2 Corinthians 3:1-6
Last week I introduced some of Peter Enns’ thoughts on the Bible. Having grown up in a very literalist and fundamentalist Biblical framework, the more he studied the Bible at university, the more that literal, fundamentalist framework didn't hold for him. He came to see that rather than the Bible holding Simple, Obvious and Clear instruction for human life and living, he came to see that it as Ancient, Ambiguous and Diverse. And rather than being a let-down, he said that this discovery is one that he celebrates.
Why does he celebrate the fact that the Bible is Ancient, Ambiguous and Diverse without providing clear unambiguous answers. Because he says that it tells us that God is not a helicopter parent trying to direct every aspect of our lives, but rather, God is like a wise parent who is inviting us into a journey of becoming mature and wise adults, capable of navigating the complexity of life in this world by making mature and wise decisions. He believes that a Bible that is Ancient, Ambiguous and Diverse provides us space to ponder, to debate, to think deeply, and even to have the space to fail... all which are necessary if we are to grow in wisdom.
So there you have last weeks sermon summarised in about a minute and a half. It makes you wonder why it took me close to 20 minutes last week to say essentially the same thing!
Now last week I made reference to Deuteronomy 21 as a text that helped us to see first hand how the Bible is ancient, ambiguous and diverse. But in last weeks sermon I felt like we only scratched the surface of this passage. And so today I had thought it might be helpful to dive in a little deeper and see if there are further insights that this passage might invite us into.
There are three sections to the passage we read and so I would like to make a few brief comments on all three sections:
In the first section, we have what I imagine most of us (and perhaps especially the woman here) would consider the horrifying laws about conquered woman being forced into marriages with their Israelite captors.
The text says: If in a context of war, the Israelites conquer their enemies, and an Israelite warrior sees a captured woman who is beautiful and desirable, he has permission to take her as his wife. He must first let her grieve for a month. Next he must shave her head, clip her nails after which he shall be joined to her in marriage. If however she does not please him, he is not to make her into a slave. Rather he is to set her free to go where she wishes, because he has dishonoured her.
From our modern Western perspective, it is quite a shocking scenario. Just as shocking as Boko Haram in Nigeria capturing 276 school girls in April 2014 and forcing them into marriage with their captors. According to Wikipedia, 6 years later, there are still 112 girls missing who have never returned, still living probably in forced marriages.
Like I suggested last week, there is something quite ancient, one might even say, barbaric, about this practice. If this passage is part of our holy Bible, what are we to make of this passage? Is there any light that shines from this verse at all? Tim Mackie, a founder of what is called the Bible Project gives a very helpful perspective. He says that if you want to understand and evaluate the laws of the Old Testament, you need to understand them and evaluate them from within their own ancient context. You need to evaluate them according to some of the laws and practices of other ancient people. When you do that, you begin to see some faint glimmers of light even in this dark, barbaric and primitive text.
Within this text you can begin to see the faint glimmerings of our modern day understanding of human rights. Despite the horror of forced marriage that this passage represents, there is strangely and remarkably alongside it, some faint conception of the human feelings and human dignity of the captured woman. Firstly there is the acknowledgement of her human grief for her lost family. She is to be given a month to grieve for them. But secondly, what is remarable is that her captor is not given permission to do anything he likes with her. If she does not please him and he does not wish to continue in the marriage with her, he is not to turn her into a slave. He is to give her her freedom, because according to the text, he will have dishonoured her.
There are many ancient cultures where a captor would have been given free license to do anything he liked with this woman he had captured... Even western slave owners up to the 1800’s, largely had carte blanche when it came to the treatment of their slaves. But here in this ancient passage, we see the faint glimmers of a higher consciousness beginning to dawn. What is remarkable about the laws of the Old Testament is not that they are timeless absolute laws emailed from heaven that are true and valid for all time. Rather what is remarkable about them is that they represent a significant shift and early growth in concepts of justice and fairness that form the basis for modern day human rights. Our task is not to treat OT laws as absolute, which they are clearly not, but rather to see the trajectory and the direction in which they are pointing.
