Tag Archives: Purity

Deuteronomy 24: Divorce, Purity and Justice

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Deuteronomy 24:1-5  Divorce, Remarriage and Wedded Bliss

1 Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house 2 and goes off to become another man’s wife. 3 Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); 4 her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the LORD, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession.
 5 When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be charged with any related duty. He shall be free at home one year, to be happy with the wife whom he has married.

As a person who has gone through a divorce (I share some of my reflections on this here, here and here) I found it interesting that this is really the only place that divorce is discussed in the law for the general population. There are the prohibitions of a priest marrying a divorced woman in Leviticus 21 and the ability of a divorced daughter of a Levite to return to her father’s home and eat of his food in Leviticus 22: 13 but otherwise the reality of divorce is simply assumed. Numbers 30, for example can discuss that the vows a divorced woman makes are bound to her, while a married woman the husband (or if unmarried the father) may nullify the vows-but divorced women are an assumption as is their remarriage. We saw that in Deuteronomy 22: 13-30 a couple situations (the false accusation of lost virginity before marriage or a virgin who is violated and the man pays the bride price for her) where a woman cannot be divorced but in the Hebrew Bible divorce seems mainly to be an assumed option for men. Here the issue of divorce comes up in the complicated issue of a woman who is divorced, remarries, is either widowed or divorced again and a prohibition against her remarrying her first husband.

Here, as in the discussions of blood guilt in Deuteronomy 19, 21 and 22, the concern is for contaminating the land. The re-unification of first husband with the now defiled ex-wife (notice that the husband is not considered defiled since polygynous weddings were accepted in Israel). This is an issue that receives the strong condemnation of being ‘abhorrent to the LORD.’ In the author of Deuteronomy’s ordered world this is simply something that is not to be done.

Deuteronomy discusses things from a male-centered perspective and it is inconceivable that a woman would ask for a divorce. A husband may release the woman from the relationship, but not the other way around in the ancient world. In releasing the woman from the relationship he also removes her from her means of support. For women in the ancient world there were limited options of support, so a divorced woman would be property-less, and if she wasn’t accepted back into her father’s home (and this may have been an issue of shame so severe that a family would not re-accept their child) then she either must re-marry, or be reduced to begging, or prostitution. Even with the provisions to care for the vulnerable outlined below, being a divorced woman in the ancient world would put one at a severe economic disadvantage.

This passage takes on a life in two other significant places in the Bible, the first being Jeremiah 3 where God is cast in the role of the husband who wants to re-take the wife who abandoned her marriage.  God refuses to abandon God’s love for God’s adulterous people (using the language of Jeremiah) and is willing to set aside the past for the possibility of something new. The other place this passage comes up is in Mark 10, and its parallel in Matthew 19, where Jesus is asked by a group of Pharisees whether divorce is lawful. Jesus interestingly reframes the issue that the man who divorces commits adultery against the divorced wife and the woman who divorces (not a conceived possibility in Deuteronomy) commits adultery against her former husband.

Divorce is a difficult issue in ancient times and in modern times. The church has often been a place where divorced men and women were excluded or made to feel like second class citizens. In earlier times, even though my own divorce was not something I wanted or did anything to cause, I would not have been permitted to serve as a pastor within my denomination. There are other denominations where this still would be the case. I have certainly had verses like Titus 1: 6 where it refers to a bishop being, “someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious.” Texts like this are difficult, but essential to wrestle with in a world where we also find divorce as an assumed reality. As we as individuals and churches struggle with issues of relationship like divorce and sexuality it is important to exercise wisdom and compassion. Divorce is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, even in modern times it is an incredible emotional, financial and spiritual drain on a person. While a man or woman who is divorced in our society has opportunities to re-invent themselves they need communities to care for them while they and the affected families are in very vulnerable states.

The final line in this section links back to Deuteronomy 20 where a person who is recently married is exempted from military service. Here the issue is expanded slightly giving a one-year window where a newly married man is freed from military service.  Here the language can be read that the exemption is so that the wife may be happy, which would be an uncommon acknowledgment of the value of women’s feeling in the ancient world. From a person who served in the Army this is would have interesting implications if it were applied in modern times (and I would think in times of conflict the marriage rate would skyrocket to avoid wartime service), yet in the world of Deuteronomy it makes sense. It is essential for the man to have the ability to ensure a future descendent who will carry on his name and inheritance in Israel. I also wonder how effective this was in practice when the elites would have been able to marry multiple times, and perhaps prevent themselves the risk of military action. Again, very different from the experience of the modern military which is filled with stories of people being married immediately before deployment.

