Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Children, Fathers and Hearts

Concerning New Jersey’s largest city, Steven Malanga says, “An astonishing 60 percent of the city’s kids are growing up without fathers.” According to a recent UNICEF report, “Britain is the worst country in the Western world in which to be a child.” Theodore Dalrymple writes of a British woman with nine children by five different fathers, none of whom contribute consistently to their children’s upkeep.

We might initially suppose that this increasingly cavalier attitude by men toward their offspring is a product of the ubiquitous Western social safety net. Pay women to raise children on their own and you will most definitely get more of them, not fewer; that’s basic economics. But while the welfare system indeed contributes to the spiraling problem of single motherhood and provides us with a convenient scapegoat, paternal abandonment is not a new social phenomenon.

In fact, in decadent, dead-end societies, fathers have abandoned their children en masse going back more than two thousand years, and probably longer.

I Will Send You Elijah the Prophet

Bible scholars generally agree that Malachi’s prophecy was one of the last Old Testament books written, circa 400-450 BC, roughly contemporary with the latter days of Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s histories of the rebuilding of Jerusalem. The internal evidence for that time frame is compelling.

It is no coincidence that both Malachi and the Old Testament end with a reference to John the Baptist, while the New Testament comes within a couple of chapters of commencing with one.

The final two verses of Malachi’s prophecy speak to a possible solution to the very problem with which we are concerned:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
Historians may be forgiven for musing that this sounds just a bit like what happened to the Jewish nation in AD 70.

John, Meet Elijah. Elijah, John

But the fact that John the Baptist is specifically in view in Malachi cannot be reasonably disputed. Luke explicitly references Malachi when he records the angel Gabriel’s words to John’s father, Zechariah:
“And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
If that were not enough, the Lord Jesus himself declared about John, “He is Elijah who is to come.”

Thus we can associate the problem of heartless, long-gone fathers (and also the very understandable problem of children with no attachment to them) with the days of Ezra/Nehemiah and the subsequent period of 400+ years during which, from our perspective at least, the Holy Spirit was silent. God’s answer to this plague of rampant selfishness was to come initially in the form of John the Baptist’s call to repentance commencing (to the best of our knowledge) around AD 26 and on, and later in the form of the judgment of Jerusalem in AD 70 subsequent to Israel’s rejection of the Messiah whose coming John had heralded.

All clear so far?

Malachi and Fatherhood

If we really want to understand the social phenomenon Malachi described and the reason its consequences would be so dire, we need to comb through all four chapters of the book, where we find multiple references to fathers and children. The two verses which end the book are not obscure; they do not crop up out of nowhere.

The first and most fundamental father/son relationship referenced is that of God and Israel:
“A son honors his father … If then I am a father, where is my honor?”
Here it is evident the relationship between God and his National Offspring is deeply damaged. The children’s hearts are not inclined toward their Father. This is not the social problem we are currently discussing, but it is absolutely related. We cannot possibly hope to resolve the societal issue without first considering the relationship of any given society to God himself.

God’s Fatherhood and Human Fatherhood

Even bearing in mind that Israel had unique historical reasons to honor and respect God that today’s societies do not, it should be stunningly obvious that the extent to which any given demographic in a society honors God goes a long way to determining how that group is most likely to behave with regard to others.

Think about it: remove awareness of, love for, and accountability to a heavenly Father, and little reason can be adduced for the more independent and sexually desirable males in any given social hierarchy to bother maintaining a potentially complicated and less-than-perfectly-fulfilling monogamous relationship solely in order to parent their own offspring. From a purely pragmatic perspective, if you want another woman and she’s interested, go for it. Why not? Evolutionary theorists will tell us men have a powerful instinctive drive to spread our genes, but they cannot demonstrate such an urge requires us to hang around for the better part of two decades to ensure the fruit of our loins is optimally cared for. In fact, the Solomonic strategy of spreading one’s seed far and wide and letting women sort out the resulting complications might be the most effective way of addressing our alleged biological compulsion to reproduce.

A derelict father’s faulty relationship with God is the fundamental problem. Everything else follows from it, and Malachi quickly gets to that.

Searching for Godly Offspring

In chapter 2, Malachi complains at length about broken family relationships in Israel, and the basis for his complaint is the relationship of God to his people: “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another?” The fractured primary relationship has implications for all other relationships.

