Jesus and Hebrew Wedding Imagery

This is a February 2022 rewrite and expansion of a post I wrote in January 2013, entitled “The Bride of Messiah”.

I grew up in a fundamentalist, “King James only”, Baptist denomination, in churches in New Mexico, Texas and Florida. I love my old pastors and my fellow church members, and I still agree with them on most fundamental issues. Not everything, but I’m not going to mention their name and insult them. These days I rarely use the King James, because I think there are more reliable translations, but that’s not the question here, and I will use it for this post.

I’m going to concentrate here on one particular issue. I consider myself to be a Biblical literalist, but I think that there are many places in scripture that aren’t meant to be read literally. Hebrew writers often used poetic imagery and symbolism to convey truth about God: His attributes, His will, His promises (positive and negative) and yes, His wrath. A consistent and realistic Hermeneutic (principles of Biblical interpretation) must be used to differentiate between the literal and the figurative. Most conservative Biblical scholars and knowledgeable students of Scripture understand this, but few over the last 2,000 years are really equipped to apply the understanding. This is largely due to the way Jews and their writings have been marginalized in the Church.

As a somewhat trivial example of this lack of understanding, many years ago when I was a young associate pastor at a church in Texas, my Senior Pastor and I had an ongoing, friendly argument about Biblical anthropopathism. His view was that, despite the fact that God is a Spirit, “Scripture clearly states that God has hands…

Luke 23:46 (KJV)
[46] And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.

…and wings.”

Ruth 2:12 (KJV)
[12] The LORD recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust.

My own view is that God and His angels have no bodily form at all, and that such scriptures are illustrations of God’s loving and tender care for His people. When they heard these sayings, ancient Jews, immersed in the cultural milieu of their society, would not misunderstand the symbolic content. For 21st Century Christians, misled by centuries of antipathy towards Judaism, it’s not so simple!

Another example of Biblical symbolism is found in the parables (sing. mashal, Heb. and parabole, Gr.) told by Old Testament prophets, by New Testament-era sages, and by Jesus Himself. These stories were not themselves true but were illustrations of truth told in ways that could not be misunderstood by the hearers—or, in many cases could be understood only by “insiders” in the audience.

A form of implicit (not explained, but obvious to the hearers) symbolism that I want to discuss here was used by Jesus over and over again in His discussions with His Disciples about what we today refer to as the Rapture, and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb: Jewish wedding imagery.

The Old Testament often depicts God as the husband of His wife, Israel. Similarly, the New Testament depicts Jesus as a groom, and the Church as His betrothed bride. Betrothal was much different among 1st Century and earlier Jews than it is among American Christians. To us it is a proposal to enter into a contract at a later date. To them, it was the contract itself. What we today call a “wedding ceremony” was to them simply the last stage of a process that often lasted for months. Jesus often referred to steps in this process to symbolically illustrate His mystical relationship with the Church:

Shopping for a bride. Today in The West, we regard an ideal marriage as an emotional union between a mutually attracted couple. In traditional Judaism, and in most of the non-Jewish Eastern world, even today, it was a financial transaction between families, often made when the couple were small children. In some cultures, a dowery was paid by the bride’s family. Sometimes this amounted to, “I’ll pay you to take this useless female off my hands”, but mostly it was a realistic understanding that a healthy adult female was of more practical value to a good husband than to her birth family. In other cultures, including the Jewish tradition, wives were highly valued, and money or goods flowed the other way. A “bride price” was paid by the groom’s family to acquire a coveted prize for their son and to compensate her family for the loss of a valuable and beloved asset. I have read many Christian opinions that Jewish men despise their women, but that is not and never was a true generalization, despite suggestions of “proof” to the contrary. Perhaps a subject for a future post…

A Jewish man’s marriage was usually arranged by his father, in negotiation (called the shidduch) with the prospective bride’s father. Sometimes other family members, including the subject children themselves, were included. In later history, a professional matchmaker (a shadchan) was sometimes employed as a go-between, as illustrated in the movie Fiddler on the Roof. Usually, both fathers wanted nothing as much as the happiness of their children. After the exchange of a generous bride price, the families would cooperate, sometimes for years, in preparing the two young people for their eventual life together.

Jesus’ father arranged His marriage in eternity past. He paid a heavy bride price for us—we were bought with the most precious coin on earth, the groom’s own blood. Having been chosen, our entire lives from the time we were formed in our mothers’ wombs has been preparation for our marriage to the Lamb of God.