Deuteronomy 24: 6-22: Purity and Justice

  6 No one shall take a mill or an upper millstone in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge.
 7 If someone is caught kidnaping another Israelite, enslaving or selling the Israelite, then that kidnaper shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
 8 Guard against an outbreak of a leprous skin disease by being very careful; you shall carefully observe whatever the levitical priests instruct you, just as I have commanded them. 9 Remember what the LORD your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt.
 10 When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. 11 You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. 12 If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. 13 You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the LORD your God.
 14 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. 15 You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.
 16 Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.
 17 You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. 18 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
 19 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. 20 When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 22 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.
This portion of chapter 24 deals predominantly with protecting the vulnerable within the community from exploitation, but within this passage is also a provision for protection from skin disease. The guarding against the “leprous” skin disease, which we honestly don’t know what this disease is-it isn’t what would be medically categorized as leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease).  The mention of Miriam and Aaron’s speaking against Moses where Miriam is afflicted with this skin disease (Numbers 12) is an interesting narrative linkage that the text makes. Miriam (not Aaron, perhaps because of his role as priest) is placed outside the community, yet the community waits for seven days when she is healed and is able to be re-united with the community. Leviticus 13 and 14 go into great detail for the priests on how they are to diagnose and deal with these skin diseases and it was a significant issue in the community. There are numerous places where lepers are lifted up as a part of the narrative throughout the bible, too many to address here, and apparently this was a significant issue among the people of Israel they had to guard against.

The remainder of the chapter deals with caring for the vulnerable in the community. Verse 6, dealing with taking a mill or millstone in pledge prevents a person’s livelihood from being taken which would not only prevent the repayment of the debt but also imperil the person’s ability to live. To take a person’s livelihood is to deprive them of life. In a similar way they are not to be a society where a person is taken captive or sold into slavery, this was not a practice the people of Israel were to tolerate and this is probably behind the command to not allow kidnapping. In verse 6 the people of Israel are prevented from depriving another Israelite of livelihood and in verse 7 they are prevented from depriving another person of freedom.

In Deuteronomy 23: 19-20 there is already a prohibition against charging interest on debt to another Israelite, but Deuteronomy spends even more time on the issue of debt here. This must have been a pressing issue among the people. As Deanna Thompson can state these laws reveal, “a fundamental respect for the dignity of the neighbor; even if he stands in need of money.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 178)  A person was to respect the neighbor’s property and to wait outside the home to receive a pledge (preventing the lender from voyeuristically deciding what among their neighbor’s property they would confiscate). Nor may a person’s means of being warm at night be taken away. As the prophet Amos can criticize in his time:

They lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge;
 and in the house of God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed. Amos 2:8

In any society the poor and vulnerable are likely to be preyed upon by those in power and debt can become a burden that they cannot ever emerge from. Yet, Israel was to be a society that cared for the poor in their midst and did not allow a neighbor to become permanently enslaved or burdened by their debt. In a similar manner the following verses relating to paying the poor and needy laborers daily and not holding onto wages for it could put their livelihood at risk. In a society where the poor are preyed upon by ‘payday loans’ and high interest rates on purchases, higher prices for goods and pay schedules that benefit the business but may not benefit the employee we have a lot we could learn from this view of economic justice based upon being a covenant people.

When I first encountered liberation theology[i] the idea of a “preferential option for the poor” it troubled me, because it seemed that God was picking one group over another. The reality is that the God of the Bible does pick, and that this is a faithful witness to the God we come to know.  As Miroslav Volf can state eloquently:

Consider, second, God’s partiality. In the biblical traditions, when God looks at a widow, for instance, God does not see “a free and rational agent,” but a woman with no standing in society. When God looks at a sojourner, God does not see simply a human being, but a stranger, cut off from the network of relations, subject to prejudice and scapegoating. How does the God who “executes justice for the oppressed” act toward widows and strangers? Just as God acts toward any other human being? No. God is partial to them. God “watches over the strangers” and “upholds the orphan and the widow” (Psalm 147: 7-9) in a way that God does not watch over and uphold the powerful.
Why is God partial to widows and strangers? In a sense, because God is partial to everyone—including the powerful, whom God resists in order to protect the widow and the stranger. (Volf, 1996, p. 221f.)

