Sunday, December 28, 2014

Useless Onesimus

The epistles of Paul do not really lend themselves to narrative.  Paul doesn’t tend to do stories.  Oh, he might include a personal anecdote here and there, and he’s never reluctant to tell the tale of his own conversion, but for the most part his letters are exhortations, advice and discourses on theology.  Yet the stories are there, hidden under the surface.

Many of his letters were written in response to situations in the communities to which he wrote; and if we squint, we can see the bare outline of what might have happened to prompt his letter.  Usually, though, all we get is hints.

Then there’s the Letter to Philemon.

Philemon was a friend of Paul’s living in the city of Colossae in the Roman province of Asia in present-day Turkey.  The Christian community in Colossae was a satellite church that grew out of the church Paul had planted in nearby Ephesus.

Philemon seems to have been fairly affluent and the Colossian believers met in his home.  He owned a slave named Onesimus, a Greek name meaning “useful”, which is a good name for a competent and reliable servant, if that’s what he was.  Only he wasn’t.

We don’t know the circumstances under which Onesimus left his master.  Perhaps he ran away because his master was cruel to him. Perhaps he had been stealing from his master and ran away when the theft was discovered.  Or perhaps he had heard about Paul and his message and wanted to meet him.  Some critics have suggested that he himself had been stolen.

Whether he sought Paul out, or happened to run into him by chance, Onesimus wound up on Paul’s doorstep.  In his letter to Philemon, Paul describes himself as a prisoner, and biblical scholars in general believe it was written during his imprisonment in Rome, when he was awaiting trial before the Emperor. 

Some scholars have suggested that the letter was written during Paul’s two years of imprisonment in the Palestinian coastal city of Caesarea, prior to his trip to Rome; or possibly an earlier incarceration in Ephesus, when he was jailed for threatening the Tourist Trade.  Rome, however, seems more likely; and crowded, bustling Rome would have been a perfect place for a runaway slave like Onesimus to lose himself.

For much of his time in Rome, Paul was under house arrest, able to receive visitors, but not permitted to leave.  Under such circumstances, having a servant to act as a “gofer” would have been very helpful to Paul.

Nevertheless, as helpful as Onesimus might be, he still posed a problem for Paul.  Under Roman law, Onesimus was another man’s property and Paul could face legal sanctions for harboring a runaway slave.  (Well, additional legal sanctions on top of imprisonment).  Much of Paul’s legal defense consisted of trying to convince the Emperor that Christians were peaceful and law-abiding.  Perhaps more importantly, his friend Philemon would regard it as a betrayal if he ever found out Paul had his slave – and he would inevitably find out.  The situation could conceivably cause a schism in the Colossian community with some people taking Philemon’s side and some people taking Paul’s.

We would like Paul to have denounced the slavery; to perhaps have helped smuggle Onesimus out of the reach of Roman law and to have issued an edict that Christians were henceforth prohibited from owning slaves.  At very least, he should have insisted on following the Mosaic laws of freeing all slaves every seven years.

No, he didn’t do this; he did something more subtle.

Paul received word that the church in Colossae was having questions about some heretical doctrines which had arisen.  The nature of the heresy is irrelevant to this story, but it occasioned Paul to write a letter to the Colossians about the matter.  He had a guy named Tychicus carry the letter back – very likely the guy who brought Paul the news from Colossae in the first place – but also had Onesimus accompany the bearer.  I don’t know how he managed to talk Onesimus into returning to his master, but Paul could be dang persuasive.  Along with the Letter to the Colossians, Paul also gave Onesimus a personal note for Philemon.

The letter starts out with greetings to Philemon and to Apphia and Archippus, members of his household, very likely Philemon’s wife and his son.  Paul praises Philemon for his faith and the love he has shown to his fellows.  He’s setting Philemon up for the hook.

What comes next is nothing less than a guilt trip, and an exquisitely-constructed one at that. 

He makes a plea for Onesimus, whom he calls a son, because he  “became my son while I was in chains.”  (Philemon 10) He notes that could command this, but would prefer that Philemon follow his request voluntarily, out of love.  Not that Paul isn’t above playing the sympathy card, reminding Philemon repeatedly in the letter that he is currently a prisoner and in chains himself.  “Formerly he was useless to you…” Paul says, punning on Onesimus’ name, “… but now he has become useful both for you and for me.” (v. 11)

I am sending him — who is my very heart — back to you.  I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent ….  Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever — no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. (vv. 12-16)

That is the crux of Paul’s argument.  Isn’t it better, he asks, to have a brother in Christ and a friend than to have a useless slave?