The betrothal, or erusin. When the time came for betrothal, the two families would gather in the house of the bride’s father. The groom would bring the ketubah, an ornate written marriage contract, and his father would bring a flask of wine. The father would pour a cup and hand it to his son. The son would then hold it out to the bride, saying, “By offering this cup, I vow that I am willing to give my life for you.” Then, it was up to the bride. She could refuse the cup, and if so, the wedding agreement was canceled, and the bride price refunded. If she took the cup and drank, she was signifying that she in turn was willing to give her life for him. The betrothal was thus sealed. Once sealed, the two lived apart for a time, but were considered to be legally married and only a death or legal divorce could dissolve the ketubah. When Mary was “found to be with child”, it was grounds for divorce. Joseph’s thought to “put her away privily” (Mt 1:19, KJV) simply meant that he planned to divorce her privately, rather than to denounce her and shame her in public.

When Yeshua offered the cup of redemption at His final Passover Seder, He was telling us that He was willing to give His life for us. We who have accepted that cup have said in return that we are willing to give our own lives for Him. Our betrothal has been sealed, and God’s Torah is our ketubah.

Building the bridal suite. A Jewish house was often a large compound built around a central courtyard. This housing compound, called in Greek an insula, was home to the patriarchal extended family, often with several generations of sons in residence. The central living area was the quarters of the family patriarch and his wife. As each young man of the household was betrothed, he would simply build another room on to the house for his own new family. Once the betrothal cup was accepted, the groom would recite to his newly betrothed traditional words to the effect that

John 14:2-3 (KJV)
[2] In my Father’s house are many mansions [Gr. mone: more often rooms, abodes, or dwelling places]… I go to prepare a place for you.
[3] And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.

Upper class Judean family homes, or insulae, as depicted in a model of First Century Jerusalem, on Mt. Hertzl, Jerusalem. Photo ©2008, Ron Thompson.

It is an interpretive mistake to picture Jesus as honing up His carpentry skills in heaven and building a physical house, let alone a mansion, for each of His followers. He was simply using the poetic beauty of the ritual to stress the surety that He will return for His bride, the Church!

Progress on the new home. Each day between the betrothal and the marriage supper, the groom’s father would inspect his progress on the dwelling, and eventually he, not his son, would set a date for the wedding. If you were to ask the toiling groom when his wedding was scheduled to occur, he could not give you an answer.

Matthew 24:3-4,36 (KJV)
[3] And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? [4] And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you…
[36] But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.

Each of Jesus’ hearers, being well-schooled in the important customs of the day, would have recognized the symbolism in verse 36. Once again this is ritual language, and therefore not necessarily a literal warning that it is completely useless to propose a date for the Rapture. I don’t know the year of the Rapture, but I firmly believe it will take place on some not-too-distant Day of Trumpets! (See also The Fall Feasts and the Rapture.)

Waiting for a summons by the groom. Meanwhile, the bride would wait expectantly, always prepared for the groom’s return, but not knowing on what day to expect him. Her attendants would stay with her each night, for weeks or even months. When the groom came with his own attendants to “kidnap” the bride and her attendants and take them from her home to his, he would arrive around midnight, with no advance warning. It would be a major scandal if the bride or any of her attendants were caught unprepared. This is what we see depicted in Jesus’ Parable of the Ten Virgins:

Matthew 25:1-13 (KJV)
[25:1] Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.
[2] And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.
[3] They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:
[4] But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.
[5] While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.
[6] And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.
[7] Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.
[8] And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.
[9] But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.
[10] And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.
[11] Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.
[12] But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.
[13] Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

The bridal procession and the consummation. As soon as the procession reached the groom’s home that night, the bride and groom would retreat immediately to the privacy of their new quarters. The guests would wait expectantly while the groom’s chief attendant stood outside the door and listened for the voice of the groom, announcing consummation of the marriage. This would signal the beginning of the week-long “marriage supper.” Jesus referred to this celebration of great joy in

John 3:29 (KJV)
[29] He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.

The wedding supper, or nissuin. This joyous, but to us uncomfortable, custom of celebrating a consummated marriage by pigging out at a 7-day party—was exemplified in the Gospels by the wedding feast in Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. It also symbolically represents the 7-year Wedding Supper of the Lamb, a celebration to be held in heaven while on earth the Tribulation is in progress.

Revelation 19:7-9 (KJV)
[7] Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.
[8] And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.
[9] And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith unto me, These are the true sayings of God.

Sometimes traditional Christian interpretations of scripture suffer from an ignorance of the customs that underlie them. Honest theology requires an attempt to understand the Jewish origins of our faith. Many times, those seemingly ambiguous or “strange” references in the Biblical narrative become clear once the culture is understood.

Author: Ron Thompson

Retired President of R. L Thompson Engineering, Inc.

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