February 1, 2011
I must apologize to you my readers for neglecting this blog for a while. I have been working on a project on my other blog, Through the Flaming Sword (a Quaker blog), publishing segments of a book I’m writing on Quakers and Capitalism. Now I plan finally to wrap up this series on marriage in the Bible.
I started off by saying that folks who use the Bible to defend “the institution of marriage” in its “traditional” form against the perceived threats of secularism, popular culture, trends of social decay, and, especially, “the homosexual agenda” assume a biblical testimony on marriage that does not really exist. There is no biblical testimony on marriage. Rather, forms of marriage in the Bible have evolved over nearly two thousand years (as you might expect—it would have been very weird if they hadn’t), and the Biblical “testimony” on what the proper form marriage of marriage is has evolved in response to these changes.
This is typical of the Bible: writers in the biblical tradition have always written their books (or their sections of books) in response to some change, crisis, or threat to the tradition they are defending. Ezra was fending off the threat of “foreign influence” on pure Yahwism that intermarriage seemed to represent. Paul was trying to protect his flocks from cracking under the strain of living in two worlds at once by keeping their focus on the world to come and accommodating their lives in their Christian communities to the pressures of the pagan world they lived in and worked in and ran their households in—at least in those areas he deemed nonessential to their salvation.
Unique among all the prophetic voices on marriage and family life in the Bible is Jesus. His teachings were less a defense of a form of marriage against perceived threats and more a truly creative and revolutionary alternative to the status quo. In fact, he seemed to be reacting to traditional marriage as a threat to entering the kingdom of God. He redefined the worshipping community as family household and he redefined the household as worshipping community. In these ‘household churches’, as the literature sometimes calls them, he elevated the status of women so radically that it seems they may have been equal to men, at least in some ways. He deconstructed patriarchal leadership, explicitly prohibiting his followers from calling church leaders “father” as a term of veneration (Matthew 23:9). He repeatedly insisted that leaders be servants, rejecting, for instance, the request from the mother of James and John that they be given positions of power in the kingdom as the objectionable practice of “the gentiles.” In his own ‘household’, the itinerant band that travelled with him in his ministry, the only names we have are those of women. And it was to women that he first revealed himself as the risen Christ.
Even more challenging to our ideas of “traditional marriage,” Jesus seems to have openly rejected the obligations of his own nuclear family. Something was clearly wrong with his relationship with Joseph, his putative father. He spurns his mother, brothers and sisters and claims his followers as his true family. He redefined the family as “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 12:50 and par).
One final word about defending the “traditional” family and the “institution of marriage.” The culture war over family and marriage, in its moral dimension, reflects two competing moral frameworks and these approaches reflect, to large degree, differences in the way men and women approach morality. Here I am building on the work of Carol Gilligan in her groundbreaking book, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. This deserves a post all to itself, so one day I’ll get to that. In the meantime, I have to apply a conclusion without much of a supporting argument.
Because of the way men and women are differently socialized, Gilligan claims, men tend to approach morality as the defining of rules and their just application and adjudication. This approach has so permeated our culture, especially our legal culture, that we take it for granted as not just the norm, but the only approach there is. Women, on the other hand, perceive moral problems in more personal terms, with priorities focused on relationships. They ask, who is going to get hurt? What course of action will protect the relationships involved. Thus women tend to say, why are your rules more important than me and our relationship? Men tend to say, why are you trying to change the rules?
In the debate over “family values,” men are often defending a set of rules that they see are not just being flouted, but are actually being destroyed. They are focused on the institution, not the people who are living the institution. Today, strictures against divorce, contraception, same-sex unions, and so on protect an ideal; they protect an idea. They don’t necessarily protect real people.
Jesus seems to have cared more about people than about institutions. He seems to have changed the rules so as to protect the vulnerable and undermine the powerful, rather than insisting on a return to tradition and the just application of the rules. One only has to think of the episode in which he intervenes in the stoning of an adulteress (John 8:3-11).
Meanwhile, the rules about marriage were changing anyway throughout the thousands of years covered in the Bible. They are always changing. We no longer practice polygamy. In the modern period, marriage has increasingly become a matter of personal choice based on love rather than a social and economic arrangement between families. The conflict between these two approaches drives much of the dramatic tension in the novels of Jane Austen. Two hundred years later, the plight of her female characters seems unutterably oppressive. But people still suffer under the prevailing rules.
