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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 61, 2013

SEBASTIAN R. SMOLARZ, Covenant and the Metaphor of Divine Marriage in Biblical Thought: A Study with Special Reference to the Book of Revelation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011). Pp. x + 393. Paperback. US$44.00.

This is an ambitious study in biblical theology. Not only does Sebastian Smolarz thoroughly address the metaphor of divine marriage in Ancient Near East culture, the Old Testament Prophets, Jewish non-canonical literature and much of the New Testament, but in the process he finds time to address significant critical issues about Jesus’ parables, the dating of the Book of Revelation and the use of the Old Testament by New Testament writers.

Clearly, the author’s main interest is the Book of Revelation. The opening sentence in the monograph states, “The main concern of this volume is the theme/metaphor of divine marriage as found in the book of Revelation” (1) and it is with this that he starts and finishes, discussing “The Old Testament as the Basis of the Book of Revelation” (Chapter 1) and “The Metaphor of Divine Marriage in the Book of Revelation” in the final chapter of 137 pages. Chapter 1 surveys the main views and areas of contention on the use of the Old Testament in Revelation that have emerged over the past few decades.

The following chapters are designed to lead into the discussion about divine marriage in Revelation. Smolarz discusses marriage customs and the concept of divine marriage in the Ancient Near East generally and the Old Testament particularly (Chapter 2). This includes an interesting discussion of dowry and “bride price,” which Smolarz picks up later as a metaphor for Jesus’ redemptive death (371–72). Then he considers the idea of divine marriage in the OT Prophets, including a detailed discussion of Hosea and a briefer consideration of Jeremiah, Second Isaiah and Ezekiel (Chapter 3), concluding that the nature of divine marriage here is based on God’s covenant with Israel, and Israel’s unfaithfulness, rather than sexual relations among gods. This is followed by a discussion of Jewish non-canonical literature (Chapter 4), including Qumran literature, Midrashim, 1 Enoch and Joseph and Aseneth, arguing that this literature offers little help in understanding the transition from OT covenant ideas to the NT idea of Christ as the church’s bridegroom.

In Chapter 5, Smolarz turns to the canonical Gospels. After an extended discussion of interpretation of Jesus’ parables (124–43), he goes on to metaphorical references to marriage in Mark 2:18–20 (the pericope about fasting), Matt 22:1–14 (the wedding banquet parable), Matt 25:1–13 (the parable of the ten maidens) and John 3:27–30 (John the Baptist’s testimony), drawing on probable references to Second Isaiah in particular and concluding that “it was Jesus himself who first used and applied the metaphor of divine marriage in the NT, but that he did so in terms of his contemporary Jewish beliefs based on the OT” (186), that is to say, in terms of covenant renewal, return from exile and “theology of fulfilment.”

Next Smolarz considers the metaphor of divine marriage in Paul (Chapter 6). After explaining his criteria for selecting certain passages for attention, he discusses several passages in the undisputed Pauline letters (2 Cor 11:1–6; Gal 4:21–5:1; Rom 7:1–6, 9:25–29) and the famous passage in Eph 5:21–33. He argues that Paul held to a fulfilment perspective and that he used the Isaianic remnant theme and the Exodus to redefine Israel and apply the divine mar-riage idea to the church.

Finally, Smolarz is ready to discuss Revelation (Chapter 7). The discussion begins with some of the standard topics: the genre and form of Revelation, its sitz im leben, and its structure. Smolarz argues strongly for an early date and focus on the Jewish war of 66–70, as opposed to the majority scholarly view that dates the book in the 90s and sees its focus as Rome. He then analyses references to the divine marriage metaphor, beginning with explicit instances (Rev 19 and 21–22), then moving to likely instances (Rev 17–18, parts of Chapters 2–3,12 and 14) and finally to echoes of the metaphor (Rev 1:5, 13–16, parts of Chapters 2–3, 5–8, 11, 13, 15–16 and 20). In other words, nearly every chapter has at least an “echo” of the divine marriage metaphor. The chapter concludes with an affirmation that Revelation uses this metaphor to proclaim the replacement of the old covenant, due to Israel’s unfaithfulness and rejection of Messiah, and the victory of the bride, revealed in the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE.

The final chapter reviews the argument of the book as a whole, concluding that “the covenantal perspective, together with its expectation of a new exodus, is an indispensable tool to a more consistent interpretation of Revelation’s concepts” (370–71) and that :the main conflict of Revelation concerns two juxtaposed women: the Bride of Christ and the harlot, representing the corrupted Jerusalem system” (371).

There are many good insights in this book, especially on the OT background to Revelation, but its argument on Revelation is weakened by a relatively narrow range of discussion partners, often largely Reformed scholars who hold to a specific form of preterist interpretation of Revelation and their opponents, with insufficient attention to the work on the metaphor of divine marriage in Revelation done by Catholic scholars such as Donal McIlraith. Another result of Smolarz’s focus on proving a specific historical referent for the text is that the influence of the divine marriage theme on the structure of Revelation is not considered.

The book finishes with an extensive bibliography but there are no indexes of authors, subjects, and Scripture references, which will annoy many readers grappling with a book of this length.

Review by
Head of Biblical Studies and Research at Harvest Bible College, Melbourne