Malachi goes on to describe the purpose for which God had been a witness between Israelite men and women in uniting them in matrimony. “What was the one God seeking?” he asks. The answer: “Godly offspring.” The nation could never be what God had intended unless the knowledge of God was passed faithfully from generation to generation. Ergo, Jewish dads in right relationship to God and hanging around in their children’s lives were very much required.

Instead, God says Judah has “married the daughter of a foreign God,” thus profaning his sanctuary.

Adultery, Not Idolatry

This is not idolatry, but adultery (though the latter is often a picture of the former in scripture). Hebrew scholars agree that after their return from the Babylonian captivity, the Jews lost all desire to worship idols. Why this happened is the subject of much speculation, but there is no arguing the fact that the Captivity stopped the widespread Jewish practice of idol worship dead in its tracks.

No, Malachi’s argument is not that Judah had figuratively married a foreign God, but rather that its males had literally married a foreign God’s daughters. The returned exiles of Judah were divorcing their Israelite wives and taking replacement wives from the nations around them, as described in detail for us in the book of Ezra. (Women from nine different nations are listed. This was a systemic Jewish problem, not a statistical blip.)

Kicking the Kids to the Curb

First silly question: What do you imagine happened to the children of those original Jewish marriages? Why, probably exactly the same sort of thing that happens today. A new wife generally has little interest in raising someone else’s children, or in raising her own alongside them. Sarah didn’t want to see Ishmael inherit with Isaac, so Abraham’s firstborn son was out of luck and permanently excused from the family homestead. How much more viciously would pagan women defend their own children at the expense of the children of Judah? The Jewish children, for the most part, were almost surely sent packing with their mothers.

Second silly question: What happened to the children of the new marriages? Well, we know the answer to that from Nehemiah’s history. They were half-breeds, unable to speak the language of Judah. They had been raised by their pagan mothers with zero attachment to Israel or to the worship of Jehovah. How likely is it that their Jewish fathers had any great attachment to children with whom they could not even communicate?

You see the problem. Godly offspring? Nuh-uh.

The hearts of the fathers needed to be turned to the children, and those of the children to the fathers. God says to them, “I will be a swift witness against the adulterers.” (I note that when Jesus addresses his people in Matthew 5’s sermon on the mount, he confirms this assertion that the practice of dumping and replacing a wife for someone preferable still constitutes a form of adultery despite having being (technically) legalized. It was likely this brief, inflammatory public declaration that led to the Pharisaic query in Matthew 19, during which the Lord develops the subject further.)

Putting a Patch on It

Aware of God’s coming wrath, grieved by the sins of his countrymen and eager to distinguish between true Israelites and false, Ezra made himself a record of the Jewish men guilty of intermarriage, and it survives to this day. He also encouraged them to give up their foreign wives. Most agreed.

Problem solved? Not really.

Rather, the Gospel accounts show us that, as we might expect, legislating a man’s outward conduct did not change Judah’s problem of family breakdowns. Laws can only treat symptoms, they cannot change the heart. The Pharisees did not come to the Lord Jesus 400+ years later with a question about divorce because it was a trivial issue in the Jewish community. Surely they came because divorce remained rampant in the first century, though the foreign wives appear to have been a thing of the past. When the Jews confronted the Lord on the subject, it is obvious the answer they were looking for was “Yes, it is lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause.” (Their question begins “Is it lawful?” Morality was beside the point.) And the debased state of public discourse on the subject is evident in the disciples’ appalled reaction to the Lord’s answer that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery. They replied to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

A Necessary Mission

Even the comparatively godly disciples anticipated having the standard Mosaic ‘out’ from a marriage that had become undesirable for one reason or another. That suggests something significant and quite unflattering about Jewish social norms in the time of Christ, doesn’t it?

Can you see why in the very next verse the Lord might say, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them”? It’s not completely crazy to suggest that at least one or two of those little boys and girls may have been brought to Jesus because they’d never had a real father figure. (Culturally, it’s also a lot less likely the disciples would have tried to repel a crowd of well-respected local men than a crowd largely made up of less-desirable single mothers and their children.)

Thus we can see that Malachi’s final prophecy about the mission and coming of John the Baptist was very specifically connected to God’s complaints throughout his book.

And that John’s mission remained a necessary one.

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