Which matters more—the people or the rules? The Bible has mixed messages on this question. Ezra pushed the rules and destroyed who knows how many families. Jesus defied the rules and seems to have broken families, also, starting with his own, replacing them with a new definition of family. When it comes to marriage and family, turning to the Bible for help doesn’t really help very much, when you think about it.
January 6, 2011
Paul parted ways with Jesus when it came to the rules for community life and relations between the genders and between husband and wife, adopting mores about women’s subservience in the family and in the community that were closer to those prevailing in the more traditional Jewish and Greco-Roman communities of which he was a part.
Even so, Paul’s teachings on family in his early letters are not so misogynist as some of his words might suggest. In Galatians (probably his earliest letter), he uses a formula that was probably associated with baptism: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:24-25) This is a formula for equality.
Was this passage just metaphysical rhetoric, the language of the mystic, a formula for spiritual equality only? By the time Paul writes the first letter to the Corinthians, as we have seen, wives are submissive to their husbands. Has he changed? Is he adapting to the social circumstances of his followers?
There may be a drift here. In the later letters, or those attributed to him, notably Colossians and Ephesians, he invokes what is called the Greco-Roman “household code”:
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly. (Colossians 3:18)
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. (Ephesians 5:21-24)
Paul repeatedly counsels women and slaves to accept their situation, “since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:24), just as he urged his flock in Rome to obey the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7).
I suspect that Paul has not drifted much at all in these later epistles, but simply continued to refine his understanding of discipleship in terms of a spiritualized, mystical relationship with Christ. In this relationship, the lived material life was of little consequence, except as a source of temptation. Salvation was for the spiritual self in this life as a segue to fulfillment in the afterlife. In the meantime, one might as well accommodate the mainstream culture in which one lived, up to a point, since these things did not really matter.
With this spirit of concession to prevailing mores that we find in Paul’s letters, he seems to be trying to remove obstacles to faith for his followers. This was, after all, one of the main reasons he did not require circumcision or adherence to Jewish law, the signal characteristic of his Gentile mission. These were impediments to faith, and unnecessary to salvation in any case.
This leaves modern Christians who live in a culture that has been evolving steadily toward more gender equality with a choice: either accommodate our cultural trend toward equality, in the spirit that seems to have guided Paul in his ministry, or follow the letter of the ‘law’ we find in his letters, and subjugate women to their husbands—and slaves to their masters. Thus one picks and chooses, not just which passage to base your family ethic upon, but which approach you will use in reading scripture—a literalist reading of the letter of his letters, or an interpretive reading of the spirit of his teachings.
This has been true all along in our exploration of biblical testimony on marriage and family life. The various forms of marriage we find in the Bible have evolved in their outward forms, leaving us with mixed messages about God’s law, confounding a literalist approach to family values. But they also have evolved on another plane we might call spiritual, requiring repeated acts of interpretation as to God’s intentions. Why would God care whether a husband lived with his wife’s family, or she lived with his? Why would God care whether you married outside your group? Why would God through his son begin to dissolve inequalities between women and men, and then about face through one of his apostles?
November 9, 2010
For the last few posts, I’ve been arguing that folks who want to use the Bible as a guide to marriage and family life find that biblical testimony in this area has evolved a great deal over the millennia. As a result, they must pick and choose which book of the Bible, which story, which form of marriage they want to rely on as testimony to God’s will.
As we have seen, even Jesus’ teachings on family and his actions regarding his own family leave a confusing sense of conflict. As with a lot of other areas of Christian theology, however, it’s not to Jesus that many people turn for biblical rules about family, but to Paul. And as in many other areas, Paul either ignores Jesus’ teachings and practice or directly contradicts them. This is most certainly true with marriage. To confuse matters more, Paul does not even remain consistent with himself, though here the matter really rests on a higher order question of who actually wrote some of the letters ascribed to Paul. The most jarring shift in his teachings occurs in letters many scholars believe to have been written by a ‘disciple’—Colossians and Ephesians.
Paul’s contradictions, with Jesus and with his earlier writings (Galatians, in particular), have to do with the relationships between women and men, between the husband and the wife. For a full and groundbreaking treatment of these matters, I highly recommend In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, by Elisabeth Fiorenza, though I should warn you that this is a pretty dense read. Fiorenza’s book could hardly be more valuable and important to an understanding of women in the Bible, but it could easily be more reader-friendly. If you’re interested but don’t want to slog through the jargon, check out this website’s more user-friendly presentation of her work, using excerpts.
