Baker Academic

Monday, August 26, 2013

Communing with the Dead: An Other-than Kosher Reading of "Problem Texts" - Le Donne

It should be stated that what Larry and I are doing (see here, here, here, here, and here) is something like a Jewish-Christian dialogue.  I say “something like” because it is nontraditional.  There is something lost when we lack physicality.  There is less of a chance for hospitality and humanization. We are not joined in a group discussion and there are hundreds of eyes looking on, most of them represented by people who never intend to self-identify.  Face-to-face dialogue is preferred because it allows me to see the reflected image of God in the eyes of my counterparts.  But this exchange was my idea.  So if the medium has cheapened the experience, I’m to blame.  If the contents herein do not meet your satisfaction, there are undoubtedly better offerings on the internet.

There is little that I can quibble with in Larry’s most recent reply.  I purposely did not define “true” and he was right to wonder about the value of my premise.  I am notoriously slippery in matters of alethiology.  The point of my last post was simply to suggest that the truth of Scripture is obscured by human limitation (both ancient and modern).  As I suggested, struggling toward a better understanding of Scripture involves a tangled network of relationships.  And—if I may use a different metaphor—most of the voices that speak into this truth-telling conversation are speaking from the grave.  Communion not only draws me to God, it draws me closer with my spiritual siblings, both alive and dead.

I think that some recognition of this might be helpful in our discussion of “problem texts” in Scripture.

When I read texts like Ephesians 5:22-24, or Deuteronomy 20, or this gem…
When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her (Deut 21:10-15).
When I read texts like this, I am repulsed.  I don’t have the resolve to assess my own limitations and withhold judgment.  My gag reflex is just too strong in such cases.  I’m not attempting to prescribe this reaction, but I confess that this is mine.

I am well aware that dishonoring a person is better than killing them, and it might be better than indentured servitude.  But any person who is not repulsed by such a passage is altogether strange to me.  Virtually extraterrestrial.

Yet I am commanded to love the alien.  Perhaps that is too much, too soon.

If what Larry says is right, if “Bible truth and text wrestling go together”, then we ought to be honest about the repugnance of such passages.  From my perspective, this is the only honest posture that I can take. When I read texts like Deut 20 and 21, I find myself in an adversarial posture almost immediately.  I confess that my first reaction is something of a gag reflex… more like a full-body dry heave set to music.  When it’s the Yahwist, or the Deuteronomist, or Sweet-Fancy-Moses himself, I’m faced with an even greater dilemma: I have been so conditioned by Christian colleges, seminaries, and theological literature to flee from Marcionism that I might have more invested in the value of the Hebrew Bible than I do in the New Testament.  So there is a fundamental difference between Larry and me when it comes to the “Old Testament”.  In an earlier post, Larry wrote:
I frequently encounter problem verses in the Old Testament being handled by using a canon within the canon derived from the New Testament. I know I shouldn’t equate the Old Testament with Jews and the New Testament with Christians, but I do so anyway, and there are uses of the canon within the canon that make me feel as if (once again) Christians are trying to school Jews about the true nature of God and scripture.
I appreciate Larry’s honesty here, but I have a greater appreciation for the distance he has since created between himself and this position (see paragraph 6 here).  Like I said, when I read a text like Eph 5:22-24, I immediately take an adversarial posture.  This posture might include a retreat to Gal 3:28 to find some traction.  In this case, Paul’s phrase “neither male nor female” is good news by way of contrast.  Here is the rub: having been sensitized by philo-Judaism, I find myself reluctant to critique Deut 21:10-15 in the same way.

Larry, if we’re going to dance (realizing how absurd we must look: all kicks and thumbs), I’m going to have to call the New Testament “good news” in such cases without fearing the appearance of anti-Judaism.  This is not to say that traction cannot be found in rabbinic literature or elsewhere in Jewish thought.  It's just to say that I need all the help I can get when wrestling with a text like Deut 21:10-15.  Moreover, if I am to attempt to avoid canons within canons, I should be encouraged to juxtapose Paul and Deuteronomy just as easily as I juxtapose Ezra 8-10 and Jeremiah 29:4-7.

