This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Bible: Mirror of God or idolatry?

It’s hard to tell which makes Christians more nervous — talking about God in the language of sex (Hosea) or talking about sex in the context of God (Song of Songs).

Meghan Good

The Book of Hosea makes sexual infidelity a primary metaphor for the divine-human relationship. Survivors of abuse by an intimate partner point out how easily the loaded language surrounding such a metaphor may be distorted, to great harm.

Song of Songs, for its part, breaks disconcertingly into the middle of the canon with an exchange between young lovers so blatantly erotic that it wasn’t permitted to be read, in some Jewish communities, by anyone under 30. For almost 2,000 years, the primary approach by both Jews and Christians was to treat the book as an allegory for the passion between God and Israel or between Christ and the church. Modern scholars are quick to note how such an approach disregards the apparent authorial intent.

Despite legitimate concerns surrounding interpretation of both books, I can’t help but wonder if the biblical writers and early interpreters might not have been onto something significant in their intuition that the church and the bedroom are somehow theologically intertwined.

Gen. 2:24 refers to marital intimacy as the union of two “becoming one flesh.” This alludes to the mystery of two covenanted partners bound together in an act (and a life) of mutual self-giving. But Christians might also hear resonances of an even greater mystery: the Trinity, united eternally in mutual devotion, self-giving and perfect fidelity. At its best, the intimacy expressed between two human partners thus gestures toward a dynamic always at work within the very being of God.

But Scripture itself goes even further, suggesting that (again, at its best) the intimacy between two human beings actually forms a dim but real mirror of the future union between God and God’s beloved people. Paul makes this suggestion explicitly in Ephesians 5 when, in the midst of a discussion of marriage, he quotes Gen. 2:24 (“two will become one flesh”) and then immediately clarifies, “but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

Hosea’s image of “divine seduction” turns out to be no biblical anomaly. Isaiah and Jeremiah draw on similar pictures. Revelation depicts the church as the Bride of Christ. Jesus himself often tells stories where the kingdom is a wedding and he the bridegroom.

As uncomfortable as it might make 21st-century readers, Scripture cannot seem to shake the suspicion that the passionate, mutual self-giving of covenanted intimacy might just be one of the clearest pictures we get on Earth of the far greater union that is our destiny and the true end of human life.

Jesus says in Luke 20:35 that in the resurrection there will be no marriage. This is a troubling thought to some. But the reason marriage is gone in the resurrection is that when the kingdom comes in fullness we will finally receive the gift to which our present unions point. But the present is only a faint shadow of the future perfect intimate communion with Christ and with each other — an eternity of joyful participation in the endless flow of self-giving and other-receiving love already taking place in the heart of the Trinity.

Sex is a mirror. One way or another, it always reflects beyond itself. It either reflects the true God, or it reflects idolatry. Hosea and Song of Songs invite us to stop and ask what image we are mirroring. Is it the self-giving, nonviolent passion Christ has for the church? Is it his unrelenting patience, his fidelity, his joy?

Meghan Larissa Good is pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church.

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