(A crowd observes “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt, at Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.)
In the Hebrew Bible as well as in the New Testament, God describes Himself as the husband of Israel using metaphorical language (Is. 54:5; Jer. 3:14; 31:32). It is important to remember that today when we refer to Israel, we mean all ancient people of Israel during the time of prophetic ministry. However, in ancient Israel this was not the case. Many prophets lived in the reality of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Israel often acted as an unfaithful covenant partner (spouse), committing metaphorical adultery by worshiping other gods and forsaking their covenant Husband – YHWH. In response to Israel’s non-physical idolatry God stated:
“I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. . . Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to Me with all her heart, but only in pretense” (Jer. 3:8-10)
God warns the southern kingdom (Judah) against making the same mistakes that Israel, (the northern kingdom) made. “Sending away”, which is clearly the language of divorce, no doubt refers to the Assyrian invasion and exile of many (if not most) people of Israel to another land. God gave his betraying, unfaithful wife (Israel) a bill of divorcement, and then issued a warning to her sister Judah.
Having just cause, God, the faithful Husband, “divorced” Israel, His unfaithful wife. To make matters worse, God asked, “If a man divorces his wife and she leaves him and marries another man, should he return to her again?” (Jer. 3:1). In accordance with the Torah, the answer was ‘no’; a man who had divorced his wife could not later re-marry her (Deut. 24:1-4).
The people of the northern kingdom of Israel seemed to be in a hopeless condition: she had been divorced by God. If the Torah’s laws for men applied to God, He would not be able to marry Israel again. But as we continue to read, Jeremiah announces an invitation from YHWH that comes with a surprising twist.
God says to Israel:
“‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord,
‘I will frown on you no longer,
for I am faithful,’ declares the Lord,
‘I will not be angry forever’” (Jer. 3:12)
“‘Return, faithless people,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I am your husband. I will choose you . . . and bring you to Zion” (Jer.3:14).
While the Bible witnesses and legislates not only human but also divine divorces, it seems (in these passages) to be following different rules. Human divorce and remarriage is final; God’s, however, apparently is not – a divine and human couple can still be reunited!.
This distinction of course provokes all kinds of questions about the fairness and nature of God’s Law, but thankfully they are outside the scope of this study. What do you think? How can we understand God’s divorce and remarriage of Israel? How can we reconcile it with other texts in the Hebrew Bible about divorce?