Tag Archives: hermeneutics

Beat until stiff and stand in the fridge

20 May

Words do not carry immutable meaning as defined by an entry in a dictionary. Certainly, they bring core meaning with them, but words are moulded both by the words that accompany them and the stage on which they are placed. The whole is irremediably more than the sum of its parts.

This is true of every single piece of communication, the Bible included. Meaning must be deduced from the context in which communication is constructed and the way words combine together, as much as from what any one word itself may be said to “mean”. Context is everything in interpreting language.

In biblical interpretation, the literary context is one level that needs to be explored: genre of language, the paragraph as a unit of thought, the flow of the author’s argument, grammar and syntax, and the meaning of individual words as used by that writer, in the rest of Scripture, or in contemporary writings. In that sense, the Bible is literature, and behaves like any other piece of writing. We ignore that to our detriment.

Beyond the level of literary context, historical and cultural context provide the keys for correct understanding. A couple of examples I trust will help us when we – eventually! – get back to 1 Timothy.

Numbers 5:11-31 contains an example of what is known as “trial by ordeal”, a means of appealing to the supernatural for confirmation of guilt or innocence. Jealous husbands pay close attention. (Nothing here about husbands straying from the marital bed, but that’s another story…)

If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him by sleeping with another man, and this is hidden from her husband […] and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure – or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure – then he is to take his wife to the priest. […] After the priest has made the woman stand before the LORD, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the [offerings] for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has slept with you […] may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have […] defiled yourself by sleeping with a man other than your husband […] May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells and your thigh wastes away.” He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water will enter her and cause bitter suffering.

Outside its immediate historical context, this procedure is quite simply beyond comprehension, and may even strike us as barbaric and sexist. When considering a passage such as this, pretty much everyone can see the need to take the historical background into consideration. All Scripture has its own historical and cultural context, however, which conditions how a passage was written, even if on a surface level the text appears to be more immediately understandable. We cannot just assume that they thought as we think today. What would the text have meant to them, in their world, at their time, with their cultural norms?

One more. Beyond general historical-cultural context, much of the Bible was written with specific circumstances in mind, and nowhere is this more marked than in the epistles. Known as “occasional” documents, most were written to concrete people to address specific needs or questions; they were provoked by “occasions” of concern to the writers, most often situations of heresy or conflict that needed correction. It is rarely possible to unearth every detail of the circumstances behind a portion of an epistle – reading them can at times feel like listening to one side of a telephone conversation – but we must at least try. Let’s take a passage from 1 Corinthians:

Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him […] Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. […] Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. […] From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none. […] So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better. (1 Corinthians 7:20-38)

Without telling us exactly what difficulties the Christian community of Corinth was facing, Paul does at least let us know that his instructions are not permanent but relate to the needs of the moment. Imagine the theological gymnastics needed if we were to attempt obedience to Paul’s words in all places and times… The epistles do not always reveal to us the circumstances that motivated the apostle to write, but again, those circumstances were nevertheless there, and influence how the text is to be read. To interpret without attempting to see the underlying situation is to invite misunderstanding; doing this with 1 Timothy 2 has had drastic consequences throughout church history.

Sound like hard work? Mmm… maybe it is, but that does not make it any the less necessary. In our interaction with Scripture we can get motivation for the “harder” stuff by the “easier” things. Some gems sit John-Three-Sixteen-like on the surface; others require a “search for wisdom as for buried treasure” attitude to find them. Collecting a few surface gems can give motivation to dig a little more deeply, but dig we must.

Because, as you no doubt already know, a text without a context is often said to be a mere pretext. I would go a little further than that: a text without a context becomes a con-text, a word with the authority of Scripture which can be used to say absolutely anything, in order to impose already decided meaning and manipulate those who listen to us. We owe it to God, to his Word and to his people to aim to do better than that.

So, respect the literary context. Find out as much as you can about the general historical and cultural background to a passage. And discover the immediate “occasion” that underlies it. Read the text with all that in mind, particularly if reading a cookery book. Otherwise “beat until stiff and stand in the fridge” might get you into more trouble than you bargained for.


“You raped her – now marry her”

14 Mar

Woman“You raped her – now marry her. Better pay the girl’s family some compensation money too. Oh, and you can never divorce her either.”

And when divorce is not an option, all we are left with is murder. Or suicide.

That was the course of action chosen this weekend by Amina, a 16 year old Moroccan girl forced to marry the man who had raped her last year. Though not compulsory under Moroccan law, the “solution” seen by the families concerned as a means of preserving “honour” was nevertheless approved by the judicial system which exempts a rapist from punishment if they agree to marry their victim. As one of yesterday’s myriad tweets (#RIPAMina) said: “Amina’s parents forced her to marry her rapist to preserve their ‘dignity’, she killed herself to preserve her own.”

