Honest Q & A: Bible (5) – Forced and/or Child Marriage?

Question:  Does the Bible teach that a girl can be forced to marry her rapist?

The question may seem to border on the bizarre, but it is not irrelevant.  Consider the case of Sherry Johnson of Florida who was married off at age 11, already a mom, and is now advocating for a minimum age for marriage to be set in the state.  A surprising number of states have no such law.  You can read about her case and her cause in a story by Nicholas Kristof in the NY Times.

Anna Parini - NYTimes

Anna Parini – NY Times

As a Christian of many years and a pastor to boot, what I find most disconcerting about the story is that many such cases point to religious factors (Conservative Christian, Ultra-orthodox Jewish) for these underage ties.  Allow me to add my $0.02 to the discussion and voice my support for Sherry’s cause.  Despite some initially uncomfortable verses in the Bible, which make good fodder for a skeptic’s objections to it, allow me to explain why I believe the believers in question are seriously misguided and the skeptics perhaps not-so-well informed.

For example, see Deuteronomy 22:28-29.  Here is what it says in the ESV.  

28 “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.”

There are at least two issues behind a straightforward reading of these verses that can make or break our understanding.

  1. Whether or not we let other, especially nearby, biblical content inform us.
  2. Whether or not we allow traditional understandings and applications to be heard.

Question:  What does the nearby content say?

As to nearby biblical content, the verses directly preceding these deal with rape.   Here they are.  To summarize, a man guilty of rape should be put to death.  

25 “But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor,27 because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.

These words deal with a man who forces a woman “who is betrothed.”  The case of a married woman would be even more serious.  Rapists don’t get off easy with Moses; rape, biblically speaking, is a capital crime.  If someone wants to believe that a (not-betrothed) girl can be forced to marry her rapist, we have to ask ourselves why the sudden shift.  More on that in in a minute.  Let’s pause, take a deep breath, and absorb the fact that the Torah says a rapist should die.

Question:  What does traditional Judaism say about forced marriage generally, and why?

The aptly named website Judaism 101 is helpful here.  I will quote the applicable sentence.  “In all cases, the Talmud specifies that a woman can be acquired [for marriage] only with her consent, and not without it. Kiddushin 2a-b” (my underline).

Let’s go ahead and quote the reference from the Talmud while we’re at it.  “Alternatively, were it taught ‘he acquires.’ I might have thought, even against her will, hence It is stated ‘A WOMAN IS ACQUIRED,’ implying only with her consent, but not without(my underline).

The origin of this interpretation can be found on another helpful website entitled My Jewish Learning.  It goes back to the first-ever marriage proposal recorded in Scripture, that of Isaac, through his messenger, to Rebecca.  Again, allow me to quote.

“In the Jewish tradition, we take the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca as our paradigm. From this wedding come our customs of the veil, the blessing of the bride, and the halakhah (Jewish law) that a woman must be asked if she consents to the marriage” (my underline).

In the case of Rebecca and that initial, exemplary marriage proposal, In Genesis 24:57-60 (ESV), we read, 57 They said, “Let us call the young woman and ask her [literally, ‘and ask her mouth’]” 58 And they called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will go.” 59 So they sent away Rebekah their sister and her nurse, and Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed Rebekah …”

The very Orthodox Chabad.org likewise states, “The woman has the last, albeit silent, word at the wedding service. It is the man’s role to pursue, woo, and propose to her, but she must give positive willing consent to the proposal in order for the marriage to be legal.”

In support of this we may also cite the medieval rabbi Rashi (1040-1105), who, in his commentary on Genesis 24:57, says, “AND ASK HER MOUTH — From this we may infer that a woman should not be given in marriage except with her own consent.”

Let’s pause again, take another deep breath, and absorb the fact that the traditional Jewish perspective based on Torah, Talmud and no less an authoritative commentator than the acclaimed Rashi, agree that the consent of the young woman is a prerequisite to marriage.  If we don’t allow these ancient voices to inform our discussion, what we say or believe may seem rather arbitrary.  It would be like saying that people living thousands of miles and thousands of years distant from us know what we meant better than those who know us best.  That is kind of silly, really.

Back to Deuteronomy, with a now restated question.

Question:  If rape is a capital crime, and ancient Jewish sources on marriage very reasonably require the young woman’s consent, how does the victimized girl marrying him who victimized her even fit into the picture?

This requires a bit of conjecture, but at least now we are better equipped to, shall we say, conject?

First, let’s imagine a traditional, ancient, agrarian society in which people all knew one another fairly well.  We are not talking here about megacities; more likely villages or small towns with surrounding fields.  One day, boy meets girl, but in reality they were acquainted already.  They do not hate one another, and may even be mutually attracted.  He does something to her, possibly akin to what we would describe as date-rape today.  Her dad finds out.  