Paul urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus into his home as he would Paul himself; and says that if he owes Philemon anything – this is where we get the suggestion that Onesimus might have stolen from his master – Paul will repay it personally.  “I, Paul am writing this with my own hand.” (v. 19)  Paul won’t even mention that, really, Philemon owes his very salvation to Paul’s preaching – except, of course, that he just did; (Paul, you dog, you!)

Paul puts the icing on the cake by telling Philemon to prepare a guest room for him for when he’s released.  He doesn’t explicitly say so, but the implication is clear that he will be checking up to see if Philemon does as he asked.

So, did Philemon free his disobedient slave?  Did he at least forgive him for running away?  The fact that we even have this letter, I think, is evidence that he did.  If I had received a letter like that from Paul, the last thing I would want is for anybody else to know I blew him off.

Historically, Paul’s letter to Philemon has been used to justify the practice of slavery, using the reasoning that since Paul didn’t condemn it, it must be permissible, right?  There are a number of other places where Paul speaks of the duties of slaves and of the ethical treatment of them.  These also have been used to justify slavery, (usually while ignoring the “ethical treatment” part).

But Paul wasn’t interested in reforming society as a whole as much as he was living justly within the existing society.  Slavery was an accepted fact of life in Paul’s era and Paul here did not challenge that.  Except to leave Philemon with this subversive thought:

Would you rather have a useless slave, or a brother and a friend?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Daughters of Zelophehad

According to Jewish Tradition, Moses received two Laws on Mount Sinai:  the Written Law, which was inscribed on tablets of stone, but also an Oral Law, which was transmitted orally and which interpreted and expanded upon the former.  This Oral Law was eventually written down around the year 200 CE and became the foundation for the Talmud.

This Oral Law was necessary because, although the Law as written may seem like it goes on forever when you’re trying to read the Bible cover to cover and hit Leviticus, there’s a lot of stuff the Written Law doesn’t cover; and even more areas where situations arose that Moses never dreamed of.

I have to admit, when I first heard about it, the idea of altering the Law of Moses as written in the Bible seemed pretty strange and possibly sacrilegious.  Which it shouldn’t, because certainly Christians have been selective about which portions of the Law we consider binding to us today.  But the Bible itself gives us an example of this kind of modification, in the story of five girls who stood up to demand their rights.

Their names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah; and yes, unlike many women of the Bible, we are told their names.  Their father was a man named Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, who had died during the period of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness.

The Israelites were now preparing to enter the Land of Canaan, and the plan was to divide the land between the Twelve Tribes and then divide the tribal lands among the families and clans of that tribe.  Perhaps it might seem presumptuous for them to be thinking of this before they’ve actually conquered Canaan, but it never hurts to plan ahead.

These girls, however had a problem.  Under the existing Law, whatever property Zelophehad was entitled to would be inherited by his sons, and it was understood that the sons would bear responsibility to take care of any unmarried sisters.  But Zelophehad had no sons; just lots of girls.  (It’s been suggested that both Teyve’s five daughters in Fiddler on the Roof and the five Bennett girls from Pride and Prejudice owe a bit of inspiration to Zelophehad’s family).  So under the system as things stood, the Daughters of Zelophehad got nothing.

So the five girls went to the Tent of Meeting to put their case before Moses and Eleazar (the High Priest after the death of Aaron) and the whole assembly:

“Our father died in the desert.  He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the LORD, but he died for his own sin and left no sons.  Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son?  Give us property among our father’s relatives.”  (Numbers 27:3-4 NIV)

Korah was a guy who had challenged Moses’ authority some time earlier and led a revolt against him.  God put down the revolt by having the earth open up and swallow the rebels.  The girls want to make clear to Moses that their dad was not one of these malcontents.

But what does it mean that “…he died for his own sin”, (or “…in his own sin” as the King James puts it)?  Some rabbinical commentators have suggested that he was guilty of some other sin like gathering sticks on the Sabbath for which he was punished.  I think the daughters are simply saying that, whatever sins their father might have committed, they had nothing to do with the treasonous Korah and that their father certainly didn’t deserve to have his family name blotted out.

And note that this is the girls’ chief argument.  They aren’t asking it for themselves; they are asking Moses and the leaders of the people to think of their father and of his family name.

Two things are noteworthy here:  The first is that these girls, (and since none of them were married at this time, even the oldest of them was very likely a young woman), had the chutzpah to come to Moses demanding justice. The other is that Moses did not reject these pushy dames out of hand.  He listened to their plea and felt it worthy of consideration.

Moses brings their case before the Lord.  The Zohar, a collection of Jewish mystical works that includes commentaries on the Torah, says that Moses asks God to rule on the issue rather than deciding himself out of humility; (and Numbers 12:3 assures us that “Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” which to many readers proves that whoever wrote the book of Numbers, it wasn’t Moses).  Or it could be that Moses realized this was a potentially divisive issue, and he preferred to let God handle it.

