The Divine Marriage and Paul’s Letter to the Romans


Over the past forty years, there has been a growing recognition that the NT builds on the foundation of the OT in a way that previous generations had not appreciated. This is not because they missed the many OT citations identified in the NT nor the presence of OT themes, which some have thought were expanded and presented in language and imagery that the Gentiles would recognise. Rather, what is happening is a fundamental shift in the way the NT is being read. 

Research into the NT’s use of the OT (known as intertextual studies) has revealed how the apostles had an incredible respect for, love of, and commitment to the OT, which they sought to pass on to all the churches, both Jewish and Gentile.  It is not that they suddenly developed this OT hermeneutic for themselves, for the evidence is clear that they had received this way of reading the OT from Jesus Himself, and they followed His method of asking “what do the Scriptures say?” What this research has revealed is how failure to grasp OT biblical theology, which provides information that is embedded between the lines of the NT letters, has restricted our understanding of the message of the NT. Without this information, we have been left with a scaffold and denied the view of the glorious building the scaffolding serves.

It is not possible in such a short article to do justice to the recent findings of scholars in this fast-changing, challenging and exciting field of intertextual studies. Sometimes, when people encounter this area of research for the first time, they are concerned that it might lead to a rejection of teaching long-considered to be essential to the Christian message. My contention, however, is that if such convictions have to hide away from Scripture, they need to be reflected upon. In fact, my experience is that rather than leading to a rejection of orthodox teaching, this area of research elevates it, giving it insights that bathe it with far greater clarity and a foundation that shores it up.

My main intention in this paper is to show, by example, how this intertexual method reveals things that we don’t always see at first reading of the NT text, because we are ignorant of the landscape in which its statements are set. The particular example I have chosen is the marriage ‘illustration’ in Rom 7:1-6, a passage that has created problems for scholars as they have sought to understand its purpose and relationship to Paul’s teaching of the Law. I believe that this ‘illustration’ is not about the role of the Law as is commonly understood, but the NT’s development of the OT motif, the Divine Marriage. It is not about the Torah, but about the ultimate relationship unredeemed humanity is tied into and how this can be changed. The passage is an expansion of Rom 5, where, because of Adam’s sin in which he took his entire family into a relationship with Sin (Satan), he died to the relationship he was created for with God. Thus, Rom 7:1-6 is about how this dreadful situation is reversed, going to the very heart of what being ‘in Adam’ and being ‘in Christ’ mean.

But before coming to the Divine Marriage motif, it will be helpful to survey the background in which the OT predictions and promises of the Divine Marriage are set. This will help us to see how Paul is using this material in his letter to the church at Rome, and so help us to see how Rom 7:1-6 works in the context of the OT biblical theology of the Divine Marriage.

Most scholars who work in this field of intertextual studies recognise a core element to the NT’s use of the OT.  It concerns the promises and covenants Yahweh made with Abraham, David and then Israel who, because of her disobedience over hundreds of years, had been given over to the Babylonians and taken into exile. The eighth century prophets onwards proclaimed that, though Israel had suffered what seemed a fatal blow from the hand of her God, He had not cast her off. He would still, in a most marvellous way, bring together all the promises that had been given to her ancestors and, in an incredible act of salvation, bring repentant Israel out of her captivity and back to her homeland to be established as ‘the planting of the Lord’. This act of salvation was going to be like their deliverance from Egypt and, because of this, it was called a Second Exodus.

Prior to falling under this judgment, the people of Judah believed that the prophets were wrong in their warnings because, having been faithful to the Davidic throne, God would not allow this to happen to them. Once the predicted judgment fell, they came to accept that the exile was punishment for their sins and found great difficulty in thinking that there could be a new start. But this was the very thing the prophets had promised them. In spite of the destruction of Jerusalem, the deportation of her people and the collapse of the royal family, the prophets predicted that a descendant of David would be raised up (Isa 11:1, 55:3–4; Jer 33:14–17), who would lead the people from their captivity back to the Promised Land (Isa 11:11, 48:20–21, 52:1–12; Ezek 36:24). He would be anointed with the Spirit of the Lord for this task (Isa 61:1–2) and would lead the people through the wilderness (Hos 2:14, 12:9). 

