Jesus and Paul on the Hermeneutics of Sexuality: Richard Beck, Part 1

the-bible-and-sexuality-blog-heading (1)Richard Beck is a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University. He blogs at Experimental Theology.

I find him intelligent and challenging. I subscribe to his blog via RSS so I don’t miss a single post. Of course, we don’t always agree, but he pushes me to see things I might otherwise not have seen on my own. And that’s all good.

He has posted three times to offer arguments (that he does not necessarily personally endorse) in favor of Christian gay marriage:

Sexuality and the Christian Body, Part 1
Sexuality and the Christian Body, Part 2
Same Sex Marriage in the Image of God?

You should read all three articles in full. Don’t rely on just the parts I quote.

A couple of weeks ago, I invited Richard to participate in this discussion, either through comments or by posting on the blog as I do. Fair is fair. Unfortunately, he is on vacation in Europe and will not be back until August. Moreover, these articles summarize the views of other thinkers. I can hardly ask that Richard defend these positions unless they reflect his own thinking.


Before looking at the particulars of Beck’s posts, I need to provide a quick survey of an important Old Testament theme that is rarely dealt with in our Sunday school classes and preaching: the marriage of Israel to God. It’s important.

Let’s start in Ezekiel —

(Eze 16:8-14 ESV)  “When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness [married you]; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine.  9 Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil.  10 I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk.  11 And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck.  12 And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.  13 Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty.  14 And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord GOD.”

This is the language of marriage, and it’s a reference back to Sinai.

What is of special import here is the indication that because of God’s (re)marriage to Israel, “In that day, says Yahweh, You will call me My husband / My man [ʾı̂šı̂  ], And no longer will you call me My master / My owner [baʿlı̂  ]” (Hos 2:18—Eng 2:16). To be sure, the use of baʿlı̂  is directed against the false worship of the Canaanite baals of the fields, as the next verse makes clear: “And I will remove the name of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall no longer be mentioned by their name.” But this is more than simply a broadside against Canaanite fertility concepts. What Hosea affirms is that in God’s (re)marriage with his people, there will be more than a master-slave relationship. As Terrien (1985: 54) has stated, Hosea attacks the idea of “marriage as a contract of ownership through which a woman is nothing more than the property of a man. Israel … will not look at her God as if she were the slave of her master, but she will enjoy with him the status of partner and trusted friend.”

It is of interest that it was Hosea, and not some of his contemporaries, such as Amos or Micah or Isaiah, who got the most mileage out of this daring marriage metaphor. There are hints of the concept in Amos, e.g., when he refers to “the virgin of Israel” (5:2), or when he uses a phrase like “you only have I known among all the families of the earth” (3:2), with its apparent conjugal symbolism. But there is nothing approaching Hosea’s bold use of the metaphor. Nerved by his strong foundation in covenant theology with its emphasis on moral love, and caught in the trauma of his own marriage experience, Hosea may use the marriage metaphor as graphically as he does precisely because he is, unlike Amos or Isaiah, meeting head on a pagan cult that includes marriage themes in its mythology and sexual acts in its praxis (Hall 1982: 170).

Hosea’s appropriation of Yahweh as husband and Israel as bride is the forerunner for similar emphasis in subsequent prophets. … In exploiting the marriage metaphor even at the divine level, the prophets were in effect engaging in a demythologizing hermeneutic.

