The man is haggard, dark circles under his bloodshot eyes; he has been crying. He is not sure when his wife last slept next to him. He has not slept much in her absence . . .
The following is a parable based on Jeremiah 3. But first, a brief introduction. Each time I read Jeremiah 3, I see the image in my mind of a distraught, rejected husband, angered over his wife’s unfaithfulness, yet longing for her to return. Jeremiah 3:1-4:4 continues the story of God the abandoned husband, and Israel the unfaithful wife, interweaving the theme of God as husband with that of God as parent. Between the accusations of adultery and disrespect, God pleads with Israel to return (Hebrew shuv). This theme of returning is prominent throughout the chapter; the word “return” appears more than ten times in the poetic unit.
The tone for this poem is set by the allusion to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (ESV) in the first few verses of chapter 3. The beginning of Deuteronomy 24 reads:
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.
Yet—despite the clear reference to this law and God’s question “You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?”—God later begs Israel to return in verse 12. It seems that God is able to do what no husband can do: God can take back a defiled bride. God is not like a man, that he becomes unclean by association (how else could Jesus touch the leper in Mark 1:41?) Better still, God desires to heal Israel of her faithlessness (3:22). The question lingers, will Israel return?
He knew, long before the rumors began to circulate, that she was seeing other men. She began putting on perfume, makeup, jewelry; she had stopped dressing up for him long ago. He confronted her about it, but she dismissed him—lied that she was going to mandatory work events. Eventually, when it was clear she was not fooling him, she admitted that she was spending her evenings with another man (or men), but that “there was nothing there” and she “wasn’t doing anything” with them. But the contraception that spilled out of the inside pocket of her purse—all over the bedroom floor, the inner sanctum that had once belonged only to him and her—told a different story. In time, she stopped hiding her activities. She stayed out late into the night and often slept late on the couch, waking after he went to work.
He was angry with her, understandably. He opened a separate bank account and switched his cell phone to a separate line. Unable to hold a steady job, his wife soon found herself deeply in debt. Still, he pled with her to stay, offering reconciliation and financial support if she would only stop her philandering. Instead she blamed him for her troubles, for taking away the means by which she pursued her questionable lifestyle. He tried to persuade her to go to counseling, but she refused to see that she was doing anything wrong. He planned elaborate date nights, but she stood him up. One day after work, he found another man’s belongings in his bedroom—his were pushed to the side, stuffed sloppily in boxes. Another man’s hair was on his razor; one of his suits was gone. When his wife came home with her new lover, she declared airily that her husband didn’t have to leave, “they could all live together” and he could have the couch. He slept with a pillow over his head to drown out the sounds of her unfaithfulness.
The lover left her, as all of them did, so he tried, one last time, to appeal to his wife. He made a reservation at the most elegant restaurant in town and bought her a beautiful, floor-length evening gown. He caught her attention with the gown all right. Washed and perfumed, she slipped into the dress and let him button up the back. At the restaurant, she ordered her drink and then disappeared “to the bathroom.” She did not return. Later, he found her standing on a corner a few blocks from the restaurant, pitching her body, which he had clothed so exquisitely, to the men in the cars that drove by. He watched as a car stopped and she got in, followed it to the expensive hotel where she and her client entered, waited all night for her to come out so he could take her home if she called, but she never did.
She did not come home after that. He called her; sent his friends to look for her; even contacted her old lovers to inquire after her whereabouts, but they wanted nothing to do with her. One evening, he passed by the restaurant where they had spent their last date and saw her again, standing on the same block in the same dress, waiting for a customer. The dress had been ripped in a few places; she looked lopsided and bedraggled. Her hair was a tangled mess done up in a sloppy bun. He was about to pull over to beg her to come back, but another car reached the curb first. She opened the door and got in. He followed the car to a trashy motel and watched as a greasy-haired man ushered her into a room. After they went in, he got out of his car and knocked at the door. His wife opened it. She was not surprised to see him, but she wasn’t glad either. “It’s hopeless,” she said, “this is who I am. I can’t help it.” She almost looked sad.
“Please come home,” he begged.
“Like this?” she asked with a sneer. “You don’t want me now and you know it.”
“That’s not true. I want you. Especially now.”
She looked down and studied her toes. The green polish was wearing off. Finally, she looked up at his face and said, with finality in her voice, “You think you are so much better than I am. But I don’t need you. I never needed you. Even if you do want me, I won’t go back with you. I want my freedom. I want to be able to love whoever I want, whenever I want.”
He shrugged. “Then I’ll wait.”
She glared at him in anger for a few moments before slamming the door.
He stood and waited . . .
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” (Revelation 3:20)
“Return, faithless Israel, declares the Lord. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the Lord; I will not be angry forever.” (Jeremiah 3:12)