Saturday, February 04, 2017

That Wacky Old Testament (8)

You know, if you’re going to mock the Old Testament, it really helps to get your ducks in a row first.

It’s Internet Meme-Debunking Saturday again, folks, and Ivana Wynn at Ranker has provided us with yet another soft target: a list of her “Top 20 Bible Passages to Use Against Fundamentalists”, including this gem at #6, “No Bastards May Enter the Church”.

I love it when they make it easy for me.

Holy Hit Pieces

Then again, I’m not really the intended audience for these “holy hit pieces”. Most evangelical Christians will see right through Ranker’s broad mischaracterizations of the Law of Moses and their rather bizarre conclusions, like “Christian orphanages are hypocritical institutions”.


No, the post’s title kinda gives it away: this is really a primer for atheist “evangelists” targeting on-the-fence agnostics and poorly-informed believers. Their weapon of choice is a toxic Po-Mo cocktail of misinformation and tongue-in-cheek snark.

Never mind. Let’s pretend they’re being thoroughly ingenuous about their critique of the Law of Moses, and share with our readers a little background information that should help clarify a rule that might initially seem a bit bizarre.

What It Actually Says

Here’s a decent modern translation of the relevant provision of Israelite law:
“No one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord.”
To refer to “bastards” is an oversimplification, but since that’s how the KJV has unfortunately translated the Hebrew mamzêr, let’s run with it.

In fact, there is considerable dispute about the specifics of the “forbidden union” being alluded to.

A Number of Possibilities

Strong’s gives this explanation of the word mamzêr:
“from an unused root meaning to alienate; a mongrel, i.e. born of a Jewish father and a heathen mother.”
But the Septuagint translates mamzêr into Greek as ek pornes or “of a prostitute”. That’s not precisely the same thing.

Then there is the Jewish halakha, a body of rabbinical opinions about the correct application of the law of Moses that began to be collected on or before 500 BC, which defines a mamzêr as either a “child born of incest” or a “child born of a married woman’s adultery”.

A Little Elusive

Given that mamzêr’s meaning appears a little elusive to us today (though it was surely well understood by its original audience, to whom it would have been more than simply an idle curiosity), modern English translations have prudently dropped the word “bastard”. The NIV translates it “born of a forbidden marriage”, which it would certainly cover, and the ESV and a number of other translations opt for “born of a forbidden union”, which is a bit broader and probably best represents the state of our current understanding of the Hebrew text.

But whatever specific details might make a particular union “forbidden”, the important point is that mamzêr is a word that in all Jewish traditions applies only to Jews. A child born out of wedlock to two Gentiles is not a mamzêr. Even those Christian traditions that claim the Church is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and David have no business interpreting this verse to exclude Gentile children born out of wedlock from Christian fellowship. It simply doesn’t teach that.
“Wait, but what if your dad abandoned you and your mom after she had given birth to you ... that means you’re going to be held responsible and deprived of God’s love.”
Uh, no. It doesn’t mean that at all. The Law of Moses contains instructions for Jews, not Christian churches, and definitely not for parachurch organizations like orphanages.

And nobody is “deprived of God’s love” unless they choose to be.

The Assembly of the Lord

But that brings up a second question: Since this prohibition has nothing to do with church life, what did it actually mean to not to be able to “enter the assembly [qahal] of the Lord”? How did Moses’ original audience understand it?

One thing it did NOT mean was to be excluded from Israel. As Infogalactic puts it:
“The Biblical text consistently distinguishes between 'edah [the entire Israelite congregation] and qahal. One passage especially makes the distinction clear; part of the Priestly Code discusses what to do if the whole Israelite 'edah commits a sin and the qahal is not aware of it. Scholars conclude that the qahal must be a judicial body composed of representatives of the 'edah; in some biblical passages, 'edah is more accurately translated as swarm.”
“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 being the case, to be excluded from entering “the assembly of the Lord” was not to be refused a place to live, nor was it to be refused the fellowship of God’s people. It simply meant that you could not be involved in the corporate decision-making processes of Israelite life and neither could your children, even if you were to marry an Israelite.

Re-Learning Basic Economics

Is that really so harsh? Some people will still think so.

Part of our problem in reading the Old Testament is that we are relentlessly individualistic. Yes, even Christians. Most of us are products of our times, so achingly solipsistic it’s almost embarrassing: everything is “me, me, me”. Most of us have little concept of corporate responsibility or the corrosive effects of sin across generations. The idea that a few individuals out of an entire society might need to have a benefit or two curtailed for the greater good appalls us.

One of Gregory Mankiw’s basic economic principles is that people respond to incentives, and incentives may be negative or positive. Thus if societies incentivize or passively endorse certain behaviours (such as having children with prostitutes, Canaanites, one’s sister or one’s neighbor’s wife), they can reliably expect more of such behaviours. Likewise, if societies penalize certain behaviours they may reasonably expect less of them.

We read the Law of Moses as if it punished innocent children who had nothing to do with the circumstances of their birth. Looking only at the immediate impact on the lives of individuals, such a thing may seem grossly unfair. But in ordering a society, God could not simply address what might be most pleasing to individuals. He had to look at what would produce the best societal results in the long term — not just for this Jew or that Jew, but for the entire nation, generation after generation.

A Giant Red Herring

The law concerning forbidden unions was a formidable defense to Israelite family life. It protected the inheritances of legitimate children and the financial security of their mothers. It protected the nation from the agendas of those with mixed parentage who might not be wholly committed to Israel’s national good. It also encouraged marital fidelity and discouraged prostitution. All of these are social goods that vastly outweigh the personal cost to those few who were affected.

As for children born out of wedlock going to Sunday School today, not a single word of the Law of Moses has the slightest thing to do with the subject. It’s a giant red herring.

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