Monday, October 15, 2012

Stand for Love: marriage without covenant or God as witness

This posting is a continuation of my exploration of Scripture and the MLP’s “Stand for Love,” a page where Presbyterian teaching elders can sign a list of those affirming that they have either married same gender couples or are willing to do so. There is also a place for ruling elders to sign, affirming the positions of the teaching elders. I refer to this as rebellion since it is against denominational polity including the Book of Confessions. More importantly it is anti-Christian, that is it is unbiblical.

There is a Scripture text most of us tend to avoid or ignore; we in fact turn our face away, because it seems to fail the test of Christian love. That is the book of Ezra and the ending which deals with the sin of the returning Jewish exiles marrying non-Jewish women. In the end a huge investigation and ritual occurs which separates the wives from their husbands. Acknowledging that Reformed theology considers ancient Israel God’s church, this text provides a picture of rebellion among God’s people and a lesson about repentance. Clarifying the problems of the text helps to clarify the problems and responses one ought to make toward the rebellion fomenting in the PCUSA.

The best place to begin is in answering the question, “Why did the Jewish men marry the non-Jewish women?” Next one needs an understanding of why this was considered so heinous a sin that it needed to be undone.

Most scholars believe that mostly men returned with Ezra to Jerusalem. These single men also felt the need for acceptance within the regional culture. They were after all exile members of a despised people. M.J. Boda, author of the article on Ezra in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, explains, quoting D. Smith-Christopher:

Sociological analysis of the phenomenon of mixed marriages leads D. Smith-Christopher to conclude in the case of Nehemiah [dealing with the same issue] that the ‘guilty’ are males who are presumably  attempting to ‘marry up’ to exchange their low status of ‘exile’ for participation in aristocratic society.[1]
 And to go further Smith-Christopher notes that “intermarriage was encouraged as imperial policy to consolidate the power of the ruling elite.”[2] In other words, the elite of the region would have encouraged the mixed marriages as a means of controlling the Jewish population.

A prophet who was almost a contemporary of Ezra, Malachi, spoke against both those males who had married foreign wives and those who had ‘divorced the wife of their youth.” According to Douglas Stuart, ‘wife of one’s youth’ means the wife promised by one parent of a child to the other parent of a child. Because it was between parents, who were equal in the eyes of God, it was a marriage of equality—both parties stood on equal ground before God. Such a marriage was considered a covenant marriage. [3]And the covenant was between those married and God who was witness to their marriage. 

If a Jewish man married a non-Jew who worshiped other deities the covenant was broken. The marriage would have as its witness the god and goddesses of the wife. And the equality of the two before God was lost.

So some of the exiles of Judah married women from the region who were probably well off and who were not followers of Yahweh. But the real problem lies in the context of Ezra and his people’s history as well as the law of God. The issue was faith not ethnicity.

Ezra was only removed from the original exile by around a hundred years. And the reason for their exile was clear to Ezra. Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed because of the unfaithfulness of the Jewish people. Many of their kings, beginning with Solomon, married foreign wives and incorporated their false worship, their god’s and goddesses, into the religious life of Israel and Judah. This not only affected the people’s relationship with their God, it utterly crushed the morals of their society. The burning of their own children to false gods and the practice of sexual religious rites are among the sins they committed.

The connection between past judgments of God and the sinfulness of the marriages can be seen in the prayer of Ezra:

Now our God what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you have commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, the land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land with the uncleanness of the peoples of the land, with their abominations which have filled it from end to end and with their impurity. So now do not give your daughters to their sons nor take their daughters to your sons …
Ezra’s prayer which is much longer then the small amount I have quoted is key here. It is a confessional prayer that, like Daniel’s prayer, includes Ezra’s own confession of sin. It is a prayer that is so fervent in seeking the will and forgiveness of God that those who have sinned gather to Ezra in repentance.
So to bring the text and thoughts back to the rebelliousness of those participating in the More Light Presbyterian’s defiance, marriage in the Old Testament was a covenant arrangement between a man and a woman and God. Although it might at times contain romantic love it was not based on romantic love but on covenant.  And as such it held back the night of paganism. The exiles repented and put away their wives. Now we live in a time of completed grace.

The blood of Christ answers our repentance with the righteousness of Jesus. Paul, although he commands that believers “not be bound together with unbelievers,” encourages the believer to not divorce the unbeliever because the husband or wife has within them via the Holy Spirit, sanctifying power that has the possibility of transforming unbelievers. (2 Cor. 6: 14 & 1 Cor. 7:12-16) But God’s grace establishes the law, it does not destroy it. God has never in either the Old or New Testaments affirmed or allowed same gender marriage.

Therefore, New Testament rebellion, like contemporary rebellion, when it asks the Christian to participate in sin is horrific. Paul would have none of it. Open rebellion opens the door to all kinds of sins, and it also, for the sake of mercy, calls for the judgment of God. But before God’s judgment it calls forth from the believer the kind of prayer that Ezra prayed: confessional and intercessory. In the PC (U.S.A.) such prayer is truly the only answer left since, at least for now, the denominational courts and many leaders will not apply proper discipline. Like Ezra we can only cry ‘mercy’ God.

“O Lord God of Israel, you are righteous, for we have been left an escaped remnant, as it is this day; behold, we are before you in our guilt, for no one can stand before you because of this.”

[1]Mark J. Boda, “Ezra,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: historical Books, Bill T. Arnold & H.G.M. Williamson, Editors, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 2005) 282.
[3]Douglas Stuart, “Malachi,” The Minor Prophets:  An Exegetical & Expository Commentary, Thomas Edward McComiskey, Editor, (grand Rapids: BakerAcademic 2006)

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