GulnazMorocco is not the only country where tradition and legislation combine to impose the rule of men on women. In November last year CNN reported on the case of Gulnaz, an Afghan woman who was found guilty of having sex outside marriage after she was raped by her cousin’s husband. Sentenced to 12 years imprisonment, the courts then offered her the opportunity to marry her attacker and be released; even then she may still risk death at the hands of her own family, to rid themselves of the “shame” she has brought on them. Surprisingly to us, she is willing to accept this path, the only way to secure any kind of future for herself and for her daughter who was born in prison, fruit of the rape. And in Afghanistan, where family honour – more specifically, male honour – is embedded in female sexual decency, Gulnaz is but the tip of the iceberg. “Honour crimes” and the cover-up of rape are amply preferred to prosecution of the perpetrators.

Most prevalent in the Middle East, honour killings are conservatively estimated by the United Nations to be the cause of the deaths of 20,000 women each year; the number is certainly much greater as conspiracy to silence and tacit community approval hide countless other victims.

Beyond the tradition that upholds such action, some nations’ penal codes embody legislation that protects and thus effectively encourages attackers. In Afghanistan, a man who discovers his wife or other female relative having illicit sexual relations may kill her and remain totally exempt from punishment. Pakistan and Jordan offer a reduction in penalty for those killing the woman concerned, the person she was with, or both. Additionally, in Pakistan, the heirs of a murdered woman are allowed to “forgive” the criminal, who will then not be charged with the murder.

From the perspective of the 21st century West, it is easy to denounce such practices as barbaric and mediaeval, typical of fundamentalist Islamic societies. But we have to dig a bit more deeply if we are not to fall into the trap of unthinking critical attack. You probably assumed that the quote at the beginning of this post (“You raped her – now marry her. Better pay the girl’s family some compensation money too. Oh, and you can never divorce her either.”) was from the Moroccan case. It’s not. It’s my own paraphrase of a biblical text – Deuteronomy 22:28,29:

“If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”

How does that sound? How do we as Christians today embrace a Scripture such as that? Most – most, that is, of those who have actually read this verse, as I suspect that the majority have never quite made it through the Torah – take the path of least resistance and simply dismiss it as “Old Testament”. Problem solved. Maybe, though anyone with an ounce of hermeneutical integrity will soon recognize that this creates many more difficulties than it removes. We cannot do away with the only Bible that Jesus had (and used!) and still claim to follow him.

How about we classify it with other texts which are “not for today”. That’s OK as far as it goes, but who gets to decide what is on that list and what isn’t? Before long we can end up with a Bible like the second century Marcion’s, from which he had essentially removed any reference to Jews and Judaism. As you can imagine, there was not a lot left, just Luke and ten Pauline epistles, and even these in edited versions.

What do we do with it then? The only way left is interpretation. All Scripture needs interpretation and application; it’s just more obvious with some texts. “Literal” meaning exists only in the mind of the reader, who imposes his or her own interpretation on the text whether or not they are aware of doing so. To not interpret is, quite simply, to misinterpret.

Scripture comes to us not in heavenly form, descended unmediated from the mouth of God, but rather is clothed in humanity. God’s thoughts are dressed in the language and ways of the people who first received these. Ethics are situational, dealing with the real issues encountered by real people in real places. Old Testament Law is directed to a nomadic and pastoralist society in the Near Middle East and cannot be read in isolation from that cultural milieu. Epistles are “occasional” letters, written not as theological treatises but as practical advice to infant churches. Scripture must be unpacked, understood and applied.

Scripture itself lives out this reworking of divine thought through the millennium of Old Testament Semitic history and into the Graeco-Roman New. This is the daily bread of Christianity, translating itself into the cultural forms of the many societies into which it has made inroads, a habit from which the West has drunk deeply. It embraces the spirit of the law, not the letter. And so Jesus’ “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” triumphs over legalistic observance of legislation written for another time and place.

This is, perhaps, one of Christianity’s greatest assets, and that which most distances it from Islam. For in Islam the Sharia’, the law of God, has been revealed; our duty is to obey, not to interpret. Thankfully there are those more moderate Muslim lawyers who are prepared to concede that chopping off a hand was one way to deal with theft in nomadic desert tribes, but that other punishments, such as confinement, are more appropriate today. But even this is going beyond the bounds of traditional Islam.

As long as there are governments who see the literal application of a 7th century legal code as not only legitimate but mandatory, and communities that embrace this view and are prepared to murder to perpetuate it, little is likely to change. Only time will tell how Gulnaz fares. For Amina, we already know her verdict: marriage to the man who raped her was literally a fate worse than death.

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