Does the Old Testament teach that men are masters of their wives?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: Why is Israel compared to a woman who is God’s fiancée in Jeremiah 31:22? Does this mean a husband can treat his wife in a similar way that God treats Israel, as being sort of her master?

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries — and thank you for asking such an interesting question. I wish you had chosen another verse as your example, however.

You see, Jeremiah 31:22 is a notoriously difficult verse to interpret. The Benson Commentary speaks for many other commentaries when it says of this verse. “It is difficult to say, with any certainty, what this obscure passage means.” ... and I will emphasize the word “obscure” to let you know why I think this verse might not be the best one to cite in your question.

That being said, I take your point — but to a point. The Old Testament does indeed present Israel as God’s wife. But that is not equivalent to what we would mean by the terms “engagement” or “fiancé” today. For the ancient Jews, “betrothal” was more like already being in a marriage than what we would understand by people being engaged today. These notions are not direct equivalents across time and cultures.

With those disclaimers in place, however, your question stands: does the Old Testament imagery of God being a husband — and, therefore, “master” of his wife — apply to husband-wife relationships today? But let me put a finer point on this question: does this Old Testament imagery give biblical warrant for the subordination of women?

If I have missed your intention, feel free to re-query. But there are three reasons that I would answer no to this query.

First, Israel is not the Church. They are discrete biblical entities (Israel does not become the Church), and they each have their own marriage metaphors. In the Old Testament, Israel is God’s wife, and in the New Testament, the Church is the Bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7). So, although the Jews were — and the Christians are — known as “God’s people,” they are distinct by time and category.

Marriage was instituted by God, and it is the closest relationship that two human beings can have. It is natural, then, that God would use it multiple times to impress upon humans the dearness of our relationship to him. But, the Old Testament imagery is — epistemologically speaking — only a shadow of what was to come (Hebrews 10:1). So, we must be careful where we claim our warrant lies.

Therefore, although it’s tempting — and although it looks as though we have the right to do so — we should not confound the two marriage metaphors.

Second, God’s revelation is progressive. That is, he revealed his will to his people gradually, over time. The natural outfall of this is that contemporary people knew more of God’s will than their spiritual ancestors. But also, this means that contemporary people would be responsible to assess and obey the freshest iteration of his will. But what of the past?

When we look at how God worked among his people through the rearview mirror, we should remember that he always did the best things he could for his people at those points in time. But this means, what was “best” for God’s people of yore would not necessarily be the “best” for God’s people today. It might be... but it doesn’t have to be. For example, the law was good — but grace is better (Hebrews 11:40).

You see, we are (arguably) as far along in world history as God’s people can be before Christ returns. Jesus has already brought the kingdom of God to earth personally (Mark 1:15) … and while he was here, he died for our sins and God raised him from the dead! (Matthew 28:7). But there’s more: when he ascended to the Father, he sent the Holy Spirit to indwell us and be our helper (John 14:16); this instituted the “Church Age” (Acts 2).

What is perhaps most central to your question, though, is that we have the completed Scripture. Jesus often quoted from the Old Testament, and people who witnessed Jesus’ ministry and resurrection — and people like Paul who were specially ordained to the job — wrote the New Testament. Since God’s written revelation has been completed, do we need any more?

An argument can be made that signs, wonders and prophetic revelations, which were necessary to jump-start the embryonic Church, have ceased. If we have God’s written revelation in hand, there would be no further need for the types of revelation shared with the early Church. We now have all the information we need for faith and practice in the Bible.

That being said, we are responsible to understand and live our lives according to the entire corpus of the Bible — and this includes the Old Testament. But to do this, we must understand that things written to the ancient Jews were not written to us... although some things persist. (God still does not want us to murder or steal, and he still wants us to honor our parents, etc.… although all of it is for our edification.)

But, when weighing the New against the Old Testament, remember that the law was our guardian. (The AV translates this schoolmaster, Galatians 3:24). As New Testament believers, we should revere everything of God that went before. But when we build doctrine, we should give the greatest epistemological weight to the newest revelation… lest we continue sacrificing bulls and goats (Hebrews 10:4).

Third, as a general principle, you shouldn’t base doctrine on things like ancient poetry or shadows when newer and clearer information is available… and teaching that men are the “masters” (to use your word) in the husband/wife relationship is one of the clearest teachings in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:21-33; 1 Timothy 2:11-12)… and it is newer by six centuries and a covenant!

The teaching that wives should willingly subordinate themselves to their husbands — not because they are inferior — because they are not... is a clear instruction from Scripture. But men are not off the hook. That same teaching says that husbands are to love their wives as an example of how Christ loves the Church and gave himself for it. We are to model this through the male/female relationship until Jesus returns.

As you can see, the New Testament teachings on this are as clear as language can render them. Now, the Old Testament references are valid — and they should all be considered! (2 Timothy 3:16). But when it comes to presenting your case, adding less clear references to clear teachings can make the clear teachings less clear… depending on how you approach things. So, why risk it?

I pray that these perspectives have helped you sort through some different issues. God bless you.

 

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20210621 Husband and wife imagery in the Bible).

(For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at mainsailep@gmail.com. To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)