Why do I care so much about the Old Testament rape laws?

Picture of woman sitting outside with her eyes closed and a slight frown, holding a closed copy of the Bible, with the words: Why do I care so much about the Old Testament rape laws? workthegreymatter.com

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

What I blog about and what I want to blog about, do not always align.

The Old Testament laws on sex, adultery and rape, particularly those in Deuteronomy 22:13-29, are a sensitive topic to say the least. Whenever I find an angle to write about, my inner caution tends to apply the brakes before my enthusiasm gets to the point of posting.

It’s not that this is a topic to be enthusiastic about, per se. It’s just that, in the last few years, the biblical scholarship I’ve read on these passages has absolutely blown my mind. And the more feminist literature I read (currently working through Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth), the more I believe the church needs to re-evaluate its relationship with these verses.

If you’re now raising your eyebrow at me, I’m gonna guess it’s for one of several reasons. I’ll take them in turn. Continue reading Why do I care so much about the Old Testament rape laws?

Why egalitarianism can’t reclaim Vashti and Esther — and doesn’t need to anyway

Picture of chess board with King and pawns on the board and the text: Why egalitarianism can't reclaim Vashti and Esther - and doesn't need to anyway workthegreymatter.com

The story of Esther, a Jewish orphan who became queen of Persia and saved her people from annihilation, is loaded with intrigue and drama. But that doesn’t necessarily make it comfortable reading.

Even in its earliest days, it had mixed reception. The Jews at Qumran ignored it; the Alexandrian Jews added extra passages to make the story more normative to Jewish ideology; and whoever translated the Hebrew into Greek “corrected” the original by (for example) pervasively inserting references to God.[1]

Likewise today, the book’s reception amongst Christian audiences faces tension. However, the topics now seem less concerned with whether Esther kept Torah, and more concerned with the justice (or otherwise) of patriarchy and warfare. Even so, the story remains immensely popular, with commentaries and Bible studies vying to interpret how Esther and Mordecai’s actions are exemplary for the modern Christian.

And in the middle of this, every now and then I see someone drawing attention to Vashti, who was queen before Esther, and they commend Vashti for her thoroughly feminist refusal to be a spectacle for the drunken king.

But is women’s equality what the author of the book had in mind, and if not, how much are we helped when we look at her through a feminist or egalitarian lens? These are the questions I want to explore in this post. Continue reading Why egalitarianism can’t reclaim Vashti and Esther — and doesn’t need to anyway

Ever had a moment when you glimpsed how amazing Jesus is? I just had one. (Whilst studying Deuteronomy. I know, I’m weird)

Picture of woman from behind, sitting in church pew, with large Orthodox icon at the front of the church. Text: Ever had a moment when you got a glimpse of how amazing Jesus is? I just had one. (Whilst studying Deuteronomy. I know, I'm weird) workthegreymatter.com

When I was in my teens, I had a somewhat unorthodox rant with God.

“Why do churches go on and on and on about Jesus?” I said. “It’s ‘Jesus this, Jesus that,’ wherever I go! Why? It’s not like he’s the be-all-and-end-all!”

As soon as I said it, I felt the Holy Spirit give what I can only describe as a polite cough next to me. “So, what do you think he meant when he said he’s the Alpha and the Omega?”

I groaned and threw my hands up in the air. God: 1, Christine: 0. There was no winning the argument, but I was still dissatisfied with how churches only ever seemed to talk about Jesus. Continue reading Ever had a moment when you glimpsed how amazing Jesus is? I just had one. (Whilst studying Deuteronomy. I know, I’m weird)

Why do Methodist evangelicals insist that all sex outside marriage is ‘sexual immorality’? Because it’s not in the Bible.

Text on purple, white and black swirly background: Why do Methodist evangelicals insist all sex outside marriage is 'sexual immorality'? Because that's not in the Bible. workthegreymatter.com

The Methodist Conference in Great Britain recently commended a report about marriage and relationships, God In Love Unites Us, by 247 votes to 48. The headlines have focussed on how this report commends same-sex marriage, but it’s actually much broader than this. For example, it also discusses cohabitation, developing resources for married people, and even developing liturgies for when relationships end.

Meanwhile, Methodist Evangelicals Together have issued a statement and article in Premier Christianity saying that the report was one-sided, ignored testimony, and biblically unsound.  They’re calling on evangelicals to “make the case for a biblical view of marriage and relationships” rather than echo society’s views. [Edited to add: I should probably caveat here that that not all Methodist Evangelicals agree with the stance that MET has taken. Certainly, I saw tweets to the contrary as the report and article came out.]

