Was Ancient Israelite Marriage So Patriarchal After All?

Scripture text: Genesis 2:24

It is an accepted truism in Christian circles that the society of ancient Israel was fundamentally patriarchal. Men ruled their families, their tribes, their villages. Women were second-class citizens.

One of the proof texts often claimed for this view of Israelite society is the story in Genesis 2 about the creation of Eve. God creates Eve by extracting a rib out of Adam’s chest. This seems to suggest that the female is derived from the male and must therefore be subordinate to the male.

That reading carries behind it the authority of none other than the apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 11, he argues that women should wear veils in the worship assembly for exactly this reason that the woman was created from the male.

Time-hallowed as this reading may be, I have always been troubled by what appears a counter voice in Genesis 2:24:

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. (RSV)

This is a reference to the practice of marriage. And in most patriarchal societies, marriage means a woman leaves her birth family and joins the family of her husband. When Rebekah marries Isaac, she leaves her family home in Haran and moves to Canaan to live with her new husband in Abraham’s compound (Genesis 24).

In first-century Judea, the wedding proper was the procession when the bridegroom led his betrothed from her father’s house to his. This is the social context for Jesus’ parable of the 10 wise and foolish bridesmaids (Matthew 25).

But in this verse in Genesis, we are told that it is the man who leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife. That’s not what I would expect an author infused with deeply patriarchal assumptions to write.

Now the text does not say the husband physically leaves his parents’ home. He may still live with them. Yet…and this is an important yet…in some way he is expected to leave his parents to form a new family entity with his wife.

Marriage counselors will appreciate the psychological wisdom of this statement. Many marriage problems are caused by a husband or a wife bringing their birth family into the new marriage in the form of expectations they hold or psychological bonds and hang-ups that they bring from their birth families. To become one flesh a husband and wife must make a transition from their birth families to the creation of their own new entity.

The ancient Israelite view of marriage may have been patriarchal. Yet, here in this one verse, I wonder if we don’t see the glimmers of an early Hebrew challenge to that social assumption. I’m curious what others of you think.  

A Breathtaking Hint of Universalism in Isaiah

Text: Isaiah 19:24-25

Sometimes I stumble upon a passage in the Bible that stops me in my tracks. It may do so because of its exquisite beauty. Sometimes because it says something I don’t expect the Bible to say. And sometimes because of its breathtaking vision.

One such passage is Isaiah 19:24-25. In it the prophet looks into the future. Whether that future is the Eschaton, or just some far future time, is not clear. But what he sees in that future is an astonishing act of God in reconciling bitter enemies.

The passage reads like this:

In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.” (Revised Standard Version)

What takes my breath away is the language the prophet uses. Egypt is called God’s people. Assyria is the work of God’s hands. And Israel is God’s heritage.

 In all three cases the prophet is using language that applies to the concept of God’s chosen people. Throughout the Old Testament, those words—God’s people, the work of God’s hands, God’s heritage—are applied exclusively to Israel. They are titles that grow out of God’s special covenant with Israel.

Yet here Israel’s special covenant terms are be applied as well to Egypt and Assyria, Israel’s traditional enemies. All three peoples are called a blessing in the midst of the earth. The circle of God’s people has expanded to include Egypt, Assyria, and Israel as equals.

Christians often argue that it is Christianity that turns the nationalistic religion of ancient Israel into a universal faith that embraces all humanity, Gentiles as well as Jews. That often makes us Christians feel superior. But we need to be more humble. There are hints in the Old Testament itself that God’s vision has been universalist all along. And this passage in Isaiah 19 is one such hint.  God’s purpose in calling Israel is to liberate the whole earth, not just a select few.

I have never heard any preacher preach on this passage. Why has it been largely ignored?

I also can’t help reading this passage without thinking of the bitter conflict between Israeli and Palestinian over the land of Israel/Palestine. Does not this passage suggest that God intends the land to belong equally to both? In that future day that Isaiah foresees, both Israeli and Arab will belong to God’s people. And so both share the gift of the land.

