Guest post by Jacob Gucker
Interpreters of the fourth Gospel have long noted that it begins very similarly to the book of Genesis. John’s description of the opening days of Jesus’ ministry reads as if it is echoing the words of the six-day creation sequence from the book of beginnings. Most scholars favor the idea that the wedding at Cana falls on the seventh day, completing the first week of the new creation with man and woman together and the wine of the new age flowing abundantly. Others suggest that the wedding falls on the 6th day, the wedding at Cana echoing the creation of man and woman.
There are other themes from the rest of Genesis in the opening chapters. For instance, we see the dove that once hovered over the flood now coming down to light upon Jesus at His baptism. And, just as Jacob saw angels descending and ascending on a stairway to heaven, Jesus claims that His disciples will see the angels doing the same on Him. Furthermore, just as Noah provided rest in the form of wine after the great flood, Jesus turns an abundance of water into wine at the wedding feast, symbolizing the genesis of a new age.
Commentators agree that chapters 2-4 are a distinct literary unit because of the inclusio in 4:46 which informs the reader that Jesus has returned to Cana where He turned the water into wine. Scholars refer to this unit as a “Cana to Cana cycle.” I propose that John intended this unit to be a chiastic recapitulation of Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” I also propose that this unit works as a literary “day” on which the “Sun of Righteousness” comes out of His chamber like a bridegroom and, like a strong man runs His course with joy.
John’s language throughout the gospel leaves ample room for symbolic interpretations and double meanings. Will men be born again, or will they be born from above? Will women get running, as opposed to stagnant water, or will they receive some kind of supernatural water? Everything in the text is more than what it seems; John’s Gospel is easy to read and difficult to master.
Some of the people in these chapters are nameless because they are more than what they seem. The “mother of Jesus” is not Mary, but “woman,” and the fact that Jesus addresses her as “woman” is odd. Scholars have struggled to explain how Christ was not being rude to His own mother. Jesus also addresses the Samaritan woman in the same way. Readers who lean into typology recognize that these women are symbols representing mother Eve, woman Israel, and lady church. Their association in this text with wells and springs of water fits with the scriptural tradition of presenting women and water sources together. Isaac, Jacob, and Moses found wives near wells, for instance.
The Galilean royal official of the last story in this cycle is a nameless father, even though he is a ruler. His interaction with Jesus parallels the interaction at the wedding feast between mother and Son. Each makes a request in a time of crisis. Jesus responds with a gentle rebuke but works a sign anyway. The passages are parallel, and John wants us to know that these two signs are two witnesses to Jesus’ glory, but perhaps John has intentionally placed “mother” and “father” in parallel for a reason.
Nicodemus is a ruler of the Jews, and probably the highest rabbi in the Sanhedrin. John identifies him as an anthropos of the pharisees. This comes right after he has said in 2:25 that Jesus knows what is in anthropos. Nicodemus and the Samaritan are contrasting figures at each end of the human spectrum. One is a ruling Jewish male teacher, the other is a lowly Samaritan woman adulteress. Though they can symbolize all people, they specifically symbolize the sundered nation of Israel. Samaria is without husband and Judah needs to bear children for God. All the families of the earth are broken because the first Adam and his wife failed to serve God faithfully. Jesus knows this better than anyone.
Situated between these men and women is John, the friend of the bridegroom. It was the friend’s responsibility to bring bride and groom together, rejoicing at the bridegroom’s exultations over his bride. John recognizes that Jesus is the bridegroom of Israel, but his placement in the center of this literary unit means that his passage is also bringing together the symbolic man and woman of the adjacent segments. Thus, we can see a chiastic structure to the Cana cycle:
- WOMAN – MOTHER of Jesus. (2:1-12) -Wedding Feast at Cana
- MAN – GROOM – Nicodemus, RULER of Pharisees – (2:13-3:21) – Jerusalem
- FRIEND – John,“friend of the bridegroom.” (3:22-36) – Aenon, meaning “spring.”
- WOMAN – BRIDE – Samaritan woman who “has no husband.” – (4:1-45) – Samaria
- MAN – FATHER of sick boy – RULER in Galilean district (4:46-54) – Cana
John is baptizing at Aenon because there is “much water there.” Aenon means “spring.” At the heart of this unit is a spring, which was also true of Eden. A spring fed the garden where God formed man and woman and brought them together, and baptismal waters will feed into the new creation.
In this section John also says of the bridegroom that “He must increase,” and of himself, “I must decrease.” The writer chose words that were used in Greek writings for the waxing and waning of celestial bodies. Maybe this is one reason that the church has celebrated the birth of Jesus on December 25th, the date from which the light of the sun begins to increase. The Nativity of John the Baptist is on the summer solstice, the date from which light begins to decrease.
Throughout this unit, there is a literary passage of time. Jesus says to His mother, “my hour has not yet come.” Ultimately, Jesus’ “hour” is the full revelation of His glory on the cross, but He is also saying that it is not yet time to reveal Himself as the Messiah. Implicit and explicit time markers in this unit move from night to the full light of day. Assuming that the wedding at Cana was in keeping with Jewish wedding customs, it occurs at evening. In the Bible, each day begins with evening and this unit is beginning at the start of a new day. In the next section, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for Passover, a feast commemorating the most famous night in Jewish history when God called forth His son Israel from Egypt. Then, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night and converses with Him about Israel’s need for a new birth.
From the middle of the unit, John says that Jesus must wax while he wanes. The light that has come into the world will increase. The natural light that comes into the world every day is the sun, and in the very next section, we see Jesus coming to the Samaritan woman at the sixth hour or high noon. Not coincidentally, Jacob also met Rachel at a well at “high day.” Jesus specifically reveals Himself to the Samaritan woman as the Messiah because His hour has come. He even says that the hour for true worship is nowhere. Jesus shines His light on her life and she does not hide in darkness. It is probably for this reason that, according to the Greek Orthodox tradition, the woman is Christened, Photine, or enlightened one at her baptism. In the next section, it is the seventh hour when the son of the Galilean official begins to get well. Though several days have passed since Jesus revealed Himself to the Samaritan woman, the literary day has advanced by one hour.
The seventh hour has come! the Sun of Righteousness has come out of his chamber like a bridegroom and is like a champion running His course with joy. The human family is reborn with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Bride is making herself ready for the great wedding of the Lamb, adorning herself with good works to be revealed on that day.
Jacob Gucker is a librarian at BMA Theological Seminary in Jacksonville, Texas. He lives with his wife and baby daughter at Preacher’s End Farm where she raises vegetables and pastures chickens and he looks up from his books to help out.