Matthew 5:27-32 – Adultery and Divorce

The best example yet of Jesus the Feminist.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

I love Jesus’ passages on anything marital because it throws people through a loop.  It sounds like he’s saying one thing, but in reality, he’s saying another.  He’s so freaking subversive, in a lot of things, but especially talking about marital relations.  Remember, he’s up against an establishment.  Actually, several establishments, but particularly the Pharisees.  Here, Jesus is not speaking directly to the Pharisees (he will speak to them directly in chapter 19 on the subject of marriage), but you can bet that every idea conveyed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount made it back to them.  The very fact that many of Jesus’ teachings can be taken two ways must have been maddening to the Pharisees.  They were smart guys, if misled, and they wouldn’t have missed this.

But let’s back up a little bit, before we get into subliminal messages, let’s talk about hyperbole again really quick.  A few posts ago I mentioned that Jesus loved to use hyperbole to make his point.  This is a classic, perhaps the classic example of that.  Jesus is NOT advocating self-mutilation, but using the cutting off of body parts as a visceral metaphor for removing yourself from sin and temptation.  (As an aside, I’ve written about what I think “sin” is. You can read more about it in that post, but in a nutshell: the greatest commandment is to love one another. The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.) There are whole programs that help people overcome their shortcomings, like Alcoholics Anonymous, that center around this idea of avoidance.  Even if you aren’t actually plucking out your eye, it can feel like you’re losing part of yourself: the friends you had when using might disappear if you don’t sever ties yourself; your personality might change-hopefully for the better, but it can still be disconcerting to realize you’re not the person you thought you were; even your daily routines may change to avoid temptation.  No one thinks that cutting off the hands of an unrepentant alcoholic is going to keep them from drinking.  Believe me, where there’s a will, there’s a way.  But if you are dedicated to sobriety, you will learn how to avoid your triggers for using.  The same is true for sin, for which “lust” is a stand-in here – if you’re dedicated to the teachings of Jesus, you’ll search for ways to avoid sinning.  And I very much doubt it means plucking out your eye, but rather changing your behavior to better reflect your values.

Alright, with that rather lengthy note about hyperbole aside, let’s talk about Jesus’ sly little speech here.  Surface reading:  Get married so you can look at your wife without sinning, squirrel your wife away so she doesn’t unintentionally cause a man to sin by looking at her, and divorce is bad but here’s this broad loophole for “sexual immorality,” which history has interpreted as anything from a full-out affair to wearing the wrong dress, so don’t worry too much about it, you can interpret that at your will.  It’s advice for a “godly man” trying to build a “virtuous” world that best suits him.  And that is how, for the majority of Western history, it has been interpreted: by the patriarchy subjecting women to their rule.

But Jesus was way more egalitarian than that.  I just finished reading an article about how radical it was that Jesus ate with women at the same table.  Apparently, the only women at a co-ed table were the ones there as sexual objects.  So the fact that he elevated women to an equal status at the table, eating and exchanging ideas with men, was like, super crazy radical.  There’s no way this same guy would be saying “here’s a way to dominate women through marriage and policing how and when they appear in society.”

Let’s revisit that lust and adultery thing of vv. 27-30.  Jesus is saying if a woman is causing lustful thoughts in a man’s mind, it is the MAN’S responsibility to remove himself from that situation, NOT the woman’s responsibility to modify her clothing or behavior.  “Pluck out your eye,” (aka stop looking at her) Jesus says.  Police your own actions, not the woman’s.  I. Cannot. Make. That. Clear. Enough.  It is the responsibility of the person who lusts (or sins in any other way) to remove themselves from the sinful situation.  No one else’s.  Through this verse, Jesus is fully recognizing a woman’s right to move through society unmolested, and reminding men that their actions are their own responsibility.

This bit about divorce and adultery that follows all this talk about lust is mostly about protecting women’s rights as well.  The part of Deuteronomy that Jesus quotes, “anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce,” is a law that was trying to codify a modicum of protection for women, who were, at the time, not much more than their husband’s property.  The full verse reads “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him, because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,” (Deut. 24:1) Subsequent verses then goes on to describe who that woman can and can’t marry.  To make that very clear, a man could divorce a woman simply because she is displeasing to him.  Yes, it has that vague bit about being indecent, but we have seen through history how that has been manipulated to mean any sort of thing:  an infertile woman was often thought to be “cursed” because of some immoral transgression, and therefore expendable; a woman who suffered an illness and therefore displeased her husband could be seen as similarly “cursed;” a woman who boldly spoke her mind was displeasing to her husband as he found her indecent in her speech.

