The Desert Honeymoon

Sarah Horgan
Friday, January 28th 2022

Engagement party, bridal shower, wedding—with rehearsal dinner and reception—honeymoon, gender reveal party, babymoon, baby shower, baby sprinkle.

“There are too many parties!” my husband remarks, after we receive yet another wedding invitation. He lists all the events our society has conceived of to celebrate the allegedly mundane steps preceding and following the central event of matrimony, and I teasingly call him a curmudgeon. (Also, I’m impressed that he knows what a baby sprinkle is).

There is a time for every occasion, says the writer of Ecclesiastes, and it seems meet to me to celebrate what we can while the sun is hot. The problem is not the celebration. The problem, I say to my husband, is materialism and increasing expectations… and Pinterest.

Flipping through my parents’ wedding album recently I noticed a stark contrast between a Nazarene wedding in the 1980’s and the average wedding today. For one thing, way more people are getting married in barns than churches (myself included). I won’t venture a comment on what this says about Americans, but the reader can make inferences. The average cost of an American wedding in 2019 was $28,000, but according to Conde Nast Bridal Media research, it was about half that in 1990. My parents followed their ceremony with simple cake and ice cream in the church’s reception hall. Apparently small plastic fountains buttressing a tiered cake was a sine qua non in the late eighties, but drone-captured videography, personalized wedding favors, and full orchestral bands at the reception were not (yet).

The amount of stress involved with wedding planning has increased along with the cost, which is embroiled in societal expectations. A young engaged woman at my church said that she had become so stressed about wedding planning that her fiancé suggested she delete her Instagram. The temptation for comparison is strong within the wedding industry, and the many decisions can become points of contention among couples and their families as they try to balance a budget with expectations of grandeur. Honeymoons, too, fall under this umbrella. A google search for “top honeymoon destinations” gave me a top result by The Knot, a popular wedding-planning website, titled “70 Instagram-Worthy Honeymoon Spots.” Might as well have the byline, “Spend lots of money and angst on something you could be doing any other day besides your honeymoon.”

The Bible mentions a place few people would choose for a honeymoon destination, a place that would not garner envy on social media or in bridal magazines, and yet it’s a destination that Christians ought to be more familiar with. Wedding imagery is rife in the New Testament, but it is anteceded in the Bible by the grandest image of matrimony that most modern believers have never heard of: the wedding and honeymoon of God and Israel in the Sinai desert.

Marty Solomon explains that the Hebrew exodus and the entire scene at Mt. Sinai are an image of Jewish matrimony between God and his chosen people. It’s imagery that the Jewish people have long recognized in rabbinic tradition, albeit with different variations. The main components of ancient Jewish weddings, some of which are still upheld today, included events and items such the bride’s consecration, the blowing of the shofar (horn), the chuppah (tent-like covering), the ketubah (wedding covenant), and the exchange of wedding gifts. All these things occur in the book of Exodus: like a bride, Israel is consecrated before the ceremony (19:10-11), the cloud covering descends upon the mountain (19:18), the horn is blown to announce the beginning of the ceremony (19:19), the ten commandments defining the relationship are delineated (20:1-17), and the Torah is given as the dowry. When God calls Israel his “treasured possession” in Deuteronomy 14:2, that is overt “wedding talk,” says Solomon—the kind of language a groom would use for his bride.

If rabbinic tradition generally agrees that the scene at Sinai is a wedding, this could mean that a honeymoon would follow. A common consensus is that the idea of the honeymoon originated with the Victorians, as wealthy newlyweds would tour the country to visit family and friends who did not attend the wedding. However, the idea of a time and space set aside for newly married couples existed in ancient cultures too. Solomon explains that Jewish weddings included an engagement period that the groom spent by building a room onto his father’s house, a room which he and his future wife would live in together. After the wedding, the couple would move into this new home, and during the first year of marriage the new husband was not to fight in war or engage in business (Deuteronomy 24:5) in order that he and his wife could begin to nurture their relationship. In a culture of arranged marriages this was especially important, since the two young people may have met only once before, at their betrothal, and that period of a year which we might retroactively identify as akin to a honeymoon allowed them to get to know each other as well as cultivate their burgeoning relationship.

If the Jewish wedding ends with the bride following her husband to their newly built house, then the wedding at Sinai ends with the bride (Israel) following the bridegroom (Yahweh) around the desert, until eventually they come to their future home: the promised land, the home the bridegroom has prepared for his bride.

In Jeremiah 2:2, God says to Israel, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness.” This verse references that honeymoon-esque period when the Israelites carried their tabernacle around the desert, not knowing when or where the journey would end. Importantly, this period—traveling to their new home and beginning to build their marital relationship—did not end with a first-class ticket to Canaan or a return to “normal life.” It’s unclear when exactly it did end, which is sort of the point. The desert honeymoon is much less cut and dry than modern honeymoons, and this story gives little demarcation of where the pleasures end and the nitty-gritty work begins.