It is very easy for modern Western European like ourselves to judge a passage like this, but it probably also needs to be remembered that arranged and forced marriages were quite common amongst our own ancestors up until the early 1800’s when things began to change. Although it wasn't legal, but certainly fairly commonly practised, it is quite shocking to think that the selling of wives in England was still practised until 1901. Slavery was only first abolished among European nations in 1834. And perhaps even more startling that the first clear and unambiguous statement on universal human rights was only first expressed after World War II in 1948 with the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights just after the formation of the United Nations. And what might be interesting is that 8 nations abstained, including, I am embarrassed to say, South Africa.
The practice of justice and fairness and a concept of universal human rights is a very new concept in the history of the world. But here in this ancient Old Testament text, we see some of the earliest faint glimmerings of light faintly glimmering through a very dark and barbaric practice.
In the next section of our passage, we likewise are confronted with what from our perspective as Western Europeans is another seemingly ancient practice of polygamy. It seems ancient because it has been many centuries since it was last practised here in Europe. But in other parts of the world, the practice is not so ancient. In South Africa, it is not uncommon. Up until two years ago we had a president who was a polygamist with 6 wives. When Wendy and I were renting out a property a year before we came to Dromore, one of the applicants was for the second wife of a polygamous man who would be paying her rent. And just last week I saw on a South African news website an article asking the question how an inheritance should be divided in the case of a polygamous marriage where no will has been drawn up.
In certain parts of the world, the advice in this passage is perhaps surprisingly contemporary.
From our perspective as modern Westerners, we might easily get lost and caught up in the injustice of a man marrying two wives and one being loved while the other is unloved. But when read it in it’s ancient context, what is remarkable about this passage is that there are the early glimmering in human consciousness of a sense of justice and fairness that goes beyond simply the affections of the human heart. Even where someone might not be loved, this passage comes as a reminder that justice and fairness are important values.
The passage from our perspective is ancient, and ambiguous, because it has stuff in it that we would disagree with, but within it are also the faint glimmerings of God’s spirit, seen in the faint glimmerings of concepts of fairness and justice.
The fact that there is corruption and nepotism still in evidence in modern Western democracies shows that we have still not fully got to grips with the concepts of justice and fairness.
Lastly, we come to the rather shocking passage that suggests that capital punishment by stoning is an acceptable method of dealing with a stubborn and rebellious son. It is quite a horrific passage if one lets one’s imagination run with it. For me, there is very little in the way of redeeming light that shines from this passage. The best that i can do to understand it in it’s context. The Hebrew people were a small and vulnerable nation. Their very existence would have been constantly under threat from surrounding nations. Within that context, stubborn and rebellious children would have been a threat not just to their own immediate family, but to the clan, tribe and nation. Severe discipline like that of this passage was probably considered necessary for survival. And yet, even an explanation like that doesn't diminish the sense of the barbarism and brutality of this passage from our own holy scriptures.
Maybe, sometimes, it is ok to disagree with our own scriptures. And it is clear that in his own way, Jesus disagreed with this particular passage. The evidence is to be found in the parable of the prodigal son. The prodigal son in Luke 16 is also rebellious and stubborn. Like the son in Deuteronomy 21, he is also a drunkard and a glutton. The same words that are used to describe the rebellious son in Deuteronomy 21 and Luke 16.
For any Jew who would have been listening to the parable of Jesus, they would immediately have made the connection with Deuteronomy 21. They might have wondered how the parable of Jesus was going to end. Was the son in the parable going to be taken to the village elders? Were they going to gather around the son and stone him to death for his rebellious and stubborn behaviour? What a shocking twist to the parable it must have been to hear that instead of being stoned to death, as the law in Deuteronomy required, the rebellious son, on returning home, is received with love and affection. The father in the parable, like a wise parent had given his son space to make mistakes, and to learn the painful lessons of life that would enable him to grow in true wisdom.
The contrast between Deuteronomy 21 and Luke 16 shows us that the laws of the Old Testament are not simply to be accepted unchallenged. At times, as we find in Jesus parable of the prodigal son, we can even challenge and disagree with them. In the end, God’s gift of the Bible does not force us into blind faith and blind obedience, but rather, invites us, to ponder, reflect, debate and above all to journey into a deeper wisdom, a journey that takes us beyond the written letters on a page, and into listening deeply for the spirit of God. For as Paul discovered in his own experience, the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.