Moses or no Moses, Torah or no Torah, Talmud or no Talmud, he is irate.  Someone better call the elders of the village before he kills the boy himself.  At this point the girl is doubly traumatized.  First, there is the date-rape.  Now her father is ready to kill a boy she has never detested and may not detest even now.  She is angry with him to be sure, very angry, but not stone-him-in-the-public-square angry.  Her father may desire revenge for his damaged pride, but that would for her mean something like watching townspeople gather to gaze at the boy’s battered corpse.

What would it accomplish and what would become of her?  Starting over is hardly an option.  She lives in a small town.  Megacities re still thousands of years off.  She possibly know ten or twelves guys total that are prospective marriage partners and this one is not the worst.

If we reread the verses in Deuteronomy, they now look like less of an oddball requirement that simply injures the girl further.  They even seem like more of a solution which forces the boy to live up to his manhood before his family, friends and people of the village. Notice that almost every verb in the verses refers to the man:  “He did this, he must now do this, and may not do that.”  The girl is, in a sense, being protected.  The man raping her is a serious thing.  He is not allowed to believe he can think freely and easily about sexual relations as if they had no consequences.  She might not only give her consent, but feel a sense of satisfaction or relief that he was (pressured to be?) man enough to marry her.

Back to the sad story of Sherry Johnson.  Her cause is just and we don’t live in ancient, agrarian Israel.  Children have no business getting married.  The responsibilities are more than enough when we’re mature.  Rape is a serious crime.  And any religious group that thinks it is reasonable for a young girl to marry the rapist that got her pregnant needs to think twice and do some hermeneutical homework in the process.  It’s a dumb idea and can only be defended from the Bible by the most superficial kind of reasoning, bolstered by a superficial, though zealous, faith.  As Paul implies in Romans 10:2, zeal is good, but not without knowledge.

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Honest Q & A: Bible (4) – The Rapture

This time I’m paraphrasing several comments or questions, so I hope I am being fair to the inquirer. As best as I can tell, there are actually three questions we ought to address.

Q1: Is this one of our “major doctrines” as a church?

A1: Not exactly. It is a doctrine. I don’t know if I’d call it major. I do believe it. We teach it at Horizon Central. I think all Calvary Chapel churches do. There are people here who disagree with me on this point, but I can’t recall it ever becoming divisive. I hope that doesn’t happen now. We don’t include it on the shortest Statement of Faith we hand out because we save that for a relatively few big things.

Document:  What We Believe.doc

Q2: This doctrine leads so many into false assurance that they will not have to undergo troubles similar to those experienced by saints throughout the ages, so isn’t it counterproductive to believe it?

A2: This person has probably seen more abuse of the doctrine of the Rapture than I have. I began doing Christian work in Eastern Europe under communism, in an environment that didn’t exactly coddle believers into false hopes for easy times. The present was usually difficult enough. It was shortly after that period that I came to the views of the Rapture that I now have, while working with the Baptists in Catholic Poland, where such topics were more ignored than debated. The inquirer’s experience probably differs considerably and I respect that. We each come to our conclusions from various starting points.

So yes, this is a doctrine that can be abused. It is important to underline that a belief in the Rapture should never allow us to think that we will be spared either persecution as Christians or the normal trials and tribulations of this fallen planet. Both are clearly guaranteed to us as participants in Christ’s church. If we are not experiencing enough of either right now, that can always change. The Rapture only spares us from experiencing the time in which the wrath of God will be poured out on a Christ-rejecting world.

We should also note that it is best never to judge a doctrine by its abusers. For example, if we compare the kindest, most generous atheists we know (and we no doubt know several such) to the most despicable, self-proclaimed Christians (and indeed there are too many), we might be tempted to dump Christianity altogether. If we must compare, it’s better to compare the best with the best and so on.

We should similarly not judge any doctrine by those who fail to understand it, no matter how much they may think they know what they believe. Growing up Catholic, I came to realize that many people thought the Immaculate Conception (of Mary) was talking about the Virginal Conception (of Jesus). They were wrong, probably just poorly informed, and/or not highly motivated to keep their dogma on a tight leash. I now happily disbelieve the first while holding to the second, persuaded in both cases by the Bible. Their lack of understanding need not impact my present beliefs.

Q3: The Bible is so unclear at this point. Can we really be sure – or even expect clarity?

A3: Admittedly, there is not much about biblical eschatology (study of last things) that is simple. The Rapture is no exception. All the same, the Trinity is probably more complex and is far more important, so complexity should not be a deal killer. Sometimes we have to confront doctrinal density head on. If one enjoys thinking about theology in general or eschatology in particular, as I do, then I think a good case can be made for the Rapture. (I might even include it under the heading of ecclesiology, the study of the church, but that’s another matter.) In any event, belief in the Rapture is not unwarranted. A reasonable place to start examining my thoughts on the subject might be the three teachings we did on Sundays when we were going through 1 Thessalonians in May of 2011. That may even encourage further discussion, which I would welcome. If I fail to persuade our inquirer to my own views, I hope he or she will at least admit that, for us, this is not a naïve or hastily accepted belief.