This pilgrimage through the desert would be under the protection of the Holy Spirit (Isa 44:3, 59:21, 61:1–3; Ezek 36:24–28, 37:1–4), just as the pilgrimage from Egypt had been. There would be miracles (Mic 7:15), just as there were when they came out of Egypt, and the desert would be transformed as nature shared in the re-creation of the nation (Isa 55:13). The exiles would return, telling of the salvation of God (Isa 52:7–10), and a New Covenant would be established, which would centre on the Davidic prince (Isa 9:6–7, 11:1, 55:3–4; Jer 33:14–17). Unlike the Exodus from Egypt when flesh was circumcised, the hearts of the people would be circumcised (Jer 31:31–34; Ezek 36:26–27). 

It was predicted that, once the people arrived back in Jerusalem, they would build a magnificent temple, which the descendant of David would dedicate (Ezek 44–45). Into this temple all the na¬tions, without converting to Judaism, would come to worship Israel’s God (Isa 2:1–5, 9:1–7, 19:23–25, 49:6–7, 49:22–23, 56:3, 60:3,10), the believing peoples of the earth would become one holy nation, the Lord would come into His temple (Mal 3:1) and the marriage between God and His people would be celebrated with a great cosmic banquet (Isa 54:1–8, 61:10, 62:4–5; Hos 2:16,19)!   

So these predictions and promises are at the heart of what God said He would do for Israel. They are the Second Exodus promises, and give shape and substance as to what the promised New Covenant would secure for Israel. The promises contained in the three paragraphs above are so important for under¬standing the NT that they are worth committing to memory. These are the promises we find throughout the NT, its writers claiming that Jesus has, or will, fulfil them all, for all the promises of God are fulfilled in Jesus (2 Cor 1:20).

We find the history of the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and the Minor Prophets such as Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. What these books show is that, while the people attempted to rebuild a temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:7ff; Neh 4:1ff), it was pathetic compared to the one that had been destroyed by the Babylonians (Hag 2:3–9). They constantly looked for the coming of the descendant of King David (Hag 1:13–14; Zech 3:8–9) to fulfil the Second Exodus promises, but he did not appear. For four hundred years they groaned in their sense of failure, guilt and disappointment.

As the years passed, there was no significant change. Though the Jews returned to their homeland, they were always under the control of another nation. Their exile seemed to continue, and they longed for its end. They had returned to their own land but were as far from God as they had ever been, for, despite a brief period during the days of the Maccabees, they never had their own independence. For them, God had not yet fulfiled His promises. Not until they had complete freedom could they accept that their punishment was over. The literature of the Jews during this period—known as the Intertestamental or Second Temple period—shows the faith they continued to have. They clung to the hope that God would fulfil the promises He had made to them through the prophets. The Scriptures surveyed above were their light through the long, dark years of shame under the domination of Rome. They longed for the promised deliverance from their helplessness and enslavement. These promises, though interpreted differently by different Jewish groups, seem to have been the source of hope for them all.

This brief survey indicates the degree to which the expectation of a fulfilment of the promised Second Exodus had saturated the nation at the time of the Baptist’s ministry. While there were different opinions on how the promises would be fulfilled, the evidence shows that these promises provided the core of the teaching of many groups of Jews throughout Palestine in the time of Jesus. To ignore this expectation, in any attempt to understand the development of the Christian message, would be folly. What is abundantly clear is that the hope that these promises would one day be fulfiled did not die. It is on these promises (which spoke of the sons of Abraham being inclusive of believing Gentiles) Paul focuses when he writes that all the promises of God are “Yes and Amen” in Christ Jesus.

The Jews, of course, looked for what was essentially a political fulfilment of the Second Exodus. But what Jesus and the apostles show is that the fulfilment of these promises is spiritual. The key is the death of Jesus, which took place in the context of the Passover – the very event that inaugurated the first Exodus. The Egyptian Exodus is clearly the OT type that gives meaning to the reason and significance of the death of Jesus. 

So, in the OT two Exoduses are spoken of. The Exodus from Egypt was the type that the NT writers built on as they sought to explain the significance of the death of Jesus. The Exodus from Babylon, known as the Second Exodus, provided a range of promises, delivered through the prophets, to encourage those in exile about what God would do for them. The promises linked to this Babylonian Second Exodus are those we have noted above. As we have seen, while a section of the nation (the remnant) did return, the vast majority of the promises were not fulfilled. It is these promises that John the Baptist (Lk 3:4-6) and Jesus (Lk 4:17-19; 7:14-23) said were at last being fulfilled. This final fulfiment was not political but spiritual. It was not deliverance from an earthly oppressor but from the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of God. In order to distinguish this glorious NT Exodus event from those of the OT, I will call it the New Exodus. All of the promises of the Second Exodus (from Babylon) have their true fulfilment in the New Exodus, and this includes the promise of the Divine Marriage.

While there is increasing recognition of the importance of these OT promises, I believe there are two methodological mistakes that prevent this understanding from delivering its fullest riches. We shall look at these now.

Firstly, there is the failure to recognise that the NT is a collection of corporate writings. For the most part they were written to believing communities, not to individuals. While this is receiving wider acceptance, with scholars identifying particular passages within letters as being addressed to the churches, there are few who recognise that the entire text of these letters should be read in this way. Because this corporate way of reading is only applied to those sections of the letters that are clearly speaking to the communities, the interpretations of the letters oscillate between individualistic and corporate exegeses. Such inconsistency in exegesis is not helpful and is inconsistent with the ancient mindset where the community had precedence over the individual.

[This corporate method of reading does not deny that Christians have individual experiences of God, but what the apostles are describing is much greater than this. Like the authors of the OT they speak of the relationship the community has with God. The descriptions of God’s saving work are not about the salvation of individuals but of the Covenant Community. It must not be forgotten that the apostles were saturated in the OT and taught within its framework.]

The need to read the NT corporately ought not to be difficult to accept. The letters, apart from personal ones to people such as Timothy, Titus and Philemon, were written to churches and could only be accessed by the believers when they gathered to hear them being read out. Their reception was undeniably a corporate event. With the pre-Enlightenment mindset that each NT church had, such an understanding would have been completely natural. To put it bluntly, there is no way that a first century believer could read NT texts, or any other public text for that matter, as being about himself. This would cut right across his self-perception, where the community always had precedence over him. When a person became a Christian, he was transferred from one community to another. He could not think of existing outside of a community. Thus, the reading produced by the Enlightenment that focused on the autonomy of the individual would have been foreign to the NT writers and readers in the early church. One of the saddest fruits of the Enlightenment is that it has cut people off from their sense of identity, leaving them bereft of any significant sense of corporate understanding and responsibility.

Failure to recognise that the letters speak to the churches rather than to the individuals within them has lead scholars to some surprising conclusions. For example, in 1 Cor 6:19, Paul writes: “you are the temple of the Holy Spirit”. Even though the Greek is abundantly clear, ‘you’ being plural and ‘temple’ being singular, the dominant understanding of this text is that it refers to the individual Christian’s body being the temple of the Holy Spirit. This is despite the fact that there is no textual evidence whatsoever to support an individualistic understanding. This error is the result of reading the text as addressing the individual rather than the community. The passage should be read like 1 Cor 3:16, where Paul reminds the church in Corinth that she is the temple of the Holy Spirit. This is one of many examples of texts being misread when the corporate understanding is abandoned.

The second methodological mistake that has deflected us from a clearer understanding of the apostles is the prevailing practice of using Intertestamental Literature as a sort of Rosetta stone for understanding the meaning of NT words. Paul abandoned his training as a rabbi and followed Jesus’ own example of engaging directly with the OT texts. (Gal 4: 22-24 is no longer considered to be a midrashic interpretation of the story of Sarah and Hagar by an increasing number of scholars, but as an intertextual reading of Isa 54, which is about the Divine Marriage.) This should warn us about the inappropriateness of searching for clues in other sources that were not valued, and possibly not even known, by the early Christian communities. Such a practice is a negative step to take. Most of these Intertestamental writings were written by Jewish ‘heretical’ groups outside of mainstream Judaism and all of these groups, along with mainstream Judaism, opposed the Christian message. To suggest that these texts, which emanated from groups that rejected Jesus, provided keys to hidden NT treasures just does not fit with what we know of the apostles’ commitment to defend the Gospel that is ‘according to the Scriptures’. It is the exact opposite of what we would expect from a group of teachers who were anxious to stay faithful to their Master’s message. 

This claim, regarding the inappropriate use of Intertestamental texts, brings me into sharp conflict with the majority of modern scholars. These texts are ubiquitous in modern theological writings. I find the fact that they are absent from the NT of great significance. The only exception is found in the letter written by Jude, where he refers to Enoch’s prophecy (Jude 14-15), these same words being found in the apocalyptic book of Enoch. But the questions must be asked: does Jude quote this book? Or do they both quote a well-known oral tradition about Enoch? The danger of using extra-biblical texts is that solutions to exegetical problems will be claimed on the basis of imported evidence – evidence which has neither been scrutinised nor seen to fit theologically.

I have had to raise these matters in order to show the importance of the OT for a proper interpretation of the NT. Any method that deviates from this is challenging the exegetical method of Jesus and His apostles, including Paul. If we do not stay with their method we are in real danger of missing their arguments. Reliance on Intertestamental Literature and on the teachings of other Jewish subgroups for our understanding leads to a tragic loss of direction and confidence in the integrity of the early church. We would be acknowledging that the apostles quickly abandoned their Master’s teaching along with His exegetical method and became thoroughly syncretistic. The authors of these Intertestamental texts had a totally different understanding of God’s saving activity from that of the apostles, whose teaching had come from Christ Himself. While I accept that there would have been development, the evidence suggests that the apostles were not freethinkers in theological terms but stayed within the hermeneutic that Christ had established.

So, having highlighted some personal concerns about current theological methodology, how do these impact our readings of Romans and the Divine Marriage?   

First of all, I want to point out that the Divine Marriage theme is an essential part of New Exodus expectations. Indeed, it is the climax of the series of events, and it could reasonably be argued that the very purpose of the Egyptian Exodus, Babylonian Exodus and the New Exodus was a restoration of the relationship between man and Yahweh. This is evident by the repeated references to this event in the OT (Isa 54:1-6; Hosea 2:13-19; Ezek 16:2-13) and in the NT (Matt 9:15, 22:2-12, 25:1-13; Mk 2:19-20; Lk 5:34-35, 12:36-40, 14:7-11; Jn 3:29-30; 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:25; Rev 19:9). This vital fact is missed by other advocates of the importance of the New Exodus theme. These scholars normally focus on the inheritance of the land being the fulfilment, i.e., they terminate with the New Creation theme rather than the Divine Marriage theme, which somehow gets lost. This New Creation conclusion of the redemptive process is not following the OT pattern where the climax is the promised Divine Marriage (Hos 2:14-20; Isa 54:1-10, 61:10, 62:5, 66:7-11; Ezek 16:1-63).

Now, while the same OT Divine Marriage theme is found throughout Intertestamental Literature, there is a huge change when we examine the NT’s use of it. In all previous references, both canonical and non-canonical, it is Yahweh who takes Israel as His bride. When we come into the NT, it is Christ who will marry the redeemed New Covenant Community – Yahweh has been replaced by Christ in the ongoing narrative. Such a change is totally unexpected, and no attempt is made to justify it. It is introduced in such a way that the writers assume that the receptive communities know about this change and will have no difficulty with it. The implication is clearly Trinitarian and strongly suggests that Trinitarian thinking was found very early on in the life of the church.  

I am seeking to show that the reference to marriage in Rom 7:1-6 is much more than an illustration. It is using the Divine Marriage metaphor (found, as shown above, to be throughout the NT) to explain how Christ’s death has freed His bride from being the possession of Satan and how His death has made it possible for a community that was in covenant with Satan to be restored to her marital relationship with God. Such a reading ought not to surprise us as this is at the heart of the OT Second Exodus promises. A people (i.e., Israel), who had forsaken her God and Husband for other gods, was promised that her Creator would bring an end to her adulterous relationship(s). He would make it possible for her to return not only to the matrimonial home but also to the matrimonial relationship. Of course, this is the message of the book of Hosea and explains the incredible salvation that Yahweh promised Israel in the Second Exodus. In order to demonstrate that Paul is picking up on this theme, we need to survey the context of Rom 7:1-6 by looking at his letter. You will recall that this was written to and about the church in Rome, and was heard and received corporately.

Paul introduces Jesus as the Son of David (Rom 1:3), and tells the Roman believers that the message he writes is according to the Scriptures (Rom 1:2). The fact that his Gospel fulfils the Scriptures is so important to Paul that he repeats it in Rom 3:21 and Rom 15:4. We saw above that the Son of David’s role was to save a people from the realm of exile; so from the very outset Paul is connecting with the OT teaching and promises that a descendant of David would be raised up to save God’s people. [This is the same Davidic introduction that Luke gives in his Gospel (Lk 1:68-79).] However, Paul argues that Jewish people are, in fact, in a far more serious state of exile: they are in the same exiled condition as the Gentiles, and he describes the condition of both communities as being in slavery to Sin (Rom 1:18-3:20).

The original deliverance from Egypt was based on the Passover, and in Rom 3:21-26 there are numerous indications that Paul is describing Jesus’ death as a Passover sacrifice. The first indication is found in Rom 3:24 in the statement: διὰ τῆς ἀπολυτρώσεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ·, “through the redemption (ἀπολυτρώσεως) that came by Christ Jesus” (NIV). This verse carries a key Paschal term, “redemption”.  The only feast or sacrifice that achieved or celebrates redemption is the Passover.

A second indication is in the use of the word προέθετο, protithēmi, “presented” (NIV), in Rom 3:25. The term means ‘publicly displayed’ or ‘set forth’. Here we have another hint that Paul is describing Jesus as the Passover victim. Of all the sacrifices the Levitical law legislated for, the Passover sacrifices were the only ones that were displayed for all to see. While the blood of the Passover lambs was daubed on the doorposts and lintels of the Hebrew houses, the blood of all other sacrifices was offered to God within the temple. The cultic significance of protithēmi is supported by the fact that it was a technical term for the presenting of a sacrifice.

In the statement in Rom 3:25: ὃν προέθετο ὁ θεὸς ἱλαστήριον διὰ [τῆς] πίστεως ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι εἰς ἔνδειξι, the word ἱλαστήριον, (hilastērion), means ‘propitiation’. In this context it is a “sacrifice of atonement” (NIV) and also has Passover echoes. This term was traditionally translated ‘propitiation’, which I have argued elsewhere  should be retained. This meaning has been largely rejected by scholars because the text does not support a Day of Atonement setting in which propitiation was considered to belong. They noted that there was conflict between the description of Jesus’ death being publicly displayed and the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement, which took place in the temple and offered in the privacy of the Holy of Holies. They also considered that there was no propitiatory value in the blood of the Passover lamb. As a result, Passover, as the background of the passage in Romans, is not given the consideration it deserves. 

However, once it is appreciated that there are good reasons to say that the early church, through the influence of the Ezek 45:21-25 text, saw the Passover to be a sacrifice of propitiation, the natural setting for the passage in Romans becomes clear. In the passage in Ezekiel, we find the prophet speaking of the final Paschal sacrifice that ‘the prince’ – the son of David, i.e., the king – would make. He would make a Passover sacrifice that dealt with the nation’s sins. This was exactly how the Gospel writers came to see, and present, the death of Jesus. He was the King of the Jews, and He died at Passover. 

In a further statement in Rom 3:25: τὴν πάρεσιν τῶν προγεγονότων ἁμαρτημάτων, the word πάρεσιν, ‘passing over’, “forbearance” (NIV) is used. Paul is saying that the death of Jesus deals with those sins that had previously been ‘passed over’, a very clear reference to the Passover when the sins of the nation were ‘passed over’ by the angel and her firstborn were spared the sentence of death.

In addition to the Rom 3 passage, the Paschal theme is also found in Rom 4:25 [widely acknowledged to refer to the sacrifice of Isaac, the eldest son of the Jewish nation (Gen 22), Jewish scholars linking the offering of Isaac with the Passover sacrifice] and in Rom 8:32. Indeed, while there is an ongoing presence of the Passover/Exodus theme in the opening chapters of Romans, it was also used widely throughout the NT [e.g., Jn 1:29, 3:16; 1 Cor 5:7 (note that the word ‘lamb’ is not in the original Greek, so it is ‘Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed’), 10:1-4; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:7; Col 1:13-14; Heb 1:3; 1 Pt 2:21-25; Rev 1:5-7]. These parallel themes in Paul’s writings and the rest of the NT give us confidence that they were all ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ and focusing on how Jesus fulfilled the promises made to both Abraham and David of a great, final redemptive event (Rom 3:27 – 4:25).

Furthermore, it is increasingly being recognised that, throughout Rom 5:1-5, Paul introduces a pilgrimage theme. He writes: 

'Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.'

Butting up against this pilgrimage theme is language that reflects the Passover – the offering of the beloved Son as the atonement for His people’s sins and their redemption:

'You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.'

The language strongly conveys Paschal (Passover) themes: someone dying in another’s place, the shedding of blood, escaping wrath, a new beginning. In fact, the passage repeats the vocabulary and imagery found in Rom 3:21-26. The original Passover was the inauguration of a series of events that would restore Israel to her relationship with God. The appearance of Israel at Sinai was later seen by Hosea to have been the occasion of Israel’s marriage to her God, and the giving of the Law was seen as His marriage gift to His bride. The pilgrimage through the desert secured her inheritance, the Promised Land, and this pilgrimage imagery is found in the opening verses of the chapter with the focus on the suffering of the community. 

The significance of the Passover/Exodus event is that the prophets saw it to be the occasion when Yahweh took Israel into the wilderness to betroth her (Hos 2:14-23). In other words, if the NT writers are following the OT typologically, where we see the Paschal/New Exodus theme we ought to find the theme of the Divine Marriage as well. It is my contention that, in Rom 7:1-6, we find exactly that.

The New Covenant Community received not the old Law but the promised fulfilment, which was the gift of the Spirit (Rom 5:4). It is His presence that equips her as she makes her pilgrimage to receive her inheritance (Rom 5:1-5). A typological reading in Rom 5:1-11 is strongly supported by the fact that, as everyone acknowledges,  Paul is using typology in the latter part of the chapter (Rom 5:12-21).  

Furthermore, scholarship has increasingly recognised Exodus imagery in Rom 6, and this ought not to be surprising as Paul uses the Exodus paradigm in his explanation of the significance of baptism in 1 Cor 10:1-4. Again, we are dealing with a passage that is heavily typological. The corporate reading of Rom 6 resolves the key difficulties that the chapter has presented and with which expositors have failed to adequately deal (see examples below).

Interestingly, this corporate dimension is now generally recognised to be the key to a proper understanding of Rom 7, a chapter in which Paul describes the authority of sin. In a similar vein, it has been appreciated that Rom 8 and its teaching on the role of the Spirit is about the Community the Spirit leads rather than the individual believer (even though the individual clearly participates in this). 

So, here are some of the trajectory indicators. Themes occur that have distinct Passover/Exodus/pilgrimage connections. The Gospel is according to the Scriptures. Paul sees Christ bringing all the promises of God to their climax. While all scholars do not highlight the same themes, many are now favouring this Exodus imagery to be present in the letter to the Romans. Now, if this New Exodus theme is present and shaped by the anticipation of a final Exodus-type of deliverance, there is just one component that is generally missing from the work of recent scholarship: 

The climax of the Egyptian Exodus and Babylonian Second Exodus was that Yahweh would take His people as His bride. Such a spectacular conclusion to redemption history would be expected to be found in the research relating to NT New Exodus theology, but it is not. While it is recognised that the theme of the marriage of Christ to His people keeps surfacing throughout the Gospels and is found throughout the book of Revelation as well as in Eph 5:22-26 and 2 Cor 11:2, the theme has vanished from its proper place in Second Exodus theology. Its absence is hardly noticed by scholars who work in this particular area. 

I would claim that it is because this Divine Marriage theme has been missed in Rom 7:1-7 that grammatical and theological difficulties exist in the traditional readings of the proceeding chapters. Once the theme has been recognised, along with the ongoing Exodus/Paschal/pilgrimage typology, the exegetical problems are naturally resolved. For example:

1.    Despite the favourable weight of textual evidence for Rom 5:1 in which Paul says, “let us have peace with God”, he is repeatedly translated as saying, “we have peace with God”. In an Exodus context, this exhortation to the people to recognise that the God who saved them from brutal slavery will not judge them is natural. One can almost hear Moses crying to the people that they should not fear the presence of God as they approach Sinai, because the Passover was evidence that He did not intend to do them harm, but good. His exhortation, like Paul’s, would have been: 'Do not fear him! Let us have peace with God.'

2.    Describing baptism as being buried into death is a very clumsy way of saying that, in baptism, we were united with Christ in His death. However, the phrase is perfectly proper when it is understood corporately in the context of the New Exodus as 1 Cor 10:1-4 demonstrates. I have argued elsewhere that the passage is not about the widespread practice of water baptism but what the practice symbolised. It portrayed that the candidate was included in the great ontological event at Calvary, which resulted in the union of all believers, of all generations, with Christ in His dying on the cross. The creation of this union was the work of the Spirit. It fits the 1 Cor 10:1-4 type perfectly, and it is in such a corporate reading that the exegetical problems are resolved.

3.    It is an almost universal practice to translate Rom 6:7 as “he that is dead is freed from sin”, when there is not one major Greek MSS that supports this reading. In the Greek it is always δεδικαίωται, dedikaiōtai, ‘justified’ [not “freed” (NIV) and many others], the only exception being a very weak, second century text that has ‘freed from sin’. However, if ‘justified’ is part of the Divine Marriage motif, it makes perfect sense because it refers to the legitimacy of the marriage. Because the believing Community has died in Christ, there is no charge of adultery in Christ taking her as His bride and both parties are justified in making their marriage vows. In other words, the passage is identical to that found in Rom 7:1-6 and is about the legitimacy of the Divine Marriage. It is not part of a discourse on the doctrine of forensic justification. Of course, this latter doctrine hovers in the background as breaking the law regarding marriage would bring about judgement. 

When we have a series of difficult issues in a passage and we have to change the reading of the most reliable ancient autographs to make the preferred interpretation fit, we are in danger of completely missing the intended meaning. Forcing a text into a paradigm when it leaves unanswered questions is not the best way to do exegesis. We must ask if we have the right paradigm in the first place, and this is best evaluated by carefully considering the theological theme that forms the context to see if there is the possibility of the writer having used a different paradigm. Until now, scholars have not asked the question as to how this section (i.e., Rom 7:1-7) fits into the New Exodus theme that has been identified in Rom 1-11.

Now we turn to consider the illustration of the marriage that Paul has used in Rom 7:1-6. For most scholars the point that Paul is making is vague, and the illustration would have been better left out of his letter. For almost all, it is read as an illustration from first century marriage practice and the laws that controlled it. What most fail to appreciate is that the illustration of marriage is never used anywhere in either the OT or NT to describe an individual’s relationship with Christ. The illustration must be read, not about an individual who marries Christ as a result of His death, but about a Community that has, at a past point in history, been united with Christ in His death. This unity is spoken of throughout the NT as a marriage event. It is known in systematic theology as ‘union with Christ’, and, as Calvin rightly asserted, it is the source of all Christian blessing. The corporate interpretation is supported by the now widely accepted fact that Rom 7 is much bigger than Paul’s own story – it is about fallen humanity in Adam. 

In this illustration we have a reference to the law of sin. Many scholars have acknowledged that when Paul speaks of sin in the singular he speaks not of violation of the legal code but of a force, or better, a person, who has taken charge of man. The focus in these texts is not sins that have been committed but humanity’s subjection to Sin. Those in Adam are under the power of Sin. Some take this to mean that they are under Satan’s control for, in Rom 6, ‘Sin’ in contrast to ‘righteousness’, which most acknowledge refers to God. Thus, humans either serve Satan or they serve God. Such personal terms and the relationships they speak of are widely recognised by NT scholars.

So, the illustration is unpacking what has gone on in Rom 5-6. Those in Adam have been brought under Sin. It is this relationship that defines what the law of Sin is. It is not the Torah. It is the authority that the husband has over his wife. Here, humanity in Adam has a different relationship than the one it was made for. This relationship means that humankind is dead to God and is alive to Sin. Not only is it a different relationship, it is a different kingdom. Humankind is shut up under Sin and is powerless, owned by a marriage partner different from the one it was created for. When the transaction that brought freedom was achieved through Christ’s death on the cross, believing humanity (i.e., the Church) came under a different husband’s authority – the One who had died for her and was raised from the dead (Rom 7:1-6). She is now under the law of a different husband, i.e., believers are under the law of Christ (Gal 6:2).  

This imagery is rooted in the experience of Israel throughout the OT who continually chose new relationships with foreign gods, to the exclusion of Yahweh. This unfaithfulness became the charge of Yahweh against Israel and the justification for her exile. She was sent off to the land of her lovers! This is the incredible backcloth to the promise of the Divine Marriage in the OT. As Hosea shows, Yahweh was committing Himself to a people who behaved so appallingly that it could not be imagined. This imagery and the promises that created it were related to the nation, who had prostituted itself to other gods. This is the narrative of the NT! Humanity has rejected her Creator. It has preferred the kingdom of darkness and the false promises of Satan, the one who has been a liar from the beginning. The promise of the Second Exodus was that this would be reversed and believing Israel would once again be in covenant with Yahweh.  Of course, this is the destiny of the church, and this is what Rom 7:1-6 is all about – it is about the fulfilment of these promises and how the relationship with Satan has been brought to an end. In the NT, unredeemed man is seen to be in a relationship he was never created for and exiled in a kingdom that is in opposition to the Kingdom of God. 

Israel’s behaviour replicates what Adam did in the Garden, with its similar outcome of exile from the presence of God. It is not a coincidence that the two main historical figures found in Rom 5 and 7, apart from Christ, are Adam and Israel. Their acts typify humanity’s fall from grace. If we leave this OT background out, we will never see what is going on in Rom 7:1-4. However, once the OT’s Divine Marriage theme is recognised, and interrelationship between OT and NT theology is further clarified.

And so the illustration, I would argue, is hugely significant! It is not an unfortunate aside that does not help Paul’s argument, as some have claimed. Instead, it is at the very heart of what he wants to say. The climax of redemptive history will be the Divine Marriage. Only those who have been delivered from the relationship they had with Sin, and have come under the headship of the Second Adam, can be part of this glorious, triumphant event. The members of this redeemed community have been delivered through their Saviour’s death from the guilt of Sin and his power, and Satan’s claim to be the husband of this redeemed community is over. It is not Satan’s death that has terminated this relationship but the representative death of the One who, having died and having been raised for her redemption, has taken her back as His bride. In this amazing illustration, Paul argues for the legitimacy of the Divine Marriage, and there is absolutely nothing that Satan can do to prevent this most wonderful event being fulfilled! (See Rom 8:26-39 in this light). Satan, as the husband of the unredeemed community, i.e., those left in Adam, does not love his ‘bride’ – his only interest is to use her as a tool to ridicule and mock the One who had created her for Himself. 

We do not have space to explore this fascinating theme any further. This is unfortunate, for it is one that the church needs to grasp as it influences how she sees her relationship to the Law now that she has been restored to the grace of God.

Picture of Tom Holland

Tom Holland

Tom Holland is a research supervisor in Biblical Studiest at Union School of Theology.
Picture of Tom Holland

Tom Holland

Tom Holland is a research supervisor in Biblical Studiest at Union School of Theology.