God seeks justice, but not revenge. We live in a revenge culture, if a person harms me there is the desire to make sure that this could never happen again. In the United States, and much of the world, this also informs foreign policy. Revenge in interpersonal conflicts is addressed here, where the idea of “if you hurt me, I will not only hurt you but all those close to you” is forbidden. A person is to be penalized for their own offense, not their children or parents. Justice ultimately seeks to establish an end to the cycle of punishment. In our own society where children of parents who are in prison are often set up to follow in their footsteps by the lack of opportunities and support for a different path maybe we too can imagine how we could imagine a society where children are not punished for the mistakes of the parents and vice versa.

These commands to help the vulnerable, highlighted in the widow, alien and orphan, are brought into the narrative of liberation of the people from their slavery. In Exodus 23: 9 we hear for the first time this command brought into the narrative “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” The people are to remember their own situation was not one where they ‘pulled themselves up by their bootstraps’ but instead a gift of their covenant identity with their LORD. They are given concrete ways to enact this justice towards the vulnerable. They are to be shown justice, not taken advantage of. These landless ones are to have a method of living off the plentiful harvest that the people are promised in the land. They are to be different than the world they knew in Egypt, or the societies they see around them. “The neighbor—especially the neighbor in need—lives in a world governed not by the ruthless “iron law” of the market or by the unencumbered autonomy of the powerful, but by the same God who curbed Pharaoh.” (Brueggemann, 2001 , p. 240f.) Throughout their life, they would struggle with this view of justice. The prophets would often cry about the way the widow, orphans and the resident aliens were being denied justice, being oppressed by practices designed to keep them poor and being denied their rights within the land. The vision was a noble one, and yet, justice is a hard dream to achieve. Yet, even though dreams of justice may be difficult to achieve in reality it does not free us from the struggle of attempting to live into the vision of justice that God calls us to.

[i] Liberation theology is a broad term for theological perspectives that came out of various experiences of oppression. Liberation theology started with the experience of base communities in Latin America among the poor, but also now are experienced in black liberation theology, feminist liberation theology and many other branches of theology which utilize the experience of oppression as a lens to encounter God and God’s action towards the world.

Deuteronomy 23: Boundaries, Purity, Interest, Vows and Limits

Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

Deuteronomy 23: 1-8 Boundaries of the Assembly

1 No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.

 2 Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.

 3 No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD, 4 because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. 5 (Yet the LORD your God refused to heed Balaam; the LORD your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loved you.) 6 You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.

 7 You shall not abhor any of the Edomites, for they are your kin. You shall not abhor any of the Egyptians, because you were an alien residing in their land. 8 The children of the third generation that are born to them may be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.

The Bible is not a unified document where there is only one position on any particular issue, instead it is a dialogue of many voices trying to reflect faithfully on who God is and who they are to be. Deuteronomy 23: 1-8, and the theology of Deuteronomy offers a great deal of influence for many of the voices of the Hebrew Scriptures on issues of who is a part of the community (or specifically here the assembly) and who is not. Holiness and purity are large concerns for the author of Deuteronomy and occupy an important part of their vision of what it means to be the people of the God of Israel.

One the first prohibition, which has to do with males who have been emasculated, they are (according to Deuteronomy) not to be a part of the assembly of the LORD. Here is a place where we see how being admitted is also tied to sexual generativity or the ability to produce offspring. A person who is unable, physically, to be sexually active was probably not viewed as fully male and therefore not a legitimate part of the assembly which would be charged with making decisions on behalf of the community. Here is another place where we see that maleness was a large part of what it was to have status in the community.

The second prohibition is against children born of illicit unions, or to use the derogatory term bastard children. Apparently the rules that have proceeded this (for example Deuteronomy 22) have not prevented the reality of children outside of marriage, but this prohibition places them as a disadvantaged group outside the assembly. This may also reflect children born of mixed marriages between Israelites and non-Israelites as are further outline in the coming verses. Once again they are separated from the assembly because their presence corrupts the pureness of the people of Israel.