A divorced woman had little agency in society.  Her financial support had been taken away, and there were not a lot of jobs for single mothers out there.  She had limited options for remarriage and the financial support that came with it.  Oftentimes her family wouldn’t or couldn’t take her back in.  Remember, even with this “certificate of divorce” she has been declared “indecent,” and what upstanding citizen would want to be associated with that?  So, the divorced woman, often through no fault of her own, faced social ostracization and poverty.  So when Jesus basically negates divorce (except for true charges of infidelity), he gave blanket coverage to any and all wives of the men who chose to follow him.  As for those who do marry divorced women, in Jesus’ society, that made them complicit to the system.  By including those second marriages in his condemnation, I think Jesus was underscoring just how important a societal change of attitude towards women’s rights was.

All that said, I do believe that Jesus really means that divorce is bad, in any circumstance.  Before you get all huffy and stop reading on me, let me just say, as much as Jesus speaks out against divorce, I don’t think he condemns anyone for it.  In an ideal world, everyone would have the time, money, emotional capacity, and levelheadedness to sit down with their intended and make sure that yes, this is a good decision.  And once married, again, everyone would have the time, money, emotional capacity and levelheadedness to do the hard work of keeping a good marriage strong.  But the truth is, that’s just not the case.  So, if you made a mistake in your first marriage (hell, even in your second or third), I do hope you learned from it, but rest assured that God knows you are human, and that mistakes are pretty much what we do.  The glorious thing about God is that there is no sin too great to be forgiven, if we come to Xyr with a repentant heart. For one more silver lining: I do think we are headed in the right direction (even if it is slowly) when it comes to marriage and divorce.  The most in-depth study I could find was from the UK, but I bet it’s similar in the US: Couples are waiting until their early 30’s to get married, are dating almost 5 years before marriage, and the divorce rate is the lowest it’s been (and still falling) since 1971.

The main takeaway, folks, is that Jesus recognized how women in his society were underserved.  He couched it in language that wouldn’t immediately get him thrown into prison: on the surface it looks like a support of the patriarchy, but those that have the ears to hear would hear his true message:  one of recognition, of equality, of love.  Let’s help spread that message of love and equality to all women, to all people, everywhere.

Genesis 20 – Just a Few Thoughts

Sarah as a cougar, Biblically acceptable incest, and Mamre.

Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelek king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.

But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”

Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.”

Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die.”

Early the next morning Abimelek summoned all his officials, and when he told them all that had happened, they were very much afraid. Then Abimelek called Abraham in and said, “What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should never be done.”10 And Abimelek asked Abraham, “What was your reason for doing this?”

11 Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. 13 And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”

14 Then Abimelek brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him.15 And Abimelek said, “My land is before you; live wherever you like.”

16 To Sarah he said, “I am giving your brother a thousand shekels of silver. This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”

17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again, 18 for the Lord had kept all the women in Abimelek’s household from conceiving because of Abraham’s wife Sarah.

I’m not contemplating any greater truths today, rather just addressing some things I find interesting and didn’t want to let go unmentioned.

This chapter is all about Sarah being taken-for the second time-as a wife by a king who coveted her.  Sometimes Bible timelines drift back and forth and aren’t exactly linear.  But it seems pretty clear that this happened after Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, which was after God’s revelation that Sarah, now in her nineties, will bear Abraham a child.  Sarah was said to be beautiful, apparently still beautiful enough in her nineties to make her a prized addition to a royal harem. The Bible also said she was well past her child-bearing years (which makes sense for a nonagenarian), but people were still living rather long lifespans – Sarah lives to be 127, Abraham was 175 when he died.  Being a super nerd, let’s say she’s exactly 90 here, which means she’s lived 70% of her life.  Apply that to today’s average life span of 80 years, and she’s the equivalent of around 57, which, yes, could reasonably be called “well after childbearing years.”  So is Sarah some super-foxy cougar? Like a Biblical Halle Berry or Michelle Pfeiffer?  I kind of get a kick out of that thought.

