Hearken: The Symbolism of The Bride, The Bridegroom and the Marriage

Symbolism is an important part of religion. As Latter-day Saints, we are well familiar that the Bridegroom is the biblical term that symbolises Christ; The Bride is symbolic of His church, (Isa. 54:5; Jer. 3:14; Jer. 31:32) and the Marriage is symbolic of the Second Coming (D&C 45:56; D&C 63:54). There is no mistake in the use of symbolism, we do not believe that the sacrament bread and water literally turns into the flesh and blood of Christ, and there are repeated reminders of symbolism with countless use of symbols in the temple ceremony. I enjoy the symbolism, it allows me to apply new applications of symbolic biblical teachings.

The problem for me is when the symbolism stops, and becomes literal. Throughout the scriptures, the Bridegroom (the husband), is Christ. It is a constant symbol. But the symbol ends in modern church patriarchal structure. In Mormon ideology, the symbol become literal when applied in our own homes. The reason? Paul told us so. In every other admonition of Christ as the husband and bridegroom, the translation is treated as symbolic, until we hit Ephesians. Huh? Even in the well-researched article by Richard K Hart on the symbolism of the Marriage, Hart states, “There is no question but what a righteous patriarchal order is being described by Paul.”

Well, sorry, Mr. Hart. I do question it. I question this literal translation. A lot. In fact, I don’t buy it. After all, Paul concludes with “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:22–26, 30–32). This means that Paul is speaking of Christ and the church, but Hart is only speaking of literal husbands and wives, in complete absence of Christ. Why is Christ’s place within marriage suddenly absent because those of patriarchal order suddenly decided to only ascribe to literal biblical interpretations?

So- Hart, and those who believe in divine patriarchal order, artfully accept the symbolism of Christ as the Bridegroom throughout the scriptures, until they have an opportunity to assert authority over another, namely, women and/or “the bride”. In addition, the Bride is symbolically and (according to patriarchal ideology) literally the church, which men preside over. And further literal application suggests that the Bride, or the wife, must be presided over by the now literal, husband. This makes for a convenient double literal translation for men who desire to exhort authority over the church and women, then slip back into symbolism when equally convenient to discuss scripture.

In consideration of this, it is fair to suggest that literal translation in this portion of scripture, and the further literal application within the structure of the church– is incorrect. Wrong. Bogus. False. Mistaken. After all, the church is not a perfect organization or structure, nor does it claim to be, so it stands to reason that choosing a singular literal translation is a series of symbolic translations is in error. It is evident that the constant adaptation of church structure and policy is an ongoing witness to the fact of imperfection. And just because this literal interpretation is incorrect does not mean that priesthood is false; it simply means that the symbolism elsewhere in the bible should be equally interperated.

This means to wit, Christ, or the spirit of Christ, (the Bridegroom), presides in a home. When an individual or a couple are righteously in tune to the spirit, they are directed by the spirit of Christ which then is allowed to preside in their home. The same application would be present at church- the spirit presides, not the mortals.

It also means that the Church (the Bride), is to hearken to Christ. Members of the church are husbands and wives, men and women, who in equal fellowship submit to Christ (the Bridegroom, the husband). One spouse does not submit to nor preside over another; both equally submit to Christ.

This also is easily and equally applied in terms of the Pearl of Great Price. This scripture is rife with symbolism; the rib, the fruit, the serpent… yet again, as soon as submission of Eve to her “husband” is concerned, the text is interpreted as literal translation. This again make no sense in context of spiritual progression. After all, we are baptised, confirmed, endowed and then sealed in marriage to each other. Literal discussion of marital submission or hearkening prior to a sealing ceremony can therefore only be symbolic of the church hearkening to Christ, as Christ hearkens to God. This symbolic interpretation makes significantly more sense, if only because one is not required to be married in order to be baptised, confirmed or endowed.

