Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏩ ⏹️
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.
— John 4:16-18
Taken literally, as an event that actually happened, this story makes little sense. What point does it serve we wonder? It breaks all kinds of taboos—Jesus is talking with a woman, as an equal, a woman from a different nation, race and religion, and talking at a public place in a foreign city. Maybe it is just showing us the rebel Jesus, who as God incarnate is able to talk to anyone, anywhere, on his own terms. That's a decent reason in and of itself. But why then the five husbands? Some take this to mean the woman was thus a harlot, and the five "husbands" were actually customers, with perhaps the man she is with now being her pimp. I have no wish to follow that path!
The story made as little sense to me as it does to most critical Christians, until I discovered the interpretation offered by John Shelby Spong, that the five husbands represented the five nations that had serially conquered Samaria, each bringing their own ba'al, a word meaning both god and husband. The present husband is Israel, the returning nation whose God Samaria had still not embraced fully. Now the story made sense, so I did a little more research, and unearthed this interesting essay exploring, and quoting (with sources) the many interpretations of this story.2 More than one coincides with Spong's explanation, and may have influenced his thinking.
It is a reminder to read the scriptures in a big way, broadly, metaphorically, poetically, and to consider the culture, politics and artistry of the period before making assumptions, or force-fitting the text to support our own world view—or prejudices. Jesus came to change everything, on that the four gospels agree. Each has its own way of telling the story though, with John's gospel being the most distinct, and in some ways the strangest. It is perhaps because of its multi-layered, metaphorical story-telling that has, over the centuries, forced each generation of Christians to simplify it in their own terms.
In what becomes a remarkable story—in Spong (and co)'s interpretation—we get to compare faithlessness to infidelity, and the falling away from God as akin to widowhood. And that touches each of us in more immediate ways, than the abstract and oft-repeated pattern of idol worship, which honestly, heard over and over again as we read the Bible, becomes old and stale. This story though, this wakes us up again.