Jewish Wedding Imagery and the New Testament
Years ago, I was reading the Gospel of John chapter 2 verse 1, “On the third day a wedding took place,” and did a double take. I wondered, “Third day after what?” The chapter seems to begin by referencing an earlier event, but doesn’t say what that event is. So I assumed it referred to the events mentioned in chapter one. As I came to understand the scripture better, I questioned that assumption, since John’s Gospel doesn’t seem to have much of a chronology in the early chapters.1 Then I moved to Israel and learned Hebrew. One day I was reading the New Testament in the newly published Bible Society Hebrew translation and the light dawned. Although the ancient Gospel texts that we have are in Greek, the events themselves took place in a Hebrew or Aramaic speaking world. When I read the expression, “on the third day” in Hebrew, it suddenly made sense.
Jewish wedding imagery plays a significant role in our understanding of the New Testament. In the following description of Jewish weddings, I have interwoven thoughts and phrases that appear in each of these New Testament accounts to help make the connection clear between the imagery of weddings and the spiritual truths implied.
On the third day a wedding took place (John 2:1)
When I guide groups in Israel we pass near the region of Cana. At that point, it is my custom to conduct an exercise with my driver if he knows Hebrew and English, which almost all of them do. I ask in English, “How do you say, ‘on the third day’ in Hebrew’?” They respond in Hebrew, “B’yom Hashlishi.” Then I ask, “What does ‘B’yom HaShlishi’ mean in English. Usually after a moment’s pause they will say, “On Tuesday.” And they are correct. This exercise demonstrates an interesting and important point: The days of week in the First Century world of Jesus were simply numbers: First day, second day… Sabbath. So a phrase translated word-for-word as “on the third day” actually means, “on Tuesday.” I became convinced that John 2:1 should read “On Tuesday, there was a wedding” when I learned that in the time of Jesus, all Jewish weddings were on a Tuesday.2
First Century Jewish weddings: The engagement
A First Century Jewish wedding actually began about a year before the ceremony when the future couple made a formal engagement. This public engagement is as binding as a marriage, and cannot be broken, except by a legal divorce. Such a drastic action would only be taken if either party had been unfaithful during the engagement period. It is during this binding engagement period3 that Joseph finds out his future wife has been unfaithful—or so he and everyone else would have thought. The natural reaction would be to divorce her. Yet Joseph does not divorce her, knowing that if he divorces her, her life will be destroyed. The implications for Joseph are huge; if he does not divorce Mary for unfaithfulness, everyone in their little village will be certain that he is the responsible party. In other words, Joseph chooses to share Mary’s shame (as everyone views her) rather than rather than let her suffer the consequences of her (perceived) sin. I see in Joseph’s act a superb example of Christ, who chose to bore the shame due us for our sin that we might be released from its eternal consequences. No wonder the Bible refers to Joseph as “a righteous man” (Mt. 1:19).
First Century Jewish weddings: The House with Many Rooms
After the formal engagement, the groom returns to his father’s house and the bride returns to her home to make herself ready (Note Revelation 19:7). The bride prepares herself and remains faithful, waiting with anticipation for the appointed day. After the wedding, the new couple will move into one of the rooms of the multi-roomed insula type houses that were common in Galilee. Jesus’ saying John’s Gospel refers to this event, “In my father’s house are many rooms. I am going to prepare a place for you” (for the bride of Christ, Jn. 14:2). As bridegroom, Jesus brings his bride into the home, the very family, of the father.
First Century Jewish weddings: The bridegroom comes
The day of the wedding finally arrives! The wedding is an all-village event. Everyone has anticipated the coming of evening when the wedding will commence. As the sun sets, the bridal party awaits with oil lamps ready for the wedding procession. When evening fully comes, it is time for the groom to leave his father’s home and proceed with his party through the village, gathering villagers along the way. The noise of the procession increases as they approach the home where the bride eagerly awaits…
… BUT WHAT IF THE GROOM DELAYS?
Unthinkable! The sky gets darker and the village remains silent. The bride’s worst nightmare begins to unfold. No one could possibly expect this would happen. The longer the delay, the more the fear grows that he is not coming at all. And there is only one reason why the groom would not come: he is accusing his bride of being unfaithful. This is so unthinkable, it is no wonder that many in the bridal party would not think to provide an extra supply of oil for their lamps.
This cultural setting, the procession of the bridegroom to the home of the bride is the background to the parable of the ten virgins (Mt. 25:1-10). Jewish parables often have a twist or surprising element to them. We may easily have a wrong impression that they were deep sayings difficult to understand,4 but actually they are simple stories with a clear, easily understood message. They were also meant to be entertaining and very listenable, and a surprise element or an unexpected twist helped to sustain interest. This parable definitely has an unexpected twist: The groom delays? Shocking! Yet the basic message of the parable is simple and clear: BE PREPARED, no one knows the hour.
When I think of this parable, I think of events in China following World War II as communism took over the country. At that time there was a thriving church, and as darkness was sweeping over the land—the communist takeover—many in the church were convinced it was the time of the bridegroom’s coming. They had been taught that the church would be taken away from all difficulty and tribulation. Clearly, it was time for the bridegroom’s arrival, wasn’t it?
It wasn’t, of course. Many remained faithful to the Lord, forming underground churches and many suffered. Yet many fell away from the Lord because their faith was based on a theological position, a belief system, rather than on the person of Christ Himself, in His faithfulness and goodness. When their belief system was smashed, they had nothing left.
And so the message of the parable is clear: be prepared. But how is one to be prepared? We are the Bride of Christ, in the period of preparation before the wedding day. How does a bride prepare herself? The coming wedding is the focus of her life. She lives a life of purity and prepares everything necessary for the day in which the groom will come. In our case, the preparation involves the ongoing development of a relationship of love, and trust in the bridegroom . And what if He should delay His coming? We trust, for, come what may, He is faithful and will come.
1 This is especially true for chapter 2, which ends with Jesus casting the money changers out of the temple. That act would roughly be the equivalent of throwing a hand grenade at the white house; you might do it once, but you’d be arrested and never have a second chance. That event took place at the end of Jesus’ ministry. The writer of John may have reason for putting it in the second chapter, but not for the sake of accurate chronology of events.
2 This is because the third day of creation is the first in which it is written twice, “God saw that it was good.” Therefore the third day, Tuesday, is a good day for a wedding.
3 Only a man could write a certificate of divorce, but a woman could convince a rabbinic court to force the man to do so, having the same effect. For a further discussion and sources see Divorces By Jewish Women.
4 We can get that impression from Mt. 13:13. However that verse hints back to Isaiah chapter 6 and needs to be understood in that light.
© 2011 – David Miller