Certainly Mormon doctrine and patriarchal structure is largely based on this singular, literal translation, if only in absence of revelation of symbolism relating to women. Well, let me just throw The Song of Deborah (Bible dictionary, page 720) into the mix: Deborah was a righteous judge and prophetess. Her name symbolically means the bee. After the modern restoration of the priesthood, worldly oppression of women created cultural and political strife, so priesthood keys were not actively bestowed upon women. In recognition of the authority of women, Mormon women voted (sustained) within the early church and the early Relief Society was heavily involved in women’s suffrage. Still lacking priesthood
keys, and in an effort to leave the door open, if only symbolically- for women to receive priesthood keys, Brigham Young originally called the western Mormon settlement Deseret. The Book of Mormon translation of this term means “honey bee.” Deborah. The bee. The prophetess. The state of deseret, or the state of the honey bee, may be symbolic of the state of women with full priesthood privileges.

This makes sense to me. After all, symbolism is an important part of religion.

Spunky

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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33 Responses

  1. Keri Brooks says:

    This is fabulous! I think you may have just redeemed the endowment for me.

    I attend the temple and participate in baptisms, confirmations, initiatories, and sealings, but I haven’t participated in an endowment ceremony for years because it hurts too much. Lately I’ve been feeling that I should probably give it another try, but I haven’t been brave enough to do it because the hearken covenant feels like a dagger being stabbed into my soul. My God doesn’t subordinate His daughters to His sons. With this new interpretive lens, I might be able to get through a session. Thank you.

    • spunky says:

      Glad to offer a new interpretation, Keri Brooks! I flapped back and forth on the traditional, literal interpretation for years, seeking for a way for it to make sense. In reading the New Testament and applying the symbolic concept of the Bridegroom, I suddenly had a new perspective on the Atonement, the temple and associated symbolism. There is enough symbolism in the church for me to ponder on this for another 20+ years at least, but it makes significantly more sense and just feels so much better to consider that the sons and daughters of God are in equal submission to Christ, who is in complete service of God. I am still studying it out in my mind, and have a way to go, but I am enjoying learning.

  2. Caroline says:

    Spunky,
    Thanks for this feminist interpretation! Very, very interesting. I certainly prefer this symbolic interpretation to the more literal one that most Mormons take away from the endowment ceremony.

    I do have a remaining hesitation, though. Should we be bothered that female imagery (the bride, the church) is subordinate to male imagery (the groom, Christ)? Should we embrace this kind of symbolic paradigm when it reinforces male dominance? I’m one of those people who believes that language and symbols are very, very important, and that they can be used to reinforce male hierarchy, even when they are functioning non-literally. Does this concern you at all, or does your interpretation fully rescue the endowment ceremony from male/female hierarchical paradigms, in your experience?

    • spunky says:

      Well, I guess I am too much of a rebel for this one, but I am under the impression that if this interpretation is correct, then it doesn’t matter if a female takes the place of Christ (there are other scholars who suggest that Eve was as Christ, because she, like Christ, had a choice between immortality or accepting the bitter cup of mortality for all mankind, which she did in order to make the atonement come to fruition.) So, to me, this means that a male can and should take the place in the temple that is traditionally termed “wife” or “bride”, because it better represents the real importance of Christ in overall Christian ideology. With that, women could just as well take the symbolic position of the “husband” or “bridegroom”, for the ceremony; the same work is completed, but in absence of gendered nouns. I am no linguist, but I wonder more about the Latin male and female nouns and suspect that the gendering of temple roles is based in language, rather than in actual doctrine.

      So- this concerns me, because I am impatient for doctrinal advancement. But, at the same time, because I do not think the roles are literal, I can better disregard the simple routine assignment of gendered terminology in the church and take the majority of my frustration out on those in leadership positions who fear/refuse to embrace something that to me appears to be so obvious. I alos think that the temple language muddies this clarity of symbolism, and should be ammended as in the iniatory where the most recent change better embraces symbolism and steps away from the more literal past ordinance structure.

