Four Allegories of Marriage in John’s Gospel
By Steve Santini
A major allegorical theme of John’s gospel is that of marriage. John records five noticeably unique incidents in the life of Jesus that are based on Eastern betrothal, wedding and marriage customs. In order of appearance, they are: (1) Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana, (2) John the Baptist’s declaration that he was the friend of the bridegroom, not the bridegroom, (3) Jesus’ conversation with the Samarian woman at Jacob’s well, (4) Jesus’ statement preceding his discourse on the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of Truth at his last meal with his apostles and some disciples, (5) Jesus’ dialogue with Peter at the conclusion of John’s gospel.
Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee
And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there:
And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage.
And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine.
Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.
His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.
And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece.
Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim.
And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it.
When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom,
And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.
This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him. (John 2:1-11)
According to the record in the second chapter of John’s gospel, the governor of the feast had run out of wine to serve before the feast was completed. It was the responsibility of the bridegroom’s family to see that there would be sufficient wine for the feast. If the feast were to run low on wine the male relations of the groom according to age were to step in and provide additional wine. In this instance it appears that Jesus was a male relative of the groom. Mary, the mother of Jesus asked him to provide wine out of turn according to his age. Jesus responded allegorically: “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.”
Figuratively, Jesus was the intended bridegroom for all Israel. Israel was known from the Old Testament as the bride. In this instance Jesus used the word woman figuratively to represent the woman of faith-Israel, the bride.
Jesus knew that his “hour” as the bridegroom of the wedding feast was not at that time. The wedding feast of Christ with the feminine faithful in Christ Jesus in spiritual union was and is still yet to come. (Isaiah 62) Even so, as a symbolic token of what was to come, he provided the best wine for the end of that wedding feast.
(The grapes from which wine comes represent souls and the wine itself represents blood. (Luke 22:16-20) Moses revealed that the soul of the flesh was in the blood.(Lev. 17:11) Jesus revealed that new wine must be put in new wineskins. (Mt. 9:17) This will Jesus Christ do when he resurrects the faithful out from both the Jews and Gentiles as pure virgins for the wedding feast commencing paradise restored on earth. Here in John’s gospel, in the context of the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, Jesus introduced his eternal mission-to provide the best wine at the end for those of faith.)
John the Baptist’s declaration that he was the friend of the bridegroom not the bridegroom
After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.
And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.
For John was not yet cast into prison.
Then there arose a question between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purifying.
And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him.
John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.
Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him.
He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.
He must increase, but I must decrease.
He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all. (John 3:22-31)
When a son became of age and wanted to marry he went to his father who then requested that his wife find a bride for their son. The father also selected a deputy from the family’s kinsmen to represent their son. This deputy negotiated the betrothal contract with a deputy selected by the bride’s parents. The groom’s deputy also acted as a spokesman and the literal forerunner for the groom. During the week long wedding feast the groom was paraded through town in an open cart or carriage. The deputy would go before the cart clearing the way and announcing the approaching groom. After writing of the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, John identifies the groom as Jesus and John the Baptist as his representative by naming him as the friend of the groom.
Jesus’ conversation with the Samarian woman at Jacob’s well
An understanding of Jesus conversation with the Samarian woman at Jacobs well written in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel comes from the dual meanings of the Greek word aner that is translated as husband in this passage.
Then cometh he to a city of Samaria, which is called Sychar, near to the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.
Now Jacob's well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour.
There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink.
(For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.)
Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.
Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.
The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water?
Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?
Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:
But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw.
Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither.
The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband:
For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.
The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.
Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.
Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.
Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.
But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.
God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things.
Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.
By far the most often used word for husband in Classical Greek is posis. Aner can mean husband, however it’s meaning is much broader and deeper than that of posis. An aner was a man of maturity, rank and substance. To those most closely associated with him, he was their representative of divinity. If a single woman who worshipped different gods was taken into the community of an aner she gave up her gods and worshipped the gods or god of her aner. A husband over thirty years old would be considered as an aner to his wife. Until her husband reached thirty, her father in law was her primary aner. More broadly, though, a male head of the house would be an aner to his wife and the household servants.
An unmarried, divorced, or widowed woman without a father in law, and without other means of support, could enter into an arrangement with an aner. This arrangement was that of what scripture terms bondwoman. It was usually an arrangement made with a family relative like the arrangement made between Boaz and Ruth. Once the village elders, according to cultural protocol, sanctioned the arrangement, the aner was responsible to provide for the woman, and her family if need be, in exchange for her servitude. This arrangement did not have the permanency of marriage. If a bondwoman’s presence in the family caused conflict, the bondwoman arrangement could be more easily broken by the aner as was with the case with Abraham and Hagar.
There was another type of servitude for single women in that culture. Today we would call it temporary employment. At different times of the year, like harvest and planting, when the workload for the family and bondservants was more than they could accomplish in the necessary timeframe, single women would find temporary work for an aner as maidens rather than as handmaidens/bondwomen. These single women could also find work serving the community at the behest of the community or religious elders.
