Saturday, August 20, 2011

If I Had Jefferson's Exacto Knife

Deuteronomy 21
Series: "Can You Believe That's in the Bible?"
August 21, 2011
William G. Carter

This summer sermon series comes from a deep love of scripture. The Bible is indeed a lamp to our feet and a light for our path. It is precisely because it is helpful that we explore it, and that we question it. The last thing that I would want anybody to think is that a sermon series on strange Biblical texts is a way to denigrate the Bible. No, it is because the whole book speaks a Word from God that we wrestle with some of the parts of it that do not seem so helpful.

The plain fact is, there are a lot of Bible texts that are difficult to understand. The Bible says this about itself. In one of the latest writings in the New Testament, a church leader spoke of the Apostle Paul’s letters. “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter: 3:16). According to the Gospels, the devil tried to tempt Jesus by quoting one of the Psalms. So we must be good stewards of what we read, using both heart and brain.

And there are some texts that put a burden on us, not merely to understand them, but to like them. You have your list, I have mine. Those of you who have visited Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, may recall seeing a copy of Jefferson’s Bible. Our third president was a rational man, not given to miracles or mysteries. He had read the Bible, but he wanted nothing to do with anything that he could not explain. So he decided to take a razor to the book, cutting away the passages he did not like, and gluing the others to a fresh page.

He came up with a Bible of only forty-six pages, which he called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” It does not mention anything of miracles or angels, nothing of his resurrection, only good wisdom that seems timeless and applicable. As he wrote in a letter to John Adams, it was like picking “diamonds out of a dunghill,” and done only for his “personal use.”[1]

Criticize him, if you wish, but all of us do this. We have our favorite passages and would trim away the rest. If I had Jefferson’s Exacto knife, what would I cut away? I might begin with the 21st chapter of Deuteronomy. I’m going to read some of the text with commentary along the way. Here is how the chapter begins:

If, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess, a body is found lying in open country, and it is not known who struck the person down, then your elders and your judges shall come out to measure the distances to the towns that are near the body. The elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked, one that has not pulled in the yoke; the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to a wadi with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the wadi.

Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister to him and to pronounce blessings in the name of the LORD, and by their decision all cases of dispute and assault shall be settled. All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi, and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. Absolve, O LORD, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” Then they will be absolved of bloodguilt. So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, because you must do what is right in the sight of the LORD.

Now, that’s a strange text. If you are living in the country and there is an unsolved murder, what do you do? I suppose you could bring in a team from CSI or Hawaii 5-0. The officials could investigate. But since nobody is able to solve the crime, the town leaders take a cow down to a flowing stream. Then they break its neck. The religious leaders come forward and lead a little ritual. They instruct everybody to wash their hands in the stream, and then announce, “O Lord, wash us clean even though we are innocent.”

Even though they are innocent? Yes, that’s the ritual. Scrub your hands in innocence, just in case the crime should pollute your community. Blood was spilled, and, in Hebrew thinking, blood is the life force in every creature. The guilt that accompanies a murdered life must be washed away. Even if you are innocent.

I don’t know why that is in the 21st chapter of Deuteronomy, and I don’t think we need it. So I would vote for cutting it out, simply because I don’t like it.

The chapter goes on. Actually it gets worse. Here is what comes next:

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.

This is advice for a lustful soldier. If your army defeats your enemy, and there is a pretty lady among the defeated, you can take her home and keep her in your house. Hide her for a month, and realize that will be an adjustment for her. It’s OK if she cries. After that, you can rape her and say, “You’re my woman.” Of course, if she doesn’t please you, you can let her go. Just don’t charge anything for her.

That is what the Bible says. It is very unsettling, and I would be glad to see this passage go. A few scholars give the benefit of the doubt, suggesting it gives Israelite status to an outsider. I think that’s a stretch, and when I checked it out with her, so did my wife. This ruling dismisses a human being who has a life, a family, a home of her own. And if she shaves her head, trims her nails, and stays locked up in a man’s house for a month, she’s all yours - - unless he decides later he doesn’t want her.

Now, let me just say that passages like this are one reason why the Bible has a black eye. Perhaps there was some practical reason for it a long time ago, but that’s lost to us. The two-fold assumption here is that men can do whatever they want and that women are something less than human. I don’t happen to believe any of that. It’s that kind of thinking that prompts us to build battered women’s shelters.

I think it best to get out the knife, trim away this text, and move on. In fact, let’s move on to the next paragraph in Deuteronomy 21. What helpful instruction does it have to offer? Listen:

If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn. He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.

This is guidance for the guy who has two wives at the same time. So much for family values! A lot of Bible passages talk about multiple spouses, as if to say the more you have, the more potent you are. That sounds exhausting to me. And to come right out say that one wife is loved and the other disliked – why, of course that has to be true. Otherwise there would still be only one spouse.

