~ More on the Jewish Heritage ~
Without an understanding of first century Middle Eastern life, ethics and culture, we miss much of the wealth and power of Jesus’ parables and metaphors. We need to know about people’s relationship to their land, what “clean” and “unclean” truly meant, the ritual meaning of blood, how sheep flocks were managed, how a shepherd had to be a vet, a scout, tender nurturer and martial artist. (Wolves, wild dogs and robbing thugs were a constant threat.)
The Gospels and Book of Revelation lean heavily on the theme of mystical marriage, with Christ as the Bridegroom and His Church the Bride. So let’s consider the first century Jewish heritage of marriage, which concerns our spiritual life today.
A son’s father had the ultimate authority to determine who would be the wife, though the father may consult the son or his own wife. The son then approached the father of the selected woman, usually without her knowing it, to ask permission. If the woman’s father agreed, negotiations would go on for the bride-price. (See Genesis 34:12 or Exodus 22:16 for early examples.) The man needed to pay the father to compensate him for the loss of his daughter’s labor and as insurance in case she was widowed. The father, of course, would demand top dollar, and it would often take the man a while to meet the price. (Imagine the self-esteem boost the daughter would get when she later found out she was worth 10 goats and 2 oxen!) Instead of money, work or military conquests was the price. Jacob worked for Laban 14 years for Rachel (Genesis 29:30).
When the price was met, the daughter was notified and prepared a room with a betrothal meal, if she wanted to marry. The man would knock on her door and wait. If she was ready, the woman would open the door just a crack, which meant yes. The man was welcome to open the door and walk in, sit with the woman and share the meal, feeding each other and drinking wine from the same cup. This marked the covenant of unity and mutual devotion. Now betrothed, they were covenant bound, one as strong as marriage that could be broken only with a writ of divorce, although no sexual relations were permitted until the wedding. (That’s why Joseph considered quietly divorcing the pregnant but virgin Mary even though they were not married.)
The man then virtually left his betrothed for a year while he built a new home with the necessary furnishings. The woman would know when he was returning for her only as a range of time. She didn’t know what day, though it could be ten or more before her guess or ten or more after. The anticipation of that day was high and she had to be ready! And the time the bridegroom would come was midnight.
He would come in a large procession, with excited people running ahead to alert the bride. She was his and he had all prepared for the wedding feast, including proper clothing for the guests. The banquet typically lasted seven days.
Our contemporary weddings have remnants of the traditional Jewish ones, but vital elements are out of place and made meaningless or even silly instead of sacred. For example, the father still “gives the bride away,” but only ceremonially and at the wedding, rather than a year earlier under a sacred, binding covenant. Covenantal gestures are done after the wedding as fun, rather than before as a solemnity. Bride and groom may join hands to cut the wedding cake and feed each other a piece, but too often smashing the cake in each other’s faces, everyone courteously laughing as though it was still funny after seeing it done at wedding after wedding. Covenantal wine may be shared, but in separate glasses with arms linked. Makes for a cute photo, but not much else.
Often Jesus would announce, “the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast.” Of course He was referring to the first century customs, so we can recognize that the kingdom of heaven is nothing like engagements and weddings with which we are familiar.
God chose the bride for His Son. As one God in one Spirit, God loves us with infinite depths, romancing us with exquisite mountains, oceans, flowers, fragrances, grace and glory. God announced His bride-price to be His all. We are priceless in His eyes, so, in Christ, He “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness…He humbled himself and become obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:7-8, NIV). Christ has the permission of the Father to pursue us as His bride, the betrothal covenant sealed with His own pure blood, cleansing us of our impure blood. At His last Passover with His apostles, they ate from the same bread and drink from the same cup, and we continue in their steps.
Christ knocks on our door. When we open it just a crack, we are saying “yes, come in, I want to be yours forever.” He tells us that He is making a home for us, and “will come back and take you to be with me” (John 14:8). His Revelation through St. John tells us of the future day when “the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear” (Revelation 19:7b-8a). So we make ourselves ready.
We must wear the fine linen which will be provided. In a wedding parable, Jesus tells how someone was taken out from the banquet for not wearing the available wedding garments (Matthew 22:12-13). We must discard the clothing of our making.
In another wedding parable, Jesus tells how “at that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom… At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’… The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut…Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or hour” (Matthew 25:1-13).
God created the nation of Israel to present the Bridegroom to all the nations of the world for a great, old-fashioned Jewish marriage. This was done. Now we, the Bride, people of all nations who opened the door of our hearts upon hearing His knock, who are betrothed to our Beloved Redeemer, must prepare ourselves for the great wedding feast. “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city…I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (Revelation 22:14,16, NIV).
Let us keep our robes clean, keep watching, keep anticipating, and keep growing in our love for Him, by the grace and power of His Holy Spirit who has already made His home in us.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Weekly Reflections © June 8, 2002
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