The story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz is the most informative biblical example of the aner arrangement with maidens, handmaidens and wives. First, Ruth, the Moabites, went into the fields of Boaz at harvest as a maiden. (Ruth 2:1-18) She found favor in Boaz sight. Then, because Boaz was an in law relative, she requested that she be made a bondwoman in his household. (Ruth 3:1-9) This then Boaz did. (Ruth 4:1-9) Even more so he went the ultimate step of commitment by marrying Ruth. (Ruth 4:10)
The woman Jesus encountered at Jacob’s well in Samaria had had five previous aners. Of what type, and how and why these ended, one can only imagine since the text does not tell us. One does know that her service at the time was that of only a maiden since the one she was drawing water for was not her aner. It also appears from the entire context that in her insecure situation she was searching for that eternal aner relationship with the coming Messiah. Can you imagine the feelings of joy and relief when Jesus said to her, “I that speak unto thee am he.”
Jesus’ statement preceding his discourse on the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of Truth at his last meal with his apostles and some disciples shortly before he gave himself up to be crucified
Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.
In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. John 14:1-3
In the East, during the betrothal period, the groom with familial assistance prepared a room in the home of his parents for himself and his new wife. After the marriage ceremony, the newly married couple had a one-year “honeymoon” so to speak. During this initial period in the family home the couple was “given the space” to become acquainted and adjusted to married life. It was especially helpful to the new wife because she was considered to have become a full family member in a new family.
In the following context Jesus offered further assurance that he would provide for the souls of his apostles during his physical absence. He said:
I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. John 14:18
The Greek word for comfortless in this verse is orphanos. It means a wife and/or children without further means of sustaining provision.
Accordingly, from the scope of the gospels with an understanding of the Eastern customs, Jesus had promised, first, the coming of the betrothal gift to seal the contract of marriage and to prepare his bride for marriage. It was the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had requested of his father to be sent to those that believed upon him. Then, upon further request, Jesus Christ sent the Spirit of Truth through his saints so that his figurative new bride could become familiar with him in preparation for the ultimate completion of his one body, the union of masculine and feminine.
 Language, rhetoric and culture in the ancient Middle East and proximate regions were, and still are, to a degree, spiritually figurative. John’s gospel employs this cultural figurative rhetoric to direct one’s attention from the temporal to the higher spiritual.
This type of allegorical rhetoric was considered a highly developed skill in the ancient Middle East. Jesus made it clear that he was speaking allegorically in John sixteen when he said “These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs…” The Greek word translated “proverbs” is defined as figurative language including both metaphors and allegories. The apostle Paul, educated at the feet of Gamaliel, one of the most enduringly revered Hebrew scholars, frequently wrote allegorically. In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul states that Abraham’s fatherhood of his two sons is an “allegory”. (Gal. 4:24) He explains that Ishmael, born of the bond woman, Hagar, Similarly, the apostle Paul implies that the marriage relationship is an allegory when he concludes his Ephesians’ section on marriage by writing, “but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (Eph. 5:21-32) represents the earthly bound Jerusalem and that Isaac, born of the free woman, Sarah, represents the free heavenly Jerusalem that is the mother of us all.
After the deluge, Noah, who was a preacher of righteousness instituted the arrangement of masculine and feminine in these allegorical Eastern marriage and family customs. The expanding population in the new world spread these customs from the regions of Ararat with their southward migration into the Fertile Crescent.
Abraham, whose father’s life spanned 70 concurrent years with that of Noah, acquired, maintained and passed on these customs with the understanding that they were figures of divine truth. To the Easterner life was full of symbols that pointed to characteristics of the divine. The apostle Paul wrote in the book entitled Hebrews that Moses’ design of the tabernacle was figurative of the heavenlies. (Heb. 9:9,24; 11:19) In nature, the fig tree symbolized the tree of life and became a national symbol for Israel. A flock of sheep represented the people of God. The sun represented the bridegroom. Each number and letter of the alphabet was symbolic of a truth. The number “7” represented spiritual perfection.
The figurative letters and their order used to comprise a word could many times determine the general sense of a word. For example, the letter “A” represented a husband and father and the letter “B” represented a family house of which the wife was the source of new life and the administrator of such. Accordingly, the Semitic word ABBA that Paul used becomes interesting. It could imply the father as the initiator at conception, the mother bringing forth and maturating that new life and then returning it to a father.
Jesus emphasized the importance of these linguistic and grammatical details in scripture when he spoke to the Pharisees: “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” (Matt. 5:18)
The grammar of the ancient Semitic languages was also full of well-defined figures of speech. As the characters of the Greek language were adapted and derived from the Semitic, so too were their figures of speech. The noted British bible scholar, E. W. Bullinger identified over 200 figures of speech in the Greek New Testament. In the East, the skillful use of these layer multiple figures in rhetorical communication was considered an art higher than that of fine painting, sculpting and instrumentation.