      • Corktree says:

        This is a fascinating interpretation Spunky! Both the whole post and this part about Eve as being in a similar position to Christ. I’d love to hear more about this as it really gets my mind going. I’ve just about given up on finding these positive associations in the Church lately, but this gives me something very new and interesting to think about. I only hope that the Church may indeed one day reflect these truths and symbols in this way. Great post!

      • spunky says:

        Beverly Campbell wrote about it and I enjoy quoting her. She isn’t a scriptorian or an academic, but I find her work valuable, if only because she does reference and quote Jewish academics, which have a much more powerful view of Eve. (Campbell’s views on motherhood are obtuse, IMHO, but she does other parts well).

        From Eve and the Choice Made in Eden by Campbell: “Eve, with Adam, made a sacrifice that symbolically parallels the sacrifice of the Saviour in an important way. By her action, she brought life into the world- not only the life of her children but for all humankind. To give life to all, Eve chose to suffer death. Unlike their descendants, Eve and Adam had a choice about whether or not they would eventually die.”

  3. Chris says:

    The marriage imagery does not bother me when I think of Christ, who gave His life for us and who loves us with an infinite love. I focus on Him whenever marriage imagery is described in the temple and assume that we wants both husband AND to be equally empowered in their marriage by the power of His atoning sacrifice.

  4. Sally says:

    I love this interpretation, but have a question. Paul says:
    22 aWives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
    23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the cchurch: and he is the saviour of the body.

    He talks about the husbands specifically, being separate from the Lord. Do you feel that Paul was incorrect, a product of his times, or has it been mistranslated over the years?

    • spunky says:

      I think this has been mistranslated in association with King James’ and his editors. You have to recall that James was the son of a Catholic mother, and Catholicism was originally introduced to the (UK) Celts via the swords of Roma conquerors, who were mostly men (hence why church leadership structure is laughably easily compared to military leadership structure). In consideration of the militarism that “converted” and ruled Christianity, and its associated masculinity, it is likely that much of the bible was interpreted under the umbrella of masculine militarism, which would instruct men to rule their homes in the same manner in which they were expected in the militarist church.

      You have to also keep in mind that cardinals and such were as much military offices as they were religious offices; as such, the military structure infiltrated everything, including marriage. I do not believe that this was the intention of Christianity in the least.

      In the case of Paul specifically, *if* he did teach this, it falls into alliance with his life; he was a Roman citizen, and whilst females who were Roman citizens might vote (sustain) leadership, they were sill not equal to men as a matter of Roman culture. Likewise, non-Roman citizens (compare to non-Christian gentiles) were afforded even fewer privileges. So, if Paul taught this, I think he was teaching us how to be Roman citizens. Period.

      What do you think?

      • EBrown says:

        James was raised, not by his mother, but by ultra-Calvinists: he loathed Catholics in general and had little regard, if any, for his mother.

      • spunky says:

        You are right, EBrown. I had forgotten that, thank you for including it. Some scholars said that James was a religious intellectual in his own right (academics have argued either way), hence his determination in editing his own version of the bible. But your point about his mother is important; perhaps the absence of divine or equal feminine respresentation in the King James’ translation was influenced as a result of his own materal/feminine issues. (I feel like Freud now)

    • Caroline says:

      Hi Sally,
      One thing that some progressive Christians do with that “Wives, submit” verse is to look at the one right in front of it — Ephesians 5:21, in which Paul tells all members of the community to submit themselves to each other. This would entail, one would think, both women submitting to men and men submitting to women. This then pretty much would cancel out the force of verse 22, and what you have is a dynamic of mutual submission.

  5. EBrown says:

    For a different take on the Eucharist:
    I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater… She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual…. Toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it. That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” – Flannery O’Connor

  6. Gertrude P says:

    Spunky, your lack of scriptural knowledge and misinterpretations never cease to amaze me.