Yet the heart of this text is a matter of fairness. Whether a father likes his children or not, the inheritance law was supposed to go like this: the firstborn child is the one who bears the family responsibility. Therefore the firstborn child gets two shares of the family inheritance, and the other children get only one share.

I happen to agree with that, since I am a firstborn child. I need to tell my brother and two sisters that this is what the Bible teaches about inheritance. I wonder what they would think about that; I can only guess.

What the law is stating, I think, is that family preference and likability shall have no bearing on the right of a firstborn child to inherit twice as much as one’s siblings. I think that’s exactly right, don’t you? Even if I would like to believe that my parents like me more than the others, it really shouldn’t have any bearing. The law is the law. The firstborn gets twice what the others receive. I think we should keep this commandment; but my little brother and sisters borrowed my knife and cut it out of my Bible. So let's go on.

What’s next? It’s a rule about having a troublesome child. What do you do with the troublesome child? Listen to the next paragraph:

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.

Well, that’s pretty clear. If your son turns out poorly, what do you do? You drag him before to the elders and they will inflict the death penalty. That bad mark on your family’s reputation will be expunged.

OK – how are you do with Deuteronomy 21? It addresses more life-and-death issues than Deuteronomy 22. Deuteronomy 22 condemns cross-dressing (22:5) and removing a mother robin from the eggs in her nest (22:6). Chapter 22 declares you don’t sow a vineyard with two kinds of seed (22:9), you don’t yoke an ox and a donkey to the same plow (22:10), and you don’t wear clothing with two different kinds of thread (22:11). It might as well say you should not mix peas and carrots on the same plate.

But today’s text, Deuteronomy 21, is much harsher: an unsolved murder, stealing a war bride, inheritance rights, and eliminating bad children. None of it is easy to swallow. Fortunately, there are two more sentences left, and this is what they say:

When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the LORD your God is giving you for possession.

It is a rule about capital punishment. If somebody does something deserving of death, and you hang that person on a tree, you don’t linger about the burial. Anybody is under God’s curse. Anybody . . .

Now, wait a second. Wait, just a second. The Apostle Paul knew this verse because he was a rabbi. In his training, he was required to memorize this verse. Years later, he remembered this verse because of what happened to Jesus. Jesus was killed for capital crimes, and quite literally, they put him “on a tree.” And the righteous people who condemned him said, “Hurry up and bury him, we are on the eve of a holiday.” And because of the manner of his death, Jesus was regarded as accursed, as despised, as rejected. Nobody ever expected such a person to live again, for God to raise him up.

Of all the harsh verses of Deuteronomy, this is the only one to find its way into the New Testament. Paul writes to the churches of Turkey, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:13-14).”

Now, listen to me very carefully. If all we had was Deuteronomy 21, life would be very grim. We would be confined by unmerciful sacred rules. But what we have is Jesus – we have Jesus crucified, Jesus risen. Because of him, we return to read the scriptures differently.

He was the One who was cursed by scripture for the manner of his death, yet the scriptures teach he took all of life’s curses upon himself, and therefore took them away. He was despised at his death, so that no one would be despised ever again. If we believe that, if we trust that, suddenly it becomes a key that unlocks the forbidding scriptures.

Say, for instance, you have a problem child that you want to remove. Remember how he is described in Deuteronomy 21? “As a glutton and a drunkard.” How interesting! In the eleventh chapter of Matthew, Jesus is accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard (11:19). That’s the same book where his own disciples wanted to chase away the problematic children and Jesus said, “Let the little ones come to me (19:14).”

Or say, for instance, there’s a family squabble about who gets the inheritance. It happens all the time. Just ask the attorneys and the funeral directors. What does Jesus do? He tells a story: “Once upon a time there was a father who had two sons. The younger one said, ‘I’m leaving. Give me my inheritance now.’ The older one, with his double share, stayed home and felt smug about it.” Luke 15. The Old Testament is not about Jesus, but Jesus is all about the Old Testament.

If there is a woman who is plundered, he helps her to her feet, saying, “Where are your accusers? I will not accuse you either. You are free to go.” (John 7:53-8:11)

As for a town that is shaken up by an unsolved murder, frightened that God may regard them as unclean, it is Jesus who speaks to Peter from heaven, and says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15)

For those of us who know Jesus, for those of us who listen for Jesus, he opens our hearts and minds to read scripture differently. Beneath all the crusty rules and heavy obligations, he wants us to know how much God loves us. Behind the harsh dictates and stern warnings, he wants to treat one another with dignity. Behind all the demeaning curses, he reveals the cleansing, forgiving grace of God.

It is impossible to be a Christian and a fundamentalist. Jesus our Lord is crucified and cursed, yet risen and free. And the first thing he will do is free us from the tyranny of our own judgment. He is the One who extends the blessing of Abraham to Gentiles like you and me. He is the One who offers his own liberating, transforming Spirit to everybody who trusts him.

The Bible is important because it teaches us about Jesus. Yet the maddening thing is that he never stays confined to the pages of the Book.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved.

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