First, we’ll look at Jesus and Paul. In the next post, we’ll look at how Paul (or his eponymous disciple) contradicts himself.
Several women traveled with the itinerant prophet Jesus and supported his ministry financially (Luke 8:1-3). Mary Magdalene and some other women (accounts vary) were the first to receive the revelation of Jesus’ rising from the dead. Women recognize Jesus for who he is consistently throughout the gospels, anointing him, washing his feet with their hair, sitting at his feet to be taught. Men consistently resist or resent this; Jesus repeatedly rebukes them for it. Jesus seems to have radically reordered the gender relations in his community, giving to women status far beyond that allowed in the wider culture or even by his own male followers.
In the end, though, the men won out. They have Paul to thank for their dominion over women. Paul tells the Corinthians that “Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife” (I Cor 11:3); that “a man … is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man” (I Cor 11:8-9). Paul is obviously looking to Genesis here, just as Jesus had done regarding divorce. So maybe Jesus actually agreed with Paul; we don’t really know.
About speaking in worship, however, I think we can be more certain. Paul demands that “women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for women to speak in church” (I Cor 14:34-35).
This is a far cry from the way Jesus seems to have treated the testimony of the women in his own community. It doesn’t even jive with Paul’s own belief about discipline in the faith of Christ, as he expressed it in Galatians (3:23-4:7): “But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. . . There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.”
So. Is it shameful for women to speak in church? Are women one with men in Christ? Are women substantially and spiritually inferior to men, by virtue of their apparent derivative creation according to Genesis 2? Must they be subordinate to their husbands?
If you turn to the Bible to answer these questions, which passages do you choose and which do you ignore? Do you follow the Teacher or a self-proclaimed apostle who never even heard him teach?
November 1, 2010
Jesus gives us the next significant change in the sanctions governing marriage. Roughly five hundred years have passed since Ezra made it illegal to marry non-Jews. For close to two thousand years, since the matriarchs and patriarchs, a man could divorce his wife, though no provision was made for a woman divorcing her husband. Now Jesus changes that—but how? The two accounts, in Mark 10 and Matthew 19, differ in some important details, though the underlying arguments are the same. Jesus tells some questioning Pharisees that God had allowed divorce under Moses’ law …
“because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:5-12)
In Matthew’s account, Jesus is less rigorous: he allows divorce in the case of unfaithfulness (Mt 19:9). But even this stand is more rigorous than was the custom at the time, in which a man could sue for divorce for many more reasons than infidelity. Also, mysteriously, in Mark Jesus explicitly accepts the case of a woman divorcing her husband, for which Jewish law made no provision. Nevertheless, Mark’s Jesus still prohibits it.
Finally, in Matthew, Jesus seems to go even further and imply that it would be better not to marry at all, when the disciples say, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry”:
Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can. (Matthew 19:10-12)
Usually, “made themselves eunuchs” is not interpreted literally, but as a euphemism for celibacy.
This is similar to the argument used by the Essenes to discourage marriage: marriage (that is, sex) inevitably left you ritually unclean for periods of time, and, should the time of God’s judgment begin while you were in such a state, you would be disbarred from entering heaven. Jesus consistently and vehemently rejects this kind of discrimination based on uncleanness, so it’s not clear to me why he says this. Nor is it clear why the disciples jump to the conclusion that strict divorce law would make it not worth it to get married, in the first place, as though they expected to get divorced.
They may have been thinking of their own situation as itinerants who had given up everything, including family, to join Jesus’ inner circle. We know that Peter was married because Jesus healed his mother in law (Mark 1:30-31), but we never hear anything about his wife and presumably, Peter abandoned her to follow Jesus. In fact, Peter brings this up at one point:
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (Mark 10:28-31)
Significantly, Jesus does not mention wives or husbands. Or fathers. Why?
His relationship with his own family is rather ‘complicated’, if not actually dysfunctional. Joseph begrudgingly goes through with his marriage to Mary because the child is not his only after an angel tells him to and then Jesus formally denies that Joseph is his father in the temple anyway. Rumors that he was illegitimate are so persistent that Matthew fills his genealogy with women whose relations with their husbands, like Mary’s, were all irregular in some way. His family thinks he’s nuts, perhaps possessed and he publicly renounces his family and declares his followers to be his family instead. He won’t even let a follower bury his father (Matthew 8:22).
