woman become the ‘Adam in accordance with God’s original plan: mirrors reflecting “his image and likeness”.

This reflection cannot but be pure reciprocity; we therefore find in the Psalm that celebrates the nuptials of a princess and a king an echo of the invitation addressed to the man in Genesis 2:24 in the feminine: “Hear O daughter, consider, and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house (Ps 45:10). This reciprocity is expressed in the beauty recognized: “You are the fairest of the sons of men”; and then “the princess is decked… with gold-woven robes; in many-coloured robes she is led to the king” (Ps 45:2, 14). However all this is only possible if the fundamental ingredient, the glue necessary for this union, is not lacking, that is, love.

It is precisely to the love between a beloved woman and a beloved man that an entire book of the Bible is dedicated: the Song of Solomon. This is one of the most beautiful love poems ever written where the mutually recognized beauty in the face of the other inspires a bond stronger than death: love. The whole book, except for a few interventions of an off-stage choir, consists of a loving dialogue between the two betrothed lovers who see one another, desire one another and love one another in a reciprocal belonging which is marvellously expressed in this verse, the pulsating heart of the entire poem: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3).

Giotto, “The Prophet Isaiah” (14th century)

The second level of the nuptial dimension, the more symbolic one, is expressed in terms of a metaphor: the nuptial relationship between God and his people. The principle cantors of this wedding feast and above all of the matrimonial life that follows it are the prophets, and in a particular way Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah. In this nuptial metaphor God is the faithful husband, his is a monogamous, tenacious and sometimes jealous love, but he is always ready to welcome back his people, a faithless spouse. This is obviously not the only biblical metaphor that expresses the relationship between God and his people; elsewhere in the Bible this relationship is expressed, for example, in terms of the fatherhood and also motherhood of God with regard to his people. Besides, even though it is hard for us with our modern sensitivities to conceive of marital fidelity as a prerogative of only the husband (something which in human history is obviously belied by the facts), we must take into account the antiquity of the texts and the mentality of the time, for which God could have no other role than that of husband. Yet, as was mentioned at the beginning, this is an analogy that would lose all its meaning were we to let ourselves apply it solely to human reality.

The first prophet in chronological order who uses this metaphor is Hosea. The infidelity of the people and their idolatry are described as the denunciation by a husband of the adultery committed by his wife: “Plead with your mother, plead – for she is not my wife and I am not her husband” (2:2). But this accusation is never the last word, because the end is always that of the husband winning back his own woman (the people): “I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord” (2:19-22).

About a century later, and before the destruction of Jerusalem, the Prophet Jeremiah used the nuptial metaphor where, as in Hosea, the first fundamental moment is the remembrance of the time of falling in love and of betrothal, which coincide with the people’s experience in the desert and with the Covenant of Sinai. “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (2:2). The second moment is characterized by the denunciation of the people’s idolatry and infidelity to the Covenant which are described as a betrayal. The consequence is the act of repudiation on the part of the husband, an act which once sanctioned can no longer be revoked: “If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her? Would not that land be greatly polluted? You have played the harlot with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (3:1). However, as a matter of fact in the third moment God remains a husband eternally in love with his wife (with the people), and it is because of this loving faithfulness that his wife can return to him, not only forgiven but even with her virginity restored. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build \you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!” (31:3-4).

The nuptial metaphor is also found in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, especially in the chapter where Israel’s history before the Exile is reinterpreted in these terms. At the beginning, the birth of a girl child immediately abandoned is described: “As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel string was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor swathed with bands. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you; but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born” (16: 4-5). The loving eye of God who was passing by saw her, he took care of her, and thus the baby girl grew up and became a young woman “at the age for love” (16:8). The time had come for the nuptials between God and Israel: “I spread my skirt over you, and covered your nakedness […]. I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you […], and you became mine” (16:8). The preparations of the bride for these nuptials, her clothing, her jewels and finally the wedding feast are painstakingly described. But Israel, having become a queen whose “beauty [...] was perfect”(16:14), instead of being faithful and grateful to such a good, caring and generous husband, not only played the harlot but turned all her husband’s gifts into objects of prostitution, to the point of sacrificing the children of their marriage. The condemnation in which God describes the consequences of all that Israel has committed (cf. 16:35-39) is inevitable. Yet the ruin of this adulterous wife was not the last word, given that the chapter concludes with a final scene where God, faithful to his matrimonial bond, “my covenant with you in the days of your youth”, reveals his ultimate intention: a new and “everlasting” covenant (16:60), hence indestructible because of being founded on forgiveness, “when I forgive you all that you have done” (16:63).

“The Victorious Lamb”, miniature from the Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liebana (10th century)

In the Book of Isaiah one of the most indisputably significant passages is the nuptial poem in chapter 54, where recourse to the same pattern recurs once again: the bride, this time represented symbolically by Jerusalem (Zion), divorced by God, her husband, for her misdeeds, was not to remain separated from him for long. Thus, in chapter 62 the nuptial vision opens on to an eschatological future in which the matrimonial bond between Zion and her husband will be for ever strengthened: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My delight is in her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married” (62:4). All this unfolds to a further development where Zion is the bride on the one hand of the Creator and, on the other, of her sons: “For as a young man marries a virgin, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (62:5). There is nothing strange in the analogy but once again there is a clear sign of the impossibility of applying the metaphor to any kind of relationship between human beings. In this case the figure of Zion, almost split into her heavenly dimension as bride of the Creator and into her earthly dimension as wife of her sons, takes on a new role: she is the woman of mediation, the woman (Wisdom) capable of mediating between God and men to lead the latter back to him.

The New Testament too, in continuity with the Old, is rich in nuptial metaphors in which the role of the bridegroom and mediator between God and his people (humanity), is the Son: the Messiah of Israel and of the Gentiles. Numerous Gospel texts remind us of this subject whose background is always eschatological. It should be noted that the bride does not appear in any of these texts: attention is focused only on the bridegroom who is arriving or expected. It was to be Paul’s Letters (1-2 Corinthians) or those attributed to him (Ephesians) which would identify the bride in the community of believers. But the marriage announced has not yet taken place; the whole plot thickens and concentrates on this waiting: the definitive coming of the bridegroom and the celebration of his marriage with the whole of redeemed humanity in the triumphant hymn of love that knows no death. However, as Revelation says (cf. 19:7), the “bride” must be ready, her humanity must be complete, that is, the woman and the man must rediscover the absolute need for the other, letting themselves be guided by the Spirit. And only in this way do “the Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’” (Rev 22:17).

Ester Abbattista


The author

Ester Abbattista gained a degree in Humanities at the University of Urbino and continued her philosophical studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University, where she obtained a doctorate in biblical theology with a thesis on Origen’s commentary on the Book of Jeremiah. She currently teaches Old Testament Studies and Biblical and Jewish Theology at Bolzano and at Trent. Prominent among her fields of interest is a reinterpretation of the Bible in dialogue with the Jewish tradition and with contemporary culture. 

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