Review of S. Moughtin-Mumby. Sexual and Marital Metaphors

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Sharon Moughtin-Mumby, Sexual and Marital Metaphors in Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel (Oxford Theological Monographs; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). Pp. xiii + 314, Hardcover. £ 70.00, US$ 130.00. ISBN 978-0-19-923908-5.

A revision of the author's doctoral thesis at the University of Oxford, this monograph demonstrates the diversity of sexual and marital metaphors in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible and argues that scholarship should abandon the term “the marriage metaphor,” the use of which betrays a number of flawed assumptions. After an introduction that covers metaphor theory and the history of scholarship on sexual and marital language, Moughtin-Mumby devotes separate chapters to literary readings of the main passages: Hosea 4–14, Jeremiah 2:1–4:4, various passages in Isaiah, Ezekiel 16 and 23, and finally, Hosea 1–3.

In her readings of these passages Moughtin-Mumby convincingly defends her thesis that the biblical texts do not constitute a single, unified marriage story. Thus, for example, Jer 2:1-4:4 is not primarily about “the marriage metaphor,” but rather the presence of a few diverse marital metaphors represents only one of many rhetorical devices used in the relentless ridicule of Judah (p. 110). In Ezekiel any thought of a consistent marriage story after reading chapter 16 is turned on its head in chapter 23 with the introduction of a second woman, a sister (pp. 158–60). In Isaiah and Hosea the metaphors also defy reduction to a single story-line.

According to the author, the basic assumption of coherence among these texts has led to a lack of appreciation for the unique metaphorical power of different marital metaphors, due in part to a tendency to smooth over the distinctive elements of each individual passage’s metaphorical language. In particular, she chides a handful of scholars for taking elements of “the marriage metaphor” from one passage and “filling in the details” for their interpretation of another (p. 6). In some cases, such practices amount to placing the metaphor within the story of Yahweh’s love relationship with his wife and missing its real significance (e.g., Isa 54:5; p. 133), and in other cases, the idea of “the marriage metaphor” has caused scholars to “find” it in passages whose marital language does not even refer to Israel’s relationship to Yahweh (e.g., Jer 2:32; pp. 90–94). However, when interpreters consider these passages on their own terms rather than homogenizing them, it can be seen that the marital metaphors do not constitute a single story.

While Moughtin-Mumby has succeeded in correcting a certain mishandling of these texts, the term “the marriage metaphor” need not be abandoned completely. As she rightly shows, the problem is that many have read the marital metaphors as different instantiations of the same story and labeled this story “the marriage metaphor.” Instead of simply correcting the idea often associated with the term, she wants to dispense with the term altogether (p. 275). But Moughtin-Mumby seems to have equated “the marriage metaphor” with “the marriage story” (see especially p. 156). Though we may reject the latter, the idea of a single, recognizable marriage story represented in these texts, “the marriage metaphor” could be retained in a more basic sense to describe the relationship of Israel to Yahweh (i.e., ISRAEL IS YAHWEH’S WIFE, or YAHWEH IS ISRAEL’S HUSBAND), even if the metaphor occurs in differing forms. This basic conceptual metaphor corresponds to what Lakoff and Johnson call a “conventional” metaphor, which may be expressed in different novel and creative ways (Metaphors We Live By [University of Chicago Press, 1980]).

In her introductory discussion of methodology, Moughtin-Mumby argues that the imposition of “the marriage metaphor” on the biblical texts is a direct consequence of a certain view of metaphor characteristic of traditional scholarship called a “substitutionary approach” (pp. 6–7). According to Black (1962), such an approach assumes that a metaphor can be translated, or “substituted,” for a more “literal” word or phrase without any substantial loss of meaning (p. 3). Moughtin-Mumby eschews this method in favor of a “cognitive approach,” which considers a simple translation to be impossible without a significant loss of meaning. This view insists that “the connotations surrounding any metaphorical word are intrinsic to its meaning … [and have] the ability to introduce new perspectives” (p. 4).

Moughtin-Mumby is certainly correct when she notes that the scholarly impasse over feminist and traditional interpretations of marital and sexual metaphorical language is due to fundamentally different approaches to metaphor (pp. 5, 14). However, the difference does not lie in most traditional scholars’ adherence to a strictly substitutionary approach that discards the “ornamental” metaphorical language. This may be a tendency with certain texts (see below), but she caricatures traditional interpreters with the egregious examples of a handful of scholars. Instead, the primary difference between traditional and feminist approaches lies in another difference mentioned by Moughtin-Mumby: their focus. Traditional scholars commonly focus on the tenor of sexual and marital metaphor, especially when the vehicle consists of shockingly sexual or violent language, whereas feminist interpreters commonly focus on the vehicle, sometimes to the almost complete neglect of the tenor (p. 14).