Now, I might have my own problems with the report (the section on good sexual relating doesn’t mention consent), but I also recognise that it’s attempting to tackle and contextualise big and very sensitive issues, whilst still being accessible to read. And on the whole, I reckon does very well at this. What’s more, far from being unbiblical, I think the report is conceptually groundbreaking in how it de-couples sexual ethics from marriage.

Make no mistake, the report doesn’t give a free-for-all. For all my talk of ‘groundbreaking’, much of what the report says about sex is still well within the bounds of Methodist evangelical sexual ethics. It explicitly says “promiscuous, exploitative or demeaning” sex is unacceptable and emphasises exclusivity (albeit, not marriage) as a pre-requisite for sexual flourishing.

As such, the report places itself outside of much sex-positive thought, including any discussion of, for example, BDSM or polyamory. I’m not going to debate that in this post. In fact, right now, I’m not interested in going over same-sex marriage (though you’ll probably be able to guess where I stand).

What I want to ask is simply this:

Why do evangelicals insist on directly linking extra-marital sex to sexual immorality?  Continue reading Why do Methodist evangelicals insist that all sex outside marriage is ‘sexual immorality’? Because it’s not in the Bible.

Does Good Omens promote the Gospel? Not quite, but it comes close

Book of Good Omens, brown cover, hardback, by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, on black background with the text "Does Good Omens promote the gospel? Not quite, but it comes close..." workthegreymatter.com

This is the second of a pair of posts about Good Omens. I’ll start with a quick recap of where I got to in the previous one, and don’t worry, this post is half the length of its predecessor.

There was this bit:

We should appreciate then that the story is about misfits trying to change the establishment, far more than any modern concepts of witchcraft. In fact, all the heroes, by their very nature and identity, transgress the bounds of acceptability in one way or another.

And this bit:

The question for critics, if they can concede that Good Omens is a good piece of storytelling, is whether its transgressive core is against Christian belief. Because let’s face it: disobedience, mischief and rebellion aren’t exactly renowned Christian virtues.

OK, let’s get stuck in. Continue reading Does Good Omens promote the Gospel? Not quite, but it comes close

Does Good Omens promote Satanism? Wow, OK, let’s talk about this.

Hardback book, "The Quite Nice and Fairly Accurate Good Omens script book" adapted from the novel, by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, on black background with the text "Does Good Omens promote Satanism? Wow, OK, let's talk about this" workthegreymatter.com

It’s easy to guffaw when a bunch of anxious conservative Christians launch a petition calling for Netflix to cancel a popular show. Especially when that show, the recent adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s book Good Omens, was actually a joint work from Amazon and the BBC.

But if we can reasonably assume that these concerns will persist even in the face of Netflix’s promise not to make any more, let’s ask the question in all seriousness: does the show make Satanism ‘appear normal, light and acceptable’? Does it mock God’s wisdom?

In my habit of writing long posts, I’ve split this one into two parts. Part 1 digs into the genre of Good Omens and what that does and (more to the point) doesn’t say about Satanism. In Part 2, I focus more on the faith angle, looking at the theology of challenging norms and asking how closely Good Omens fits with this. Continue reading Does Good Omens promote Satanism? Wow, OK, let’s talk about this.

To my egalitarian friends: please don’t hate on the Old Testament law (or at least, not on my blog)

Ancient Hebrew manuscript showing extract from Exodus with the words superimposed: To my egalitarian friends: please don't hate on the Old Testament law (or at least, not on my blog)

Photo credit: Tanner Mardis via Unsplash

In fairness, no one has actually come to my blog and ranted about the Old Testament laws. So, this post probably isn’t aimed directly at you.

That said, I want to get more and more into writing about them and I could easily imagine many egalitarian Christians looking at me baffled and asking why I would bother at all. That in itself is not so much a problem; it’s great when people ask genuine questions. The difficulty I want to avoid is people saying things up front like, “Yeah, but we’re under grace now,” or “Moses was a misogynist.”

I have no problem sharing a high-five with anyone who believes women are equally as capable of leading as men are; I have no problem sitting with someone who believes that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament law. But I don’t think egalitarians need to disregard the Old Testament, or the Torah (or those deeply uncomfortable Deuteronomy laws) in order to make their case.

Instead, I think the egalitarian standpoint (that’s the idea men and women might be different but are still equally capable of leadership) is stronger when it has an integrated understanding of the Old Testament, its stories and its laws. This is why I want to write about them.

