The Wedding of God and Israel

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[First posted in 2015.  Marriage is one of the metaphors used for the relationship of YHWH with Israel.  As the faithful Husband, YHWH remains loyal to His chosen people and when the latter continued to worship other gods, He referred to their unfaithfulness as ‘harlotry’.  

This is Chapter 10 of our MUST READ/MUST OWN feature Sinai and Zion  by Jon D. Levenson. We are posting only select chapters from this great resource, to encourage our readers to add it to your library.  The ebook form is downloadable from  Reformatting and highlights added. Admin1.]




We have seen that the relationship of Israel to her God was conceived in the covenant theology along the lines of a contract between states and that one stipulation of such a contract was the requirement to love the Lord in covenant. At the heart of Israel’s relationship with YHWH lay a dialogue of love. There was another realm in the life of ancient Israel in which one finds a relationship of love sealed by contract, the realm of marriage.


In the ancient Semitic world, marriage was a matter of contractual obligation; a trace of this remains in the Jewish wedding ceremony, in which the Ketubbah, or marriage contract, is still read.  Unfortunately, no ketubbot are preserved in the Hebrew Bible. But we do have Jewish marriage contracts from late biblical times preserved in scrolls. The structure of these ketubbot is not that of the covenant formulary that applied to international contracts. Nonetheless, the two types of relationship, the international and the marital, were sufficiently similar that the language of covenant could be applied to both:


You ask, “Because of what?”

Because YHWH is a witness between you

and the wife of your youth,

with whom you have broken faith,

even though she is your partner

and the woman with whom you are in covenant.

(Mal 2:14)


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Here, the prophet views the institution of marriage as an instance of covenant.  YHWH is the witness, and divorce is a form of treason.

In fact, so great was the overlap between the two realms that prophets often presented Israel’s relationship with YHWH as a marriage.


The prophet Hosea, for example, a man of the eighth century B.C.E., believed that YHWH had commanded him to marry a prostitute in order to exemplify the apostasy and promiscuity of Israel.  Gomer, the prostitute, bore Hosea children with such names as “Unloved,” to signify that God no longer loved Israel (Hos 1:6), and “Not-my-people,” a name that indicated that the bonds of covenant had been severed, “for you are not my people, and I will not be your God” (v 9). The career of Hosea testifies to a tradition in Israel to the effect that what happened on the mountain in ancient days was the consummation of a romance, a marriage in which YHWH was the groom and Israel (although a man’s name) was the bride. Thus, a book like Deuteronomy, which is saturated with the idiom of covenant, sees in the selection of Israel to be YHWH’s treasured possession, the fruit of a passionate affair (Deut 7:6-8). The special statues of Israel rests not upon her merits, her strength or numbers or intelligence or honesty, but upon something irrational, a passion, an affair of the heart, not the mind, in short a love. All the efforts to explain the special destiny of Israel in rational terms only dissolve its power.


For Israel is singled out by and for the love of God:


12  And now, what does YHWH your God demand of you?

Only this: to hold YHWH your God in awe, to walk in all his paths,

to love him, and to serve YHWH your God

with all your heart and all your soul,

13  to observe YHWH’s commandments and his laws,

which I enjoin upon you this day, for your own benefit.

14  Mark well, the heavens to their uttermost reaches

belong to YHWH your God, the earth and everything on it!

15  Yet it was only for your forefathers

that YHWH took a passion, loving them, s

o that he chose their descendants after them—you!—

from among all the peoples, as is the case today.

(Deut 10:12-15)


This passage makes it clear that at the core of the covenant relationship lies a twofold love, the mysterious love of YHWH for Israel and the less baffling love of Israel for YHWH, her benefactor.


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Covenant-love is mutual; it distinguishes a relationship of reciprocity.

  • On God’s side lies an obligation to fulfill the oath he swore to the Patriarchs, to grant their descendants the promised land, to be their God.
  • Israel, for her part, is to realize her love in the form of observance of her master’s stipulations, the Mitsvot, for they are the words of the language of love, the fit medium in which to respond to the passionate advances of the divine suzerain.

It is not a question of law or love, but law conceived in love, love expressed in law. The two are a unity. To speak of one apart from the other is to produce a parody of the religion of Israel. The love of God moves Israel to embrace the norms of Sinai.