It is high time that I get to my point:

After Moses (or Paul) has become my adversary (hyperbole, metaphor, and anachronism intended), I am instructed to love him.  Not only must I love the alien, and love my enemy, I am in communion with him. “One blood,” as Le Guin calls us.  So rather than reserving the right to stand over the text and judge it forever, I eventually step onto the precariously liminal path toward understanding.  At this point, I am no longer wrestling with Moses, but I’m wrestling with my inability to understand the version of humanity that made this particular sacred text possible.

I don’t think that I’ll ever not be repulsed by dehumanization.  This means that I might never be able to love the dead and buried Yahwist like I should.  But there is virtue in the attempt.  If I am unable or unwilling to humanize my adversary, I have lost something precious about my own humanity.  Worse still, I have missed something important about the image of God.  "Male and female, he created them..." According to Scripture, the incarnational image of God is communal.


  1. My reply is here:

  2. Honestly, I don't understand why this particular passage evokes the reaction you describe.

    It doesn't seem much different from the way marriages were arranged in those days; the bride was purchased, and had no say at all in the matter - and I would suppose the groom had little say either.

    So I must an extraterrestrial. What's the problem? It was another time and place - a different world. Better to be a wife than a slave, no? What's terrible about making a rule that says she'll never have to become a slave?

    I don't get it....

    1. Barbara,

      You are indeed alien and therefore loved here at the Jssus Blog.

      You are right that girls would have had no say in the decision to marry and boys would have had very little say in the decision. This would have been typical practice. I think that, from an ancient perspective, the striking difference in this text is the lack of a mohar (bride price). This suggests that the parents of the "bride" (I use that word loosely) are dead or coerced into the union. That such a practice was understood to be commanded by God is problematic in itself. But perhaps less problematic than the command to wipe out all living things (the text that Larry cited). What is tragic in this particular case is that the husband is justified in dishonoring the woman. In many cases, she wouldn't have a family to return to. Moreover, in an honor/shame culture, a woman who has been dishonored as such has been deeply damaged from a sociological perspective. One rabbi says that in some regions, death was better than dishonor. And, so it seems, such dishonor was completely at the discretion of a fickle husband.


    2. Barbara -

      Greetings. I am playing the 5 note sequence from "Close Encounters" in case my language is not familiar to your spaceship's simultaneous translator.

      Deuteronomy was written in a patriarchal culture that had no notion of romantic love, but I think we can take too far the idea that "girls would have had no say in the decision to marry." Genesis describes a few arranged marriages. Rebecca was so active in the story of her arranged marriage, you'd almost think that she's the one who did the arranging. Whatever you make of the story of Jacob, Leah and Rachel, it's certainly not a story of Jacob carrying the girls off to a cave and giving them the choice of marriage versus dishonor. Yes, these stories are fiction, but many of our negative images of arranged marriages are also taken from fiction.

      The evidence I've seen (which we can discuss further) is that in antiquity, Mom, Dad and daughter were all interested in arranging a good match for daughter, and though the choice was not formally one for the daughter to make, the daughter's feelings were taken into account. Anthony is right to stress the business of an honor/shame culture, and in such a culture it would bring a daughter great personal satisfaction to know that her marriage had brought honor to her family. In other words, the interests of mom, dad and daughter were not in opposition.

      There's no reason to compare the process of ancient arranged marriages to that of a woman being captured in battle and being given the choice by the captor either to marry or be dishonored.

    3. Hi Larry:

      Thanks for your comment. What does "dishonor" in the context of this passage mean? I feel like there may be numerous assumptions built into this passage which make it opaque to us (me, I should say, since I'm not a Bible scholar!) - and that word in this context is definitely one of them. What is the "dishonor" here? And what do you mean by "the choice either to marry or be dishonored"? The dishonor in the passage seems to come only after the marriage and divorce.

      I'm also interested in the "captives" aspect; what was the purpose of taking civilian captives in war at that time, and what would have happened to these people generally? It seems whole communities - like the Israelites themselves, several times - were taken captive at once, and sometimes removed from their homes a long distance. Isn't what's being discussed here then not like the story of Esther, who was desired by the King for her beauty - so he married her? And isn't what this rule is about (although obviously it doesn't involve a king)?