Comfort One Another with These Words:  May 8, 2011

More on the Rapture:  May 25, 2011

One More Look at the Rapture:  May 29, 2011

 

Honest Q & A: Bible (3) – Put to Shame

Question:  What does it mean to be “put to shame,” as in David’s frequent prayers to not be put to shame? Does it fit into the Christian framework, or was it just important before Christ?

Answer:  This is a good question, because the terminology is not something we use in our day or in our culture. In fact, the concept of “shame” is less familiar to us than it was to David and company.

To be put to shame is to be humiliated. It is when people view us with contempt, disrespect or deep disapproval. It is to “lose face,” as when one loses the respect of others or loses a good reputation.

When David prays these prayers, he is pointing out to God that all eyes are upon him and he doesn’t want to be humiliated in front of the nation or general public. He doesn’t want to be an object of their scorn.

Personally, I think it still has some relevance, as long as we understand it rightly. To want to look good in front of people may not be the simple, selfish pride of trying to keep up a good front.  It need not be a lack of humility. 

We should genuinely want to earn people’s respect, have a good name in our community and succeed at what we do. If we do foul something up, we want people to cut us some slack because they know we really tried, merely failed, and ultimately want to learn from our errors.

Simultaneously it should not be our desire to try to drag people down and make them look foolish. Gossip is often motivated by a desire to do just that. We should remember that others want to be treated respectfully just as we do. We can enhance one another’s respect or reputation by pointing out their strong points to others or to the people themselves.

 

Honest Q & A: Bible (2) – Holiness, Righteousness and Justice

 

Question: What is the connection between holiness, righteousness and justice?

Good question, as the three are sort of related, but not the same thing. We’ll take them in reverse order, beginning with

Justice: Put most simply, this is giving someone what they rightly deserve. It can be either reward or punishment, including punishment for sin. It can be giving someone that which is their right, including helping orphans, widows or the poor, who may easily be subject to unfair treatment. Governments are to treat people justly, meaning they have to play fair and not play favorites. As pertaining to God, his justice would of course be perfect, as he sees every infraction but also perfectly understands every genuine mitigating or moderating factor.

Righteousness: This term is based on a concept something like “straightness,” leading to the thought of actions conforming to the norms or standards of right behavior. It is important, however, to view righteousness in light of relationship. We behave righteously toward one another when do what is required of us and promote the community’s peace and well-being. In Romans, Paul contrasts the righteousness obtained by the law (imperfect, for we will never behave perfectly in our relationship to God), and the righteousness obtained by faith (perfect, for divinely given). Thus, by faith we obtain a righteous status before God, something we cannot earn. He then equips us to live righteously before others and in his sight.

Holiness: Fundamentally, to be holy is to be “set apart.” It is an otherness in contrast with that which is common or profane. In the Old Testament, objects were set apart for use in the Temple worship, and were not used for anything else. There was a ritual purity attached to them that made them different. In the New Testament our word saints literally means “holy ones.” In other words, God has set certain people apart, namely, those who have received eternal life by faith. They are now holy because they have been cleansed from their sin and set apart for God’s special purposes. God’s holiness can be thought of as his ultimate and all-encompassing attribute. He is totally other and totally pure without any blemish or defect whatsoever. Thus, his holiness would include both justice and righteousness.

(In answering this, I consulted The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, by Grenz, Guretzki and Nordling, 1999; and New Bible Dictionary, Second Edition, Tyndale, 1982)

 

Honest Q & A: Bible (1) – Sins of the Fathers

Some of the questions turned in for Honest Q & A relate to the Bible – as in, “What does this mean?” or “How should we properly understand that?” Today we will look at one such example.

In Exodus 20:5, God gives us a certain description of himself,

“I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.”

That alone might be hard enough to handle as is, but it is made a tad more difficult by something else God says in Ezekiel 18:20,

“The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”

What are we to do with this seeming contradiction? Is there a way to reconcile them? Or the even explain the apparent harshness of the first statement? I think there is.

For the first item, think in terms of the consequences of the fathers’, or even parents’ sins. (Moms don’t get a free ride here, I’m afraid.) These indeed are passed down from generation to generation, whether we like it or not. Consider the too-frequent example of the absent, irresponsible father. There is no denying that the children bear the consequences. And they don’t always overcome these obstacles, but as a result may be more prone to falling into various types of sin themselves, perhaps drunkenness. In that case, the consequences go farther and farther down the line. Sin can have lasting effects. Problems do pass down from generation to generation. Of course positive things can do the same, so the trick is to break any negative cycles and give our own kids a better chance. This is a general characteristic of how God has made the world. We are wise to take note of it and act accordingly.