There is an awful lot going on here under the surface. Jesus’ radical actions toward his own family seem to conflict with his strict conservatism regarding divorce law and with the central role—I would say fundamental role—that family played, not just in Torah but in the very fabric of Jewish society, in its social, economic and religious life.
I suggest that Joseph may have divorced Mary after all, once it became clear that this son who was no son, apparently, was also a nut-job, a deep embarrassment, a dishonor to his family and Joseph’s standing in the community. This meant instant impoverishment for Mary, and the only person in a position to help her out was a son who was a beggar himself, an itinerant prophet surrounded by men who had abandoned their families and women with questionable backgrounds. Even when she went to plead with him to come home along with her other children, he rejected her. The evangelist John patches things up by placing Mary at the crucifixion (none of the other gospels do) and having Jesus say to her, “Woman, here is your son” and to ‘the disciple whom he loved’, “Here is your mother.” And Jesus is much closer to his mother throughout the gospel of John.
That Joseph divorced Mary is, of course, pure conjecture. But mysteries abound here, and the disconnect between Jesus’ actions regarding his own family and his strict application of the law in the case of divorce is, to my mind, one of the least important. At virtually every turn, Jesus seems to have a very difficult and hard to understand relationship to family. All this puts conservative Christian focus on ‘family values’ in a very weird light.
October 16, 2010
The Samson saga seems to come from late in the period of the Judges, not long before the tribes of Yahweh raised up first Saul and then David as kings over all Israel to deal with the threat of increasing Philistine domination, sometime around 1000 BCE. David retained much of the traditional social and political framework that had held the tribes together as a confederacy of equals, under pressure from the tribal leadership. Solomon, however, vigorously adopted the statist model of the Egyptians and the Canaanites and he buildt a little empire in Palestine through conquest and political marriage. Upon his death, however, civil war broke out and the united Israel divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.
The Assyrian empire destroyed Israel in 722 BCE and forcibly relocated its ten tribes, as per Assyrian imperial policy, and they disappeared from history; the Assyrians correspondingly relocated peoples from other lands into northern Israel. The Babylonian empire conquered Judah in a series of campaigns in the first quarter of the 6th century BCE, relocating first the ruling classes and priests, and then virtually all landholders to Babylon by 687.
During the intervening four hundred years of Israelite monarchy, the Israelites increasingly adopted the laws, customs, economy, social system and even religion of the Canaanite city-states in the plains, which they had absorbed under David and Solomon. Presumably, their marriage traditions may also have changed, but my knowledge is not deep enough to know what those changes might have been. This is the period of the great prophets, who rail against the people’s sins but do not seem to have singled out marriage practice for their condemnation.
So the next sign of conflict over marriage occurs in the book of Ezra, who was a member of the priestly class who was sent by the Persian crown to reorganize the Jews who had returned to Israel after the Exile. The Persians had conquered Babylon and Cyrus (the only non-Israelite ever called ‘messiah’, or anointed one, in Hebrew scripture) agreed to let the Jews return to their homeland and he subsidized the rebuilding of the temple and reestablishment of a Jewish state as a Persian satrapy. The first group of returnees arrived around 525 BCE. The temple was rededicated in 515. Ezra is dated between 450 and 400. In the interim, Nehemiah had been sent as governor twice in the middle of the 5th century to oversee rebuilding of the city wall and other political reforms.
At the center of Ezra’s ‘reorganization’ was a reading of a new edition of Torah, clarifying the law of the land as revised under Persian oversight. The last couple of chapters of Ezra record how he found the returnees intermarrying with “foreigners,” the “people of the land,” and how, after gaining the community’s reconsecration to Yahweh under the new covenant, he forced them to divorce their “foreign” wives and decisively renounce the practice of intermarriage.
The reason was that intermarriage inevitably led to compromise and idolatry. These “foreigners’ and “people of the land” were people from neighboring regions and those who had been forcibly settled in Palestine by the Assyrians, who had moved into Israelite territory in the vacuum created by the Exile. They had had seventy years to establish themselves and were relatively prosperous, compared to the Israelite immigrants, and they technically owned all the land. I’m not clear about how the Persians had dealt with land reform on behalf of these returnees, but this kind of project never goes well—witness Zimbabwe today. The returnees, especially the leaders, had married into local settled, landholding families as a matter of economic survival, political advantage and social opportunity.