She would appear to agree that a healthy approach to metaphor should take seriously both the tenor and vehicle. The shocking sexual and violent language in passages such as Ezekiel 16 and 23 cannot simply be ignored as inconsequential; on the other side, a speaker or author uses a metaphor to communicate something about the tenor, and thus to focus on the vehicle to the exclusion of the tenor is to misread the metaphor. Although Moughtin-Mumby has sharp criticism for the former offenders, she herself comes dangerously close to ignoring the tenor altogether and thus the point of the metaphor – to map (some of) the associations of the vehicle onto the tenor. Indeed, with her “cognitive approach” in hand, Moughtin-Mumby is fond of speaking of these metaphors as powerfully persuasive devices (e.g., p. 110), but she (along with many other feminist readers) rarely addresses what exactly they seek to persuade the reader of. In fact, the closest she comes to discussing how the metaphor transforms the perceptions of the reader is not concerning the religious infidelity of Israel (i.e., the tenor), but rather the negative views of women (allegedly) implicit in the texts (p. 204).

Moreover, feminist and traditional methods often correspond to reader–oriented and text/author–oriented approaches respectively. The former is concerned with the emotive effects on the reader, especially in the present day, while the latter, in addition to an interest in what the text communicates about the tenor, has a special concern for “mitigating factors” of the socio–cultural and historical context. According to these readers, such factors temper the often shocking nature of the sexual and marital metaphors. Examples of the former include the essays by Linda Day and Peggy Day (Biblical Interpretation 8 [2000]: 205–30; 231–54), and of the latter Corinne Patton (Carvalho’s) “‘Should Our Sister Be Treated Like a Whore?’ A Response to Feminist Critiques of Ezekiel 23” (in The Book of Ezekiel: Theological and Anthropological Perspectives [ed. by J. Strong and M. Odell; Atlanta: SBL, 2000], 221–238). Moughtin-Mumby pays lip service to a mediating approach that accounts for both the literary context and the socio-historical context (pp. 18–21), and she acknowledges that mitigating historical factors can go a long way to describe why such language appears in the Hebrew Bible (pp. 41–42). But, in the subsequent readings of the prophetic texts she fails to incorporate these factors, regularly calling attention to the shocking language while rarely noting the historical context or the non-metaphorical referent.

In regard to the relationships among these texts, Moughtin-Mumby has little interest in the diachronic aspects of influence and literary borrowing. She is open to the possibility of dependence between the prophets (p. 160), but the reader will find little if any discussion of how the later prophets might have borrowed from the language and ideas of earlier prophets. She rejects the tendency to view Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s marital metaphor as a continuation or addition of the story found in Hosea (e.g., pp. 89–90). In another instance she entertains the idea of dependence, but quickly declares it a trivial matter (p. 109). Though it is true that some have used the notion of dependence to assert a lack of originality on the part of these later prophets, as she points out, it is almost certain that the marital metaphors represent a prophetic tradition and that later authors picked up on the language and ideas of earlier literature. And since Ezekiel in particular knew and drew extensively from a variety of sources such as the Holiness Code, Deuteronomy 32, and Zephaniah, [1] it is very likely that he would have been influenced, even if only indirectly, from the marital metaphors in Hosea or Jeremiah.

The most valuable contributions of this monograph are found in the literary readings of the biblical passages under question. Despite Moughtin-Mumby’s tendency to focus on the metaphorical vehicle and her failure to do justice to the socio-historical side of her literary-historical method, the quality of her literary analysis is outstanding. She has for the most part produced superb, and often original, exegetical commentary on these texts, which should be consulted by all future commentators. In particular, her aim to read these metaphors in their distinctive literary frames rather than the “default frame” of the illusive “marriage metaphor” often sheds new light on passages that were veiled in the shadow of “the marriage metaphor.” In each chapter she works through the various instances of sexual and marital language in the prophetic corpus taking account of their distinctive elements. She places the sexual and marital metaphors in the context of other metaphorical and figurative language in the biblical book and in many cases shows similarities and correspondences between the two (e.g., word-play and prostitution in Hosea 4–14; p. 64). The exegetical insights are too many to enumerate, but to cite one example, her reading of Hosea 1–3 is particularly provocative and worthy of consideration. She disputes some commonly held assumptions, including the idea that in chapters 1 and 3 Hosea represents Yahweh, while Gomer represents Israel (pp. 206–17).

In conclusion, Moughtin-Mumby has reminded us that the prophets used sexual and marital metaphors in a variety of ways for the rhetorical purposes at hand, and these are to be interpreted in their immediate context. At times the metaphors present varying pictures of Israel’s relationship to Yahweh, but this should not be surprising when it is seen that they are not intended to paint a single story. Thus Moughtin-Mumby is correct when she notes that “the emphasis of these narratives is on the message they strive to convey, not on an abstract, hypothetical background story of the relationship between Yahweh and [the] city/nation” (p. 159; italics original). In addition, her proposal for a literary-historical approach to these metaphors, which accounts for both the literary and socio-historical context, can be a way forward for the impasse between traditional and feminist scholars, even if this work has failed to model it.

Jason Gile, Wheaton College