That will mean both Arab and Israeli will have to give up their exclusive claim to the land. Neither side is ready to do that in the current political climate. Yet Isaiah points to the radical transformation of national spirit in both peoples that could make peace a reality.   

God Does Not Ask for What We Do Not Have

Scripture text: 2 Corinthians 8:10-15

My preferred English translation of the Bible is the Revised Standard Version. I like it because it is a literal translation. Its English stays close to the Hebrew or Greek text.

Sometimes, however, reading a text in a different translation opens up a text for me that the RSV cannot. That happened recently when I was reading 2 Corinthians 8. In this chapter the apostle Paul urges the Corinthian congregation to be generous to the assistance fund he is collecting for the Christian community in Jerusalem.

He urges them to be generous. At the same time, he recognizes that some of them may not have a lot to give. They are poor. He does not want to create a guilt feeling within them that they must give more than they can. He underscores this point in verse 12, which in the Revised English Bible translation reads: If we give eagerly according to our means, that is acceptable to God; he does not ask for what we do not have.

I stopped in my mental tracks when I read that. I think here Paul is articulating a fundamental principle of the spiritual life, a principle that I wish I had understood much earlier in my life. God does not ask us ever to give up something that we do not possess. For if we do not possess it, we cannot give it up.

It is very important to remember this when we think about Christian asceticism. For example, fasting is an honored spiritual practice in Christian asceticism. But I don’t think God asks the destitute poor to fast. Their very life is a form of fasting, for they do not have enough to eat.

Rather the divine call to fast comes to the rich and affluent. I think the strongest expression of that comes in Isaiah 58, a text often read on Ash Wednesday. It is the rich and well-fed that God calls to give up eating as a way of expressing their solidarity with the poor. The prophet then goes on to link fasting with pursuing social justice for the poor and disadvantaged.

Likewise, who is the one called to go and sell all he has and followed Jesus in poverty? It is the rich young ruler, one who is rich in this world’s goods. Again it is not the poor who are called to do so.

I find it interesting that the two figures in church history who heard this text read in church and took it as a personal call to themselves were both sons of wealthy families. One was the Egyptian hermit, St. Anthony of the Desert. Anthony came from a family of great landed wealth and he grew up in affluence. But he gave it all up when he heard Christ call him to do so.

 The other figure is St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was born into a wealthy merchant family and lived a life of pleasure and dissolution until he heard Christ call him to give it all up.

Both heard the call to poverty by hearing the same text (Mark 10:21) read out in church. Go, sell everything you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.

This same principle—God does not call us to give up something we do not have—applies, I think, to the call to celibacy. Throughout church history, Christians have glorified celibacy. It has been presented as the higher or more spiritual character of life. The impression has often been created that if one opted for married life, one was choosing a more worldly life.

But does God call people to the celibate life if they have not yet come into full acceptance and possession of their sexuality? I think not. If one has repressed and smothered one’s sexuality, one has defaced God’s good gift. And in such a situation, opting for a celibate life can be nothing more than a form of escapism that will ultimately betray a person.

I was recently listening to a CD where the former abbot of a Trappist monastery stated that he had come to the conclusion that no one should enter a monastery until they have reached their 40s. Why? Because they need to have fully claimed their sexuality and accepted it before they opt to give it up.

All that I have said does not mean that God does not call some Christians to a greater ascetical life than other Christians. I do not think Anthony and Francis misperceived God’s call to them.

But we need to be wise about discerning God’s call. Many immature Christians have created great—and needless—anxiety for themselves by assuming that God is calling them to great acts of asceticism because of the superiority of the ascetical life. Our attractions to specific lifestyles can arise from very complex and tangled motives. And I think the Pauline principle expressed in 2 Corinthians 8 needs to be kept as a constant check on thoughts that arise from our neuroticism.