Editor’s Note: Our friend and longtime Meridian writer Larry Barkdull recently passed away. To remember and honor him this is one of a series of his past articles that we are republishing regularly.
The astonishing parallels between the New and Everlasting Covenant and the ancient Hebrew marriage customs help us to understand the beauty and appreciate loving nature of this preeminent Covenant.
Clearly, the Lord intended that Jewish couples should contemplate the New and Everlasting Covenant as they entered into marriage. Upon the New and Everlasting Covenant, and this Covenant only, can a Zion life or a Zion marriage or family be established.
The New and Everlasting Covenant Compared to Jewish Marriage
Throughout the scriptures, the marriage metaphor is used to describe our covenantal relationship with the Lord. He is the Bridegroom[i] and the Church is the bride.[ii] By extension, we, individually, are his bride: “For as a young man marrieth a virgin, so shall thy sons marry thee: and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.”[iii]
We are to prepare ourselves for the time the Bridegroom comes to receive us: “Wherefore, be faithful, praying always, having your lamps trimmed and burning, and oil with you, that you may be ready at the coming of the Bridegroom–For behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, that I come quickly.”[iv] We are to become prepared and beautiful for him: “adorned as a bride.”[v]
That the Lord chose marriage to describe the New and Everlasting Covenant should summon our solemn contemplation. Marriage is the summit of gospel covenants, the relationship that is the most intimate, most enduring and the most loving of unions. Marriage is the relationship in which the power of God to create is manifest; children spring from this union; multiplication, replenishment and fruitfulness become possible. The metaphor of marriage suggests the abandonment of selfish interests, profound loyalty and complete sacrifice.
Marriage requires the entire consecration of one’s time, talents and resources to his or her companion, the totality of all that one is and all that one has. Marriage is a covenantal lifestyle that results in oneness, a relationship wherein the partners are no longer “twain, but one flesh,” joined together by God, and intended to endure beyond man’s attempts to put asunder.[vi]
If marriage is to be successful, it requires losing one’s life in selfless service to and the loving of one’s spouse; then, in return, marriage leads to finding one’s life in a more exalted purpose.[vii]
Marriage urges the best of behavior in the partners: “and they shall mention the loving kindness of their Lord, and all that he has bestowed upon them according to his goodness, and according to his loving kindness, forever and ever.”[viii]
Marriage is yoking together to ease one another’s burdens,[ix] and the mutual sharing of each other’s challenges: “In all their afflictions he was afflicted…and in his love, and in his pity, he redeemed them, and bore them, and carried them all the days.”[x] By purpose and by design marriage is eternal,[xi] the highest order of celestial living,[xii] the ultimate source of happiness,[xiii] and significantly the highest order of the Priesthood.[xiv]
Conversely, disloyalty to the marriage covenant is a grievous sin, “most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost.”[xv] Clearly, the Lord takes seriously the New and Everlasting Covenant and expects us to do the same.
In the foreword of Donna B. Nielsen’s excellent work, The Beloved Bridegroom, Dr. Robert J. Norman wrote, “The wedding ceremony was a metaphor often used by Christ and the Old Testament authors. A study of the Jewish marriage customs yields a wealth of spiritual understanding and deeper insight into the teachings of Jesus and the Biblical prophets.”[xvi]Donna Nielsen explained, “A knowledge of Biblical marriage imagery can greatly enrich our understanding of how God relates to us through covenants.
Biblical covenant marriage imagery encompasses principles as diverse as Sabbath observance, the Atonement, temple worship, and missionary work. It literally begins with Adam and ends with Zion.”[xvii] Let us, therefore, examine the New and Everlasting Covenant by contrasting it with the Jewish marriage tradition. In advance, we thank Donna B. Nielsen for her generous support in providing access to her research.
Born to Marry
Elder John A. Widstoe stated that marriage is “the most important event between birth and death,”[xviii] and certainly the Jewish people agreed. We cannot overstate the importance of marriage in Jewish society. Marriage was clearly linked to the covenant God made with Israel; in fact, we might say that children were born with the purpose of marrying.
