Metaphors are powerful. With a picture that’s worth a thousand words, they inform us. Like the focus dial on a projector, they clarify concepts for us. Like the miracle of metamorphosis, they transform us. The language of metaphors translates the unknown and abstract into concrete and known. It opens doors to discovery and truth that previously eluded us.
But at times the meaning of a metaphor is perplexing, especially when it’s used within an ancient cultural context. Understanding metaphors takes work. The images demand patience as they invite us “to walk around and look at the connection to a concept in different ways,” says Walter Brueggeman.
A metaphor is imprecise by nature. Yet it is accurate in its purpose to get our attention and arouse our emotions and imaginations. It invites examination but resists efforts to reduce it to a statement of facts. The same metaphor can be used differently depending on the context. But it also can absorb layers of meaning as it shifts with each reader’s context.
Lately I’ve been thinking about marriage metaphors. Like the one in Ephesians 5:22-33.
By tradition, the metaphor has been reduced to a model and a mandate: The husband is the authoritative head to which the wife, his body, submits. In everything. Therefore the husband must be the spiritual leader of the home and the wife must be the respectful follower. Lately conservative interpreters have added a halo of loving sacrifice on his head.
No mystery here.
The problem is Paul says there is a mystery. In fact there is a PROFOUND mystery. In verse 32 Paul explicitly ascribes it to Christ and the Church. But he also clearly links the mystery to the “one flesh” union of a husband and wife in verse 31. The quote from Genesis 2:24 occupies a special place in the immediate context which serves then to inform the head and body metaphor used by Paul. But before I address the significance of verse 31, let me back up to the previous verses and suggest an alternative understanding of those verses.
Tomorrow I’ll approach the metaphor introduced by Paul in Ephesians 5:22-27 from another angle that I believe offers a different perspective of a “biblical” marriage.