Ezra put an end to this, forcing them to divorce their foreign wives. In doing so, he introduced an innovation in the ‘theology of marriage’—the idea of a “holy race,” an insistence on the purity of Israel as the people of Yahweh, as essential to maintaining a true relationship with their God. Interestingly, the account of these events do not even hint at the possibility of conversion. Henceforth, Jews would only marry Jews.
Paul reiterates this injunction, and for the same reasons: “Yoke not yourself to unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? . . What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God.” (2 Corinthianss 6:14). But here, Paul has reinterpreted the commandment to apply, not to your spouse’s ethnicity, but to her or his faith. For his multi-national Gentile converts—all of them “foreigners” in the eyes of his fellow Jews—Paul shifts the focus from racial purity to religious/ideological purity.
September 28, 2010
Samson (Judges 13-16) had three sexual/romantic liaisons, all with Philistine women (the Philistines being the Israelites’ arch-enemies during the later period of Judges before Saul and David became kings). In each case, the hero goes to live in the woman’s household. Each case ends in catastrophe for the man and, ultimately, for the Philistines, too (for “this was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel” Judges 14:4).
But the editors who put these stories together had more on their minds than moral lessons about sexual discipline and maturity (which is the angle most biblical scholars use in discussing the saga). These stories are running on almost every channel of human and theological concern, in addition to the personal/psychological/moral—religious tradition, politics, military conduct and sacred warfare, justice, and social custom. In terms of marriage, the story of Samson seeks to decisively demonstrate what happens when an Israelite betrays his patriarchal traditions for a matrilocal marriage.
Samson’s first marriage, to a Philistine woman from Timnah, doesn’t even survive the wedding party, which traditionally lasted seven days. In a scene reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins’s first encounter with Gollum in The Hobbit (I suspect Tolkien mined the story for his own), Samson poses a riddle which fails to properly follow form and to which only he has the answer. His wife wheedles the answer out of him in bed and betrays him, Samson goes berserk, and Philistine blood flows.
For his second tryst, Samson visits a ‘harlot’ in Gaza. Now ‘harlot’ and ‘whoring’ were favorite metaphors for idolatry in the hands of biblical traditionalists, especially the prophets. The entire book of Hosea is predicated on this image. Harlots in the Bible were very often not sex workers but priestesses, in a mythico-religious culture in which creation was effected through divine procreation, and fertility of humans, herds and fields was ensured through sacred sexual relations between rulers and priestesses, as we discussed in the post on the patriarchs and matriarchs. The Philistines conspire to fall upon Samson at the city gate in the morning, when he leaves the bed of this ‘harlot’; the plaza before the city gates was both threshing floor for the community and where court was held. Samson surprises them by getting up in the middle of the night, dismantling the gates (with his bare hands!) and carrying them to a nearby hillside, where he apparently set them up as a sacrificial altar. It looks like he conquered the city.
It’s the story of Samson and Delilah, however, that has really captured the popular imagination. Here the mythology gets really thick, too involved to do justice in a blog post. But here are some of the bare bones: The name Samson means “Son of the Son,” a solar deity epithet of Gilgamesh, the ancient Mesopotamian hero, whose story has been thoroughly mined for the plot. Delilah was almost certainly a priestess of Astarte, the ancient Mesopotamian great goddess. Samson was a Nazirite, a warrior berserker sworn to Yahweh’s service, prohibited from drinking wine, having sex, touching corpses and cutting his hair. Samson systematically does all of these things.
The story of Samson is the tale of what happens when a man (or a people) consecrated to Yahweh abandons his (their) sacred covenant. They end up prisoners and slaves. And a tale of what happens when he (they) return to Yahweh: they are released, though they may pay an awful price. When Samson violates the last of his Nazirite vows and his hair is cut, God abandons him. The Philistines put out his eyes and chain him in a dungeon, and then drag him out to make sport of during a religious festival. But Samson prays for his strength one more time and brings the temple down on “all the rulers of the Philistines,” and on himself as well.
He is the last biblical figure to practice matrilocal marriage. The message concerning marriage is: that’s how the pagans do it; Yahweh doesn’t like it. Admittedly, this is a minor theme in a saga full of lessons, but it serves to close the door on the last vestige of matriarchal tradition in the evolving testimony of the Bible on marriage. Until Jesus comes along, that is.