    4. Barbara, I'm far from an expert in this area. It's my understanding that in antiquity, civilians taken captive became slaves, and that rape of captives (male and female) was commonplace.

      I think the best way to see this passage is that it permits what was probably a common practice in war, the taking of women prisoners for sexual purposes, and regulates it somewhat.

      You asked about the meaning of the word "dishonor" in the context of this passage. It is not inconceivable that in this context, "dishonored" (or as the King James Version translates it, "humbled") means rape. The possibility is discussed here; I'm providing this link for whatever it might be worth, and not to endorse (or condemn) the view of the author of the linked piece.

      Let's assume that 21:14 refers generally to dishonor or humbling, and not specifically to sexual intercourse. This general reading is preferred by nearly every translation I've consulted.

      I said "the choice either to marry or be dishonored", because I read the passage to say that after the 30-day mourning period, the captor either (1) "may" marry the captive, or (2) if the captor is "not satisfied with" the captive, then the captor must free the captive. It is possible to read this text without the either-or, so that the captor may marry the captive, and then if the captor is not satisfied with the captive after the marriage, then he must free her. From the link I provided above, it appears that traditional Jewish sources prefer the second reading. I prefer the first reading, because the second reading does not address what happens if the captor is not satisfied with the captive after the mourning period and prior to any marriage. Also, there is no need for the text to address what happens if a husband no longer desires a wife; that's what divorce is for.

      You didn't ask me about divorce. But you're right, technically. Jewish divorce law was no fault divorce, with alimony for the wife in nearly all cases. The Bible gives the right to initiate divorce exclusively to men, but it's been Jewish practice going back some time to permit a woman to petition a Jewish court to force her husband to consent to a divorce. Later Jewish practice required the wife's consent for a divorce.

      I don't see the connection you mentioned to the story of Esther. Esther was not captured in war. The circumstances of her becoming part of King Ahasuerus' harem are not 100% clear; this does not appear to have been Esther's choice, or the choice of her uncle-guardian Mordechai, but it also does not appear to me that she was taken against her will. However, there's at least one Talmud interpretation that Esther WAS taken against her will. You're right that the King married Esther, but he wasn't required to do so. Esther is not an easy text.

      Hope this helps.

    5. Thank you for taking the time to answer, Larry. I agree with your statement that "the best way to see this passage is that it permits what was probably a common practice in war, the taking of women prisoners for sexual purposes, and regulates it somewhat." I'm not quite sure about "permitting the practice" you mention, though, since this particular passage's emphasis is on marriage.

      I guess it's hard to know, but these are the reasons I don't see the passage in a negative way; the woman cannot become a slave, and if she's married I'm assuming the rules of marriage apply to her exactly as they do to any other woman. I guess I would need to know more about other rules in this area - but to me the emphasis on marriage seems important.

      I learned a bit about the conditions of the region during the ancient period (this part of Deuteronomy is, I think, very old) - and after that began to believe that small bits of justice were what these people could accomplish, by their own lights, and were definitely better than nothing. Also I came to believe that this "arc bending towards justice" is one of the central themes of the Bible itself. And if that's a key theme, it's a very good guidepost to making continual refinements to the law in the direction of justice - which is in fact exactly what has happened over time.

      I had thought Esther was a member of a group of captive Israelites living in Persia; I guess I must be wrong about that.

      Thanks very much again.

    6. Barbara, it's not 100% clear that the woman captive cannot become a slave. It depends on how you read the text. The reading you suggested (and it's a good reading) forbids the woman becoming a slave only if the captor opts for marriage.

      I see the passage in a negative way, because the passage is addressing an abhorrent practice (taking female captives) and regulating it so that it's a bit less abhorrent. It's like recognizing that it's wrong to sell meth to children, and then passing a law to prohibit the sale of meth to children under 8 years old. Granted, the law is an improvement, but I would hope that God's law here would not compromise with our evil inclination. But your point about the "arc of justice" is a good one, particularly if I can take an historic point of view to the Bible. But if I'm looking to the Bible to reflect my understanding of the character of God, which I'm inclined to do, that's where things get difficult.