    • spunky says:

      Gertrude, you need to refer to the comment policy or you will be banned. If you have a different interpretation with any credibility whatsoever, then share it in a repectful manner.

  7. Caroline says:

    I just wanted to say, Spunky, that I LOVE the way your brain works. It is so invigorating and exciting to me to see Mormon women actually doing theology, and feminist theology at that. This is what our church needs more of.

  8. Jessawhy says:

    Spunky,
    This is a great interpretation of this passage.

    I love the idea of Deseret being a community of priestesses.

    Thank you!

    • spunky says:

      Thank you, Caroline and Jessawhy! I tend to think about things, then get so inside my head insomuch that when I mention it out loud, that I am floored when others do not see, or are shocked at what I think is obvious. Its nice to have a space where what makes sense to me might make sense to others as well.

  9. Lady Pope says:

    This symbol has always secretly bothered me (I’ve been wanting to say so for a while, but have been afraid to!), because I do tend to draw literal comparisons between bridegroom (husband) and Christ, and bride (wife) and Church. And, I’m pretty sure that it is because of how I have viewed the writing of Paul. It’s hurtful to imagine, in this line of thinking, that husbands are compared to Christ, in all His perfection, and wives to the Church, which is subject to sin. I guess I figure that if the Joseph Smith Translation do not clear something up, than by revelation they are literally correct. Understanding the attributes of God, and that he is no respecter of persons, I should know differently. Guess I’ll have to maintain faith in that despite ideas that I perceive to the contrary. Thanks for addressing my secret thought.

  10. mb says:

    To add to your repertoire of information on Ephesians 5:

    vs 21, (members of the church) submit yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Greek word for “submit”: hupotassomai
    vs 22 Wives submit submit yourselves to your husbands. Greek word used for “submit”: hupotassomai
    vs 23 Husband is the head of the wife. Greek word used for “head”: kephale
    vs 25 Husbands love your wives: Greek word used for “love”: agapeo
    vs 27 That he might present it to himself a glorious church. Greek word used for “might present”: parasthsh

    Hupotassomai doesn’t have a direct English equivalent but means something along the lines of “give allegiance to”, or “tend to the needs of ” or “be supportive of” or “be responsive to”. In military contexts it is used to describe taking a position in a phalanx of soldiers; to be united with the group in effort and support. The German Bible translates it as “to place oneself at the disposition of”. This is what members of the church are asked to do for each other and what wives are asked to do in these verses in Ephesians. Its meaning relates very much to the admonition in Galatians 6:2 to “bear one another’s burdens”. Very importantly, Greek not only has active and passive forms of verbs, but also a middle form, which is used when the subject of the sentence neither acts on another nor is acted upon, but rather volunteers willingly to a state of being. Hupotassomai, in these verses is in the middle form. Paul uses it to invite a purely voluntary action, not as a command.

    “Kephale” is a word used to denote a person who goes ahead into battle, putting himself the most dangerous and vulnerable position in the phalanx.

    “Agapeo” is used here and also in the commandment to love our neighbor and God and our enemies and in Jesus’ description of the Good Samaritan who loved and helped freely another who could not (and probably would not) repay his kindness.

    Agapeo and hupotassomai are very similar words, both involve giving up one’s self-interest to serve and care for another’s. Both mean being responsive to the needs of others. Many scholars recognize this passage of Ephesians as a chiasmus with hupotassomai at the beginning of it and agapeo as an equal term at the end.

    “Parasthsh” means “to stand beside”.

    Knowing the Greek words sheds further light on the passage which the English translation obscures.

    • Diane says:

      Mb

      You would really love my Institute teacher, he knows several languages, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin, I think knowing these languages certainly helps to clarify things as we read.