Donna Nielsen stated that an infant male “was often affectionately called the little bridegroom.’ This reflected one of three great hopes that parents had for their children, namely that their children would: study Torah (study the scriptures), be under the wedding canopy (marry in the covenant), and do good deeds (live righteous lives).”[xix]
Immediately, we see the connection between marriage and the New and Everlasting Covenant. From the moment of birth, our life’s purpose should be to learn about and prepare for the Bridegroom, enter into a Covenant with the Bridegroom, and do the works of the Bridegroom. As much as Jewish children were born to marry, we are born to enter into the Covenant.
Because marriage was the goal of life, husbands and wives married at an early age. No later than eighteen was the norm, and most often they married years before that. A boy became a Son of the Law by age thirteen, and technically one month later he was considered of marriageable age. Girls were eligible at twelve years and one month.[xx]
In today’s culture, we might have difficulty imagining Joseph and Mary, two teenagers, taking on the heavy responsibility of marriage and caring for the Savior of the world. Also, we might struggle with the concept that Jesus could have been married for 12-15 years and had children before he began his ministry at age thirty. But according to Jewish custom, these facts probably hold true. Marriage was the focal point of Jewish life, and we might imagine that Joseph and Mary, and later Jesus, followed the prevailing tradition by marrying in their teens.
The Parents’ Responsibility and the Bride’s Choice
Marriages were thought to be too important to be left to chance. Fathers and mothers made these decisions for their children. Who else loved the child more? Who else had the child’s best interests in mind? Who else wanted the child’s happiness more than the parents?
Today, we might cringe at this ancient custom, but Jewish children expected their parents to advocate for their happiness.
Despite the fact that the parents were expected to prayerfully deliberate then introduce their children to their intended spouse, the children owned the ultimate choice. Their agency was never violated.
Today, of course, parents do not formally choose their child’s mate, but the similarity to the ancient custom is clear: Parents have the responsibility to introduce their children to Christ. Fathers, by virtue of their holding the priesthood, have the responsibility to take their children into the waters of baptism and help them to enter into the New and Everlasting Covenant with Jesus. Now the children are given over or married to Christ by Covenant, and taking upon them his name, they begin a relationship with him that will end up in the mansions of his Father.[xxi]
Love for each other was expected to be cultivated after the marriage, not necessarily before.[xxii]We note that after Isaac married Rebekah he grew in his love for her.[xxiii] This reversal of order might seem strange to us, but the implication is intriguing: Covenant people grow together in love as they remain true to each other. When we enter into the New and Everlasting Covenant, we do so without a full appreciation for or love of the Lord.
These things take time. But as we live together in the Covenant and as we have experience with the Lord, we grow to love him more and more. “The Semitic root word for love’ is haw or hav. It means to warm’ or to kindle,’ to set on fire.’”[xxiv] Over time, our love for the Bridegroom grows from an ember to a blazing fire until love becomes as perfect as the God of love,[xxv] who “dwells in everlasting burnings.”[xxvi]
Requirements to Legalize the Covenant
The marriage covenant “had serious implications. There were three parts that were vital to a completed marriage contract in Biblical times. These were money, writ, and sexual relations. All three of these conditions had to be met for a marriage to be recognized as legal.”
