Our ongoing discussion about problem Bible texts … goes on. Anthony Le Donne’s latest and most excellent response to my last post is here. Honestly, it grows tiresome to come up with imaginative and original ways to describe how much I like what Anthony is writing. If Anthony was the mensch he’s reputed to be, he’d write a crappy post every now and again, so I could take a day off from having to say nice things about him.
Anthony raised many compelling side issues. Can we conduct an effective Jewish-Christian dialog online? How is it that Anthony is “more invested” in the value of the Old Testament than in the New? But it’s going to take all the time I have to address Anthony’s two main points. The second point, Anthony’s evocative discussion of how problem Bible texts become his adversary and how he’s instructed to love his adversary … I want to join in that discussion, but at a later time. There’s an earlier point I need to address first.
As if we don’t have enough problem texts swirling around our discussion, Anthony has seen fit to raise yet another gem from Deuteronomy (21:10-14), where male soldiers are instructed how to take a beautiful female captive for a wife. In essence, the soldier must give the woman a month to mourn, and then either marry her or let her go free. Evidently, the woman has no choice in the matter. Anthony said that this text makes him feel sick to his stomach. Me too. I’m tempted to stress the positive, that the captive doesn’t have to be anyone’s slave, and she gets a month’s mourning, but the fact that I’m so tempted leaves me feeling sicker.
Anthony and I are discussing these problem Bible texts in a Jewish-Christian dialog, and in such a dialog it’s important to stress the things Jews and Christians share in common. Here, we can say that Anthony and I share nausea. Perhaps this is not a major advance in interfaith relations. But Anthony said, and I agree, that “we ought to be honest about the repugnance of such passages.” Commenter Kris pointed us here to Eric Seibert’s posts on Peter Enns’ blog, where Seibert says that “the Bible should never be used to harm others”, and “if we are going to keep the Bible from harming others, we need to learn to have problems with it.” Amen to all that, and an addendum: no matter what solutions we pose to the problem of problem Bible texts, the problem is not resolved until these texts lose their ability to hurt anyone.
This is why I won’t lose much sleep over Deuteronomy 21:10-14, no matter how sick the passage makes me, because this passage does not govern how soldiers fight today. I lose sleep over passages like Romans 1:26-27 and Leviticus 18:22 (and the problem text I chose for this discussion, Ephesians 5:22-24) that are used today to injure others. More on this in upcoming posts, particularly when I turn this discussion to the Biblical criticism employed by one of my (few) heroes, Krister Stendahl.
Anthony stated that when he’s assaulted by a text like Deuteronomy 21:10-14, he has the right to reach for any counter-text he can find, whether that text is in the Old Testament or the New. Anthony must feel strongly about this, because he chose to address me by name on this point. I’ll reply in like voice.
Anthony, I agree with you. Any port in a storm, so to speak, but I have to add a caveat. This is interfaith dialog, and we’ve got to pay special attention when we’re on sensitive ground. You’re on sensitive ground here. In an earlier post, I wrote about how Christian authors frequently deal with Old Testament problems by using a “canon within the canon” found in the New Testament, and how this leaves me feeling that (once again) Christians are schooling Jews about the true nature of God and scripture. I don’t speak for all Jews, but I doubt I’m alone in feeling this way.
The problem here is not one of kind, but of degree. I’m fine with occasional juxtaposition of New Testament against Old. So, I have no problem with your using Galatians 3:28 to take some of the sting out of Deuteronomy 21:10-14.
(An aside: Galatians 3:28 contains the hope that “there is no longer male or female” along with the hope that “[t]here is no longer Jew or Greek”. I’m not crazy about the idea of there no longer being Jews, and I wonder if all women like the idea of there no longer being females. I’ll also point to this terrific piece by Paula Eisenbaum, where she points out that Galatians 3:28 “has been used throughout history with equal vehemence by both those who seek political liberation for all peoples and those who wish to maintain the status quo.” In any event, so long as God continues to make us male and female, I prefer passages like Genesis 1:27, and Proverbs 31:10-11).
But you can see how a problem is going to arise in Jewish-Christian dialog if Christians persistently address Old Testament problems with New Testament solutions. Even if this practice is not “anti-Judaism”, it still leaves your Jewish dialog partners out in the cold, as the solutions offered are outside of the Jewish canon. I might reverse the pattern, and offer to solve the problem of Ephesians 5:22-24 with the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Eruvin, 100b, “A man is forbidden to compel his wife to the [marital] obligation.” I know these rabbinic texts are interesting to you, but they’re not part of your Holy Scripture. How does it advance our discussion if I solve my problem and not yours?
I’m not proposing hard-and-fast rules. You can reach for your New Testament. I can reach for the Talmud. We’ll have to see where it leads us. Mi canon es tu canon? Or perhaps we’ll conclude that Jews and Christians approach Bible problems in different ways. My guess is that the area of problem texts is one where Jews and Christians share much in common. But if we’re going to work in common to find solutions, we have to look for solutions that work for both of us.
Remember, I’m the one who put forward Ephesians 5:22-24 as our problem text. Even though the letters of Paul fall outside of my personal canon, I consider this text a sadly representative example of what we can find (all too easily) in our respective canons, including in that considerable space where these canons overlap. This one time, I’m willing to take on Ephesians 5:22-24 as my problem. Darn nice of me, don’t you think?
Remember the shared nausea, Anthony. Or do you want to dry heave alone?