  11. mb says:

    oops, incomplete sentence

    should have read

    Very importantly, Greek not only has active and passive forms of verbs, but also a middle form, which is used when the subject of the sentence neither acts on another nor is acted upon, but rather volunteers willingly to a state of being or to a course of action that is self-directed, not imposed.

  12. Maureen says:

    Beautiful Spunky! This sent me into delicious daydreams about GA’s coming across this, reading it, and coming to a realization of the truth of it and the error of their ways. Hmm, a girl can dream can’t she?

    I’ve also had confused wondering moments considering that if Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is the Bride, then why aren’t the women in charge? Because we obviously know much better how to be a bride. 😉

  13. Diane says:

    Spunky

    I loved reading this post, It has given me much to think about.

  14. Megan Chase says:

    Thank you so much for your thoughts. I’ve had many similar ideas and many concerns about the role of men and women in the Church, especially after going through the Temple. My mother could not and still cannot understand why I have issues with the ceremony and certain attitudes that are professed in the Church and believes that I’m being “led away” from Church teachings by my intellectualism. I hope one day your beautiful interpretation is more widely adopted. The validation that other women have had the same observations and thoughts is very comforting.

    • Spunky says:

      Thank you, Megan. I hope you feel comfortable to be a part of the Exponent community. Please come back often and share your thoughts, ideas and frustrations.

  15. Rebecca Stay says:

    Just a couple of observations from a knowledge of Hebrew.
    Deborah COULD mean ‘honey bee’ but it is far more likely that it is derived from the Hebrew word for ‘word’ which is D-B-R (no vowels in Biblical Heb). Add the feminine H ending and you have a woman thru whom the people received the word of God. She probably talked to The Word. And D-B-R is also a name for the Holy of Holies: it gets translated in the KJV as ‘oracle.’ So, Deborah is the oracle thru whom God spoke in her day.
    Second, the image of whether men or women are the ‘Bridegroom’ or the ‘Bride’ might best be informed by the symbolism of the Temple in the OT. In the Ezekiel 16, you find a description of the adoption and subsequent marriage of Israel (the church: ALL members) to Jehovah. He saves her, he raises her, he washes, anoints and then clothes her in the same clothing that the High Priest wears in the temple. The High Priest IS the BRIDE. That is what he is dressed like and who he represents. The Day of Atonement – when the High Priest finally enters the Holy of Holies – symbolically epresents the Bride entering the Bridal Chamber to be with her husband. The Rabbis knew this : on Friday for thousands of years, Jewish men would go to the miqveh and cleanse themselves as if they were a bride in order to be with God on the sabbath.
    Christ loved the Bride and gave Himself for her. EACH one of us represent Christ when we sacrifice for others, regardless of gender. The Bride is to be faithful to her husband and to covenant with him. Each one of us can be the faithful bride, regardless of gender, when we covenant in anticipation of His actual return. Any one of us who forgives the sins of another is Christ.
    And don’t even get me started on whether women have priesthood. Of course they do: they perform ordinances everyday (well, except Sunday) in temples all over the world. You cannot perform an ordinance that washes away sin without priesthood authority; you cannot anoint with oil or seal that anointing without priesthood authority; you cannot clothe others in the robes of the priesthood without priesthood authority. Baptism? It symbolizes being BORN again. Who performs the ORDINANCE of BIRTH? Not men, only women. Read Moses 6: 58 Therefore I give unto you a commandment, to teach these things freely unto your children, saying:

    59 That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten . . .

    Which is more important to your eternal salvation: to be born and get to come to earth and receive a physical body, or to be born again and thus gain entrance to the celestial world where you will receive a physical body? Hummm. . . . Neither the man without the woman nor the woman without the man in the Lord.

    Teach these things to your children.
    And stop allowing the false doctrines of thousands of years and the teachings of unrighteous men to determine how YOU understand a SYMBOL! I believe, before anything else, that God loves me exactly as I am (thank you, Mr Rogers). So I look for meanings in symbols that convey His love. I recommend it highly

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