Second, let’s talk about incest.  It happens a lot in the Old Testament.  I was reading an article about it some time ago – I think something I stumbled upon when researching Chapter 10 or 11 of Genesis with all their long genealogies – that was explaining Deuteronomic or Levitical law and it’s views on marriage.  I’m sorry I can’t remember which article to source it.  But basically it said intergenerational incest was OK as long as it was through different sexed siblings.  AKA, it is alright for a man to marry his niece birthed by his sister, but not his niece birthed by his brother. This was all about reinforcing family lines and establishing alliances.  A woman was under her father’s rule until she married, then she was then under her husband’s rule.  If that woman’s brother marries her daughter, there is now a double-matrimonial link between the two families.  It makes for some pretty complex family webs.

So, is Sarah Abraham’s sister or not?  Some, including my NIV text notes, say it was a little bending of the truth when Abraham says so to Abimelek.  Many scholars identify Sarah with Iscah, mentioned in chapter 11.  I’m still not really sure why, since Sarah is mentioned separately in the same passage, but I’ll defer to their more in-depth studies.  If Sarah and Iscah are the same person, then Sarah would be Abraham’s neice – through his brother, yes, but this is before both Deuteronomic and Levitical law, so I guess that’s still OK, by Genesis standards.  Since grandfathers and even great-grandfathers were referred to as “father” (again, see all those genealogy passages we went through earlier), then technically Sarah could be called Abraham’s sister, because they share common ancestors. Even if Sarah is not Iscah, and her relation to Abraham is matrilineal, she is almost assuredly related. This would reinforce the idea of Abraham and his offspring coming from a people chosen by God, able to trace their lineage not only through their father but also their mother back to Noah, even back to Adam, through all the important patriarchs like Eber and Enoch who preceded Abraham.

Finally, I wonder if Abraham and Sarah were sad to leave Mamre.  I’m assuming they had been living there for some time before Ishmael was born, and Abraham is said to be eighty-six when that happened.  He was 100 when God and the two angels came to visit him, so I’m guessing they all lived in Mamre for at least twenty years, plenty of time to get attached to a place.  The “sacred trees of Mamre” aren’t mentioned here, but are specifically mentioned twice, in chapter 13 and chapter 18. I love that the author felt the need to mention not just the site name but also the trees, and I’ve kind of built it up in my mind as a really lovely spot: Shady and peaceful, a micro-climate of flora and fauna not found in the surrounding desert, almost a mini-Eden.  I’d be sad to leave it.

Those are just my asides for today.  I’d love to hear little observations you’ve come across if you’ve been reading any of these chapters, too!

Malachi 02 – Love and Faith

A call to the true practices God asks of us.

“And now, you priests, this warning is for you. If you do not listen,and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the Lord Almighty, “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me.

“Because of you I will rebuke your descendants; I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it. And you will know that I have sent you this warning so that my covenant with Levi may continue,” says the Lord Almighty. “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.

“For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,”says the Lord Almighty. “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.”

10 Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another?

11 Judah has been unfaithful. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves by marrying women who worship a foreign god. 12 As for the man who does this, whoever he may be, may the Lord remove him from the tents of Jacob—even though he brings an offering to the Lord Almighty.

13 Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.

15 Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.

16 “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty.

So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.

17 You have wearied the Lord with your words.

“How have we wearied him?” you ask.

By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”

I see this whole chapter as a call to the true practices that God asks of us, namely, love and faith, starting with our leaders.  Priests, of course, meant exactly that: the religious leaders of the day.  But today I think this message can apply to ministers, reverends, and really any thought leaders in and out of the church.  Don’t we want all our leaders “to preserve knowledge” and be someone from whom we can “seek instruction” (2:7)? The fact that leaders, by their very nature, are responsible for other people, makes it extra-important for them to be examples of love and faith, like Levi.