September 26, 2010
“If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.” (Abraham to the servant whom he sent to his relatives in Nahor to bring back a wife for Isaac; Genesis 24:8)
In the first bloody battle we see in the Bible over ‘family values’ and the institution of marriage, the ancient Israelites finally succeed in eliminating the last vestiges of matriarchy when they replace matrilocal marriage with a patrilocal form. In the matrilocal marriage, the new husband goes to live with his wife’s family; in patrilocal marriage, the wife follows the husband to live with his family. In this post, we’ll see how the patriarchs struggled to free themselves from matrilocal traditions, though another powerful factor may be at work in their saga as well: In some of the stories chronicling this conflict, in Genesis and Judges, the women in question may have been priestesses, so the tradition may actually be more focused how these men wrested their religious practice from an older legacy of goddess worship, than on the institution of marriage itself.
The men in question are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Samson, and peripherally, Jephthah. On Sarah as a priestess, I highly recommend Savina Teubal’s Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis (though she talks quite a bit about Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, also). Teubal goes pretty far on not much evidence and I suspect that she’s pushed some of her arguments a bit too far. But much of her book had for me the solid ring of truth and it finally answers some of the most vexing enigmas in the stories of the patriarchs, most notably the weird episodes in which both Abraham and Isaac pass their wives off as sisters and allow them to bed local potentates. One of these dupes (Abimilech) does this with both Sarah and Rebekah; the story pretends that their beauty bewitched him (here we must pass up a fascinating sidebar on the depths of meaning in the Hebrew word for ‘beauty,’ which utterly transcends the superficial connotations of modern mass culture).
The Bible implausibly presents Abimilech playing the fool twice with the same family; many scholars think the second Abimilech was the son of the first to solve the problem of one guy being so dense or so driven by his gonads (though history is full of such fools). Teubal claims that they were priestesses of high status and that a “sacred marriage” was arranged. It’s worth quoting Wikipedia here for some possible background on one version of the sacred marriage between priestess and king in ancient Mesopotamia, the homeland of the matriarchs:
Zagmuk is a Mesopotamian festival celebrated around the winter solstice, which literally means “beginning of the year”. It celebrates the triumph of Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, over the forces of chaos, symbolized in later times by Tiamat. . .
In Babylon, the battle was acted out at the royal court with the king playing Marduk, and his son-rescuer as Nabu, the god of writing. Once freed from the powers of the underworld, the king would enact the rite of the Sacred Marriage on the 10th day of the ceremony. During this rite, the king (or En, as he was known in Sumer) would perform sexual intercourse with his spouse, normally a high priestess who had been chosen from among the “naditum,” a special class of priestesses who had taken a vow not of celibacy precisely, but of a refusal to bear children. The high priestess was known as the entu, and her ritual act of intercourse with the king was thought to regenerate the cosmos through a reenactment of the primordial coupling of the cosmic parents An and Ki, who had brought the world into being at the dawn of Time. If an eclipse of the sun fell on any of the 12 days of the ceremony, a substitute for the king was put in his place, since it was thought that any evils which might have befallen the king would accrue to the substitute instead. On the last day of the festival, the king was slain so that he could battle at Marduk’s side. To spare their king, Mesopotamians often utilized a mock king, played by a criminal who was anointed as king before the start of Zagmuk, and killed on the last day.
In addition to the prisoner who was killed, it was traditional for one prisoner to be set free during this ceremony to provide balance. Thus, the background for what later became Easter is clearly visible here, for during Christ’s crucifixion the thief Barabbas was set free and Christ was crucified at the behest of the crowd.
So, as a pastoral nomad chieftain of a very large tribe, with lots of people and animals sojourning on another sovereign’s land at his pleasure, Abraham may not have been in a position to deny the Abimilechs access to his wife/sister, the priestess, who, in Sarah’s case, was famously childless (but by choice, according to Teubal, not because she was barren). The alternative for Abraham would have been some form of service, to pay for the privilege of pasturage and passage. (The word trespass comes from this necessity of pastoral economy, that one passage with your flocks across another person’s land is agreed to by contract/covenant, and this must automatically include a second passage, because you have to bring your flocks back; but a third pass—tres pass—is a crime.)
