It is commonly maintained that the Bible has one single unified voice, one "biblical" message. However this is simply not true. The Old Testament in fact contains a collection of competing narratives written from opposing perspectives.
Seeing the Old Testament from this perspective can be liberating. Rather than trying to make sense of and justify things that strike us as profoundly wrong (like genocide or slavery) we can instead see the Bible as a record of dispute, a witness to a struggle to understand who God is and who we are. Those contradictions we find are then not problems to argue away, but simply due to the fact that the Hebrew Bible allows for diversity, it allows for the voices of competing sides to an issue to stand side by side within the canon. Because there are these divergent views we are compelled to enter into that struggle too. The multiple conflicting views mean we must "pick and choose" as we read. The only question is, what do we pick and why?
This is a view that you almost never hear in church. Most of the time we Christians instead spend our time arguing that there are no contractions in the Bible, attempting to harmonize the texts. We have probably encountered the idea that there is a conflict between the Old and New Testaments--that one is a message of wrath and the other is a message of love, law vs. love. Or perhaps we've heard that the Old Testament when understood properly in fact shows a concern for social justice and compassion for the poor. What we have not heard is that in fact both are true at the same time. The Old Testament contains messages of compassion and inclusion, and it contains messages of hate and harm--each claiming to speak for God. The relationship of the New Testament to the Old then is that it embraces one particular narrative in the Old Testament while critiquing and rejecting another.
Now since the idea that the Old Testament contains multiple conflicting views is one that is unfamiliar to most church going folks, I wanted to give some examples of it. In a previous blog post
I gave the example of how Job (and the Psalms) challenge and question the central promise of the law and the Mosaic covenant which clearly promises that if the Israelites are faithful then they will experience blessing, health and plenty, and if they sin they will experience suffering, sickness, and famine (see Deuteronomy 28). Job openly contests this, insisting that his sickness and suffering are not due to his sin. The Psalms likewise echo this complaint.
This became a common theme as Israel repeatedly found itself in exile, under foreign oppression, suffering famine and the ravages of war under Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome. During that time, while some continued to hold to the law and insist that their suffering was due to their sin, others began to develop the idea of the suffering righteous. This is of course a concept that the New Testament picks up and applies to Jesus.
This time I'd like to present a further example relating to how people from other nationalities and races were seen, in particular in the context of interracial marriage. What is the "biblical" view of interracial marriage? Is the answer:
a) you should kill them
b) you should cast the women and children out
c) you should praise and bless them and see them as under God's shelter
The answer, as we will see, is "all of the above." This will be a longer post, but I think it is worth the time it will take to fully paint the picture of two very different perspectives found within the Hebrew canon.
Ezra-Nehemiah and interracial marriage
Let's begin with the book of Ezra. Ezra takes place after the Babylonian exile. The book of Ezra accounts how the king of Persia allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Ezra, a "teacher of the law" comes on the scene to find that many of Israelites had intermarried with the surrounding nations. In response he tears is clothing, rips out his hair in shame. He declares that because of their sin they have "been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today" (Ezra 9:7). What is that sin exactly? Ezra prays out loud,
We have forsaken the commands you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: "The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time" ... What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt ... Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? (v. 10-15)
The people all weep, fearing that God will destroy Israel because of its sin. Then one man suggests a solution "Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children" (10:3). Ezra then rises and puts all of Israel under oath to do this. Anyone who did not comply was to forfeit all their property.
The story Ezra does not tell is the fate of these women and children. It does not tell the story of the children rejected by their fathers. It does not tell the fate of the women who were cast out of their homes, abandoned by their husbands, sent into the night to fend for themselves. Did they die? Did they find shelter? Think about how life was for women and children in that time. Place yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if you were told you were "polluted" and cast away? Ezra does not tell us.
The book of Nehemiah tells a similar story, "On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God." (Nehemiah 13:1). Seeing that some of the men had taken wives from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab, Nehemiah tells us that he "called curses down on them" and "beat some of the men and pulled out their hair" (v 25). He then declares,
“You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?” (v. 25-27)
On top of the clear central theme of racism in Ezra and Nehemiah and the need to be "purified" of foreigners, it is hard to not notice a corollary theme of sexism: Women are consistently identified as being a corrupting influence over the men, and are the one who need to be cast out. Both Ezra and Nehemiah in their attempt to "purify" Israel from the corruption of foreign peoples can be traced back to Moses who declares,
"When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations ... and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you" (Deuteronomy 7:1-4).