Apart from their symbolic use of the marriage metaphor, four of the prophets integrated their own marriage, or lack thereof, into their message. We have already mentioned Hosea’s marriage to Gomer and the three children born of this marriage, to whom were given richly symbolic names. Isaiah fathered two children by his wife, who is simply styled “the prophetess” (Isa 8:3), and each of the children bore a symbolic name, ambiguous in their interpretation as either signs of hope or signs of judgment. The death of Ezekiel’s wife, called “the desire of your eyes” (Ezek 24:16), is foretold to Ezekiel, and the prophet is instructed not to mourn for her, not even to shed a tear (Ezek 24:16–18). Similarly, mourning is to be withheld from those about to experience their own demise. Finally, Jeremiah provides the only illustration in the OT of a divine call to celibacy (Jer 16:2). The joy and fulfillment denied to him is a harbinger of days of judgment for Jeremiah’s contemporaries. This particular prohibition for Jeremiah is not dated, but it must have come at a point in his ministry where all hope for the repentance and salvation of his peers became impossible. Jeremiah faced extinction on two fronts, one from his enemies, who wished to cut him off and blot out his name, the other from God, who denied him marriage, and thus progeny to perpetuate his name.

Victor P. Hamilton, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 1992, 4, 566–567.

So God entered into covenant relationship with the nation of Israel at Sinai, and this relationship was frequently described by the Prophets metaphorically as a marriage. When Israel worshiped idols (often involving cultic prostitution), the prophets described Israel as committing adultery, and yet God remained faithful to the “marriage” covenant.

Hosea is built on this metaphor, and in describing Israel’s marriage to God, Hosea says,

(Hos 2:16 NIV) “In that day,” declares the LORD, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master. ‘

“My husband” translates ishi, which is the word used in Gen 2 of Adam as husband of Eve. “Master” or “baal” means “lord.” God is seeking a Genesis 2 sort of relationship with Israel, not one of dominance (such as Adam’s post-Fall dominion over Eve in Gen 3:16) but of mutuality. God uses the Genesis 2 passages to inform the reader about human marriage and, by analogy, the relationship he seeks with Israel (and now the church).

In the NT, faithful Israel, with the Gentiles grafted in (Rom 11), becomes the church, and the LORD of the OT is often referred to as Jesus. And so the church is described as the bride of Christ — not a changed metaphor but a continuation of the old metaphor with the parties more precisely identified.

Now, this metaphor demonstrates God’s faithfulness to his covenant even when he would have been allowed to entirely end the covenant because of Israel’s unfaithfulness (as in Exo 32:9-14). On the other hand, God’s faithfulness to Israel the nation is not to each Jew regardless of his or her faithfulness. Only a remnant was ultimately saved. Individual Jews who were unfaithful were cut off.

(Rom 11:1-6 ESV)  I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.  2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel?  3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.”  4 But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”  5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.  6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

I’ve heard it argued that this means Christians must follow God’s example and so never divorce their spouses, even if the spouse is guilty of flagrant, repeated adultery. After all, God was faithful regardless of the flagrant, repeated adulterous behavior of Israel. But this logic confuses a metaphor with the underlying reality. God is not really married to Israel because Israel is a not a woman but a nation. Rather, God’s covenant is like a marriage. It’s not a literal marriage! And the point of the metaphor is that God’s relationship with Israel is like a marriage — we start with human marriage and then learn about God and his covenants by analogy — but they are not the same thing.

Therefore, we can with confidence take our guidance from Jesus and Paul when they discuss actual marriages and actual divorces without having to reconcile our obligations to faithless spouses with God’s treatment of the nation of Israel under his covenant. After all, one point of the metaphor is that God was permitted to put Israel away but so loved Israel that he refused to do so. God was not bound by covenant to remain married, but by his love for Israel. The lesson isn’t that covenants must be honored when the other party violates the covenant, but that God’s love is so great and his grace is so wide that he honors his covenant even when Israel repeatedly fails to hold up her end. God’s love causes him to be more gracious than the covenant requires.

As is true of any metaphor, we can’t stretch the metaphor beyond its use by the person using the metaphor. For example, God and Israel never engage in sex — unlike Israel and the fertility gods of Canaan (via cultic prostitutes). Does that mean we should not have sex with our spouses? Obviously not (and 1 Cor 7 is quite clear on this point).

There is no one-to-one correspondence. It’s a comparison, not a body of law, and must be read for what it is.

[No, I’ve not forgotten that we’re talking about gay marriage. To be continued.]

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Homosexuality, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply