Whoredom: God’s Unfaithful Wife in Biblical Theology

Written by Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr Reviewed By Karen H. Jobes

Raymond Ortlund speaks with a timely voice to the Church living in a society obsessed with sex. He presents a fine exposition of the biblical theme of the harlot as a metaphor for God’s people when they reject his covenant love in order to be loved by others.

Ortlund’s exposition of the sanctity of marriage, from Genesis, provides the necessary context in which the biblical metaphor of spiritual whoredom is to be properly understood. He identifies the exclusive nature of the human marriage relationship as exemplary of God’s demand that his people worship him alone. Because God is the perfect ‘husband’, sin, both sexual and otherwise, is a betrayal of relationship with him. The metaphor of spiritual adultery is, therefore, an appropriate characterization of sinful people.

In subsequent chapters, Ortlund apologetically uses graphic language to trace the theme of spiritual harlotry through selected passages in the Pentateuch, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Ancient Israel became an adulterous wife by entering into political treaties with pagan nations instead of trusting in Yahweh alone, yet God continued to promise a future reconciliation, his marriage with them. Ortlund explains one incident of Israel’s harlotry this way:

… The bloodshed of Jezreel constitutes spiritual whoredom … [It] was whoredom toward God because it evidenced a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude of thrusting oneself forward at the expense of others. Spiritual adultery entails more than religious offences; whenever God is not trusted fully and obeyed exactly, including in the realm of politics, his people deny the adequacy of his care and protection, so that they fend for themselves, on their own terms. (p. 52)

The motivation for spiritual unfaithfulness identified by Ortlund is a timely warning for the evangelical Church today:

The spiritual answers and resources offered in the covenant seemed unreal in the face of visible dangers.… The people failed to make meaningful connections between their theology, history and worship, on the one hand, and their real-life problems, on the other hand. (p. 48)

Ortlund’s biblical theology of harlotry bridges the Testaments by explaining how Jesus Christ fulfils God’s long-suffering promise to be reconciled with and sanctify his harlot-bride. Jesus Christ is the divine husband, whose own blood forever removes the stains of his bride’s previous harlotry. The Church in spiritual union with Christ perfects the long-promised marriage between Yahweh and his chosen people. Ortlund expounds several passages from the NT, such as 2 Corinthians 11:1–3, Ephesians 5:31–32, and several from Revelation, to show that the necessity of personal moral purity, both sexual and otherwise, follows from the spiritual reality of one-spirit union with Christ.

An appendix provides Ortlund’s response to feminist interpretation of the harlot metaphor. Unfortunately, he chooses to interact with two of the more radical feminist interpreters, Athalya Brenner and Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes, who understand the harlot metaphor to be ancient pornography motivated by the misogynist intent of the biblical writers. Such a viewpoint is so far removed from evangelical Christian sympathies that Ortlund’s critique of it is not likely to be of central concern to his presumed audience. One wishes that he had chosen to interact with interpreters who share more of his fundamental convictions. His response to Brenner and van Dijk-Hemmes is a fine critique of the radical subjectivism of postmodern hermeneutics that informs feminist interpretation in general. However, van Dijk-Hemmes raises an often overlooked point that the nature of this biblical metaphor allows male readers to identify with the righteous wronged husband rather than with the female harlot, escaping the force of the text that indicts the male kings and priests who led ancient Israel into spiritual harlotry. The issue of gender identification in Bible reading deserves more attention in evangelical hermeneutics.

Ortlund’s sound exegesis of this easily misunderstood biblical theme provides insight into the profoundly intimate nature of the Church’s relationship with God, and exposes sin in any form as a violation of the ultimate one-spirit marriage with Jesus Christ.

Karen H. Jobes

Karen H. Jobes
Wheaton College
Wheaton, Illinois, USA