In the Old Testament, the Lord describes his relationship to Israel as that of a man to, variously, an infant daughter, a female foundling, a nubile young woman, a prostitute, a bride, a wife, the mother of his children, an unfaithful wife abandoned to rape and sexual humiliation, and a divorced, elderly wife whom he has remarried and taken back into his home. There is never the shadow of a doubt, however, that these relationships are metaphorical. The Lord has no divine spouse, and he has no sexual relations with any human being. He is celibate because he is the only one of his kind. This being the case, what does John mean to suggest when he calls God Incarnate a bridegroom?
Since there is no ordinary human bride on the scene, John may mean to suggest that Jesus, like God, is a metaphorical bridegroom. 'The Father loves the Son,' Jesus says, 'and has entrusted everything to his hands' (3:35)—everything, including Israel, his metaphorical bride. Yet because Jesus is a male human being, the use of the word bridegroom cannot fail to direct attention to his sexual potency and to raise the question of whether now might not be the moment when, through Jesus, God's celibacy might end. God is a species unto himself. God Incarnate belongs as well to the human species. He has undergone an ordinary human birth. Will he now enter an ordinary human marriage?
The celibacy of the Lord God initial had less to do with his relationship to women than with his relationship, as sovereign and sole creator, with time and with history. As noted earlier, God asserted his ascendancy over recurring time by creating the sun and moon by which days, months, and years are measured. Though he does not create this kind of time, he does contain it. He asserted his ascendancy over nonrecurring time—one unrepeatable event following another in a sequence of indefinite length—by once again creating that by which such time is measured: namely, human generation. The Old Testament measures nonrecurring, historical time genealogically. The nearest equivalent in classical Hebrew to the modern word history—and it is by no means a close equivalent—is toledot, 'generations.' Just as the God who created the sun and the moon is not himself implicated in any solar system, so also the God who created humankind male and female is not himself implicated in any process of sexual generation. Men and women reproduce; God creates.
Having neither progenitors nor offspring, God has, accordingly, no toledot, no generative history, except by vicarious participation in the generative history of his creatures or by metaphorical representation of his real relationship to them. He may be metaphorically their father. He may also be metaphorically their husband (he may even, though very rarely, be their wife). In reality, however, God is his own species, or his own genus, and it is a genus that does not reproduce.
But, to repeat, now that God has become man, now that he himself belongs to the species that he has created, does his relationship to toledot not change? Matthew and Luke go so far as to give his genealogy in detail. Though John provides no genealogy, his revision of God's relationship to toledot is more radical in another way, for he seems to assume that Jesus, though divine, has received his human nature in the ordinary way from a human father as well as a human mother. If God is now irretrievably involved in the life process of the human species by his human birth, why may he not allow himself the further involvement of a human marriage?
From the very earliest moments, Christian theology praised God for subjecting himself to ordinary human birth. If he had gone on from there to consummate an ordinary human marriage, would Christian theology have withheld its praise? Surely it would not have been difficult for such an action to be accommodated in, for example, the early Christian hymn celebrating
Who, being in the form of God,
Did not count equality with God
A thing to be clung to,
But emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave,
Being born as men are born.
And being in every way like a man,
He humbled himself further and was obedient unto death,
Even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8)