Today’s honeymoons may be viewed as a buffer zone between anticipation and planning and the “real work” of marriage, but perhaps such a view impedes a helpful understanding of the complexities of marriage. Hint: it’s not an Instagram-friendly version. The desert honeymoon offers an alternative, but more realistic, projection of married life.

Medieval monastics sought out the desert, which might suggest that the desert is a better place for promoting celibacy than nurturing marriage. But maybe they understood something we miss in our glorification of romantic relationships. Monks looking for solitude, spiritual refinement, and intimacy with God also encountered glaring temptations, feelings of exile, and utter bleakness. In the words of Gail Fitzpatrick, “Those who seek [the desert’s] peace find instead a raw encounter with all that is untamed and unregenerate in their hearts.”[1] This discovery is true of married men and women as much as medieval monks. The forty years of wilderness wandering is an infamous story, full of bitterness, grumbling, plague, disobedience, and even death, a journey that no young newlywed couple would dream of copying—or would they? The lesson of the desert honeymoon, perhaps, is that whether you seek the mountains or the beach, you eventually end up in the desert: dry, desperate, depraved. And in that desert, you not only see your spouse’s nakedness, but your own. Unlike The Knot-depicted honeymoons, the desert honeymoon is about so much more than R&R—it’s about the hard work of sanctification. “It is your soul you need to change,” wrote the poet and essayist Kathleen Norris, “not the climate” (p. 88).

Norris wrote that a metaphorical desert experience can be understood “as a difficult training in how to love and as the gift of our merciful God” (p. 137). Marriage is, ultimately, for sanctification. There is plenty of fun and laughter, the hope of children, the joy of intimacy and emotional connection, and shared experiences. The modern practice of honeymooning can encourage a foundation of connection for the rest of the marriage. But the honeymoon period, whether you spend two weeks in Bali, five days at a mountain cabin, or one night at a local motel, is only the beginning of the wild adventure of recognizing your own ugly sins and learning to forgive your spouse’s. The shadow of Sinai is not a self-affirming place; it’s not even an other-affirming place. It’s a place where both spouses come face to face with God and recognize that they cannot compare with him.

Solomon says that Jewish wedding traditions and the understanding of the Sinai story as a large-scale wedding are sort of like the chicken and the egg: we don’t really know whether the traditions developed after the scene at Sinai, or before, or if they both informed each other. But by the time these elements are referenced in the New Testament, and Jesus plots himself as the bridegroom of the new Church, the Jews would have easily recognized what he was doing. They already understood God as the bridegroom of his people from references like Hosea 2, Ezekiel 16, and Isaiah 54. But whether the chicken or the egg came first, the greatest thing about this story is that we do not model our understanding of God’s love upon our understanding of marriage, but the other way around. God is faithful to the covenant he crafted and the institution he created, even as human marriages falter or fail.

This is plain within the same text. In the middle of the wedding ceremony at Sinai, the Israelites build a golden calf and started worshipping it. This gives new context to Moses’ anger and the moment when he throws the newly carved tablets on the ground, says Solomon. It’s not just that Moses is angry, it’s that he sees the tablets, the ketubah, as futile: it’s like the bride is fornicating with some other man in the middle of her wedding. It’s extreme, yes, but the elements are not unfamiliar. It’s easy to settle into the months-long wedding-planning mindset and then expect to be able to plan the marriage too, and newlyweds can find themselves frustrated and angry enough to turn that honeymoon glow into a post-wedding dumpster fire. But in this old, old, beautiful story, the marriage is not destroyed. God forgives. He instructs Moses to create new tablets. The marriage ensues.

In Ezekiel 20, God references the judgment he doled out to Israel during those desert years. He threatens to do it again too, as his people have once again rebelled against him. Yet there’s something strangely comforting about this threat. The most joyous thing we can fear is that God will do the same for us when he says, “I will bring you into the bond of the covenant.” Marriage is hard work, and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating it in as many ways as possible, because God knows the trying times do come. The desert honeymoon of the Israelites may serve as a reminder that picture-perfect weddings and honeymoons are much less to be sought than marriages which rely entirely on the consistent, sometimes painful, always sanctifying, grace of God.

Sarah Horgan graduated from Washington State University with an M.A. in English and currently works as a copy editor and writer who has been published in Public Discourse and Verily. She has a forthcoming article in Salvo Magazine. She lives in Bryan, Texas and attends Grace Bible Church with her husband.

[1] Cited in Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me: Marriage, Monks, and a Writers Life, p. 137.

Friday, January 28th 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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