Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Lecture 5
SEXUAL IMAGERY: THE BRIDE AND THE BRIDEGROOM (Part 1)
& THE GREAT WHORE AND THE FORGIVEN HARLOT (Part 2)
We've been looking at various categories of Biblical imagery: the paradisal and then, below that, the organization of the animal world. The first gives us the garden of Eden, and the second the pastoral world, more particularly the sheepfold. Of course, pastoral and garden imagery have overlapped, both in Biblical and secular literature, all through the history of human imagination. It's easy to see in such things as the 23rd Psalm, 'The Lord is my shepherd', how the pastoral ideal and the paradisal ideal really blend together and form the same thing.
I'll be filling out various stages of this table as we come to them. There is, however, the intervening category of the human world, which is a much more complicated one. Now if we ask what is the ideal human form for existence, we find that there is no simple or single answer, because our answers keep shuttling between a social ideal and an individual one. That is, the human ideal is a paradoxical mixture of a belonging and an escape.
According to Jean Paul Sartre, 'hell is other people', but I'm not sure that Sartre wanted to spend the whole of eternity by himself. Similarly, Andrew Marvell can write a poem, 'The Garden', in which he suggests that the fall of man really began when a stupid and blundering God created Eve in order to be a companion for Adam. And as he says, 'Two Paradises 'twere in one/To live in Paradise alone'. But you cannot think of a human ideal consistently either in social terms or in individual ones. So we seem to be in a deadlock, and the only solution is that human life, like Greek nouns, seems to have a dual as well as a singular and a plural.
Thus we have the individual life, the sexual, erotic relation between two people, and the social. The sexual relation is given an emphasis in the Bible which, like so many things in the Bible, is unintelligible in anything but metaphorical terms. We are told that in the sexual relation, two people are actually the same person while remaining two people, which is not possible, but is therefore the cornerstone of Biblical imagery. Thus, the ideal of human life becomes an ideal in which the sexual relationship has become the pattern for the identification of the individual and the social.
The imagery of a wedding, of the union of the bridegroom and the bride, is one of Jesus' favorite images for the apocalyptic or ideal world. It is essential to realize that in this case, the bride is actually the entire body of Christian followers. In the Book of Revelation, this bride is identified with Jerusalem, or Israel, meaning the people of God.
That suggests, first of all, that sexual imagery has relatively little to do with the actual relations of men and women. Thus, in this relationship where Christ is the bridegroom and the bride is the people of Christ, it follows that Christ is symbolically the only male. He is also symbolically the only individual, the only person with a right to say 'I am'. That means that the souls of the people of God, whether they are souls of men or of women, are all symbolically female and make up a single bride figure.
Now again, metaphorical thinking is not logical thinking, and we have to proceed to make a series of identifications that we would find it hard to follow in other contexts. The Song of Songs is a series of wedding songs in which both the bridegroom and the bride are presented: they both have their songs. The opening verse says: 'The song of songs, which is Solomon's'. Now there is no more reason for ascribing the authorship of the Song of Songs to Solomon than there is for ascribing it to the Witch of Endor. But the poem is symbolically associated with Solomon because the symbolism expands from songs about a rural wedding where the bride is called 'sister', which is the conventional Oriental term for the loved one, into a symbolic wedding of the king with the land over which he rules.
That is why the bride describes herself as 'black but comely': that is, she represents the black fertile soil of the land. We are told that her body is to be compared to various aspects of the country: her nose, for example, is 'as the tower of Lebanon that looketh towards Damascus', which might seem to be a rather doubtful compliment to a bride whose charms were less symbolic. But the wedding of the king and the fertile land is an image for what the word 'testament' itself indicates. The word that we translate as 'testament', which is berith in Hebrew and diatheke in Greek, means a covenant or a contract, specifically the contract between God and his people Israel. So that Solomon and his bride, the Shulamite woman of the Song of Songs, expand by a further range of symbolism into the relationship of God and his people, which is why in Christian typology the Song of Songs was interpreted as a song of the love of Christ for his bride, his people. Of course, Christianity was a big city religion which expanded from one city to another, and consequently the image of the black fertile land is not as immediate in Christianity as it is in Judaism. But the same symbolic shape is nevertheless there.