Finally, there are the specific prohibitions directed at the unions with Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites and Egyptians. These specific prohibitions, much harsher on Ammonites and Moabites, are difficult to make sense of based upon the narrative of Exodus and Numbers. The Ammonites and Moabites, according to this section of Deuteronomy, failed in the imperative of hospitality to the people of Israel. In Deuteronomy 2 the people of Moab and the Ammonites were not allowed to be invaded because their land had also been given by promise to their ancestors by the LORD. In Numbers 20: 14-21 the Edomites are the first to refuse hospitality and do not allow the Israelites to pass through their land, refusing to offer water, food or passage and come out to meet the Israelites with a large force diverting them on their journey, yet they are not to be abhorred and they, like the Egyptians who enslaved the people but are instead remembered here for the acceptance of them as aliens into their land at the end of Genesis. In Numbers 22-24 we have the story of the Moabites hiring Balaam to curse Israel (referred to in verse 4-5) and perhaps this narrative is a part of the distinction as well as the story that follow it about Israelite men beginning to have sexual relations with the women of Moab and the way this led some of Israel to begin to worship Baal of Peor (see Numbers 25).

As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, the bible is more like a dialogue than a unified voice. While the perspective of this portion of Deuteronomy will be echoed in book like Ezra and Nehemiah where there is a movement to exclude the foreigners from the community simply because they are foreigners. Yet, there are important counter voices throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, the book of Ruth, where a Moabite woman becomes a model of what hospitality and faithfulness looks like and her courageous action as a woman in a man’s world not only wins her a place of honor among the people but she becomes the grandmother to King David (who according to these rules would have to be excluded from the assembly of the LORD).  Perhaps even more critical for the New Testament perspective are these surprising words from Isaiah 56:

3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”
 4 For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,
 5 I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
 6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant–
 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Isaiah goes directly against the voice of Deuteronomy and Ezra and Nehemiah, seeing both eunuchs and foreigners as admitted if they hold fast to the covenant. The early church had to wrestle with their own place within this heritage and the witness of both Acts as well as the fact that we have the letters of Paul show that they moved to embrace Isaiah’s vision of God’s openness rather than Deuteronomy’s vision of attempting to legislate the purity of the people of Israel.

With all this talks of eunuchs and bastards we could be referring to the storyline of Game of Thrones rather than the bible, and this is a point where I think most people miss the complexity of the bible as well as the messiness of it. Game of Thrones, for example, depicts a brutal and messy reality but so does the narrative of scriptures. No matter how orderly Deuteronomy may want to make the world, it is fundamentally messy since it involves God’s interaction with flawed and forgetful people. Yet, when we are honest our world is messy as well. I think, for example, in our country the immigration debates feel pulled between the same types of poles—those who are worried about how immigrants might change our culture or nation and those who feel called to an inclusive vision of an American society. Both of these positions can claim a scriptural worldview (even though in our context they may play out as secular positions) but ultimately it is difficult to make an exclusive worldview Christian. One more scriptural reference before we close this reflection and that is the narrative of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8: 26-43. This is a part of a series of stories that reflect God’s movement of key leaders (Peter, Paul and here Philip) towards this more inclusive vision. As the eunuch, on hearing the narrative of Jesus can recognize it as a story where now instead of being excluded he has the possibility to be included and says to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip, and eventually the early church would have to be stretched by God’s vision of inclusion they felt they were called to, and perhaps the struggles of the church in our own time about the boundaries of the assembly and leadership of our own assemblies reflect this ancient dialogue between purity and holiness and inclusion.

 

Deuteronomy 23: 9-16 Rules of Encampment

 9 When you are encamped against your enemies you shall guard against any impropriety.

 10 If one of you becomes unclean because of a nocturnal emission, then he shall go outside the camp; he must not come within the camp. 11 When evening comes, he shall wash himself with water, and when the sun has set, he may come back into the camp.

 12 You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. 13 With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement. 14 Because the LORD your God travels along with your camp, to save you and to hand over your enemies to you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.

 15 Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them. 16 They shall reside with you, in your midst, in any place they choose in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them.

 Military service was a part of the expectations for the males of the people of Israel, and particularly in a narrative where Deuteronomy is spoken to the people of Israel prior to Joshua’s leading of the tribes in their conquest of the promised land these rules have immediate implications for the upcoming military actions. The ancient military force of the Hebrew people was not a professional army that spent its time training for war, but rather they were called upon in times of conflict to leave their homes and fields to be a part of the defense (or offensive actions) of Israel. Warfare is not neat and tidy even with a professional army, but things are heightened for the people of Israel theologically by their belief that God travels with them in their camp as they prepare for action, and as Deuteronomy 20 outlined their strength is not in their superior weaponry or equipment but the belief that the LORD will grant them victory.

