by Al Janssen
If God really got married, the log
ical question is, “When?” Did I miss the wedding ceremony somewhere? The answer emerged when I learned about an ancient ceremony used between two nomadic tribes to make a peace treaty or to promise a boy and girl in marriage. The fathers would slaughter a goat or other animal, cut the carcass in half, and then at sundown walk barefoot through the blood path. The slaughtered animals symbolized what would happen to either party if they violated the terms of the agreement.
This was the ceremony God chose to use when he entered into a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. God asked Abram to take a heifer, a goat and a ram, plus a dove and a young pigoen, and slaughter them. But there was an unusual twist in this ceremony. While Abraham and his descendents were committed to this covenant with God, only God walked the blood path, thereby signifying that if Israel violated the agreement, God would pay the price with His own blood.
Technically, Abram and his descendants weren’t married to God in the same sense that we understand a wedding ceremony today. It would be more accurate to say they were betrothed, which means that they were promised to each other. It is the same for Christ and His bride, the church. The wedding feast celebrating this marriage remains in the future at the wedding supper of the Lamb.
In our culture, couples are first engaged — they declare their intent to marry — but either party may back out before the wedding day, and there is no legal consequence for breaking an engagement. Such was not the case with betrothal. A betrothal was an ironclad contract that could be severed only by unfaithfulness or death. Though a couple might not celebrate and consummate their marriage for years, legally they were still considered married.
Such was the case with Joseph and Mary when she was found with child by the Holy Spirit. If a girl who was betrothed was found not to be a virgin before the wedding feast, when the marriage was consummated, she could be executed. This explains why Joseph, upon hearing that Mary was pregnant, decided not to make a public spectacle of his wife but to put her away privately — that is, until God spoke to him and revealed the identity of the child in her womb.
I wonder what the impact was on the children who witnessed a covenant sealed in blood by their fathers. Though they might hardly know each other, and indeed it might be years before they were ready to celebrate the wedding, they surely understood the commitment being made. There was only one way to escape from this marriage — by death.
When a couple marries today, a lot of effort goes into the wedding. According to Bride’s magazine, when the average couple adds up the costs of a wedding dress, tuxedos, dresses for the bridesmaids, rings, invitations, flowers, music, photographer, wedding cake and reception, they spend more than $19,000.
When we were married, Jo was a poor schoolteacher and I was a poor writer. We had less than $1,000 for our wedding. Jo brilliantly maximized the reach of our limited budget by making her own wedding dress and soliciting help from friends and family for such things as food preparation.
A major element of our planning was the ceremony itself. We’d both attended many weddings, and the norm of the late seventies was for each couple to custom-design their ceremony.
In that spirit, Jo and I sat down one Sunday afternoon to write out our commitment to each other. We discussed what we were doing in marriage: pledging to be faithful, to take care of each other, to support one another during good times and hard times. We scribbled several drafts, but none of them captured the right tone.
Finally, we settled on the following:
"I Al take thee, Jo, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health ’til death do us part."
"I Jo take thee, Al, to be my lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health ’til death do us part."
Those words or a slight variation of them have served Christians for centuries, and we couldn’t find anything that better expressed what we were committing to each other. They expressed the vows we were making — an irrevocable commitment to each other with God as our witness.
Today most people don’t understand what covenant means. Our culture is built on contracts, and everyone knows that a crackerjack lawyer can find a loophole if you really want out. So contracts get longer and longer as the parties try to close all possible loopholes, but litigation increases because people change their minds and want release from their agreements.
One contract that is increasing in usage is the prenuptial agreement. A covenant is not at all like a prenuptial agreement. For one thing, there is no escape clause. In ancient times, a covenant was a legal agreement, but with two major differences from contracts today. A covenant was made before deity. And the penalty for breaking it was death. People might negotiate out of contracts, but not out of a covenant.
The covenant between God and Abraham was more binding than a wedding certificate is today. God impressed on Abraham the importance of the covenant: “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you.” While Abraham didn’t walk the blood path, there was a symbol of his acceptance of the agreement. The proof of Abraham’s commitment was that he and every male descendant was circumcised (Genesis 17:9-14).
But in the covenant of blood, God traveled the blood path alone. By doing so, he said that if Abraham or any of his descendants violated this contract, God would pay the price with His own blood. There would come a day when God would heroically have to keep that promise.
For centuries in liturgical churches the service of holy matrimony has been clearly spelled out word for word. As I read several liturgies, I was struck by the similarities between the church service of holy matrimony and the biblical concept of covenant.
For example, the marriage service is conducted before God. Historically a covenant was always a religious ceremony, made before God or gods as witnesses. It was the one treaty between enemies that was enforceable, because neither party was willing to risk the wrath of their deity.
In the English Book of Common Prayer (1662), a wedding service begins with the minister addressing the congregation: "Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God…to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony." Again and again, the couple and witnesses are reminded that God is witness to this union.
Second, a covenant had witnesses. Likewise, the marriage vows are made before human witnesses. Why is that important? A pastor I know challenged a friend who had just announced he was leaving his wife of six years. "Oh no you’re not!" said the pastor. "You made a vow to love your wife until death. I know. I was there and I heard you. Now you stay with her and work things out." The man was shocked, but he stayed, and today their marriage is much healthier. I wonder what would happen if, like this pastor, more witnesses challenged couples to fulfill their wedding vows.
Third, both a covenant and a traditional marriage ceremony declared the seriousness of the commitment. In The Book of Common Prayer, the minister utters these words in his opening exhortation to the congregation and the couple standing before him: "Holy Matrimony…is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men; and therefore is not by any to be enterprised…unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God."
Recently, as I reflected on the vows Jo and I exchanged at our wedding, I was struck by the one-sidedness of our commitment. There were no qualifiers or disclaimers. I had promised to love Jo for better or worse until death, regardless of her actions or attitude. Likewise, Jo promised to have me for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, for as long as we both shall live, regardless of how well or poorly I behaved. No doubt we both assumed we would reciprocate in our love for each other. However, our vows said nothing about being loved back. By our words, each of us assumed 100 percent responsibility for the marriage. That’s the nature of covenant. Each party makes an irrevocable vow.
Fourth, something of great value was exchanged. God wanted to give Abraham and his descendents a country, but He did it in the context of family. Did Abraham realize he was actually getting the best end of the deal? He was entering into a long-term relationship with the God of the universe. The land was very important, but it wasn’t the most important thing — it was a symbol of the value of their relationship.
I am impressed again by the nature of the exchange in the traditional marriage service. It particularly struck me when I read the words uttered by the husband when he places the wedding ring on his wife’s finger: "With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” In other words, the husband gave everything he had to his wife, including his body and his earthly possessions. No longer were there his or her possessions. Everything was theirs. Why is this important? Because in giving our all, we actually gain what we want.
Permanence of Marriage
Obviously millions of couples chafe under the idea of covenant, feeling that the permanence fences them in. But Jo and I feel secure within these boundaries. Without the possibility of divorce, Jo and I know that regardless of our problems, we will be there for each other. And when we disagree or fight, we had better figure out a way to resolve our differences, for we are going to be together for a very long time.