If you look at Isaiah 62:4, you see the same prophecy being applied to the restored Israel: 'Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken, neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah: for the Lord delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married'. 'Married' is the meaning of the word 'Beulah'. And the image of the land married to its king expands into the image of the people of God married to its God.
In the demonic world, the demonic counterpart of the bride would be the figure described in the Book of Revelation as the Great Whore, and the male figure of whom she is the mistress would be the figure who in the New Testament is described as Antichrist, the figure opposed to Christ. Just as the bride is identified with Jerusalem, so the Whore would be identified with the heathen city of Babylon.
In Revelation 17:2, she is the figure, 'With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication'. And then in verse 5: 'And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots'. And later on, in verse 9, she is associated with seven mountains which are clearly the seven hills of Caesarean Rome, so that Babylon and the Rome of the persecuting Caesars are symbolically the same demonic city, where the power opposed to that of Christianity is established.
It's important perhaps to realize that the word 'whore' in the Bible almost always refers to a theological and not a sexual irregularity. One person who is associated with whores in the Old Testament is Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, and that is not because she is supposed to have cuckolded King Ahab—the narrator of Kings could hardly have cared whether she did or not—but because she introduced the worship of Baal into Israel.
The reason for the epithet, apart from the symbolic contrast to bride, is not just that it's abusive, but that it has a more specific reference to the custom in Canaanite religion of maintaining prostitutes in the temple, which is a practice that the Israelites in Deuteronomy are forbidden to have anything to do with, but which was obviously extremely familiar to them. Tamar, for example, in Genesis, disguises herself as a cult prostitute in order to get back her inheritance as a forsaken wife. The story would be unintelligible if the practice were not familiar to Israel as well as to the surrounding nations.
Antichrist in his turn is the secular ruler. And as a society grows from a tribal community into a nation and from a nation into an empire, the ruler of the empire tends to think of himself as the ruler of the world. The Bible does not regard the world ruler as necessarily an evil person, but he rules over the kind of world in which, sooner or later, one of his descendents is going to become so. Jesus' axiom about spiritual and temporal authority, 'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's', runs into a difficulty as soon as Caesar begins to claim what is due only to God, that is, divine worship. It's only when he does that that he becomes the Antichrist figure referred to both in one of Paul's letters and in the Book of Revelation itself.
In the Book of Revelation, the Antichrist is characterized by a cipher, the number 666. Ciphers of that kind usually turn on the fact that the letters of the alphabet were also used as numbers: and there has never been a cipher in history solved as often as that one has been. It has been solved in Hebrew; it has been solved in Greek; and it's been solved by Robert Graves in Latin. And it always spells out the name of Nero, who is the type of the persecuting emperor. He was the first emperor to institute a persecution of Jews and Christians, according to Tacitus, in order to have somebody to blame for the burning of Rome. And although the author of Revelation probably lived under a later emperor, Nero is still the type. As the type, he is spiritually, that is, metaphorically, identical with other persecuting figures in the bible, such as Antiochus—who is the villain in the Book of Daniel—the Pharaoh of the Exodus, and Nebuchadnezzar.
There is a more comprehensive picture of female figures in the Bible that we might look at at this point. I have been dividing images into the apocalyptic, or ideal, and the demonic. Those are a contrast. There are also intermediate figures, who represent human nature in the sense that they are neither wholly evil nor wholly ideal, but are imperfect figures undergoing the process of redemption. You can divide the female figures of the Bible into two groups, the maternal and the marital, that is, the mother figures and the bride figures.