So my ask is this: if you’re one of my allies, and you agree with what I have to say about consent etc, please don’t pile on with how the Old Testament is irrelevant or perverse. Continue reading To my egalitarian friends: please don’t hate on the Old Testament law (or at least, not on my blog)

Handle with care: how to approach Mark 9:42-49

Picture of large old fashioned luggage cases stacked on top of each other with the words: Handle with care: how to approach Mark 9:42-49 (the very graphic verses where Jesus talks about hell)
Photo credit: Manon25s, Pixabay

These are the very graphic verses where Jesus talks about …

…(content warning!)…

…cutting off your hand, plucking out your eye, and hell.

I want to talk about this. Not just to understand what the passage might mean but also because I think we should have a feel for how to approach these verses in the first place.

It’s not like they’re the only New Testament verses where Jesus uses this imagery; you’ll find similar in Matthew 5:29-30, right after the verse about how looking at a woman lustfully is adultery. The thing is, no one genuinely believes that men should pluck out their eyes after they lust. So, if we’re ever to going to get traction with the idea that men are responsible for how they look at women, then we also need to reckon with Mark 9:42-49.

What’s more, Mark’s account is longer and lays it on thick with references to the ‘worm that does not die’ and the ‘fire that is not quenched’. Out of the two then, Mark’s rendering of Jesus’ words is the more difficult to tackle.

OK, here goes. Continue reading Handle with care: how to approach Mark 9:42-49

I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; it tainted the ‘good’ in Good Friday

Picture of wooden crucifix on a table with the words "I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; it tainted the ‘good’ in Good Friday"

So, last week I heard a man in paid ministry explain why Good Friday is good.

I took notes.

I knew in advance that he was an evangelical, so I guessed he’d be presenting a variant on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). In this post I’ll lay out what PSA is, what he said, what I said to him by way of challenge and other reasons why I felt the theology was problematic. In the next post, I’ll discuss the fallout, how that affected me, and what I make of the situation as a whole. Continue reading I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; it tainted the ‘good’ in Good Friday

Flesh: what Paul meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)

Ballet dancers in a ballroom. The man has his bare back to the camera holding the woman. She wraps her arms calmly around his body. She has blonde hair and is wearing dark red. The colour contrasts against the monochrome background of the room. Text: "Flesh: what Paul really meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)"

(Photo credit: pixel2013 on Pixabay)

I reckon one of the biggest chasms between Christian thought and sex-positive thinking comes down to how we understand the word “flesh” in the New Testament. Or in the Greek, σαρξ.

The word appears 147 times and in the NIVUK translation it gets rendered 53 times as either “flesh” or “body”, 23 times as “sinful nature”, and a further 58 times with other meanings, translated either on its own or in conjunction with other words. These uses refer to something associated with humanity or earthliness, ranging from neutral terms like “human ancestry” to loaded terms like “perversion”. (And untranslated 13 times for those who want the maths.)[1]

Of the times that sarx is rendered as flesh or body, the context is often negative, emphasising weakness or mortality.

What’s more, the NIVUK repeatedly translates sarx as ‘flesh’ in Galatians 5.  That’s the passage where Paul writes this:

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NIVUK)

Upshot: it’s very, very easy to come away from the New Testament thinking that flesh is bad, bodies are bad, and anything to do physical pleasure is very, very bad. This is particularly the case for Paul, whose letters account for 20 of the 23 times sarx is translated as “sinful nature”.

But what was Paul’s intention? Continue reading Flesh: what Paul meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)

Dear Christians: non-conformity is not the path to transformation

St Paul's Cathedral between two modern buildings with the text: Dear Christians: non-conformity is not the path to transformation

The book of Daniel often gets cited as the model for Christians to follow because he doesn’t acculturate, famously refusing the king’s food. The thing is, there are people other than Daniel in the Bible who did acculturate and brought God’s salvation and transformation into the world by doing so. (Esther and Joseph being the two leading examples.)

In my last post, I wrote about how the UK and US churches’ use of Daniel to promote non-conformity is problematic; in this post I want to dig deeper into assumptions that underpin our ‘Daniel-only’ models of church.

Because I reckon the overuse of non-conformity comes down to a flawed theology of hope. Continue reading Dear Christians: non-conformity is not the path to transformation

Dear Christians: Daniel is not the distinctive role model you think he is

Picture of St Paul's Cathedral in London between two modern buildings; caption: Dear Christians: Daniel is not the distinctive role model you think he is

One of my bugbears about the church in the UK and US, is the strong emphasis of non-conformity.

We’re told to be like Daniel and show our distinctiveness. We have to be bold like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who would face the fiery furnace sooner than bow down to the Babylonian king. As Paul put it in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world.”