Many people are familiar with the proverb, “Cleanliness is next to godliness” and while it is not a scriptural proverb it does resonate with the ordered world of Deuteronomy. Nocturnal emissions would be viewed as a contamination of the camp and the person would be excluded for a time and while the commands to carry a trowel to dig a hole for relieving oneself is a very practical command (and modern military forces do the same thing if they are in an area where portable facilities are not available). Yet, for Deuteronomy’s worldview it is less concerning that a fellow soldier might step in someone else’s excrement and more a concern for purity before the LORD who travels with their camp.

Interesting is the final command in relation to slaves, where slaves who are fleeing their captors are not to be returned but instead are to be allowed to settle among the people. This is different than the typical practice of much of the ancient world. Perhaps it draws upon their own narratives as people who were freed from slavery accepting others freed from slavery. This also builds upon an understanding of slavery outlined in Deuteronomy 15: 12-18 where the slavery in Israel is not a permanent thing and they, unlike Egypt, are not to have an economy based upon slave labor.

Deuteronomy 23: 17-18 Men, Women, Temple Service and Prostitution

 17 None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute. 18 You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a male prostitute into the house of the LORD your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are abhorrent to the LORD your God.

Looking at this phrase was interesting for me because it challenged what I thought I knew. In English verse seventeen the term rendered temple prostitute for both the male and the female is simply the male and female form of “holy.” The term for prostitute is used in the following verse about the wages of a prostitute not being brought into the house of the LORD. It is easy to make assumptions if it is translated temple prostitute that sexually charged elements were a part of the worship of the surrounding culture and perhaps there was and perhaps there wasn’t. It may be the idea of having a female priestess of any type is behind this prohibition. While there is a prohibition against bringing the money made from prostitution into the temple there is no prohibition of the practice itself. Prostitution is simply assumed as a part of life in much of the ancient world, even if it needs to be kept away from the vision of the priests in the ordered worldview of Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 23: 19-20 Interest

 19 You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent. 20 On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite you may not charge interest, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess.

The community of Israel as imagined by Deuteronomy is to be very different than either the societies of Egypt which is based upon slave labor and production or the American consumer society where debt can become its own method of enslavement for many people. As in Deuteronomy 15: 7-11 they are openhanded in lending to their neighbor in need and as we talked about in Deuteronomy 22:1-4 they are not to turn away from their neighbor’s need. There is a lot of Anti-Semitic literature that talks about the Jewish people being greedy, yet there were many times where tax and rent collecting or moneylending were occupations that the Jewish people were forced into in Europe since many other occupations were closed to them by society and by the church.  Deuteronomy does allow for interest to be charged to outsiders, and perhaps this allowed them to find some middle ground in the midst of the challenges they faced through centuries of having to accept some of these jobs that were viewed as marginal within the society. Perhaps a question to ask is how did it become permissible for Christians to view charging of interest as the norm. This is probably one of many times where our understandings of Christianity have been tailored to our society rather than the other way around. In one of the most economically challenging parts of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus states:

Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:42)

Yet, even in Jesus time he can assume the norm of interest being charged and use it as a part of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25: 14-30).

Deuteronomy 23: 21-23 On Vows

 21 If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not postpone fulfilling it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you would incur guilt. 22 But if you refrain from vowing, you will not incur guilt. 23 Whatever your lips utter you must diligently perform, just as you have freely vowed to the LORD your God with your own mouth.

There are countless stories throughout scripture of people making rash oaths, probably none rasher than the vow of Jephthah in Judges 11: 29-40 where he vows to God, “If you give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, to be offered up by burnt offering.” (Judges 11: 30b-31) and upon returning it is his daughter, his only child who comes out. She is offered up, even though there is a repeated emphasis against child sacrifice in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, in fulfillment of the vow. Vows are serious business for the people of Israel and they are bound by these words. These words also serve as a backdrop for Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount about oaths where speech is to be truthful without oaths. (Matthew 5: 33-37). As in Matthew’s gospel the speaker is expected to use truthful speech but is also encouraged to refrain from vowing. The practice is not forbidden, just cautioned against, for the speaker will be bound by those words.