The ideal maternal figures include the Virgin Mary and a mysterious woman who appears at the beginning of Revelation 12, and who is said to be a woman 'clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars'. She is a queen of Heaven, like so many maternal goddesses, but she is also described as the mother of the Messiah, like the Virgin Mary. So there are really three accounts of the birth of the Messiah in the New Testament: the one in Matthew, which has the wise men and Jesus born in a house; the one in Luke, the pastoral one, which has the shepherds and Jesus born in a manger; and this account in chapter 12, which is so obviously mythical and metaphorical that it has never succeeded in getting on our Christmas cards.
In the intermediate, or analogical, category you have the specifically human mother, who of course is Eve, 'our general mother', as Milton calls her, the representative of humanity going through sin and redemption; and also Rachel, who, though only one of the wives of Jacob or Israel, is symbolically the mother of Israel and is so referred to in Matthew in connection with the Slaughter of the Innocents. Ideal bride figures would then include the bride of the Song of Songs and the Jerusalem bride, who appears at the end of the Book of Revelation, chapter 21, where it is said that she is 'the holy city, the New Jerusalem, descending to earth as a bride adorned for her husband'.
Now there doesn't appear to be a demonic maternal figure, but this blackboard demands one. We often find that if the Bible does not supply what is needed diagrammatically, it will invariably be supplied by later legend. So later legend obliged by constructing the figure of Lilith. Lilith is mentioned in Isaiah 34:14—the King James version calls her a 'screech owl', which is one of the bad things that the Authorized Version is continually doing, that is, making rationalized translations. But in later legend, Lilith became the first wife of Adam. There are two accounts of creation in the Book of Genesis, and the effort to reconcile those two accounts wound up by giving Adam two wives, the first one being Lilith and the second Eve. Lilith, we are told, was the mother of all the demons and the fallen angels. Being that, she had a very flourishing career in Romantic literature: she appears in Goethe's Faust, and as the heroine of a romance of George MacDonald, and in many other places.
The demonic marital figure is of course the Great Whore of Revelation, identified with Babylon as the other bride is with Jerusalem, and with such Old Testament prototypes as Jezebel introducing the cult of Baal. It follows therefore that there needs to be an intermediate marital figure, and that that intermediate figure would represent the human race going through the process of sin and redemption.
We have said that the word we translate 'testament' has the primary meaning of a covenant or contract between God and his people. The contract is represented as something drawn up with Israel by God's initiative. It is also represented as a contract which God could break but won't—because of his nature—but as a contract which man, strictly speaking, cannot break but is forever trying to break. So symbolically, the female figure of this category would be the Forgiven Harlot, the bride figure who is unfaithful to her Lord but who in spite of that is to be forgiven and brought back again. That harlot figure appears in various parts of the Old Testament, in Ezekiel for example, chapter 16, verse 3: 'Thus saith the Lord God unto Jerusalem: Thy birth and thy nativity is of the land of Canaan; thy father was an Amorite, and thy mother an Hittite . . .' and so on: the whole chapter goes on to describe the unfaithfulness and forgiveness of Jerusalem. The Canadian poet James Reaney has a poem called 'Rachel' which is in effect a very beautiful and very eloquent paraphrase of this chapter in Ezekiel. The same image turns up later in Hosea, where Hosea is ordered by God to marry two harlots, one after the other. These represent the apostasy of both north and south Israel.
The same figure turns up in the New Testament as the woman usually identified as Mary Magdalen. There is an anonymous woman in the 7th chapter of Luke described as a sinner whose sins are forgiven because 'she loved much'. Mary Magdalen appears in the next chapter of Luke, and is generally identified with her. A similar female, who has the same symbolic role whether she is the same person or not, has firmly established squatter's rights on the opening of the 8th chapter of John. She is actually a bit of floating folklore associated with Jesus, and in the early manuscripts she appears in various places. The modern translators of the Bible, who are much more distinguished for scholarship than for common sense, try to get her out of John 8 and put her in an appendix, but nevertheless she's still there. She represents perhaps one of the most eloquent and moving episodes of the gospel, the woman who, because she was a harlot, is condemned to be stoned to death. Jesus interferes and suggests that those who have never committed any sins at all might take the lead in throwing the stones. Hence, in paintings of the Crucifixion, you usually see the cross of Christ flanked by two female figures, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen, one in blue and the other in red.