In either case, God confirms the justice of the girls’ request:

“What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right.  You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and turn their father’s inheritance over to them.”  (Numbers 27:7)

The Lord goes on to extend the principle.  If a man dies and leaves no son, his inheritance will be passed down to his daughters.  Only if he has no children at all will his inheritance go instead to his brothers; and if he himself has no brothers, then it shall go to his father’s brothers, or lacking that, to the nearest relative in his clan.  That seems to cover every contingency.

No it doesn’t.  Several chapters later, several family heads from the clan of Gilead, (to which Zelophehad belonged), came with another beef.  They are worried that if the Zelophehad girls marry outside of their tribe, that the other tribe will get the family lands they inherited.  They cite the laws connected with the Year of Jubilee, when all lands must revert back to their original owners; (Leviticus 25:8-17).  This economic reset button was intended to prevent the wealth gap between rich and poor from becoming too great and to ensure that tribal lands stayed within the tribe and family lands within the family.

The Lord agreed with the Gileadites and further amended his previous edict to say that the Daughters of Zelophehad were still free to marry whoever they wished, as long as it was someone from their own tribe.  Non-inheriting daughters were not bound by this restriction, but ones like the Daughters of Zelophehad, who are carrying on their father’s name and inheriting his property, must marry within their father’s tribe.

The Daughters of Zelophehad seem to have been okay with this.  After all, had their father lived, they probably would have been married off to men of his choice with no say in the situation at all.  Mahiah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcha and Noah wound up marrying cousins of theirs, sons of their uncles from their father’s side.  Unusually enough, we do not get their husbands’ names.

Rabbinical scholars have lauded the Daughters of Zelophehad as wise women who were righteous and who understood the Torah; and Jewish feminists have embraced them as strong, assertive women who stood up for their rights and won acknowledgement from the Patriarchs. That in itself is worth remembering them for. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Revised Standard Virgin

When I was very young, I remember once hearing a bit of a conversation my Dad, who was a Lutheran pastor, had with someone regarding Bible Translations.  This would have been around 1970, I think.  About that time, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was the common translation used in a lot of churches, but there were a lot of traditionalists who insisted that if the King James Version was good enough for Moses, St. Paul and Martin Luther then by God it was good enough for them too.

I don’t remember much about that conversation, except for one little factoid:  That the KJV translated the famous passage in Isaiah often cited at Christmas as “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son…” but the RSV rendered it: “a young woman shall conceive…”

As much as it irritates the traditionalists, the RSV translation really is the more accurate.  So why is there this discrepancy in the first place?  How did the young girl become a virgin?  (Well, yeah, that is how they start out; but still.)  And why do many modern translations follow the KJV?

The answer gets a bit complicated.  Let’s start by jumping ahead to the Gospel of Matthew.

I like to think that the writer of Matthew had a mind like mine.  I have a tendency to collect weird little factoids, and to connect them with other bits of trivia.  It’s a quirk which has both amused and I’m sure aggravated more than one pastor of mine, and it’s one of the driving forces behind this series.  I think Matthew did too, because he was always making connections between the events of his narrative and earlier passages from Scriptures.

One of these is the passage that frequently gets quoted during the Christmas season: 

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:22-23 NIV)

I like to envision Matthew recording the story of Christ’s Virgin Birth and thinking, “Holy cats!  Isn’t there a prophecy in Isaiah like this?”  And then citing the verse in his narrative.  (Well, I doubt he said “holy cats”, but the rest of it sounds reasonable).

Now, a cynical mind might suggest that Matthew invented the story of the Virgin Birth in order to fit the prophecy, but I don’t think that’s the case.  I’m not sure that the Isaiah prophecy was even regarded as a Messianic one until Matthew made that connection; but we’ll get there later.

Matthew was writing in Greek, and when he quoted from Scriptures he used the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that had been made in the Third Century BC.  In the Septuagint, the word in question is “parthenos”, meaning “virgin”.

In the original Hebrew, however, the word is “almah”, meaning “a young woman of marriageable age”, which is not necessarily the same thing.

Traditionalists will tell you that such a young woman usually would be a virgin in that culture, so it’s the same diff; and that in most other places in the Old Testament where the word “almah” occurs it’s understood that the girl is still a virgin.  And, for what it’s worth, the Jewish scholars of the Septuagint chose “parthenos” to translate the word.

(In researching this piece, I came across one translation that tries to split the difference.  It reads:  “Watch for this:  A girl who is presently a virgin will get pregnant…”  Meaning she was a virgin… up to the point where she got preggers.)