In the book of Hosea, the great divorce is never finalized. The impassioned groom cannot endure without his bride, although she had whored with his Canaanite competitor Baal (2:15). Unable to tolerate her being in the arms of his rival, YHWH reinitiates the romance and coaxes his wayward spouse back to the spot where their first love was consummated, the desert (2:16-25). In vv 16-19, YHWH restores his relationship with Israel to the point at which it stood when he first impressed his claim upon her with his redemption of her from Egypt, when she had not yet broken faith to chase after the god of fertility, Baal. And so, in the desert, the marriage is reinstituted (vv 21-22), only this time without mention of the word “Baal,” which also served as one of two terms for husband (v 18).


Now, to make things clear, only the other term will be licit. The word “know” in v 22 is, of course, a double entendre; the term is both covenantal and sexual. We have already seen the covenantal context of the verb. The vassal is to “know” (i.e., recognize) only one suzerain. But the term also indicates sexual union, as in the statement that Adam “knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived” (Gen 4:1).


To us, the two meanings seem distinct, but in Israel’s vocabulary, they pertain to either kind of passionate relationship, that of suzerain and vassal or that of groom and bride. The romance of God and Israel is tempered by lawfulness and animated by eros, love purified in law, law impelled by love.


In Hos 2:20, YHWH makes a new covenant, not one between himself and Israel, but between Israel and the beasts and birds and creeping things. In  other words, God assumes the Mosaic office of covenant mediator, in order to extend the peace and security of the covenant relationship beyond the confines of the divine-human dialogue.  Now even nature will participate.  All threats, whether from nature or from war, will vanish.  


Lurking behind these great promises are the blessings of the covenant formulary.  But we hear nothing of the curses, for the vision is one of redemption through covenant, and the assumption seems to be that, where God mediates and thus guarantees covenant, that stipulations will be fulfilled as a matter of course.


In the last stanza of Hosea’s prophecy (vv 23-25), all creation joins in the wedding ceremony. Sky responds to earth, and earth responds by bringing forth her bounty.  What happens here is that the covenant with the living God comes to account for fertility, displacing the worship of the dying-and-rising deity, Baal.  The real source of bounty lies in faithfulness and obedience to the God who redeemed Israel from Egypt.  Baal has been bested on his own soil. And thus, in accordance with this vision of cosmic renewal, the three children of Hosea—Jezreel (“God-will-sow”), Unloved, and Not-my-people—are restored together with the covenant/marriage contract whose revocation their names symbolized.


In Hos 2:16-25, the making of a covenant moves beyond the limits of the juridical function in which it originated and becomes the stuff and substance of a vision of cosmic renewal. The entire universe takes part in the sacred remarriage of YHWH and Israel.  

  • Covenant is not only something lived, but something hoped for, the teleological end of creation and of history.  
  • Sinai is the model of cosmic harmony, and the relationship of Israel and YHWH, the prototype of redeemed life.  
  • Redemption is not “liberation” from law; that would be, in Hosea’s eyes, relapse into licentiousness.  
  • Rather, redemption involves the gracious offer to Israel to reenter the legal/erotic relationship and the renewed willingness of Israel to do so.

gods-everlasting-covenantThe third paragraph of this passage, Hos 2:21-22, has entered the daily liturgy of Jewry. It is recited on weekday mornings as the male adult Jew finishes putting on his tefillin, the two little boxes containing scrolls of passages from the Torah, which are strapped to the arm and the head in conformity to the ordinance that these things “shall be a sign on your hand and frontlets between your eyes” (Exod 13:16). The implication is clear. By putting on tefillin, the Jew becomes engaged to God. He renews each weekday morning his fidelity to the ancient romance consummated on Mount Sinai.  In an instant, the mitzvah of tefillin takes us back to the putative etymology of the word “religion,” from the Latin verb ligare, “to bind,” “to tie.” “Religion,” from ligare, “to tie again” or “to tie back,” is to restore the bond, to tie oneself to the root that nourishes.  


In Judaism, the bond or band that ties man to God is a covenant. The Jew wakes each day to an old love affair beckoning to be renewed.

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