I have no complaint about these Bible passages, but I’m tired of this narrative. I think it’s being overused and misused. Not only that, but its counterpart is being missed altogether. Continue reading Dear Christians: Daniel is not the distinctive role model you think he is

Let’s talk about that Deuteronomy 22 law where a girl marries her rapist. Because it’s not about marriage or sex.

Juliet from 1996 20th Century Fox adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, with quote "Proud can I never be of what I hate" and text "Let's talk about that Old Testament law where a girl marries her rapist"
Background picture of Claire Danes, taken from the 20th Century Fox 1996 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.

CONTENT NOTE: This post has general discussion of murder, rape, parent-perpetrated domestic violence, forced marriage and child marriage.  

‘Proud can I never be of what I hate’
– Juliet

Juliet’s words sum up the reaction of many women when they read a certain law in Deuteronomy 22.

The law I’m thinking of is this one:

If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.
– Deuteronomy 22:28-29 (NIVUK)

In a world even remotely aware of consent and women’s bodily agency, this law makes no apparent sense. How, how, how can it be good for a woman to have to marry – and have sex with – a man who raped her? How can a law be good when it means women – often children – are forced to marry? How can a marriage be good, when its origin was an act of violence?

Or, to take Juliet’s words, how can a woman expect to be proud of being married to someone she hates?

You might have heard the apologist arguments before: it was a different culture, virginity in a woman was a big deal, no one else would marry a raped woman, sex was thought to constitute marriage.

Well, guess again. Because I don’t think this law is about marriage or about sex.

To explain what I’m talking about, let’s have a look at the scene in William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, where this quote comes from.

(Grab a cuppa, this post is 3,000 words long – or over 4,000 if you read all the footnotes.)

Continue reading Let’s talk about that Deuteronomy 22 law where a girl marries her rapist. Because it’s not about marriage or sex.

David’s story is no defence for male impunity (and Kavanaugh apologists need to know this)

Word cloud in red and blue about David and Bathsheba with the post’s title

 

With all that has been written about Dr Christine Ford and US Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh over the last few weeks, I’ve asked myself what I might be able to contribute that wasn’t already being said.

One of the best pieces I read was a post on Slate.com titled ‘Men are more afraid than ever.’

It lays out how one argument in defence of Kavanaugh is essentially the idea that if a man sexually assaults a woman then he should have impunity. Perhaps he might be taken out of the public eye for a few months, but if so, then his time out should not be long:

They grew up in a world that taught them they “get to” do the things they did. They feel, accordingly, that they have been unjustly penalized. They believe they’re suffering greatly.

As I reflected on the article, it struck me that one of the biggest drivers behind this toxic mentality might be a modern Christian (mis)understanding of David and Bathsheba. If so, then perhaps what people need to hear, is something that undercuts poor interpretation of this story.  Continue reading David’s story is no defence for male impunity (and Kavanaugh apologists need to know this)

What exactly is a pledge? Exploring the types of commitment seen in the Bible

Silver heart bracelet worn by bride. Text: Purity pledges and the Bible, what exactly is a pledge or vow or covenant?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about purity pledges.

For the uninitiated, these are when Christian teenagers (both male and female, though it seems to be more common for girls) promise to be sexually abstinent until marriage. The promise is made usually around the time they hit puberty and girls sometimes buy or receive a ‘purity ring’, possibly given to them by their parents. In the more extreme forms, you have ‘purity balls’, where young girls go on ‘dates’ with their fathers during which they promise that they will not to have sex or marry against his wishes. Sometimes, they even sign a covenant to that effect.

I’ve read a number of articles and stories about the damaging effects of these pledges and the culture which endorses them (witness the links above).

What I haven’t seen is a theological, Bible-focussed discussion of the concept of pledges, or how they compare to the various kinds of commitments we see in the Bible.

I’m guessing one of the reasons for this is because, at a glance, the Bible seems to paint a confusing picture. Solemn promises are meant to be kept, yet there are many examples where keeping a promise led to death and destruction. We also have Jesus’ teaching that we shouldn’t swear anything at all – which is somewhat puzzling for couples who (like myself) have made wedding vows. So, are promises good or not? And what kind of commitment is a purity pledge?

To answer these questions, I’ll first look at the different types of commitment in the Bible (this post), then I’ll look at what characterises good and bad commitments, and lastly I’ll apply the findings of those two posts to the specific example of purity pledges.

Here we go. (Grab a cuppa, this post has 3,500 words.)

Continue reading What exactly is a pledge? Exploring the types of commitment seen in the Bible