In the case of Moses this decree resulted in repeated commands for the Israelites to "utterly destroy" the men, women, and children of these foreign nations, killing "everything that breathes." Did these acts of genocide actually take place? Based on archaeological evidence the vast majority of biblical scholars doubt that they did. What is however clear is that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah appeal to these same texts to justify their policy of divorce and deportation of wives and children from their homes.
Ruth and interracial marriage
That is one narrative found in the Old Testament. Let's turn to consider another narrative that tells the opposite story, found in the book of Ruth which, based on the genre and style, many scholars date as a post-exilic book (i.e. as a book from the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah). Ruth is the story of Moabite woman who was married to an Isrealite.
Recall above how Nehemiah quotes Moses as declaring "no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God" This likely is a reference to Deuteronomy 23 which states "No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation ... Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live." (vv. 3 & 6)
As the story begins, Ruth's husband has died, and her widowed Jewish mother-in-law Naomi is preparing to leave Moab and return to Judah. She urges her two daughters-in-law to return to their own mothers in the hopes of finding husbands. Ruth's sister-in-law agrees, but Ruth is hesitant. Naomi says to her "Look, your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” (Ruth 1:15), but Ruth clings to Naomi and in one of the most intimate passages in Scripture says these moving words,
“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
After this Ruth and Naomi travel to Bethlehem where Ruth meets Boaz who shows her kindness. Ruth bows down before him and asks “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?” (2:10) and Boaz replies to her,
“I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (vv 11-12)
The Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.
That is certainly strikingly different from how Ezra and Nehemiah, not to mention Moses, would have regarded a Moabite woman. But the story does not stop there. It goes on to tell of how Boaz and Ruth were married and had a son named Obed who was the father of Jesse, the father of David. Thus the book of Ruth ends by declaring that this Moabite woman was the great-grandmother of king David.
So here we have a counter-witness, likely from the same time, that tells a very different story of inter-marriage. One that, even in its tender and intimate tone, directly confronts narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah.
If Ruth was indeed written at the same time, this brings up some striking possibilities: Imagine the reaction of an Israelite man who was forced to send away his wife and children would have had reading the words of Ruth "Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay" and recalls the tears on his wife's face that day he sent her away or the terrified and heartbroken screams of his children. What might have been the reaction of the elders and rulers upon reading of Ruth the great grand-mother of king David whose "holy seed" they awaited in a coming Messiah to rule Israel? Would that coming messiah destroy the nations as Joshua did and as some of the prophets declare? Or would the new Joshua (which is the name of Jesus in Hebrew) instead be a "light to the nations" as other prophets declare in contrast?
The fact is, the Hebrew Bible does not present just one perspective, but instead presents us with differing perspectives, each claiming to represent God's own view. Returning to our multiple-choice question of what the "biblical" view of interracial marraige is, we have seen that Moses says the answer is (a) kill them, Ezra-Nehemiah declared the answer was (b) cast the women and children out, and finally Ruth makes the case against both that the answer is (c) praise and bless them and see them as under God's shelter. The fact that we find these competing perspectives side by side within the canon calls us to deliberate between these competing views. Rather than spoon-feeding us a single answer, the multi-vocal nature
of the Hebrew Bible calls to enter into the struggle ourselves, to make
choices between right and wrong as moral adults. Do we side with Ezra and Nehemiah or with Ruth? Which narrative will we embrace? Which understanding of holiness will we adopt as our own? Finally, as Christians we are inclined to ask: Which narrative most reflects the heart of
Jesus? Which are the texts that shaped his own view towards the foreigner, towards those who were regarded as "unclean" or as enemy Gentiles?
There are of course many other examples of these conflicting perspectives in the Hebrew Bible. Next time we'll consider the example of the prophets disagreeing and contradicting one another.
(Note: I owe the insight of the contrast between Ezra-Nehemiah and Ruth to Karl Allen Kuhn in his Having Words with God. It's a great book, go check it out!)
Labels: Bible, violence