Deuteronomy 23: 24-25 Providing for the Neighbor

 24 If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in a container.

 25 If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.

The covenant community was to care for one’s neighbors, and yet caring for one’s neighbors has to negotiate the boundaries of providing for the neighbor’s need without having one’s field decimated. Here at the end of Deuteronomy 23, they use Moses voice to attempt to reach a balance point. A person may eat the fruit of the vineyard or the wheat of the field, but only what they can eat or pluck then. They are not to bring in vessels to store up for tomorrow or instruments of harvest to take as much as they can. This practice sets the backdrop for the story of Jesus and his disciples in Matthew 12: 1-8 where the controversy does not revolve around his disciples picking grain out of someone’s field (that was acceptable) but rather doing it on the Sabbath. This issue of how do I care for my neighbors in need is a live one that many churches wrestle with. In a time where churches are sometimes asked to cover house payments, car repairs, insurance and many other things in addition to simply providing food (and I don’t want to portray that these are not real needs-they are simply not within the budgets of many church outreach funds to cover). How do we as Christians and communities of Christians work individually and together to help provide for our neighbors by meeting their true need and not become consumed in the process?

 

 

The Place of Authority: A Brief History Part 3b: The Exile, Reconstructing Identity-Narrative, Practice and Hope

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage that they bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfares of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29. 4-7 NRSV

Even when the world as you know it ends, life still goes on, and we have to make sense of the conflict, the struggle and our place within it.  The communal memory becomes important, the stories parents have told their children, the history of families. In the midst of competing narratives what is the story that one can identify with? With the loss of the Davidic monarchy, the temple, the land of their ancestors the people did something amazing, they recast their identity.  They dug deep into their narrative, they began bringing together their stories, and in fact much of the Old Testament is brought together at this point. Stories of creation and exodus begin to be the patterns in which the present is made sensible and the community begins to come up with answers to the hardest question, “why did this happen?” They don’t come up with just one answer, they come up with many. They bring together their stories and the Torah (typically translated into English as law, but it is a term that is much more than what we understand as law in our context) begins to be center of their life.  Practice and story come together to bind together this community in exile.

This does not mean that everyone agrees, there is not a central authorizing authority for the narrative at this point, it is constructed mainly by the remnant of the elite (everyone else would have been illiterate at this point) from both the priestly and prophetic side. Some of the central ideas to emerge include:

Justice: a sense of living in harmony (shalom) with God’s desire for the way things are to be structured in society. This includes a strong sense of economic justice, compassion for the widows, orphan, immigrant, and the dispossessed. It is from this vision that many prophets operate out of, and this is a central image for the prophetic hope. The new Jerusalem, the new Israel is to be a place of justice where the nations around can look and say “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isaiah 3b, NRSV) and within God’s plan the nations will stream to Jerusalem.

Purity/Holiness: For us there is often a tension between Purity/Holiness and Justice, but it was not necessarily seen that way by the Jewish people.  Especially for priests there are practices that are to be done to prevent the contamination of unholiness from infecting them as a people and making them repulsive to the holiness of God. It also becomes a powerful way of distinguishing between themselves as a Hebrew people and the nations around them who are the Gentiles, the unclean ones.  This tends to be more of a priestly focus and there are conflicts between which will dominate going forward, but at the root both justice and holiness are practices which distinguish them from the hostile surrounding culture.

With these two distinctive directions emerges a new strand of a hope for a new beginning, a new temple, a New Jerusalem, a new anointed (and Davidic) king, a messiah.  Wrapped up within the memory of the stories of creation and the exodus of the people from Egypt hope springs forth of a return home and a new beginning:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make away in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people who I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise. Isaiah 43.18-21

2nd Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55, which reflects the time of preparation for the return home, while Isaiah 1-39 deals with the time before the exile) in particular is full of this vibrant hope, along with other voices.  Empires rise and empires fall, and a generation later Babylon falls to Persia (modern day Iran) and Cyrus (who Isaiah interestingly calls Messiah/Christ-same word in Hebrew/Greek) makes possible the beginning of a return home.  Their stories and practices have maintained their identity and given them hope of a new beginning. With the return to Jerusalem, the land, and the possibility of reconstructing the temple comes yet another transition.  It is to that transition that we turn next.

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