In a polytheistic mythology, you can have the maternal figure and the bridal figure identified. That is, you can have a female goddess figure who is both the mother of a god and, later on, his mistress. You find that in the cults associated with dying gods in Mediterranean countries. And you have such counterparts as the relations, say, of the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus with the relations of Venus and Cupid in Classical mythology, where Venus is the mother of the God of Love and can also be a bride figure. In Christianity, however, the two figures of the mother and the bride obviously have to be separated, although they are still very close together symbolically. The bride of the Song of Songs for example is described as 'a garden inclosed' and 'a fountain sealed'. Or, as the Vulgate says, 'hortus conclusus, fons signatus'. And the 'garden inclosed' and the 'fountain sealed' have always been traditionally identified with the Virgin Mary, who from one symbolic point of view is the bride of the Holy Spirit as well as the mother of the Logos. We are also told that Christ is the Son of a Father who is a spiritual Father, and that his death reconciles man with the Father.
Now if you constructed a demonic parody of all that, you would get something very close to the story of Oedipus, who kills his father and makes a wife out of his mother. The status of the Oedipus story as a kind of demonic parody of the Christian story was striking enough for the poet Yeats to construct an elaborate theory of history according to which civilizations of Oedipus and civilizations of a Christ figure alternate all through time, one being tragic and heroic, the other comic and altruistic. But it's perhaps easier to see the Oedipus story as either a demonic parody of the Christian story, as it is in some aspects, or as an intermediate analogy of it, as it is in certain other aspects. In the story of the creation of Adam for example, the older story which begins in the 2nd chapter of Genesis, the Yahwist account as it's called, Adam is made from a female, adamah, or mother earth. And when, after the Fall, he goes back to the ground from which he was taken, he returns to that earth-mother after making the break with his Father. So the Oedipus legend is not quite removed from the story of Adam itself.
This account of the human symbolism in the Bible is of course closely linked to the account of city symbolism, because the city is the emblem of the people or the group. So if you go to the urban image, you have Jerusalem on the one side and Babylon on the other. That brings us up again against the question of the ambiguity between the social image and the individual image.
Now there's another dimension of this relation of the social to the individual which we've already run into. We saw that the paradisal imagery of the Bible is in the first place a garden and in the second place a single tree, a tree of life. That leads to a general principle of imagery in the Bible, to a special kind of metaphor where the individual is identified with the class or group of things to which it belongs. That is the type of metaphor that I sometimes call a royal metaphor, because it underlies one of the most pervasive of human institutions, the institution of kingship. We've already seen how the king, Solomon, inevitably interposes himself in the symbolic expansion of the Song of Songs. Similarly, Elizabeth II can draw crowds wherever she appears, not because there is anything remarkable about her appearance, but because she dramatizes the metaphor of society as a single body. That has been the function of the king in all ages, to represent in an individual form the unity of his society.
The corporate or class image, like the city, would also be, on the principles of this royal metaphor, identified with a single building. That building would most naturally be the house consecrated to the city's god, in other words, the temple. Thus the city is the bride and the Temple is the bridegroom.
We are told several times in the Gospels that the Temple is to be identified with the body of Christ. In the Gospels, Jesus is represented as saying 'Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up'. The narrator adds that he was speaking of the temple of his body. The author of Revelation, in describing the New Jerusalem, is very emphatic that there was no Temple therein, because, as he explains, the place of the Temple has been taken by the body of God. There is, consequently, in this metaphorical symbolism, the unity of the bridegroom and the bride in which all the buildings of the city are one building, the house of many mansions. And the corresponding demonic image is of course the Tower of Babel.