I love the palpable fondness for Levi in this chapter.  Honestly, I don’t know much about him, other than his tribe was the one selected out of all of Israel to be priests.  But the way he is written about here is so lovely.  I really want to have him over for coffee.  He walked with the Lord in “peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.” (2:6) Not only that, he had a holy “covenant of life and peace.” (2:5) So, he was peaceful and a good influence.  Sounds like the makings of a great friend.  Wouldn’t you want someone level-headed and helpful with whom you could discuss whatever may be troubling you?  Something about the way this passage is written just emanates a genuine love for the guy.  Described like this, he’s definitely a minister I’d listen to, and someone other leaders can live up to.

Now, when this chapter was written society was a lot different than it is today.  Back then, religion dictated what you ate, what you wore, what you were allowed to do and when. Yes, this is technically still true today, and more so for some than others, but not to the same extent as it was back then.  For example, lots of people work on the Sabbath (or Sunday) and also go to Church.  Most people do some form of business with others outside of their faith and see no conflict.  Marriage is another example, one that is the focus of most of this chapter.

Now, in case you haven’t read the “About Me” page yet (which I suggest you do, so you know all my biases), I am in a dual faith marriage myself. Well, if I am to take Malachi at face value, by being in this dual-faith marriage I have “desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves by marrying a [man] who worship[s] a foreign god.” (2:11) If I was living in the 5th century BC he’d probably be right.  Just as an aside, it wouldn’t happen, because I’d have little to no say in who I married, hence the masculine skew of this admonition, but I digress.  Back then, it was nearly impossible to maintain your faith without the cooperation of your whole household.  There were rituals that had to be followed, like clean and unclean food and clean and unclean times of a woman’s menstrual cycle, that, honestly, are so complicated that even someone with good intentions but no background in the faith would probably mess up.  And there is definitely the chance of a spouse influencing the other towards their own religion.  People convert all the time for marriage.

But I like to think that we, collectively as a species, are growing in the right direction in our Faith. I don’t think I’m in danger of committing a mortal sin by marrying my non-Christian. Let me tell you why by telling you a little about him.  What attracted me to my husband (besides his gorgeous green eyes and 6’3″ stature) was his discerning nature.  He sees through people’s bullshit. He does not offer false praise nor is taken in by flattery. He genuinely cares about things, and his actions support his feelings.  This is big reason why we quit what we were doing to become farmers – so we could be part of the solution in what we see as a dangerously flawed food system, one that, if left unchecked, will contribute to the ruin of the earth for our children.  At the risk of sounding totally sappy, his passion and heart were what drew me to him.

I’ll be the first to admit, it would be a LOT easier if we shared the same faith.  It is an issue we have to face on an ongoing basis in our marriage. Of course I’d be thrilled if my husband decided Christianity is for him, but neither of us are trying to convert the other, or, probably just as importantly, subvert the other’s faith. So, would I like it if he was a Christian?  Absolutely.  Do I believe God sees the love in his heart and claims him as His own? Even more so.

Hoping, as I do, that we are evolving in the right direction spiritually, I also think that it is also now safe to see all the talk about divorce in this chapter more allegorically than literally.  I don’t think God wants us to suffer in a miserable marriage, but I do think he wants us to love and cherish one another, hence all the condemnation of divorce here. When Malachi writes “the man who hates and divorces his wife…does violence to the one he should protect,” it is a call for all of us to treat those nearest to us a little kinder, even when it is hard.

Again, using my own marriage as an example, being kind to each other can be really damn hard sometimes.  I know I am not very lovable when I’m sick.  I’m a needy, whiny, uncooperative patient that tends to prolong an illness by starting full steam again too soon.  We’ve had many a fight over me feeling like I’m not getting enough help because (surprise!) my husband thought I was all better because I was doing everything I normally do.  A strong faith-even if it’s not one shared by your spouse but even more so if it is-can help you love and cherish one another. Knowing that God loves both me and my husband, knowing that we are both God’s own children, makes me want to do better when small emotions get a hold of me.  That’s not to say I don’t sometimes (okay, a lot of times) fall prey to being petty, annoying, or sometimes downright mean.  But when I do, I feel a spiritual need to apologize, to make right with my husband so I can be right with God.  And that, I think, is the takeaway: love and faith go hand in hand with kindness. So, I will spend this week seeing where God calls me to be kinder, not just to my husband, but to all those around me.