      It's difficult to talk about the "historical Esther". But if Ahasuerus was actually Xerxes the Great (as some think), then we might place the Esther story in the early 5th Century BCE, and this would provide us with an historical context. If we go by the secular estimate, then Judea was conquered (and the First Temple destroyed) by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. However, the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians some 50 years later, at which point the Persian King (Cyrus) allowed the Jews to practice their religion freely. This would place the Esther story at some point after Cyrus' reign. I think there were three Persian kings between Cyrus and Xerxes, but I assume that the Jews had much the same rights under both kings. I'll admit, there is much uncertainty here, but I'd guess from all this that the Jews in the Esther story should be viewed as a more or less normal Jewish diaspora community, and not as captives of war.

      You're very welcome, and thank you too. You're raising great points.

    7. But if I'm looking to the Bible to reflect my understanding of the character of God, which I'm inclined to do, that's where things get difficult.

      I spend a lot of time in the Psalms, and to me the character of God is unmistakable: God is creator of all the wonderful things in the world, friend to the poor, defender of the defenseless, protector of widows and orphans, promoter of health and wholeness, comfort to the afflicted, "slow to anger and of great kindness," and does not punish according to our sins, and source of justice and peace. This is I think what you get from the Prophets, too, although I admit I'm nowhere near as familiar with those books as with Psalms.

      That's the Biblical God, to me - and that's the God I think you find in most of the Bible. So I always presume, when that God doesn't seem to show up, that I'm not understanding something about the passage.

      And some of these passages are so old! They describe people who really did live in a different world; read the first nine verses of Chapter 21 and I think you'll see what I mean. I'm sure those verses were meaningful at the time - but I really have a hard time understanding what the issues are. It's too long ago, and they're not speaking my language.

      When I learned about this ancient period in history, I was told that "blood feuds" were common in the region at the time; that is, that when somebody in one clan harmed somebody in another, vengeance could be exacted against any or all members of the offending clan. I learned that, contrary to popular opinion "An eye for an eye" was a vast, vast improvement in jurisprudence for the time and place. (In fact, taken metaphorically it's still a very good piece of law!) So I've always assumed that the laws were attempting to do something good - to improve morality, according to what the people understood God wanted from them. They probably got it wrong sometimes.

      BTW I found a 1997 paper on this passage online (; the writer thinks this Deuteronomy passage was trying to deal with the problem of rape by soldiers in war. Here's a quote: "Legislating behaviour is no guarantee that it will be followed, but it does demonstrate the intention of the legislators. The Yerushalmi clearly was against rape of captive women by soldiers at war. In light of recent events in Bosnia, it must be appreciated how ethically and morally forward this thinking was."

      And I think this understanding clears up all my questions about the passage, finally!

    8. (The paper also says this BTW: "As the capture and subsequent marriage of an enemy woman to an Israelite is only permitted is a non-obligatory war, it can perhaps be construed that such a situation would not occur often."

      So apparently there are other rules someplace about marriage under these conditions....)

  3. Yes, the parents of the bride are to be mourned for - either because they are dead (in the war) or else because the woman has separated from them.

    Furthermore, if I'm not mistaken any man was allowed to divorce his wife; all husbands were permitted to be fickle and "hard of heart," as Jesus talks about later on. Again I don't see any difference here at all between this and ordinary practice.

    As a captive of war, the woman was probably going to end up as a slave or concubine; isn't that right? This seems a far better outcome, to me; the man is being constrained and the woman has a chance at a better life - no better or worse than any other woman.

    1. Barbara, I think that I understand your point. In a world where misogyny is the norm, any step toward humanization should be seen as good news. I wouldn't want to dispute this.

      But as I hint in my post, I'm not only wrestling with this text as a window into an ancient culture. For me, this text is sacred. And if sacred, then very troubling. This text has shaped my culture, my religion, and will continue to shape my faith community.

      I wrestle with it not because I want to, but because I need to. And if what Larry says is true, that "God is good" - and I really want to believe this despite my doubts - then I cannot help but be repulsed by a representation of the voice of God that grants misogynistic and warlike premises.

      Do you hear my concern? I'm not trying to write the definitive word on this... I wouldn't want to give the impression that an adversarial posture is the only viable posture. I'm just working out this messy relationship as best I can.