Later translations, such as the Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin translation of the Middle Ages, and King Jim followed the Septuagint, partially because that was the best version of the Hebrew Scriptures they had available, but mainly, I think, to keep the Isaiah passage consistent with the way Matthew quotes it.  And, as someone I know once observed, a young woman who wasn’t a virgin getting knocked up isn’t that remarkable a prophecy, now is it?

But then again, we’re used to hearing the verse lifted out of its context and uttered by cherubic-faced children too young to know what a virgin is in Sunday School Christmas pageants.  Let’s go back to Isaiah.

Isaiah chapter 7 starts out with King Ahaz of Judah facing an imminent threat from Pekah, the king of Israel to the north, and Rezin or Aram, in what we now call Syria.  Pekah and Rezin were trying to pressure Ahaz in to joining them in a coalition against Assyria to the northeast.

The Lord sends Isaiah to King Ahaz with a prophecy, telling him not to panic, and to remain calm and resolute, because both Israel and Aram were “smoldering stubs of firewood”.  They intended to invade Judah and divide it between themselves, but they would never get the chance.  Assyria was going to crush both of them.

Then we get to the meat of the passage.

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test,” Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David!  Is it not enough to try the patience of men?  Will you try the patience of God also?”  (Isaiah 7:10-13 NIV)

I like this bit.  It’s irrelevant to the story, but I can just picture Isaiah coming to the king all ready to lay some spectacular Signs and Wonders on him, only for Ahaz to say, “Nah, don’t bother.”  Isaiah gets pissed and says that the king is going to get his sign whether he wants it or not.  “The Lord himself will give you a sign…” and then we get the familiar verse quoted by Matthew.  But the prophecy does not stop there:

“…He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right.  But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” (Isaiah 7:15-16)

And then Isaiah goes on to describe what will happen when Assyria comes in to kick everybody’s butt.  But the child is not the significant part of the prophecy; at least not the prophecy as Ahaz hears it.  And the prophecy says nothing about the Messiah, whenever he might come. Instead, it tells Ahaz what will happen to his kingdom and to the kingdoms of his enemies in the near future.

The kid in the prophecy is used to give Ahaz an idea of a timeframe. By the time the kid knows right from wrong – this could refer to the age of his bar-mitzvah, when a boy is officially regarded as an adult, or maybe a younger age when he has learned enough to be halfway responsible – he will be eating curds and honey.  Later on in the prophecy, Isaiah expands on this, explaining that war will ravage the countryside and destroy the fields and vineyards, forcing people to rely more on the dairy products from what livestock they can save for their diet.  And even before that, both Israel and Aram will be destroyed.

So the kid in the prophecy gives us a timeline.  Twelve or thirteen years tops, or maybe only two or three, depending on what Isaiah meant by knowing right from wrong, until these things come to pass.

Some Hebrew scholars have suggested that this child was Ahaz’s own son, Hezekiah; but another possibility comes up in a parallel prophecy in the very next chapter.

The LORD said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen:  Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz [“quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil”] And I will call in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me.”
 Then I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son.  And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.  Before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”  (Isaiah 8:1-4)

So perhaps the child spoken of in the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy was Isaiah’s own.  I’d hate to be named “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz”, though.  If nothing else, it would be hell to have to fill in the bubbles on those standardized tests in school.

Isaiah’s reference to his wife as “the prophetess” is also interesting.  Was it because the woman he married was also a prophet, or was she just called that the same way some pastor’s wives might sometimes be informally called “Mrs. Pastor”?  Frustratingly, Isaiah tells us very little of his family life, other than that she evidently permitted him to give their kids some really weird names.

But whether the kid of Isaiah 7:14 is Hezekiah, or Isaiah’s kid, or some purely hypothetical infant; his mother doesn’t have to be a virgin for the prophecy to work; at least not the prophecy regarding Assyria that Ahaz was most interested in.

Then does that mean that Isaiah’s prophecy had nothing to do with the Messiah after all?  Well, Matthew obviously thought it did.  And possibly he was connecting it in his mind with the prophecy in Isaiah chapter 9, (“For to us a child is born…” Isaiah 9:6) which definitely does look forward to an anticipated Messianic age.

But I think that we Christians often make the mistake of assuming that the Bible is a Code and that each verse has exactly One Meaning and One Meaning Only.  This is obviously not the case, or else clergymen would have a much harder time coming up with new sermons every week. The Bible is richer than that, and a single passage may hold many facets and inspire many thoughts.

I don’t have a problem with considering that God might have given multiple-purpose prophecies with meanings that reverberate beyond the immediate occasion of their delivery.  Heck, most of the End Times prophecies are like that.

Matthew found a particular meaning in this verse.  The Chucrch has latched on to his interpretation as The Interpretation of what Isaiah was saying; but I think that other interpretations have their validity too.  Still, I can’t say that the meaning he found is wrong.