1. The Insight of a Prophet 

One tiring thirsty afternoon, Jesus broke a long-distance trip on foot to sit by a midway Samaritan well where He struck a conversation with a local woman.  By prophetic insight, at one point in their discussion, Jesus said to her, “thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband” (John 4:18).  She was very shocked at how the stranger knew so much about her private life, and that opened the door to other matters.

  1. Every Man is not a Husband 

When Jesus said “thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband,” He was making a distinction between husbands and non-husbands, irrespective of the level of intimacy between the partners.  Jesus was specific that the woman had had five men who were husbands, and that she was at the moment with Man Number Six who was not a husband, or not yet a husband, notwithstanding that she ‘had’ him at the time.  Having a man does not make him a husband, or make one the wife.

  1. A Hostel or a Home? 

In the Complete Jewish Bible, the New Living Translation, and a couple of other Bible translations, the expression, “he whom thou now hast,” is rendered as “the man you’re living with now.”  In other words, the woman was already living in with Man Number Six, probably checking out if, at last, that was going to be the man of her destiny and her peace; if that relationship would ‘work’ at last, after five failed cases.  Whether she moved in with him or he moved in with her, we cannot say, but given that orthodox culture, it is more probable that it was she who moved in with the man.

When Jesus said the man that she ‘had’ at the time was NOT a husband, not HER husband, He probably meant that she was dating a married man – another woman’s husband, or that the man had not yet done the customary rites to announce him a husband, and make her the wife.   Secondly, and of more serious concern, Jesus seemed to have been saying that to have ‘had’ a man; to be ‘living with’ the man; to move in with him, did not mean marriage to the man.  The reverse would also be true, that to ‘now have’ a woman in the house, to be “living with” her “now,” does not make her a wife.  In other words, residency is not marriage – no matter how long the stay.  Flashy as a hostel might be, a hostel is no home, and marriage is much more than consensual cohabitation.

Jesus was addressing two kinds of relationships: marriage and cohabitation.  With the previous five, it was marriage; but with Man Number Six, it was cohabitation, which neither society nor God, unfortunately, had recognised as marriage.  Jesus knew what marriage was, and what it was not.  The woman knew, too.

  1. Five New Testament Husbands? 

The next point is what bothers me: five husbands!  Did Jesus really call those ex-men “husbands”?  Wasn’t it He who said, in the same New Testament, that if someone divorced and remarried while the other partner was still alive, it was adultery, unless there had been a case of fornication (Matthew 5:32; 19:9)?  Shouldn’t Jesus then have said that she had had a husband, and thereafter four adulterers, or at best, four subsequent concubines or ‘sugar daddies’?  Did Jesus really call those past relationships marriages?

There was a hypothetical parable about a woman consecutively marrying seven brothers after the previous husband had died, from the eldest to the last (Mark 12:19-22).  Was consecutive deaths the case with the woman of Samaria?  Did each of the five husbands die, thus warranting her next marriage, and validating the subsequent man’s title as “husband” rather than “adulterer” – and she “no adulteress,” according to Romans 7:3?  It is very unlikely that consecutive death was the cause of all five dissolutions.

If death was not the cause of the five failed marriage, was it fornication?  Did someone commit fornication in all previous marriages to warrant a divorce and legalize the next marriage, according to Matthew 5:32?  Or were there other causes for the divorces?

If this had been a parable, we might have had theological pathways to ease the puzzle, but this was a real-life encounter with a real woman who had had FIVE HUSBANDS!  If it had been a man who had had five wives, we might also have bothered differently.  What is marriage?  Who is a husband?  What makes a wife?  What did Jesus mean in Matthew 5:32 that one is unable to see in John 4:18?

  1. Men or Husbands?

The word translated “husbands” in the story of the woman of Samaria is the Greek word aner; the same word in Matthew 1:16 and 19, where Joseph is called “the husband of Mary.”  Of course, there are instances in the English Bible where the same Greek word is translated as “men,” as in Matthew 14:21 where Jesus fed “five thousand men.”   The reference in John 4, however, seems very clear: “husbands,” especially as Jesus was also careful to distinguish the five ex-men (husbands – aner) from the sixth man (no-husband; co-tenant).

What did Jesus mean?  Does His language in John 4:18 reinforce or extend His warnings in Matthew 5:32? In the same New Testament, could one have had a dissolution and be guilty of adultery, and another have as many as five dissolutions, and still earn the legal title of wife and husband?  What don’t we understand from the comparative cases?  Maybe a matter for another epistle.

From The Preacher’s diary,
July 20, 2021. 

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