Throughout the stories of the patriarchs, their matriarchs have extraordinary power in the relationship, beginning with the fact that the patriarchs first live with them among their families. Jacob lives with Laban for fourteen years before he is able to escape, doing so under cover, and when he does, his wife Rachel ‘steals’ the household gods from her father. In fact, says Teubal, if I remember correctly, they actually belonged to her. This was no theft at all, but a working priestess taking the tools of her trade. Abraham buys a tomb for Sarah when she dies, and he is buried in her tomb, not vice versa.
But all three men do in fact escape the demands of matrilocal marriage by literally leaving with nowhere to go, even if they do not completely escape the power of their women. Centuries later, however, matrilocal marriage still persists among the ancient Israelites. This is most vividly illustrated in the saga of Samson in the book of Judges, another fellow portrayed as ruled by his sex drive. He might have been, but things are not so simple as this poor fellow seems. We still have powerful priestesses as partners, we still have the ancient myths of Mesopotamia as backdrop, and this time, we have a dramatic, bloody climax to a story intended to end the debate. The Samson saga is so rich with both humor and human drama, with both mythic dimensions and theological instruction, with narrative power and poetic symbol, and with riddles—riddles both sacred and profane, borrowed from folklore and yet loaded with mythico-religious meaning—there is so much going on in these three chapters of Judges that I plan to write a whole book about it, probably prose fiction—a ‘historical’ fantasy novel.
But we must leave Samson for the next posting. In his tragic story, the Bible seeks to close the first debate over the institution of marriage in the Bible—who will be head of household, the husband or his father-in-law?
August 12, 2010
The recent court decision overturning Proposition 8’s ban on same sex marriage in California pulls the issue back onto the front burner of social and religious commentary. Most religious commentary—or at least the loudest and most amplified by public media—has opposed same sex marriage and vigorously promoted a traditional marriage between men and women (sic: one never says “women and men” in these circles, or any circles, for that matter). These folks argue from the standpoint of both tradition (this is the way it’s been for all of human history) and biblical testimony. I think it’s fair to say that neither the Bible nor Jesus envision marriage between men or between women; to the contrary, if Jesus or biblical writers could have envisioned same sex marriage, I am sure they would have condemned it. For biblically based Christians, then, it would seem that the matter is settled.
However, like many other very important social issues, the evolution of social conscience on marriage is challenging biblical authority itself—over our choices as individuals, over our social mores, and over social policy in a pluralistic society. Examples of changes in social conscience that have moved beyond biblical testimony abound: slavery, the place of women in the family and in the religious community, and even marriage itself.
For there is no one ‘biblical testimony’ on marriage. In the roughly fifteen hundred years during which many editors and writers labored to gather the library we now call the Bible, the institution of marriage and these writers’ religious attitudes towards marriage have morphed several times. In the case of Paul alone (or Paul and the post-Pauline disciples who published in his name), we can see some significant shift from one letter to another. Writing at the far end of this trajectory from the ancient traditions about the patriarchs or the stories of domestic violence in Judges, Paul lives in a completely different world than those earlier traditionists.
And it is a trajectory, of sorts. It’s not a gradual refinement of a single religious principle or structure for the institution of marriage. The evolution of marriage forms and attitudes in the Bible is rather punctuated, lurching at times quite radically from one form to a new one. Most disconcertingly, the lurch almost always takes place offline, out of sight, not clearly visible in the pages of one of the Bible’s books. Sometimes you can see the struggle at work, see the issues at play, identify the players and their stake in the issue. But you almost never get to see the community making the decision. The one sharp exception is Ezra, whose book describes how he forced men to divorce their ‘foreign’ wives—women they had married from the communities they found already settled in old Israel when they returned from exile in Babylon—and decreed that marrying outside the congregation of Israel was illegal.
Furthermore, it’s worth observing that accepted forms of family life and sexuality have changed at key moments in the life of the tradition and these changes have led to conflict, and sometimes to violence. The book of Judges is full of women and men who were murdered or sacrificed over changing patterns of family.
So this post begins a series on the punctuated evolution of biblical testimony on marriage, family and sex. I see at least seven forms of marriage or sets of teachings on marriage to explore. After the biblical canon was settled and no new biblical testimony was forthcoming, the institution of marriage continued to evolve in Western Christendom, and we’ll end with some comments on this history. In the next post, I’ll start with the first two forms of marriage described and sanctioned in the Bible, practiced by the patriarchs and matriarchs of ancient Israel.