The groom was expected to pay a bride price for his beloved. Then he was to offer her a marriage contract, a writ or ketuba, whereby he consecrated himself to his bride. Finally, the marriage had to be consummated; that is, he must know his wife through sexual relations. This last condition fulfilled the requirement that blood be shed to complete the covenant.[xxvii]
Thus, in both marriage and in the New and Everlasting Covenant, we (the bride) are:
- “Bought with a price.”[xxviii]
- United by covenant according to the Law of Consecration, which is “the law of the celestial kingdom.”[xxix]
- Known, or “made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood.”[xxx]
When we consider these conditions, we begin to understand the price that Jesus was willing to pay to draw us to him, redeem us and secure our eternal affections. Marvin Wilson wrote:
“…the joining of a man and a woman is a reenactment or replica of God’s eternal covenant relation to his chosen. To understand Biblical marriage is to understand the Biblical concept of covenant. In Hebrew to make a covenant’ is literally to cut a covenant’….The shedding of blood dramatically ratified and sealed the covenant (Genesis 15:9-18; Jeremiah 34:18-20). If one attempted to break the covenant, the blood served as a powerful visual lesson that one’s own blood would be shed. In brief, it was a solemn oath to be kept on pain of death. It was thus inviolable and irrevocable.”[xxxi]
Initiating the Marriage Proposal
The bridegroom initiated the process of offering the covenant of marriage to the bride. When we consider this action in light of the New and Everlasting Covenant, we see something tender and loving about the character of the Savior. We are immediately impressed by the fact that he, not us, invites us into the New and Everlasting Covenant. Clearly, “we love Him because he loved us first.”[xxxii]
When we are baptized, we often miss the fact that Jesus was the one who reached out to us and bade us enter into an eternal covenantal relationship with him. We sometimes mistakenly think that we were the ones who instigated the process, but according to the Jewish marriage tradition, that is not true.
In advance of every baptism is Jesus’ implied invitation. This fact speaks to his adoring love for us. He is the Bridegroom and we are his potential bride. He is the one who begins the covenant-making process. He does this through the Holy Ghost and through his authorized representatives: fathers, Home Teachers, bishops or missionaries.
The occasion of the marriage proposal often happened at the harvest season, suggesting a bounteous relationship and a fruitful future.[xxxiii] Likewise, when we join with the Lord in the Covenant, we glorify both him and his Father and we “bear much fruit” together.[xxxiv] The proposal procedure began by the bridegroom’s going to the house of the bride. He was accompanied by his father or a close friend(s).
We immediately envision a small entourage, a companionship, two or more witnesses like missionary companions, on an important mission to convey an invitation of infinite worth to the intended bride.
In her presence, the bridegroom would make the covenantal offer while his friend(s) would support him and bear witness of the event. This was the beginning of holiness, for truly, upon her acceptance of the marriage covenant, the bride would effectively ascribe holiness unto the Lord,[xxxv] her new husband.
Donna Nielsen wrote: “The collective term for all that broadly comprises a Jewish marriage is Kiddushin, which literally means sanctities.’ This concept includes the ideas of being devoted irrevocably, being sanctified and set apart, and being consecrated.”[xxxvi] Clearly, the Jewish marriage is the perfect metaphor for the New and Everlasting Covenant.
Entering into the Covenant
The Bridegroom’s proposal to us includes sacred rituals that consecrate him to us (the bride), and our accepting his proposal consecrates us to him. We hear overtures of the Law of Consecration in this. Other symbolisms of the New and Everlasting Covenant become evident as the betrothal ceremony unfolds. In the Jewish marriage, the groom offered the bride’s father a bride price-she was “bought with a price.”[xxxvii]
Then the bridegroom presented his potential bride a written covenant of marriage that he had prepared.
Then he offered her a “gift of value,” which represented a “token” of his promise and an “emblem” of his love. With the token he recited a pledge to irrevocably bind and consecrate himself to her forever.
Then, in the presence of two witnesses, he placed before his beloved a cup of wine. If she drank of the cup, the contract of marriage was ratified or sealed, and the betrothal period began. Moreover, by drinking of the cup, she indicated her willingness to take upon herself her husband’s name. At that point, the couple, along with their guests, shared a covenantal meal.
Thus, by these rituals that were rich in imagery, the bridegroom and bride entered into the eternal covenant of marriage. When the ceremony was complete, the only question that remained was would the rituals that represented the marriage covenant translate into life-long acts of devotion and consecration? That is, would the couple’s covenant become royal by their subsequent loyalty, patience, sacrifice and love? Or would the Covenant remain a set of symbols and a piece of paper upon which promises had been made but never enacted?