On the other hand, in Ezekiel it seems necessary to make a distinction between consequences and actual guilt. The prophet is talking about the guilt of specific sins being handed down from parents to children. Therefore children will not suffer punishment from God based upon what the father has done. Referring to the earlier example, we might point out that the children do not bear the guilt of their absent father’s irresponsibility. They do bear the consequences, but not the guilt. He is guilty; they are not.  Consequences last. The guilt of a given act is confined to the specific individual who does the deed.

Thanks for asking. I hope that helps!

 

Honest Q & A: Church (1) – Liturgy, or Not?

A few of the questions submitted in Honest Q & A have fallen within the very general category of church. Here’s the first question in this category:

What is the appropriate balance between the conflicting trends in the church of the return to tradition (“liturgy is hip,” etc.) and the disillusionment with any kind of structure at all (“church is just people”)?

To give a short, pithy answer, we might say that the appropriate balance is to “make sure we are striving for balance.” Period. For those with the patience for something far less succinct, that answer can be explained. It hinges on the fact that both sides in this discussion have strengths and weaknesses to keep in mind.

In one sense, liturgy, meaning “a prescribed form or set of forms for public religious worship” (Houghton-Mifflin), or the lack thereof, is a neutral issue. We might suppose, therefore, that we can do whatever we want. The Bible doesn’t demand a great deal of liturgy or any particular type. This can be deceiving. Self-deceiving, in fact.

The problem rests in our motivation. Some people are prompted to exquisite heights of worshipful delight via more formal practices and surroundings. Others, in the same setting, feel inauthentic. They need something considerably more “homey” to get the same vibe.   It’s when liturgy turns into “mere” formality that it becomes a cover for hypocrisy. And, let’s face it, saying “church is just people” can be misleading, since church also includes God and the awe we should rightly have in his presence.

We may find the answer to our question in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (ESV). The worship and practice of the earliest church was admittedly not very formal, but it was not “without form and void.” If these things mentioned are in place and are sincerely practiced, infused with the power of the Holy Spirit, then all should be well. It’s when we cast off all restraint in the name of authenticity, or adopt liturgy to create a religious feel and then confuse that with an actual love of God that we get into trouble.

Honest Q & A: The Existence of God (3a) – Morals Exist (continued)

justiceIn a previous post I made the point that the idea that we are made in God’s image does a lot to explain our intuitive moral sense. If he is, and is good and we are wired to reflect his character, then human guilt (or the lack of it) is not merely a feeling, but the result of actual moral knowledge. Such knowledge may need refining, but it is not our invention.

One comment I received in said, “If knowledge of morality is granted by a morally perfect god, the feeling of moral disgust at his actions should not be possible. This necessitates an alternate method of attaining these feelings …”

We might reword this into a collection of questions something like these:

“If our understanding of morality is based on our being made in God’s image, then why don’t we always agree with him? How is it even possible for me to disagree? Why do I even have moral questions? Further, why do people ever disagree with one another in areas of right and wrong?”

These are great questions, but not particularly vexing, at least not from the biblical position. Speaking as a Christian, these tensions are not only explainable, they are exactly what we should expect. This is what I see in myself and what I see in others – and it is true for at least two reasons: 1) Our inborn need to grow in understanding, and 2) Our regrettably clouded vision.

  1. Our need to grow in understanding: The Bible agrees with our observable reality, revealing that no one is born with perfect wisdom or perfect moral sense. Even Jesus, like all people, grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52). Peter encourages us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). The book of Hebrews speaks of “the mature … those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). In other words, our moral sense will not naturally agree with God’s any more than a student will always agree with her professor before doing the proper assignments, or a child will naturally agree with his parents while growing up. Time and normal effort can do their part to bring their views closer together. Much more is this true with us and God.
  2. Our regrettably clouded vision: Under the best of conditions we would still need to grow, but the conditions, alas, are not the best – far from it, in fact. The problem is our present state of rebellion. We don’t naturally see things from God’s perspective, nor even from some impartial neutral ground. Our nature has become corrupt, making us biased against him. We too often agree with God only if doing so gives us an advantage.

There is ample opportunity to change this state of affairs. We need to be taught and our fairly steep learning curve begins by getting into a right standing with him. Again, that implies growth and a change of heart. Karen Swallow Prior sees the right place as one of wonder, “Even the ability to doubt him, to struggle against him, to wonder at his ways is rooted in him. Certainty seems bigger than me, skepticism smaller. Wonder is just right.” (Booked, p. 191)