Having made some progress on organizing my wedding, it is clearly time to start organizing yet again my thoughts about marriage – the marriage of Israel.
I’ve been reading a highly useful book (that is, for those geeks among us who are inclined to see an analysis illuminating the connections between Christianity and Judaism as useful) entitled Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life by Jon Levenson, whom a perfunctory Google search reveals to be a Jewish scholar interested in the Jewish-Christian nexus in the Old Testament. (Either he is a highly nuanced thinker or I am easily fooled, since the book very much had me thinking that he was a Christian convert.) At any rate, Dr. Levenson explores the theological and anthropological, roots of the rabbinical (Pharisaic) belief – expressed clearly in the Mishnah – in the resurrection of the dead. His aim is to prove, apparently in defiance of an army of vocal naysayers, that bodily resurrection is not a post-Second Temple (and post-Jesus) rabbinical invention, but was lodged deeply in the religious consciousness of Israel since its earliest days.
Perhaps predictably to readers of the blog, I was especially taken with the following aspect of this (otherwise also interesting and generally persuasive) thesis. Dr. Levenson argues that in ancient Israel the notions of life and death, and the joy and terror they respectively evoked were connected less to the finality of the physical life of an individual and more to the continuity of the nation. The ultimate death is barrenness, or the death of children. The miraculous granting or reviving of children experienced by almost all the Old Testament characters that easily come to mind – Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, etc. – is not only a symbol for resurrection, but an essential way in which God’s power to reverse death and grant life is manifest. The relationship between, say, the long-awaited and miraculous birth of Isaac and the promise of eternal life in Christ is similar to that between the exodus from Egypt and liberation from death in Christ. In both cases, the earlier event foreshadows the later one, but is also a monumental manifestation of God’s power for its own time.
Because of the emphasis on childbearing, the image of God as reviver of the dead comes through in prophetic passages that compare Israel to a barren or abandoned wife. She may be a faithless harlot, like Hosea’s wife, or she may suffer blamelessly. But in either case, the return of her husband and the birth of children are promised her, for God says:
Shout, O barren one,
You who bore no child!
Shout aloud for joy,
You who did not travail!
For the children of the wife forlorn
Shall outnumber those of the espoused
– said the Lord [….]
The Lord has called you back
As a wife forlorn and forsaken
Can one cast off the wife of his youth?
– said your God.
For a little while I forsook you,
But with vast love I will bring you back. (Isaiah 54:1, 6)
Thus Israel awaiting the resurrection is like the abandoned or barren wife awaiting her husband. Interestingly, while deprivation of children is the cause of the wife’s sorrow, it is her re-espousal by God that is the focal point of her joy. The metaphor evolves so that resurrected life and marriage are fundamentally linked. In a way, eternal life is marriage.
I’ve wondered before how a Jewish convert to Christianity can see themselves as married to Christ through the Church. Levenson’s analysis articulates the way in which corporate Israel sees itself as the bride of God. If God’s marriage covenant is with Israel as a whole, and manifest itself in Israel’s fruitfulness and corporate faithfulness, how can an individual convert partake of the marriage in separation from the Jewish people?
And where does God’s indissoluble marriage covenant with “the wife of one’s youth,” even in her rejection of Him, leave the Gentile Christians? The Gentiles are adopted into the family of Israel, but Israel is the one who is party to the marriage. I believe it is facile to treat the image of the wife as a mere metaphor, equally applicable to all people faithful to God; the Scriptures are far too clear that it is the particular marriage to Israel to which God keeps faithfulness through repeating cycles of rejection, alienation, and reunion.
It may be that neither the Jewish convert nor the Gentile may truly attain the divine marriage to God in separation from Israel. When referring to the Church as the Bride of Christ, it is possible that St. Paul was assuming that his audience was headed by the Jewish church – which is not to say that, with its Jewish members a dispersed minority, the Church ceases to be Bride, but that perhaps the nuptials must be delayed until there is once again a Jewish church to speak of, and to. Perhaps Israel – with all her offspring, including those acquired through baptism – must lead the Gentile world if the Church is to be permanently united in marriage with God.
Is it therefore the case that, in addition to living a Christian life like one’s Gentile brethren, it is a particular duty of the convert Jew to pray and work for the return of his people to God?
As always, I welcome any comments – particularly if you disagree or think I’m off my rocker!