Thursday, July 28, 2016

That Wacky Old Testament (6)

Some subjects are a bit … er … delicate. Particularly when you happen to be male.

Still, when the word of God addresses any human issue, we are ill advised to affect sensibilities more tender than the writers of holy writ charged with the responsibility of recording the Divine Will for us in the first place.

So, notwithstanding the queasy feelings that attend any serious investigation of the subject matter, let’s take a crack at it. Less hardy souls may feel free to pass on this one without incurring the critical judgment of their peers.

Qualifications for Assembly

Here’s the verse in question, much maligned by those inclined to dismiss the Old Testament as a collection of patriarchal ravings:
“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”
Urk. You see the problem. It sounds like we have a God who discriminates against men who are nothing more than victims of unfortunate and life-altering accidents.

Outright Offensive

And this is precisely the reaction of some readers of Deuteronomy:
“I find this troubling, because it suggests that those with disabilities (‘defective in appearance’) should be excluded. Which is just outright offensive.”
Understandably. Firstly, let’s remember that this is an instruction under the Law of Moses to the nation of Israel. It has nothing to do with qualifying modern males for church attendance. As some wag on Yahoo Answers memorably noted, there are no evangelical “testicle police”.

Secondly, I don’t think disabilities or birth defects are the issue with which God was primarily concerned. Think about it a bit. In a pre-industrial society, how exactly does one get one’s testicles crushed or one’s male organ cut off? These are not natural occurrences. Some exceptional circumstances are involved.

How Might This Happen Exactly?

I’ll give you a few minutes to reflect …

I suppose there’s the standard Israelite bar fight in which someone’s wife tries to distract the man assaulting her husband and incurs the Mosaic penalty for her untimely intervention. That was probably quite rare, especially after the consequences (“you shall cut off her hand”) were laid down in the Torah. I’d imagine that would be a fairly significant disincentive: Hubby can win or lose his own brawls, thank you very much. I’m staying home.

Other than that, outside of pitched battle against Philistines or Ammonites (or maybe an unfortunate stray hoof in the process of yoking up the oxen), how exactly might an Israelite man potentially end up with crushed testicles, let alone a severed organ?

Intentionally, that’s how.

Examining the Implausible

If that seems implausible, bear in mind that making oneself a eunuch (or being made one) could be a very lucrative proposition, a practice that goes back to more than two millennia before Christ:
“The earliest records for intentional castration to produce eunuchs are from the Sumerian city of Lagash in the 21st century BC.”
Eunuchs existed in every kingdom of the ancient world, with the notable exception of Israel:
“Although the Ancient Hebrews did not practice castration, eunuchs were common in other cultures featured in the Bible, such as Ancient Egypt, Babylonia, the Persian Empire and Ancient Rome.”
Further, as unbelievable as it may seem, there were plenty of incentives to self-castrate. Eunuchs have traditionally occupied powerful political positions. They had the keys to the harem and the ear of the king in nearly every ancient culture:
“Later Roman followers of Cybele, were called Galli, who practiced ritual self-castration, known as sanguinaria.”
If you wanted to be thought reliable and undistractable and were interested in a political career, castration was the way to go. Imagine the enthusiasm of middle-eastern fathers for the practice. Sure, having a bunch of grandsons was probably ideal, but what if you have a child that looks like he’s going to be difficult to pair up?

That’s a very different proposition from a disability, no?

Castration and Priesthood

Further, pagan priesthood has a strong historical association with deliberately destroying the male genitalia as an act of devotion:
“Another category of Mesopotamian priests called assinnu, galatur, and kurgarru had a sacred function. These transgender or eunuch priests participated in liturgical rites, during which they were costumed and masked. They played music, sang, and danced, most often in ceremonies dedicated to the goddess Ishtar.”
If Mesopotamia sounds familiar to the Bible student, it’s because the Hebrew people originated in Mesopotamia, specifically with Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees. Ur was the Sumerian city-state in which, to the best of our knowledge, ritual castration first began to be practiced around two hundred years prior to God’s call and Abraham’s subsequent departure for Canaan.

Does it surprise us that God wanted his people to have no connection whatsoever with the pagan habits of their ancestors? It shouldn’t. Israel was to be a holy nation set apart to Jehovah. To have their civil or religious leaders practicing the vile rituals of the surrounding nations was antithetical to God’s purposes.

So much for God’s alleged contempt for the “disabled”.

The Assembly of Jehovah

But it brings up another question: What exactly did it mean to “enter the assembly of Jehovah?”

In examining the meaning of specific provisions of the Torah, I find it’s often useful to check with a Jew (not to suggest there is anything lacking in evangelical scholarship). Dr. David Glatt-Gilad believes this provision was a restriction on citizenship, and limited the rights of people from various groups to make decisions that would affect the people of God.
“The original intention of the laws in Deut 23:2-9 was to restrict the participation of certain people or nations’ participation in Israelite communal life within the framework of the national body that was involved in military, legal, and cultic affairs.”
This is consistent with the way the term is used throughout the Old Testament. Similar Hebrew language describes the council of war against the tribe of Benjamin at Mizpah (in English, they “assembled as one man to Jehovah”). Micah refers to the “assembly of Jehovah” as the place where lots were cast for the allotment of fields and property. It probably also involved exclusion from participation in temple services, something to which Jeremiah refers.

If it seems logical to you to exclude from the political or religious spheres anyone willing to have his genitals removed to increase his chances of succeeding in those arenas, I’m on your side. Given the sort of politicians we have currently, I’m starting to think we should just draft them like King David instead of allowing them to stand for office. Civil or religious, people who will do absolutely anything to run the show are the very last people we want in charge.

A Gracious and Necessary Provision

Anyway, we may take the verse above to mean that while a eunuch could live among the people of Israel and, should he choose to do so, worship Jehovah privately, it was unacceptable for him to exercise the full rights of an Israelite male either civilly or religiously. He was not to become a public figure or leader of men.

This was a gracious and necessary provision on God’s part.

Such a rule would have tended to limit the appeal of becoming a eunuch as an adult. Likewise, it would have limited the appeal of designating your infant son for eunuch-hood without his consent in the hope his political success would carry along the rest of his family to new heights of social distinction. If there was no financial or social benefit to being a eunuch, people would stop doing it.

In Israel, as Wikipedia documents, this is precisely what happened.

God is not unkind, nor does he exclude people without good reason. It seems to me that Deuteronomy 23:1 is simply Jehovah’s way of saying to his people, “We don’t do that here”.

And a good thing too!

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